Some things you can’t learn in school [by Matt Baker]
Composer, lyricist, and musical director Vicki Millar has a Masters Degree in Musical Theatre (specialising in Writing), so I am surprised that I Wish I Learned came across as such a primary level production. The story is devoid of plot and is instead driven by the characters, who, by themselves, are simply not interesting enough to carry a show. Until a specific series of consequential events are kneaded into the script as opposed to characters switching their thought track to fulfill the sound track, and until the dialogue is (heavily) edited, the story, and consequentially the show itself, remains incomplete.
The show’s narrative is structured via the musical scale and the songs’ titles are not without their charm. There is always freedom in structure, and there is something incredibly satisfying, especially for those who are musically inclined, about the song-list and the slightly kitsch way in which it is presented in the programme, but more work is needed to authentically translate this spectacle element to the stage.
Alexandra McKellar manages to wrap her mouth around some insanely fast lyrics, and does well to draw us into the world of the show in her opening number. Nathaniel Ta’ase hits one or two of his comedic beats, but overall his youthful appearance and lack of gravitas does not lead me to believe he is a divorcee, and, if they did, his effeminacies would indicate why there was “no passion” in his marriage. The first duty of an actor is to be heard, and it takes time to adjust to the non mic’d vocals, especially with the superfluous busyness in the beginning which has actors faces buried in boxes or facing upstage. The tone finally arrives, however, in the form of Michael Murphy, who projects with an ironic clarity considering his nonchalant attitude and capricious behaviour.
The world in which I Wish I Learned takes place is rather unique, in that people say exactly what they mean and how they feel. There is, quite literally, no subtext. Add to this the paint-by-numbers direction of Matthew Grice, and the result is that the performers have no play against with which to work. McKellar, Ta’ase, and Shaan Antunovich, all graduates of the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art, each give relatively black and white performances, relying on their songs to provide all the colour to their characters. It seems as if all they need is a song to take all their troubles away before we move on to the next crisis. Antunovich, however, does make a sincere effort to connect with Murphy, who, while lacking in stage technique, precipitates a deeper emotional portrayal in comparison to his theatre-trained co-stars.
McKellar’s choreography is as bizarre as much as it is unnecessary, though Murphy does well to continue to allow his characterisations to seep through his movement. Cross-fades are practically non-existent in the uncredited lighting design, with the theatre continually being pitched into near total darkness before solid dull blues and hot reds blast the stage.
At one point, Murphy says, “I don’t think this is the time, or the place,” and I couldn’t agree more. When characters aren’t singing, they simply sit around waiting to interject their stereotypical perspectives on life to one another, and, surprise, surprise, some of these perspectives conflict. Regardless of this conflict, no one leaves, no one really gets upset, and everyone lays their cards out on the table. Miraculously, everything works out and we’re left with a reprise of the titular song [Things] I Wish I Learned [In School], while wondering why four adults ever thought primary school was the place to learn about life.
I Wish I Learned plays at The Herald Theatre until 24 May. Details see The EDGE.