Saturday, October 3, 2015

A delightful, adventuresome jaunt with The Grumpiest Boy in the World

It's a finely sung evening in the Briddling household as seven-year, four-month old Zachary (Jacob Lawrence) is making his frustrations known to Mum (Shakira Tsindos) and Dad (Matan Franco) while the family pet dog goofily entertains. Zachary is just very ordinary and wants to be more amazing than a kid whose crayon drawings adorn the family fridge.

Jacob Lawrence as Zachary and the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus

In Victorian Opera's world premiere of a homegrown work, The Grumpiest Boy in the World, a little bit of magic was made at Malthouse's Merlyn Theatre. It's a delightfully adventuresome jaunt from the living room to a world of fantasy that reintroduces ourselves to a comfort zone we often ignore. 

The true and deeper beauty of its story lies in its ability to bridge perceived differences with simple commonalities between all peoples, all the while realised with child-to-adult engagement. It's a struggle for individuality, for finding ourselves, and a victory for the collective in one fantastic adventure. It's also just lots of fun and continues Victorian Opera's investment in opera's future using the resources of its remarkable youth.

From composer Joseph Twist and librettist Finegan Kruckemeyer, two Australians each successfully shaping their work internationally, a music of pulsing melodic variation intertwines easily with the skilfully direct simplicity of the writing, based on Kruckemeyer's own play.

Director Cameron Menzies responds to the work's neatness, exercising his youthful cast to create drama full of vitality and rich in details that, for the most part, ticks along seamlessly. On opening night, a mightily well-rehearsed cast must have made Menzies proud, especially when moving about in swarms with startling blink-and-you'll-miss-it speed. 

Menzies is colourfully assisted by designer Chloe Greaves' delicious costumes, a giant pair of sneakers, a striped brigade of cheerleading youth, of little Zachary critters and the IKEA-honed eye of casual living that spans the globe, can unpack in a whisker and that gives the production understated power. Spanning the stage from kitchen to family room, the world of Zachary Briddling is one that is fast marching across the world in its own sameness, yet one in which we demand to express difference. Joe Mercurio's lighting design obediently adds mood. 

Jacob Lawrence as Zachary Briddling 
As Zachary, Jacob Lawrence disguises his tall, athletic leanness well to convince with boyish charm, darting across the stage with the changeability of the wind. Lawrence, who alternates in the role with Alastair Cooper-Golec, sings with chesty warmth, crystal clarity and confidence to match. I was caught at times feeling this grumpy kid feels a tad overly pushed into endearing territory but, on the contrary, it helps to understand that only Zachary needs to believe he is the "superest thing" and the "grumpiest king" in order to feel a sense of self-worth which he finds in Grumptown. 

The energetic, attentive cast perform as if to win the audience heart, and they do. More than 30 members of the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus feature in a crisply sung and stylistically choreographed ensemble. They are ably supported by Simon Bruckard's thoughtful conducting which drew smooth, precise playing from a small band of nine musicians of Orchestra Victoria on opening night, a credit to his work as a Developing Artist with Victorian Opera.

Other notably strong performances come from Kiran Rajasingam as Scientist 1, Stephen Marsh as Grump 1 and Lizzie Barrow, whose feathery rich voice fluttered high as Bird.

In less than 50 minutes it's all over when the King of Grump triumphs, but there's a certain feeling his story in music will live to reign over many a theatre to come.

Production Photographs: Charlie Kinross

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