Ali Harper’s Circa Theatre tribute to the extraordinary Carole King

Carole King  – A Natural Woman

Ali Harper (vocals)
With Nick Granville (guitar), Scott Maynard (bass), Francis Meria (piano)
and Francis Leota (guest singer).

Producer(s) – Ali Harper, Iain Cave (Ali-Cat Productions)
Music arrangements – Tom Rainey
Lighting, sound design and operator – Rich Tucker
Costume design – Roz Wilmott-Dalton, Ali Harper

Circa Theatre, I Taranaki St., Wellington

Saturday 22nd January

If you’re like me, you’ll still have a headful of songs playing away in your cerebral jukebox which instantly bring back nostalgic memories of different eras, but in many cases have neglected the “fine detail” of actually knowing who WROTE some of these songs…….well, if that’s so, then singer Ali Harper’s latest presentation “A Natural Woman” at Circa Theatre (which opened on Saturday night) is a “must see” for you!

The music and its presentation here felt for me like a series of oceanic currents which caught me up and swept me along through music’s wider vistas, leaving me at the end somewhat dumbfounded at both the force and unexpected variety of songwriter Carole King’s creative genius. Of course I knew her name (automatically bracketing her with Jerry Goffin, her husband and writer of her song’s lyrics for almost twenty years of her career, up to 1968), and was certainly aware of her most famous recording, the album “Tapestry”, which appeared in 1971 (but which I never bought or got to know, to my great regret, being too enamoured of her friend Joni Mitchell’s music at the time). But what I didn’t grasp was the extent to which King wrote songs that other people made famous – or made other people famous!

I could go through Ali Harper’s show and pinpoint the epiphanous (both retrospective and “then-and-now”) moments, but thought I would leave such delights of belated recognition for those, like myself, who relish such things in situ apart from the ones I simply HAVE to mention! Of course, to Carole King’s fans, aware of her far-reaching and resonating influence, each song Harper presented here was a gem, to be re-exhibited and relished all over again, including several I didn’t really know, and therefore couldn’t, in perhaps the show’s most touching moment, respond to the singer’s ready invitation to “join in” with the lyrics of “You’ve got a friend”, which was also a hit for King’s colleague James Taylor in 1971. Now, had I bought that “Tapestry” LP back in the 1970s (along with those Joni Mitchell albums!) I would have been able to sing along with the rest!

Harper opened her show in atmospheric style, with a sultry rendition of the opening words of one of King’s most iconic songs “I feel the earth move” (the song that opened her “Tapestry” LP), then gradually and excitingly building up the music’s trajectories with the help of her accompanying musicians into that captivating state of physicality that’s part of her work’s whole-heartedness. Harper’s generous acknowledgements of the contributions made by pianist Francis Mena, guitarist Nick Granville and bassist Scott Maynard throughout the evening drew attention to the occasion’s celebration of musicianship per se in a way one couldn’t help feeling King herself would have very much endorsed and enjoyed.

This show largely followed the format and style of a previous Ali Harper “special” featuring the life and work of songwriter Burt Bacharach, though a significant difference was that the musical accompaniments here were generated “live”, with, midway through the show’s first half, another singer added to the vocal mix, the sweet-voiced Francis Leota, duetting with Harper in some of the numbers, and adding to the vocal support provided by the band throughout. As with Bacharach, Harper could use her subject’s songwriting output as material illustrating the latter’s lifestory; though King’s activities (however belated) as a performer of her own songs enlarged in scope the means by which her “presence” was evoked. Ali herself took over the piano for the accompaniment of one of King’s songs, “Lay Down My Life”, remarking wryly at the number’s end that it was the first occasion on which she had accompanied a song on the piano on a stage, and that she had a further 25 shows to get her fingers properly into shape before the season’s end!

Apart from the pleasures of composer-discovery in the case of a number of well-known songs, I was as intrigued by hearing a number of King’s compositions I didn’t know at all and really liked – I’ve already mentioned the heartfelt strains of “You’ve got a Friend” – and responded with, firstly, as much relish to the Joni-Mitchell-like “At this time in my life” as to the later and more confident “Natural Woman”, and then to the deeply-touching “Child of Mine”, a beautiful meditation on the significance of parenthood – all performed by Harper (the latter a vocal collaboration with Francis Leota) with a certain frisson resonating further as Harper spoke of her own admiration for King and her singular qualities of courage and determination in the face of life’s difficulties.

The show’s title “A Natural Woman” summed up this sympathetic and squarely-faced portrayal of King throughout her various career, taking in her stride significant personal highlights and setbacks, and bringing out  the heartfelt, almost confessional nature of her songwriting, and subsequently her performances. The breakup of her first marriage to Jerry Goffin was a turning-point for King, leading her reluctantly to focus on building a parallel career as a performer, to which end the release of “Tapestry” in 1971 succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, topping the US sales charts for a record-breaking fifteen weeks. In it she repossessed some of her own songs such as “It’s Too Late” and “Will you love me Tomorrow”.  And, three subsequent marriages produced altogether four children for King, here giving the song “Child of Mine” an extra fillip of emotion in its significance.

Harper’s was, for me, more of a retrospective tribute to Carole King than a re-evocation of her as an on-stage personality – I was a little surprised at this, considering the effect of her incredibly moving recreation of another icon, Doris Day, in an earlier show, in which we seemed to be taken right into Day’s world with Harper herself on that occasion seemingly infused with her subject’s charismatic persona. Here, conversely, she seemed to take pains to emphasise parallel worlds of then and now, telling us, for example, that King’s record-breaking release “Tapestry” appeared the year that she, Harper, was born. True, the dresses Harper wore (a different one for each half) seemed to me most apposite, straight from the ‘70s, and whose effect augmented those moments when in direct vocal flight the singer seemed suitably (and satisfyingly) possessed with her subject’s singular focus, one triumphantly embodied by the title given to the evening’s presentation.

Sadly, the advent of the Omicron virus would seem to already indicate a marked effect upon A Natural Woman’s season, with future shows (at time of writing) continuing to require vaccine passes and face masks, but also limiting audience numbers per performance, due to social distancing. The performances are scheduled to run until February 22nd, so people who intend to go (or have already booked) should contact Circa for updates and clarification without delay.

To Ali Harper and her colleagues, on- and off-stage, all the best for the show’s continuance under these trying circumstances! To my mind, both the material and the performances fully deserve whatever interest and attention is still possible!


“Roxy” at Te Auaha, from WITCH Music Theatre – a whirl of visceral impressions from Tinseltown’s golden age of movie musicals

Witch Music Theatre and Te Auaha presents:
ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret

Featuring: Nick Erasmuson, Jason Chasland, Emily Burns, Bailea Twomey, Aine Gallagher, Jade Merematira, William Duignan, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Zane Berghuis, Rebecca Ansell, Lane Corby, Jared Pallesen, Pippa Drakeford, Patrick Jennings, Katy Pakinga, Glenn Horsfall, Rachel Te Tau, Allegra Canton, Thomas Laybourn, Karli Holdren, Björn Aslund, Emily McDermott, Jackson Cordery

Musicians: Sue Windsor, Steve ‘Shack’ Morrison, Rachael Hinds, Bec Watson, Emma Salzano, Jonathan Woolley, Zane Berghuis, Ben Hunt, Brendan Agnew, Fynn Bodley-Davies

Directed by Ben Emerson and Greta Casey-Solly
Music directed and Arranged by Hayden Taylor
Choreography by Greta Casey-Solly, Leigh Evans and Briar Franks
Costume Design by Emma Stevens
Set and Technical Design by Joshua Tucker
Lighting Design by Shanell Bielawa
Sound Design by Patrick Barnes
Produced by WITCH Charitable Trust – Briar Franks, Joshua Tucker, Charlotte Potts, Patrick Jennings and Ben Emerson

Te Auaha, 65 Dixon St., Poneke (Wellington)

Wednesday, 8th December, 2021

“Reimagining the Golden Age of the Silver Screen” ran the blurb announcing ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret, a no-holds-barred delivery of a collection of classic movie-musical hits, which certainly lived up to its publicity in terms of its sheer visceral impact – “…a rip-roaring revue, fuelled by an exhilarating fusion of musical theatre, drag, dance and circus” indeed. The directors of the show, Greta Casey-Solly and Ben Emerson described working on this production as putting together “a liberating love-letter to movie musicals, the world of entertainment, and a collective celebration for Wellington Musical Theatre”, continuing the high-impact trademark of WITCH production “Love-letter” tributes to genres and eras, in this case “some of Hollywood’s most memorable musical moments, prolific people and the unforgettable tales of Tinseltown”.

At the outset, we were casually, even voyeuristically drawn into an unmistakably cabaret setting, with dancers waiting for the cameras to roll and the band to strike up and galvanise a growing air of expectancy. Though from where I was sitting I found Nick Erasmuson’s voice as the eponymous “Roxy” difficult to understand at times, his energetic “drag” characterisation never flagged, and his “Get Happy” with the dancers developed plenty of charisma. As the programme didn’t match the characters’ names with the items each one performed I had little idea regarding who was singing what, but “Almost like Being in Love” introduced a singer who began the number sweetly, allowing us some welcome dynamic variation, though the orchestra and soloists let rip with the following “Big Spender”, the burlesque-like figurations being given plenty of “grunt”, building the number’s suggestive crescendi towards tidal-wave overbreakings.

