If exuberance, commitment and sensational performances could make a musical, "Kat and the Kings" would be a classic. Infectious as the common cold but a helluva lot more enjoyable, this show is impossible to dislike.
Still, a musical needs a well-told story. Unwilling or unable to tell the gripping tale that is in their grasp, the writers of "Kat and the Kings" miss out on a great musical, and settle for great fun.
Set in South Africa in the late 1950s, "Kat" has at its heart an epic tension. On one side, there is the joy of youth. Five mixed-race teens form a vocal harmony group and try to doo-wop their way to fame and fortune. On the other side is the brutal political reality of apartheid, mocking their dreams and keeping them in their allotted places.
With this wrenching story and a fantastically talented cast, "Kat" should be "The Commitments" with a political soul. Instead, it generates a very weird mood - apartheid sucks, but party on.
It's not as though the surface of the story isn't engraved with images of a savage system. When the Kings play for a white audience, the place is raided by the cops. When they make it to a fancy hotel in Durban, they have to sleep in the servants' quarters and earn their keep as busboys. When their "colored" manager, Lucy, falls in love with their white producer, the couple has to flee the country.
But these moments are recounted in the most offhand manner imaginable. Having raised the specter of apartheid, the show neither deals with it nor banishes it. It hangs over everything as an uneasy and unfulfilled presence.
Part of the problem is that the whole thing is presented in the nostalgic memory of an old man, blunting all its dramatic sharpness. Part of it, too, is that author David Kramer tends to tell what he ought to show.
And yet, the performers are so magical that the show steams ahead at an exhilarating pace. Taliep Petersen's reinventions of doo-wop may circle around a limited form, but they cover the ground with style and speed.
The voices, alone and in harmony, are wonderful. Kim Louis as Lucy makes a sound as big as Africa and as deep as the surrounding ocean.
Loukmaan Adams, Jody Abrahams, Junaid Booysen and Alaistair Izobell combine smoothness and fire in an intoxicating cocktail of harmony and power.
And the choreography by Abrahams and Adams has a joyous energy and a natural ease that force all the cliches of jive into startling new shapes.
But without a clear sense of purpose from Kramer's book, this fabulous energy blasts away the story that "Kat" is supposed to be telling.
The audience is pulled in opposite directions: We are told of a terrible, inhuman time - but we are made to feel that these victims of the system were having the time of their lives.
Even when the joint is jumpin', the leap from the brutal story to the careless fun is just too great.
“We were young, and we were having fun," says a doo-wop singer in Cape Town, South Africa in 1957 in "Kat and the Kings," the South African musical now at the Cort Theatre. Youth, exuberance and joy are the virtues of this infectious and rousing show, which originated in Cape Town in 1995 and comes to us in the 1998 London production.
The revue-like musical has an original book and lyrics by David Kramer, with original music by Taliep Petersen. Kramer and Petersen are glib, slick, prolific creators of musical theater; their first of six collaborations was "District Six," a tribute toCape Town's long-gone, funky, mixed-race quarter, where most of "Kat" is set.
American sailors on leave brought pop records to District Six in the 1950s. It was the heyday of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers on record and of James Dean on film. Elvis was soon to follow. In the fictional but fact-derived story here, sparks are struck in the hearts of four "colored" (that is, mixed race - black, white, Asian) teenagers, who form a band called the Cavalla Kings and write songs closely modeled after their American idols.
The tale of the young band is narrated by the old Kat Diamond, a shoeshine man in the Cape Town of 1999. Terry Hector gives the old guy edge and force, but the show belongs to the four young doo-woppers.
The heart of the band is the young Kat, played by Jody J. Abrahams with enough charm, rhythm and energy to light up a small city. The best voice in the band, a sweet high treble ideal for doo-wop, belongs to nerdy, shorts-and-spectacles-wearing Magoo (a delightful Alistair Izobell). Sharpie Bingo (Loukmaan Adams) sports a porkpie hat; goofy Bailie (Junaid Booysen) has to lose a huge Afro and tacky duds.
