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Reviews

The Rite of Spring | Regional News

The Rite of Spring

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 10th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

A fascinating programme opened with Chopin, followed by a frenetic and emotionally expressive performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the latter accompanied by an intriguing video display.

Michael Houstoun was a very popular choice to play Chopin and possibly the reason for an almost sold-out show. Houstoun charged straight into the first of eight dances, knocking out a crowd-pleasing, rapid, and somewhat heavy-handed polonaise. By and large this was a solid performance. Each dance had a distinct style and character, but it was almost as if Houstoun knew his solo piano could never compete on equal footing with Stravinsky’s most notorious but incredible contribution to 20th century music.

The Chopin dances were an extraordinary contrast to The Rite of Spring but a direct reference to Les Sylphides, Chopin’s ballet music, which preceded the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet in 1913. The nod to events of 100 years ago was brought right up to date in the video imagery, a remarkable and sophisticated concept using the pre-recorded movement of a dancer to generate graphic patterns that were further manipulated in real time by the audio feed from the orchestra. Finding ourselves seated next to the grandparents of the video artist, we took a keen interest in the display. Delainy Kennedy’s grandparents were rightly very proud of his work.

A diminutive figure on the rostrum, New’s dynamic, precise but expansive direction kept the orchestra tight through the complex time changes and difficult rhythms. It would be interesting to see the video images her performance might generate.

As always, the musicianship and the superb playing of the NZSO were exceptional. The bassoon solo that opened the piece was impeccable, nothing at all like the ‘strangled oboe’ the audience thought they were hearing in 1913. As well as my new-found love for Stravinsky I am loving the work of the viola section who excelled on the night.

Matariki | Regional News

Matariki

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 9th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

A world premiere for the Māori new year, Gareth Farr’s Ngā Hihi o Matariki was an exhilarating experience, not just breathtaking but spine-tingling as well. Neither symphony nor concerto, and with the addition of kaikaranga and taonga pūoro, Ngā Hihi o Matariki had its own musical form. Matariki is a time for remembrance, for celebrating the present and for looking to the future and Farr and his collaborators brought all these perspectives brilliantly to life.

Lyrics were written and performed by Mere Boynton and Ariana Tikao, and Tikao also composed and played the parts for taonga pūoro. Both women moved amongst the musicians in the orchestra, creating visual interest while their positioning helped to form the sound of their singing and playing. The orchestra revelled in the intensity of the work and Boynton and Tikao were magnificent. Holding this multiplicity of musicians together magnificently, for over an hour, was conductor Gemma New. Her striking and dynamic style was a perfect match for the music.

Opening with a glittering scene built on melodic percussion and piccolo, it was apparent early on this was going to be music that easily evoked images and ideas. And it did, right through to the end. With little knowledge of the astronomy and which segment related to which star, it was still possible to feel the differences as much as hear them. Farr has always given a strong voice to percussion and the rhythms were as important throughout as the melodies. Boynton’s voice is fabulously rich, and accompanied by Tikao’s putorino, her heart-rending lament to those who have departed rose easily and soared through the auditorium.

I might have missed the Matariki fireworks over the harbour on Saturday night but the final section of Ngā Hihi o Matariki was a sonic firework display of its own. Drawing on the power of hope, the finale brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation.

That’s All She Wrote | Regional News

That’s All She Wrote

Written by: Cassandra Tse

Directed by: James Cain

Te Auaha, 8th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Everyone should see That’s All She Wrote, for their mothers, for their grandmothers, for their wives, partners, and daughters; and for themselves. Presented by Red Scare Theatre Company, That’s All She Wrote is an ode to women and non-binary creators, vastly underrepresented in the world of musical theatre. The show features music from Broadway greats like Hadestown and Waitress, as well as lesser-known shows such as Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, and Heterotopia. There is even an original song written by the talented performer Cassandra Tse herself.

The No Man Band, composed of music director Katie Morton, Ellie Stewart, Jevon Wright, and Rachel Hinds, is wickedly talented and the perfect company for their powerhouse performer. Tse is phenomenally talented, and I could listen to her serenade me for hours.

That’s All She Wrote is in the traditional cabaret style. A single mic stands centre stage on a raised platform, the band encircling Tse. Large columns plastered with sheet music seem to scatter into the air and hang there, changing colour, form, and texture with Ruby Kemp’s lighting design. Tse gracefully and purposefully moves around the theatre in her elegant cocktail dress, bringing a dynamic and natural flow to the whole piece. A catwalk divides the audience seating into an upper and lower level, which Tse makes her way along throughout multiple songs. Rachel Hilliar’s set design adds depth and movement to the show, naturally guiding Tse throughout the room during the performance and allowing her to become the musical grande dame of her dreams. The show brilliantly balances history, memoir, narrative, and music.

That’s All She Wrote is professional, it’s important, it’s refreshing, and it’s relevant. By giving a voice to female and non-binary creators, we make more space for them to create, and with more space comes more representation. Female and non-binary creators need to be seen; That’s All She Wrote needs to be seen.

Elling | Regional News

Elling

Written by: Simon Bent

Directed by: Ross Jolly

Circa Theatre, 30th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Elling (Jeff Kingsford-Brown) is an anxious, tic-ridden, satchel-clutching mummy’s boy who has spent an undefined period of his life in a mental institution. His new roommate is the bold, sex-obsessed but virginal Kjell Bjarne (Gavin Rutherford) who takes a dubious approach to personal hygiene. Despite being chalk and cheese, they soon form a strong and empathetic bond such that, when the time comes, they are transferred to an Oslo apartment with the intention that they transition together into the ‘real’ world.

It’s clear from the get-go whose side we’re meant to be on. The health system representatives are hard and uncompromising while Elling and Kjell are sweet and self-aware, so we laugh with them, not at them. And there are laughs aplenty as they bumble through their new reality and the threat of returning to state care if they don’t adjust.

Initially, they retreat into themselves when faced with simple tasks, such as answering the phone or shopping. Then their self-isolated co-dependence is abruptly challenged by the arrival in their lives of heavily pregnant neighbour Reidun (Bronwyn Turei) and veteran poet Alfons (Steven Ray).

Kingsford-Brown and Rutherford give masterful performances in the main roles with nuanced physical and vocal characterisations that render Elling and Kjell as always sympathetic and never ridiculous. We’re drawn into their struggles and want them to triumph.

Turei, Ray, and William Kircher provide expert coverage of the personalities who surround Elling and Kjell. A highlight is Turei and Kircher’s turn as painfully pretentious underground poets at an open mic night.

Andrew Foster’s clean, IKEA-esque set design and the actors’ healthy disregard for the invisible walls gives a pleasing freedom of movement that is beautifully supported by sensitive lighting (Marcus McShane) and sound (Ross Jolly and Niamh Campbell-Ward).

While the chunky knits of the costume design (Sheila Horton) place us firmly in Norway, this story is universal. It’s charming, gently funny, and life-affirming; a wonderful antidote to the winter blues.

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.