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Reviews

Chosen and Beloved | Regional News

Chosen and Beloved

Presented by: MAU Wāhine and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Kristan Järvi

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Curated by Lemi Ponifasio, one of the New Zealand Festival's three guest curators, the combination of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Ponifasio's creative elements was a stunning experience.

Ponifasio's reflection on our “increasingly fragmented and technologically saturated planet” was a masterful blend of minimal movement, simple costuming, and women’s voices, accompanied by the orchestra and soprano Racha Rizk's expression of the utter sorrow of Górecki’s composition.

From the outset it was clear the role and situation of women was to the fore. Ponifasio's company, MAU Wāhine, emerged from the darkness, four kaikaranga calling across the auditorium. Once on the stage the small company set about building a stronger sense of the sorrow to come, chanting a mōteatea written by Ria Te Uira Paki, one of the company.

The orchestra filed in, settled lightly in their seats, and softly changed the soundscape from the strong voices in chorus to the quiet of the strings. The major themes of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs are motherhood and the sorrow of separation. Polish lyrics from three different texts are each accompanied by a slow movement. The orchestration, tone and volume, and the vocal line and effects combine to build and engulf the audience in the sadness. The meaning of the lyrics is explained in the programme notes, but it is not necessary to understand the words to understand the mood. Clever changes in Rizk's position around the gallery, behind the orchestra, among the orchestra lent weight to the drama and added visual interest to the performance. Rizk's singing was beautiful. Her voice floated above the orchestra, neither dominating the other, ably guided by conductor Kristan Järvi.

An expression of the plight and predicament of women, Chosen and Beloved was a courageous choice and a powerful production for the opening night performance of the 2020 New Zealand Festival.

Wonderful | Regional News

Wonderful

Written by: Dean Parker

Directed by: Conrad Newport

Running at Circa Theatre until 7th Mar 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Brother Vianney (Andrew Laing) is a Marist Brother teacher at a boys’ school in Napier, 1959. Over the course of one lesson, audiences (who are positioned as his students) discover how this loving, kind, extravagant man came to be a devout Catholic. We don’t do much schoolwork though! Instead, Brother Vianney treats us to belting renditions of Broadway classics and wistful waltzes, action-packed re-enactments of Hollywood movies, and dewy-eyed glimpses into his past life in showbusiness.

This glorious character is clearly gay, but Dean Parker’s script doesn’t really delve into the conflict between homosexuality and religion. I think a deeper exploration of that would be a sequel – a Wonderful 2.0. What we have here is a palatable (and rather delicious) 80 minutes of madcap entertainment that still packs an emotional punch. It’s a perfect storm of comedy and pathos.

Brother Vianney’s mind moves a mile a minute. Strengthened by Conrad Newport’s exemplary direction, Laing’s natural sense of comedic timing accentuates Parker’s best lines – of which there are countless. It’s a masterful one-man performance, and not just for Laing’s faultless delivery of a jaw-dropping volume of dialogue. It’s his obvious respect and love for the character, shared by the writer and director, that moves us. His escape into the role is so complete that it enables ours.

Inspired by an original design by Bonnie Judkins, Tony Black’s lighting design is the ending’s pièce de résistance, with changes executed at such a gradual pace, the eyes adjust before the lighting state does. This means that, for me at least, Brother Vianney is framed by an angelic halo that serves the script beautifully. In these final moments, Laing’s performance is raw and resonant, electrifying the audience with an emotional charge that continues to crackle after the lights fade out.

As Brother Vianney so delightfully says, “use the word once today and it will be yours for life.” What’s the word for this production? Wonderful!

Uncut Gems | Regional News

Uncut Gems

(R16)

135 Mins. Available on Netflix

(5 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Writers and directors Josh and Benny Safdie catapult us into a slick, shady world with Uncut Gems. The film’s energy is kinetic, unpredictable, and utterly relentless, and with it the brothers secure their place as two of the most exciting young filmmakers to hit Hollywood in recent years.

