WITside Story

BATS Theatre, Wellington

16/02/2011 - 18/02/2011

NZ Fringe Festival 2011

Production Details

Strike up the band, put on your hairspray and get those jazz-hands ready for an enchanted evening of story telling and musical delight.

Wicked, wonderful stories told in song, and inspired on the night by audience suggestions! Come and see the WIT guys and dolls performing in perfect harmony.

WITside Story: An Improvised Musical, where every night is opening night! 
"Satisfyingly musicalesque" – Theatreview

Wednesday 16th February – Friday 18th February 2011
Time: 6.30pm
Price: $16 Full / $14 Concession / $12 Fringe Addict 
Length: 1hr
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Cast & Crew
Christine Brooks, Geoff Simmons, Mark Scott, Jen O'Sullivan, Robbie Ellis, Anne Brashier
Lighting: Darryn Woods   

Hit and Miss

Review by James McKinnon 17th Feb 2011

The Book of Lists claims that most people fear public speaking more than death. And while most people blanche at the prospect of reading a prepared speech, the performers in WITside Story gamely attempt to create an entirely improvised musical as we watch. This is an extremely difficult task. All the usual challenges of improvised performance are amplified by the imperative of developing a plot and characters for a full sixty minutes (which is about sixty times longer than a typical scene in the more common short form improv format), and new challenges are added, like inventing music, lyrics, and choreography – often in unison. So the actors deserve respect and admiration, and even when they struggle, as they did on Wednesday night, they are often wonderful to behold.

Reviewing improvised performance may seem pointless to some, but this performance deserves to be documented as an example of both the rewards and perils of long form, improvised musical theatre (admittedly, a highly refined genre). When performers take big, bold risks, even failure often brings a big payoff: failing at a laughably impossible task is just as funny as nailing it, but the comedy is blended with pathos because we really want them to succeed. But it takes a carefully co-ordinated effort to build those stakes, and unfortunately, on Wednesday the performers took too long to get synchronised. The audience located the performers in a supermarket, which is a promising setting, but not a plot, and the main story didn’t start to go anywhere until 40 minutes in. When it finally did, it truncated a subplot involving a Big Brother NZ reject and an extremely aged pianist, whose duet (really a trio with brilliant musical accompanist Robbie Ellis) was the funniest moment in the show.

It’s nice when performers can develop an improvised plot into a logical climax, but not necessary, as long as there are clear characters with interesting relationships. Here too the performers were hit and miss. Broad comedy can easily become stereotype when white people take on accents and names like “Akbar,” and the show veered awkwardly towards brownface at moments. An apparent attempt to compensate by turning Akbar into a sympathetic character simply produced more embarrassing moments, including phony prayers, bomb threats, and the strained implication that New Zealand welcomes non-Anglophone immigrants with open arms (except for the occasional co-worker who tries to frame you as a terrorist).

Nevertheless, the performance proved that while something this ambitious won’t work every night, even an off night at the improv is not boring. The best songs were clever and catchy, and the best scenes earned laughs from throughout the house. The performers – especially Ellis and Anne Brashier – are clearly capable of putting it all together, and even if they didn’t on this particular night, I would happily give them another shot. This show is not a sure thing, but it’s a good bet.
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