There was certainly nothing half-hearted about Hayden Taylor’s arrangements or his direction of the songs, even if I felt the volume levels seemed too ready to push the needle into the red, giving an unrelieved effect too quickly in places. For this reason I welcomed the “Singin” in the Rain” number, enjoying the cool quirkiness of the singers armed with unopened umbrellas, and the “rain” being represented by snow-flakes! A “wanabe” girl turned up next, advancing a kind of story, being told “Show us what you’ve got” and re-entering in a tight red dress, flanked by snappy choreography from the dance ensemble for “The 20th Century Fox Mambo” – foot-tapping stuff! I hadn’t heard “We’re in the Money” for many years, and the solo vocalist excitingly built the song into something of a “screamer”, producing some fantastically “zinging” high notes!

A “blonde bombshell” soloist appropriately informed us in suitably raunchy accents that “Diamonds are a Girl’s best Friend”, emphasising the character’s brashness as much as her seductiveness, but generating plenty of energy, and impressively morphing into the dance-troupe’s movements – excellent choreography, readily capturing the eye! The next song “Black and Gold” was marred in places by a bass line that frequently “ballooned” as if over-modulating, and inhibiting the soloist’s voice at first until she “found” a different register and made her presence felt – though her triumph was short-lived, as she had to compete with a sensational turn from an acrobat who, far above the stage-floor, floated, bounced and rolled on and around two hanging strands of material, the dare-devilness of it all quite upstaging the singer (who got her revenge by brandishing a pistol, and shooting the hapless high-wire performer when he once again reached terra firma)!

I didn’t know any of the first half’s last three numbers, the final item bluesy and with a terrific “swing”, unashamedly cranking up the sounds’ physicality, the ensemble making the most of the “first-half-closer” licence to bring the house down with “Push da Button”, everybody working at full throttle, and leaving us breathless with such all-pervading displays of energy.

The second half began more promisingly with a “cool’ beat depicting a sultry atmosphere! – people moving around, setting the stage for the well-known Ann Miller original/”Kiss me Kate” number, “Too Darn Hot”, a great introduction and building up with plenty of dynamic variation – though the upping of the tempo ironed out the subtleties the singing remained focused and the dancing took me back to the “swing” of the original show – a great start to the half! The return of the athletic acrobat provided more breath-taking diversion, before the entry of the “new starlet” from Act One gave us a song “Movin On”, with great singing, and choreography to match.

I liked the “fetching couple” cameo act of MC Nick Erasmuson with his partner, framed by the dancers’ creatively eating and playing with popcorn while watching “Science Fiction, Double Feature” – its relative stasis emphasising the volcanic energies of the boys’ number that followed – “Don’t say yes until I finish talking” – the joys of an entertainment producer! Nothing, however, prepared us for the onslaught that followed in the guise of “The Hot Dog Song”, the incredibly raunchy portrayal of the singer “knowed no bounds of taste or decency”, in keeping with the total abandonment of the presentation and its subject, a “tour de force” of unashamedly risqué expression!

I thought the accompanying energy levels for “Sit Down, you’re rockin’ the boat!” seemed to overwhelm the performer at the beginning, but the dynamics seemed to synchronise better as the song, progressed, the choreography “framing” the vocalist’s efforts helping the number’s trajectories to properly expand. After this, “Swings both ways” featured a chorus of angels “watching over” the beautifully-vocalised attraction of two young men for one another – a nice touch, poignantly set against the following “I’ve found a new Baby”, the woman vocalist duetting teasingly with the “agent”, before opening the voice-throttle and saturating the space with heartfelt emotion at the end – lump-in-throat stuff! – and when set against “Losing my Mind”, a double-whammy emotional journey of two halves – a late microphone placement hampered the latter singer’s initial lyrics, but, in tandem with a beautifully-played saxophone counterpoint, the mood was caught and held touchingly and strongly.

More booming bass tones didn’t mar the dance chorus’s superb work (great choreography by Leigh Evans) introducing “Let’s Be Bad”, the energies carrying the day, leaving a kind of valedictory atmosphere into which which MC Nick Erasmuson “conjured up” the singer of “Over the Rainbow”, who gave a free and spontaneous-sounding rendition during which the intensities were very beautifully “growed” into full-blooded outward flow.

I didn’t recognise the final number “Lady Marmalade” (my head-count of recognised items was lamentably low throughout!), but the song was accorded the kind of treatment we’d come to expect from what we’d witnessed thus far, a veritable orgy of full-on involvement from all concerned and which, at the end, produced a veritable explosion of physically demonstrative audience appreciation totally in accord with the ambiences we’d been subsumed by throughout.

While I found myself craving for more “shape” in the realisation of many of the numbers, more light and shade, and more playfulness and irony and sentiment, and greater “spaces” into which these contrasts could be set and savoured, I couldn’t help thinking that mine was a somewhat old-fashioned view of performance, and that what seemed to be required here, and which was freely given, was a markedly “visceral” result, of the kind that could induce a kind of tactile euphoria, heart-and soul stuff, rather than any once-removed kind of in-situ reflection. Of course, there were moments in which this state was achieved, but they were quickly moved on – appetites on my side of the footlights seemed ravenous and were, by my reckoning, most satisfyingly sated.

I would have liked to have credited the individual performers in the separate numbers, but the programme wasn’t particularly helpful to someone like myself who couldn’t make the connections with the different names and the items in which they performed – so I’ve listed all the performers, in the hope that they’ll all “find” themselves mentioned here by what they did – I “dips me lid” to them all, along with the people behind the scenes who had a part in making the show so irrepressibly impactful – in a word, WOW!

Circa’s “The Little Mermaid” pantomime awash with enjoyment and conjecture

THE LITTLE MERMAID – The Pantomime 2021
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music arranged and directed by Michael Nicholas Williams
Choreography by Natasha McAllister and Jthan Morgan
Set and Projection design by Anna Lineham Robinson
Lighting Design by Marcus McShane
Costume Design by Sheila Horton

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St.,Wellington
Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

Until 23rd December, 2021

My first thought upon hearing about the projected scenario for this year’s Circa Pantomime was surprise that a story with grim and murderous elements (Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”) had been chosen – not having seen or even registered the Disney film adaptation of the story I wasn’t aware that the inevitable process of sanitisation of this story had already begun, as had previously happened to countless other folk- and fantasy-tales adapted for children over the years.

With the prospect of a remake by Disney of the story due for release in 2023 it would seem that “The Little Mermaid” has joined the select “classic fantasy tale” group, duly reinforced, of course, by pantomimic treatment, as witness Circa’s energetic and highly recreative adaptation of the story.

My second thought, independent of the above, was stimulated at the theatre itself upon my reading director Susan Wilson’s paean of praise (thoroughly well-deserved, incidentally) in the programme for all the people, past and present, who have contributed their talents and energies to the Circa Pantomimes for the previous 17 seasons, more-than-usually laudatory – was this some kind of valedictory address on the director’s part? Time will, of course, tell, but even the most successful theatrical undertakings, by dint of their nature, don’t last forever and needs must undergo refurbishment of some kind.

I was thinking particularly of Gavin Rutherford’s superb series of “Dames” which we’ve enjoyed over the years, and which delivered yet again this time round with just as much bristling energy and droll insouciance as his character needed, his “Shelly Bay” persona a brilliant throwback in itself to a time when the world was younger and less “submerged” with troubles, Rutherford’s capacities for drollery here seemingly inexhaustible!

Of course, this was, both onstage and off, an ensemble effort – and Rutherford’s charismatic “Shelly Bay” was more than amply matched by the tale’s “movers and shakers”, both institutional and everyday – Simon Leary’s King Lando, the ex-restauranter-cum-ruler of the largely-submerged 3021 version of Wellington, one whose on-the-spot land speculations have secured him power and influence over what is now left of the eastern “Heights”, posed a credible romantic attraction for the “poor fisher woman” Shelly Bay, when allied to a past association the pair had that Lando was now doing his best to escape from! He had as well, a kind of “alter ego”, a puppet stingray called “Death Shadow, one that flitted voraciously in-and-out between the hapless characters that crossed his path.

King Lando’s rival on all counts came in the form of Kathleen Burns’ wonderfully-vampish Bermuda, the Sea-Witch, a stunning portrayal enhanced by an octopus-tentacled costume whose every movement riveted the attention! Bermuda’s more-than-apparent nastiness was mitigated by her disdain for humankind and the havoc wrought upon the natural world by its representatives, her theatrical vow to “rid the world of humans” a kind of perverse “corrective” to Lando’s self-serving power-grab.

Equally spectacular in a more benign context was Jthan Morgan’s Queen Neptuna, a tragic, subaqueous “Queen of the Night” kind of figure (and similarly bewailing the loss of a daughter), looking and sounding the part as if to the manner born! It was a tour-de-force performance by Morgan, as he had to switch roles occasionally to being King Lando’s Public Relations agent “Shaggy” (and put up with the inevitable barrage of innuendo!)  – Morgan’s extra distinction was his “Shaggy” character’s adeptness with sign language, which certainly resonated with everybody, in the wake of the last couple of years’ Covid updates!

