The NERO Show

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

15/05/2010 - 19/06/2010

Production Details

Music, Action, Ego

Those marvellous maestros of the modern musical, Paul Jenden and Gareth Farr, have done it again with another fantastic feast of extravagant entertainment.

The World Première of The NERO Show opens in CIRCA One on Saturday 15th May at 8pm.

Welcome to the world of beautiful people, fabulous frocks, soaring melodies, exciting rhythms, a live band, wicked lyrics and that inimitable mix of history, ingenuity and pizzaz that is a Jenden/Farr production!

It is 1963, and a live TV show is about to be broadcast from Nero’s mansion, hosted by Seneca, that well known philosopher, TV personality and talk-show host. Rome’s most infamous Emperor has been dropped squarely into the life and times of the glamorous 1960s and the story of his rise and fall begins to look all too familiar… JF Kennedy and Jackie? Marilyn Monroe?
Combining Roman excess with ‘60s cool The NERO Show is a totally modern take on this ageless story of preening politicians, upstaging wives, inconvenient mistresses and explosive enemies.
Cue drum rolls and sweeping harp! ….. The cameras are rolling!
There’s glamour, glitz, laughter and intrigue in this latest lavish production from the creators of Troy, Monarchy and Rome.
“So full of musical and linguistic invention… it’s almost impossible to keep up with the jokes…” – NZ Listener, Rome – the musical
“A triumph” – Dominion Post, Troy – the musical
The NERO Show – it has to be seen to be believed!
15th May – 19th June
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
$20SPECIALS – Sunday 16 May – 4pm. Tuesday 18 May – 6.30pm.    
Performance times:
Tuesday & Wednesday – 6.30pm
Thursday, Friday, Saturday – 8pm
Sunday – 4pm
Ticket Prices:
Adults – $38; Concessions – $30;
Friends of Circa – $28

Under 25s – $20;       Groups 6+ – $32
Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
Phone 801 7992  

NERO                                                        Jason Chasland
AGRIPPINA (his mother)                      Christina Cusiel
OCTAVIA (his step-sister and wife)  Joanne Hodgson
BRITANNICUS (his step-brother)       Paul Harrop
POPPEA (his lover)                               Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
BOUDICCA (his prisoner)                    Emma Kinane
SENECA (a TV personality)                 Louis Solino

Harp               Natalia Mann
Cello              Charles Davenport
Woodwind     Debbie Rawson
Percussion   Fraser Bremner

Set Design by John Hodgkins
Costume Design by Paul Jenden
Lighting Design by Jennifer Lal
Video Design by
Angela Boyd

Roman musical comedy needs dialogue to really sparkle

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 17th May 2010

On a vast, opulent Hollywood-like setting dotted about with well over a dozen working black-and-white TV sets a sleek TV chat show host called Seneca (Louis Solino) introduces us to The Nero Show in which we discover that Ancient Rome has been transported to Kennedy’s Camelot.

The excellent opening song, its caustic edge reminiscent of Sondheim, is called Make-up. Sung by Joanne Hodgson – who plays Octavia, Nero’s wife and half-sister who is married to Britannicus (Paul Harrop) – it sets out one of the themes of this sung-through musical: the vanity, egotism, and immorality of those in power need to be covered up otherwise there’ll be revolution or assassinations.

One of Nero’s songs is called It’s Not About Me. As we all know, it was all about him and his mother’s efforts to get rid of the doddering, slobbering Emperor Claudius. Both emperors are played by Jason Chasland. He hams it up amusingly for Claudius and camps it up to start with as the mummy-cuddling Nero. In the second half a much stronger character emerges as he thrusts his pelvis like Elvis and carries on with Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s Poppea, who looks remarkably like that other 50s icon Marilyn, particularly when she is dressed as if she were about to perform Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.

Throw into the plot (God knows why) Boudicca (played by Emma Kinnane looking and behaving like a cross between the late Queen Mum and Dawn French), and you have the makings of some plot intrigue. It keeps the first half afloat, if not always on a course one can easily follow, which is not helped, I confess, by staring at the small (correct for the period) and distracting black and white TV screens.

The burning of Rome occurs in a cloud of smoke that brings to mind scenes from TV’s Madmen, though why Rome was set on fire was never very clear but it did lead to a terrific finale to the first act.

Gareth Farr’s music, played by a small band under the direction of Michael Vinten, is of a multiplicity of styles of the period, all lively and rhythmical but I felt that the songs might have stood out more if there had been dialogue as in an old-fashioned musical comedy which is what The Nero Show really is.

The finale is a revenge tragedy bloodbath and then all the characters are resurrected to sing the final message which is the same message at the end of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, when the two murderesses, Velma and Roxie, shout that they couldn’t have got through “their terrible ordeal” without help from the public. In other words, we are complicit in the corruption.

It’s a fun show but never quite as funny as one hopes it will be, which is a pity when you have in the cast comic talents as good as Christina Cusiel, who plays Nero’s mother Agrippina, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, and Emma Kinnane.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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A splendid artistic and theatrical achievement

Review by John Smythe 16th May 2010

The conceit that underpins this new Paul Jenden / Gareth Farr ‘popera’ is that Nero’s Rome (circa AD 54-68) is relocated in JFK’s Washington DC circa 1963. Thus parallels are drawn between those two eras and some elements of more recent international politics. Sic transit gloria mundi: thus passes the glory of the world. Given this, Farr’s choice of Latin American rhythms to underpin most of his score is a pertinent pun in itself.

