The Auckland Theater Company’s 2023 season opener is sharp, confident and not quite the show you might expect from the poster, writes Sam Brooks.
The weak point
From the looks of The Heartbreak Choir’s poster, you might expect broad comedy good for a few laughs and half a conversation on the car ride home, if you’re lucky. Thankfully, that’s not quite the show the Auckland Theater Company is opening its 2023 season with.
Written by Australian theater stalwart Aidan Hennessy, The Heartbreak Choir follows the travails of a small choir (they insist it’s not a community choir, but it is absolutely a community choir) after separating from a larger group due to an ethical dilemma. While it starts out broadly, with more than a few fart jokes in the first half, the show gradually reveals itself as a surprisingly deep work about community and the intimate relationships that form between the people who are part of it. If it sounds broad, it’s because it’s trying to access a larger canvas.
Kate Louise Elliott and Alison Quigan in “The Heartbreak Choir”. (Photo: Andi Crown)
A show like The Heartbreak Choir lives or dies because of its cast. If the audience doesn’t fall in love with the chorus, they don’t fall in love with the show. Thankfully, Heartbreak Choir has a cast that is ready to sell every laugh line, sit through every awkward moment, and hit every note in every song for all it’s worth.
Alison Quigan, as chorus leader Barbara, is as good as she’s ever been; not only does she get to turn some extended stage solos into comedic arias, but she also sits in the headspace of a woman who has been designated as a community leader but she doesn’t really want to be. Kate Louise Elliot delights in the role of Mack, a role written to be played in the back row of the theater across the street. Elliot lends his gravitas and texture, while David Fane’s Peter generates laughs the moment he takes the stage, unable or unwilling to open the door to the choir room, which makes the character’s dramatic turn later in the show all the more touching.
However, it’s newcomer Munashe Tapfuya as Anesu who really stands out. Anesu, a pregnant Zimbabwean doctor forced by circumstances to prepare sandwiches in the local deli, is a character enigma. It often feels like writer Aidan Fennessy built it from stereotypes and clichés, but Tapfuya overcomes the clunky writing with a lively, vivid and real performance. When the show gives her the slightly ridiculous act of a cliffhanger to deliver, she knocks it out of the park.
It goes without saying that everyone in the cast can hold a tune (especially Esmay August as the otherwise nearly mute Savannah), but it’s worth commending the ensemble and director Lara Macgregor, for making sure every song shows us who the characters are. ; where they are in the social hierarchy and how comfortable they are in the choir. When the script leans on the music to provide depth and texture, the production provides both in abundance.
This kind of crowd-pleasing theater isn’t necessarily beautiful, and it definitely isn’t groundbreaking, but it’s the ideal opener for ATC’s 2023 season. It’s a clean, confident production of a well-tuned script, with a team that’s more than equipped to take it over the line.
Munashe Tapfuya in the Heartbreak Chorus. (Photo: Andi Crown)
The not so good
A tight cast and production can only get you so far, and while Fennessy’s script is remarkably adept at handling the comings and goings of its ensemble, it eventually starts to creak. It’s never entirely bad, or even boring, but in the last half hour of the show’s extra two hours it becomes easier to see the logical leaps and where the cast is working overtime to complete some of the finer writing.
It’s not the comedy on the poster. This type of show would be extremely easy to screw up with a production that overplays the jokes, leans too much into the songs, or wallows in obscurity. While not entirely perfect, ATC’s production knows the notes, hits them well, and reaps the rewards; it’s a loud show and a quiet, confident success.
The Heartbreak Choir plays at the ASB Waterfront Theater until 4th March.