Audiences at Wellington Operatic Society’s show this week should prepare themselves for a journey – one that takes them on a trip through 30 of the stage’s very best musicals – and nearly 40 numbers from them. To present a show with so much to deliver would probably give an experienced director a few sleepless nights but, remarkably, ‘Once Upon a Musical is in the hands of Ashleigh Payne, a young man of exceptional talent with youthful enthusiasm and energy to spare.
Ashleigh has been performing at Wellington Arts Centre for years – with Genesis, Op Soc and Wellington Pantomime Group – but, as this is his first show in charge, he has gathered a team of fine senior performers who know exactly what it takes to deliver songs to an audience. But he has also given lots of youngsters their time on stage too and there’s no doubt that they follow his lead and in ensemble numbers such as ‘Quiet’ and ‘Revolting Children’ from ‘Matilda’ and ‘Mega Mix’ from ‘High School Musical’ they present their musical and dance skills with evident confidence and enthusiasm. It is simply delightful to see these young performers playing alongside Op Soc’s more seasoned members – and learning from them.
‘Once Upon a Musical’ is a well-balanced programme of individual and chorus songs, allowing a contrast in musical tones and styles – but the range presents the director with particular challenges. As choreographer he constructs some visually vibrant and varied numbers helped by Matt Redstone’s lighting. The tap routine that accompanies ‘Morning Person’ from ‘Shrek, the Musical’ is impressive; ‘Footloose’ is full of strong movement involving Richard Mattravers and the whole company and the mix from ‘High School Musical’ that ends the first half is an upbeat and fitting climax.
Ashleigh has also created some visually appealing tableaux in numbers, particularly in ‘My Favourite Things’ from ‘A Sound of Music’. Having a team of singers with superb voices means solo numbers are full-blooded show-stoppers and, with what must be a very busy costume team working behind the scenes, individual numbers look good and sound beautiful. Credit should go to Vocal Coach Christina Green for training the cast and leading by example. Hers is just one of the gorgeous voices in this programme. Where issues with placing – particularly in duets – limit the singers’ engagement with the audience, it may be that full houses at the Arts Centre will tempt the performers to face outwards rather than towards one another as the week unfolds.
The scale of the task the director has taken on in ‘Once Upon a Musical’ means that much depends on the show’s continuity – and this is faultless. Stage Manager Nancy Powell-Brace surely takes the credit for impressively smooth transitions from one number to the next, as do the cast themselves. Discipline is one of the keys to good performance.
This is a show audiences will enjoy. With some of the stage’s best musical numbers, Op Soc’s talents on show once again and Ashleigh Payne’s youthful and accomplished direction and choreography (and he performs too, leading by example), an evening’s entertainment is delivered. It is worth noting that Wellington Arts Association’s stage groups have once again provided support and training to lay sound foundations for an individual’s theatre career. Who knows where Ashleigh Payne’s talents will take him but WAA groups – Genesis, Op Soc and the Pantomime Group – have been instrumental in providing him with the grounding that every performer needs.
‘Once Upon a Musical’ is at The Arts Centre, Eight Acre Lane, from 8 November to 12 November at 7.30pm with a matinee on Saturday 12 November at 2.30pm. Tickets from Odette’s Tea Room, High Street, Wellington.