David Kramer’s Ver in die wêreld Kittie is a beautifully crafted nugget of South African music history brought to life, inspired by the true story of Josef Marais. He is “the international celebrity from Worcester, that no-one remembers”, says David. Josef Marais was born Joseph Pessach in Sir Lowry’s Pass Village, in the Cape. Somewhere along the line, Joseph “courted” (love that term) Lily, the aunt of Renaye (David’s wife). Apparently the family discouraged this romance as they did not hold out much for his prospects as a musician. That is how David connected with the story and from that the extraordinary Ver in die wêreld Kittie emerged.
Ver in die wêreld Kittie, made its debut recently at the 2023 KKNK in in Oudtshoorn [April 1-9, 2023], where it received rapturous reviews and festival nominations. That run was followed by performances in Cape Town at Die Suidoostefrees. I saw it at Suidoostefrees, last weekend [Sunday April 30, 2023] and was spellbound by this special piece of musical theatre. This is theatre of wonder – with an enchanting narrative and beautiful score. The cast is exceptional. The staging is stripped back and articulated with careful fully selected props. Wonderful on-stage band. It is a magnificent piece of musical theatre – the brilliant book (script) is streamlined – without clutter.
Marais was taught piano by his mother and by 19, had scored highly in eisteddfods and competitions. When offered an opportunity to tour with an orchestra, he went to the UK in the 1920s. With the anti-Semitism of the time, his Jewish surname was a barrier for his career. So he re-invented himself as Josef Marais. He was invited by the American networks to work in the USA. There he met Rosa de Miranda, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi occupied Holland with her two children. He hired her as a translator as he was doing work at the South African desk at the Officeof War Information in New York. He discovered that she could sing and they became a successful duo, singing folk music – Afrikaans inspired music- under the name Josef and Miranda. Josef translated the songs into English. They were hugely successful and partied with the glitterati in Hollywood such as Burt Lancaster and Humphrey Bogart in Hollywood. The international hit, Sugarbush (1952) sung by Doris Day and Frankie Laine is attributed to Josef Marais. Many will know the Afrikaans version – “Suikerbossie”.
Marais died in 1978, age 72 in Los Angeles. That is the story -in broad strokes. If one hops onto the internet, one will see that Rosa arrived in the USA, with her husband. That marriage was however failing. She wasn’t alone as depicted in Kittie. In the musical, she arrives in New York, in 1939, having left Holland the day after war broke out in Europe and it was no longer safe as a Jew in Europe.
Marais wrote a book, Koos, the Hottentot: Tales of the Veld, which was published by Knopf in 1945 and David Kramer referenced that in creating Ver in die wêreld Kittie but the musical is a work of art and not a docu-drama musical. It’s memory, heritage, tribute and although inspired by a true story, it goes beyond the legend and evokes many layers – love story, leaving home versus staying and poignantly those left behind. This is the genius of David Kramer – transfiguring a story of the Jewish lad from the Boland into a remarkable piece of musical theatre which transcends biopic and yet retains an essence of homage, tribute and celebration. The story of Josef Marais is told through the lens of those he left behind – a combination of fictional and semi fictional characters. Part of the joy of watching Ver in die wêreld Kittie, is the way the story unfurls and reveals itself, through the eyes of those back home in South Africa. If you have an opportunity to see the show, you may want to stop reading now as this review contains plot spoilers.
The title of Kramer’s musical is actually the title of an old Afrikaans folk song. We see Kittie (a fictional character who grew up on Joseph’s fictional family farm as a servant) who sits and listens by the radio, hearing about Joseph’s success, first his move to Cape Town, then England, and finally America. We see her perception of his apparent abandonment of his family, as he ploughs ahead with his career. Kittie remains on the farm while Josef has his freedom. I won’t reveal how it ends but the song, Ver in die wêreld Kittie provides clues in terms of the concept of freedom, escape and moving out and on– emotional and physical. There is a protagonist, Koos Heuningbek based on a worker on the farm that Josef grew up on. Josef apparently appropriated songs/stories from Koos and we see this “borrowing” from Koos, in the musical.
Ver in die wêreld Kittie is brilliantly cast. Dean Balie is extraordinary as Koos. This is a legend-making performance – with Balie conjuring up Koos the farm labourer/singer/ storyteller – friends as a young boy with Joseph, dancing in his veldskoene and Boland attire, who then leaves the farm in search of his dreams, and a better life, not the one moulded for him by the structures of fruit farming. His intermittent return to see Kittie is juxtaposed against Joseph’s path in life. Rushney Ferguson as Kittie –brings in an achingly elegiac, nuanced portrait. There is so much packed into this character and her journey, even though it really only reveals itself at the end.
Jenny Stead sings and whoah – she is magic as Rosa. This is an extraordinary character- the refugee from Nazi Europe who finds refuge in America and then meets her soul mate, Josef, a Jewish emigre from the Boland who has a meteoric success in the USA. Jenny nails the Dutch accent and segues into Afrikaans: The longing and yearning for her mom, singing on Friday nights at the Steinway piano, while outside the world falls apart, with the impending doom by of the war and the Nazis. Both Josef and Rosa had mothers who taught them piano and there is wonderful sense of tribute to mothers.
André Terblanché as Josef is phenomenal in his rendering of Josef who leaves everyone behind in his quest to find fame and fortune and then digs into the treasure trove of Afrikaans folk music, charming America. I am not familiar with this singer/actor. He is exceptional. It is a joy to watch the development of Josef from South Africa and to his meteoric success. Incredible texturing of voice, character.
I loved the stripped back presentation- sans AV (no audio visual inserts of Boland farms and America Statue of Liberty, thank you). I am not a fan or the inserting of backdrops into musicals and I loved the way the narrative is rendered through the story, music, and songs. Radio is a leitmotif in Ver in die wêreld Kittie. Kittie’s window to the world is radio – sound. It tracks her own story and Joseph’s through that medium. We see as she hears the young Joseph being interviewed on radio at the age 19. We watch her as she listens to him doing his radio shows from New York. It is said that radio is theatre of the mind and this musical emphasises sound, and the silence for the people left behind. We as an audience are invited to imagine and visualise the story, in our own minds. It is also theatre of music – with David Kramer’s stirring score – and the band playing – the riffs of the violin and other instruments, building the melodies.
The costumes by Widaad Albertus enhance and heightens the narrative. We see Josef and Rosa, garbed in clothes that are emblematic of their need to dress for success. Jenny Stead as Rosa wears a simple black, tailored, belted dress, which speaks of aspiration and the need to look put together and look one’s best. We see how Koos does the same, transforming to a nattily dressed man about town, hemmed in only by the colour of his skin. This sense of war-time pride in trying to look good, no matter what, comes across potently in the costumes in Ver in die wêreld Kittie and adds additional layers to this beautiful, wistful and unforgettable story –love, music; memory, home, heritage, cultural appropriation. The production is in Afrikaans and English but even with my less than perfect Afrikaans, I had no problem in following the story. I hope that Ver in die wêreld Kittie goes out into the world of the stage – in South Africa and abroad. It is a piece of theatre with a heart and soul.
✳ Featured image- Rushney Ferguson in David Kramer’s Ver in die wêreld Kittie. Images by Hans van der Veen. Supplied.
Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/preview-david-kramers-ver-in-die-wereld-kittie/