Musicals to spread holiday cheer

Scene from ‘‘ Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’’ by  the Braeburn Players. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
Scene from ‘‘ Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’’ by the Braeburn Players. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

With the holidays nearly upon us, one must wonder where all our Kenyan playwrights have gone, especially when the only way we can celebrate theatrically this month is with Western musicals and Russian ballet.

Fortunately, we have Heartstrings Kenya opening December 6 to keep us grounded with Kenyan humour and cultural context. But the rest of our shows this season are either British, American or European.

Nonetheless, one cannot complain about the calibre of the productions which I’ll otherwise urge the public to go and see. That’s because the American musical Grease at Kenya National Theatre(KNT) is first class, the British Pantomime, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, at Braeburn Theatre rates a B+ and the classic Christmas ballet, ‘The Nutcracker’ by Dance Centre of Kenya (DCK), also at KNT, is bound to display a stage-full of dancing child prodigies whose technique is superb thanks to the rigorous training of their instructor, prima ballerina Cooper Rust.

The show that’s sure to lift your spirits this season is Grease, starring Kaz Lucas, Elsaphan Njora, Nick Ndeda, Nice Githinji and Ian Mbugua plus a delightful set of Nairobi Performing Arts Studio student dancers, and vocalists like Eric Olalo, Fanuel Mulwa and of course Kaz as well as the amazing Miss Lynch played by Rachel Katimbo.

Rachel is not a singer per se but her autocratic yet eloquent voice rings royally throughout the show. She is a vocal caricature of what an ostentatious English schoolmarm might sound like. She still made me giggle every time she gave her students a decree.

The whole of Grease might make one giddy, especially if you enjoy listening to early rock ‘n’ roll music and watching swinging vintage dance steps from the 50s. That’s the period in which Grease is set. It’s also the time that the show’s director Stuart Nash does his best to recreate, especially by bringing out a vintage car, ‘Grease Lightning’ on to the stage (nearly causing disaster in the process).

But Grease doesn’t really need special effects since the story moves swiftly along from scene to scene without a lapse. The characters are compelling as both the boys and the girls run in “gangs”. Danny (Elsaphan Njora) leads the greaser guys while Rizzo (Nice Githinji) leads the gang of ‘popular’ girls who get to decide if the new girl Sandy (Kaz Lucas) can join their gang or not.

So while one might think a ‘teen’ musical just deals with light-weight stuff, the show actually touches upon everything from peer pressure, teen pregnancy and sex to young love, envy, jealousy, innocence lost and wisdom gained.

Kaz Lucas and Elsaphan Njora in Grease. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
Kaz Lucas and Elsaphan Njora in Grease. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Grease is basically a love story between Danny and Sandy, but many more themes are intertwined. Plus the live music played by Stuart’s hand-picked musicians is rock ‘n’ roll mixed with a bunch of other jazz rhythms and the choreography by Alexus Ndegwa is superlative.

Dance is also the highlight of ballet which is bound to be beautiful this weekend at Kenya National Theatre. Cooper has a special affinity for The Nutcracker at Christmas which is why this will be the third year the ballet will be staged at KNT. But one can never tire of watching beautiful youth moving with grace and elegance or of listening to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s orchestral arrangements.

And of course, dance and a bit of acrobatics were part of all three performances, including Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Staged by the Braeburn Players and directed by Joanna Garner, Ali Baba is a special sort of show. That’s because pantomime is all about audience participation. It’s especially meant to engage young people who are encouraged to cheer the good guys and boo the baddies.

That’s easy to do since the Bad Fairy Mbayasana (Shelina Allport) and the Good Fairy Maridadi (Samantha Mihajlovic) lay out the stakes of the show at the outset. Ali Baba (Guen Hollinghurst) and the Sultan’s daughter Yasmin (Razan Gubara) fall in love at first sight. But just like Grease, the odds against ‘true love’ are immense.

In the end, of course the “baddies” get caught and the “goodies” win the day. And in the course of working that out, there’s a giggle every minute, whether one is five or 50 years old. One only hopes the adults work harder to sing in tune this weekend.

Otherwise, the Braeburn child actors are right on time. And the show’s cheerleader Billy Baba (Corinne Batty) did an outstanding job keeping her audience on their toes, booing and cheering on cue.

Nutcracker is on this weekend and next. Grease is next, and Ali Baba is just this weekend.