KING KONG. Directed by Jonathan Munby. With Andile Gumbi, Nondumiso Tembe, Sanda Shandu, Tshamano Sebe, Ntambo Rapatla, Sne Dladla, Lerato Mvelase and Sabelo Radebe plus ensemble cast.

Original music: Todd Matshikiza.  Original lyrics/first draft book: Pat Williams. Book: Harry Bloom. Revised book: William Nicholson. Choreography: Gregory Maqoma. Musical direction: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Sipumzo Lucwaba. Set design: Paul Wills. Costume design: Birrie le Roux. Lighting design: Tim Mitchell. Sound design: Mark Malherbe. Associate director: Mdu Kweyama. Nine-piece band conducted by Sipumzo Lucwaba.

'King Kong'


When the Fugard Theatre announced that it was re-staging the legendary South African musical King Kong, it sounded a daunting task. The original 1959 production would be a hard act to follow – billed as an “all African jazz opera”, the music was written by Todd Matshikiza with lyrics by Pat Williams, and opened in the Great Hall at Wits to an esteemed audience that included Nelson Mandela. It was an immediate smash hit, going on to play for two years and to more than 200 000 people around the country, before moving to the West End for a successful run.

The production launched the international career of Miriam Makeba, as well as boosting the progress of Manhattan Brother Nathan Mdledle, Hugh Masekela, Thandi Klaasen and Kippie Moeketsi, among others. Perhaps most remarkable was that King Kong was created and performed by a team of black and white artists, writers and musicians, and was seen by very mixed audiences – at a time when apartheid had reached a particularly brutal point, with the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 followed by the banning of the ANC and PAC.

So … the Fugard faced a serious challenge. How to match up to such a triumph? How to honour such a rich legacy? How to stage a contemporary version without forfeiting the integrity of the original?

'King Kong'
King Kong

Pulling it off with immense style!

And hey if they haven’t pulled all of this off, with immense style! King Kong 2017 is a beautifully staged, impeccably performed piece of work, bubbling with vitality and sparkling with talent. What the new team has done is taken an existing gem and polished it further, integrating new technology (such as a fantastic sound system), adapting the script (making a quartet of school boys the link between past and present) and generally smoothing and streamlining the action. The result is a production which pays all due respect to its origins, but at the same time is updated and totally in line with a 21st century stage musical.

All credit to the backstage team – from director Jonathan Munby to set designer Paul Wills to costume designer Birrie le Roux to choreographer Gregory Maqoma, not to mention Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and William Nicholson who created five new songs. In fact, there’s a big team behind this, and every one deserves congratulations. That includes the nine-piece band, playing live every night in the loft.

And then there’s the cast …

Quick synopsis

'King Kong'

But before naming names, a quick synopsis of the script. King Kong is based on the true story of boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, who carved an impressive career for himself and became something of a folk hero. His nickname was “King Kong”. However, he had a fiery temper and was very quick with his fists, even outside the ring. This was to be his downfall, along with bouts of drunkenness, which eventually led to tragedy. The basics of King Kong’s life form the basis for King Kong the musical.

In the title role for this production is Andile Gumbi, who has the height and brooding good looks that go so well with the part. Opposite him, playing shebeen queen Joyce is Nondumiso Tembe, who inhabits her character with a lithe grace and a strong voice. They make for a fine couple.

But it’s the smaller roles that captivate, and there are some real stand outs here. Sne Dladla whom many know as a stand-up comedian, is simply perfect as the “funny guy” Popcorn (and actually, it’s not such a small role as he is on stage virtually all the time, and plays a binding role as narrator). The love of his life is Petal, deliciously played by Lerato Mvelase, who has a huge crush on King Kong but doesn’t realise where true love actually lies. Then there’s gruff-and-tough boxing promoter Jack – Tshamano Sebe easily inhabits this role – and his feisty girlfriend Miriam, sassily done by Ntambo Rapatla. Occupying the baddy role of Lucky with a sinuous, menacing grace is Sanda Shandu, while the four “young” boys who form an audience to events are convincingly and enthusiastically played by Athenkosi Mfamela, Shalom Zamisa, Sibusiso Mxosana and Aphiwe Menziwa.

The action plays out on the streets, in the shebeens, in the boxing rings and in the bus queues of Sophiatown, which is joyously recreated in song, costume, and the most wonderful dance sequences. The pace never flags, even while the dynamics shift from dark to light, and there’s a level of energy that drives along the production.

King Kong is a wonderful experience, put together with both care and flair. To my mind, this team have done full justice to the original. In fact, they’ve more than followed a hard act – they’ve made it their own.

Just a comment, and a spoiler alert

It may seem churlish, then, to quibble about the storyline. But it raises a red flag. Yes, King Kong is a legendary South African musical. It forms part of our socio-cultural history. But the story is ultimately about a man who reacts violently to situations, who succumbs to drink when disappointed, and who murders his partner when she doesn’t listen to him. It’s the same story that’s repeated on a daily basis in South Africa. We have one of the highest rates of femicide in the world. And here’s a play in which the hero epitomises exactly this form of hyper-masculinity.

Just sayin’.

What: King Kong – The Musical

Where and when: 25 July to 2 September at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town / 12 September to 8 October at the Mandela Theatre in Johannesburg

Book tickets: Computicket or 0861 915 8000