Fantasy finally comes true

Mike Crowl
Mike Crowl
Music, mirth and make-believe come together in family-friendly Dunedin production Grimhilda! Beware of the babysitter, writes Shane Gilchrist.

It has been a while in the making, but Grimhilda!, a fantasy musical, is poised to introduce a strange cast of characters to Dunedin family audiences.

Dunedin writer and composer Mike Crowl started work on an earlier version of the work in the 1970s, but never got much beyond 20 minutes of dialogue and music, "so it went on the back-burner for a long time".

Work resumed in 2010, when he and Dunedin friend Cherianne Parks collaborated on the script.

In fact, they started from scratch, Crowl explains.

"The best way to describe the collaborative process was that I wrote most of the dialogue for the script, but Cherianne had very good ideas and brought new things into it to help the plot function and jazz it up a bit. Certainly, some of the more crazy ideas are hers.

"I'd been working on a children's opera called A Statue For The Mayor in the late '70s and that got me going.

Director Bert Nisbet explains his vision with part of the cast of Grimhilda! during a rehearsal...
Director Bert Nisbet explains his vision with part of the cast of Grimhilda! during a rehearsal at the Mayfair Theatre. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
"I really don't know where the idea for Grimhilda! came from. It has got talking toys in it at one stage as well as some oddball characters that don't exist in real life," Crowl says.

Grimhilda! centres on Toby, a boy of about 8 years old.

Constantly left with babysitters while his parents get on with their "busy" lives, he feels a little less than loved. When the story opens, the latest babysitter is just about to arrive. However, no sooner has she put Toby to bed (with very little warmth) than she's off, chasing after the parents; her aim is to kidnap them and force them to work in her diamond mines in Grimhilderness.

In the middle of the night, Toby finds his toys have come alive and, with their assistance, he heads off on a journey to rescue his parents.

Grimhilda throws a number of barriers in Toby's way, but even while overcoming these, he finds Grimhilda still has a trick or two up her sleeve.

"It is geared at a family audience," Crowl says.

"There is humour that adults will appreciate but, hopefully, it's stuff that kids will latch on to as well."

The music, also by Crowl, was completed and orchestrated over several months in 2010 and 2011. Crowl has had a long involvement with music in Dunedin and as a professional musician.

He has worked with innumerable singers, young and old, primarily as an accompanist, as well as writing a range of songs and piano pieces, most of which have been performed at two concerts he presented.

He also worked for several years with the St Kilda Brass Band as its official accompanist.

He was musical director for Opera Alive, an offshoot of the (then) Dunedin Opera Company for several years.

"When I first embarked on the project, the script and music arrived at the same time.

"This time around, we had the script in hand before I went back to writing music for it. But as I was writing the script, some of the lyrical material would pop up; there was a combination of things going on."

Crowl is also working closely with musical director Jonathan Drummond, a University of Otago student who, Crowl says, has a strong rapport with cast members, both young and older.

Grimhilda! features a "chorus" of 11 men and women, who also have individual singing roles in the show.

There will be about 17 instrumentalists in the orchestra.

Four children share the two main roles of Toby (Max Beal and Kelland O'Neil) and Polly, a rag doll (Emily Hill and Emily Kerr-Bell); Grimhilda is played by Helen Wilson, with Tim McGuire and Kathryn Gardner as Toby's parents.

"We are staging the show on days when the kids in the show don't have to go to school the next day. That's why we have kids alternating the lead roles," Crowl explains.

Director Bert Nisbet, who worked as a professional actor early in his career and has overseen several local amateur productions, says he enjoys working with children because of their lack of inhibitions.

"If you ask them to jump they'll say, 'how high?'. They have a lot of enthusiasm."

Nisbet points out that an original show offers its fair share of challenges.

"Because you are starting from scratch you have to sit down with your set designer first of all, then the props people, as well as sound and lighting.

"I've done a lot of plays and shows and this is the first time I've had the writer and composer sitting in on rehearsals. That has brought another dynamic to it, but it has worked out fine."

Catch it
Grimhilda! opens at the Mayfair Theatre, Dunedin, tomorrow at 7pm, returns at the same time on Saturday night and offers a matinee performance on Sunday at 2pm. The show resumes from May 3-6, with the final performance a matinee.

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