Wellington muso Liam Kelly kicks off the show with a beautiful piano solo that immediately lifts everyone’s expectations. In fact, Kelly deserves a special mention for his performance stamina, because he does an incredible job throughout of keeping the show moving and reading the scenes.
The cast of Off Book: The Musical creates well-defined characters who give the show dynamism. Naturally, we have our central illustrator (Jonathan Briden), but we also have everyone from a blunt, hard-done-by mother (Joanna Prendergast), to a tech-obsessed son (Mark Darbyshire) and a bright, naïve girl who keeps keeps paraphrasing people’s points incorrectly (Bethany Miller) in her reprise of ‘So What You’re Trying to Say … ’. I’m especially impressed by the cast’s collective ability to link back to bits of information dropped by other players by introducing surprise relationships on the back of things like the mention of an ex-husband.
What the cast gives us is less of a story about an illustrator, and more of a story about a dysfunctional family coming together, and I’m pleased. The show is full of laughs, but it has depth at its core. One particular number, which I will loosely title ‘Can’t We All Be Angels?’, by Bethany Miller and Greg Hubbard about salvaging a misaligned father–daughter relationship is truly moving and poignant, and it earns them a collective ‘Aww!’ from the audience. This is carried through by the whole cast though, as they really push to give the story the arc it needs. Each character takes their own journey, with everything from a mother (Joanna Prendergast) learning to appreciate her son’s (Mark Darbyshire) love of computers, to half-siblings connecting for the first time (Bethany Miller, Mark Darbyshire and Jonathan Briden). It all comes together in a satisfying family number that brings closure to both the characters and the audience.
The only downside to the story taking this turn is that it means some members of the cast don’t get much stage time, as the family narrative more or less writes them out of the central story. It does demonstrate these players’ great listening skills though, in that they can recognise when they need to step back from a story, but I do hope audiences will get to see more of these improvisors on subsequent nights.
Off Book: The Musical is a different show every night, and it closes tonight at 8:30pm on the Random Stage. To see these talented improvisors perform, buy tickets through the BATS website. For more information about other shows in the festival, visit the NZIF website.