Dr Drama Makes a Musical

BATS Theatre, The Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

19/09/2023 - 23/09/2023

Q Theatre Loft, 305 Queen St, Auckland

02/11/2023 - 04/11/2023

TAHI Festival 2023

Production Details

Writer & Performer: James Wenley
Composer & Musician: Phoebe Caldeiro
Choreographer: Brigitte Knight

Theatre of Love

Growing up obsessed with musicals, Dr Drama (theatre lecturer James Wenley) knows what it is like to feel misunderstood. In this toe tapping meta-musical, Dr Drama spills all the secrets about how musicals are made whilst exploring what his own love for musicals reveals about his values, asexuality and life decisions.

BATS Theatre, The Dome
Tuesday 19-Saturday 23 September, 2023
Full $25 / Concession $20 / Group 6+ $22 / The Difference $40

Q Theatre, Loft
Thursday 2-Saturday 4 November, 2023
Full $35 / Student or Senior $25

Guest Artist: Amanda Grace Leo
Executive Producer: Tara Ranchhod
Producer: Rose Jang
Creative Consultant: Rae Longshaw-Park
Assistant Choreographer: Elora Battah
Lighting Design: Michael Goodwin
Set Design: Scott Maxim
MD Consultant: Michael Stebbings
Backing Tracks: Caleb O’Halloran
Assistant Director: Ditas Yap
Operator: Angela Pelham

LGBTQIA+ , Musical , Theatre ,

75 mins

An innovative show crammed with many thought-provoking ideas

Review by Dave Smith 20th Sep 2023

Dr James Wenley takes musical theatre very seriously. And so he should. As he points out in his 75 minute performance, The Lion King (in commercial teams alone) grossed $8 billion while the Phantom of the Opera has only very recently come off Broadway having banked $6 billion (twice the top-grossing movies).

His longbow ambition in this little show is, by using lecture-like and performance-like approaches, to create an off-the-cuff musical. To this end he starts with flashback snaps and video of his own life in musicals. He also appeals to the audience for on-the-spot contributions and their own views about musicals. He is assisted in that by Phoebe Caldeiro on keyboards. They keep up a running duo of comments and background chords. On the rear screen appears, in intended show style (actually film style) scripting of what is said out front. It all looks and sounds classily contemporaneous i.e. scripted “spontaneity”.

The seemingly emerging script is pure BATS Theatre: done on an oily rag, right out there on the imaginative edge and with a bit of a niggly political feel to it. On that latter point the current disgraceful dissolution of artistic aspects of NZ university courses is neatly written into this impromptu musical. Cultural colonialism also get the ritual thump as well.

I confess that the brave originality of it all is a bit bewildering given the brief allotted time. I’ve had to think about it lot so as to communicate to readers what might be considered the cogent and central features of a highly novel piece.

So here goes. The stage is the usual wide open Dome space filled only by James and Phoebe but with the back wall plastered with programme covers from the shows that James has been in. So his new musical is intellectually built on old musicals; not their songs, just via analyses of their structures and social content: what is largely common to all and where the disturbing Western conqueror-like rituals of musical theatre stem from. For instance, a comparatively recent show, Miss Saigon, was done in yellowface! (I recall that similar racial issues undermined The Flower Drum Song).   

James insightfully points out Brit-American musicals have a nationalistic sub agenda of imposing rigid social views on audiences the world over. The high water mark of that was The King and I which depicted an English school ma’am civilizing the barbaric young folk of Siam. We bought into (and still buy into) the approach that the natural choice is an off-the-shelf Northern blockbuster. While the likes of Oklahoma and Carousel did a lot for American esteem and the USA’s dominant place in the real world, what has been our onstage contribution to our self-image and social development?

Well, somewhat surprisingly, Aotearoa has whizzed up quite bit of good stuff that would have seen many more audiences had it been handled more patriotically. Who remembers the very passable musicals of Shortland Street, Factory, Once were Warriors? Even Footrot Flats hit the high spots, mainly in Oz. Fair point. We are, perchance, perched on the edge of a Treaty breach in this unlikely area of communal life.

One of the standout moments for me, in this piece, is the sight of James dressed up as the brutish Bill Sykes averring that the Brits turned the musical villain into a hero. He oafishly clubs his way around the stage intoning in a deep devilish voice “Pākehā..ha-ha-ha-ā”. Quite a stunner is that.

A point I would have make though is that so many of the notions about the oppressiveness of the Broadway style come from the ultra-preachy Hammerstein scores. As James rightly observes, musicals start with dialogue that morphs suddenly into songs that yield to dance; sometimes all three at once. At their zenith they encapsulate the best of humanity.

The golden age of musicals is generally agreed to be 1940 to 1969. In the first half of that era Rodgers was teamed up with Hart (Pal Joey) in parallel with Jerome Kern (Showboat), Cole Porter (Kiss me Kate) and the Gershwin brothers (Porgy and Bess). Those people explored the human heart through universal themes of true love, romance, ordinariness and the yearning for acceptance of/by all. They are all too easily overlooked nowadays where spectacle and popular vibes predominate. The loving heart knows little of capitalism, colonialism and exploitation although, yes indeed, the business of big musicals was always a cruel space to be in.

James himself clearly owes much of this musical zeal to his junior days in the Auckland Children’s Musical Theatre (ACMT). It was there that he vocally peaked as Bill Sykes in Oliver. It was there too that Alex Urban determined that James simply couldn’t hold a tune. Many years of training never really altered that. Here it’s at the centre of the “new musical tonight” trope.

James still, regrettably, cannot hold a tune but he doesn’t really have to – in his very own show he can do what he likes. And he enjoys just riffing some words in a semi-musical. This is not a musical of songs or emotions as much as a musing on plot style or baffling societal values in art. Much of it is crooned with a vamping sort of non-musical backing from the keyboard. In the very nature of things this cannot be conventionally tuneful. Nobody can hum up a stream of consciousness Guys and Dolls on the off-chance it might catch on.

QR codes (for phones) invite audience members to state their reactions and ideas about musicals. This reveals the expected strong liking for musicals but reflects that good old fixation on what musicals we are talking about. (The fifties, R&H and Lloyd-Webber are in there but with little recognition of the top golden age shows well before them.)

And then I must not forget that James does know all about how to round off a show. From the ‘eleven o’clock song’ (Broadway shows started at 8.30pm and needed an ‘easing into’ song for the finale at 11pm) we get to our very own big number.

In this case a serviceable piece of musical doggerel but it is danced and sung with audience participation. Assistant Choreographer Elora Battah, in full Showtime dancing fig smartly trains three women volunteers to dance the number. The rollicking audience get through their new song with commendable flair and no rehearsal. But wait! There’s more! 

Guest artist Amanda Grace Leo (late of Singapore) magically appears and joins in the spirit of things. The perfect way to end a show. She’s a 101 pounds of fun, this lovable lady. James teams up with her (at one point on both knees) to create a most personable duo. As I said before, there is no obvious song or routine just powerful personalities at work in showbiz ritual. Picture, if you will, the Griffin family hoofing their way through a ritzy number in the alternating heads credits of Family Guy. Then pop in James, Amanda, Elora and three randoms and there you have the full bizzo! A shoe/show string blockbuster about keeping the curtain up – I think.

James and Phoebe are to be congratulated for a show that crams so many thought provoking ideas into such a short time space. Producer Rose Jang would be well pleased with the rapturous audience reaction to a piece that, after all, requires heavy work by the audience too. BATS keeps on delivering innovative events that, even if they don’t hit all their marks, triumph simply by being.   


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