Incredibly, it's been nearly six years since I last saw Kat and the Kings in its West End season at the Vaudeville Theatre (see below), and my enthusiasm for this South African import - and particularly a second Act that builds and builds to a euphoric crescendo - remains undimmed.
Of course, some things have changed. After it opened at the Vaudeville, Kat and the Kings went on to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and Best Actor in a Musical which, uniquely, was awarded to the entire cast. Only one member - Loukmaan Adams - remains of that original company, and, as ladies man Bingo, he displays a beguiling ease which escapes most of his fresh fellows.
Newcomer Emraan Adams, as Young Kat, does well to match Adams' energy level, while also oozing sex appeal. However, he's totally mismatched with Danny Butler, who, as Old Kat, is meant to be Adams' shoe-shining self forty years on. With at least a foot and a half and several stone between them, the two bear no resemblance whatsoever and, furthermore, share little of the synchronicity that made the previous pairing of Jody Abrahams and Salie Daniels such a magical, mirroring experience.
No discredit to Butler's performance, but Daniels is what's missing most from Kat and the Kings' current incarnation. He was not only the show's original star, but also the real-life inspiration for the story about a mixed-race musician whose ambitions are thwarted by apartheid. Sadly, he passed away in 1999, but it's heartening to discover that, according to the programme, when he died "he was proudly clutching the Olivier he had just received", his dream come true at last.
It's a heartwarming footnote to a joyously uplifting show. Forget about Umoja, Kat and the Kings is the original feelgood musical hit from the Cape, and still the best.
- Terri Paddock
NOTE: The following review dates from March 1998 and this production's earlier West End season at the Vaudeville Theatre, which was followed by a national tour.
Prepare for shameless editorialising because I haven't got one bad thing to say about Kat and the Kings. This South African musical import is like a bottle of the finest champagne - it pops its cork with an explosive bang, bubbles and sparkles all over the stage and flows with smooth abandon, turning even the soberest of audiences into a giddy throng.
The majority of the action takes place, in flashback, during the late 1950s of Cape Town's District Six. This was the French Quarter of the New Orleans of South Africa, a little haven from the oppressive Apartheid regime where Cape Coloureds live happily amongst other races and the do-wopping, American rock 'n' roll blends with local strains to make a whole new sound.
Kat Diamond and his friends - Bingo (Loukmann Adams), Ballie (Junaid Booysen), Magoo (Alistair Izobell) and Lucy (Mandisa Bardill) - are on top of the world. They're young, vibrant and boy can they sing and dance. They form an acapella group, the Cavalla Kings, and soon graduate from singing street corners to performing in 'whites only' clubs and signing record deals.
But as fun and frolicsome as these 'best of times' are, they are at turns painful to watch, knowing as you do what the future holds for the Kings. History and politics are against them. With not a single white face in the group, they'll never be permitted the stardom they crave and deserve. What's more, the hotbed for all their youthful aspirations, District Six, is demolished by the Government in 1966 and all its inhabitants (70,000) forced into racially segregated territories. The consequences for the individuals involved are heart-rending, certainly for the star Kat who is now a shoe-shine man.
The casting for Kat and the Kings is spot-on. Each performer as bubbly and energetic as the next; together, they are a heady, effervescent mix. Salie Daniels' performance as Old Kat, the narrator, is perhaps the most remarkable, particularly once you realise that his real life was the inspiration for Taliep Peterson and David Kramer's script. Daniels can still croon and soft-shoe with the best of his 40-year-younger peers. He and young Kat (Jody Abrahams) are breathtakingly in sync on everything - their build, mannerisms and intricate dance steps.
The cast, with the help of a wonderful score and on-stage band, soon strike a rapport with the audience as well, drawing us in to the music and constantly fresh dance routines, building up excitement to an almost unbearable standing-ovation peak. Most of us would have gladly stayed clapping and rocking all night. So perhaps there is one bad(-ish) thing to say about Kat and the Kings - it ends too soon.
- Terri Paddock, March 1998
NOTE: The following review is from the play's 1998 run at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, north London which preceded its transfer to the Vaudeville.
Kat and the Kings, a musical written by the South African team of David Kramer and Taliep Petersen, first played to appreciative crowds at the Tricycle in November 1997. The show's return marks a warm-up for a scheduled West End run at the Vaudeville later this month, and Kramer, also the director, has used the hiatus as an opportunity to replace the recorded music of the last visit with a much needed live band.
The setting is Cape Town's notorious slum, 'District Six', in the 1950s - a veritable melting pot of different cultures. The story may be a familiar one (a band on the way up), but the score, which has more bounce than a greased quiff, more than compensates. Like the racial mix of the slum that engendered it, the songs are both ethnically diverse and colourful, having the added zip of the Stateside imports of that era: Elvis, Frankie Lymon, Louis Jordan and Motown.
The tale is told in flashback, from the point of view of Kat, eponymous hero and erstwhile crooner with the Cavalla Kings, a coloured vocal ensemble named after a brand of South African cigarette. The band's rise is facilitated by bending the rules of apartheid: they enter 'Whites Only' clubs by the back door, and beat a hasty retreat once the police show up. This is enough to ensure a loyal following and, in time, a record deal. But the band soon suffers a blow when their lead singer, Lucy, runs off to Canada with their white manager - a relationship deemed illegal under the regime's draconian segregation laws. After a couple of more defections, the Cavalla Kings, like its namesake, is finally stubbed out.
Forty years later, Kat is a shoe shine man, left with just memories of the days when the girls would throw their panties on-stage and go 'Ape in the Cape' for their version of Rock n' Roll.
Whilst the story is ultimately clichéd and unsatisfying, Kat (like that former West End success Five Guys Named Mo) lives on through the sheer energy of the performers. This was the first night of the new run, and the young cast whipped the audience up into such a frenzy that even the more po-faced members were seen clapping and snapping their way through the later songs.
Even if the 1950s isn't your bag, Kat and the Kings is guaranteed to have you hand-jiving your way out onto the Kilburn High Road afterwards.
- Richard Forrest, March 1998