REVIEW: Thoroughly Modern Māui (Auckland Live Cabaret Season)

Review by Molly Daley

[“No Longer Will I Be Painted with a Tainted Brush”]

From the moment Rūtene Spooner hops out of the audience and onto the stage, requests a vodka soda, and welcomes everybody (particularly the “cuzzie’s on the comps”), we are taken on a journey of musical theatre, kapa haka, and essential kōrero. Spooner introduces himself as a ‘haka-boogie-hori’, and his sense of identity and humour as a Māori man and performer underscores the atmosphere for the evening.  Spooner doesn’t hesitate to jump back into the crowd after his first song, finding audience members he doesn’t know and creating connections with other audience members and their hometowns, a demonstration of whakawhanaungatanga as the audience and Spooner build connections.  

It is this connection that makes  the evening so special, and there is no doubt Spooner is able to create this same sense of community with every audience who has the pleasure of seeing this show. Giving an audience member the responsibility of being our ‘queen’ and encouraging them to “wiri in the air like you just don’t care” has us in stitches of laughter every time.  The whanaungatanga between Spooner and his band radiates authenticity and joy. Excitement and vivacity are clear in their faces and performance, and we feel included in this exclusive relationship as members of the audience.

Spooner has gained a reputation as a highly skilled tenor and performer, and his vocal performance is truly a testament to that. Despite the many joking comments about his lack of fitness, Spooner demonstrates a level of breath control and stability throughout the entire performance that contradicted this.

The content and witty presentation of each original waiata is what makes this performance so memorable and unique among the current musical theatre scene of Aotearoa. Following the simple use of a tīpare and wig to transform into his ancestor, Māui, Rūtene launches into song telling of his adventures and thoughts. As hinted in its introduction, this is reminiscent of ‘You’re Welcome’ from Disney’s Moana, but a Māori, less PG version. Spooner prances exuberantly around the stage, transforming into different animals or insects at the request of audience members, encouraging us to draw on our imaginations and appreciate the absurdity of the whole routine.

Another song tackles the very relevant, yet not new issue of mispronunciation of Māori words and names. In a country style waiata, contrasting the previous showtunes, the band call out commonly mispronounced towns and places in Aotearoa while Rūtene responds with their correct names and pronunciation. Despite being a serious topic that has featured heavily in recent media (we are played the infamous camembert interview), the approach is light-hearted and pokes fun in a way which leaves us reflecting without feeling uncomfortable. Rūtene also draws on his own experiences as a rangatahi when using his other birth name, Blake, to avoid the confrontation when he felt it was “kinda disrespectful when you mispronounce my name”.

One of the final songs, ‘Big Black Hoodie’ approaches the discourse of Māori men being racially profiled for something as simple as wearing a hoodie in the supermarket. As a white-passing woman of mixed-race, I have a privilege that is not extended to Māori men in Aotearoa and this song was a skilful reminder of that. Spooner approached the topic in a humorous way that allowed the audience an insight into his wishes and fears regardless of our ability to identify with these experiences due to our own race.

These songs have a clear application in the education sector, where tamariki need to develop empathy and understanding in order to disassemble the racist undertones that feature in much of our society. While some of the language and innuendos would need consideration, the positive implications of teaching our young people about these issues are clear. If Rūtene Spooner were to ever create an album of his original waiata from this performance, the accessible way they are presented would be appreciated by many.

As this performance travels next to Christchurch, more audiences will have the pleasure of learning and laughing while being exposed to a personal insight into the life of this highly talented and hilarious performer. Rūtene Spooner already has a brilliant standing in national and international theatres, but this performance is one that holds values in many more sectors of our society such as education and government.

Thoroughly Modern Māui played the Civic Wintergarden 25 June – 1 July, 2021. 

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