REVIEW: Short+Sweet Song (Short+Sweet Festival 2013)

Short+Sweet Song
Singing makes everything better

Play it Again, Song [by James Wenley]

Short+Sweet Song
Singing makes everything better

Short+Sweet Song is even shorter than the other editions. While the odd 10minute Musical Theatre piece has popped up in Auckland’s Short+Sweet Theatre Festival (including the initial version of hilarious Bombs Away), this year musically inspired theatre get their own category and week, and on opening night five 10 minute works made up a brief yet eclectic evening that proved the showbiz maxim that the show must go on.

Chalk this one up to the necessary learning curve as the artists get to grips with the challenges of composing for the strict ten minute format. Most of the works are vaguely in the style of the Musical Theatre genre, and condensing the emotional roller coaster of a Musical down to ten minutes and a handful of songs is not an easy task.

Annie & Joshua from the formidable pair of Thomas Sainsbury (Book/Director) and Robbie Ellis (Words & Music / Musical Story) marks a promising start to the evening as the musical love story trope comedically fizzles out before it has even begun. On a slow Monday night at a hotel, Bellboy Joshua’s (Callum Blackmore) question “everything alright?” prompts a musical outpouring from receptionist Annie (Bridget Costello): “If you must know….” She’s just broken up with her boyfriend, and Joshua decides this would be a good time to ask her out. Soon the two are contemplating their future together – marriage, kids, and inevitable divorce. The witty book and composition gets full traction out of the concept, and it’s pulled off with exuberant charm from the actors and featured choreography involving a birdcage trolley borrowed from Sky City Grand.

The troubled love theme continues into What Love Can Be from Tamasyn Clare (Writer) and Kinloch Anstiss (Director). We open with Emma (Cassie Baker), in a stunning red dress, sweetly singing of her hope for a new life and “what love can be”. A lengthy scene follows where we meet her boyfriend of five years Jeremy (Liam Coleman), who doesn’t like the dress, and reveals a controlling and ugly side with a series of insidious put-downs. While the characters are written too overtly as villain and victim, Anstiss and the actors find more dimensions to play with physically and their dynamic is very watchable. The scene justifies a feature ballad from Baker, expressing her dissatisfaction, and boyfriend’s attitude of “I love you babe, now change” (echoing the title of the Musical Comedy I love you, you’re perfect, now change). Well constructed musically and lyrically, the combination of bare keyboard and the strain of un-amplified vocals are not sufficient to realise the emotional punch needed. This was a case of music not necessarily complementing the narrative: we’d seen all we needed to know in the interaction with the boyfriend, a scene that was ultimately more informative and powerful than the musical number.

quiet desperation conceived by Celeste Oram took us to another genre altogether, straddling expressionism, contemporary dance with soundscape. For the first time in the night, silence was embraced as the cast stood motionless facing the audience. They include Ben Jackson, standing on a treadmill, wearing a suit and tie paired with a gold dress. Phoebe Borwick in work out gear clutches a chunky rope that leads offstage. Adam Thompson is poised in front of a boxing bag. Celeste Oram is ready with a skipping rope. And in the middle of sits a distressed Lucy Smith, wearing drab blacks compared to a bright and funkily attired companions. The performers enact a series of physically straining, repetitive movement in which they make no progress – Borwick cannot make the rope budge. Aurally, there is careful attention paid to the layering and rhythm of the sounds of the physical movements – the whir of the treadmill, hit of the skipping rope on floor – combined with the breath, with moans and the odd operatic trill escaping vocally. Smith touches her face, and frequently pushes her chair down to the ground, which the others pause at. It seems we are witnessing the anguish of Smith’s unconscious. Following the monotony of their movement, the conclusion, where the performers face us, sharing with us their exhaustion, satisfies. quiet desperation has the quality of a camp Beckett piece, sitting strangely in the middle of the Song format. Conceptually impressive and a welcome detour, it was equally a work of endurance for the audience and one where you were glad a 10minute format is imposed.

The Adventures of Kazu & Kengo (a.k.a. This is how Ninjas say hi…!) (Director: Gerald Urquhart, Book: Hiroshi Nakatsuji, Composer & MD: Jun Bin Lee) gives us a tongue in cheek musical comedy. The plot sees two “Ninja wannabes” attempting to save the world so they could complete their training, but all you really need to know is the hook: singing and dancing Ninjas. Not always coherent, the cast’s enthusiasm and cheesey ninja choreography were able to mostly take us along on their quest, with an all-dancing megamix to cap it off at the end. Lee’s ‘N-n-n-n-ninja’ song was the earworm of the night and has the makings of a worldwide novelty pop song ala Gangnam Style.

Hole in the Road (Writer/Composer: Scott Korey, Director: Jonathan Hodge) was the most successful in traversing the 10minute format in taking us on a fulfilling and reflective journey. A last minute illness saw Short+Sweet Festival Director himself take one of the roles, and he was joined by Cassie Baker making a return appearance. They sing wistfully of holes and streets and houses in disrepair, and dance in Gene Kelly style with brooms. It’s a gentle opening, but then the penny drops: this is a story of Christchurch. Performed as a song cycle, there are a number of poignant and powerful moments, not least the ending which saw the music fade and vocals soften, the musical conceit cutting out to suggest the shaky reality that continues in the city.  The only piece to be mic’d, the performers fine vocals were strong and clear, giving an extra polish and connection the other pieces lacked (Hodge managed a very graceful scoop too when his mic pack fell out). Hodge’s unexpected acting appearance meant that Road is ineligible for the competition aspect of the Festival, but is otherwise deserving and foyer feedback suggested it would have done well.

A further work, a solo ten minute version of Vicki Millar’s I wish I Learned, which had recently graced the Herald stage, was unfortunately unable to be performed on opening night due to the actress’ illness.

With few avenues for theatre composers, Short+Sweet Song represents a worthy stepping stone to get their songs and work performed. Judging by this slight line-up, the community is yet to get behind the enterprise. Based on the uptake of Short+Sweet Theatre, now in its fifth year, there is room for optimism. For 2014 I suggest the producers take a leitmotif out of Neil Patrick Harris’s songbook: “Make it bigger”!

Short+Sweet Song plays as part of the Short+Sweet Festival 2013 at the Herald Theatre in association with THE EDGE until 15 June. Details see THE EDGE.

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Joselyn Khor

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