Musicals take centre stage ahead of holiday festivities

When Eric Wainaina and Sheba Hirst of Rainmaker Productions came up with the notion of an NBO Musical Theatre Initiative (NBO MTI) nearly two years ago, they set in motion a tidal wave of creativity that has been rocking the Nairobi theatre world ever since.

Imagining that no less than 11 original Kenyan musicals could be conceived, composed, scripted, cast and finally completed by a band of brilliant Kenyan creatives by 2020, their plan was ambitious but do-able. It’s had help from friends like Roberta Levitow (from the Sundance Theatre Institute and Theatre without Borders) and Fred Carl and Deborah Brevoart (from New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Programme) who’ve given workshops on the art of crafting musical theatre.

All 11 musicals are still ‘works in progress’. “But when we received the Kampala invitation, we didn’t want to pass it up,” says Roberta who has been involved in producing plays and musicals through Sundance everywhere from the US and UK to the Middle East, North and East Africa.

Having been in rehearsal all last week at Brookhouse School, the four fresh new shows that went to Uganda early this week are Pani Puri (a marvellous inter-ethnic love story), Gospel of Apostle Dennis (about a charismatic charlatan), Weaver Bird (based on the life of Field Marshall Muthoni Kirima) and Kabaseke (about the brilliant East African musician).

In addition to Roberta, the award-winning South African actor, musician and director, Lesedi Job has been advising the four teams, including directors Wanjiru Mwawuganga, Mugambi Nthige, the troupe’s associate producer Karishma Bhagani and of course, Eric and Sheba. The four musicals will be performing throughout the weekend at Ndere Cultural Centre and Uganda Museum.

Meanwhile, this weekend and next will also be rich with original performances. On Saturday from 7pm, the Origins Dance Company will perform Unflow at Alliance Francaise. The new contemporary dance troupe is made up of a dozen dance instructors, alumni and several students of The Academy of Dance and Art in Karen.

“All of Origins’ members are trained mainly in classical ballet, modern ballet, contemporary, jazz and African-fusion,” says Arnie who co-founded the company with Juliet Duckworth.

Unflow is an environmental dance, reflective of the company’s concern for the planet’s severe problem of marine pollution, particularly by plastics. The dance has been choreographed by Origins’ co-artistic directors Arnie Umayan and Juliet Duckworth, with recycled plastic artworks provided by Joan Otieno and Lara Kate Ray hung outside AF’s auditorium.

Even the costumes have been made out of recycled plastic, according to Arnie who has been with The Academy for the last four years.

Finally, this Sunday, December 1, Dance Centre Kenya (DCK) is performing its Fifth edition of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at Oshwal Centre at 1pm and 4:30pm. The following weekend the Christmas ballet will be staged both Saturday and Sunday at the Kenya National Theatre.

The Gala Night will be on Saturday, December 7, when DCK’s artistic director Cooper Rust will have returned from South Carolina where she had been invited to co-star in another performance of The Nutcracker, playing the Sugar Plum Fairy opposite her former student, Laurence Ogina who will dance the part of the Snow Cavalier. These were the same roles they performed last year in DCK’s fourth edition of The Nutcracker.

Laurence, who is currently an engineering student at the University of South Carolina, and one of the many DCK student beneficiaries of the NGO that Cooper founded, Artists for Africa (AFA). The NGO has assisted students with tuition and also helped to facilitate some of them coming from low-income areas to attend dance seminars in the US, particularly in South Carolina where Cooper is originally from.

This year’s Nutcracker is special as it is being staged for the first time with live music by Tchaikovsky, performed by the Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the award-winning American conductor Jonathan T. Rush who is a guest artist. Other invited musicians who will perform with the Orchestra this year are 13 professional musicians coming from New York, Chicago and Berlin. In all, the Orchestra will be 38 musicians, including 25 Kenyans. They will be accompanied by a children’s choir from Ghetto Classics a community-based programme from Korogocho, another low-income estate.

This year’s Sugar Plum Fairy will be played by Kayla Hotz and the Snow Cavalier by George Okoth.

Finally, December 13th and 14th, Three’s Company of Mike and Ciru James and Chris Coutinho will be performing Seasonings Greetings in between a sumptuous three-course Christmas meal at MatBronze Café.

Featured Phooto: LAM SISTERS with Roberta Levitow. | by MARGARETTA WA GACHERU