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Kat and the Kings

Kat and the Kings is the show that Broadway has been waiting for: a crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping, singing and dancing joyfest: a musical with a brain that entertains and uplifts with high spirits and high energy. It's deceptively simple: six dazzlingly talented perfomers, a compact but copacetic onstage band, some snappy costumes, two dozen tuneful numbers, a straightforward storyline, and that's about all. Yet from these elements, creators David Kramer and Taliep Petersen make theatrical magic. Kat and the Kings sends you out of the Cort Theatre on air. It should run there for a very long time.

The story, which is based on fact, is about five teenagers living in District Six in South Africa in the late 1950s, during the early days of Apartheid. They're just ordinary kids: Kat, a happy-go-lucky free spirit; Bingo, a girl-chaser who's constantly combing his eyebrows; Ballie, slightly dim but very good-natured; Magoo, a slight, geeky rich kid; and Lucy, Magoo's tough but loving older sister. Goofing around on the street one day, the boys discover they can sing pretty harmonies, and what's more that they really like doing so. With Lucy's help, they hone their harmonizing into an act, and they soon find themselves booked as singers at a local hotel. Calling themselves the Cavalla Kings (after a brand of cigarettes), Kat and his friends become a hit, and within a couple of years they are cutting records and performing in exclusive nightspots throughout South Africa. But the tightening restrictions of Apartheid, along with the inevitable changes that accompany growing up, combine to pull the group apart.

The story is narrated by an older version of Kat, a spry middle-aged man in his late fifties whom we encounter at the start of the show on a street in contemporary Cape Town. He's shining shoes there, so we know right away how Kat's life is going to turn out. And so the sheer joy that Kat and his pals experience as they discover their gifts and make their big (but temporary) splash is tinged with poignancy.

But only a little: the creators of this show never allow us to get maudlin, indeed never stay too long in one place to let us worry about anything. Kat and the Kings bounds from one potent musical number to another with bouyant pleasure. Act One is mostly about the evolution of the young Cavalla Kings, from their earliest impromptu collaboration in a local hangout ("American Thing") through their debut at the Tafelberg Hotel ("Lonely Girl"). These songs resonate with the utter exhilaration of youth.

Act Two finds the group on the road. Its centerpiece is an explosive 20-minute medley of the Kings' greatest hits, an energetic melange of rock 'n' roll pastiche songs alternately peppy ("The Singing Sensation"), silly ("The Invisible Dog"), and sexy ("Hey Baby"). The company tears through this medley with such vibrant passion that the house combusts; I've never seen anything quite like it in a Broadway theatre. And then they follow up this show-stopping sequence, after a brief scene in which the story's loose ends are tied up, with a sensational finale that has the audience clapping, cheering, and on their feet.

Apartheid lingers as subtext throughout Kat and the Kings, giving the show depth. But its real substance comes in the contrast between the omnipresent older Kat and the younger version of himself and his friends, reminding us, touchingly, of the arrogance and the possibilities of youth.

The real business of Kat and the Kings, though, is to entertain the audience, and here it is resoundingly successful. The songs are tuneful and the lyrics are witty, with not a dud in the bunch. Saul Radomsky's costumes are bright and colorful and fun. The choreography, by co-stars Jody Abrahams and Loukmaan Adams, is original and energetic.

And then there's the cast. Each of these six amazing performers can, apparently, do everything: they sing, dance, clown, and act with astonishing flair. Each, too, gets at least one moment in the spotlight: Terry Hector, as the older Kat, cuts the rug vigorously in "If You Shoes Don't Shine"; Alistair Izobell as the goofy Magoo sings in a clear falsetto and executes complicated comic dance moves in numbers like "Blind Date"; Junaid Booysen shines as the Charlie Brown-ish Bingo in the very funny "Josephine"; Kim Louis sings wistfully and powerfully about a time when Apartheid won't exist in the anthemic "Shine"; and Loukmaan Adams as Bingo sings and dances sublimely and effortlessly in numbers like "The Bell Hop."

Jody Abrahams, who plays the Young Kat, is first among equals. In Mr. Abrahams we are witnessing a star in the making: this young man has talent and charisma to burn. Watch him do some impossibly complicated dance steps in a song like "The Singing Sensation," and then watch him work the audience in the sexy number "Hey Baby" and you'll see what I mean.

Enough said: buy your tickets to Kat and the Kings and have a grand time at the show.

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