Total Education Blog

Mulan: A Review

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The whole performance and production of Mulan wasn’t perfect, which is a good thing: instead it was excellent and, thus, it embodied one part of the School’s motto. The students excelled in their story-telling, obviously inspired by spirited support from an enthusiastic group of parents and teachers, and it was a dazzling celebration of a cohesive school environment. But it wasn’t only a musical.

As is often the case the whole was greater than the sum of the parts but some of the parts were marvellous. Mulan herself (Xsanthia-Rose Firth) sauntered onto the stage and it soon became apparent that she was serving notice to Disney that she was the girl to take over from Luke Skywalker given the inevitable casting of a heroine soon in a Star Wars episode (see The Last Jedi and you’ll know what I mean). It won’t be Xanthi-Rose Skywalker; more likely Lucy Skywalker. Then there were the three Year Eight boys  - Will Thornton (Chi Fu), Jack Ragh, a most assured warrior (Shan-Yu), and Chace Arazie (Captain Shang) – stamping their authority on the stage and probably ensuring some advance bookings for the 2021 show. Their yang almost balanced Xanthi’s yin-yang. Talk about cutting to the chase: if Captain Shang had ordered us to “listen up” when he first, authoritatively marched on stage, I might’ve stood up to attention in my seat. I’d promoted him to Field-Marshall by night’s end.  A special mention to Will for his stagecraft, a skill he shares with his older brother Chris who was a memorable luminary in SOTE productions ten years ago; and Will already has an unmistakable twinkle giving a masterclass on how to project both voice and character.  Lee Tuvukica brought such delightful levity to his Dragon that he could barely keep a smile off his face, and Bennett McLaren balanced that with his apt gravity, imperial dignity and paternal stoicism as both Emperor and Mulan’s father, qualities needed in vast quantities given a daughter like Xanthi’s Mulan.  All the supporting cast members found their voices when the pressure to perform was on and what greatly appealed to me was that none of them strained; they weren’t competing, as though their innate level was to harmonise, to cooperate with the music, the other performers and even something in themselves: to be well in their own skins. Just as well too because some of those splendid costumes were pretty loud.

Ah the costumers, the carpenters and the myriad design features! The students must have been inspired, even flattered, by all the adult effort. The implicit message from this adult excellence was that ‘we pour ourselves into providing a splendid backdrop so that you can do your utmost to enliven the show with your animal spirits’. You could sense it from the Cunningham Highway on the night. With its low-slung portico the lit-up Auditorium looked like a Chinese lantern: Broadway on Warwick. I’ve never seen it so festooned. But it wasn’t all ice and no berg. The script was witty, the technical design seamless, the playing assured, and the direction knowing. There’s a school of thought that says the plays and musicals are all about the students’ development ; which is almost true. But I suggest it’s also about the adults modelling service. I stole into the final dress rehearsal and wondered afterwards how much hair directors Ronda Mattarollo and Michael Funder - both veteran stagers - would have by opening night as there was an insouciance about half the cast that was a tad foreboding. But then, somehow, the Veterans employed an esoteric mentoring device, that can best be described as a benevolent pedagogical legerdemain, to wrangle the cast, to fight insouciance with feigned insouciance, and when the house-lights finally went down all the players were cooking. By late Friday night there were no hair pieces to be found, just more smiles than a toothpaste advertisement. To invoke some traditional Chinese wisdom, viz the Man of Calling in the Tao Te Ching, Rhonda and the Maestro do “… the non-doing,/ and thus everything falls into place (3)”. I’ve been observing maestro Funder’s facial expressions since we were schoolboys and am struck by how his visage can oscillate from the ferocity of a wrathful deity all the way to the mirth of a late night, adult television variety show host. Privately at the piano he can sound like Oscar Peterson; publicly it’s different, so-much-so that I think he could justifiably be known as the Gustav Mahler of light entertainment. There was an extended pause at the finale before the players took a bow, which I took to be an allusion by the maestro to John Cage’s composition 4’33”. I encourage the reader to listen to it. All this is a good example of the knowingness that the Veterans bring to these performances.

The students deserve to feel triumphant. The School, like all truly creative institutions, prevails due to goodwill, and always has. As stated at the top, the performance was not just a musical, it was also a manifestation of the basic principle of education, as articulated by Vijay in Total Education: The Urgent Need, that knowledge evolves from within outwards. The performers were learning to sing, act, collaborate and manage their emotional lives, but that’s about it. Vijay writes: “The individual teaches himself. The teachers only give suggestions and techniques (37).”

Anyone for anagrams? Which rising starlet could adopt the stage-name ‘Footy Limelight’?

Terry Tilley - friend of the school

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