A reviews round-up for new musical Mandela at the Young Vic in London.
Mandela is playing at the Young Vic until 4 February 2023.
The show stars Michael Luwoye (Hamilton) in the title role, with Danielle Fiamanya (Frozen) as Winnie Mandela, and reveals the South African people’s courageous fight for their liberation. For 27 years, Mandela and his comrades sacrificed their freedom and their families paid the price. It is a story of determination, hope and how the world rallied to free him and his people.
The cast also includes Gregory Armand as Vusi, Zion Battles as Bongani, Earl Carpenter as the Prime Minister, Stewart Clarke as the Warden, Hanna Dimtsu as Nomsa, Lerato Gwebu as Adelaide Tambo, Prudence Jezile as Praise Singer, Akmed Junior Khemalai as Walter Sisulu, Blue Makwana as Gugu, Kayleigh McKnight as Barbara, Posi Morakinyo as Thembi Mandela, Sneziey Msomi as Albertina Sisulu/Maki Mandela, Ryan O’Donnell as Joe Slovo, Adam Pearce as Kobus, Shiv Rabheru as Ahmed Kathrada, Will Richardson as Piet, Leanne Robinson as Zindzi Mandela, and Ntsikelelo Nicholas Vani as Oliver Tambo.
Directed by Schele Williams, Mandela has a book by Laiona Michelle, music and lyrics by Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky. Additional music & lyrics are by Bongi Duma, with choreography by Gregory Maqoma, set design by Academy Award winner Hannah Beachler, costume designs by Fay Fullerton, sound design by Paul Gatehouse, lighting design by Tony Award and Olivier Award winner Jon Clark, orchestration and musical supervision by Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and casting by Pippa Ailion CDG and Natalie Gallacher CDG. Completing the creative team are Associate Choreographer Dickson Mbi, Assistant Director Becca Chadder, Associate Set Designer Debbie Duru, Associate Music Director Sam Young and Associate Casting Director Richard Johnston.
More reviews to follow.
"A storming celebration of the human spirit"
"When the entire cast is in full, roaring voice it’s overwhelming"
"This musical biopic of South Africa’s great unifying leader is a storming celebration of the human spirit and the human voice. It’s not easy to portray a secular saint on stage – especially if you’re working “in proud partnership” with his family – but the creators manage it, and Broadway star Michael Luwoye brings force and charisma to the part."
"There are times when the show’s pleasing simplicity becomes simplistic and the second half is stronger than the first. But when Luwoye, Danielle Fiamanya’s Winnie Mandela or the entire cast are in full, roaring voice it’s overwhelming. What a coup for the Young Vic to secure this world premiere."
"Bland musical says little about Mandela"
"The great man surely deserved better than this. It’s always going to be a challenge to weave a musical around the life of Nelson Mandela. How to avoid bland hagiography? And how to fill the enormous blank space represented by his decades of imprisonment on Robben Island? The South African songwriting team of the brothers Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky don’t come close to solving the problem in this anodyne show."
"[Michael] Luwoye strikes dignified poses but this visionary is just about as inscrutable as a face on a banknote."
"Mandela’s colleagues in the ANC, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo (played by Akmed Junior Khemalai and Ntsikelelo Nicholas Vani) are ciphers. Danielle Fiamanya has stage presence as Winnie Mandela, but her descent into township gangster, which is the stuff of authentic tragedy, only gets fleeting treatment."
"Tribute to the great freedom fighter is simplistic, but blazingly performed"
"... the book, by Laiona Michelle (creator of the Nina Simone musical Little Girl Blue), is a plodding hagiography with few insights and very little texture. It’s disconcerting to see such important and relatively recent history rendered so flatly cartoonish. Nor does Schele Williams’ production, oddly lacking in impetus, properly achieve the stature or gravitas it needs to match the power of the story’s events. What redeems it is Gregory Maqoma’s stomping, sinuous choreography, and the talent and commitment of the cast. The singing – even though the songs don’t always merit it – is stunning, and there are moments when the energy blazing from the stage feels nothing short of incendiary."
"A technically thrilling production can’t conceal this Nelson Mandela musical’s baffling disinterest in its subject"
"How did this happen? How can presumably hundreds of people have seen this musical in development and remained steadfastly unconcerned about the fact it barely has a plot, and has ascribed negligible personality, background or even centrality of focus to its nominal lead character of Nelson Mandela, probably the single most revered politician of the twentieth century?"
"There is a lot of talent on display in Schele Williams’s surely Broadway-intendes production. Greg Dean and Shaun Borowsky’s Xhosa-chased choral songs are a refreshing and often exhilarating alternative to pat showtunes, even if the score is ludicrously overwrought at times: it intrudes loudly upon every scene, taking up space that really should have gone to dialogue, and I can't see how anybody could defend the preposterous ‘80s-style rock guitar less good. Gregory Maqoma’s aerobic choreography gives it a kinetic, free-flowing dynamism, a sense of perpetual motion, plus thrilling moments when individual dancers break out and claim the stage."
