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Reviews

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street | Regional News

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Presented by: WITCH Music Theatre

Directed by: Ben Emerson

Te Auaha, 30th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, many of us have attended the tale of Sweeney Todd. The musical follows the titular barber (Chris Crowe), who lost his wife and daughter Johanna (Olivia Stewart) to a great injustice at the hands of Judge Turpin (Thomas Barker) and Beadle Bamford (Jthan Morgan) some 15 years ago. Finally released from his internment, Sweeney returns to the “hole in the world like a great black pit” that is London hell-bent on vengeance. Here, he sets up shop with pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Vanessa Stacey) and earns his appellation as The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

It’s fascinating to see a large-scale musical with mammoth production values in an intimate space like Te Auaha. Seated in the very front row, my friend and I are at eye-level with action befitting a grand stage. This is deliciously overwhelming, especially in the ensemble numbers, made magnificent, dizzying by choreographer Greta Casey-Solly and honed to vocal perfection by music director Mark W Dorrell.

Giving us some welcome breathing room, some of the goriest scenes are set further back behind plastic strip curtains reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. Joshua Tucker’s inspired design screams of rank despair… God I love it.   

Both lead actors inhabit their roles in this dark, dank world entirely, Crowe with his thousand-yard stare, Stacey with her wicked spark. Together they are twisted, tormented dynamite. Sending shockwaves down my spine is Crowe’s Epiphany, with his world-class vocals heightened by Stacey’s journey from shock to terror to resignation, all in the shadows.

The blinding talent of the cast comes to the fore in Frankie Leota’s stunning vocal performance as The Beggar Woman; Zane Berghuis’ lovely legato lines in Johanna as Anthony; Stewart’s confident soprano; Ben Paterson’s hilarious turn as Pirelli; Jared Pallesen’s aching Not While I’m Around as Tobias; Barker’s suitably disgusting Johanna (Mea Culpa); and Morgan’s every greasy move. 

Bravo to director Ben Emerson and WITCH Music Theatre. Beyond outstanding.

Te Wheke | Regional News

Te Wheke

Presented by: Atamira Dance Company

Te Whaea: National Dance & Drama Centre, 17th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Leah Maclean

Sometimes, as a reviewer, you will attend a performance and wonder how on earth you are going to condense what you just saw into 350 words. Atamira Dance Company’s Te Wheke is one such performance.

Celebrating 21 years of creating significant Māori contemporary dance, Te Wheke is both a tasteful homage to Atamira artists gone by and a look into the company’s journey ahead; the fact that this piece was three years in the making does not go unnoticed.  

The title of the work refers to the octopus and the eight extraordinary dancers and eight choreographers symbolise the eight tentacles of the sea-dwelling creature. Over the course of the evening each dancer is given the opportunity to perform a representation of each tentacle and no two pieces are the same.

The show opens with a dreamy waltz between Sean McDonald and Emma Cosgrave, where the chemistry is simply breathtaking. It then quickly slips into an evocative frenzy of demonic proportions. Accompanied by a backdrop of archival footage and artistic projection, and a cleverly layered soundscape, Te Wheke proves to be a total sensory trip.   

The work weaves together elements of traditional Māori movement and contemporary dance in a way that challenges the dancers and highlights their individual dexterities. Cory-Toalei Roycroft moves as though her body is liquid and her being is on another plane, while Oli Mathiesen shows off his remarkable precision in a solo accompanied by the music of Alien Weaponry. The dancers hold their own in their respective pieces, but their power really comes through in the group sequences where they beautifully synchronise and meld into one essence.

Te Wheke is an excellent exploration of mātauranga Māori and our relationship with the physical and the metaphysical. It delves deeply into the human experience and draws up feelings of unity and identity. There are moments that make you shudder and moments that have you on the edge of your seat. I would see this work again in a heartbeat.

In the Heights | Regional News

In the Heights

(PG)

143 Mins

(1 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

While it’s invigorating to see Latino culture embraced in a big-budget movie musical, this is about the only aspect of In the Heights that feels fresh. Predictable from frame one, musically and emotionally repetitive, and visually sporadic, this one should have stayed on the stage.

