Five diverse yet incredibly talented NZ female artists brought David Byrne and Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim’s 2010 concept album Here Lies Love to stunning disco life at Q’s Rangatira. Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Ria Hall, Villette Dasha, Colleen Davis and Sarah Nessia danced and sang about the life of Imelda Marcos with a five-piece band led by the show’s Musical Director, Robin Kelly.
Before anything else, let us talk about the cabaret style scene with overhead disco balls that has become one of the best set designs this author has seen in the last few years. The wall with the pink-white orchid mural prints by Omnigraphics and embedded with tiny spots of LED lights by Filament Eleven 11 is a techno-design marvel by itself. The colours and light patterns added a subtle contemporary edge to the glamour of a 70s Studio 54-ish party atmosphere. A nod here to lighting design by Rachel Marlow and lighting operation by Sean Mackenzie.
Next comes the stunning costume designs by Elizabeth Whiting. The band and all five artists were adorned in designs reminiscences of the 70s. Highlights included the one-piece silk dress with soft folds for Ria Hall, the silver glittering pants suit for Jennifer Ward-Leland with a razor sharp silhouette and lastly, the Balmain inspired dark dress for Villette Dasha embellished with Thai-Indonesian motifs. The green sequinned jackets worn by each band member was also a brilliant design salute to the standard band dress code of a glitzy nightclub back in the day, or night to be more precise.
Apéritifs aside, we now come to the best part - the music of Here Lies Love.
Ria Hall started off the 2-part show with the title track and backed by the other four members of the cast. The disco mood and glam atmosphere was set immediately by Hall’s elegance on stage, the set design and stage lighting. But what struck me most was how the band sounded on stage. Kudos to Malcolm Bell at FOH who ensured that each instrument was clear and non-intrusive, allowing each vocalists to shine while being complemented with distinct melodic details from each musician.
Hall’s performance throughout the night, particularly in the second part, was exceptional. The NZ Queen of Soul effortlessly commanded the stage and enthralled the audience with her vocal abilities. Her powerful voice and dynamic range was evident in the groovy number Dancing Together and the politically laced American Troglodyte on a blood red coloured stage. But, it was Hall’s version of Order 1081 that gripped the hearts of the audience. One truly felt the pain and conflicted existence of Imelda Marcos in Hall’s emotionally rich voice.
Another surprising standout from the show was Auckland based R&B one-(wo)man-band, Villette Dasha. No stranger to the stage, this author has seen Villette perform in numerous shows, but never in theatre and never singing disco pop. Once again, Villette demonstrated irrevocably her ability to push her own musical boundaries to a higher level... this was apparent in the duet Every Drop Of Rain which she sang in a higher pitch with a great depth of emotion about Imelda’s memory of “garage people”. Villette and her long braids went full disco in her solo performance of Eleven Days prompting cheers from the audience who were clearly captivated by her new side. She further ventured into familiar R&B territory with the start of Solano Avenue before using her new found abilities to sing in different tones and her well-known street swagger to elevate the rhythm of the song.
The legend and iconic figure of NZ theare, film and television, Jennifer Ward-Lealand showed why she belongs on stage. Her confidence and charisma was riveting and she belted out the duet You’ll Be Taken Care Of in a rich, mature and deep voice. Ward-Lealand’s interaction with the crowd and the band during Don’t You Agree was another special highlight during the show.
The other striking figure, both in voice and persona was Colleen Davis aka Coco. Her high pitched voice akin to a mix of Duffy and Gin Wigmore added an interesting dimension to the cast. Dressed in a full length gold sequin dress, Davis would have fitted right into a 70s swanky jazz bar in New York with her version of Pretty Faces and The Whole Man.
The highlight of Sarah Nessia’s performance during Here Lies Love would clearly be her solo in The Rose Of Tacloban and Ladies In Blue. One of this author’s favourite songs on the 22-track concept album was Please Don’t and Nessia delivered her version with a rich timbre in her voice but in some parts, lacked the power to accentuate certain aspects of the song. Nonetheless, Nessia’s contribution to the vocal harmonies during the night was flawless.
The five-piece ‘cabaret’ band led by Robin Kelly deserve a special mention. Kelly himself was partly hidden on stage… giving direction to other members of the band while playing a mix of instruments that included a synthesizer, guitar and even the vibraphone on The Rose of Tacloban and Order 1081. Kelly’s disco funk effects on his synth added special touches to Dancing Together and Don’t You Agree. Percussionist Antonio Karam would have to be the most energetic member of the band - jiving and grooving to each song while slapping the bongos and conga, hitting woodblocks and at one point, matched drummer Alexander Freer banging on metal sheets during The Whole Man. Freer’s drumming throughout the night was light yet varied to keep toes tapping in time. Marika Hodgson on electric and acoustic guitar was wonderful. Her 70s wah wah effect and funky guitar rhythms brought back many disco-funk memories. The sound stage would not be complete without a bass guitar and Jo Shum effortlessly walked across the fretboard to produce distinct funky bass lines particularly in Dancing Together and The Whole Man. Thanks to choreography by Lara Liew, even the band got involved in some coordinated dance moves particularly in Eleven Days with Villette.
This author’s favourite parts of the show included Ria Hall’s opening track Here Lies Love, Villette’s Eleven Days, Don’t You Agree by Jennifer Ward-Lealand but more because it was the song where the band really demonstrated a mastery for each of their instruments and lastly, Order 1081 by Ria again for the layers of emotions she injected into Byrne's incredible lyrics tinged with historical relevance and ambition.
Love can hurt and corrupt but without it, we are stark and empty. Feel a “shared euphoria” of power and song at the Q in Auckland.
Here Lies Love plays:
November 22 - dec 08
Rangatira @ Q
Tickets available at www.qtheatre.co.nz