The Roman philosopher, statesman and dramatist Seneca, who became Nero’s tutor, is re-imagined by Jenden as the host of The Nero Show, a live-to-air blend of The Ed Sullivan Show and Edward R Morrow’s Person to Person shows (which brought outside broadcast cameras into people’s homes). Not that Louis Solino’s Seneca interviews anyone; he simply introduces the characters, stands back to let the invariably toxic chemistry do its damndest, then ushers those still standing off again.  

John Hodgkins’ palatial set design foregrounds Nero’s split-level mansion – featuring trendy 1960s black and white furnishings and a bust of the young Abraham Lincoln (America’s Julius Caesar?) – while placing the show-band in the background against blood red drapes. Old-style TV screens dot the space playing b & w images redolent of the era (video design by Angela Boyd).

Avoiding the all-angles drenching of everything in brightness that characterised multi-cam TV production in its early days, Jennifer Lal’s lighting design makes a virtue of shadows and half-light, appropriately emphasising and increasing the intrigue.

Spot-on casting and an excellent sound mix (Thomas Press) ensures that Jenden’s superbly crafted lyrics are clearly heard amid Farr’s glorious compositions, impeccably played by an ingeniously conceived and orchestrated quartet – harp (Natalia Mann), cello (Charles Davenport), woodwind (Debbie Rawson) and percussion (Fraser Bremner with a little offstage help from the cast) – under the baton of musical director Michael Vinten.

And so to the characters. As a prologue, Nero’s step-sister and wife Octavia, alone in front of a pseudo fire, sings of make-up (another play on words); how “beauty is a duty” and “make-up will make you fantastic”. In this Jackie K-esque role Joanne Hodgson, a clear-voiced soprano with an extraordinary range, is beautifully centred, poised and finally poignant in her demise.

Her brother Britannicus, a Rat-Packish but honourable man played with compelling presence by bass-baritone Paul Harrop, lurks and observes as if preparing to expose Nero’s moral corruption. “How can you not let me do him in?” he sings at one point but he never gets chance. He does, however, last longer in this show than he did in history (poisoned in AD 55, probably by a 17 year-old Nero whose mother Aggripina was acting as regent until he came of age).

As embodied by strong mezzo-soprano Christina Cusiel, Agrippina, “Step-mother dearest” of Octavia and Britannicus and mother of Nero, assumes the dominance of a doting mother who knows her boy-child loves her to death. And, in time, he does exactly that.

These are the ‘Beautiful People’ who open the show proper with the first of a number of syncopated upbeat numbers, while the ailing emperor Claudius (Agrippina’s husband; Nero’s step-father) lies dying upstairs. “Carpe diem!” sing the step children: “Seize the day!”

Except Claudius – not listed in the programme – turns up all doddery and menacing as a surprise guest, revelling in his ‘I Claudius’ song before being fed special mushrooms by his wife. “The emperor is dead…” announces Seneca, a wondrous transformation ensues, young Nero arises from the dropped grey wig and dressing gown, and as at an awards ceremony the envelope is opened and Nero is pronounced the new emperor. Cue the ‘Nero Hero’ samba, except he has to sit it out, being too young to rule.

Jason Chasland – a high tenor who can also soar in falsetto and find deeper tones in an Elvis routine – has a ball as Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus. The website describes his paradoxical character as “artistic, sporting, brutal, weak, sensual, erratic, extravagant, sadistic, bisexual” and The Nero Show sees Chasland nail them all except, perhaps, the ‘sporting’ part. Instead we are treated to his strong Oedipal tendencies, which his mother reciprocates, although both try to resist it.

His plaintive ‘It’s Not About Me’ (yeah, right) solo is one of a number of songs that recur throughout in a cohesive score that reaches a new level of sophistication beyond Farr’s earlier collaborations with Jenden (TROY The Musical, MONARCHY The Musical and ROME The Musical).

Things get complicated at a domestic level when Nero’s lover Poppea – “What about me?” – turns up as a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, all “koochie-koo” and “smoochie-poo”. Sublimely personified by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, her breathless ‘Mr Emperor’ swansong includes a fine example of Jenden’s consistently witty lyrics: “Pluck my soul and preach to me / Veni vedi vici me.”

As for international relations, a bizarrely imagined visitation from Boudicca – “It’s Boudicca, not Boadicea / Pronounce my name the proper Celtic way” – brings on the wonderfully true-voiced Emma Kinane, kitted out more like the Queen Mum than the Queen of England. Her suicide bomb belt and her apparent coming around to supporting Nero’s policies reek more of recent times, but the denouement, whereby she gives Nero the means to wreak havoc then self destruct, may belong more to ancient history.

Given the high society 1960s setting, the ubiquity of cigarettes is inevitable, provoking a witty running gag about lighters that fail to flame – until Boudicca arrives, that is. The quest to get hold of her lighter is hilarious in itself, and all the more impressive when it turns out to be a set-up for a metaphorical evocation of the Great Fire of Rome (AD 64).

“It’s not my fault Rome burnt to the ground,” sings Nero – whose failure to play a fiddle is presumably due to Jenden’s discovering that such instruments were unknown in Rome of that era. The balance he chooses between historical accuracy and artistic licence could be a thesis topic.

I understand why the likes of Shakespeare felt the need to filter contemporary satire through ancient tales from other climes, for fear of being closed down by the Lord Chamberlain. But while The Nero Show happily proves once again that the more things change the more they stay the same, part of me would like the satirical blades to be sharper and their targets to be more incisively impaled. (What opportunities, for examples, might Nero’s persecution of the Christians offer?)

Nevertheless it is a splendid artistic and theatrical achievement. And despite a body count at the end that rivals any Shakespearean tragedy, it delivers an upbeat ending to send us all smiling into the night.  
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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