The nonstop music is comprised of both book songs (sung by characters to each other in the course of the plot) and show tunes (performed by the Cavalla Kings on stage). Both kinds of songs are clever, bouncy, sharply choreographed pastiches of U.S. doo-wop, with injections of African musical styles and with, I'm happy to report, some lightly raunchy lyrics that would not have made it onto U.S. radio of the time.
The Kings' career is shadowed – and eventually destroyed – by apartheid, the fanatical racial separatism of the time. Their first hit is yanked from the airwaves when it's discovered that they're "colored." When they get their first big booking at a Durban hotel, they're forced to work as busboys there during the day. Eventually, interracial love affairs and emigration wreck the group.
The four young men are so bursting with heedless vitality they seem unfazed by the bigger picture, but the old Kat looks back with bitterness. And Lucy, the band's sometime singer and angry conscience, does mind.
"There's a rocket in my pocket," croon the Kings in this irresistible, sexy musical, which captures the energy and the fleetingness, the excitement and the tragedy of being young, talented and colored in the Cape Town of 1957.
The characters who live in the enchanted Never Never Land of musical theater have their own special ways of dealing with adversity. Facing an uncertain life in a foreign land, the newly widowed Mrs. Anna simply whistled a happy tune in "The King and I."
And the United States government, dangerously depressed by the Great Depression, learned to accentuate the positive when a plucky little orphan made the Roosevelt cabinet sing an anthem of optimism in "Annie."
But what if we're talking about heinous crimes against humanity? What if the subject is the Holocaust or apartheid in South Africa? Judging by recent Broadway productions, the proper response would seem to be close-harmony vocalizing.
Only months after the brief New York run of "Band in Berlin," the musical story of the Comedian Harmonists, a singing sextet destroyed by anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, there arrives a peppy, exhaustingly eager show about a nonwhite doo-wop group, crooning up a storm in the segregated Cape Town of the 1950s.
This latest improbable fusion of musical style and historical substance is called "Kat and the Kings." The show, which opened Thursday night at the Cort Theater after earlier incarnations in Cape Town and London, where it won a Laurence Olivier award for Best Musical, follows the short, stunted career of a young, American-style singing group whose members are neither black nor white but, as one of them puts it, children "of the twilight."
That such a group is doomed to failure in mid-century South Africa inevitably leads to thoughts of bright talents sadly squandered. So, unfortunately, does "Kat and the Kings" itself. The vividness of presence of the show's performers is undeniable; so is the precision of their skills as singers and dancers.
Yet for all their innate appeal and exuberant energy, there is a sense that they are as confined as genies in bottles, hemmed in by the formulaic cartoonishness of the show in which they appear. And by the evening's end, their exertion in trying to turn period pastiche songs into showstoppers is so visible that you find yourself sweating in sympathy. Talent of this caliber should never have to go begging.
"Kat" was created by its director, David Kramer, who also wrote its book and lyrics, and Taliep Petersen, who composed the score. Its central idea, the impact of American pop music on a marginal people in search of social identity, has definite promise.
Inspired by Cape Town a capella groups of 40-some years ago who created songs in imitation of chart-topping acts like the Coasters and the Ink Spots, the show hints at the existence of a fascinating shadow culture.
The suggested process of musical evolution is dizzying; rhythms and singing styles of ancestral Africa are translated over the centuries into such American forms as rhythm and blues, doo-wop and rock and roll, which are in turn slicked up for mainstream consumption by record producers, while retaining a primal energy that speaks directly to the rebellious side of a new generation. The music then makes its way back to Africa, where it is reinterpreted by artists like those portrayed in "Kat."
But the show has little interest in exploring how these South African songwriters made this music their own or what it meant to them beyond its possibilities as an avenue to success and stardom. Kramer's and Petersen's tuneful songs are in the blandly mimetic tradition of nostalgia trips like "Grease," and the numbers are harnessed to the hoariest of rise-and-fall show business plots.
The setting may be exotic to a New York audience, but much else will feel bizarrely stale. There's a willful, feel-good naivete about the whole enterprise that turns apartheid into an incongruous, random sour note in a blithely sweet-sounding musical tapestry, with jokes, gags and characterizations that suggest only slightly spicier variations on the let's-put-on-a-show episodes of the old "Our Gang" comedies.
