Cathy Specific made her stage debut at Sandton’s Theatre on the Square last year, causing something of a stir in the Joburg theatre scene. Her show combined witty (and sometimes rather crass) anecdotes about the experience of working as an air hostess with popular stage musical numbers.

Mile High, while achieving a successful run, was hampered by a small budget and the even smaller venue where it was born (which barely managed to accommodate the Amazonian Cathy and her two dancers and captain.) Still, few doubted that the show heralded the arrival of a major talent: the man behind the makeup – former air-steward Brendan Van Rhyn.

Van Rhyn then went on to star as the semi-drag Frank N. Furter to universal acclaim in the massively successful run of The Rocky Horror Show at the Victory Theatre, also directed by Cathy’s co-creator, veteran Maralin Vanrenen. While embroiled in the day-to-day task of putting on Rocky Horror, the two (who wrote Mile High together) plotted to return Cathy in a bigger and better showcase.

The result is Mile High with Cathy Specific: The Jumbo Edition, now on at Victory Theatre in Joburg. If you’ve seen the original Mile High you’ll recognise much on offer; this is not an entirely new show, but a re-vamped and re-worked version of last year’s production. But, despite re-using much of what had gone before, The Jumbo Edition is a vastly superior outing and a much more enjoyable experience.

There are a few new numbers, better choreography, new costumes and more supporting cast members, but at the centre of it all is Van Rhyn as Cathy. Unlike the majority of drag acts in South Africa, Van Rhyn is a talented trained singer and thus belts out the musical numbers like it’s nobody’s business.

Don’t however confuse The Jumbo Edition with a traditional drag act; this is a well-crafted piece that seems to have every intention of eventually evolving into a full-blown musical. Van Rhyn’s experience performing as Frank N. Furter has benefited his confidence and he commands the stage as the statuesque Cathy. Be warned, she has quite a potty mouth, so prepare mom before bringing her along.

The songs, most from well known musicals, include Come Fly With Me, Maybe This Time (Cabaret), Be Our Guest (Beauty and the Beast), and That’s Entertainment (The Band Wagon). Their lyrics have been adapted to humorously reflect the airline-theme and the topics covered in the show. Together with Van Rhyn’s sharp delivery, these illicit a regular flow of laughs from the audience.

Cathy is ably supported by a small band and six backup singers and dancers, including the very funny Sean Redpath and Phumi Mncayi (who appeared in the original show), that also take on the roles of various passengers.

The show has some weaknesses. For one, it can’t decide whether it wants us to acknowledge that we are watching a man in drag or whether it wants to sustain the illusion of Cathy being a ‘real’ female character. This creates a little unevenness in the flow of the piece and in the consistency of the characterisation of Cathy.

While the choreography by Vicky Friedman works effectively, the supporting cast could do with a little tightening up in the dance sequences. More discipline in this area would make a considerable difference in the slickness of the whole show.

My biggest gripe remains with the closing part of The Jumbo Edition; a weakness brought across from the original Mile High. While the show effectively binds together the various sequences and songs with the airline concept, it abandons this theme towards the end and simply becomes a medley of Broadway numbers (performed by Cathy in a particular tacky red number). While this is still entertaining it seems unconnected to the rest of the show and jars.

Mile High with Cathy Specific: The Jumbo Edition may have a few rough edges to be smoothed, but it remains a fantastically performed musical comedy cabaret that will entertain and engage you. Cathy Specific’s antics should not be missed: you may well regret not meeting the queen of the skies.

Mile High with Cathy Specific: The Jumbo Edition is on at the Victory Theatre for a limited season until 15 November 2008. Book at Compuicket.

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