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a jeweller in New York’s Diamond District. Addicted to gambling and winning at all costs, Howard is in deep and running out of time to pay his debts. When a rare gem peaks the intrigue of NBA star Kevin Garnett, Howard is convinced his problems are solved.

The Safdie Brothers have a knack for bringing the best out of everyone they choose to collaborate with. Sandler delivers a career-defining performance, stepping far beyond what I thought he was capable of. Howard is a hubristic cheat. You never quite know whether this guy is a genius or an outright fool, if he is going to win or lose, right up to the film’s final moments. That thread of uncertainty will keep audiences clutching the edges of their seats as he makes one erratic decision after another – a truly frustrating experience.

Many in the cast are not professional actors, yet no one feels out of place or distracting. Who knew Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd could act? And really act, at that.

Much like Good Time, the Safdie’s previous effort, Uncut Gems refuses to let up. Sandler’s manic energy is perfectly complemented by Darius Khondji’s grubby cinematography and Ronald Bronstein and Benny’s fast-paced editing. Daniel Lopatin’s score is synthetic and assaulting to great effect.

Uncut Gems questions the meaning of winning; what are we willing to lose in order to win? We inhabit Howard’s life, and though he is abhorrent, we understand why he makes the crazy decisions he does. This is cinema in its most chaotic and visceral form.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood | Regional News

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

(PG)

109 Mins

(3 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Despite some tedious moments, director Marielle Heller injects A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with sincere warmth and mostly captures the spirit of its hero, Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks).

Journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is sent on an assignment to profile beloved children’s entertainer Fred Rogers. The cynical Vogel refuses to believe Rogers is truly as kind and compassionate as he appears on his puppet-laden TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

The film is anchored by a rock-solid script full of humour and poignant moments. By freeing Heller from the confines of a traditional life story biopic, screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster allow her to focus on the connection between Vogel and Rogers without the portrait of this important figure feeling incomplete.

Rhys steals the show onscreen. His arc of self-discovery is beautifully constructed. It is the story of a broken man incapable of trust slowly coming back to the light by learning the value of kindness. The quiet, contemplative scenes between Rhys and Hanks are the most affecting and honest aspect of the film. The turbulent relationship Vogel has with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) is sometimes pushed into overly dramatic territory, but the actors are capable of carrying their weight.

Hanks delivers a well-balanced performance, although his interpretation of Rogers feels slightly indulgent and disingenuous at times, which drags the film’s momentum. While he successfully embodies the man’s spirit, he delights so much in his quirks the performance sometimes forays into parody. Still, Hanks knows how to deliver an emotional punch when the time comes.

American audiences who grew up with Mister Rogers will undoubtedly find more to connect to in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood than those who didn’t. My introduction came in the form of the excellent 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? While I would recommend that film over this one any day, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood feels so warm and fuzzy you’re guaranteed to leave the cinema with a smile.

Queen + Adam Lambert | Regional News

Queen + Adam Lambert

Sky Stadium, 5th Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

“Let’s address the pink elephant in the room,” says Adam Lambert after two songs. “I’m not Freddie Mercury. There’ll only be one Freddie Mercury.” The crowd goes wild.

It’s true, but there’ll only be one Adam Lambert as well. I love that this glam superstar doesn’t try to imitate my hero but instead brings his own phenomenal voice and larger-than-life presence to the mix. And if anyone can belt those ultrasonic notes with such apparent ease, it’s Adam. He bows his head as touching tributes to Freddie cause moments of stillness to envelop the audience like a soft blanket, but every other moment of this concert is joyous and uproarious. We’re here to party with Queen + Adam Lambert, and they bring the fire.

Fans are treated to a set list bursting with all the greatest hits (bar a few notable anthems like No One But You (Only The Good Die Young) and Breakthru) as well as some lesser-known tracks. Not being able to sing along to these ones, our energy wanes a little, but we’re soon back on our feet. Freestyles, breakdowns, and creative interpretations of songs reign supreme, with a quirky baroque-esque rendition of Killer Queen a highlight.

