Legend [by James Wenley]
Vance Fontaine is one of the best kept secrets of the Comedy Festival in Auckland. But it is a secret that needs to be let out.
From the improvisatory genius of Wellington’s Greg Ellis Vance Fontaine is the greatest New Zealand singer you have heard of. I went to his Auckland show Vance Fontaine in Command Performance on a whim last year, where Ellis and his polished live band ‘The Peculiar Sensations’ make up on the spot entries from Fontaine’s back catalogue, in any and every genre of music imaginable. As we discover in Vance Fontaine for Lovers, the Vance is a bit of a romantic – a lover of anything that moves – and he has an extensive number of love songs, and relationship advice, that he has built up over his career. Indeed, we learnt that many of us in the audience were likely conceived during a Vance Fontaine love song.
After last year’s discovery, I was keen for more Vance. I overheard another audience member exclaiming that he deserved a bigger audience than what he got on a miserably wet Wednesday evening (the second show in his Auckland season). Vance, wearing a white suit and glitter in his Elvis hairdo, put a showman spin on it in his first comments to us about having a ‘boutique’ audience tonight. As audiences goes, we threw him a real curveball. As improv, the show relies on the material Ellis is able to get out of the punters – and his first question to us, was met with awkward silence. So on cue, Ellis and the band strike up his classic hit “Love is like an awkward silence”, which showed off Ellis’ impressive pipes.
Ellis had to work doubly hard to get our reticent audience responding, and the high-risk show at times threatened to fall apart. Lovers does not seem as tightly structured as last year’s Command – Ellis says his show will take you through all stages of a relationship, but this doesn’t clearly come through, and he also asks if anyone has any relationship questions to which he can provide material – thank goodness for the audience member who asked Fontaine what his thoughts were on picking up at the RSA, to which Fontaine’s enthusiastic advocating for the senior citizen set, through song naturally, were some of the richest material of the night. The open forum structure seemed to be connected to the collective uncertainty about what to offer Ellis, but he worked his magic and found gold in other ways, by making connections with individual audience members. My friend didn’t make it to the theatre for start time, and found herself the subject of Vance’s questioning when she came to sit next to me. Soon Vance was singing the theme tune for a failed Oedipus Rex movie, in the style of Gamelan no less (show bonus: your own musical knowledge is improved), which threw some members of the Peculiar Sensations. A version of ‘Love is like an awkward silence’ could conceivably have been performed before, but there was no precedent for that unique musical reimagining! We became the subject of Vance’s questioning again on the nature of our relationship, and my colleague quickly answered that we had been married for 12 years no less! It was a peculiar sensation indeed for Vance to make up a long song that borrowed elements of my life (my daytime employment, the drama class where we met) within the context of a fictionalized relationship. Sorry Vance for misleading you, but I think we can agree it made for a much more interesting song.
The Lovers showstopper is a love medley of four different music genres, which included on our night very general country to the very specific post-80s discos. Ellis and the band are a remarkable team to watch – and they can do it all. When you catch your breath after laughing, you marvel at how sharply they come out with these tunes, key changes and all. Starting from an awkward silence, we end with head-tapping, whoops, and cries of encore. Vance Fontaine is a legend. Go see Auckland.
Vance Fontaine for Lovers plays at The Basement Theatre as part of the NZ International Comedy Festival until 11 May. Details see Comedy Festival.