"Kat" is framed by the reminiscences of its title character, Kat Diamond (Terry Hector), an elderly shoeshiner on the streets of contemporary Cape Town. A cute, sparky codger who delivers his business spiels in rhyme, he recalls the days when he was 17, summoning his younger self (played by Jody J. Abrahams), as he cruises Cape Town's bustling, ethnically mixed District Six with his pals.
These friends break down into the expected stereotypes. There's Bingo (Luqmaan Adams, who exudes matinee-idol charisma), the suave, lady-killing one; Ballie (Junaid Booysen), the goofy, dim-witted one, and Magoo (Alistar Izobell), the rich and prissy one, who has the drawing card of being able to sing like Frankie Lymon.
Magoo's comely sister, Lucy (Kim Louis), has an irritatingly patrician air, but she knows her pop musicology, and she teaches the group to harmonize and organizes its club dates.
The first act is more or less devoted to showing how the quintet gets its act together; the second to its career high point when it performs an elaborate, highly polished cabaret act at Claridge's Hotel in Durban, where the young men must also work as bell hops, and the group's subsequent dissolution.
Much of the Kings' breaking up has to do with the social climate in South Africa at the time, although this fails to make a dent in the characters' relentless perkiness. It is also worth noting that apartheid is presented as one of several, equal factors for their demise; another is the marriage of Ballie to a domineering woman.
The group's hit record is yanked from the airwaves when it is discovered they are not white. And when Lucy falls in love with their (unseen) white manager, her days in her native land are clearly numbered. It is she who in the first act, between moments of being adorably bossy with those rascally boys, stops to ask, "Don't you see what's happening in this country?"
She is speaking of what the older Kat refers to as "a nightmare, this thing called apartheid," before singing a lifeless ditty about how he doesn't judge people by the color of their skin but by the state of their shoes.
Lucy correspondingly gets two big emotional numbers (one of them a duet with her brother), unfortunately clunky songs about social cruelty and finding inner faith: "All I want is justice, a world where fair is fair/Where nobody will judge me by my color and the texture of my hair."
These numbers bring to mind the syrupy ballads found in current movies about scorned misfits beating the odds to become sports champions. There are also some perfunctory and unnecessary plot-propelling songs, including two in which Ballie is warned against getting married.
Most of the score sticks closely to the period in which "Kat" is set, directly recalling standards like "La Bamba" and "At the Hop," and giving off an oddly distanced, ersatz quality.
The cast performs these with considerable flair and enthusiasm, with fluid, loose-jointed dancing and tightly woven harmonies. But ultimately even these numbers become repetitive, and for the Claridge's Hotel medley, they are undercut by a host of kitschy gimmicks that do indeed bring to mind this decade's klutzy revival of "Grease."
In the show's protracted finale, you may find yourself briefly startled out of the numbness you have probably succumbed to by then. This happens when the cast members reinterpret a tribal-inspired number they had performed previously, in Top 40 style, and now execute without the Westernizing gloss.
A rush of fresh air seems to flood the stage, and you're suddenly aware of how exciting this production could have been if it had stopped more often to consider what was behind the mimetic style of performance at its center. As it is, "Kat and the Kings" glides along on mere imitations not only of the songs of the period but also of plot turns, dialogue and shtick that were cliched even in the 1950s.
If sheer exuberance could carry the day, "Kat and the Kings" might sail right into the Broadway history books powered by delightfully buoyant performances from its (mostly) young South African cast. The loose-limbed, limber-voiced kids who animate the stage in this story of the rise and fall of a doo-wop group in 1950s Cape Town are giving the most infectiously joyous performances in town. That may not be sufficient, however, to win the show a sizable audience in the high-stakes Broadway environment. For even the cast's ingratiating talents cannot disguise the faults of this eager-to-please but rather deflatingly inconsequential show.
