The New Zealand Musical will never be the same again [by James Wenley]
As Steve Wrigley observes, musicals aren’t considered very manly in New Zealand culture. It takes balls (suitably tightened to hit the high notes) then to trade in his tried and true stand-up comic routines for a camp, highly theatrical stage show called ‘Kevin: The Musical’*.
Kevin: The Musical, we learn, was New Zealand’s greatest musical; it came out in the 80s and unfortunately went straight to VHS.
There’s a morbid opening. A Herald Theatre usher makes the announcement that the entire cast and orchestra of Kevin the Musical, including its star Steve Wrigley, have been killed in a tragic bus crash outside the theatre.
We aren’t to go home disappointed however – the said usher and Kevin, the Herald Theatre’s janitor, (who, gosh, now that I think about, looks an awful lot like Steve Wrigley, may he rest in peace) have been watching rehearsals, and take it upon themselves to recreate the musical as it would have been staged.
The story takes place in the small town of Kevin, so small that it does not qualify to be put on the road map. Danny, the evil owner of the local fish and chip shop cons the Mayor into installing a traffic light in the town which will force the authorities to put Kevin ‘on the map’. But the traffic light is not what it seems, nor is the fish and chip shop, which has a Sweeney Todd-ian secret (think human flesh being sold in pies is bad? Wait till New Zealanders discover what is really in this fish!). It is up to our hero Darren (who returns to Kevin after committing benefit fraud), and his love interest Karen (Danny’s put down wife) to save the town of Kevin.
The janitor (who will I now call Steve Wrigley, to save time) and the usher (who I will arbitrarily call Wrigley’s fiancée Cyan) stumble through the plot, Wrigley taking on most of the character roles initially, with Cyan taking on a greater role as the show moves forward. They are aided in their storytelling with an incredibly clever and versatile set – a series of moveable rectangular boxes which twisted and turned in different configurations become the Mayor’s office, Darren’s bedroom, the fish and chip shop, as well as containing little surprises like a moving backdrop for a puppet show, and a growing cityscape.
Steve Wrigley gives the show his all with a mad, bombastic energy and theatrical flair. His singing… well… he tries hard, and his enthusiasm more than carries it off. Cyan meanwhile seems to be pretending to be a worse singer than she actually is.
The show tunes, scored by Mark Dennison, are a pastiche/blatant rip-off of popular songs and musical theatre tunes. The main refrain of the Mayor’s song is recognizably from Mary Poppins, with some segue-ways into the music of Dave Dobbyn, Neil Finn, and Kiri Te Kanawa. The funniest song in the show ‘Alarm’ - a familiar scenario of your alarm clock continuing to go off as you don’t want to get out of bed – had distinct shades of Little Shop of Horror’s ‘Downtown’. In fact, the show reminded me of Little Shop in many ways, from its absurdist storyline, to the playing style of Cyan’s Audrey-like Karen. The show hits all the musical beats – the opening number to establish the show, the villain’s song, and the wistful romantic song about the impossible love between the show’s leads (‘Be unfaithful with me’).
Initial meta-comedy and cleverness about the problems of staging the show by the Janitor and the Usher give way to a greater and less satisfying focus on Kevin: The Musical’s (simple) storyline. The show sparks up again when front row audience members are bought onstage to help fill out the obligatory big production number finale. On opening night, playwright Stuart Hoar is given the job of reading the Mayor’s dialogue, and gets laughs off his own for pointing out the spelling mistakes in the script. The night’s surprise celebrity cameo appearance, Ben Barrington (Olaf in Almighty Johnsons), hilariously loses its impact because and unremarked upon Emmet Skilton (Axl in Almighty Johnsons) was already on stage as one of the hapless (and good humoured) audience members. What a reunion!
Parodies of the musical genre are nothing new (think Avenue Q, Forbidden Broadway, and a lot of the work from the South Park boys) but Steve pulls this one off with a low-key kiwi-ness and comic ease that makes it its own thing. Considering Steve’s stand-up talents, I did feel the show could have benefitted from wider insights and observations about human behavior which stand-up so often wickedly reveals, but as a straight piece of entertainment there are laughs a plenty, and Steve is very much a star.
My thoughts are with Steve Wrigley’s friends and families in this difficult time. He would have been proud, I’m sure.
* Steve Wrigley received support from the NZ Comedy Trust’s Creative Comedy Initiative, a “programme intended to assist works which break the mold and push the boundaries.” May it continue to support worthy works like this!
Kevin: The Musical, presented by Notorious*, plays at the Herald Theatre until 14 May. More information at the Comedy Festival website.