Monday, November 11, 2013

Once on This South Island

A few weeks ago, I sat in a small studio theatre in Berlin delighting over some outstanding young opera singers performing a grand version of The Tales of Hoffman. Tonight, I sat in a small studio theatre in Christchurch, New Zealand, watching the pick of that country’s even younger musical-theatre students giving a rousing performance of the musical Once on this Island.

I think I am becoming addicted to studio productions. They seem so often to be much less pretentious, much less glitzy, much better performed … and directed with so much less of the ‘look-at-me-mummy-arn’t-I-outrageous’ and so much more truth and style.

Tonight’s was.

Once on this Island is a sweet, almost banal ‘the marquis and the milkmaid’ piece, which – with its good, sweet, peasant Antillean Islanders (brown) and its nasty howwid rich colonial French (white) – could very easily become irritating. You half expect someone to shout ‘bring on the guillotine’.
But the French are portrayed (or were tonight) as so two-dimensional as to scarcely count, so the distaste is diffused.  And drowned in jolly, loud Carib-flavoured music, played by an enthusiastic bongo-laced band of four.

The Christchurch production was directed by Angela Johnson and Stephanie McKellar-Smith, the resident directors of the NASDA (National Academy for Singing and Dramatic Art), with flair, economy, style and a wonderful belief in the material … staged as winningly as this, Once on this Island is a natural for a studio theatre or small group in any part of the world. Well, maybe not France.

It is a piece which, on the evidence of tonight, is custom-made for young people. To perform, I mean ... although its simplicity and strong rhythms almost make it a children’s show. The cast of fifteen were evidently enjoying themselves hugely: and (especially in a small space) that kind of enthusiasm is irresistible.

It is almost invidious to single out individual performers when an ensemble production is so neatly and pleasingly done: but the central character of Ti Moune, the island girl who is the milkmaid of the story, certainly has by far the largest role. She was very attractively and suitably winsomely played by the diminutive Rebekah Head, who showed up with a strong singing voice which made its best effects in the less loud and more feeling passages. Her radiance in her apotheosis in the tree (a lovely touch, beautifully staged) gave one a little lump in the throat.

Of the remainder of the cast, the standout for me was Imogen Prossor as Mama Euralie. While everyone else was singing away lustily in pretty much the same 21st century chest voice, she gave us a warm, feeling, hugely attractive contralto (speaking and singing) performance which suddenly flew up to an unexpected top Z. It was a stunning performance. I couldn’t take my eyes – or ears – off her.

The other best roles of the show are those which give it its originality. The Caribbean gods, who meddle with the characters’ lives. Emily Burns gave Asaka all the allure and power of a supercharged Velma Kelly … a fine, huge voice, 1000kw performance … I’d like to see her sing a soft ballad at 500kw. Becky Button as Erzulie was given horrid makeup and the same kind of vocal material and coped very well … but, you see, everyone has the same kind of music, everyone sings fortissimo, so they all melt into one, and you desperately need a Ms Prossor to give some warmth and variety to proceedings.

Among the boys, I noted a touching performance from Olly Humphries as Tonton Julien, a stylish but occasionally strained Agwe from Zak Enayat, and … poor Adam Spedding, who I am sure is a very nice lad, had to play the role of the improbably named Daniel Beauxhomme, the gutless ‘hero’ of the affair. An impossible task.

I don’t know how this show was originally staged, for I never saw it. But I can’t imagine it working any better than it did tonight.

Thanks NASDA 2013. I think this rates amongst the best productions I have seen at the Academy. I look forward to the next.