"A Madiba musical with fridge-magnet philosophy"
"A strong cast cannot conceal the thinness of this superficial account of South Africa’s great liberator"
"This musical about the extraordinary life of the South African freedom-fighter turned statesman promises so much. Backed by members of his family, it is led by Broadway talent including Michael Luwoye in the lead role and director Schele Williams. And it begins powerfully, with the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 when peaceful protest was brutally ended by machine gunfire and dozens of deaths. But for a two-and-a-half-hour production it is astonishing how little we learn about the main players, from Madiba to the African National Congress colleagues who surrounded him, as well as Winnie Mandela and their children."
"The central performances are as strong as they can be given the material, and both Fiamanya and Luwoye’s voices brim with power, as do those of the chorus. But that is simply not enough and this feels like a thoroughly missed opportunity."
"Mandela’s inspiring words ring out in song – but this new musical has nothing to say"
"The Young Vic premieres an uneven tribute to Nelson Mandela, which gets bogged down in domestic strife"
"The show has, I hate to say it, too many dispiriting flaws, but equally it recaps his inspiring story in ways that can’t help but move us. There are moments when you hear the great man’s words and the hairs stand in thrilled salute on the back of your neck."
"At its best, especially in the second half, the show, composed with lyrics in English, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans by (white) South African brothers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, achieves an exhilarating sense of how his singular, undaunted eloquence united with a groundswell of passion in his people, expressed through defiant song and dance, to become a cultural force capable of sweeping away a savage order."
"Every time Gregory Maqoma’s blistering, foot-stomping choreography moves centre stage, Schele Williams’s production thrillingly connects us to a world of churning hope, despair – and rage. The perplexing frustration is that the Borowksys keep slowing the momentum with a surfeit of samey ballads of generic plaintiveness."
"Mandela at the Young Vic has exhilarating choreography but insufficient depth"
"... it’s a musical with huge political import and resonance for the present day — it could be one of the events of the year. That it misses that mark is largely down to a curious detachment from its main subject. You depart from this show with little sense of having got close to Mandela the man, to his thinking or to what went on in his heart and mind during those 27 years of imprisonment. Neither do you get any detail about his African National Congress colleagues."
"Where the show does soar is in suggesting the spread of the protest movement, both in South Africa and wider afield, and the galvanising effect of Mandela’s dignified example. Schele Williams’s fluid direction creates expressive tableaux on Hannah Beachler’s open set, which tells its own story: a glowing sky framed by barbed wire. And despite limited characterisation, Michael Luwoye brings immense gravitas to Mandela and Danielle Fiamanya a sense of inner turmoil to Winnie."
"A new Mandela musical can’t do the great man justice"
"I have seldom seen a show that began with such vitality and which waned so rapidly."
"The promise evaporates as Schele Williams’s production moves from protest into history."
"Music and lyrics meander along not fused, not propelled one by the other, sometimes barely coinciding."
"As Mandela, Michael Luwoye, who played the title role in Hamilton on Broadway, is sonorous, imposing. Yet Laiona Michelle’s script suggests none of the agility and intellectual heft that made Mandela not only a leader but a commanding lawyer and negotiator."
"Musical fails to bring us closer to the political great"
"There are heartfelt moments, but should this be a musical? I’m not convinced"
"It’s safe to say that if Mandela is to have further iterations beyond this world premiere, a lot of work needs to be done, above all on Laiona Michelle’s bland book."
"Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky’s music offers a beguiling if generic soundtrack of the seductive rhythms of South Africa – it’s a glorious noise when the large cast sings in unison – to which choreographer Gregory Maqoma has the actors dance with foot-stomping conviction."
"The impact of Mandela’s country-shaping and world-changing political struggle on his own family is the most fruitful area of inquiry in Schele Williams’s production and it is Danielle Fiamanya’s Winnie who shines most brightly."
"New Musical Biography Drowns in Good Intentions"
"Delivering songs demanding freedom not only for the characters but the whole country under apartheid, the impassioned cast of the new musical “Mandela” (now premiering at the Young Vic in London) perform with invigorating sincerity. Their full-throated singing is terrific. But telling the story of how one man’s personal and political stand changed South Africa forever requires a lot more than generic ballads and anthems of hopes and dreams. And while thinness of script has rarely been a bar to bio-musical success, in something as potentially vital as this, the woefully limp writing only serves to prove one thing: It’s possible to drown in good intentions."
"Yet even newcomers are likely to be left short-changed by writer Laiona Michelle’s explanatory yet superficial book, whose snapshot scenes almost always serve as little more than (often lumpen) exposition plus song cues, proceeding from one story staging post to the next with, for the most part, “I feel/I want” songs attached. Shorn of specifics, the true sentiment of Mandela’s extraordinary story turns to sentimentality..."
"The great man deserves something far more pithy and trenchant."