Irrepressibly delightful Ali Harper – every which way at Circa Theatre’s “The Supper Club”

Circa Theatre presents:
“The Supper Club”
Ali Harper (hostess, performer, singer)
with The Jazz Hot Supper Club Band –
Tom McLeod (piano), Blair Latham (saxophone, clarinet, guitar, flute),
Olivia Campion (percussion), Scott Maynard (double-bass)

Writer – Ali Harper
Director – Ian Harman
Music Director – Tom McLeod
Choreography – Ian Harman & Sandy Gray
Set and Costume Design – Ian Harman
Lighting – Rich Tucker

Circa Theatre 1, Taranaki St., Wellington
Tuesday, 23rd January, 2024

(until 17th February, 2024)

You have to hand it to Ali Harper, right from her first “boots and all” appearance on the floor of Circa 1 as a delightfully enthusiastic and even somewhat engagingly dishevelled “hostess-cum-organiser-cum-stage manager” firing on all cylinders to make her audience feel welcomed and at home to her “Supper Club” for a “sumptuous smorgasbord of song”. Utterly in character was her peremptory (and near-perilous!) exiting to check up on some vital last-second detail regarding the show’s introduction! – but most importantly she had us all primed to a tee for what was to follow – a “coming-to-life” of what seemed like a typically subterranean nightclub scenario, with light, movement and sound! In fact the opening saxophone notes of “Basin Street Blues” – would have instantly evoked for my generation those first, far-off New Zealand black-and-white television images of the renowned Leonard Feather’s programmes featuring some of the great musicians of jazz, which began, as I remember, every week with those same haunting upward phrases!……

So, even before Ali Harper herself returned to the stage I was hooked, floating on a nostalgic carpet of sounds begun by Blair Latham’s insinuating saxophone sounds, all of which continued with the support of Tom McLeod’s piano, Scott Maynard’s double bass and Olivia Campion’s drums. Harper’s reappearance as “Nellie”, a 1920s English Rose, instantly captivated, her persona complete with idiomatic-sounding Cockney (?) accent, and a bevy of songs, which sounded totally “period” in character, despite (according to my researches when writing this review) the earliest of them “The Physician” first appearing in a 1933 Cole Porter musical “Nymph Errant”, and the latest “C’est si bon” a 1947 song by Henri Betti (a pedantic observation on my part, under the circumstances!). I was particularly captivated by, firstly, “The Physician”, having never heard it or known if it before, and then the George Gershwin song “Slap that Bass” (from the 1937 film “Shall We Dance”). Harper’s performances of each one as “Nellie” I thought particularly delightful.

Either an authentic recording of 1939 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s grimly-voiced ultimatum to the German Government regarding the latter’s invasion of Poland, or a creditable imitation of that same voice was heard amid the stage’s darkly-growing ambience leading to a new singer’s appearance, one with the name Golde, whose appearance and manner made the greatest possible contrast with the delightful “Nellie”.  Harper’s wonderfully deadpan “I’m the Laziest Girl in town” (another Cole Porter song that was new to me – what a musical goldmine of an evening it had become already!)  belied her character’s raunchily-delivered succeeding number “Let’s Misbehave!” (another Porter song), and included a couple of Harper’s amusing “sitting duck” audience interactions giving pleasure of a different kind (depending on whether one was a recipient or an observer!). But I thought the disturbingly militaristic treatment accorded the accompaniment to the well-known “Lili Marlene” chillingly effective amid surreal blood-orange lighting, culminating in suitably atonally-accelerated oblivion, and the maniacal ravings of (presumably) Adolf Hitler as the singer left the stage!

Our antidote to all of this was provided by Harper’s next singer, Claudette, a vivacious and no-nonsense figure entering centrestage and continuing right into the audience, giving out cards which displayed the legend “Vive la France”, before launching into an engaging, quick-waltz number which I didn’t know, but which crackled with energy – “Ҫa sent si bon la France” (France smells so good)! After such unbridled energy we appreciated a “breather” in the form of “Les Feuilles Mortes” (Dead Leaves), a melody I didn’t know I knew at first, but was held spellbound by the singer’s beautiful, becalmed concentration and breathtakingly spare accompaniment. As for the concluding number in this bracket, Harper paid unashamed homage to the great Edith Piaf, here, with “Non, je ne regrette vien”, the song’s spoken introduction flowering into stirring, strongly-framed utterance and bringing an overwhelming ovation with which to end the first half – whew!

