Much like public holidays, Auckland tends to cram most of its festivals into the start of the year. And while the Sky Tower erupting with fireworks signals in the new calendar year, the Pride Gala is practically the opening night for the entire arts festival season.
For the next three weeks, the Pride Festival reigns supreme, with a plethora of events spread across the Auckland region. The opening gala is a chance not only to highlight the talent in this year's festival but to recognise and celebrate the wider LGBTQI+ community in an intimate yet raucous event.
Galas like these are always impressive for how much variety can be crammed into just one show. Over two and a half hours, you get cabaret, comedy and canines, drag queens and politics, remembrance and some extraordinarily emotional moments.
This year, director Jason Te Mete orchestrated a fine show that managed to move between all types of genre and performance without feeling jarring, though some slots were so brief you hardly got a taste for them.
The clashing cultures were perhaps no better symbolised than when one pantless dancer started twerking a few metres from Helen Clark, but this slightly awkward, kitschy juxtaposition was a wonderful symbol for how the festival can meld all facets of life.
Underneath it all, though, the gala is essentially a glossy teaser for the festival, which makes the fact that the two highlights of the night had nothing to do with Pride a little unfortunate.
An unbilled cameo from Tom Sainsbury's Paula Bennett showed the impression is as outrageously delightful on stage as it is behind a Snapchat filter. Her analysis of the rainbow flag (healing orange reminds Paula of her recent surgery, while green stands for both nature and benefit frauds) brought the house down, and it's a pity the festival didn't book her in for a full performance - though the teaser for Sainsbury's festival musical, Gays in Space, suggests another camp, innuendo-filled delight in the vein of last year's Camping.
As Live Drag! An Opera in the Making is being kept under wraps until its debut next week, the gala was instead treated to "Glitter and Be Gay" from New Zealand Opera's upcoming Candide. The jaunty tune was performed with hysterical campness by Natasha Wilson, a young soprano destined for star status, and was easily the night's best teaser.
As celebratory as the night was, when you've got two Labour MPs as hosts (Tamati Coffey and Louisa Wall, the former's presenting background helping their unrehearsed routine), the political is never going to be far from the event. A powerful rendition of "Over the Rainbow" by GALS (the Auckland gay choir) and performer Brady Peeti in remembrance of Aids victims was a haunting, moving moment which lingered long after the final note. It was a reminder that, with HIV diagnoses at record highs and attempts overseas to reverse LGBTQI+ progress, one night is not nearly enough to highlight how necessary the festival remains.
What: The Auckland Pride Festival Gala
Where and When: Q Theatre, Friday; the Auckland Pride Festival runs until February 18 at venues across the region
Reviewer: Ethan Sills