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The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency’s musical lift-off

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. Amazingly, though, it hasn’t yet been ruined. 

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 lift-off.

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 felonies.

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 Bulawayo.

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 Marotswe
It’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 perfect.”

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 struggles.”

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.

Thumeka Mzayiya.

A story full humour and twists
Since 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 Rosebank team.

“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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