[Same but Different]
The heart of Joanna Jayne St John’s homegrown People Like Us is the binary-breaking love story between two trans-women, Bianca (Luke Bird) and Sheena (Ramon Te Wake), who meet at DOT’s Bar, a safe haven for the show’s transgender community. Like any good romance, they both have their own baggage and personal obstacles to overcome before they can really be together. For Bianca, she’s only recently decided to come out, and dealing with the reactions of her family is difficult and daunting. Sheena, on the other hand, is more experienced, but has to deal with the return of her ex-boyfriend who also happens to be her ex-pimp.
At times the melodramatic plot feels like a soap opera parody, but the material is handled by director Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho and his lead actors with the utmost empathy. Bird and Te Wake complement each other perfectly, both characteristically and vocally. Bird showcases a great set of pipes while balancing his male body shyly against his female persona, all while avoiding becoming the subject of a cheap joke. Te Wake’s voice doesn’t have the same power, but it’s more distinctive in that you get the sense nobody else could sing for the role and perfectly convey who the character is – a tough but damaged survivor.
Most of Bianca’s family fill roles that are primarily perfunctory, acting initially outraged and finally accepting. Despite the lack of character development, each performer does well to cater to their stereotypes. As Elle, the supportive daughter, Gemma Rushton does a fine job playing to the character’s purity and innocence. Janine (Maryuanne Rushton), the ex-wife, is histrionic, bitter and scathing in equal parts, but finds enough humour to make it palatable. And Blokey son Richard (Jack Barnard) and his wife Susan (Rose Rogers) are painted with generic conservatism born from ignorance. Because we are never given an understanding of why the characters are so lacking in understanding or why they subsequently come around it results in a two-dimensional family portrait. If the interactions succeed in being emotionally resonant it’s only because it’s played so sincerely, and we want to believe in happy endings, rather than because it feels honest or earned.
Sheena’s major conflict with ex-lover Roger (Johnny Aukusitino) is handled with a similar lack of sophistication, treating prostitution rather flippantly, and refusing to delve deeper into the implications. Aukusitino’s performance as what is arguably the villain of the show also leaves a lot to be desired. His characterisation consists of cartoonish moustache-twirling and uninspired threats. The role is appropriately unflattering, but rather than a villain we love to hate, he plays a villain we would rather not have to tolerate.
DOT’s bar is practically a character in itself, playing host to the wide variety of personalities. While not ultra-realistic, it’s a simple and effective set, mainly consisting of a counter and the name of the bar plastered in front of it, and the Auckland CBD painted on a backdrop behind it. Again, it’s the workers and patrons of the bar itself that fill the space with a sense of believability. In particular, the natural stage presences of Vera (Cindy of Samoa) and Twinkle (Zakk D’larte) serve to keep the show moving during narrative lulls and moments of exposition. Both performers, despite being peripheral to the main plot, are joyful narrators, playfully embracing audience interaction and stealing the spotlight on more than one occasion.
With the twenty-three songs that make up the show, some are, naturally, going to feel less essential, but the quality of the song-writing is generally consistent. Some of the highlights include “Two People Like Us,” “Be The Woman” and “Losing My Baby Blues”. Musically, the more acoustic songs, which focus on the singing talent of the stars, are most effective, rather than faux-rock’n’roll numbers. Musical director Lavina Williams also handles her performers well, keeping their singing true to their characters, rather than attempting to emulate any supposed Broadway standard.
Taiaroa Royal’s choreography is fun enough to watch, but never showcases the brilliance you might expect from one of the artistic directors of Okareka Dance Company. It lacks the uniqueness that makes the acting or singing so essential to the show and its characters.
There are shows that transcend the limitations of their writing, telling stories that need to be told. People Like Us is one of those shows, marking a first for the local queer community. The storytelling is a work-in-progress, hiding safely behind the conventions of the musical genre. Without those trappings, the heavy-handed exposition and lack of character beats would be glaring. But thanks to the singing, dancing, and the heightened state of emotions, the story whizzes past nice and easily, though sometimes at the cost of nuance. With further development (and it is a development season) it’s easy to see how the gap in quality between the writing and the performances, the ambition and execution, will grow smaller and smaller. While it is unlikely to make a convert of anyone who isn’t already at least fond of musicals, the story feels important because of its pioneer nature. A vital reminder that no matter who you are the need for acceptance is universal.
People Like Us is presented by Fabulousity Productions and plays at The Pumphouse until 21st Feb. Details see The Pumphouse.