The Sexy Recession Cabaret,
The Who’s Tommy

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

The first thing you should know about The Sexy Recession Cabaret (Auckland Performing Arts Centre, December 12-20) is that it’s potluck. Along with items from the core cast, a rotating list of guests (some very recognizable) means there are new surprises every night. According the programme notes, the Depression-styled show aims to “be relevant to how we are living now and how we are dealing with our own recession”. It’s a big theme that doesn’t quite deliver, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

The performance begins at the door, with a woman in a very long red dress calling gentle hellos from the roof and various unusual characters roaming the foyer in disheveled furs. The theme of faded glamour is carried through to the disguise of the TAPAC auditorium. The versatile venue has been transformed into (yes) a cabaret space, complete with black draped tables, gilded mirrors and waiters wriggling their way between chairs to take orders for wine and platters.

The lush catering by Garnet Station could well have induced guilt among those truly enduring a recession, but added considerably to the ebullience of the opening-night crowd. During the course of the evening we were encouraged to bond with our tablemates by means of noisemakers, a quiz with performers as prizes, and (for some) naughty telephone calls, broadcast to the whole room. And thus the mood for the evening was set.

Director Eve Gordon is becoming something of an auteur, with past projects such as Burlesque as You Like it, Fete Macabre and the recent physical theatre collaboration Ooh Baby Baby reflecting her love of the quirky and surprising mixed (usually) with a dose of risqué. The Sexy Recession Cabaret comes from the same fertile territory, and also carries Gordon’s trademark collaborations with artists across many different genres.

Performers emerged in surprising spaces through the night, popping through walls, from behind curtains as well as onto the catwalk-like front stage and the two smaller side stages. On the opening night acts ranged from vaudeville song-and-dance numbers, to tap dance, circus, burlesque and a strangely beautiful combination of film screening and a drag act, which (intentionally) showcased the beautiful body of Mike Edwards. And the live band led by local legend Karen Hunter was both professional and in-character.

There are minor quibbles. Some acts, such as By a Waterfall by Sarah Houbolt (involving a bikini and a power grinder), were too brief but delightful in a left-of-field way. Others, such as the wheelchair karaoke, were far too long and clumsily unentertaining. Several seemed unfinished and deserving of further exploration. The majority of acts however were both quirky and generous, qualities reflecting a show which raises funds for TAPAC to continue its innovative performing arts programs. It was heartening to see some young performers, including circus aerial artists and musicians, included in the lineup.

Tama Waipara proved an affable MC, although his down-to-earth Kiwi humour seemed out of place in the show, with the other performers all sticking to the 1920s Depression theme. I think this may be why the transitions were a little clunky, although it may also be because technically The Sexy Recession Cabaret is a very complex show. The backstage crew deserve some recognition for so unobtrusively managing this. And no doubt the show will tighten as the season goes on.

Is it sexy? Indeed. Brassieres and bustiers (and their removal) abound, and for those concerned about equal opportunity, there’s glimpses of male flesh as well. But I digress. Sex is not the point here, nor is complaining about the recession.

The Sexy Recession Cabaret is a warm escape pod for a couple of hours from the increasingly plastic Christmas ‘spirit’ at this time of year. Although I’m not sure that the show necessarily succeeds in pushing us to reexamine our behavior in these times, perhaps its real message is that a bunch of talented people pooling their energies can create something quirky, real and simply generous.

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The Who’s Tommy (1969) was one of those iconic pieces of rock which I missed out on as a teenager. For a start, I was a teenager twenty years too late. Secondly, I was nowhere cool enough. But finally, in 2009, Stage Two productions has enabled me to see this rock musical up close and very, very live.

It’s no small thing to assemble an orchestra and full cast for a piece such as Tommy (Maidment Theatre, September 30-October 8), and director/producer James Wenley has done a very good job on limited resources. Stage Two, the University of Auckland’s Drama club, has been prolific in recent years, producing both new and classical work as well as two well attended seasons of short plays (Stir Fried). Its dedicated group of multitasking actors, writers, designers and stagehands (and plenty of friends and family) were much in evidence on this production. Some talented collaborators from the musical theatre world also impressed.

In the program introduction, Wenley writes movingly of how Tommy influenced him growing up: “I feel Tommy still speaks to my generation, with our empty lives and celebrity focussed culture”. This sense of nostalgia and reverence pervades his direction of the piece. Tommy is presented in period, without succumbing to the temptation of a modern update. The story, with its time jumping and improbable plot twists, is sometimes difficult to understand, not least because much of the plotline is contained in song lyrics which are often hard to make out. (The piece is also being presented to an audience who are more unfamiliar with The Who’s music than its first audiences were). But it is difficult not to succumb to the melodies and the heartfelt if unpolished presentation.

The vocal and acting talents of leads Paul Fagamalo (Tommy) and Sam Verlinden (Young Tommy) carry the piece. Fagamalo with his electric-shocked hairstyle and white blouse paired with tight white jeans is arresting in both appearance and voice, while Verlinden, a veteran of the Auckland musical theatre scene at 12, gives a mature performance as Young Tommy. Having such a young actor in the lead role emphasised the more disturbing themes of Tommy—how society treats someone who is “different”, the repercussions of mental illness, violence and child sexual abuse—themes which have not changed much today and which the story does not flinch from portraying. Omar Al-Sobky gives a darkly vigorous if off-tune performance as the “fiddling” Uncle Ernie, while Oliver Page gives an equally menacing portrayal as the abusive Cousin Kevin. Special mention for acting goes to Chanel Turner who as Mrs Walker has to go through some of the most emotive changes in the piece, and for energy to Jonathan Riley who does an eyecatching turn as a breakdancing Minister.

Unfortunately, weak singing voices plus technological challenges marred many of the solos and duets, although the chorus was in general strong. Only some members of the cast wore mics (I assume this was due to limited availability rather than directorial choice), resulting in uneven duet pairings. In general the mics were turned down too low, making the songs hard to hear over the band in the tiny space of the Musgrove Theatre. Luckily the period costumes (by Nadine Gibson) and tight choreography (by Jane Yonge) significantly helped the narrative and made the show a visual treat. The large cast did a great job of coordinating their movements on the small stage area.

Speaking of tiny spaces, the ingenious design of the low-budget set (by Milli Jannedes) deserves commendation. Consisting of platforms on casters which transform variously into walls, parts of a house, a mirror and an outdoor yard, complex set changes were on the whole accomplished smoothly. Lighting (by Matt Lamb) in general augmented this, although sometimes too-tight spots meant some key cast members were left singing in the dark. The band did a fine job of a difficult score, especially given their short rehearsal time and small size.

In general, I was captured by the energy and sincerity of this production of The Who’s Tommy. For a student production, it’s impressive. I came away from the show both disturbed by the darkness of its themes and buoyed by its irrepressible energy.