The boutique musical boom received a boost from an original Australian musical this weekend as Matthew Lee Robinson’s Happy People was presented as a star-studded concert staging.
A cheeky gem that appeals to our inner schadenfraude, Happy People charts the chaotic implosion of a successful but past-their-prime children’s group who succumb to mounting internal and external pressures. The brisk, comedic tone of Happy People contrasts with the epic scope of Atlantis in Concert; together, the pair demonstrates the breadth of talent of writer Matthew Lee Robinson, who again pulls triple-threat Meredith Wilson-style duties in writing the book, music and lyrics. All this, plus musically directing the concert and accompanying the performance on keyboard!
The Happy People team are first seen in action merrily chirping their “Happy People” anthem, but it is quickly evident that the wheels are falling their successful empire. The brilliance of Robinson’s writing here comes from taking a clever concept for a musical and then twisting it further in unexpected ways. The characters’ dreams, disillusionments and deceptions are gradually introduced and teased out in developments that are both surprising and satisfying.
Giving each of the six performers a chance to shine, Robinson’s score is an instantly accessible delight, with lyrics that are as witty as the music is hummable. In a sequence reminiscent of the great farce Noises Off, Robinson gives us a straight version of “The Orchid Songlet (Just One Day)” before a later version is underscored by the backstage egos and foibles of the team. An epilogue of sorts, set three months later, neatly ties up the various threads and allows the Happy People team to bow out on a gracious, only slightly bittersweet high rather than end on a depressing note of finality.
Gretel Scarlett shows a far deeper level of talent than she is able to demonstrate when performing the simple level of direction she has been given in Grease. Looking absolutely gorgeous as the Barbie-like Sally, Scarlett enhances the character’s Pollyanna outlook with a delicately vulnerable undercurrent. Her performance of “Nice” is nothing short of sensational, and is a song she should surely take in to her cabaret/recording repertoire.
Tom Sharah, as vain vocalist Benny, nails terrific comic number “Boyband,” a song that will readily be a breakout hit when the show has a full commercial season.
Suave Bobby Fox puts a cheeky twinkle in the eye of aging good time guy Bobby. Sun Park contrasts Sunny’s smiling veneer with her resilient approach to moving up and out of the group. In strong voice throughout, the pair sine together in “Easy For You.”
Bert LaBonte creates the most sympathetic character in loveless Jeff, who plays lovable Edison the Elephant. A master at underplaying inner turmoil, LaBonte gives a neatly understated reading of Jeff’s simmering ambition and disappointment.
Robyn Arthur is luxury casting as Happy People’s firm but fair production manager Poppy. Arthur clearly relishes the role, and brings her significant stage experience to bear in a focused, driven performance.
Chris Parker’s direction keeps the energy high and the humour sharp. The actors all face front for their microphones and scores, but the personal interactions and connections are all clearly established. While there are some cute movements, it is clear that there is scope for a substantial amount of choreography in a fully staged production.
Tom Willis’ rosy lighting complements the perky, bright costumes. Marcello Lo Ricco reliably provides pristine sound.
Happy People in Concert was reviewed 2pm Sunday 19 October 2014 at Chapel off Chapel, where it played three special performances.
Photos: James Terry Photography