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Arts Festival Review: Bro’Town Live on Stage

Arts Festival Review: Bro’Town Live on Stage

Review by Robbie Ellis

bro’Town Live on Stage
St James Theatre, Wellington
Tue 4 and Wed 5 March
Reviewed by Robbie Ellis

Performed by the Morningside Piano Trio (Mario Gaoa, violin, David Fane, cello, Oscar Kightley, piano) with Shimpal Lelisi, Maka Makatoa, Elizabeth Mitchell, Ant Sang, Teuila Blakely, Elizabeth Mitchell’s brother whose name I’ve forgotten, Jemaine Clement (on video), Bret McKenzie (on video), Lucy Lawless (on video), John Campbell, Carol Hirschfeld, Scribe, The Rt Hon Helen Clark (disembodied voice), Neil Finn (on video), and Chris Knox (on video).
Part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival ’08.

Going into the St James I had no great expectations of urbane, sophisticated comedy: all I figured I’d see was the Naked Samoans clowning around plus a few specially-made animation sequences with the likes of Jeff da Maori – oh, and more celebrity cameos per episode than The Simpsons. Well, close enough. It was a good laugh, no doubt. This is the second time bro’Town has visited Wellington, though there were no Cable Cars or Bucket Fountains to be seen last night like there were in last year’s Series 4.

Five minutes before the start of the show, Oscar Kightley (the voice of Vale) took his seat at an on-stage piano and began to “play” – he was joined by David Fane (Mack and Jeff da Maori) and Mario Gaoa (Sione) in a chamber-pop rendition of the song “Morningside for Life” as the last of the audience made their way in. This classical musician and classical music reviewer must, at this time, make particular reference to how unco Mr Gaoa was in holding his violin, an aspect of which was his failing to recognise how and when to pizz-sync along with the backing track. Granted, the majority of readers will find my hyper-critical pedantry superfluous; inconsequential; and almost certainly downright unreasonable, but it has to be noted that the ‘Morningside Piano Trio’ (my name for the group) had a sense of ensemble that was decidedly “not even”.

Rants aside (especially rants that would immediately be excised if I were writing for a newspaper column of a limited length instead of for the interweb), the show really was quite entertaining. I confess to being a big fan of bro’Town (at least to the extent of owning all the DVDs), and it was very cool to have a lot of the back-story filled out. Parts of particular note were the beginnings of the Naked Samoans (the comedy/theatre troupe made up of Kightley, Fane, Gaoa and Shimpal Lelisi aka Valea), and the formation of the creative team with perspectives from the multi-titled woman-who-runs-the-show Elizabeth Mitchell; designer Ant Sang; and Animation Director Maka Makatoa. Even Mitchell’s brother (whose name I did not catch, apologies!) made an appearance in the story about how he helped secure sponsorship for the series. Although these four people evidently preferred to be behind the scenes and were not naturals on stage like the Nakeds, the audience loved them and supported them for their kiwi can-do attitude.

The back-story I mentioned was the structure of the evening: the boys enlisted Teuila Blakely (the voice of teenager Sina Tapili on the series) to be their narrator, seated behind and framed by a pantomime English garden hedge-arch in a very fairy-tale way. Teuila’s soothing storytime-on-the-reading-mat voice was just the structure needed to tie together the barrage of skits, flashbacks, parodies, slideshows, montages and interviews in the Nakeds’ fast and loose improvisational style. I’m sure much of the show was improvised – which is often no bad thing in the case of this bunch, but often the skit-playing came off a bit flat and not timed as well as it could be.

On Monday, the Festival publicity team bombarded Wellington with the news of “special guests” – left so late, I’m sure, because the script and form of the show was under development right up until curtain. The video contribution from Flight of the Conchords was good fun. By itself it was the trademark Conchords’ deadpan over-analysis which so many of us know and love, but when the duo interacted with the Nakeds, it didn’t quite gel – I suppose it was too much of an ask for the audience to swap between two contrasting humour head-spaces, even if both are familiar to us. That said, it was greatly enjoyable to see Bret & Jemaine jamming with another figure on bro’Town’s roll-call of Kiwi legends, Neil Finn. Chris Knox and Lucy Lawless also made appearances, paralleling their past animated cameos on the series, and Auntie Helen recounted the story of how Prince Charles made a cameo in her voice-only contribution.

While the pre-recorded “live video-link” was all well and good, it was the live guests in the flesh that really charged the show. John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld took part in a This Is Your Life-style interview, complete with Dave Fane’s amorous advances (Fane also managed to incorporated jokes about bestiality and paedophilia over the course of the evening – there was a horse theme that outstayed its welcome in the humour department). As well as that, I did notice the Wellington crowd get a little colder while John Campbell went on about how bro’Town is so recognisably Auckland (it rings true for a born-and-bred JAFA like myself, but perhaps not for the rest of Wellington).

The biggest cheers and whoops of the night were reserved for Scribe, who dropped a few famous lines from the 2004 Hit Parade into the run of the show and the inevitable rousing closing number – this was a new version of Season 2’s musical theatre finale “Morningside for Life”. Best of all, “Morningside for Life” finished with an over-extended Flight of the Conchords improv screw-up sequence – beautiful, as usual.

Technically speaking the show was pretty loose – wireless microphones kept dropping out of the mix; sound levels were very uneven between voices, audio and video; and a lot of the interaction between live actors and pre-recorded sequences was lost because they hadn’t nailed the timing and/or the audience laughed for longer than they’d rehearsed. I was disappointed with the visuals too – I was under the impression that we’d be seeing new animated sequences, but all the animation was either lifted straight from the series or was very crude mash-ups of stock footage with new voice tracks. (I understand there would have been a significant cost factor in brand new animation, but my pre-show expectations were still disappointed.) Some visuals were a bit off too: the last time I checked, Vodafone’s iconic office building was located on Fanshawe St, not at 155 The Terrace!

Technical imperfections aside, it was really refreshing to see a Fringe Festival-like show as part of the International Arts Festival – and the slap-dash production values added to its charms in a way. I always feel sorry for the Fringe Festival in the years when it’s overshadowed by its better funded, better promoted and much more expensive big sister, even if plenty of Fringe shows take the mickey: the best quote I’ve heard to describe the NZIFA is “over-priced over-hyped foreign pap”. There is a degree of truth in that: it’s rare that you see an International Arts Festival show willing to laugh at itself. Fans of bro’Town will love the stage show and will probably already have their tickets, however the ambivalents might (and I repeat might) be pleasantly surprised – it is one of the cheaper offerings at this year’s Festival, so it could well be worth a squiz.

Overall rating: 1/5. This rating may seem harsh, but literally just as I reached the front of the queue to receive one of the goody-bags that Teuila Blakely had promised us audience members on leaving the theatre, supplies ran out. Honestly guys, if you want a good rating you should ensure your reviewers get free shit. A lesson for next time, perhaps.


John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld did not appear in the Wednesday show.

Celebrity Stars For Bro'Town Live Show

Bro' Town Live on Stage, the world's first reality stage show (about a cartoon!), will be a star-studded affair. The crew have roped in famous faces from the show to help them tell their story, including Scribe, Flight of the Conchords, Neil Finn, Lucy Lawless, John Campbell and Carol Hirschfeld. More >>

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