A Review of People Like Us – Lexie Matheson

Director Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho, in his curtain speech at the end of the performance, described this, the first outing of Joanna Jayne St John’s impressive new transgender musical ‘People Like Us’, as ‘a development season’. There are moments during the two and a bit hours plus interval where the need for development is evident but, in fact, these are few and far between. Overall it’s a classy production with all the fizz and pop of a fire in a fireworks factory and you’d be wise to circumvent history by coming on one of the remaining performances on offer during this short season. There’s nothing worse than having to lie about having been there when everyone knows you weren’t. After all, Mama Vera will certainly know and you don’t want to be on the wrong end of one of her jandals. More about that later.

This show is a rare beast, a labour of love produced sans production company, sans almost everything except talent, craft, a great backing track, a core group of exquisitely experienced artists and that wonderful queer knack of always looking as fabulous as humanly possible. Yes, it’s a queer show which is no surprise since Auckland is in the glittering throes of the Auckland Pride Festival and this rollicking full house was fully aware of this and certainly ready to partay!

The ‘People Like Us’ website tells us that the show is based on ‘Dorothy’s Sister’, Peter Taylor and Rodney Coleman’s Ponsonby watering hole known for its drag queens, transgender folk and cross dressers. It was a home away from home for many and an opportunity for some of us to unashamedly be ourselves regardless of gender – or anything else. For some, it was the first time that they were able to meet ‘people like us’, people like them. The website lets slip that the show contains twenty three previously unreleased songs. It doesn’t say that a couple of them are pretty average, more than a few are really good and a couple are absolute hits, real belters.

The site goes on to suggest that we ‘ride the emotional rollercoaster of coming out to family and friends, love, jealousy, break-up and make-up before reaching the massive wedding scene finale. You can sing along with the cast’ the website suggests ‘and the best dressed couple each night will be invited on stage to join the performers for the wedding.’

Then comes the hook: ‘can love be for two people like us?’

I can hear you ask ‘so what’s new’ and it’s a damn good question. At its heart ‘People Like Us’ is a simple love story, but it starts to deviate – and I mean really deviate – from the norm when we realise that the key characters, Sheena (a stunning Ramon Te Wake) and Bianca/James (Luke Bird) aren’t like any other happy couple pottering through life to a certain end having celebrated all the human milestones regular people experience, if they’re lucky. For them it will always be different.

Sheena is a transgender woman with a past and a particularly nasty ex appropriately named Roger (Johnny Aukusitino) who was once her pimp. She’s got her life together after years on the street under the control of Rog who, due to the fortunate happenstance of imprisonment, has ceased to be the influence he once was. He’s out now and tries to convince Sheena that she should go back on the game so she can pay back the money she owes him, but she refuses. Then she meets Bianca, a cross-dresser, who is just finding herself, and the two fall, less than credibly, in love. It’s a sweet romance that works on the backs of two deeply credible performances.

Bianca is caught and outed by her young daughter Elle (Gemma Rushton) and the inevitable ‘Bianca, meet the family’ moment happens in a scene that is suitably edgy and wrought with tension. The result of this meeting is that Bianca, after considerable soul-searching, chooses to remain locked in the persona of James rather than lose her family, a common enough scenario in transgender familial situations, and Bianca again disappears deep into the closet. Sheena finds out and ditches James despite her love for Bianca. Yes, it’s complicated, but no more so than the romantic machinations of our own Royal Family and we manage to follow those OK, so please, try to keep up.

Re-enter Roger with an offer for Sheena that she accepts and it’s on again with our lowlife villain but without the slightest show of affection. This is the reality of living transgender, self-esteem hits rock bottom most nippily and we often make kneejerk decisions in the moment based on the belief that we deserve nothing better – and so it is with Sheena.

Meanwhile, in James’s world, things are heating up with the family. First, number one son Richard (a rather super Jack Barnard) comes Dot’s to find his father and instead finds 2IC at ‘Dorothy’s Sister’ the irrepressible Twinkle (a mouth-watering Zakk D’Larte) and there are enigmatic moments of real danger between them that sizzle and snap. He finds his Dad in James mode, is shocked at what he finds and this becomes one of those special epiphany-like moments that we go to the theatre to observe.

