I had the honour of attending Night A of the ‘Heart and Music’ festival. The night boasted two shows - the pop-rock revue The Rising Sun and New York chamber musical A New Brain. The two shows are a bit chalk and cheese. They’re utterly incomparable,but the flip-side is that they offer two very different flavours, for those of us who decide to embrace the nights full offerings.
As far as framing devices go, it’s not one that leaves me full of anticipation. When I walk into the scene of a scattered group of people nursing a few drinks onstage, I’m wondering where this can take me that doesn’t feel as old and tired as the bar it’s emulating. That said though, through a well selected array of songs and genuine performances from the cast, director Ed Blunden reminds us that there’s a reason why we’re continually reaching to the bar-flys to find our stories. It’s maybe the only place where we can find so many people exposing their vulnerability and losing their inhibitions - which undoubtedly makes a strong recipe for promising musical theatre.
We rip through songs at a speed that makes the hour feel less. Blunden has done a good job of feeling the energy levels the show needs, and knowing when to explode the energy upon the stage and when to pull back and offer a few moments of intimacy. Right before you begin to feel bogged down in the moodier stuff, along comes some heartwarming Queen and a full-table jumping ensemble to snap you out of it. Other songs include old classics, while also dabbling in modern rock from contemporary bands like Green Day and some of Adele’s edgier offerings - a choice which means there’s something to appeal to anyone’s musical taste buds.
The strong variety is a welcome experience for us. Some of the moments which struck the strongest emotional chord occurred when the performers simply stood and sang their stories for us - the fourth wall melted and genuine heart was found in the lyrics and music. At other moments, performers let the strength of the music fill the space - and there’s always something wonderfully infectious about the energy of watching someone just rock out.
In some moments, the choreography hits the nail on the head. When you get the whole cast onstage, doing simple hand gestures perfectly in synch, you get the satisfaction of seeing something really work. In these moments the music, performers, and dance come into an awesome alignment.
There are also a few moments that feel like misses. At times, the constant crossing of performers across the stage in military formation feels arbitrary and unmotivated, and I’m wondering if there’s a degree of struggle with the amount of bodies in the space that have sapped the energy from the movement. Getting that many bodies moving across the Gryphon stage simultaneously takes a lot of effort - and at times that makes the movement feel messy, whereas on a bigger stage such choreography has the potential to be cutting and strong.
Still. the show has some definite moments of spine-tingles. Big kudos here to musical director Michael Stebbings, whose wonderful arrangements created some of the most beautiful harmonies I’ve heard live. The talent of the cast is strong across the board - and while, as is inevitable in a musical production, there are those who are stronger actors than singers and vice-versa, when their voices blend together and elevate the show to the next level of wow-factor. It’s a wonderful wall of sound which you never tire of.
Next up on the agenda is A New Brain - the New Zealand premier of the musical by Tony award-winning writer William Finn. If The Rising Sun is upfront about its premise and delivers it, A New Brain is more deceptive. The show takes a simple story and squeezes it into something both hugely unpredictable and heart-wrenching.
With a majority of the story taking place within a hospital room, the story centers around composer Gordon Schwinn facing an unexpected medical emergency and the life threatening surgery he needs to fix it. He also wants to write something that matters, a way to live after death (which is suddenly a very real possibility). It’s the typical artist conundrum, magnified. As a premise, it sounds like something that would keep you constantly teary which is the kind of emotional labour I tend to try and avoid.
But that’s what really got to me about A New Brain - because the dominant tone of the show was achingly funny. Finn takes the subject matter in a surreal direction that both alienates and entertains. When one frog-suited character named Mr. Bungee (performed with a delightfully energetic malice by Alex Rabina) appears, embodying Gordon’s most self-deprecating thoughts like Jiminy Cricket gone haywire - I resign myself to the strange ride. It’s clear this isn’t going to be your usual hospital drama by any degree.
The comedy is understandably dark. Songs like ‘Gordo’s Law of Genetics’ deliver a nihilistic statement about how all the bad traits of humanity will inevitably trump the good ones. When delivered with that musical theatre grin and jazz hands, it only serves to make a dark song delightfully ridiculous. It’s not dance heavy show by any standards, but it has no need to be - the movement is sold by the actors commitment to character and to building the weird and absurd world of Gordon’s head. It’s clear director and choreographer Cassandra Tse has taken what is a good show, and in turn staged a very good production of it.
It’s hard to find much to fault with the production elements which astound throughout the entire ninety minutes, as we see the space transformed in small yet entirely unexpected ways. I’m particularly impressed with the set, largely because it’s not an element of the show that you carry any particular expectations for when first taking your seat.
The sheet covered desk upon a rostrum, with another unimpressive white sheet behind it doesn’t strike much of a chord when you first walk into the Gryphon. But that makes the way in which it’s used so satisfying, as it takes us from the clinical realities of a hospital ward to the dreamy white foamed waves of the ocean, Gordon’s partner Roger buoyantly singing amidst them. Both highly functional and highly poetic, the technical elements in this show nail what makes for satisfying theatre.
For all the weirdness, when reality bites through, it hurts all the more. One second, I’m laughing at Gordon’s intense mother, Mimi, the next I’m shocked to be touched as she contemplates her sons mortality with ugly and aching honesty. It comes as a surprise to realise how much you’ve actually come to care, because despite all the jokes, they’re all still a bleak and thorough examining of different kinds of emotional trauma.
The cast are all universally excellent performers. Across the board, the casts ability to sing with an unwavering energy and accuracy is astounding, no doubt thanks to both talented performers and the musical direction of Lauren Simpkins. At the centre of the story as Gordon, Dominic Taffs displays an immense stamina carrying a huge weight of an entirely sung-through show. Michael Stebbings as Roger performs with an honesty and vulnerability that bring me to tears, as does Marysia Collin’s powerful performance of homeless woman Lisa. And then, Karen Anslow as Gordon’s mother Mimi really does embody what is so successful about the show - the ability to have you in stitches one second, and reaching for the tissues the next.
You can book your tickets for the last few shows here: http://www.ticketbooth.co.nz/
Catch one show, or catch both- or even buy a pass to all four shows for just $60.
Night A (November 30, December 2, 6, 8)
6:30pm: The Rising Sun
Directed by Ed Blunden
Music Directed by Michael Stebbings
8:00pm: A New Brain
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James LaPine
Directed by Cassandra Tse
Photos by Roc+ Photography