February 8, 2023

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‘Mandela’ review: New musical biography drowns in good intentions

3 min read

Singing for freedom not just for the characters under apartheid, but for the country as a whole, the passionate cast of the new musical “Mandela” (now premiering at London’s Young Vic) performs with rousing sincerity. Their full-throated singing is wonderful. But telling the story of how one man’s personal and political stance changed South Africa forever requires more than the usual ballads and songs of hopes and dreams. And while script thinness is rarely a barrier to bio-musical success, in something as potentially important as this, the woefully sloppy writing only proves one thing: it’s possible to drown out good intentions.

It’s clear from the all-too-common rise to boisterous, foot-stamping opening numbers that the show is going to be decidedly underwhelming. And, to be fair, with a story that encompasses everything from Nelson Mandela’s early activism to the tragedy of his imprisonment to the triumph of his release 27 harrowing years later, it was always going to be difficult to tackle in detail. But while the celebration of the man is widely welcomed, it is disappointing that the show can only be enlightened to those who enter the theater knowing nothing of his trajectory.

Even newcomers are likely to be short-changed by author Leona Michele’s descriptive but overarching book, whose snapshot scenes serve little more than (often lumpen) exposition and song cues, moving from one story staging post to the next, for the most part, “I feel /I Want” song is attached.

Precisely concise, the real feel of Mandela’s remarkable story turns to sentimentality, as when her daughters sing a sweet song about growing up without their father (shades of the more cleverly suggestive “Little Lamb” from “Gypsy”) or when Winnie (the mischievous Daniel Fiamania) He dreams of a future with a place for his people, playing a song not a million miles away from “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”

Without anchoring detail, the effect is musically and dramatically unmemorable, neither of which is the cast’s fault. Michael Luwe, ex-Hamilton on Broadway, effortlessly exudes all the weight, gravity and defiance of Mandela. He is irresistible – although, arguably, his unwavering goodness makes it difficult to immortalize him in song. In theory, there’s more potential in Winnie, but too late in the day, the musical briefly touches on her much more conflicted political history and her broken faith with her husband, the potentially interesting complexities of her character and her relationship, and then immediately skating on.

Of course, there are images of horrific violence and bigotry that shocked the nation and led to uprisings, not least the first scene of the horrific Sharpeville massacre in 1960 where police opened fire on a peaceful protest, killing 69 and injuring 180. But even there, director Shelley Williams (“The Notebook”)’s staging routine is powerfully imaginative when it needs to be.

Aside from the unsympathetic white politicians in dark suits, the costumes are a riot of russets, oranges and browns that connect them to the earth tones of the subdued set design, which places a proscenium arch in the versatile Young Vic space, strongly suggesting the production is more life-watching. To be successful, it’s going to require a lot more than production tweaks. But this seems unlikely to happen, since the production is not exclusively owned by the Mandela family. Superhuman deserves something far more poignant and poignant than that.

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