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April 13, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre | [ssba]

Review – Society Slump Superstars

  • Fresh DaDa
  • Written, Produced, and Directed by Joshua Hopton Stewart
  • Piano Accompaniment by Hayden Taylor
  • BATS, April 12, 8pm 

Musical theatre, as any first-year Cultural Studies student can tell you, is an inherently utopian genre. The British cultural critic Richard Dyer writes that the world of musicals presents us with an image both of ‘escape’ and of ‘wish fulfilment’. This is both the strength and the weakness of musical theatre; its generic conventions give it great feel-good potential, but they also irremediably cut it off from the lived reality of the audience. As one character in Joshua Hopton Stewart’s high-energy stage-show Society Slump Superstars puts it: “in musicals everyone is happy!” In their debut production the Fresh DaDa theatre company attempts to mount an ambitious challenge to the limitations imposed by this form, presenting a musical with a political edge: “Glee meets V for Vendetta,” as its promotional material declares. I don’t think they succeed, but nor do I think their audiences are likely to mind.

The plot begins with a certain slick and superficially charming prime minister (Karl Eagle) decreeing that the solution to the New Zealand’s financial woes lies in turning the whole country into a real-life musical comedy. Song-and-dance numbers penned by the PM will be broadcast throughout the nation, and all citizens will be compelled to join in on pain of being dragged away by the Prime Minister’s sinister squad of white-clad goons. The show follows one class of high school students as they react to–and eventually revolt against–the new regime, interspersed with predictable outbreaks of song. Many of these characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs (the hot chick, the rebel, the timid mummy’s-boy), and the camped-up style of the acting often verges on the panto-esque. Nevertheless, there are some brilliant performances on show. Imogen Thirlwall is especially compelling as the grotesquely manic mini-diva Kristen, while Griffin Lea plays her classmate, the hapless hero Martin, with touching ingenuousness (and genuine Canadian-ness). Blithely self-absorbed Holly (Angela Fitzharris) becomes the unwitting focus of a love-pentagon, while Gina (Annabel Harris) leads a guerrilla campaign against the musical, descending rapidly into murderous violence.

The singing and choreography are more variable in quality than the acting, though Thirlwall’s ringing cathedral voice is nicely set off by the rich, sassy, soulful tones of ‘Nebraska Jones’. Both the script and the score are well-tailored to this cast, who take on their roles with great energy and confidence. Many of the tunes are surprisingly catchy, with lyrics certainly no worse than some of those for which Tim Rice or Stephen Sondheim are accountable. If it is not always slickly professional in its execution, Society Slump Superstars is nevertheless thoroughly beguiling. The script is so appealing, the singing and dancing so committed, that it’s very difficult not to be won over by its sheer charm: Utopias, it would seem, were ever thus.

Stewart–the writer and director of the show–claims that Society Slump Superstars is “a satirical look at a Prime Minister’s desperate and rather unorthodox attempt to raise morale after the recession that has hit New Zealand.” Purely on these grounds, Society Slump Superstars is not a great success. It is indeed possible to produce great musical satire (Oh! What A Lovely War being the most successful example of this type), but only where the cloying sweetness of the genre is tempered by a blazing moral vehemence. Society Slump Superstars lacks this edge of Swiftian rage; it is too whimsical, too eager to please, to be labelled properly satirical. The script drips with wry self-awareness rather than with stinging irony, and the real comedy is in the interactions between the characters, however paper-thin they may be. There is, in short, too much Glee and not enough V. 

Society Slump Superstars succeeds, however, not as a satire but as a more conventional farce. There are plenty of real laughs to be laughed, once the highly-improbable plot line gets under way, and–like any good musical–this one is strong on the warm-fuzzy-factor. Moreover, like many musicals Society Slump Superstars sends up the conventions of its medium by drawing attention to its own artifice. Perhaps this is where Society Slump Superstars really is subversive, holding up a distorting mirror to the ‘escapism’ and ‘wish-fulfilment’ of our own Americanised mass-culture. Overall, this self-proclaimed “satirical Kiwi musical” may be a gentler and less topical production than its maker intended, but it’s none the worse for this. It is likeable, fun, frothy, and surprisingly charming–precisely the things a musical comedy ought to be.

Society Slump Superstars runs from 10 to 14 April, 8pm. Tickets cost $18/$14



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