Review: The Isolation Mixtape Vol.2 – creative, gutsy, and bold new music

Naomi van den Broek reviews The Isolation Mixtape, Vol. 2, directed by Ben Freeth for the Blackboard Theatre Collective, at The Piano Pīpīwharauroa: Kui-kui whitiwhiti ora , Friday 30 July 2021.

The Isolation Mixtape Vol.2 is this year’s offering from Blackboard Theatre Collective, following on from an endeavour that came out of lockdown in 2020. During the 2020 lockdown Blackboard made the most of the resources available and came up with an innovative and exciting songwriting challenge reminiscent of the 48 Hour Film Festival. Songwriters were paired with a performer, given a one-word prompt related to the circumstances of lockdown isolation, and then in 72 hours created a song to be part of a new musical theatre song cycle. 

The difference between this and something like 48 Hour Film Festival is it’s a challenge rather than a competition, with the objective being to contribute work to the canon of New Zealand musical theatre. This is exciting! And I believe it’s exactly the sort of work that young companies should undertake. I’ve long been concerned with the number of talented musical theatre graduates nationwide who don’t have an industry to enter, beyond one or two professionally presented musicals, and the regional pro-am offerings. It’s great to see companies like Blackboard start to address that by providing creative opportunities such as this. Smart additions such as having sheet music for each song available for purchase after their debut really cement the statement of intent by these young theatre makers: we are committed to new New Zealand musical theatre. Bravo!

Vol.2 differs from last year’s iteration in that the creative teams were able to be together in person. It also features a major upgrade in accompaniment from last year’s four-piece combo to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. Accordingly, this next volume of six new songs has shifted venue from Little Andromeda to the larger stage of The Piano, and the works have been orchestrated (outside of the initial 72 hour challenge, the audience were relieved to hear). 

The Isolation Mixtape Vol.2 is a slick production that feels classy and professional without ever slipping into feeling overdone. From the digital programmes accessed via QR codes, to the short form documentaries following the process of each creative team, to effective lighting and polished staging, it’s clear that the audience are in safe and capable hands right from the outset thanks to director, Ben Freeth. Host, Jess Brien, is effervescent and authentic, managing the transitions from performances, AV presentations, and in-person chats with each performer like an absolute boss. Conductor Trevor Jones ably and energetically leads the CSO, who have seen the music for the first time that afternoon, and who deliver polished, energetic and enthusiastic accompaniment for each piece. 

Experiencing new work is exciting and fun, but also challenging for an audience. It puts listening and engagement skills to the test. There were clearly a number of friends, family and fans of the participants in the house, and in efforts to volubly appreciate them – particularly in the first number – there are moments where the wider audience are prevented from being able to hear what is happening on the stage. There also seems to be some desperate need to applaud almost as each song is finishing, and when writers have worked hard to create a real sense of atmosphere throughout their piece, it seems a shame to obliterate this before the moment fades. Thankfully the audience settles into genuine and attentive appreciation as the night progresses.

The collection of songs is billed as a song-cycle, and each team was also told where their contribution would sit within the whole, from first position through sixth. However, the audience doesn’t have this experience as the evening is broken up with interviews and documentaries. It would be really interesting to hear the songs presented one after the other to experience the journey taken and see how they each inform the whole both musically and thematically. Perhaps splitting the show into two halves and having a process and performance section would allow for this? 

Across the board, the quality of songs is high. The evening starts with ‘My Name is Albie’ written and orchestrated by Isaac Shatford and performed by brother Jack Shatford. This is a high bar to set! The song is thematically rich, speaking of identity, belonging and social isolation. It is highly character driven, and Jack’s performance is delightful and heartbreaking. It’s also one of the most musically complex offerings of the evening, and Isaac’s background as a violinist and orchestral musician is clear in his composition and orchestration. It’s by far the best orchestration of the evening, judiciously making use of each orchestral section in a unified whole while allowing the singer space in the texture. The complexity of this quite long song leaves me wondering if part of the real challenge of something like The Isolation Mixtape is having to step away from a work after the 72 hours, and view it as complete. Melodically I felt this first work could have benefitted from a little tightening to bring some melodic ideas more to the fore. 

