Among the most important and consistently enjoyable strings to the Victorian Opera’s cultural bow have been productions of operas for children. They have not been lavish, but every effort has been made to ensure work of the highest quality in every respect. They have served as an introduction to the world of opera and musical theatre for youngsters as well as giving emerging professional singers an opportunity to hone their skills alongside seasoned performers. This staging of The Grumpiest Boy in the World involved a partnership between Victorian Opera and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
Although publicity notes recommended a target audience of 5+ years the audience for the 11am session was notable for its wide age range, from two-year-olds to very senior citizens – many minus any sign of grandchildren – and everything in between.
As they entered the Playhouse Theatre – its name particularly apt for this production – the audience saw a kitchen bathed in an inviting mauve wash. It was an introduction to a work infused with enough vibrant colour to rival the Bonnard exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria next door. Scenery, costumes and lighting were designed to enchant the eye, while plenty of action captured the attention. Apart from the visual attractions, composer Joseph Twist and librettist Finegan Kruckemeyer have created a work that is tuneful, witty, emotional and relatable for children.
Based on the book of the same name, it tells the story of Grumpy Boy, Zachary Briddling, aged 8 years and 4 months, who strongly objects to being middling. He is so ordinary that people never notice he is there, even in school photos. In an attempt to escape the normalness that “is killing me, Mother!”, he sets off to find places where he would be different – the lands of giants, monsters, talking birds – only to discover that they all have things in common. It is only when he reaches Grumptown that he discovers there is one thing at which he excels, finally becoming King of the Grumps, riding home on his lion and exiting the kitchen with an almighty door slam. Here, we see shades of Maurice Sendak’s Max and his Wild Things, famous for its depiction of a child’s imagination and unfettered expression of frustration and anger. All that ramping and slamming and rebellion are tremendously seductive, especially within a framework of a nurturing family. In Grumpy Boy they are exhilarating.
Much of the work’s vitality comes from its physicality. As Zachary, Joshua Morton-Galea was electrifying, bouncing around as if on springs, his energy seemingly inexhaustible. He sang with as clear diction as you could ever hope to hear – a huge asset for the children in particular, and one that drew the listener in to sympathise with Zachary’s plight. His singing style was very much in the vein of musical theatre as he conveyed emotions ranging from confrontational ferocity to sensitive vulnerability.
Joseph Twist has described the musical language of the work as “kaleidoscopic”, encompassing “circus music, jazz, chaotic cadenzas, powerful crescendos and colourful orchestral flourishes … contrasted with moments of great triumph and introspective pathos”. While Zachary’s music reflects much of this description, other roles have there own distinctive character.
Saskia Mascitti and Noah Straughan as Zachary’s Mum and Dad, Chloe James and Nicholas Beecher as the robotic Scientists, James Billson as Giant, Breanna Stuart as Girl, Lisette Bolton as Bird with some lovely coloratura singing, Maria Woolford and Hartley Trusler as a couple of very feisty Grumps, and Amanda Hargreaves as a sweet, comical Squirrel Faced Monkey – all gave commendable performances in their respective roles. Twelve Chorus members completed the ensemble. That this young cast was able to negotiate what was often an energetic “kaleidoscope” of movement so smoothly was a huge credit to them and the ingenuity of Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s direction. Body mics ensured that all singers could be heard, and suitably repeated lyrics aided understanding in ensemble numbers.
In the pit – another point of special interest for some children – a superb ensemble of nine professional musicians (string quintet, clarinet, trumpet, percussion and piano) sounded like at least twice that number. Conductor Richard Mills coordinated his troupe of singers and players with all the authority of the finest ringmaster.
Apart from a couple of the very youngest, it is safe to say that everybody had a great time. As I left the theatre, one mother was explaining to her son how the scenery could magically appear from on high. It was obvious that this was his first experience of the theatre and that he had been transfixed by the wonder of it all.
Families, and others who enjoy engaging stories and music, can experience further wonders designed for young folk when Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s opera Parrwang Lifts the Sky takes flight at the Playhouse Theatre on Friday July 7, followed by two more performances the next day. A reprise of the COVID-19 afflicted 2021 collaboration between Victorian Opera and Short Black Opera, it is also distinguished by high production values. Both are ideal School Holiday fare.
Photo credit Charlie Kinross
Heather Leviston reviewed “The Grumpiest Boy in the World”, presented by Victorian Opera at the Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, on June 24, 2023.