Based on the Tony Award-winning musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), In the Heights introduces us to Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), a bodega owner in Washington Heights, New York, who dreams of reconnecting with his people in the Dominican Republic. With the help of his abuela (Olga Merediz), friends, and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the apple of his eye, Usnavi may find he’s been home all along.

It’s hard to believe that a film with hundreds of extras, Latin and hip-hop inspired songs, and people dancing on the sides of buildings could be dull, but here we are. While I can see how this would’ve felt like a ray of sunshine when it first graced the Broadway stage in 2008, in 2021, it’s already outdated. Most characters are stuck, waiting for that big break to come along so they can show the world their potential. Familiar terrain, sure, but many other movie musicals, even recent ones, have managed to make this feel exciting and original. In the Heights feels worn out, tired.

Director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) seems addicted to excess, and it culminates in a whole lot of flourish and a lack of result. The film is vibrant without pause, to the point where I simply needed something – the look, the music, the characters – to change. It’s as if Chu’s storyboards simply read ‘more… more… MORE… roll credits’.

Some catharsis comes courtesy of support players, many of whom manage to bring gravitas to their characters beyond what’s on the page, specifically Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, and Daphne Rubin-Vega. Choreographer Christopher Scott also brings his A game, providing lively dances that I only wish had been captured more effectively. Even with these moments of elation, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the credits finally rolled.

Virtuoso Violin | Regional News

Virtuoso Violin

Produced by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 12th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Virtuoso Violin was a concert bursting with vitality and joie de vivre, living up to the title of the Orchestra Wellington 2021 season – Virtuoso.

The principal work was Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2, La Campanella. Paganini was the 19th century’s violin virtuoso par excellence. The soloist for La Campanella was Orchestra Wellington’s own virtuoso violinist, Amalia Hall. Add to this orchestral works by piano virtuosi Liszt and Chopin and you have a perfect storm of virtuosity.

The opening work, Chopin’s Polonaise Militaire, composed for piano but orchestrated by Glazunov, set the scene with an unrelenting, driving energy.

Hall did a superb job of the concerto. Paganini demands extraordinary technical ability including bow bounces, double stopping, harmonics, and, amazingly, left-handed string plucking while continuing to bow other strings. Hall balanced this virtuosity with a lovely sweetness of tone for the more lyrical parts of the work. She returned to the stage for a spirited solo encore that brought the house down.

Liszt’s Mazeppa tells the story of a young man who is carried on a long journey across Europe, bound naked to his horse by an aristocrat whom he has cuckolded. You can hear the galloping horse traversing vast terrains and then losing its strength and collapsing. The music reflects Mazeppa recovering and joining a group of Cossacks. The second part of the work evokes his subsequent military exploits. Taddei had not finished leaping onto the podium before he was already conducting. This headlong energy was the hallmark of the performance.

The concert concluded with Liszt’s Les Préludes, a significant change of mood. While it had moments of storm and conflict, it was predominantly an ode to the glorious, romantic, and joyful episodes of life. The triumphant conclusion to the work seemed to me to sum up the whole concert. Well done, Orchestra Wellington.

Popcorn | Regional News

Popcorn

Written by: Ben Elton

Directed by: Oliver Mander and Isaac Borgman

Gryphon Theatre, 9th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Bruce Delamitri (Max Nunes-Cesar) is a Hollywood hotshot who makes gratuitously violent films in the vein of Quentin Tarantino. When he wins an Oscar to the delight of his producer Karl (Martin Hunt), the critics rage. What message does it send to our most vulnerable members of society when we honour someone who glorifies guns?

Bruce is about to find out. When the infamous Mall Murderers, Wayne (Jonathan Beresford) and Scout (Sara Douglas), break into Bruce’s home while he’s doing the horizontal tango with aspiring actress Brooke Daniels (Stacey O’Brien), his very artistic integrity is in danger. Oops, I mean the thing he’s supposed to care about: his family, estranged wife Farrah (Tammy Peyper) and teenage daughter Velvet (Kaley Lawrence).

Directors Oliver Mander and Isaac Borgman have made some interesting choices for this Wellington Repertory Theatre production, like projecting images (read: visual innuendos) onto a screen that I end up liking after initially suspecting a glitch. Tanisha Wardle’s AV design is quick and clever, cinematising the action but sometimes overmilking the play’s raunchier elements.

