Stylistically, we get a dash of everything thanks to its vaudevillian framework. The musical numbers shine, with the darkly humorous score by David Ward performed admirably by the onstage band (Ward, plus Eamon Edmundson-Wells and Sean Martin-Buss), not to mention a cast full of vocal powerhouses. While the bulk of the show is made up of chorus numbers complete with well-crafted choreography, we are treated to a select few solos, including a masterful performance by performer Jacque Drew and a shockingly emotional number from the (historical) death-row destined Billy Kemmler (Quentin Warren).
While we dip our toes into the story through the eyes of convicts, we quickly meet the key characters in our story - dentist Alfred Southwick (Matt Chamberlain), and his partner Mary Flynn (Jacque Drew). While suffragette Mary is already an agent of change, Alfred needs a little more convincing. A trip to the prison - or, as it’s more aptly called, the Murder House - lights the fire within Alfred to end the brutality of hanging and search for a more humane method of carrying out the death penalty.
Alfred’s well-intentioned crusade meets roadblocks in the form of corrupt senators, manipulative machines of capitalism, and, of course, himself. Despite Alfred’s personal life falling apart over his decision to find a way to harness electricity for the benefit of mankind, a dangerous combination of his ego and sense of moral righteousness lead him towards the terrible discovery of the electric chair. He fights like a dog with a bone to see the creation of his machine through to the bitter end. And, armed with the blessing of historical hindsight, we all know the end gets pretty bitter.
While the crux of the story follows in Alfred’s footsteps, there’s a whole reel of characters who grace the stage. There is of course, the prison inmates, who have been let out of prison for one night only to tell us the tale and provide occasional reminders of where we are and who the story is affecting. Songbird Billy is one of these inmates, and doubles as our narrator - though we don’t quite understand his significance until the story nears its conclusion.
Along with Alfred and Mary, our central story is populated by the historical scientist Chandra Bose (Jacob Rajan), a shady inventor (Patrick Carroll), a brash senator (Jacque Drew), an irate waiter (Carroll)...you get the idea. The start of the play feels like a parade of bizarre caricatures, differentiated by a combination of sharp costuming and talented performance. The ability of the actors to jump between accents and physicalities is remarkable, and while I lost some of the dialogue in the process, I anticipate this sharpening up over the course of the season.
In amongst such a rollcall, it takes me awhile to find the plot. The first scene, while accomplishing the task of introducing the audience to Mary and Alfred, leaves me confused as to what the story is going to be about. With the action focusing on Mary being hassled to pose naked for a lascivious painter, I’m anticipating a story about the suffragette. I’m pulled into the main drama of the scene, and nearly miss Alfred’s decision to visit the prison as a side-detail - yet this moment is the catalyst for the action to come.
While at first I may be floundering to navigate the story, there’s still plenty of entertainment which keeps me hooked. Some of this lies in well-executed spectacle - I am particularly impressed with a brief moment of puppetry, an adorable canine created by John Verryt and performed by Drew - the poor dog’s lifelike charm making it’s terrible end all the more tragic. The onstage shenanigans bleed out into Te Auaha’s Tapere Nui - the dog leaps and bounds through the audience (I’m wondering if the pup is real until I see it’s puppet-master with own eyes), plus a memorable gag involving balloon duck shooting above the audience’s heads.
Other unforgettable moments come from a good emotional suckerpunch. Welcome to the Murder House doesn’t hesitate to delve into the darkness of their subject matter. It doesn’t take long for us to witness the brutality of a hanging. I'm shocked at the journey the play took us on during this moment - the fear of what we were about to see was immediately replaced with relieved laughter, the moment of the hanging replaced by a comedic tap dance. Of course, we weren’t allowed to get off that easily. No sooner had we settled into our relief, to have the rug pulled out from under us. Once again we see the man kicking desperately towards death. The show contains several bursts of such sadness, brief injections into the reality of what we’re watching cutting through the otherwise whimsical world.
As we swing into the second half, I find my feet in the story. The plot picks up pace, and the characters and ideas we’ve been teased with in the first act begin clicking together. While my investment picks up with the pace of the plot, I remain mystified by what the show was attempting to say. I am, undeniably, affected by the scenes of capital punishment I’ve seen play out - yet I’m struggling to answer the question “what was it all for?’ I’m as horrified by the history of the electric chairs inception as I am fascinated by the story. It’s the “true crime” phenomena - a morbid intrigue that inevitably leads to a Google once the fiction is played out. I concede that at least I’m left thinking, even if I’m yet to find my answer.
You can catch Welcome to the Murder House at Te Auaha's Tapere Nui until the 10th of June. Book your tickets below: