Nondumiso Tembe. Picture: Supplied

Going to a show that everyone is raving about is daunting because I often have fears that I may fail dismally to share the excitement. And after the rave reviews of King Kong that came from Cape Town, I was put in something of a catch-22. 

I was excited that this iconic piece of work had been brought back to life, and I am alive to see it. 

We’re talking about a production, the music of which was written by one of Sophiatown’s finest writers, Todd Matshikza, music played by the likes of Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela and Gwigwi Mrwebi. A production that went on to tour the world and launch some of these artists’ careers. 

So I felt rather apprehensive, but the Fomo (Fear of Missing Out) would not allow me to sit at home. 

As I walked into the Mandela Theatre at the Joburg Theatre, I encountered a large crowd of people who’d come to see the production as well. The few conversations I overheard featured mostly excitement. The theatre was almost filled to capacity, a sight that’s always a joy to see. 

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The opening scene features four young men, Mad (Athenkosi Mfamela), Polo (Shalom Zamisa), Taki (Sibusiso Mxosana) and Sibu (Aphiwe Menziwa) whose tempers are flaring. An elderly Pop (Sne Dladla) comes in and takes the boys through the story of  Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini. 

At its crux, King Kong is a cautionary tale, meant to both commemorate and mourn the life of a great boxer. This comes out in how Pops takes it upon himself to share this story with the temperamental young men. But it’s masked in comedy, romance and vibrant music, which could make it easy to get lost in the production. 

With this remake, however, there has been a bit of playing around with the tempos of songs to reflect a sombre mood if necessary – as is the case with The Earth Turns Over or one of the songs that has been added, Senzeni Na?  

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It’s very difficult not to fall in love with the character of Pops. Dladla is funny, compassionate and believable as he expresses his love for Petal, played by Lerato Mvelase. The two do a semi-medley in Strange Things Happen. Mvelase and Dladla’s vocals are as impressive as their acting. 

Tshamano Sebe as Jack, King Kong’s boxing trainer, is charming and his natural affinity for comedy blends well with his character in the musical. He is the right mix of funny, dodgy, father figure and cheerleader that you’d expect a boxing coach to be. His girlfriend Miriam, played by Ntambo Rapatla, is perfectly suited to him.

The two leads, King Kong (Andile Gumbi) and Joyce (Nondumiso Tembe) are at home in their respective roles. Gumbi portrays King Kong just as we’d imagine him to be, while Tembe brings to Joyce the right mix of tough, sultry and – when it matters most – effeminate.

Andile Gumbi. Picture: Jesse Kate Kramer

The costumes are also worth a mention, fitting in well with the production and its era, while still being practical enough for the cast to bring life to Gregory Maqoma’s high-energy and striking choreography. 

In the boxing scenes, the actors' bodies move in sync with the punches, making them seem far more realistic.

Of the five songs added to the original repertoire, my favourites are the Mark III Loadstar Flatbed Truck performed by Gumbi and the cast – as his character explains that his dream car is a red truck with leopard-skin seats – and Life Goes On,  a  song performed as King Kong is arrested for the murder of Harry and life must, no matter how difficult, go on for Joyce.

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There are other subtle modern additions to the storyline, like the nod to Mgcineni Noki, the man in the green blanket, in the scene in which the cast stands in the queue in the morning before heading to work. The murder of Joyce is also flanked with two scenes that hammer home the tragedy that is Joyce’s murder, given that it would have been understandable to celebrate her death. 

The set is built cleverly, and is transformed in a matter of minutes to reflect Jack’s gym, the prison, the bus stop or even the Back o’ the Moon shebeen. 
King Kong is a wonderful theatrical experience, even for musical theatre novices like me.