It may be a very long time before theatre producers will risk staging any magnificent musicals again.
Well before Covid made audiences wary and slashed the number of available seats, shows like the splendid Dreamgirls always risked closing early through ticket buyers’ apathy. Now it’s even tougher times for theatre lovers, and a total disaster for the showmen.
Jonathan Roxmouth has starred in many of those big-hitting musicals both here and abroad, gaining a repertoire of songs and personas that he’s brought together for Back In Lights.
Sporting a succession of shiny jackets and sparkly shoes he leads us through this small and intimate production, supported by Roelof Colyn on the piano, Kieran Woolmington on guitar and Lindzi Wiggins on the cello. While Colyn sits close to the centre and deservedly gets included in the action, it would be nice to see the others also given more airtime.
This isn’t a high-brow thinking show, Roxmouth explains, it’s just about remembering what being in the theatre feels like. He introduces each number with an amiable chat and anecdotes of back-stage antics, like the time he fell off stage and landed in the orchestra pit. It’s lovely to see him not taking himself too seriously, although he’s not the most natural raconteur and his ad libs feel well rehearsed. It’s fun to sit close to the stage and watch his animated eyebrows shoot up and down as if they’re making additional comments of their own.
These shows can have an element of self-indulgence, he says, and of course it does, but musical theatre fans will be delighted with his choices. There are some of the showstoppers from The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Evita and Cats, and others that will get you listening harder because they’re new to you, he promises. That’s exactly how it works, and I found myself focusing intently on the lyrics of Unusual Way from the musical Nine, which had my brain racing as well as my ears listening.
He’s also rewritten a couple of famous tunes with new lyrics, so My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music becomes My Covid Things, with a clever and funny litany of incidents like the banning of roast chicken and the routine molestation of our nostrils.
When it came to Send In the Clowns he admitted he had been afraid of tackling this song because he’d been told that he lacked enough life experience at his age to sing it well. His new resolution is “to hell with fear”, he said, which is a noble goal for anyone, and he handled it beautifully.
Roxmouth describes himself as an ‘applause whore’ and jokes that it’s great when an audience comes to the show, but it’s even greater when they return after the interval. In fact ticket sales have been buoyant enough to extend the run for another week. One woman at the show had seen it four times already and had tickets booked for another five evenings. That kind of loyalty is hugely touching, but what I found more surprising was that many of the audience were so young. Seeing people in their twenties enjoying the show and queuing for pictures with the star afterwards is hugely encouraging for live theatre.
With no disrespect to the band, which provides the perfect base for him to build on, one of the nicest moments comes right at the end when he’s alone on stage. He sits at the piano and performs a powerful version of Music Of The Night, as the lights dim around him to create a moment of pure, intense theatricality.
Jonathan Roxmouth Back in Lights directed by Weslee Swain Lauder runs at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg until January 23. Tickets on 011-511-1988 or Computicket.