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Hilary Prendini Toffoli
18 Sep 2015 12:37
Zoliswa Kawe as Mma Ramotswe and Apollo Ntshoko as her suitor and later husband JLB Matekoni.
Every bestseller you read, it seems someone has to go and turn it into something else and maybe wreck it. The No.
1 Ladies Detective
Agency — Alexander McCall Smith’s series of 15 novels revolving around the most
unlikely private investigator on the planet — has been endlessly adapted for
television, radio and even the internet.
Now we are getting the singing version. Will a musical succeed in capturing the naive poetic charm
of this idiosyncratic little gem about a big-hearted woman — “traditionally
built” as she always describes herself — who, using the money from the sale of
cattle left to her by her father, is spunky enough to open her own detective agency, without any experience?
Things look distinctly hopeful, in fact. The show is being
put together by a great team which includes Josh Hawks, wonderkid of South
Africa’s internationally acclaimed Afro-fusion band Freshlyground. This prodigy
has come to the party with 12 tunes. African dance songs. Reggae. Maskandi.
Ballads. Pioneer-style jazz. Already, that gives the musical a rocking
The tricky bit is going to be conveying the uniquely buoyant
spirit not only of Botswana, where the stories are set, but also of the
enormously engaging and now world-famous heroine, Precious Ramotswe. An
intriguing combination of strength and sweetness, who always retains a sense a
humour and never allows herself to succumb to despair no matter how sad the
circumstances, this lady manages to land up in some outlandish stretches of
cultural turf. Crimes she handles include some very quirky very African
Alexander McCall Smith. (Reuters)
Fortunately McCall Smith’s masterpiece is in the hands of a
South African theatrical guru he trusts implicitly. He and Nicholas Ellenbogen are
old mates. In the Sixties they rode to school together on their bikes every day
In Ellenbogen’s lustrous and lengthy career he and his
theatre partner wife Liz have done it all, creating small indigenous theatre
companies all across southern Africa. Their more than 150 unique productions include an exposé of
the illegal ivory trade, and a riot of a long-playing series, Raiders of the
Lost Aardvark, which was the top show in Grahamstown for two decades. They’ve
even put on a play for Queen Elizabeth.
A sassy Mma MarotsweIt’s 10 years since Ellenbogen and McCall Smith first
started working on a musical version of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
Ellenbogen says he wanted to stage it as soon as he had finished reading the
first book. “Then came the Weinstein brothers who did the film series and tied
the brand of Mma Marotswe up in fine print. For seven years we battled to get
the stage rights. Thanks to Alexander’s persistence we at last got permission
to do it in South Africa.”
They’ve found themselves a wonderfully sassy Mma Marotswe:
the velvet-voiced Zoliswa Kawe, who has a string of acting roles to her credit,
on television and on stage.
“I had the great joy of working with Zoliswa early in her
career, albeit on Shakespeare,” says Ellenbogen. “She’s a gifted actress full
of energy. Add to that, she sings a lot of jazz with various bands. She’s
Some of her theatre work has been heavyweight stuff, but
she’s enjoying the change of pace playing Precious Ramotswe: “What I love about
her is how positive she is. She’s an inspiring woman, optimistic about life in
spite of the heartache she experienced losing her father, who was everything to
her, and marrying an abusive husband who left her and took everything she
worked for. But still she kept her head high. Most women can relate to her
She’s playing opposite Apollo Ntshoko, a man of many parts
whom she describes as “a beautiful singer and actor” in the role of Mma
Ramotswe’s suitor and later husband, JLB Matekoni.
Thumeka Mzayiya plays the detective agency’s prickly
secretary Mma Grace Makutsi, and Sean Smith plays Mma Ramotswe’s abusive
ex-husband, the smartly dressed jazz trumpeter Note Mokoti.
A story full humour and twistsSince the Ellenbogens’ Rosebank Theatre is too small for a
10-person musical, it will be staged in the Belmond Mount Nelson, where they
successfully staged Summer of 46 this year. “Marketing musicals takes huge
budgets,” says Ellenbogen, “but we have a partnership with the hotel. The
staging and costumes are all put together with hard work and risk by the
“The audience will come out of this show feeling good. It’s
a story full of humour and twists. It’s about the Africa that we love and that
the cynics deny. We all love to see a detective solve a case or five. We love
to see good triumph over evil. We love to see two people falling in love. We
love to hear songs we can sing ourselves.
“I think Cape Town deserves a No. 1 Lady every summer. This
is a show the whole family can enjoy. And where better than the Belmond Mount
Nelson? Tag on high tea or a fabulous meal in the Planet Restaurant and you
have a wonderful chance to celebrate Africa.”
The show’s 12-week Cape Town run starts on October 6. After
that it goes to Johannesburg and, possibly, the world.
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