Lola’s story is one of boy meets boy, until we find that Lola’s, quite literally discreet, lover is married, which fuels Lola’s heart full of confusion, hatred, loss, and melancholy. The show ties into its Day of the Dead aesthetic by explore heaven, hell, and purgatory as the stations Lola travels through on this journey of recovering from heartbreak. It’s not a new narrative vehicle, but Lola’s Grave Mistake uses it exceptionally well. We pass through purgatory when Lola’s feeling lost, unsure, in-between, and we are treated to an original song, “Heart as Black as Night”, where we can feel the struggle and the vulnerability seep from Lola; Harman commands total attention, stand still, tense, and in a single, white spotlight. When we dip into hell, red sweeps the stage, and Lola engages in a magic trick contest with the devil full of hilarious fails and flops. And by the show’s closure, a jazzed rendition of “I Will Survive” shows us just how far Lola’s come and s/he’s reaching for heaven again.
Despite the narrative flowing relatively smoothly from segment to segment, the show’s rhythm feels off, almost as if we’re lost in the river Styx without Charon to guide us. It very rapidly switches from something sultry or upbeat, to something much more solemn and earnest, much more vulnerable. But these shifts, even as enjoyable each segment of the grand tale is, don’t help reinforce the show’s theme; instead, they create speed bumps in the plot, which risks dipping the show’s otherwise electric energy.
As Lola, Harman is hypnotic. The stage presence he has as a performer keeps the audience locked-on throughout; if Harman wants us paying attention to something specific, like a shovel prop to try dig through the Dome’s floor or his energetic clopping and frantic darting during “Mayhem”, you can bet our eyes are firmly fixated on that something specific. This maintains the energy and the tension between the stage and the audience even when the show’s rhythm slows or bulges.
There’s so much variety to Harman’s performance that it does feel like a one-man cabaret. There’s song, there’s dance, there’s audience interaction; but I’m most captured by the magic tricks and little gags that peck through the show, giving the audience relief from the musical moments and providing other opportunities for laugh. None of them could top the phone gag when Lola finds out about the lover’s wife. I’ll never be able to listen to “Jolene” again without recalling this moment.
The lighting design (which goes uncredited) helps bathe Harman in sharp, coloured lighting one might expect from a drag or cabaret performance, but there’s moments of subtly that make the scenes pulsate with life. I’m particularly enamoured by the delicate light bulbs that dot the air above the stage like stars in the night sky; they give off little light, but it’s enough to keep Harman glowing throughout the performance. When they’re used as the main lighting tool or accompanied by just a spotlight or dim amber wash, they create a feeling of intimacy and closeness, helping to close the gap between performer and audience, and creating an experience that felt one-on-one.
Opening night’s sound levels are a little off, however. In the softer numbers especially, the backing audio tends to drown out Harman’s voice, which means we miss out on key moments of emotion. We missed some of the opening number, “Way Too Sad to Cry”, because of it; rather than supporting one another, the volume of Harman’s voice and the backing audio were competing.
Lola’s Grave Mistake saunters into your heart and makes for a night that’s as energetic and camp as it is heartfelt and real. I head out of the theatre with a smile planted on my face. I’m happy that Lola has dug out of purgatory and headed towards heaven, and there’s something special about a heartwarming tale on a slightly cooler Wellington eve that helps to keep your spirits and outlook on love’s struggles high.