The younger generation was represented by Natasha McAllister  in the title role, as Queen Neptuna’s daughter Coral, charming us from the outset with her singing voice, which of course she has to later relinquish so her fins and tail can be changed into legs after she falls in love with a human – who happens to be a boy called Lyall, who happens to be the son of Shelly, thus further extending the show’s vistas when looking back at a world lost to the rapacious exigencies of climate change.

Lyall was here played by Jake McKay, who to his credit seemed remarkably “boy-next-door-like” considering his mother Shelly had at various times told him he was “special”, being an “immaculate conception”. Apart from each having similarly patronymic-like names, McAlister and McKay seemed ideally suited for their roles – a happy stage partnership! Finally, there was Trae te Wiki’s portrayal of Crabby, the hermit crab who’s Coral’s best friend, and who’s the “ordinary, everyday” personality, the “Everyman” of the drama, who comes across as warm-hearted and faithful, and very much the victim of circumstances -most endearingly she adapts as best she can to life’s changing situations, winning our sympathies in the process.

My third thought (or is it my fourth?), having introduced and summarised the individual personas and characteristics of the show’s dramatis personae, is a reiteration of  my amazement and appreciation of the sheer raw energy this cast puts into the performance (a quality also remarked on by my companion for the occasion, herself a “performance artist”, and as such directly appreciative of the levels of high-octane output generated by all concerned – whether emoting, singing or dancing (or all three at once), the output was almost tangible in its crackling voltage.

This quality was never more never more apparent than during the production’s songs (the actors supported to the hilt by their inexhaustible Music Director Michael Nicholas Williams via his arrangements and on-the-spot accompaniments), Natasha McAllister’s voice soaring  at the beginning, resonating in the memory during her “mute” period (displaying her new-found sign-language skills as the rest of the cast sang “You Can Count on Me”), and gloriously restored for the rousing finale. McAllister’s and Jthan Morgan’s  inspired choreography throughout gave the songs extra “punch”, Sheila Horton’s colourful and apposite costumes also contributing to the flow of body, texture and colour (as I write this I can still see Kathleen Burns’ Bermuda and her witchety tentacles!), and the whole was mellifluously (and sometimes startlingly) illuminated by Marchs McShane’s lighting, adding even further dimensions to Anna Lineham Robinson’s environmentally dystopian sets, evoking a futuristic world we’d probably rather not try to imagine…….

On the strength of what her “support team” of actors and technicians generated through their efforts, director Susan Wilson had every right and cause to thus “stop and reflect” for us on the achievement of this and past pantomime productions, and, of course, revel in the deserved satisfaction of knitting all these strands together to memorable effect.


Monstrous and idiosynchrophiliac goings-on with Stroma at Wellington’s Bats Theatre

Stroma presents:
IDIOSYNCHROPHILIA – Stroma meets invented instruments!

Rosie Langabeer (composer)
Idiosynchrophilia (2021)

Invented instruments devised and built by Neil Feather

Stroma – conducted by Mark Carter
Daniel Beban, Erika Grant, Neil Feather (invented instruments)
Anna van der Zee (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Alexander Gunchenko (double bass), Shannon Pittaway (bass trombone),
Todd Gibson-Cornish (bassoon) Thomas Guldborg, Lenny Sakofsky (percussion)

The Heyday Dome, Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 25th July, 2021

The perils of reviewer-conviviality are never so real as when one attends a concert of contemporary music, and sits next to someone in the audience one knows by sight but has never had a chance to talk with seriously, so most pleasantly spends the entire pre-concert time getting properly acquainted, as a result of which one completely forgets to read the concert’s programme notes before the lights are dimmed and the music gets under way!

Being thus plunged into the sound-world of an intriguingly and unconventionally “new” piece of music certainly put me on my mettle, especially as my “reviewing-brief” involved the substance of the presentation and its outcomes and the production of a dissertation of sorts on the same!  I knew beforehand that the concert featured at least three “invented” musical instruments, the work of one Neil Feather (also one of the musicians), for which an accompanying “soundscape” inspired by 1960s “monster” movies had been wrought by composer Rosie Langabeer. The fact that the contemporary music ensemble Stroma was involved also suggested that there would be interactions between these “deliciously idiosyncratic” inventions and conventional instruments of the kind any concertgoer would be familiar with – string, wind, brass, percussion instruments – perhaps!

I wasn’t entirely sure of my ground when it came to thinking about 1960s “monster movies” – though I had lived through that era, I was a timid, largely unadventurous moviegoer, who avoided anything “scary” through being prone to nightmares and other uncontrollable imaginings. I presumed there would be lots of “creepy” sounds with plenty of ominous ambiences and sudden dynamic irruptions designed to stimulate equally calamitous and involuntary bodily mechanisms to do with fright! In order to get more in alignment with the composer in this matter I googled the “monster movies” genre, pondering over what I’d missed in my formative years when reading descriptions such as “atomic mutants, monstrous throwbacks, monsters made and/or controlled by mad scientists, animal-man combinations, scientists who transform themselves into monsters, the various species of resurrected dead, and creatures from outer space, including alien parasites”.

Conversely, when the music actually began I instantly felt on familiar territory – was not that baleful bass trombone sound over sinister percussion a first cousin of Fafner, the mighty giant-turned-dragon from Wagner’s Siegfried? The sequence was repeated, with strings reinforcing the trombone, and on a third repetition Erica Grant began to tremulously activate the Nondo, a large sheet steel string instrument, which was resonated with strikers, and further activated by the rolling of a steel pole across (near invisible) strings stretched from end-to-end , the sounds electronically amplified – in fact I thought at first the pole was magnetised and seemed to “balance itself” mid-air with the help of attracting/repulsing forces! I thought in places of Len Lye’s famous steel-sheet installation in New Plymouth which I’d seen and heard a number of years ago, now, the timbres as remarkable as there but uniquely “here”, and responsive to different kinds of touches from the player, wonderfully cavernous sounds as well as delicate ones.

I ought to remark at this point that audience involvement in these gesturings couldn’t help but be total and visceral, due to the auditorium’s wonderfully-raked seating, giving every person a clear view of what the various players were doing – obviously the venue, which I had never been to previously, is something of a treasure!

The room’s immediacies were underlined when, at one point the wind and string players were goaded into launching a violent, positively seismic tutti, to which another player, Dan Beban, responded with his Vibrowheel activation, impressive in a “miniature” sense to view, and belying its size to listen to a “Mutt and Jeff” kind of comparison with the voluminous and visibly-impassive Nondo! As the latter was again roused by its player, Erica Grant. the timpani rumbled in a more spontaneously-interactive way, transferring energies towards both the bassoonist and the strings, the latter essaying eerie glissandi whose sense of unease proves a precursor to more demonstrably threatening sounds,  abrasive, fractured, and almost anarchic utterances from trombone, double bass and bassoon.

Diverting the menace somewhat was the activation of the third “invented instrument”, this one by its actual creator, Neil Feather – the Wiggler consisted of four wires stretched horizontally between two metal bars laid flat, creating a Koto-like, or dulcimer-like playing aspect, but with the wires activated by metal rods laid upon or balanced at right angles in the space between the iron bars – the rods were dropped/bounced upon or balanced in between the wires, and allowed to bounce on, and scrape against the same, gently or more forcefully as the scenario required – almost the “music of industry” seemed to resonate from this arrangement, factory-like in its repetitions, but also delicate and natural in its evocation of gentler impulses, a “music is where you find it” realisation…..

As the Wiggler was put through its paces (the ensemble percussionists took their respective triangles for a walk in separate directions at this point, possibly as a dissociative gesture!), the ensemble “crept” its diverse sounds in “under the radar”, with the strings in lament-like mode , a spell broken, intentionally or otherwise with a start-inducing crash from the vicinity of the Nondo, Erica Grant unable to supress a smile at this point as if she’d pre-planned the disturbance.

I’ve not mentioned the presentation’s notable lighting properties up to this point – artfully atmospheric and, I think, gradually morphing between different tones – but suddenly there was a marked change of atmosphere and lighting, and the ensemble immediately struck up a sentimental dance-tune, complete with wire-brush percussion accompaniment, most divertingly and engagingly delivered, the trombonist phrasing the leading melody superbly! The strings took over the tune’s first part and the bassoon and trombone concluded the phrase with some smart dovetailing!

“Time for you and time for me, and for the taking of a toast and tea” the music seemed to say, when another abrupt lighting change and a dissolution of sounds into something metallic and mechanical “flicked a switch” to a kind of “noises off” or “underbelly” scenario. Most disconcerting!  The scenarios then switched backwards and forwards from dance-scene to Nibelungen-like slave-labour industry, with each switch inducing a more desperate and anarchic feeling. A change back to the dance scene then introduced a more “hep to the jive” rhythm, the muted bass trombone sounding what seemed like a reminiscence of a 1960s television action programme, and the bassoonist out of his chair and wielding his instrument like some kind of Grim Reaper with his scythe!