A comfortably-paced interval gave us time and space to process what we’d heard and to refresh for what was still to come, with Tom McLeod and the Jazz Hot Supper Club band in the driving seat for the first couple of numbers of the second half’s opening bracket, “Freddie”, obviously an American singer/performer. A snappy instrumental opening to Irving Berlin’s 1927 song  “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was complemented by the entertainingly nimble singing of pianist Tom McLeod, who then delivered a similarly lithe rendition of  Ben Wiseman’s 1957 song (written for Elvis Presley)  “A lot of Livin’ to do”, accompanied by a great sax solo in the latter by Blair Latham.

Ali Harper’s entry as (presumably) Fred Astaire, complete with top hat, got a great reception, as did her rendition of the eponymous title song, though as a contrast to the razz-matazz opening, I would have liked some contrasting circumspection in both the vocal line and accompaniment in both  Jerome Kern’s 1940 song  “The Last time I saw Paris” and Cole Porter’s earlier (1932) song “Night and Day” – a more wistful, measured delivery of either song could have varied the mix to its and our advantage. Still, variety came with the next two numbers featured as vocal duets from singer and pianist, Tom McLeod joining Ali Harper in Richard Whiting’s 1937 hit “Too Marvelous for Words”, and then the throwback 1927 Dave Dreyer song “Me and My Shadow”, whose introductory music I didn’t at all know, until the lyrics reached those famous eponymous lines, by which time Harper and McLeod had wowed us with their snappy dance routine to boot!

Two more recent numbers concluded the “American “ sequence  – coincidentally I had not long ago been watching the old 1950s “Kiss Me, Kate” film and enjoying the superb Ann Miller’s song-and-dance routine for Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot”, one which Harper most effectively  turned into a sultry “femme fatale” number, then next “vamping” the Nancy Sinatra “These Boots were made for walkin’” hit, and excitingly upwardly-modulating the keys for each of the refrains, her sexy Peggy Lee-like-insouciance actually heightening the song’s tensions! Wow!

The show’s finale was a “Supper Club Comin’ Out Night” with Harper as the “Ultimate Diva” and giving her own era’s songs the full treatment – I thought it all worked in an “I gave it all I had” way, warm and open-hearted, wide-ranging and full-blooded I was left with renewed appreciation of Harper’s ability to convey memorable and  contrasting characterisations of the kind I’d previously seen and so enjoyed. Every “episode” had its particular gem, giving me plenty to take away from the evening and ponder amid plentiful memories and nostalgic associations. Together with her ever-responsive musicians, allied  with director Ian Harman’s stage and costumes expertise, Sandy Gray’s choreography and Rich Tucker’s “on the button” lighting, Harper made our evening glow with warmth and scintillate with pleasure.


Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” – a production for our time

NZ Opera presents:
BELA BARTOK – Bluebeard’s Castle
A co-production by Theatre of Sound and Opera Ventures (UK)

Susan Bullock – Judith
Lester Lynch – Bluebeard
Erin Meek – Judith 1960s
Katie Burson – Judith 1970s/80s
Marion Prebble – Judith 1990s
Ava Phipps – Meadow
William Kelly – River

Laurence Renes (conductor)
Daisy Evans (Director and Translator)
Stephen Higgins – Revival Director
Adrian Linford – Scenic and Costume Designer
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting Designer
Max Pappenherim – Sound Designer
David Kelly – Repetiteur

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 10th August 2023


This presentation was a boldly-conceived contemporary recasting of the enigmatic story of Bluebeard, a character with origins in myth and legend where he’s portrayed as some kind of “serial killer”of his wives. It was then adapted in operatic guise around a century ago by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok as a story of a love-encounter between two strong-willed personalities leading to the tragic subjugation by one of the other.  Now, here, we witnessed  a radically different “take” of Bartok’s and his librettist’s story, still using the composer’s music and an updated English version of the same libretto, but presenting an entirely new husband/wife scenario.  – the couple’s long-standing marriage is shown as being put under considerable strain by the onset of some kind of cognitive disorder on the part of Judith, the wife, a situation borne with considerable forbearance of character from both partners. And, there’s a good deal of sympathy elicited for the plight of each in the situation for different, albeit closely-related reasons that are essential to the drama.

