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Sarafina!

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Though it has its detractors, including me on several occasions, musical theater remains one hell of an amazing thing. Oh sure, some of it can be insipid or pedestrian or pandering. But even then, the kitsch only proves the enormous scope of an art form containing material about murderous, cannibalism-enabling barbers (Sweeney Todd), the amorality of all humanity (Three Penny Opera) or, pertinent to this review, life under a brutal apartheid regime.

Mbongeni Ngema's 1988 Broadway hit Sarafina! tells the story of the 1976 Soweto uprisings through the eyes of South African schoolchildren caught in the crossfire. The show, which Ngema originally cast with unknown South African teen-agers, played in Pretoria briefly, and to huge acclaim. Then suddenly it was whisked off to New York, where it ran for almost two years and inspired an early 1990s film starring Whoopie Goldberg.

Now Sarafina! is in Pittsburgh, in a new production by Kuntu Repertory Theatre. It's not too terribly difficult to understand its enormous, international appeal -- for behind the tear gas and the terror and the murder, Sarafina! is a celebration of youthful enthusiasm, idealism and just plain joy. It helps, too, to know that Nelson Mandela would become president of South Africa only six years after the show debuted.

The title character is a headstrong, politically savvy young woman who, even after spending her whole life with that murderous regime bearing down on her, has never lost the simple and profound belief that she has the right, if not the duty, to live. In fact, Sarafina believes that just living as who and what she is is the most revolutionary act of all.

There's a bit of a plot, but Sarafina! is really more of a musical collage about life in Soweto and of a generation yearning to be free. The show erupts with humor and heart, thanks in no small part to Ngema's infectious, expressive score.

Whatever else it may lack, the Kuntu production, under the direction of Olusegun Ojewuyi, has the ability to erupt with the same passion and energy. This very, very large cast (24!) is to be commended for attacking the piece, and the eye-popping choreography by Oronde Sharif and Candice Smith, with such conviction, force and talent. Decked out in Mary Mease Warren's defining costumes, Kuntu's Sarafina! has plenty to offer an audience, not the least of which is Mamothena Carol Mothupi as Sarafina. This kid's got talent to burn.

I saw the show on opening night and, I have to report, there were technical mishaps aplenty and a curious start-and-stop quality to the flow of the evening. I must make an especial mention of a second-rate sound system that, unfortunately, renders at least the first act almost completely unintelligible.

But then musicals are legendary for just such sort of problems. If they get them ironed out, this Sarafina! will be a treasure.

Sarafina! continues through Feb. 10. University of Pittsburgh Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. 412-624-7298.

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