Conductor Mark Carter abruptly left the podium at this point, leaving the musicians at odds with the activated “invented” instruments, whose sounds died away as the lights dimmed for the last time. Altogether it seemed like a kind of dissolution of order, and a leaving of things to nature at the eventual silencing of the machines. Whatever impressions of intent were at large, the audience’s reaction to the performance was unalloyed delight, both at its manifest entertainment value and its idiosyncrophiliac singularity.

Afterwards, at home I read the programme! – it was there! – the ominous awakening of a monster somewhere deep in the underground, followed by its pursuit of a gradual path of destruction through both nature and civilisation, ending in human oblivion. As to the place of spontaneity and improvisation in the work, such was the freedom with which the musicians brought the sounds into being, it all gave the impression of the musicians being “played” by the piece as much as playing it. I was fascinated by the manipulations of the “invented” instruments, even if I thought the Vibrowheel a tad under-represented in the work, compared with the others.

Though I didn’t feel the ‘idiosynchrophiliac” instruments integrated musically with the ensemble’s monster scenario, that perhaps wasn’t the point of what the exercise was all about – what remained in my mind was a sense of spontaneous creation and recreation having random and unexpected outcomes exhibited by all facets of the presentation, from nature’s own “dimension cleft in twain” manifestation of chaos (arguably representative of a virus waiting to strike, as well), to seemingly innocuous if titillating sound ambiences wrought from invented machines – manifestations of unpredictability from which we can each draw our own conclusions.

Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” a triumph for Witch Music Theatre at Wellington’s Te Auaha

Witch Music Theatre Charitable Trust presents:
SONDHEIM  –  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler (from a play by Christopher Bond)

Cast: Sweeney Todd – Chris Crowe
Mrs Lovett – Vanessa Stacey
Beggar Woman – Frankie Leota
Judge Turpin – Thomas Barker
Tobias Ragg – Jared Palleson
Beadle Bamford – Jthan Morgan
Anthony Hope – Zane Berguis
Johanna Barker – Olivia Stewart
Adolfo Pirelli – Ben Paterson

Ensemble: Devon Neiman, Emma Salzano, Nino Raphael, Katie Atkins, Isaac Andrews, Allegra Canton, Patrick Jennings, Michaela Cadwgan, Jackson Burling, Sinéad Keane, Minto Fung,  Natasha McAllister, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Joanne Hodgson, Jason Henderson, Tania Dreaver

Musicians: Mark W.Dorrell (Music director/keyboard), Karla Norton (violin), Samuel Berkhan(‘cello), Simon Eastwood/Jandee Song (double basses), Nick Walshe (clarinet), Peter Lamb (bassoon), Brendan Agnew (trumpet), Viv Read (horn), Brent Stewart (percussion)

Ben Emerson (director)
Nick Lerew (assistant director)
Joshua Tucker (technical designer)
Greta Casey-Solley (choreographer)
Emma Stevens (costumes)
Patrick Barnes (sound)

Te Auaha Performing Arts Centre, 65 Dixon St,. Wellington

Wednesday, 30th June, 2021

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” proclaimed the first singer shortly after the opening of Witch Music Theatre’s instantly-riveting Te Auaha production of the eponymous show  – no argument or dissent was brooked, as we had already been ensnared and drawn into an ominous, all-pervading scenario of compelling unease  generated by gothic, phantom-sounding organ figurations, dimly-perceived Nibelungen-like figures materialising from nowhere performing scrubbing-like tasks of enslavement, and a sudden, “scream-like” irruption of fearful , anguished noise, overwhelmingly visceral in its impact. We needed no further enjoiners to “attend” to what developed from this into a veritable cornucopia of theatrical action, the chorus’s taking up of the work’s exposition in an overwhelming and incisive way that never once flagged throughout the evening.

Director Ben Emerson’s approach to Stephen Sondheim’s recreation of the Victorian “penny dreadful” tale of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd has been to pull the action from Victoriana into post WW2 London, though somehow emphasising the more timeless themes of love and loss, lust and cruelty, obsession and vengeance which drive the social, economic and moral backgrounds, of the original tale, thereby, as Emerson puts it, “stay(ing) true to the text while creeping us ever closer to a chilling and hauntingly recognisable reality”, a recreative attitude that has enlivened many a starkly and impossibly cruel and monstrous folk-tale from various cultures. For me the “updating” of the scenario is always less important than the valid and believable depiction of those  qualities of “cynicism, moral ambiguity and corruption” – all of which are by no means new sins, however coloured by changing social mores.

A significant feature of this production was the integration of the orchestra in relation to the stage action. At first I thought this had been miscalculated as regards the solo singing – even with discreet microphoning, the vocal soloists’ tones often seemed masked by the sheer proximity of the instruments, no matter how sensitively played. My seat position, I think, accentuated this problem – second row from the front – from where everything at first seemed very loud. As the show went on, either the balances or my ears seemed to adjust, and I found myself less concerned regarding the singers’ audibility, and more increasingly attuned to the interaction between voices and instruments, to the point where it simply ceased to be a problem.

Central to the interaction between stage and instruments, and to the production’s general ebb and flow was music director Mark W.Dorrell, through whose hands and gestures it all came to life, increasingly so as the first part of the action proceeded. The characterisation of each musical moment, whether physical and energetic, lyrical and flowing, or poised and heart-stopping, was here  “grown” by Dorrell with his players and singers out of the whole with an inevitablilty that took our sensibilities inexorably onward and left us resonating with it all at the action’s end – masterful music-making from all concerned. I particularly relished the lurid deliciousness of the waltz tunes that accompanied some of the story’s blackest sequences, an instance being the hatching of the plan by Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs Lovett to not let the cadaver of the unfortunate “Signor Pirelli” become “an awful waste”! How wonderfully  macabre and gruesomely fascinating a marriage of music and theatre, with moods also brilliantly set alongside others inhabiting different parts of the spectrum – such as the song of the lovers, Anthony’s and Joanna’s “Kiss Me” counterpointing Judge Turpin’s and the Beadle’s discussion re enhancing the judge’s attractiveness to his ward, with “Ladies in their sensitivities”.

Ben Emerson’s direction made the most of the potentialities offered by the venue’s cheek-by-jowl proximity of stage and audience – the first few rows of seats in which I sat, were, most excitingly, in practically the same space as were the performers! – the propinquity of so many energetic, pulsating, sweating bodies right from the beginning gave the choruses a tactile quality not for the faint-hearted! I found the physicality of choreographer Greta Casey-Solly’s deployment of her forces most exhilarating (the asylum scene in Act Two had a particularly urgent, white-hot  quality), and the boldly-contrasted relief of the stillness of some scenes all the more telling – the raptness of Sweeney’s reunitement with his set of shaving razors (“These are my friends”) had a savagely ironic poignancy which then exploded into fierce joy as he exclaimed, holding the blades “My right arm is complete again!” – a moment whose power was as much the sum of the evocative surrounding parts as the gesture itself!

Technically, it was all a tour de force, the various stagings making the most of both different levels and refracted views (a clear perspex “curtain” making a telling variation on the “through a glass darkly” principle at certain moments – characters seen by us but not by those onstage, or given the illusion of concealment, adding a fantastic visual element to the barber’s various throat-cutting despatchings of some of his victims). Post-war and 1950s London would have in places probably have been almost as ill-lit, and smoke- and fog-filled as in Victorian times – though the  exterior scenarios recreated here reminded me more in places of Dennis Potter’s television series “The Singing Detective” than of Dickens. Joshua Tucker’s evocative lighting enhanced Emma Stevens’ costumes’ authentic period glow, and underpinned the morbid juxtaposition of the ordinary and the grotesque, with Mrs Lovett and  Sweeney, dressed in their “blood aprons” discussing a visit to the seaside.

Though some of the singing needed a tad more projection in places throughout the first act, I thought the characterisations of the principals irresistible and compelling throughout – the lovers, Zane Berghuis and Olivia Stewart as Anthony and Joanna, looked and sounded just as one might imagine them to do, Berghuis’s voice properly lyrical and romantic and Stewart’s voice sweet and tremulous, making a poignant blend, both responding wholeheartedly to the energies of their roles as well as to the romantic delicacies. As the Beggar-Woman Frankie Leota captured both the pitiable and the hard-bitten aspects of her character with real gusto, giving her frenzied “City on Fire!” sequence plenty of juice and her mutterings of “Mischief!” real bite.

The “villains”, Judge Turpin (Thomas Barker) and Beadle Bamford (Jthan Morgan), were sharply differentiated, Barker’s depiction of the Judge a no-holds-barred, cruel, but torn and divided man, in enslavement to his lust for his ward Joanna, and seemingly in thrall to his guilt, as witness the self-flagellation scene (as convincing in this scene as any I’ve seen “live” or on video). By contrast, Jthan Morgan’s Beadle here was very much the dandified dilettante-like fop, his affected manner making him appear more to me like a character from a Restoration Comedy – but post-war Europe was in flux and manners and modes up for grabs, a world in which personalities such as Quentin Crisp could and did flourish. Here in Morgan’s portrayal was menace of a different kind, lurking beneath a polished, suave exterior.

