It's unusual for Auckland to get one musical opening in January let alone two but, just days after curtain up on Disney's Aladdin – the Musical, another touring show touches down offering an altogether different experience.

Madiba the Musical tells the story of South Africa's iconic former president Nelson Mandela and, for an extra pull on the heartstrings, throws in a cross-racial romance which personalises the impact of apartheid on ordinary citizens.

We're taken through the highs and lows of Mandela's life as a lawyer, anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner and, of course, president. All is juxtaposed with the love story of young artist Will Xulu and Helena Van Leden, the daughter of the white top cop charged with maintaining – by whatever means necessary – South Africa's apartheid regime.

This bio-musical doesn't have the flashy sets, dazzling costumes and special effects of a blockbuster like Aladdin; its blend of fact and fiction, mix of numerous musical and dance styles and, at times, awkward handling of transitions - there's a breakdancing, rapping narrator who pushes proceedings along in lightweight rhymes – strip the complex story right back so it becomes almost superficial.


Those concerned with authenticity in story-telling may also have an intriguing time dissecting the French musical's origins. Written by Jean-Pierre Hadida and Alicia Sebrien, it arrives in New Zealand after performances in France, North Africa, the West Indies and an Australian tour.

It's been billed as a "unique theatrical experience to lift our spirits" and strangely, despite its failings, it succeeds.

That's largely because of the talented cast, now composed of a number of African Australian entertainers, who turn in energetic and enthusiastic performances and are genuinely committed to a production which, at its heart, is urgently concerned with hope and tolerance in a world where these seem to be in increasingly short supply.

As creator and songwriter Hadida says, it's a hymn to love and democracy and a story about hope in the fight for a new world of modernity and freedom. Could it be more relevant, then?

Perci Moeketsi, the young South African actor given the monumental task of portraying Mandela, says Madiba the Musical is like a book we have to keep reading to remind ourselves of our shared humanity and where we've come from, so we don't end up back in repressive societies split along racial lines.

"We need to keep telling the story, reminding ourselves of how far we have progressed and the need to keep moving so we don't find ourselves back there," he says. "We've got to keep moving forward."

Similarly, Barry Conrad, who nearly steals the show as Will Xulu, says his storyline is especially poignant because his parents – one German Indonesian and the other South African English – faced barriers to their relationship.

"My mother went to protests and rallies and has a story about being chased down the street by a policeman with a baton and having to jump over a fence and on to a train to get away," he says. "My story might be a fictional one but it embodies a lot of what went on."


Conrad, who was born in South Africa came to New Zealand as a teenager and attended Papakura High School before moving to Australia to pursue a career in entertainment. The singer-songwriter made a name for himself as a finalist on The X Factor and is now clocking up a growing list of starring roles in musicals.

He says being part of Madiba the Musical has taught him to check his own behaviour, ensuring he's playing a part in creating a fairer world.

"I keep looking at myself and how I'm treating people because we all have a choice about the way we behave and the capability to be 'good' or 'bad' – if you want to put it like that – and we've had people come up after the show to tell us their stories of what they went through. It's powerful stuff."

What: Madiba the Musical
Where & when: Bruce Mason Centre, January 25 – February 3; Opera House, Wellington February 7 – 10 and Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch February 14 – 17