Though there have been plenty of examples of the classics, modern drama, comedy, horror, science fiction and children’s shows being played out over the Zoom platform in the last 16 months, there is far less to be found by way of musicals. Principally this is because sound issues and synchronisation are a bit of a nightmare with the tool though, to be fair, it was only ever supposed to be a business conferencing system and was never intended to host the likes of West Side Story or The Sound Of Music. Occasionally though a company will boldly go… although, necessarily, product tends to be short and sweet. One such is Untamed Productions who have adapted April de Angelis’ play Mrs Noah Fights Back into what they have called “a digital eco musical comedy with original music and an important message”.
First performed at an Extinction Rebellion rally, this version was put together to support Avon Needs Trees, a charity tackling deforestation. So, it’s heavy on the environmental message which is reflected through the prism of the Biblical story though updated to modern times. This truncated version has been adapted by a very busy Poppy Abbott; she also directs and plays the title character who thinks there is a better way to do things than loading her whole family and a menagerie onto a potentially leaky structure for 60+ days. Nor is this the only feminist angle for here God is also female. A total cast of six play all the roles and bring a sense of fun to proceedings which mingles with the more serious underlying message. If it seems a slightly quirky choice for a musical then just reflect that Andrew Lloyd Webber has twice plundered the Bible for inspiration (Joseph and Superstar) as has Stephen Schwartz (Godspell and Prince Of Egypt) so there’s certainly some well-worn precedents.
There’s some pleasing animation and good use of backdrops; it is evident that care and attention has been given to these aspects. Although the passing of props between screens is now a recognised trope of such Zoom productions, there is a particularly impressive example here where a piece of wood makes a complete circuit of the boxes; this has little to do with the story of course but looks good all the same. The music is pleasant enough but unmemorable often taking its cue from gospel singing; the necessary lip synching is mostly on point. The script perhaps tries to cram in too many ideas for the short space of time it allows itself, but the key messages come over well. However, some of the jokes seem a little forced – the Jackie Weaver/Handforth Parish Council dialogue inevitably makes an appearance, and I could have done without yet another example of the “you’re on mute” gag. No animals were harmed in this production – mostly because no animals actually appear apart from a pre-filmed dog in the closing montage. The piece wisely confines itself to just thirty minutes; I fear otherwise the set up would have worn rather thin.
As this was such a brief show I thought I would twin it with another mini-musical which has actually been on my “to see” list since last April. Conceived by Lin Manuel Miranda, feted writer of Hamilton and In The Heights, the entire story of 21 Chump Street is told in just 14 minutes. I really didn’t expect too much of it, so was pleasantly surprised to see just how accomplished it was. The author acts as the narrator of a story about an American drug police sting in a high school which actually happened – much of the script is verbatim testimony – so it makes a serious point as well as being entertaining. The cast of five give exuberant performances and Anthony Ramos is particularly good in the leading role. It was put together before the pandemic, so no Zoomed distancing here – how strange to see two performers exchanging an actual onstage kiss. I’m not sure it could ever become a full blown spectacular but there’s certainly room to expand it into an hour length chamber musical.
If you’re in the mood for the dramatic equivalent of a light lunch, then these are certainly two productions to head for. They are quite different in content and tone but demonstrate what can be done within the short musical format. More than any other form of onstage entertainment many musicals really need big spaces and multiple performers and I’ve yet to see a really successful original large scale production in this format. I’m sure someone will come up with something to make us sit up and take notice – in the meantime aficionados of the blockbuster musical will just have to settle for reruns of movies.
Mrs Noah Fights Back is available via Scenesaver – click here
21 Chump Street is available on You Tube – click here
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