Another “character” was the “Italian” showman Adolfo Pirelli, colourfully played by Ben Paterson, with his young helper, Tobias Ragg, (a sensitive characterisation by Jared Palleson), the showman delivering his song brilliantly in front of the crowd,  then later calling on Sweeney after the latter “outshaved” him in a contest, threatening to expose the barber’s secret past (as a deported convict), and meeting an aforementioned grisly end at Sweeney’s hands as a result, the “Italian’s” young helper Tobias duly “adopted” by the versatile Mrs Lovett.  The boy came to regard her as his “charge”, Jared Pallesen subsequently singing a heartfelt, almost desperate  “Nothing’s gonna harm you” to her, voicing his fears for her safety in the company of “Mr. Todd”, fears that ultimately proved all too real.

Though Sondheim’s work is ultimately about the central character, one couldn’t have a great “Sweeney” without a similarly larger-than-life stage partner – and Vanessa Stacey’s Mrs Lovett was the perfect foil for the haunted, obsessive “demon barber”, bringing all of the energy and magnetism the character needed to imprint her own personality on the action – affable, vivacious, practical, earthy and occasionally sensual, classically the opposite of her destined partner in almost every way, she was, in effect, Sweeney’s “dark angel”, firstly recognising his former self, and then reconnecting him with the initial talismanic instruments that once represented his livelihood, and now were transformed into tangible means of vengeance. Stacey’s singing and acting brought out both the character’s everyday qualities listed above, and crucially realised Mrs Lovett’s ultimate tragedy – that she deserved a better fate, but, however brutally and savagely, was somehow, with  ruinous irony, enabled to fulfil her destiny.

As Sweeney Todd, I thought Chris Crowe profoundly satisfying, both in terms of his stand-alone qualities as a character, and in his interactions with others and with the world in general. His acting epitomised a damaged, insufficiently nurtured being, replete with barely-repressed fear and anger, unable to shake off his desire for revenge, as if everything, including his own ultimate destruction, was predestined; while his singing was always finely-honed, his gradations of tone and timbre set upon specific intensities and emotions throughout. I felt an edge to his stage presence the whole time, one that exuded unease and wounded feeling, though never to excess – I’ve already mentioned the totality of feeling he brought to his reconnection with his barber’s razors, characterising their functions so viscerally and chillingly with the words “you shall drip rubies” – but in  so many other places he brought different tones of menace to the part, at one point “calling out” individual audience members as his potential victims in his desire for revenge upon humanity in general and at another cursing London and its cruelties –  “It’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabits it”……. He and Vanessa Stacey as Mrs Lovett  made, I thought, a splendid pair!

Circumstances prevented me from completing this review before the show’s Wellington season finished – however I would imagine the production to be regarded by anybody who attended as an excellent advertisement for any forthcoming Witch Charitable Trust Theatre presentations, as well as for the splendidly atmospheric Te Auaha venue and its tireless team of enablers. What else can I say but “Hats off to all concerned!”










Burt Bacharach – a tribute from Ali Harper at Circa Theatre

THE LOOK OF LOVE – An evening of songs of Burt Bacharach
written and presented by Ali Harper (vocalist)
with Tom McLeod (musical director/piano) / Callum Allardice (guitar)

Music arranged, produced and mixed by Tom Rainey
Soundtrack played by members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra
Backing vocals performed by Jennine Bailey, Naomi Ferguson and Juliet Reynolds-Midgely
Recorded and engineered by Thom O’Connor
Produced by Ali Harper and Iain Cave (Ali-Cat Productions)

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Saturday, 23rd January 2021

I can’t think of another performer I know whose presentations give me more pleasure than do those of Ali Harper’s, for her unbeatable combinations of artistry, energy and sheer charisma! And here, at Circa Theatre once again, we were treated to all of those qualities put at the service of the music of one of the most iconic songwriters of recent times, Burt Bacharach. His is a name which, like those of songwriters of previous eras, such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, has become synonymous with the act of creation of songs that immediately bring to listeners’ minds memories of specific times, places and people.

For Harper this show seemed something of a chameleon’s act throughout the presentation, one that she brought off with characteristic whole-heartedness and engaging flair – unlike with her previous shows I’d seen in which she personified either a single performer (“A Doris Day Special”), or a number of stellar artists, either as themselves(“Legendary Divas”) or as their star-struck fans (“Songs for Nobodies”), her focus this time was a songwriter. How adroitly and persuasively, then, was she able to train her focus on either a singer associated with the song, or the situation/or context of the song itself, giving something of an organic feel to the songwriter’s motivations in each case and thus recreating Bacharach’s very own “story” through music.

I wondered beforehand just how Harper would approach these works, given that the confines of the theatre might have seemed to suggest a more intimate, cabaret-style performance, one that would have admirably suited many of Bacharach’s songs that I remembered. When we first entered the auditorium it seemed possible that this was to be the case, with “music stations” visibly set up for the singer, for piano, and for another solo instrument – what happened then was that, after the pianist and guitarist had begun, and Harper had entered, the song accompaniments “burgeoned” into what sounded like a full symphony orchestra backing for many of the numbers, Harper explaining at some point that the musicians were in fact members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, whose “sound” had been pre-recorded to recreate that well-remembered “Bacharach sound” – many of the songs would have responded well to “cabaret” treatment, but the music undeniably resonated more ambiently in the memory in these sumptuously-crafted “orchestrated” accompaniments.

I admit that it took me the length of the song “The Look of Love” to “adjust” to this “full-on” instrumental approach, not being a great fan in principle of pre-recorded sound and its deployment, but gradually coming to accept the sonic soundscape Harper and her valiant musicians deemed appropriate – thereafter I was caught up in the sweep and full-frontal engagement of it all – and, as with all sound recordings, the ear soon adjusts to pretty much whatever one hears and allows the essential enjoyment to reassert itself.

I’d hoped that, despite knowing many of the songs from radio-listening over the years, I’d be floored by surprises of the “did he write THAT?” variety – and I certainly wasn’t disappointed! Unexpectedly encountering numbers such as “The Story of My Life”, “Raindrops keep falling on my Head” and (perhaps most movingly of all) “Alfie”, pushed my Bacharach-parameters into hitherto unchartered regions, both enlarging and deepening my appreciation of his achievement, the latter song in particular one of those “not a note wasted” creations, and fully supporting the statement made by Harper and her pianist Tom McLeod when discussing Bacharach’s style of composing – that he didn’t like “vanilla”, or plain sweetness, but would “explore” unconventionalities in both harmonies and melodic lines. Here, “Alfie” seemed to proclaim itself as one of the great songs, Bacharach devising an almost Mussorgsky-like melodic progression that’s close to “sprechgesang”, plainly, though not entirely unsympathetically delineating the hero’s character, and put across by Harper simply, directly and most movingly.

In some shape or form there’s that avoidance of “vanilla” in most things I knew Bacharach had written as well – the spontaneous quirkiness of “Say a Little Prayer for Me”, “Walk on By” and “Anyone who had a heart”, for example, songs which somehow transmit both impulse and deeper emotion into and through music and find their mark. Bacharach may have had notables such as Dionne Warwick, and even occasionally Cilla Black as his music’s exponents, but here Ali Harper proved as worthy, insightful, and thrilling an interpreter, from the heart-in-mouth “opening up” of the emotional guns in “Magic moments” at the words “Time can’t erase the memory of….”, to the almost confessional candour of “A House is not a House”, a song which is all impulse and reflection, here expressed by both singer and pianist with exquisitely-focused simplicity.

Mentioning of Bacharach’s song-writing partner Hal David and the latter’s gift for crafting words whose individual sounds and configurations were matched by the music straightaway put me in mind of George and Ira Gershwin’s equally combustible partnership, and, in fact, daring me to suggest to Harper that perhaps one day……but no, it’s the here and now that should remain my subject, more properly paying tribute to the singer and her “team” for my enrichment of knowledge and awareness of Bacharach’s activities – Marlene Dietrich’s musical collaborator during the 1950s? – goodness! As for his contributions to films such as “Casino Royale”, “Alfie” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, not to mention “What’s New, Pussycat” – well, I obviously didn’t take much notice of film credits in those carefree days of my youth!

What I thought Ali Harper conveyed most warmingly and lastingly was Bacharach’s ability in his music to relate to and uncover people’s emotions concerning basic human needs – I came away from the show with what seemed like pocketfuls of familiar feelings reawakened and stirred, some gentle tickling, and others via uncomfortably prodding, a full gamut of experience suggested and shared. And we delighted in the medium as well as the message, in the singer’s unfailing ease and warmth of communication and infectious, all-embracing delight in putting across the music for our pleasure.

The show was supposed to conclude with “What the world needs now”, described by Harper as “a song for our time”, the sentiments of the relatively unfamiliar verses expressed with filled-to-the-brim conviction, and the choruses lustily joined in with by all present – a standing ovation necessitated a “second conclusion”, with Harper and her musicians giving us “That’s what friends are for” to the ambient accompaniment of audience members’ torchlight beams bringing light to the darkness and hope to all present for a brighter future. Thank you, Ali! – so much appreciated!