This particular production had its origins in the UK from the Theatre of Sound Company’s reworking by director Daisy Evans of Bartok’s presentation – here, Bluebeard and Judith are living their lives as an ordinary suburban couple, but with Judith’s own grasp of reality seemingly under siege, and her husband, Bluebeard experiencing the pathos of appearing to gradually lose his wife to dementia. So Bluebeard’s “castle” is transformed into their home, and the “doors” (so strikingly symbolic in Bartok’s work) are embodied in a large chest filled with the couple’s memorabilia, one which, during the work Judith frequently refers to with demands that it be opened and its contents revealed.

What seems to be presented here is Judith’s replaying of a version of her own life story as, one by one, certain aspects of the couple’s past are uncovered, in each case embodied by the appearance of a younger woman on the stage, the three that appear by turns throughout the course of the different “revealings” obviously representing younger versions of Judith, and with whom Bluebeard interacts knowingly and affectionately. Still, there’s certainly a kind of ambivalence present in some of these “revealings”, as to whether the latter “wants” Judith to revisit some of these memories, or is, in fact being forced to reveal aspects of his own past that he would prefer remained secret. The sixth of the “doors” is, in some ways, the most telling of these revisitings (as it is in Bartok’s own staging as “the “lake of tears” wrought from what Bluebeard in the opera describes as his own sorrows), where husband and wife here physically wrestle with a box containing what seem like letters, photographs and memorabilia, and the contents are dramatically spilled out onto the floor in front of them – we are uncertain whether the angst here is shared in common by the couple or the result of Bluebeard’s own secrecies being uncomfortably exposed. The husband’s anguished plea of “Judith, must we do this?” adds to the tantalising ambivalence of it all.

The denoument, so telling in Bartok’s version with the revealing of Bluebeard’s former wives, somewhat macabrely and symbolically remaining alive but “held prisoner” in the castle, and the subsequent subjugation of Judith to a similar fate, is here of a vastly different order. The reappearance of the different “Judiths” along with whom one supposes are either the couple’s children or grandchildren swing the scenario’s portals  wide open as to the state of things for the pair at the work’s conclusion. Bluebeard’s own resignation to a world of darkness comes across as an intensely personal realisation, but one whose recalibration as a tragic experience “shared” with his wife makes for an intensely moving conclusion in the work’s updated version, a devastation of experience in which love seems to be the only worthwhile positive response.

As with Bartok’s and his librettist poet Bela Balazs’ version of the legend, some of the events of the story give rise to considerable conjecture on the listener’s part as to what is “meant” in places; and I found myself puzzling over certain aspects of the present production. The chief one was the fifth of the “revelations” in which Bluebeard describes the majesty and grandeur of his “realm”, accompanied by the work’s most spectacularly-wrought music, and to which he here reacts by the donning of some kind of “party” costume, and greeting two children, who are presumably a remembrance of his and Judith’s own offspring. Wondrous though the orchestra sounds are, I would hesitate to characterise them as “party music”, and in doing so am confessing to a lack of imagination on my part as to what was at this point exactly being alluded to. Of course, as with many instances of great art, one’s own capacities for understanding are often pushed beyond one’s own limits, and continue to remain a source of wonderment, in some cases remaining a mystery.