The musical tells the fictional story of the Cavalla Kings, a vocal quartet who style themselves after the great early R&B-rock groups: the Platters, the Ink Spots, the Coasters. Book writer and lyricist David Kramer and composer Taliep Peterson loosely based the show on the life of Salie Daniels, the leader of a similar singing group who performed the role of the elder Kat Diamond, the show's narrator, in previous runs in Cape Town and London. Sadly, Daniels died in July, and while his replacement, Terry Hector, is entirely winning in the role, one suspects Daniels' personal connection to the material gave the show some grounding gravitas that is sorely missing from its cheerily simplistic book and lyrics.
The tale begins with Hector's Kat, now a shoeshine man in 1999 Cape Town, recalling with nostalgia the beginnings of the Cavalla Kings. His younger self, played with innocently sexy panache by Jody J. Abrahams, rises beside him on Saul Radomsky's bare-bones set, and together they narrate a saga that hits many of the usual rags-to-riches touchstones, albeit with a distinctive historical backdrop (apartheid) that occasionally impinges on the youthful showbiz high jinks. (In both structure and substance, "Kat and the Kings" bears an odd resemblance to last season's Broadway flop "Band in Berlin," another musical about a vocal harmony group undone by racism.)
Dazzled by the sounds of American music, Kat recruits pals Bingo (Loukmaan Adams) and Ballie (Junaid Booysen) to share his dream of crooning his way into the hearts of girls everywhere. Magoo (Alistair Izobell), a goofy boy from a tonier neighborhood, fills out the quartet, and his sister Lucy (Kim Louis) soon becomes the group's songwriter, guest vocalist and fashion consultant.
Although their skin colors vary, all of the performers are classified as "colored" unde rSouth Africa's racist policies. But in District 6, the only Cape Town neighborhood where races were allowed to mix, the Kings soon become celebrities, performing to adoring audiences at local hot spots and snagging a recording contract before personal conflicts and the government's tragic destruction of District 6 end their brief career.
The show is light on character, historical context and plot -- the narration sometimes seems an afterthought -- and ultimately seeks to get by on sweet sensation as the second act turns into a concert with what seems like a good half-hour of encores. Perhaps a director other than book writer-lyricist Kramer might have shaped the show with more precision and finesse.
Thus the musical is mostly music, and much of it is charming. Peterson and Kramer's songs are catchy pastiches in the style of the times, when R&B and rock 'n' roll were near neighbors. Some tunes are vaguely used to tell the story, but most just allow the boys (and girl) to unleash their spirited talents in homage to a musical genre that retains its toe-tapping appeal. Indeed, the energy of the performers inspires something close to awe: with mile-wide grins, legs seemingly made of rubber and springs, and hips that swivel as smoothly as water going down a drain, the boys, in Radomsky's bright, color-coordinated suits, sometimes seem more like animated characters from a Saturday morning cartoon than live human beings.
Alas, it's not just the performers' seemingly superhuman athleticism that evokes the comparison, for Kramer's book and lyrics never rise beyond a genial juvenility that soon palls. Jokes tend to center on teen-age razzing about girls and cars and the occasional bodily function ("You've got to look smart/And not like a fart/ If you want to break hearts ..." runs a too-typical lyric).
Although Kat is perfunctorily pegged as a gambler, Bingo a lady-killer, Ballie a sweetheart and Magoo a goof, the boys never really come across as sharply defined people living in an all too terribly specific place and time. It's not necessarily the lack of attention to the politically charged environment that harms the show, but its generally too-sophomoric spirit.
But if the show's structure and level of sophistication leave something to be desired, its cast surely doesn't. In addition to being agile, physically witty performers, they're supremely smooth and charismatic singers, with each of the Kings being given a chance to lead a solo. And Hector proves himself nearly their match when he joins the young Kings for several songs.
As the show's narration winds up, the young Kat looks to the elder and expresses a sad dismay at his future, "I can't believe this is what happens to me." It's a small moment of emotion that is erased quickly by the musical's long finale, in which the audience is exhorted repeatedly to join the fun by singing and clapping along. There's a strange dislocation involved that's at the heart of the musical's disappointment: Even as it seeks to honor the memory of a particular time and place, "Kat and the Kings" keeps urging you to forget everything but the bliss of a passionately sung song.