One of the additions I really appreciate about Vol.2 is the widening of the stylistic pool of composers. Vol.2 features two writer performers working in the musical theatre space for the first time, one of whom is Georgie Clifford, an R’n’B contemporary artist, based locally but with an international reputation. Clifford delightfully summed up her findings on researching the style of writing for musical theatre as “inconclusive”, instead giving herself the permission to write in her own style. I’m excited by this, as for too long it seems that in New Zealand we’ve had a very narrow view of what musical theatre is. To see young writers and companies embracing the expansiveness of how any musical style can be theatrical is a thrill. However, the difference in training from a performance perspective is clear, and while Clifford’s song ‘Snowglobe’ is musically engaging and melodically interesting, sadly I can’t hear about 50% of the lyrics, which is a massive bummer as what I can hear is intriguing and unique. In part this can be attributed to the orchestration in this number, which occupies much of the same tonal real estate as Clifford and often drowning her out, but mostly it’s due to lack of articulation of the lyrics. While this is stylistically entirely appropriate in a popular music context, for musical theatre the story is in the text and to miss that is to miss the song. I hope to be able to revisit this song – with lyric sheet at the ready –  to fully appreciate what Clifford was trying to communicate. 

The absolute highlight of the evening was the third song, ‘Backspace Delete’ by Tāmaki Makaurau-based writing duo Leea Lamatoa and Bray Jeffrey. Lamatoa and Jeffrey are the only writers returning from Vol.1 and this year’s partnership with performer Reylene Rose Hilaga hits gold. This collaboration is clearly special, with Hilaga also being credited as a writer of the song. One of the most delightful parts of this evening is during Hilaga’s chair interview when she spots Lamatoa and Jeffrey in the crowd and they wave excitedly to each other – the feels are palpable! Utilising Hilaga’s personal experiences on the theme of ‘security’, this threesome create a beautifully crafted song, with high emotional stakes, that Hilaga knocks out of the park in a stunning performance. It literally has me sitting on the edge of my seat with goosebumps all over my body. It is the first moment of the night that feels really dramatic musically, and where I experience the song as a whole rather than that sum of its quality parts. It’s also the lyric I can most clearly remember the next day.

The fourth song takes its title from its theme, ‘Turbulence’, and is written and orchestrated by Kane Parsons and performed by Jack Milner-George. This was clearly another successful pairing of performer and composer; a genuine friendship is another of the works-in-development visible in the process documentary. This was another song that draws on more contemporary musical styles, in its soul-inspired, epic ballad feel. While it showcases Milner-George’s expressive vocal qualities and dexterity, lyrically this song really doesn’t hit the mark sitting very much in ‘tell’ not ‘show’ territory. Again, I feel it’s a hard ask of creatives to not be able to work on songs after the 72 hour period. The attempt at the extended metaphor of air travel to illustrate the experience of being cheated on just needs more development so the audience can be trusted to discover what the text is communicating as the song unfolds. 

Track Five, ‘Maybe Next Year’, has a beautiful tender nostalgic feeling that feels like it could have been pulled out of a modern interpretation of Mary Poppins. Written by Fiona Chua on the prompt of ‘escape’, it provides a more traditional foil to the two songs before it, giving the evening a real sense of musical range. This song, and ‘Backspace Delete’, are the two songs that most feel inspired by the second, and less overt prompt of a Covid worldview, and that give a sense of how a journey through these songs could feel if presented continuously. Chua has carefully considered her position as the penultimate song in the cycle, giving the sense of leading into an ending. Libby Fraser’s performance of this song is sensitive, sweet and soulful, keeping the sentimental nature of the song authentic rather than mawkish. 

The final track on the mixtape is ‘No Reason’ by writer/performer Emily C. Browning, a self-characterised pop singer enjoying her foray into “hanging out with the theatre kids”. Browning carefully considered her place on the bill, considering whether to end with a “banger or a ballad”, deciding on the latter. Her introspective musings on missing loved ones and coming home to empty houses feels like a tenderly melancholic way to end an evening pitched on the theme of isolation. Similarly to that of Clifford, Browning’s writing draws on popular music genres. This is also true of her performance style, which is more contained and reflective than the offerings from the more theatrical presentations. As a result, I do struggle to hear all the lyrics of this song, although melodically this song has the most memorable hook of the night, and I can hear people humming it all around me as the show ends. Browning’s vocal style also offers more colours and textures than many of the other vocal deliveries of the evening and I’m encouraged by this use of more authentic and personal singing styles in a musical theatre context. 

Congratulations to Blackboard Theatre Collective on The Isolation Mixtape Vol.2. It’s creative, gutsy and bold ideas like this that will ensure New Zealand continues to develop its own musical theatre identity, and give creative opportunities to make fearlessly without the constraints of commercial objectives or agendas. 

More information on the show’s background and creative team, including images from the creative process, can be found on the digital programme here.

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