Until 20th February – Circa Theatre

“The Older the Better” – a triumph of age and experience at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre and Hens’ Teeth presents:
(Part of WTF! 2020)

MC – Kate JasonSmith
Starring: Coral Trimmer, Sunny Amey, Dame Kate Harcourt. Linn Lorkin, Helen Moulder, Rose Beauchamp, Jan Bolwell and Margaret Austin

Producer – Kate JasonSmith
Lighting – Lisa Maule
Stage Manager – Johanna Sanders
Technical Operator – Niamh Campbell-Smith
Illustration and Graphic Design – Emma Cook

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington
Thursday, 3rd December 2020

(until 20th December)

A footnote to the show’s title above the cast list in the programme reads: “The performers you may or may not see, tonight….”. When putting the show together around the talents of three ninety-plus performers, Dame Kate Harcourt, Coral Trimmer and Sunny Amey, the producer of “The Older, the Better” Kate JasonSmith found so many willing participants among what she called “a fabulous collection of Gold Card performers” that she was able to devise a “revolving support cast”, one whose membership would change for every performance.

It would be hard to imagine this, the opening night, being bettered, given that the show ostensibly and spectacularly revolved around the three performance “dames” (one of whom, of course, already has that official title), the rest being the “glittering gold-carders” who made up the “supporting” roles – though the beauty of the presentation was that there were no seams or lessenings of inspirational flow as turn followed star turn, with each of the “acts” offering its own characterfully-contrasted cache of distinctive delights (excuse the alliteration! – it just slipped out!)….

In keeping with the inclusive spirit which had gravitationally drawn this galaxy of heavenly bodies together, we in the audience were promptly invited to also audition for the show – as an audience! – and after agreeing, were put through our paces, demonstrating “audience behaviours” (clapping, laughing, dancing – someone even suggested “paying”!)….. I thought our “murmuring in sympathy” efforts creditable , but needing more conviction, more FEELING! – however, then, when we laughed uproariously at one of the MC Kate JasonSmith’s jokes, we clinched the role – “This audience is fine! – don’t bother to bring that other one in!” she promptly carolled towards the entranceway! – and so the show began, introduced by Kate JasonSmith, most interestingly as “Nine lovely women, and eight lovely costumes!” Oo-er!!

It would be churlish to self-indulgently “give the show away” by describing too many of the delights that followed in detail – but when “the talent” was summoned with the cry, “Talent! – Talent ON THE SET!” – the uproar that greeted the appearance of Dame Kate Harcourt to begin things in earnest was heart-warming! We got from her a vividly- coloured picture of a sassy character called Maud, who was enjoying life at ninety-three, insisting at one point that this was the oldest she had been! Putting it like that made for pandemonium in the aisles!

We had no sooner recovered when the fabulous Linn Lorkin was at the piano weaving bluesy magic with a song she wrote inspired by home thoughts from abroad while she was visiting a US beach, a number “Family at the beach” which undulated from rhythmic patter-song to dreamy, nostalgia-filled relivings of iconic childhood memories of being a child at a beach somewhere in New Zealand, capturing it all so unerringly for me, and somewhat redolently, for others as well. She morphed from this into a jazzy rhythm which brought the equally charismatic Coral Trimmer to the stage with her harmonica, aptly launching into Gershwin’s “I got rhythm” with terrific choreographic energy, then disarming us completely and utterly with “Londonderry Air”, a tune better known as “Danny Boy”, the duo’s playing milking the song’s ascending second part for all it was worth (juicy chordings from the pianist, and a glissando to boot!) before raptly delivering the piece’s concluding, lump-in-throat “water come in me eye” pay-off.

The arrival of eminent theatre administrator, producer and comedienne Sunny Amey then completed the trio of nonagenarians, Amey joining with Coral Trimmer to sing some parodies (the first of which (to the tune of “Colonel Bogey”) we all knew and joined in with the bawdy words!), then musing further on the process of ageing with gorgeous sendups of classics like “Shuffle off to Buffalo”, her gently self-deprecating forgetfulness-parables forging empathetic, belly-rumbling links with her listeners! And it was into this haze of opaque evocation that the ever-astounding diva Cynthia Fortescue and her accompanist Gertrude Rallentando (Helen Moulder and Rose Beauchamp respectively) burst to relive their triumph of “Going for Baroque” with the tried-and-truly-astounding “condensed and updated” version of Henry Purcell‘s celebrated opera “Dido and Aeneas”, here searingly and fearlessly revamped as “Diane and Andy”.

Cynthia’s unashamedly Boris Christoff-like assertion when introducing the work to us, ”I play all the characters”, seemed to me to more than adequately sum up the – well, some might think of them as “liberties” while others would unhesitatingly use the word “inspirations” – which abounded in the pair’s realisation of the age-old tale of love and betrayal – during which we as a proper “performing audience” had an infernally risible part to play as well, goaded into a frenzy by the leader of a coven of “wayward sisters”, a witch called Jacinda!  One excerpt only will I reveal from the adaptation to again convey something of the flavour of the whole – “Hear my plan/to rid Aotearoa/ of this dreadful man” –  (something involving a “Trojan virus” sent to the hapless Andy’s laptop)  – but that’s quite enough info to be going on with!….

We heard former dancer and performance-poet Margaret Austin’s wryly entertaining  “Should I lie about my age” dissertation, one which turned into a cautionary tale of association on her part with an impresario and a drink-besotted choreographer on tour throughout Europe, with its bitter-sweet conclusion; and, following further music-making from Linn Lorkin and Coral Trimmer, we were introduced to Jan Bolwell, performer, choreographer and playwright, and founder of the Crows Feet Dance Collective, whose stories touched on her father’s experiences in Italy during World War Two, when he was hidden by an Italian family from the Germans, of her own experiences in Italy when re-exploring her father’s “haunts” while a prisoner, including dealing with her sexual harassment by various Italian men, and of her defiance of the “women’s ageing” stigma in society, as expressed in a country and western song she had appropriated, whose yodelling choruses could be rewritten to fit the words “Older Ladies”. No prizes for guessing who were able to “try out” the song at a glorious full-throttle!

Not to be outdone, Helen Moulder’s Cynthia Fortescue made a plea to be allowed a final “scene” with “Dame Kate”, consisting of a single song, a delicious duet from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” opera depicting the meeting of two lovers the bird-man Papageno and his long looked-for mate Papagena, piquantly accompanied by Rose Beauchamp’s Gertrude! – had we not acquiesced we would have missed out on minutes and minutes of pure delight as the two “Pa-pa-ge-no/ge-na-‘d” themselves contentedly into the throes of connubial bliss. And then, seemingly as soon as it had all begun, it was over, with a rousing “all-for-one” rendition of a tune to which the words “The Older the Better” gave resonant ambiences for the rest of the evening. In all, it’s a heart-warming, unmissable affair, an inspirational initiative by Kate JasonSmith, a magical coming-together of past and present which will cause much amusement and delight!


Cinderella (Rogernella? Gingerfella?) the Pantomime, delightfully mixed-up fun at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
CINDERELLA – the Pantomime
Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford

Directed by Susan Wilson
Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Design: John Hodgkins
Lighting Design: Marcus McShane
Costume Design: Sheila Horton
Musical Staging: Leigh Evans

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Rosie Bubble)
Natasha McAllister (Cinderella)
Jonathan Morgan (Bayley)
Kathleen Burns (Tommy)
Bronwyn Turei (Dandini)
Simon Leary (Buttons)
Jack Buchanan (Prince Ashley)

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St, Wellington

Until 20 December, 2020, then 2-16 January 2021

Two of the show’s actors, Simon Leary (Buttons the Rat) and Gavin Rutherford (Rosie Bubble, the Fairy Godmother) are the authors of this wonderfully irreverent “take” on the classic Cinderella story, complete with up-to-date parochial and international references, foot-tapping music (two songs I actually KNEW, despite my advanced years!) and entertainingly-staged ensemble dancing, some of the best I’ve seen at Circa Pantomimes. In fact I thought Leigh Evans’ actual staging of characters’ movements throughout these was among the most polished and slickly-contrived I’d encountered at a pantomime in recent times, there being various breathless sequences of more-or-less constant fluidity of character, incident and venue to enjoy.

Audiences vary, as any experienced performer will affirm; but I also can’t remember a Circa Pantomime at which an audience seemed to demonstrably enjoy the show more than this one did. We all seemed to be enclosed, fore and aft, in a kind of appreciative bubble of responsiveness with some very noisy company, everybody determined to make the most of every gag, clever one-liner, spectacular routine or irruption of surprise contrived for us by director Susan Wilson! And, of course, such a “chain reaction” fore and aft of the footlights added immeasurably to the show’s essential dynamic, leaving us both exhausted and replete at the end.