All of this was conveyed, firstly and foremostly, by the two singers, Susan Bullock and Lester Lynch, with the utmost dramatic and theatrical skill and conviction throughout – against a backdrop of a whole world of mysterious orchestral sonority conjured up by conductor Lawrence Reynes with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in top form throughout, the soloists “sung” their characters into life, aided by movement and gesture which fitted their characters and situations like a pair of gloves upon the hands of a single person. One hesitates to describe the pair individually, as everything they did on the stage conveyed an awareness of and response to the other, bringing home to us the extent of their tragedy and the remarkable generation of human emotion they directed towards one another throughout. Occasionally the voices were swamped by the orchestra, but such places in operatic scores often demand such a fusion of overwhelming sound in places where voice and instruments become as one – and one surrenders to such moments as part of the experience.

The scenario, and the characters’ movements in their world were unerringly delineated throughout, with direction, costumes, sound and lighting tellingly and atmospherically wrought. Conductor Lawrence Renes controlled the orchestral ebb and flow with point and flexibility, allowing the big moments to “tell” as effectively as he did the score’s many  “whispered” detailings at the other end of the tonal spectrum, all quite remarkably re-contextualised here to suit the time and place of the updated schema, and realised with playing that by turns thrilled, gripped. disturbed and delighted. I was sorry that the printed programme provided for audience members seemed to continue the recent trend of NZSO programmes providing a bare minimum of information regarding the works performed and the artists involved, and requiring patrons to “scan” on machines provided in order to get “full programme notes and artist information”. These omissions, such as any detailed background history to the composer and the work presented, along with any kind of artist information certainly detracted from any in-depth “souvenir value” the publication might afford enthusiasts such as myself.

This minor quibble apart, I found myself “caught up” in the experience of this “Bluebeard’s Castle” to a degree I hadn’t quite expected, exchanging my hitherto awe and wonderment at the usual, familiar encounter with the work for a different kind of confrontation with adversity and darkness. It was one which I found couldn’t help but echo some of my own resonances of involvements with various people, interactions which were difficult, and often distressing to encounter and try and come to terms with. This production could be described as a “brave new world” of sorts, and is something one ought to, if one gets the chance, go and experience wholeheartedly for oneself.


A Springful of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, from Orchestra Wellington


Robert Schumann Dichterliebe arranged by Henrik Hellstenius
Deborah Wai Kapohe, mezzo

Robert Schumann Cello Concerto
Inbal Megiddo, cello

Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night Dream
Barbara Paterson, Michaela Codwgan, sopranos,
Dryw McArthur, Alex Greig and Danielle  Meldrum, actors,
Women’s voices of the Orpheus Choir.

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th August, 2022

Schumann and Mendelssohn may seem like traditional programming for an orchestral concert, but – trust Marc Taddei, – it was anything but run of the mill standard fare. This was a concert of works seldom heard or seldom heard in the form presented.

Schumann Dichterliebe, arranged by Henrik Hellstenius

It opened with Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. This, along with Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is a work that established the song cycle form as more than a collection of songs, and is a landmark of the lieder repertoire. The songs are settings of sixteen poems by Heine. Heine was some ten years older than Schumann and was already celebrated as the leading German lyric poet. Perhaps Heine’s intrinsic contradictions appealed to Schumann’s split personalities. Maybe the cunning craft of Heine’s poetry brought something out of Schumann the master miniaturist. But what we were presented with was not the well known song cycle of Schumann with its dramatic piano accompaniment, but an arrangement by the contemporary Norwegian composer,  Henrik Hellstenius.

Instead of the piano, we had a large orchestra with even an exotic ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument.  Its deep voice was a welcome addition to the brass section. The piece started with a bell-like sound produced by violin and flute. The piano part is deconstructed right through the songs into a kaleidoscope of colourful orchestral sounds. Wai Kapohe sang not as the usual image of a classical lieder singer, but like a jazz singer, or more like a chanteuse, using a microphone, and despite the vast auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre, she gave the impression of singing intimately for every person of the large audience. Her beautiful warm voice touched every one.

The  settings of sixteen of Heine’s poems are about love,  flowers, sorrow and pain, dream, memory of a kiss, the Cathetral of Cologne, a lark’s song of longing, a broken heart, fairy tale, and death.. The arrangement of Hellstenius turned Schumann’s music into a haunting post-modern musical experience. It is not a matter of being better than Schumann, bringing Schumann up to date; it is about looking at Schumann’s music through a contemporary lens, hearing it as eternally meaningful music.

