Reviews, News and Commentary

The Unruly Tourists: A brilliant New Zealand musical satire

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

William Kelly (Bunnings Hat Kid) and Andrew Grainger (Paddy Murphy)

The Unruly Tourists

Composer & Conductor Luke di Somma

Libretto Livi Reihana & Amanda Kennedy (The Fan Brigade)

Directed by Thomas De Mallett Burgess

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

New Zealand Opera & Auckland Festival 2023

Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna

Until Sunday 26 March

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

A subject of anticipation, discussion and even divisiveness in some quarters, The Unruly Tourists finally hit the stage on Thursday at the Bruce Mason Centre – right across the road from where it all began at Takapuna Beach.

Billed as a comic opera, The Unruly Tourists is more of a satire built on a satire that’s built on a satire and results in something that is more of a throwback to a significantly upgraded old-style University Revue.  And that enables a satirical spotlight to be focussed on just about anything and it cracks straight into that from the getgo when inane questions to new arrivals are wheeled out within minutes – some were still humming ‘How Do Find Us’ the next morning – and that’s just in the first scene before anything much actually happened.

Yes, there are some songs that stick and, yes it acknowledges Gilbert and Sullivan but this is not pretending to mimic opera conventions.  It is music-theatre on a pure-entertainment base intended for a different audience.  It will never join the pantheon of great operatic works and is not intended to. 

The exploits and deeds (or was it misdeeds) of the unruly tourists have been well-chronicled and don’t need repeating here.  Nor will you read about every who or what is satirised – I simply do not have about 4 pages to write them.  Suffice to say it encompasses everything you have may have read or seen or had anything whatsoever to do with.  But it also satirises us – the great NZ media consumer.  Which makes it about you.  Yes, you.  The Unruly Tourist is as much about ‘us’ as much as about ‘them’.

By way of background, 2019 was one of the quietest sunniest New Zealand summers for years.  And that wasn’t great for L-plate journos working over summer and all desperate to crack that ‘breaking story’ which might just ensure subsequent employment.  Their future looked bleak: no weather-bombs lurking, no pending shark attacks, no huge increase in holiday road deaths and not even a hint of a cyclone lurking somewhere east Vanuatu.  Little wonder that the silly season degenerated into stories about tooting cars in Wellington’s Mt Victoria Tunnel (to be or not to be), a growth in sheep numbers (apparently 5 sheep for each human), the rescue of a couple of dolphins in Nelson (they were just sun bathing) and some deadly serious and totally unscientific debate about whether Jacinda’s government or that of John Key should be held responsible for a growth in seaweed on Takapuna beach (although the seaweed has actually been there for years and years).

The media, ever keen to satisfy advertisers and score readers, listeners, viewers or clickers felt that us, the great NZ public, needed a good story to amuse us all.  Even better, one that ran and ran for a while.  This truly was, after all, almost the archetypal ‘silly season’.

Meanwhile the NZ Opera had fallen foul of some criticism about the narrowness of some of its programming, General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess had become keen to unearth more local work and expand opportunities for NZ talent and to also find new audiences by further exploring the genre.

Concomitantly, as the saga of those unruly tourists was blossoming, initially on social media and then more widely,  Burgess felt it to be a story that was prime for the picking.  So he commissioned the Fan Brigade (Livi Reihana and Amanda Kennedy), gave them free reign to come up with a libretto, and signed up then Melbourne-based Luke di Somma as composer to create a comic-opera built around the saga of the tourists and how they were received.  The format was quickly agreed with much of the early collaborative work being conducted via Covid-enforced zoom.

Designer Tracy Grant Lord gave them the Bruce converted into a kind of tent (though without the spiegel) amidst a fairly trashy set – it continues a theme after all – and Di Somma underpins this with a no-risk, kiwi-beaked, well-credentialled chorus that provides a solid base and really holds the production together. 

He also introduced some memorable tunes and led a nifty little pit band with musically-articulate deftness.  Chief among his songs was undoubtedly Mayor Phil Goff’s G&S-inspired ‘Hung Drawn and Quatered’ that not only got a singalong/clappalong out of the audience, but even achieved a tempo change from them as well.  ‘Matamatah’ also remained with me for a while, although the point of ‘I’m a Tidy Kiwi’ escaped me and wasn’t really a closer.

But he has also composed for the different vocal range of some new faces to the NZ Opera stage.  Joshua Cramond (Tommy) and Andrew Grainger (Paddy), neither renowned for opera work, gave the production considerable vocal strength and on-stage presence, while Jennifer Ward-Lealand made a wonderful glacially-aloof mother of the mob in a what looked like a mechanically-quaffed purple bouffant – it didn’t move so much as quiver.   And I’m sure either of the two boys (they alternate) would have delighted in shouting the f-word every so often.

Ebony Andrews (Manaia)

However, every music-theatre work needs its big song.  Playing more of a metaphor than a character, Ebony Andrew (Manaia) was a genuine standout.  Her ‘This is My story’, complete with subtle wiri to close, could well have ended the show.  It said a lot.  In fact I would have preferred to end The Unruly Tourists with this, thereby introducing a teensy element of reality or commentary to offset and highlight all the satire that precedes it, making it a standalaone.  She is a genuinely gifted singer and actor, is building an impressive resume with NZ Opera and several other companies and is a shining example of what we can produce in this country.  Ebony will go far.  

So thank you Mr Burgess, Mr di Somma and thank you Ebony.

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By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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