Thursday, October 25, 2012

The classy 'Class of 2012'

Just flown in from Europe, and I’m off again … this time to Ashburton. Reason? In the dearth of post-quake Christchurchian theatres, that is where the final show by the graduating class of NASDA (New Zealand’s musical-theatre degree institute) now takes place. An occasion not to be missed.

The piece performed this year – after last year’s fine Cats -- is the current version of Beauty and the Beast. My last visit to a theatre, a couple of months ago, in Berlin, was to see The Dance of the Vampires, a classic example of how to write, compose and stage a beautiful burlesque fairytale musical. As a show, this Beauty and the Beast falls, for me, at the other end of the appeal scale. It was a mildly amusing Disney film with a surprisingly wallpapery (and plugged) score and some fine cartoon effects. On the stage, without the effects, you are left with a bunch of two dimensional characters and all that wallpaper. I find it musical-theatre pap.

But, hey, I wasn’t there to see a musical I’ve already seen (and wouldn’t have bothered seeing again under normal circumstances), I was there to see the work of the class of 2012, and that was an altogether different bowl of cherries.
These young people are graduating, and that means that they are not to be regarded and reviewed as students. They have to be judged as neo-professionals. Because their next performance will, hopefully, be an audition for a professional show.
Well, NASDA has done a fine job. I saw these same students in year two, when they had The Music Man to get their teeth into, and the improvement in skills, voices and performances since then is all that could be hoped. From those who took the leading roles, to those who on this occasion played bits and chorus, everyone is a competent musical theatre performer.

But, of course, all are not equal. They never are. And last night threw up one outstanding performance. Sarah Jayne Phillips’s Belle would grace any professional stage, anywhere in the world. A winning stage presence, a clear and attractive speaking voice, a neat touch of humour, and the sincerity and earnestness to turn her cardboard character into a believable woman, all combine with an easy, unaffected singing voice of undoubted class. This Belle simply lit up the stage, and made my night.

Oddly, the largest male role in the show is not the Beast. It falls to the posturing, posing Gaston, Belle’s village postulant, played by Sam Armstrong with all the gusto needed. And somehow he made the braggart rather likeable. This performance was a sterling example of progress. His singing voice has richened, filled out, firmed up, in the year since he played Harold Hill. His stage style has gained ease and confidence and ... well, I guess it’s ‘maturity’ and practice … His double-act with Tom Worthington’s excellent Le Fou was the comedy highlight of the night.

The Beast is what I call an ungrateful role. Dressed, for reasons unknown, like an out-of-work yeti, made to lope around the stage like Quasimodo on steroids, Tainui Kuru has only a couple of banal ariettas in which to make his mark. Which he does. He has a lovely high baritone voice, which would have made him a fine Billy Bigelow or a Curly in earlier musical-theatre days. It seemed quite unfair that he didn’t get to be the prince, but was transformed into a tenor (Adam Standring, another top among the improvers) for the final duet.
Simon Rennie played Belle’s gentle, plotworthy father and joined with her in duet in a warm, smooth baritone, and Nat Ta’ase out-Robert Helpmann-ed Helpmann as the chief nasty.
The other principal characters in the piece are the enchanted half-humans of the Beast’s castle. I’m not sure why they are enchanted or what they were doing there to become enchanted, but logic is not needed in fairyland. Logic, too, would maybe explain why mid-Atlantic (or Pacific) accents slipped into this French fairytale alongside a teapot from Oldham and a lot of ooh-la-la-Franglais.
Jason Parker, Emma Griffith, Jamie Sinclair, Lauren Marshall and Stacey Lavender played the principal pieces of ‘furniture’ lustily with Miss Griffith getting to sing the show’s odd title-song delightfully, and Miss Marshall getting the best costume of the night, which she filled lip-smackingly. The other ‘best-dressed’ award, in a show which is made to be a costume parade, went to Laura Gully who flew splendidly as the Enchantress, in a gown that looked like a hand-me-down from Fruma Sarah.

The costume parade, I’m afraid, didn’t appeal to me. In the movie the production number ‘Be My Guest’ was cleverly and enjoyably over-the-top and satirical. On stage, oddly placed, it comes down to just another Ralph Reader mass dance number. But the class of 2012, aided by the class of 2013, went to it with a will and with a wardrobe-full of rather not-to-be-danced-in costumery, in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and fun.

Well, class of 2012. All that’s left for me to say is ‘good luck’ in this tricky business of ours. You’ve done your training thoroughly, and you’re ready to fly.  So fly, and all my good wishes go with you.

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