Schumann Cello Concerto

The song cycle was followed by Schumann’s last orchestral work, his cello concerto, which he completed two weeks before he attempted suicide, and never had the opportunity of hearing it performed. It is a remarkable work, the first ‘romantic’ concerto written for the cello, a world away from preceding works for the cello, the cello concertos of Haydn and Boccherini.  The concerto starts with three chords played by the strings then the cello takes over with a beautiful melody, which Inbal Megiddo played with a ravishing sound. This set the tone of the whole work. The piece is episodic, a mark of much of Schumann’s work, short contrasting themes make up the building blocks of the overall piece, slow melodic sections interspersed with dramatic virtuoso passages.

The themes are like his songs, melodious. engaging.  The three movements, a lyrical yet dramatic first movement,  a slow second movement and a lively, energetic final movement, are connected by brief bridging sections. A song like quality pervades the work. Inbal Megiddo gave this concerto a beautiful, convincing reading. Acknowledging the warm applause, she played as an encore the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. She played it with a scintillating light touch. It was an appropriate bridge to the final item on the programme.

Mendelssohn A  Midsummer Night Dream

Mendelssohn wrote the overture to Midsummer Night Dream for the house concerts in his family’s lavish home, when he was a boy of seventeen and this it stayed in the popular repertoire ever since. It is a scintillating piece of music, but the Incidental Music was written much later, at the instigation of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, a music lover. Mendelssohn expanded the Overture into a forty-five minute suit exploring scenes from the play, that included the among its thirteen movements, the sprightly goblin-like Scherzo, the light jolly, otherworldly song with the choir, the dreamy Nocturne with its solo horn, the stately Wedding March, played at innumerable weddings since its first performance, and the foot stomping Dance of the Clown. The use of three actors as narrator reading out the lines from the play, and two solo sopranos singing some of the choral numbers greatly enhanced the music.

Hearing the whole Incidental Music to Midsummer Night Dream was a joyous experience. But it was more than that, it was an insight into Romanticism in music, fairies, dreams, magic, ingredients of romantic music and literature, that echoed the music of Schumann and other romantic composers.

Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei offered, as usual. an imaginative programme,  played well, with understanding, which amounted to more than the sum total of the works performed. It captured the spirit of an era, with contemporary commentary on it by the orchestral arrangement of the Schumann songs by Henrik Hellstenius

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!

“Rockin’ On” with the Lockdown Quartet at St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace

Family Lockdown Quartet

Lucy Maurice and Rupa Maitra, violins: Donald Maurice, viola; and Gemma Maurice, cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 20 October 2021

From 26 March to 27 May 2020, when New Zealand was locked down in Alert Level 4 and many of us were watching Netflix in our pyjamas until it was time for the 1 pm press briefing, the Maurice-Maitra family were putting in some useful quartet practice. Soon they were giving concerts on Zoom ‘to audiences all over the world’. In this charming lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s, they performed some of their lockdown repertoire.

To say the programme was eclectic doesn’t quite cover it. The pieces in the concert ranged across 200 years, from Mozart to Guns N’ Roses. The concert was in two parts: three short works from more standard repertoire, plus five interesting arrangements of great rock n’ roll songs.

Parents Rupa Maitra (violin) and Donald Maurice (viola) have had the good sense to produce two daughters, cellist Gemma and violinist Lucy. But still, a successful quartet is more than a matter of having the requisite instruments. Chamber music requires technical skill and communication. These they demonstrated – along with a sense of fun.

The first piece was an arrangement for string quartet of a famous tango song by Carlos Gardel, ‘Por Una Cabeza’, stylishly played. The adults’ more polished and powerful playing could have taken over, but with Lucy on first violin the girls held their own and the balance was surprisingly good. In the Presto from Mozart’s Divertimento in D major Lucy showed herself to be an able leader and a good communicator.  Then the parents left the stage while the girls played a charming Air and Variations by Jean-Baptiste Bréval, a contemporary of Mozart. A cellist, Bréval wrote mostly for his own instrument, but this piece gave both cello and violin plenty to do. So far a well-chosen programme, presented with confidence and polish.