Pantomimes are occasions where, besides indulging in child-like enjoyment of innocent fun, one can give satisfying vent to one’s biases and prejudices of social and political kinds, thanks to the “types” embodied in the story-line or stage action – and especially when they’re connected, however tenuously or otherwise, to prominent public figures who are the representatives of things we love to love or love to hate! Gavin Rutherford’s portrayal of the Fairy Godmother “Rosie Bubble” bestrode all of these worlds, being in a theatrical sense an on-the-fence commentator, while also having an integral “part” in the proceedings – we loved his/her “fairy” aspect both for the wish-fulfilment magical powers and the LGBTQ association (underlined by Rosie’s sudden cry when surprised – “Don’t hurt me! – I’m a fairy! – You’ll be done for a hate crime!” at one point), as well as the inexhaustible stream of drollery, constantly mispronouncing Cinderella’s name throughout (with “Salmonella” being just one of a stream of hilariously Malapropish misnomers!).

The “good” characters drew from both established lore (Natasha McAllister’s Cinderella, Bronwyn Turei’s Dandini, and Simon Leary’s Buttons the Rat, Cinderella named as such by Charles Perrault in the classic French retelling of the story, Dandini, the Prince’s valet, by Jacopo Feretti, the librettist of La Cenerentola, Rossini’s operatic version of “Cinderella”, and Buttons the Rat a manifestation of that common fairy-tale phenomenon, a creature changed against its will into something less salubrious) and from present-day role models of positive renown (Jack Buchanan’s Prince Ashley of the Blooming Fields, whose modestly-expressed ambition during the drama’s course is to have “a meaningful job in the Public Service”)! The “bad guys” were both cross-dressed (Jonathan Morgan’s outrageous “Bayley” and Kathleen Burns’s spivish “Tommy”), each stigmatised with blatant “Real Estate Agent” labels through Buttons the Rat confessing to hiding from them in the rubbish bin!  One of them (I forget which)  admitted to being an “ex-parking-warden”, and both of them expressed delusions of a grandeur which would be attained by plotting  a connubial connection between Bayley and the hapless Prince Ashley!

Just as a pandemic is presently wreaking havoc through many peopled parts of the world, so was here an unnamed dread seen to be occasionally visited upon the land and its inhabitants in the form of a lightning-and-thunder sequence which intermittedly cast fear and uncertainty into the characters’ minds most effectively. But “kindness”, a recently-projected spin-off panacea for national ills, made a welcome appearance in the mix, here, if in a different, more personalised way, with the Prince’s recognition of Cinderella as an individual person, despite his “face blindness” affliction. And at the delusional end of the spectrum was the immortal line spoken by one of the villains, Tommy and Bayley, while in disguise: – “Ere! Don’t you know who we THINK we are?” – something I made a mental note to use for my own purposes somewhere socially as soon as I could!

Though very much the “acted upon” throughout, both Natasha McAllister’s Cinderella and Jack Buchanan’s Prince Ashley were perfect exemplars of goodness and innocence throughout, with McAllister’s singing voice a fulcrum throughout for the success of Musical Director Michael Nicholas Williams’ sure-fire musical continuities that played such a part in forwarding the action. The ever-pleasing Bronwyn Turei as Dandini I thought magnetic as always with her voice and physical presence enlivening the ensembles, and though I wasn’t familiar with songs like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “I need a Hero”, my 1960s antennae were sent into paroxysms of retro-excitement by the company’s full-blooded renditions of “Five O’Clock World” and “I’m a Believer”!

The props were simple but spectacularly effective as witnessed the remarkable skeletal-but-still-stunning coach which took Cinderella to the ball! And I liked the simple but similarly stunning transformation effect of Cinderella’s costume-turned-ball-gown, replicated by Bayley as part of the dastardly plot to install the latter as the Prince’s bride. The children who were called up onto the stage at one point during the second act would have relished the excitement and wonderment of entering into such a phantasmagorical land – such a pleasure to register the looks and feelings writ-large on their faces at certain points!

It was what it was all about for all of us, at our varying individual stages of appreciation, and real enjoyment of others’ pleasure! The show plays at Circa Theatre until December 20th this year, and from the 2nd to the 16th of January, 2021.



NZ Opera’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King” a brilliant, Janus-faced experience

NZ Opera presents

Music by Peter Maxwell Davies
Texts by Randolph Stow and George III

The King: Robert Tucker

The Musicians: Stroma New Music Ensemble
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Rachel Fuller (keyboard/s)
Luca Manghi (flute)
Mark Cookson/Patrick Barry (clarinets)
Yuka Eguchi (violin)
Heather Lewis/Robert Ibell (‘cellos)
Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion)

Director – Thomas de Mallet Burgess
Production Designer – Robin Rawstorne
Assistant Conductor – Timothy Carpenter
Repetiteur – Rachel Fuller

RNZB Dance Centre, Wellington

Monday 2nd March 2020

Firstly, some background for the curious – the “King” of this concert’s title is King George III of England, who suffered from mental illness throughout his adult life, eventually being removed from his throne and kept under lock and key in Windsor Castle. Over his final decade he lost his eyesight and hearing, and fell prey to frequent manic episodes, by all accounts babbling endlessly as he slid into dementia, and eventually dying in 1820 at the age of eighty-one. The King owned a number of caged bullfinches, and during his confinement became obsessed with teaching his birds how to sing tunes played by a mechanical organ or music-box. This instrument, along with a note identifying its provenance as owned and used by the unfortunate Monarch, came to the notice, almost two hundred years afterwards, of Australian author and poet Randolph Stow, who was inspired to create a series of poems, parts of which were drawn from recollections of witnesses to the King’s outpourings, and directly illustrated his pitiable condition. British avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies set these poems to music, writing with the vocal talents of one Roy Hart in mind, a virtuoso South African singer who had become interested in exploring the range and limits of the human voice.

At the time of the work’s premiere, in April 1969, Davies fully expected “Eight Songs” to remain a “one-off” for Hart, never imagining anybody else being able or even wanting to perform the piece. He was therefore surprised and delighted at how the work soon took on a life of its own, becoming a classic example of a new “music-theatre” genre, which redeployed (and often subverted) existing performance conventions. Davies himself recorded the work with his own virtuoso avant-garde music-group, “The Fires of London”, though sadly for posterity, not with Roy Hart, the creator of the  role – fortunately the soloist on the 1971 Unicorn recording, Julius Eastman, was a worthy successor.

In his notes accompanying the recording, the composer stated that his intention was “to leave open the question – is the persecuted protagonist “Mad George III” or someone who thinks he is George?”. Naturally the work will forever be associated with the monarch in question, given that the song texts contain numerous actual quotations of the King’s words – the novelist Frances (Fanny) Burney was Queen Charlotte’s lady-in-waiting for five years, and during that time she recorded both events and utterances in which the King was central (as an example, the whole of the text of the sixth song, “The Counterfeit” is transcribed by Randolph Stow from Burney’s diary). But the suggestion that the character of the King might also represent any such deluded individual straightaway lifts the work out of its singular and historical confines and into the realm of general human experience, of which mental illness seems in our time to be an increasingly common affliction. Davies reminded us in his notes that until relatively recent times, “madness” was something to ridicule, and in more severe cases isolate, often in the most inhumane and nightmarish conditions; and while treatments and care-environments are nowadays less primitive, the stresses and inbalances that, if ignored, can lead to mental illness are still very much with us.

New Zealand Opera’s innovative production of the work gives audiences not one but two separate and different views of the terrain in all senses of the word – the mindscape of an extremely disturbed individual, firstly (as happened in my particular case) from the “outside” 0f the performance space, visible from the outside through windows, and audible by means of headsets for each audience member. So, first time round, we were seated in the open air, cannily underneath a tarpaulin in a space next to the building in which the opera was being performed – and through the windows we could glimpse the singer performing his on-stage peregrinations, and via the excellent headphones we clearly heard his cocktail mix of song, sprechgesang and random, wide-ranging vocalisings, along with the constant instrumental collaborations from the ensemble – the whole thing was an “outsider’s view”, a process that was observed, but without direct involvement, something that one could easily distance oneself from at a moment’s notice if one felt so inclined.

What a difference after one was ushered inside for the second performance (each took about thirty minutes), to sit right next to the stage (which was a kind of “catwalk” extending the whole width of the audience-space, and with seating on both sides)! Here, we straightaway felt “drawn in” by the immediacies, the sometimes startling proximities , and the “sharing-the-space” phenomenon that can make great theatre (and music-making, of course!). Singer Robert Tucker, looking none the worse for wear after having already given one performance of the piece appeared in close-up somewhat disconcertingly (a) youthful, and (b) dapper, not quite in accordance with my preconceived “image” of a deranged George III, but nevertheless exuding a kind of “authority” from the outset, entering quietly but portentously, and sitting at one end of the catwalk activating a “Newton’s Cradle”, waiting for the first of the instrumental explosions whose force and violence punctuate the music-drama.

In some performances the instrumentalists are positioned in separate giant birdcages, each player representing one of the King’s bullfinches he attempted to teach to sing – here the players weren’t thus confined, but sat as an ensemble at one end of the platform, the singer alternating his attentions between them, his audience(s) and wherever his mind’s fancy took him. And the “double audience” added a dimension to the singer’s confusions, his awareness of interiors and exteriors pathetically expressed amidst his tirades by glances through the windows at an “outside world”. Despite the close physical proximities, the venue’s largely empty spaces behind where we sat and its ample acoustic seemed to me to underline the essential solitude of the King’s existence. His interactions with his musicians and the audience, despite their sometimes startlingly visceral nature seemed all fantasy. “I am weary of this fate – I am alone” sang the character at the conclusion of one of the songs.

