GS breathes new life into Fiela for Ian
Bob Eveleigh: For Ian von Memerty, the Port Elizabeth Gilbert Sullivan Society has breathed new life into his original musical, Fiela’s Child.
For top South African showman and Madiba Bay resident since 2007, the creation of the work came out of a year’s sojourn, for family medical reasons, in England in the late 1990s.
He first got the idea for the musicalisation of the Dalene Matthee dramatic novel and movie, “out of nowhere”, in his own words, just before leaving for the UK.
At that time, he had never even read the novel or seen the film but knew it was a great South African story.
Having “devoured” the book, and obtained the author’s permission, while overseas in what was the most traumatic year in their lives for the family (Ian and his wife, Vivienne, lost their first daughter to a deadly genetic disease and son Oscar rejected his bone marrow transplant), Ian worked long and hard on the book, music and lyrics.
On returning to South Africa, he produced a full scale version of the work, encouraged by Pieter Toerien, with the then Capab and Johannesburg Civic Theatre organisations.
Although the show did quite well for an original musical, it was not a happy experience for Ian.
“The production team and I didn’t see eye to eye at all as to how my material should be treated. I saw it as a straightforward, honest piece of dramatic musical theatre and, although we had a strong professional cast, it simply didn’t work for me,” Ian told me over coffee.
“So, after it ended, I sort of packed it up and put it away in its own box, having kind of got it out of my system.”
Came the move to PE and, almost immediately, top local theatre personality and director Robin Williams, who had seen the original production in Cape Town, approached Ian to mount the show locally with GS, for whom she had regularly delivered hit productions of Broadway musicals – and continues to do so.
“I really hadn’t given any thought to reviving the work,” said Ian, “let alone by an amateur society. But, knowing the quality of varied musical theatre the society – and Robin, of course – delivers, we eventually came to an arrangement – and, four years later, I was so glad we did!”
So he re-visited the work – “some definite positives about the initial staging were the outstanding musical arrangements done by Peter McLea” – and left it in what turned out to be “the very safe hands of Robin and musical director Neil Leachman, who put the accompaniment on backtrack with a small ensemble conducted by Richard Campbell. And Neil, who is also an excellent actor, having previously delivered an outstanding portrayal of Jud Fry in Oklahoma! for GS last year, also added to his major contribution to Fiela’s Child by playing the woodsman father, Elias, quite brilliantly,
“I think Robin is as good a straight director as she is a handler of musicals and she is a mother herself – and Fiela is essentially a story about motherhood – so she brought a highly personal approach to the show, in the process making a stage star – and genuine actress – out of Donna Africa.”
“Donna was simply amazing, especially when one realises that she had never done anything remotely like this in her showbiz singing career with Gary Hemmings and Centrestage to date.
“And, of course, our daughter, Kasvia, played the young Nina, and, I must tell you, I wept on opening night last year – it was an emotional high for me to see Fiela work properly for the first time and see Kas in this particular work,” he said.
“But most of all, it proved to me that the show could work – in the right hands – and it has taken an amateur society to prove that to me.”
So, with this proof, why this quick revival, I asked?
“Well, GS felt that, with the shortish original run, there was still a further audience out there and many who saw it first time round might well wish to see it again. And it was the intention after last time that the production be seen elsewhere, like this year’s National Arts Festival at Grahamstown,” said Ian.
“But the Festival’s Director, Ishmael Mahomed, couldn’t get down to see the show in November but we are all hopeful that he will see it in this repeat season. And professional producers are also showing an interest in it – there are even ideas of turning it into a parallel Afrikaans work.”
So are there any changes – aside from some necessary cast alterations because of amateur unavailability – and has he, as its creator, made any revisions to the script and songs?
“Well we don’t have the original adult Lukas, Werner Viljoen, who was excellent – he’s moved to Cape Town, where he is doing well – and his role has been taken over by Jason Humm, whose vocal range is a little higher, opposite Megan van Wyk, who again plays the adult Nina. And, on that point, it’s amazing how Kasvia and Megan have bonded over these two productions – one would think they were sisters, the way they behave!”
“And Vivienne will be seen in Ann Yates’s part of Malie: it’s the first time she has done a role like this in musical theatre. She’s danced in countless shows – most recently in GS’s Evita – and sung in the likes of our family shows and in the chorus of musicals like Crazy for You, but this is another first for her.”
And what about the libretto and songs?
“Yes, there is one major change: the father’s song has been completely re-written, with four minutes cut in its duration, as an entirely new entity but that is really the only big revision.”
To say that Ian is excited about the way GS has “brought Fiela back to life”, in his own words, is putting it mildly, but, unfortunately, he will be out of town for opening night this week but, come Friday, he might even appear on-stage himself by playing Mark Farrow’s supporting role of the Magistrate, since Mark will likewise be out of town for a business conference and might not make it back to PE by curtain time.
And that would make Friday’s performance even more of a family night for the Von Memertys…..
Fiela’s Child, starring Donna Africa, with book, music and lyrics by Ian von Memerty, directed by Robin Williams, musical director Neil Leachman, conductor Richard Campbell, lighting design by David Limbert, presented at the Savoy Theatre, Adcockvale, Port Elizabeth, Tuesday, July 17, to Saturday, July 28 (excluding Sundays), matinees Saturdays July 21 and 28 at 2pm. Booking at Computicket.
Article source: http://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=30581