Of which there are many! The actors do well to communicate passion and lust, particularly O’Brien, though I won’t spoil the motive of her pantyhose striptease here. Douglas too embodies desire, making Scout’s love for Wayne so believable, she somehow turns a maniac into a likeable character. The chemistry between the two actors and her gift for comedy helps, too.

Not likeable is Bruce. I’d be interested to see a full-on villain interpretation of the character, as Nunes-Cesar’s gentle approach suggests an attempt to portray nuance that isn’t there. I’m blaming the playwright for this, and for the clunky writing that makes Karl suddenly start ranting about the Mall Murderers for no reason, unaware that they are in the very same room as him?

Wellington Repertory Theatre have brought Popcorn to the stage with respectful trigger warnings, high production values, and a committed cast and crew. It’s a hell of a romp, not suitable for the faint-hearted.

Poppy | Regional News

Poppy

(PG)

98 Mins

(3 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Reviewed by Sam Hollis

While we never get to experience the tension of believing things won’t be neatly tied up with a ribbon, Poppy channels its well-worn story through a vibrant and captivating title character. Though the script leaves nuance to be desired, a strong lead performance from newcomer Libby Hunsdale lays the foundation for a film that manages to delight in all the right places.

Poppy (Hunsdale), a young Kāpiti woman with Down syndrome, wants the same things as the rest of us – love, a career, a life – but finds that others don’t have the same faith in her. As she puts in the grind to earn a mechanics apprenticeship at her family’s garage and navigate her first relationship, her overprotective brother Dave (Ari Boyland) refuses to take his foot off the brake.

It cannot be overstated how comfortably Hunsdale inhabits the frame. Her energy oozes out of the screen, never feeling one-note. Poppy often says exactly what she’s thinking, yet Hunsdale is at her most compelling in quieter moments; the slight sense of ease that washes over her when she is able to make an independent, unobstructed decision. Boyland is also terrific. With his character battling alcoholism, loneliness, guilt, and bankruptcy, there’s a lot to reckon with, but he nails down a tone early and carries it through. However, the rest of the cast, along with the story, is not as consistent.

The script by writer-director Linda Niccol asks a lot of questions and winds up in a rush to answer them. Some subplots, particularly Poppy’s romance with Luke (Seb Hunter), surge in order to make room for others, which leads to some particularly on-the-nose and cringe-worthy moments – a tip fellas, “you’re a bit cheeky, aren’t you?” is not flirting at its finest. Niccol does deserve praise for her direction, which mirrors Poppy’s urgency and, thanks in part to cinematographer Mathew Knight, captures Kāpiti in all its splendour and feels effortlessly cinematic.

While Poppy’s victory feels appropriately triumphant, for the other characters things just work out a bit too perfectly a bit too quickly. With more focus and breathing room, Poppy may have elevated from fun to fantastic.

Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream | Regional News

Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream

Written by: Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis

Directed by: Justin Lewis

Te Auaha, 25th May 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

One minute, Kutisar is putting on his Harvey Norman uniform and the next he wakes up in limbo, unsure whether he got his pants on before suffering the medical event that landed him there. We soon discover that the fate of the former chaiwallah depends on how he behaved on Earth. Kutisar begins to flash back to his younger days running a kulfi shop in Mumbai with Meera, whose people – the Parsi community – have a tradition called a sky burial where they lay their dead out in the towers of silence to be eaten by vultures. When Meera’s grandfather dies, the vultures don’t come. It turns out, in this one-man show and in real life, the birds are facing the fastest mass extinction of all time.   

Playing Kutisar, Meera, and five other characters – a hilarious highlight of which is Meera’s pompous aunty – is Jacob Rajan, who wears a set of oversized teeth as a form of mask to channel multiple larger-than-life personalities with joy and immeasurable talent.