Roger Taylor and Brian May – even at the ripe old age of 111, as Brian quips – are still the best in the world at what they do. Roger’s voice stuns with its grit and gut (especially as he duets with Adam in an unbelievable rendition of Under Pressure) and Brian plays an out-of-this world solo that takes the guitarist to new heights – literally. The giant flaming space rock that carries Brian into the sky is just one example of the colossal production values on show. Disco balls and confetti canons, glittering motorcycles and sequin suits add to the stage spectacular. But the real wow factor here is the astronomical talent of these three showmen extraordinaire.

Stomping and screaming as one, I look around and am struck by a realisation. This is not just a concert but a communal experience.

The Surprise Party | Regional News

The Surprise Party

Written by: Dave Armstrong

Directed by: Conrad Newport

Running at Circa Theatre until 15th Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

POPs party leader Doug (Alex Greig) should not be Prime Minister. His second-in-command Kura (Bronwyn Turei) could and should be. The rest of their minor left-wing party is a gormless bunch. There’s millennial Zoe (Danielle Meldrum), who’s so stupid she doesn’t know what a letter is (really?); hipster craft beer brewer Sam (Sepelini Mua’au); conspiracy theorist Leon (Vincent Andrew-Scammell); and bus driver Alisa (total firecracker Hannah Kelly), who borrows double deckers when she’s off duty.

Wanting the “stable, radical change” (or is it “radical, stable change”?) that POPs is promising, New Zealand votes them into power. Unsurprisingly, all hell breaks loose.

Political satire isn’t my cup of tea, but that’s not to say The Surprise Party isn’t good. Armstrong’s penmanship is bold and acidic, while able-handed director Newport makes daring choices that pay off for older audiences. Cast members (many of whom are among my favourite actors) commit to playing hyperbolic caricatures, executing dramatic physical comedy with gusto. The crew is at the top of their game, with Sean Coyle’s set a handsome highlight.

But opening on a mildly racist joke about Filipinos and broken English meant that The Surprise Party and I got off on the wrong foot. The play pokes fun at everyone and everything, as if the goal is to annoy as many demographics as possible. I find waiting for the next dose of ridicule a little tiring.

While the characters each have a satisfying arc, the action is doled out in unequal measures. We spend a lot of time on one night and not much on the years in which the characters undergo their stable, radical change. I’m not politically minded, so that’s the part of The Surprise Party that interests me.

Because I didn’t understand a lot of the jokes, I didn’t fully engage with The Surprise Party until the end. Ultimately, the point made is a powerful one. Politics is filled with well-meaning idiots, and idealism is not always practical.

A Traveller’s Guide to Turkish Dogs | Regional News

A Traveller’s Guide to Turkish Dogs

Directed by: Jonathan Price

Running at Circa Theatre until 8th Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Created by its performers Barnaby (Barney) Olson, Stevie Hancox-Monk, Andrew Paterson, and Tess Sullivan, as well as its director Jonathan Price, A Traveller’s Guide to Turkish Dogs follows Barney on his big OE. While mending a boat with a bunch of zany travellers in Finike, Turkey, a stray dog follows Barney home. She’s in a bad way; the kindest thing to do, says a blokey mc-blokeity sailor (Sullivan), would be to put her out of her misery. But nobody can do it.

After a series of attempts to remain dogless (including a rejected “death needle” and a visit to a fabled fisherman), Barney reluctantly accepts that, yes, he’s got a dog. He names her Helena. Getting Helena back home to New Zealand proves quite the challenge, but it makes for one hell of a (true!) story.

A Traveller’s Guide to Turkish Dogs is pure stage magic. It’s the reason theatre can still compete with Netflix. A huge part of the magic comes from Lucas Neal’s versatile set, which radiates rustic seaside charm. The action takes place on a half-made boat, and while the use of the different spaces isn’t 100 percent consistent, it’s a clever idea that creates countless striking stage pictures.

And then there’s the puppetry. Helena is sensitively brought to life by Hancox-Monk with a plain cardboard box. Immediately, we accept this quivering, quaking, pouncing mound of cardboard as the beloved Helena, although the illusion is momentarily shattered when the same box is used to represent a different dog.

