The Grumpiest Boy in the World

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Published: 7th October, 2015
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There was a serious buzz in the theatre as I was seated – people were using phrases like “so exciting to see this kind of innovation in our opera company!” “Have you heard Joseph Twist’s music yet? You are in for a treat!” I also noticed how very many children of all ages were in the audience. Everyone working in the theatre knows that children are the toughest audience of all. (As a past veteran of ABC for Kids touring company I am only too keenly aware of this myself.) Yet I was aware throughout the show that children around me were engaged – giggling or wide-eyed at various times. This is a measure of the success of the whole of the show; the writing – both in structure and detail – the musical settings, the performances, the visual aspects of design, set, movement and lighting,

Young Zachary bridles at ordinariness. He dreams of being a king, riding a lion and making his favourite time of day – lunchtime – the main event at school. He dreams that the pictures he draws will have a life beyond the fridge door. This is the beginning of his adventure through the imagination. There is a visually gorgeous succession of colourful scenes, creatures of fantasy and familiar situations, and the delight at the transformation of those situations to a rich imaginary world. As the familiar becomes transformed, it then gradually reflects Zachary and ourselves back to us until we recognize it. He, however, becomes cross as he sees that the fantasy creatures are in ways similar to him. Zachary’s journey comes to a peak as he realizes that he is exceptional at something – being the grumpiest boy in the world.

Director Cameron Menzies did a most remarkable job working with a very large mixed group of young singers from high school to university levels to perform so well, given – I’m told – just six rehearsal days. Both the extensive cast of soloists and the large chorus performed with verve and accuracy. There was a joyous energy that seized us from start to finish. The stage floods with people, then empties as rapidly, leaving small scenes. Stillness and movement contrast wonderfully, as music provides wonderful builds and contrasts. There is no experience like live theatre for these thrilling effects.

Librettist Finegan Kruckmeyer has provided an intriguing libretto to create language that is at once rich, yet accessible. This is a triumph. It is able to grasp the attention of children and adults alike – a remarkable feat indeed. I was enchanted by moments of word play at times reminiscent of Dr Seuss, yet again I noticed its effectiveness in grasping the attention of the children.

Composer Joseph Twist has set this libretto to a wonderful score, full of variety, colour rhythmic vitality and a very natural setting of text to music. Even when the declamatory style finally gave way to a little wistful romanticism late in the piece, the text and emotion were able to be clearly projected, set to melodies well crafted for each voice. There was a noticeable contemporary Broadway influence, both in the accompaniments and some of the melodic writing. This was not so strong as to detract from the opera feel, but this did provide a marvelous immediacy of effect. There was also present a noticeable structure, beyond the kaleidoscopic contrasts, where motifs returned with alterations and development as the journey unfolded.

Musical ideas were subtly tied in with character development. At times I was reminded of the symphonic Bernstein. The range of orchestral colour was astounding, particularly given the skeleton crew of Orchestra Victoria present. It really was a most spectacular display of what can be achieved with only nine musicians. Simon Bruckard is a young conductor with an assured touch, and it was a delight to see him coordinate singers and orchestra so well.

Jacob Lawrence appearing as Zachary genuinely looked seven years old. I could see the children around me identify with him on appearance. Then, when his accurate and nuanced high baritone filled the theatre, fascination kicked in. His was an assured performance throughout, as he sang with a wonderfully clear articulation and diction. An older gentleman sitting near me exclaimed that he’d been able to understand every word, despite there being no surtitles displayed. There was little rest at all for Lawrence in the almost hour’s length of the piece. Though young, he was completely up to the demanding role, showing no sign at all of tiring – a truly impressive feat. As for acting grumpy, I was wishing for at least one first class tantrum from Lawrence at some stage – it never came. Then I realised that the mummies and daddies would have some work to do explaining to their children on the way home why “we don’t behave like that”. Perhaps the absence of real grumpiness was directorial sensitivity.

Shakira Tsindos performed her role with real warmth – she shows a likeable stage presence. Matan Franco not only sang the role of the father extremely well, but acted it with a subtle but focused skill impressive in the context.

As The Scientists, both Kiran Rajasingam and Stella Joseph-Jarecki had brief moments of serious singing, yet were well able to simultaneously provide the comic relief their roles demanded. The richness and expression in Rajasingam’s tone is particularly notable. Lizzie Barrow sang beautifully as the Bird – another voice to note in the future.

Whoever played the Dog was not accredited in the program, but was marvellous, captivating children and adults alike. In the opening scene I feared she/he might steal the scene altogether, yet didn’t want it stop, because it was so good. (I found myself wishing for a spotlight to help the focus to move back on to Lawrence at that point).

Chloe Greaves’ set and costume design were a source of delight throughout the piece – and I am still enjoying the charming illustrations in the program she provided.

Victorian Opera is to be commended in the highest terms for sustaining this level of quality, innovation and energy in these productions. This is due in no small way to the vision of Artistic Director Richard Mills, but also the support of so many in the organization, from management to patrons to sponsors. That the Victorian Opera will present no less than four such new works in 2016 places it in a very special position indeed. Treasure this organisation’s contribution to the culture of Melbourne!

Picture by Charlie Kinross

Victorian Opera presented this production at Merlyn Theatre, Cooper’s Malthouse from October 2-4, 2015.