I never lose my place thanks to Rajan’s gift for physical theatre and the transitions, made seamless by composer David Ward’s sound design and D. Andrew Potvin’s lighting design. These production elements transport the audience not just to different times, but through different worlds, where set designer John Verryt’s projected abstract images clarify the setting while enabling our imaginations to run wild. And then there is Jon Coddington’s exceptional, remarkably lifelike puppet, a vulture that at first terrifies me but that I soon learn to appreciate, to love, to mourn. The dancing helped!

Indian Ink’s Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream is an example of a team working together as one airtight unit where each part is vital to the whole. The whole, in this case, is a poignant production that I could not take my eyes off and won’t be able to stop thinking about for a long time to come.

Eat Your Landlord | Regional News

Eat Your Landlord

Devised and performed by Long Cloud Youth Theatre

Directed by: Ben Ashby

Te Auaha, 25th May 2021

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Eat Your Landlord is a full-course meal of student life from chef (director) Ben Ashby. Entrées consist of freezing flat, the main dish certainly is Courtenay Place, add a side of lazy flatmate and uninterested landlord, and top it off with after town kick-on dessert. There is plenty to chew through and a substantial amount to digest later.

A movement-based piece, Eat Your Landlord is highly conceptual. Though I struggled to understand the full storyline, I believe Long Cloud Youth Theatre presents various scenes from the typical student lifestyle. The actors twist and contort themselves into various character tropes, forms, feelings, and situations. A single desperate tenant confronts the massive conglomerate that is their property management firm. Two flatmates attempt diplomatic discussion about dishes and toilet paper within a cage, but formal pretense quickly devolves into carnage. A night in town borders on pagan ritual. The ensemble channels frustration, rage, confusion, helplessness, love, and awe through their bodies into the performance.

Eat Your Landlord makes great use of space. The show is roving; the audience wander around the room while the performance happens around, behind, or above them. I often felt uncomfortable or in the way, as if I stumbled upon a tribal ceremony but was welcome nonetheless. As much as I did feel a part of the performance, I also felt alienated.

The lighting and sound design, both by the talented Bekky Boyce, bring the show together. The ever-dripping tap keeps you alert and on edge, while the brilliant soundtrack brings life to the dank room. The lighting (as well as the mismatched carpeted floor) consists of detachable lamps hooked up to hanging extension cords or bare bulbs creating the dark, stark setting, reminiscent of a dingy, but oh-so-cool student flat.

Though at times too conceptually complex to be accessible, Eat Your Landlord is a one-of-a-kind banquet full of young energy, pointed and overdue protest, and chaotic (but free) student life.

Virtuoso Voices  | Regional News

Virtuoso Voices

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 22nd May 2021

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Such clever programming in Virtuoso Voices, the presentation by Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir Wellington of Bartók’s Cantata Profana and Orff’s Carmina Burana! Both composed in the 1930s, and similar in form, Orff’s work has been very popular while Bartók’s striking work is not often performed. By such programming are our musical horizons extended.

Orff’s work is a mostly riotous celebration of the joys of spring, love, lust, and the tavern but with an overtone expressed in the famous opening song, O Fortuna, that life is prone to changing fortunes. The music is energetic, superbly rhythmic, melodic, and contains a variety of styles. Bartók’s musical appeal is less direct and the story is much darker. Subtitled The Nine Enchanted Stags, it tells of brothers brought up to hunt turning into hunted stags, begged by their distraught father to return home but unable to do so.

A double accolade goes to Brent Stewart, a busy timpanist supremo in both works. Stewart is also the music director of Orpheus Choir, responsible for preparing their performance. Bartók demands a lot of the choir without much support from the orchestral parts and sometimes they seemed not fully comfortable. Their performance of Carmina Burana was much more assured, confidently negotiating rhythmic challenges and delivering the contrasting styles, colours, and moods required. The choir’s energy was impressive. Wellington Young Voices and the Celesta Choir, the children’s choirs in Carmina Burana, deserve special mention for the clarity and precision of their singing.

The concert’s virtuoso voices were tenor Amitai Pati, baritone Christian Thurston, and soprano Amelia Berry. They contributed some of the highlights of the concert, particularly in Carmina Burana. Pati’s humorous rendition of a tortured swan roasting on a spit and Berry’s pure tone as she sings of being torn between love and chastity were memorable moments.

I should mention also that Orchestra Wellington was fabulous!