The predicable happens – of course it does, this narrative is pure fairy tale and we all know from the first moment how it will end so the exuberant ride itself becomes the most important thing. James can’t live without Bianca and so she jubilantly comes out again.

There were certainly resonances here for me (and I suspect most trans people) because, personally, I lost count of how many times I came out before I realised that the weather is so much better out and I finally shut the closet door and stayed out.

Sheena gives big bad Roger the heave-ho and flips back to the beautiful burly arms of the heavenly Bianca and order is restored. Bianca’s ex-wife Janine (the very funny Maryanne Rushton) arrives for the showdown with Richard and his pregnant wife Susan (Rose Rogers) who is immediately whisked away for a make-over by Sheena and they instantly become best friends forever. Acceptance is earned and given and, from here on in, it’s all about the frocks – and what frocks they are. They’re magnificent and, though I should remain totally objective and po-faced, I simply can’t and have to blurt out to the world that Ramon Te Wake looked gobsmackingly spectacular in her bridal attire and totally good enough to eat. There. I’ve said it, and I don’t care! She did, and that’s that!

During the ‘if any person present knows of any lawful impediment to this marriage’ moment, the evil Roger speaks up … but only to give the bridal party, and especially Sheena, his blessing and suddenly it’s happy endings gone mad. The audience are on their feet clapping, cheering and hooting right through to the end of the perfect curtain call and silence only reigns for director Tukiwaho’s curtain speech of invitation and the reminder, as I said earlier, that this is a ‘development season.’

Now, as the advertisement we all love to hate says ‘but wait, there’s more’. In fact, there’s much more.

There’s the context, ‘Dorothy’s Sister’, that campy bar where everyone was a star. It comes to life via a great set replete with an Auckland skyline and little cut out, lit windows, the signature bar with its two huge red high heeled shoes and even that luscious lounge lizard (showing my age) Twinkle lying along the bar top. It’s perfection itself.

There’s the music (the sublime Lavina Williams). The backing tracks are managed well with timing never a problem.

There are the songs. Some of the lyrics are a bit twee but that’s easily fixed – and, of course, these are only my opinions. The first song which carries the underlying theme of the ‘Black Lace Prison’ is fabulous but it’s a bit long – or it’s the right length but perhaps could benefit from a ‘riff with a diff’ in the middle. It’s great to hear this resolved around the white ending – it’s subtle and rich which is as good as anything can be. ‘Losing My Baby Blues’ is fantastic as is the brief ‘I’m a Girl’. There are twenty three songs in all and the styles range from rock to blues to ballads and always, always, despite my carping criticism of some twee lyrics, the songs feed the emotional content of the work and heighten it. It’s clever construction and works almost all of the time. There are a few sound balancing issues largely because Te Wake’s fabulous voice simply can’t match Bird’s in volume. No discredit to Te Wake, Bird is a real belter, and we hear his superb pipes regularly throughout the night.

Musicals are full of clichés and stereotypes – even the great Stephen Sondheim relies on them, think ‘Being Alive’, ‘Getting Married Today and ‘I’m Still Here’ – and our gender diverse communities not only use them we actually need and fall back on them. We all have to learn our gendered behaviour and if there’s a seriously brilliant aspect to this show it’s the authenticity it brings to the transgender journey and the manner in which it honours not only the transwoman experience but that of the cross-dresser too. It helps, of course to have been there.

There are times when the text gets a bit clunky but the next phase in the development of the work should sort these out. There is an occasional tendency to tell what’s happening rather than play what’s happening. It leaves the performers with little to do when the text is telling us what the actions should be. These are rare but they tend to stop the forward progression of the work. Action, rather than exposition, moves the play forward.

I was reminded during the playing of a couple of critical moments early on that the theatre isn’t reality. Reality isn’t always reality either, and the best the theatre can do is to simulate what happens in the real world. How often have you heard someone say ‘if it was on the stage you wouldn’t believe it’ when some rarefied event occurs. It’s true. Sometimes, attempting to replicate an experience that has been stunning in real life simply doesn’t work on the stage and it needs some help. That’s what directors are for – and dramaturgs – and playwrights are wise to listen to their wise counsel and adjust accordingly. In the same breath, never listen to actors because they haven’t a clue about anything. Joking, of course.

