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new music theatre in utero

matthew lorenzon: carnegie 18, full tilt


Mikelangelo in rehearsal for Curtains Mikelangelo in rehearsal for Curtains
photo Michael Parry
THE VICTORIAN ARTS CENTRE’S CARNEGIE 18 PROGRAM PROVIDES FUNDS AND EXPERTISE TO DEVELOP EMBRYONIC WORKS FROM MELBOURNE’S VIBRANT MUSICAL THEATRE SCENE. TAKING ITS NAME FROM THE STAGE OF FOETAL DEVELOPMENT WHEN THE INNER EAR IS FORMED, THE PROGRAM SEEKS NOT ONLY TO PROVIDE A PLATFORM FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEW MUSIC THEATRE, BUT TO QUESTION THE BOUNDARIES OF THE GENRE. IN UTERO, SO TO SPEAK, THE FOUR CARNEGIE 18 WORKS OF 2010—EVERY ANGEL IS TERRIBLE, RAWK, CONTACT! AND CURTAINS—ARE REMARKABLE IN THEIR VENEERS OF COMPLETION AND THE CHALLENGES EACH WORK PRESENTS FOR FUTURE DEVELOPMENT.

contact!

Composer Angus Grant found the ideal subject matter for his operetta Contact! in suburban netball—dramatic, quintessentially Australian and just a little daggy. The cast, consisting of a seven-girl netball team, their coach Bev and her son Bevan, induce a few Eureka moments as the traditional opera elements of chorus, recitative and aria are used to add expressive and humorous emphasis to netball colloquialisms and high school vernacular. The girls incredulously drone “what is she on” at the newly arrived Goth and prodigious goal shooter Daisy, and sing out the game’s ubiquitous “if you need” during simulated netball matches. Wendy, the coach’s daughter, expresses her girl-crush on Daisy in an aria reminiscent of one of Puccini’s early 20th century hits. Even the orchestra is in on the game, suitably attired in netball bibs.

Beyond a humorous subject for tried and tested musical methods, Grant foregrounds the seemingly endless rules of the sport, including the prohibition of contact. It might be said that, beyond the game’s status as a ‘Commonwealth’ sport, its abundance of rules and restriction of contact is what makes it most ‘Australian.’ As such, I would like to see the budding romance between Daisy and Wendy developed further, in stark opposition to Bev and her fixation on football players and teen pregnancy. With further character and plot development to back up Grant’s musical wit, both performers and audiences will be kept ‘on their toes.’

every angel is terrible

In stark contrast to Contact!’s serious music and light-hearted plot, Every Angel is Terrible uses saccharine show tunes to show up the contradiction between society’s sparkling exterior and the persistence of its greatest taboo, filicide. The writers and composers Maude Davey, Sarah Ward, Bec Matthews and Ania Reynolds tell their contemporary fable through Weillian cabaret tunes, Larson-esque choruses and Krieger-like diva moments. The composers are in good company with Weill, whose 1927 “scenic cantata” Mahagonny held up an unflattering mirror to “a public which goes to the theatre naïvely and for fun.” However, unlike Weill’s ‘naïve’ audience, contemporary theatre-goers have a century of challenging theatre behind them and so are largely immured to Every Angel is Terrible’s shock tactics. No great unmasking was apparent when the performers tricked the audience into imagining themselves killing a child and asked rhetorically, “but we wouldn’t do that, would we?” Considering the writers claimed to have no personal experience with filicide, their desire to unmask the killer lurking inside each of us betrays less their ability to see through the façade of our supposedly filicide-oblivious society than just another symptom of our media-driven obsession with it.

The writers’ claim to “listen to the children” comes through appropriately in their retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which a social worker arrives at the witch’s house where Hansel is being fattened and ignores Gretel’s pleas for help. However, when Gretel bursts forth with her Dreamgirls-like “Everything I say is true” the writers attempt a sincere representation of grief that slips back into the sugar-coated hypocrisy they try to unmask. Overall, the audience seemed divided between those who thought the issue should be addressed and those who thought it should not be addressed in this way, which is not exactly a division. Can this versatile group of composers, aided by the sublime projection art by Cazerine Barry, find a way of telling these stories without resorting to hollow shock tactics and melodramatic musical clichés that only reinforce the voyeuristic gestures of the mass-media? While ‘listening to the children’ is not an option, engaging others whose lives have been directly affected by filicide might be.

rawk

Moving right away from traditional musical and operatic styles, Peter Burgess’ RAWK pioneers the soft metal musical. It tells the story of Tim who takes the message of his anti-capitalist rock-star hero, RAWK, seriously. He quits his job, hits the streets, deals drugs and eventually returns to his former life while RAWK himself exposes his manipulative marketing strategies through a series of acoustic guitar confessionals. The band, consisting of Burgess, Matthew Lewin, Markus Buckley and Arron Light produce a polished soft metal sound reminiscent of those anti-establishment paragons of the 90s, Rage Against The Machine and Tool. Pulling the musical back into the 80s, the melodic strains of Pearl Jam can also be heard in Tim’s more heartfelt moments. While the music is well composed and executed, the lyrics require finessing to give the characters depth. If, as Burgess expressed in question time, he would like to present this fable to school students, then he may need to draw on more 21st century musical influences lest he appeal solely to the two spotty rockers in each year level.

curtains

Hilarious, clever and gripping, David Chisholm’s Curtains–part three of a set of five extended works that “examine lost, dead or decaying musical forms”—is a take on the Broadway musical. Performers Yana Alana, Tina del Twist, Mikelangelo and Meow Meow mill about the stage, occasionally telling the story of, and performing in, a revival concert of the musical Revival in a “Marxist critique of Hollywood and Broadway culture.” No striking point is made about Broadway through the show’s not-completely-non-linear plot. Yes, we know that performers get chewed up and spat out by the entertainment industry. On the other hand, Chisholm’s musical dialectic of synthesised barrel organ representing the culture industry and the Silo string quartet representing the actors’ “humanity” is thought provoking because so insidiously affecting. Deftly bending this unusual ensemble around the Broadway musical style, Chisholm leads the audience to sympathise with Wes Snelling, crooning as Tina del Twist playing Dorothy Day playing a character in Revival. That is, until Yana Alana interjects with “Do you want some ham to go with that cheese?” causing layers of artifice to unravel and re-ravel once more. Constantly renegotiating the audience’s relation to the characters playing characters through layers of storytelling, Curtains traps the audience in a break-neck barrel organ comedy. With improvisation and pre-established characters playing a vital role, it will be interesting to see what is churned out when different sets of performers are fed into Chisholm’s barrel organ entertainment machine.

Taken together, the four works of the 2010 Carnegie 18 series challenge the audience to broaden their notion of music theatre, operetta and cabaret. More importantly, the combination of musical talent and thematic interest in each work provides scope for further development and performance.


Full Tilt: Carnegie 18, New Music Theatre Series, Contact!, composer Angus Grant, libretto Angus Grant, Kate Schmitt; Every Angel is Terrible, composers Maude Davey, Sarah Ward, Bec Matthews, Ania Reynolds, book Maude Davey, Sarah Ward; RAWK, music & book Peter Burgess; Curtains, music & book David Chisholm; Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Jan 19-25

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 36

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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