The production is filled with electric performances. Paterson’s history teacher is fantastic, while Sullivan is a hoot in every role. Olson is the kite master, allowing the cast around him to soar with his grounded stage presence.

Oliver Devlin’s expressive sound design works to accentuate the most powerful moments, especially the ending. I can’t spoil that here, but it was the best moment of my year so far. This devastatingly charming show will be hard to beat.

Messiah | Regional News

Messiah

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Graham Abbott

Michael Fowler Centre, 7th Dec 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Wellington is so fortunate that the NZSO has been presenting it with a Christmas performance of Messiah for several years with different conductors and different soloists and choirs. It is amazing how fresh and powerful it sounds each time. I have much enjoyed recent performances with smaller vocal resources and I rather expected to regret the larger Orpheus Choir for the 2019 concert. In fact, though, I did not. Australian conductor Graham Abbott, who has conducted Messiah over 70 times, delivered a wonderful performance, underpinned by a fine sense of the drama of the oratorio. Abbott sustained a driving energy throughout, and a great balance between the orchestra and choir and between the sections of the choir. Aside from a couple of very momentary lapses, this was an excellent Orpheus effort. They were very responsive to the conductor’s interpretation of the work, seemed never to be tempted to revert to the less sprightly pace of other possible interpretations, and produced effective gradations of dynamics. An emphatic Surely he hath borne our griefs was a wonderful example of their meeting Abbott’s demands.

Abbott’s treatment of the work as a drama was also evident in the performances of the soloists: soprano Celeste Lazarenko, mezzo-soprano Anna Pierard, tenor Andrew Goodwin, and bass Hadleigh Adams. Goodwin’s legato phrasing and tone beautifully portrayed pain and grief in Thy Rebuke Has Broken His Heart. Adams turned and faced the trumpets before he triumphantly sang The trumpet shall sound. Pierard delivered a powerful He was despised and Lazarenko’s I know my redeemer liveth was luminous with hope.

Let’s not forget the orchestra in all this vocal splendour. The NZSO resources were quite small – only 26 instruments in the first half, augmented by timpani, trumpets, and bassoon for the dramatic second-half choruses. For the strings the music is relentless. The energy, precision, and beauty of the orchestra never faltered.

The Irishman | Regional News

The Irishman

(R13)

209 Mins

(4 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Four virtuosos of the gangster genre regroup to deliver a tale of cold-hearted greed in an unconventionally human way. Director Martin Scorsese gives these characters time to meditate, painting a cruel and gloomy portrait of life in the mob.

The film is narrated by an elderly Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (Robert De Niro). He recounts his life as a hitman for the mafia, working under the wing of Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Ultimately, Sheeran offers his perspective on the disappearance of his friend and famed Teamster, Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

The release of any new Scorsese film is an event within itself. Add his first reunion with De Niro and Pesci since Casino (1995), his first time working with Pacino, and the stipulation of the mob, and The Irishman becomes something intrinsically special.

Surprise, surprise, The Irishman is another great film from Scorsese. Really great, actually. Where Goodfellas (1990) and Casino feel like cinematic adrenaline, this film is stoic and pointed, indulging in the mundane, chilling side of the gangster. De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino prove their worth as screen legends, giving younger actors a lesson in minimalism and subtlety. We hang on every word Pesci says; they feel precise where his past performances feel frantic. Hoffa is greedy, self-interested, somewhat delusional, and hilarious, and Pacino hits every beat seamlessly.

Much of the film is fast paced, jumping between time periods and plot details rapidly. Scorsese’s long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker is, for my money, the most skilled editor alive. The Irishman is nearly three and a half hours in length, yet it feels no longer than two. Still, Scorsese knows how to slow things down, and the result is a collection of the most suspenseful scenes you’ll see on screen this year.

I haven’t even touched on the brilliant supporting performances, the de-aging effects (which work, for the most part), the crackling script by Steven Zaillian, or the ending, which sobered me. But it’s all there, and in the end, The Irishman is the treat it should be.