Performing arts societies on campus are cliquey. They are part bastard meritocracy and part social gerontocracy and every year, any executive worth their election grapples with the important question: how do you keep the society full of young blood?
MUSE’s inaugural compilation show, Out of the Shadows, has spectacularly usurped the place traditionally occupied by their first year show. Both programs have aimed to fill the same introductory function. Last year they staged The Gondoliers, and before that, Iolanthe, both of which are dowdy Gilbert & Sullivan romps with sprawling choruses of dukes, earls, fairies and gondoliers to be in-or-deflated to suit the number of salvageable auditionees.
But this year, 2015 MUSE president Jonathan Rush has poached the introductory compilation show form from SUDS, and to much better effect. Where straight theatre loses a lot of its power when consolidated, chopped up, and decontextualised, every atomised number in Out of the Shadows is a strong performance in its own right, each performance contributes to a coherent act, and both acts contribute to a coherent whole.
Out of the Shadows features a hefty cast of 39, and the spatial confines of Studio B make for an intimate and emotionally trenchant experience. The show’s 20 musical numbers have been meticulously workshopped by its seven directors, allowing the cast to tackle an impressive stylistic range of content. This includes classics such as “Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd, the ever enjoyable “Cell Block Tango”, and the much beloved (read: overdone) “La Vie Boheme” from Rent. In addition, the conglomerate format of the show allows the directors to dabble in more recent, avant garde work, with considerable success. The spoken-word piece “Golden Palace” from Now.Here.This. is affecting in its understated simplicity, representing an innovative departure from the often contrived melodrama of musical theatre.
The first half of the show is full of loin-tinglingly impressive performances. The dark and profoundly unsettling rendition of “The Bells of St Sebastian”, featuring first-time MUSE performer Hayden Tonazzi, is a notable highlight. While there are loving duets and loving duets and more loving duets that begin to feel like eating sugar from the bag, sugar is delicious.
The cast displays a formidable breadth and degree of vocal prowess, with musical numbers tailored to the strengths and distinctive styles of individual performers. Anna Colless and Lisa-Marie Long are highlights of their respective halves, and are two of a handful of performers that wield inspired/heart-broken/empowered middle-distance gazes that reach beyond the back wall of the venue. In less-capable hands the gesture falls to cliché.
While both acts feature a brilliant selection of classic and contemporary songs, the second half forfeits polish for fun, with a greater emphasis on large group numbers and energetic, if imprecise, choreography. Voices are not as uniformly strong, though the act features performances from the wonderfully nuanced Jerome Studdy, the consistently powerful Lane Pitcher, and the charismatic Hannah Cox and Georgia Britt. “Gee, Officer Krupke” is an intelligent and utterly fun use of good performers in the middle of an act that otherwise begins to lag. Every scene for which Jonathan Rush is credited as director is outstanding.
Where Gilbert & Sullivan struggle to flourish on a shoestring in Studio B, Out of the Shadows triumphs. There is a cheap, unobtrusive and effective aesthetic in both acts, and no cast member is relegated exclusively to the chorus.
Out of the Shadows is not the most lavish, or impressive, or best-performed show that MUSE has staged, but very few productions have so admirably risen to all of their aims, perfectly pitching their scope, and showcasing the breadth of talent Muse has to offer. The show heralds a conscious shift towards greater inclusivity, which has yielded exceptional results. It is refreshingly diverse, entertaining and emotionally honest. It feels genuine, and that’s a genuine pleasure.