What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra – Dahlesque
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday 11am and 2pm
You'd think after two and a half years and 650 performances as Miss Honey, the kindly school teacher in Matilda the Musical, Elise McCann would be done with Roald Dahl; turns out you'd be wrong.
The award-winning musical theatre performer – McCann won a Helpmann at the 2016 Australian theatre awards for her portrayal of Miss Honey – was just getting started when she left the show in 2017. She's now in demand to perform Dahlesque, which this weekend comes to Auckland where McCann is accompanied by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
It features music from Matilda, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory - Dahl's book was called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but the title was tweaked for Gene Wilder's 1971 film – James and the Giant Peach, original compositions of Dahl's Revolting Rhymes and even the theme song from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. Why a Bond movie track? Because, as McCann discovered, Dahl wrote the script for that one.
Like so many millions of children around the world, she'd long known of Dahl's junior fiction. Raised in Victoria, McCann was an avid reader and fan of Dahl's darkly comic and ever so subversive books for children. She liked The Witches best, saying it terrified her but, at the same, she was enthralled by how glamorous the titular enchantresses were.
When McCann started work on Matilda, she re-discovered Dahl – along with the often-macabre short stories he wrote for adults.
"He has this huge body of work that spans all ages."
A random remark about the amount of music linked to Dahl's books, and how you could write some to complement his Revolting Rhymes and stories for adults, got McCann thinking about the potential for a new show.
She mentioned it to a friend, fellow performer Eddie Perfect who just happened to be co-artistic director of the Adelaide Festival. Before McCann had time to second-guess her hunch, Perfect had signed her up for a spot in the 2017 festival, her writing partner Richard Carroll was onboard and Stephen Amos, an associate musical director for the Australian Matilda the Musical, was arranging the music. Tim Minchin, who wrote Matilda the Musical, gave his blessing to McCann's show.
"It just really quickly gathered momentum and people wanted to help," she says.
"Everyone thought it was a great idea."
Possibly made even better because it can be performed with a full orchestra or stripped down for touring to just nine or 10 musicians. McCann keeps Dahlesque playful, saying that reflects Dahl's style but also weaves in stories from his own quite incredible life.
Then there's the game she plays with the audience, often families with young-ish children, called Dahl, Shakespeare or a President. She throws them words and asks for answers as to which of the three made them up or coined certain phrases.
Turns out there's about 500 words that can be attributed to Dahl, although not so many have made it into everyday vernacular. It's difficult to get snozzcumber (a vegetable like a cucumber that tastes disgusting) or frobscottle (fizzy drink) into an ordinary conversation but there should surely be a place for words like gobblefunk (when you play around with words) and zozimus (the stuff that dreams are made of), says McCann.
It's zozimus that keeps her performing Dahlesque; after all, she says, there's something magical about putting a little of the stuff dreams are made of into the lives of young show-goers and their grown-ups: "The kids love to talk about it, but I've met so many adults who are smiling because it's brought back happy memories from their own childhoods."