The performance in every way was astonishing – Robert Tucker as the King “owned” his character in a way that explored a gamut of human emotion, engaging our sympathies at his “plight” as readily as activating our discomfiture with his volatility. The demands of the role pushed the concept of “singing” into realms of expression which transcended the idea of the voice as a musical instrument as we might generally accept it through what the composer aptly termed “terrifying virtuosity”. But in appearing not as any kind of caricatured asylum-bound lunatic, whose tirades were neither extreme, nor “onslaught-like” as were some of the performers in the role I’ve witnessed on film, Tucker’s delineation of the character always seemed intensely human, in places touchingly bringing out the tendernesses of some of his utterances (as observed by Fanny Burney in her diary), if at times squeamish-inducing (as throughout his “close-up-and-personal” interactions with a hapless flutist, during “The Lady-in-Waiting”, brilliantly carried off by both singer and player). His anger, too, spectacularly vented at one infamous moment in the piece, mirrored a kind of reality of frustration, an impulse in tragic accord with human behaviour gone awry. This “one-of-us” aspect suggested  by the production brought home , to my mind, the “for whom the bell tolls” aspect of our human existence, so that our “relief” at the King’s eventual departure was singed with spots of pity and sorrow and even horror at the finality of the concluding percussive juggernaut, which consigned his heart-rending cries to oblivion.

Conductor Hamish McKeich led the Stroma Ensemble unerringly through a veritable thicket of coruscations, appearing to never miss a beat, shirk an uproar, or delineate a disorder! – and in parallel to these subversions the players sounded the lyrical moments, the dance-tunes and the whimsical parodies (a gorgeous two-step take-off of Handel’s music at one point) with delicious elan, as well as bringing to bear their array of bird-song devices in a veritable “chaos of delight” (alas, Charles Darwin’s words, not mine!). The accordance of theatrical movement with the music was exemplary throughout, the jaunty introduction to “To be sung on the Water” followed by beautiful ‘cello solos evoking a boat-ride down the river, one of a number of enduring memories of the performance.

Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess would have been well-pleased with both the powerful overall impact and the finely-crafted detailed focus his musicians brought to this production. Its dual-performance aspect gives it a singular kind of appeal, no matter in what order one experiences the “outside/inside” presentation, be it a savouring of expectation beforehand, or food for thought afterwards! – It plays again tonight (Wednesday 4th March) at 8:30pm, and then at the same time on both the 5th and 7th later this week at the RNZB Dance Centre next to the MFC in Wakefield St., Wellington.





Wonderland in Wellington at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford (after Lewis Carroll)

Director: Susan Wilson
Musical Director/Arranger: Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Designer: Lucas Neal
Lighting: Marcus McShane
Costumes: Sheila Horton
Musical Staging: Leigh Evans
Technical: Deb McGuire (Lighting) / Paul Lawrence (sound)

Cast – Gavin Rutherford : Dame Marjori
Natasha McAllister: Alice
Sarah Lineham: White Rabbit/Caterpillar
Andrew Paterson: Tweedledum
Susie Berry: Tweedledee/Voice of Cheshire Cat
Jonathan Morgan: The Queen of Hearts
Simon Leary: The Mad Hatter
David Duchovny Dormouse: Himself

Circa Theatre, Wellington
Tuesday, 19th November, 2019

(until 22nd December, then 2-11 January 2020)

This show was, I thought, an absolute knockout on the performance strength of the songs and their associated choreography alone!  Michael Nicholas Williams’ skilled arrangements of no less than thirteen (mostly?) home-grown classics, along with Leigh Evans’ splendid choreography lent musical magic to a scenario whose script I thought suitably action-packed enough, if not with quite the consistent raciness and fluency of other Circa pantos I’ve seen. Still, a talented cast under Susan Wilson’s direction here imbued the song-and-movement action with the kind of energy and seamless flow of engagement we couldn’t help but give ourselves over to – music theatre at its most happily compelling.

For this reason I took away at the end most readily a sense of ensemble created in these pieces, around which everything else revolved – a “whole greater than the sum of parts” feeling, which added to the overall pleasurable “glow” of the experience. Of course, people of my generation, steeped in the Lewis Carroll books and their iconic references (a number of which were quoted verbatim in the dialogue) would be all too ready to succumb to the tried and true attractions and fascinations of the various characters and their antics – and thus it was, here. And even for younger people, the scenario of a “Wonderland” where the unexpected becomes the norm can be accorded parallels with our more-than-usually mixed-up world, so continuing to lend itself as much, if not even more, to the kind of absurdities that appealed to the original author’s fanciful imagination.

Writers Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford cleverly work local and topical references into the presentation via character’s names (here was Dame Marjori Banks Street, talking about ex-husband Kent Terrace, and the “other woman”, Courtenay Place!), and some hinted allusions to certain political leaders and their interaction in the characters of the Queen of Hearts and The Jabberwock! Film-maker Peter Jackson also gets a mention as the alleged uncle of Alice, Dame Marjori fancying her chances of making a valuable “contact” with someone whose connections might further her aspirations as a hitherto undiscovered performing artist (with a potently expressive right hand!).

The show’s scenario revolves around the circumstance in the original story of a famous theft – that of the tarts, made (as in the well-known nursery-rhyme) by the Queen of Hearts, though here, it’s the White Rabbit (rather than the Knave of Hearts) who’s placed under suspicion as the thief, and threatened with execution – naturally, Alice and Dame Marjorie, along with the Rabbit’s Wonderland friend, the Mad Hatter, strive to release the latter from the Queen’s clutches. Their adversaries include not only the Queen’s servants-cum-hit-men Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but the fearsome Jabberwock, whose presence is, until it finally makes an unexpected appearance, powerfully evoked at various stages of the story with a portentous leitmotif accompanied by a sudden darkening of the atmosphere – most effective!

It wouldn’t be a proper Pantomime without participation from the audience, most ostensibly the children who are summonsed onto the stage at one point by Dame Marjori to help thwart the  Queen of Hearts’ vengeful intentions towards the Rabbit. It’s done here with the power of love by the children holding up pictures of the Cheshire Cat’s smiling face and singing along with the Avalanche City song “Love, love, love”, which exercise comes off a treat (complete with mandatory-cum-heartwarming in-situ photograph-snapping!) There were also frequent exhortations  made to us to greet different characters, answer various questions or warn people of danger (to which we readily responded). As well, the Dame used her roving eye to suitable effect on the audience, at one point early in the piece lighting on a certain gentleman, asking him for his name, and then to our recurring amusement throughout the evening keeping him within coo-ee and on the boil!

In his tenth pantomime role, Gavin Rutherford again bestrode the Circa stage like a colossus, holding the audience in the palm of Dame Marjori’s hand as she described her “poor, lonely, widow-woman status”, though playing the “abandoned-wife” card this time round, courtesy of her absent husband Kent Terrace. Her flirtation and would-be liaison with Simon Leary’s wonderful, and hyperactively charismatic Mad Hatter promised much (with musically-framed “can this be he/she?” moments), before failing, at the cusp, to deliver, for reasons best seen rather than explained…..

Compelling, too, was Jonathan Morgan’s prima-donna-ish Queen of Hearts, as wilful and volatile as her divine right permitted her to be, responsive one second to the children’s exhortations of love, and then transforming into Gorgon-like aspect through the influence of the evil Jabberwock. Her song “Tears” in tandem with her cohorts Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Andrew Paterson and Susie Berry respectively) was, like their first-half “Out on the Street”, a highlight of the show, the three going spectacularly through their paces with fabulously-timed teamwork and superbly-concerted voices. And while Sarah Lineham’s character-parts of the White Rabbit and the Caterpillar were relatively low-key, the roles requiring more finely crafted than full-blooded, in-your-face assumptions, she came into her own in the song-and-dance routines as a paid-up-vibrant component of the ensemble.

As, of course, did the equally fine-tuned Alice of Natasha McAllister, whose role throughout was a kind of fulcrum, both as a foil for the outrageous Dame Marjori and a focus for everybody else, as their ostensible “dreamer”, an enabler whose presence was the sounding-board for practically all the other characters, her own beautifully presented in every way, a “constant” whose energy and vocal strength told in the concerted numbers which gave the show its special distinctiveness,

Backdropped by Lucas Neal’s simple but effective set of playing cards and a classic pantomimic “disappearing hole” part of whose charm and intent was its emphasis on “suggestion”, the non-stop action whirled kaleidoscopically around and about the performing-space to visceral effect, enriched by technicians Deb McGuire (lighting) and Paul Lawrence (sound) readily evoking the baleful presence of the Jabberwock. Sheila Horton’s costumings helped bring the characters to life, between dressing Alice classically (a la John Tenniel’s original illustrations) and the Mad Hatter fantastically, the latter complete with glove-puppet Dormouse. Director Susan Wilson enabled these disparate impulses and energies as a convincing and hugely entertaining whole, a show from which one felt like dancing into and through the streets afterwards, celebrating and prolonging its feast of music, movement, and laughter.