REVIEW: King Kong -- 1961 London Cast
You can all breathe a sigh of relief. Aside from the title, this show has absolutely nothing in common with the much-lambasted ape-puppet extravaganza that recently opened on Broadway. This King Kong was a landmark piece of theatre in apartheid-era South Africa, and is a biographical musical based on the life of heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, whose nickname in the ring was -- yes -- King Kong. The show premiered at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg in 1959, and was produced in London in 1961. Thanks to the invaluable Stage Door Records, it's the London production's cast album we have here, packaged with selections from the original South African recording and three covers of numbers from the show.
The show tells a dark, violent story -- Dlamini's spectacular rise to fame was followed by an equally spectacular downfall, and he eventually committed suicide in a prison camp after receiving a fifteen-year sentence for the murder of his girlfriend -- but Todd Matshikiza and Pat Williams's score, which they billed as a jazz opera, is not necessarily quite what you'd expect from reading the synopsis (there's an invaluable synopsis included in this release's excellent CD booklet, along with useful liner notes describing the show's somewhat unusual journey to the stage). The show is packed with memorable numbers, from the insistently catchy title song to the lovely Back of the Moon. The choral writing is especially striking, and so are the instrumental passages, and there are fine, characterful leading performances from all of the leads, and especially from Nathan Mdledle in the title role and Peggy Phango as Joyce, the woman he loves and eventually murders.
There's a shot of real star power in the tracks from the original South African recording, in which the role of Joyce was played by a very young Miriam Makeba, whose takes on Back of the Moon and Quickly in Love are tracks you'll want to hear over and over again. So, come to that, are Elaine Delmar's covers of Back of the Moon and The Earth Turns Over, which are included as bonus tracks; the third bonus track, an instrumental cover of the irrepressibly bouncy title song by Terry Lightfoot's New Orleans Jazzmen, is a two-and-a-half minute shot of pure delight.
The piece itself, on the evidence of this compilation, is well worth another look. It carries a certain amount of historical weight with it -- in 1959 it was more or less unheard-of for black and white South Africans to collaborate as equals on a piece of theatre -- but beyond the historical significance of the material and the original production, it's simply a wonderful collection of songs.
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King Kong - 1961 Original London Cast King Kong - 1961 South Africa Cast King Kong Pat Williams Miriam Makeba Peggy Phango Nathan Mdledle Terry Lightfoot Todd Matshikiza King Kong Back of the Moon The Earth Turns over Quickly in Love Toggle Additional (10)