I’ll let you in on a wee secret: I love actors who dance and singers who dance and this show is cast with some crackers. No surprise that the choreography is so good when it’s being built by the master himself, Taiaroa Royal. Royal’s own work is blissfully good but not every choreographer who can dance can unlock the dancer in others. This is a gift, and Royal has it in spades. Suffice to say, under his tutelage, these hoofers never missed a step and the dance sequences were especially satisfying.

It the context of a show that is already exceptionally good, when the proposed revisiting happens it might be worth checking out both the arc of the characters and the arc of the narrative to ensure that these intersect in all the right places. Most already do, but, like a good cake, it’s worth taking them out of the oven and giving them a prick from time to time just to make sure.

The performances throughout are just grand. Zakk D’Larte as twinkle is tart and cryptic with a real hint of edge. Just as Twinkle should be.

James’s family members are all really good. They give the show a tangible sense of the outside world and just how alienating we are to it, how threatening. The way the walls are finally broken down is painfully described and more than effective enough.

The two fabulous chorus girls Monica (Jayvee Lagunda) and Angie (Ezra Williams) support the action with maturity and zoosh with Williams taking every opportunity that comes her way to shine.

To fully realise Roger, Johnny Aukusitino could benefit from so cue tightening and accuracy in the first half but he comes into his own in the second with a performance that is both menacing and intimidating. Good stuff.

As Bianca/James, Luke Bird is excellent. It would be so easy to fall into parody and to epitomise drag queen culture but instead he opts to play Bianca as different, gentle and kindly, and we’re not surprised when it all comes together at the end. His love for his children is a powerful metaphor for the transgender journey.

I haven’t mentioned her yet – and on purpose – but boss witch of ‘Dorothy’s Sister’ is Vera and she is played by the inimitable Cindy of Samoa. She’s the context, the Greek chorus, the cabaret MC and she incredibly good. I will take to the grave the image of her taking off her afro wig and her hoop earnings and, in her hairnet and bare feet chasing Johnny Aukusitino, the mean villain, around the stage with a jandal and threatening him with the direst consequences if he doesn’t sort himself out. It’s a moment of pure genius performed superbly and Cindy of Samoa’s evening is a glamorous and clever tour de force.

Did I miss anyone?

Yes, I did. I’ve seen some fantastic performances in my seven decades but I have to say I’ve seldom seen anything to match Ramon Te wake as Sheena. Her craft is extraordinary, she sings, she dances, and she sure as hell tore my heart out with this performance. It’s not that I’m surprised as I’ve seen her perform many times and always been impressed but what she’s produced in this work is something very, very special. She’s scintillating, raw, vulnerable, clever and feisty and every step on her performance journey is considered and ever so real. I believed in her from the first second to the last moment and I want to see her performance again and again and again. It’s top stuff, and if you value this sort of honesty you must come and see this show.

I’ve saved director Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho to last for a reason. New shows are a nightmare on the nerves. If you’re directing a ‘Hamlet’ or an ‘Assassins’ or a ‘Phantom’ you can always fall back on the knowledge that others have made it work. With a newbie, you can’t. Add a cast with varied levels of experience, throw in the expectation that they can all dance, sing, act and chew gum all at the same time and it can be a recipe for madness. Tukiwaho seems to be unflappable and he doesn’t stop until the work is done. He’s a true leader and team-builder and it shows in all his work and not just ‘People Like Us’. It’s admirable and exceptional and I hope we see much, much more of his intelligent and passionate work. Through people like him, we all grow.

So, ‘People Like Us’ is great. It will empower my community and that’s incredibly important to me. It will educate too, in a gentle way. Most of all though, it will entertain and what more can we ask from a night at the theatre.

Oh yes, you can ask for great performances, and in Ramon Te Wake you have brilliance and that’s as good as it gets.

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