Dr Drama Makes a Musical
Written by: James Wenley
BATS Theatre, The Dome, 19th September 2023
Reviewed by: Stanford Reynolds
The third in the Dr Drama trilogy, Dr Drama Makes a Musical explores what makes musicals so popular and what they have to say about society. The show is thought-provoking, educational, and immensely entertaining.
The back wall of the stage is a “shrine to musical theatre”, decorated with programmes and merchandise from musicals that Dr Drama (James Wenley) has seen or been in, which he interacts with throughout. Before the performance begins, well-known songs from musicals are played, and audience members excitedly point out productions they recognise. This environment of discussion is enhanced as a projected screen is used to display surtitles, photos, and take comments and polls from the audience.
Wenley walks us through many typical conventions of a musical, from an opening number and an ‘I want’ song, to the prevalence of heteronormative narratives. These conventions are deconstructed as Wenley discusses – and sings about – their purpose, meaning, and flaws. Despite this critical and academic lens on musicals, the entertainment and humour of the show never falter. The ‘Villain song’ is a particular hit, with Wenley’s confident singing of the catchy tune propelling the point forward, investigating where musicals have historically supported negative or discriminatory ideas in society. While one dance sequence (choreography by Brigitte Knight and assistant choreography by Elora Battah) leans into this pessimism in a way that becomes a little self-congratulatory, overall, the show conveys a galvanising and optimistic message. Phoebe Caldeiro’s original score, which she performs live, captures the key elements of musicals with humour and heart, but is let down at times by fuzzy microphones and inaccurate vocal placement.
Fans of musicals will spot obvious callouts to large-scale productions (think shiny sequined jackets and hats), with the slick lighting design (Scott Maxim and designer/operator Michael Goodwin) supporting these moments. Colours of the French flag flash when Les Misérables is referenced, and the stage is bathed in yellow as Wenley strikes the iconic pose from Hamilton.
Dr Drama Makes a Musical gives us a newfound appreciation for musicals as an artform that makes people feel connected. Wenley’s vulnerable recounting of personal experiences, coupled with audience engagement in a singalong closing number, imparts an inspirational message about the power of art.