When the parents returned to the stage, they had changed their appearance. Rupa was barefoot and wearing a spiky black and white wig, while Donald wore a hippy headband. No one was going to take themselves too seriously.

Donald told us that when he first heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the car radio one day, he had to pull over. That’s when he found out that he had missed out on ‘about 30 years of rock music’. ‘I had no idea what came after the Beatles.’  It was good, he observed, to be introduced to it now by his children, and to play it together.

Introducing ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC, Rupa commented that screamed lyrics were hard to reproduce by a quartet but a guitar riff was probably manageable.  And so it turned out. Violin 1 took the lead guitar part, with percussion from violin 2. There was some gutsy playing from viola and cello standing in for bass guitar.

I thought the most successful arrangement was Rupa’s own of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’. Gemma helpfully explained the colour imagery in the lyrics, and played a plangent cello introduction. Her mother took up the tune in the style of a lead guitar, and then passed it on to the viola. If the piece ended a bit abruptly, it’s because that’s what the song does.

I had no expectations of Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’, but it worked particularly well for quartet, with an improvisatory quality, wisps of melody floating from voice to voice.

Surprisingly I found the arrangement of Queen’s prog rock classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ the least successful of the bunch. The arrangement for quartet was by UK violinist and arranger Mark Lansom, who has arranged Iron Maiden and Cold Play for string quartet, as well several other Queen songs. The remarkable harmonic shifts of the original were there, but the operatic effects had lost their edge when transferred to strings. Roger Taylor’s falsetto ‘Galileo’s were markedly less thrilling when played on the violin, where they are well within the instrument’s range. But it was undeniably interesting.

All in all, an unexpectedly off-beat concert, delivered with confidence and a shared delight.


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!


Voices of Women – A New Zealand sufferage celebration by Janet Jennings


Music by Janet Jennings
– a celebration of the successful struggle by women to gain the vote

Magnificat (soprano, violin, marimba)
A Daughter of Eve (soprano, piano)
Sit Down With Me Awhile (mezzo-soprano, piano)
Myself When Young (soprano, piano)
Voices of Women (voices, violin, marimba, piano, percussion)

Voices: Jayne Tankersley (soprano) Stephanie Acraman (soprano) Felicity Tompkins (soprano) Cartrin Johnsson (mezzo-soprano) Mere Boynton (voice)
Instrumentalists: Maia-Dean Martin (violin) Yoshiko Tsuruta (marimba) Katherine Austin (piano) Noelle Dannenbring (piano) Rachel Fuller (piano) Maria Mo (piano) Rachel Thomas (percussion)
Conductor (Voices of Women) Rachael Griffiths-Hughes

Produced by Wayne Laird for Atoll Records


Inspired by the 125th anniversary of the 1893 Electoral Act in New Zealand which gave women the right to vote in New Zealand, the first self-governing country in the world to enact such legislation, this CD collection of works by Janet Jennings was first performed as a single concert in Hamilton, at the Dr. John Gallagher Concert Chamber, University of Waikato, presumably by the same performers.

The opening work, Magnificat, brought to us ethereal visitations of sound from a solo violin, birdsong-like and wreathed in resonances from the marimba, and then joined by the more earthly but still exaltedly beautiful tones of soprano Jayne Tankersley, a human voice addressing heaven, and aspiring to a blessed state with her beautifully-floated omnes generationes. The long-breathed lines became animated at Fecit potentiam in bracio suo (He hath shewed strength with his arm) with voice and violin (the latter played by Maia Dean Martin) flexing their respective energies, after which the singing was increasingly visited with a kind of “possessed” aspect, a heightened presence, the considerations increasingly unworldly and spiritual. Added to this exultation were Yoshiko Tsuruta’s warm and energised marimba colourings at Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto, continuing right through  the “charged” radiance of the Amens.

Whether “A Daughter of Eve” was the programme’s or the composer’s name for the group of three Christina Rosetti songs, I’m not certain – but the set began with Rosetti’s heartfelt exploration of feelings associated with motherhood in “Crying, my little One”, the vocal line beautifully and heartfeltedly maintained by Stephanie Acraman, with sterling support from pianist Katherin Austin. The musicians then relished the relatively unbridled energies of the jolly, angular ditty “Winter: my Secret”, a charming series of pacts made by the poet with Nature and its different moods, the mercurial word-patternings setting enigmas against enigmas in an idiosyncratic way. The lamenting, claustrophobically coloured “Daughter of Eve suggested a loss of innocence wrought by circumstance, poor judgement and little care, day giving way to night, summer turning all too soon to winter, singer and pianist expressing the song’s despair with a deft but always sensitive touch.

New Zealand poet Ursula Bethell’s verses from a collection called “From a Garden in the Antipodes” expresed an intensely personal pride in creating something beautiful, a garden in which the poet “laboured hour on hour”. In a group called “Sit Down With Me Awhile” mezzo Catrin Johnsson and pianist Rachel Fuller delineated both anecdote and detail with a good deal of personality and character. The eponymous opening song outlined the hard work of creation and celebrated the ensuing rewards.  The process was continued with Warfare, a part war-chant and part dance, making a gardener’s peace with adversarial pests, while Ado railed against nature for outstripping the gardener’s best attentions with what the poet called “orgies”! I loved “Easter Bells”, the ambience generously resounding with vocal and instrumental ambiences – Jennings’ writing evoked a powerful sense of ritual and heartfelt faith in the process of change and renewal.

The title of the next group “Myself When Young” was not, in this case, anything to do with Edward Fitzgerald’s “Omar Khayyam” verses – but were settings of poems by Jean Alison Bartlett (1912-2006), written when the poet was 18 years old – soprano Felicity Tompkins’s brighter, more youthful, if less detailed tones energetically conveying the excitement of the poet’s work being published in “My poem was printed”, and with pianist Maria Mo’s evocative, flexible phrasings, savouring the sensuousness of a poem’s words in “Stop, Look, Listen” – beautiful evocations from singer and pianist, here – a pity the on-line text of this song “broke off” mid-way through, denying us the full impact of the words’ meanings……

Finally, there was “Voices of Women”, an extended “sprechgesang” kind of setting which articulated speeches and writings by various women from different parts of the world. Conductor Rachael Griffiths-Hughes powerfully launched the music’s Shostakovich-like opening, the ensemble’s playing (joined to splendid effect by pianist Noelle Dannenbring and percussionist Rachel Thomas) giving the scenario all the tension and “edge” needed throughout the lead-up to the anguished, repeated cries of “Is it right!”, powerfully underlining the spoken words of the first of these women, Kate Sheppard. Unfortunately, the production didn’t signify more clearly which performer was singing and speaking at any one time during the work – but after the speaker’s eloquently-delivered Kate Sheppard quote came a stirring setting of a poem by American Charlotte Perkins Gilman, from 1911 (predating American women suffrage by nine years!), the unnamed singer brilliantly and sonorously articulating the text, particularly telling at the words “That not a woman’s child – nor her own body – is her own”.

The opening music returned to herald Kate Sheppard’s announcement (a different singer) of the passing of the suffrage legislation – I thought the newsreel-like progressions of comments and events had a direct sweep and energy which made for effectively powerful and theatrical listening, the instrumental-only sequence driving the times forward to the present day and the voice of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, “speaking from Parliament” – spoken at first, rather than sung, paying homage to Kate Shepherd and Margaret Sievwright, and containing the telling words “we stand on the shoulders of giants, and they stood on the shoulders of mothers…” Fittingly, the work ended with a fully throated paean of exultant praise and celebration from the ensembled voices, and suitably sonorous underpinning by the instrumental forces – a splendidly-voiced triumph of reason and justice. Janet Jennings’ powerful work has here given ample tongue to the fruition, then and now, of that resounding triumph.