EPIC THEATRICAL FUSION
How To Train Your Dragon: Arena Spectacular
Adapted for the Stage and Directed by Nigel Jamieson
at Vector Arena, Parnell, Auckland
From 18 Apr 2012 to 22 Apr 2012
Reviewed by Kate Ward-Smythe, 19 Apr 2012
DreamWorks Animation and Global Creatures presentation of How To Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular is undeniable world-class technical mastery on an epic scale (directed and adapted for stage by Nigel Jamieson; Technical Director Malcolm White for Global Creatures).
As long as you train your eye to acknowledge the moving projections (rather than the relatively stationary characters in isolation, or roof-top tracks, pulleys, ropes and all the other necessary devices), during epic battle scenes and dragon-flight, you can suspend your disbelief and become absorbed into heroic action scenes.
The production design (Peter England, associate Nicholas Dare) and auditorium layout is the best I've experienced at Vector Arena, as the venue transformation into Viking-Dragon lair, is very convincing.
However, the moments that really grip my little team (6 year old boy; two 8 year old girls and young-at-heart Mum) are character and story-driven.
My daughter is still talking about how much she loved "the moment when Hiccup [our Viking hero, played passionately by Riley Miner] met Toothless [our dragon hero, brought to life by creature designer Sonny Tilders and The Creature Technology Company]." The moment is genuinely moving, with Miner doing well to convey emotion through body language and timing, despite the huge distance between him and his audience.
The precision, creative design and technology employed in making these wondrous creatures pays off, as Toothless conveys emotion and reaction – particularly through his very life-like eyes – that would please any hardened critic.
My team is engrossed in the story from the start, as the accessible plot is pitched just right for their young minds. The only collective fidget moment is, ironically, the second time our heroes take flight. I am happy to take in a repeat performance, as John Powell and Jonsi's majestic symphonic music fills the Arena, but the kids are a bit, 'seen it all before'. Harsh!
I guess, given the pace of entertainment, technology and the fusion of both, kids these days require new stimulus, more ‘wow' and heightened action, at a relentless pace. I whisper to them to watch different things the second time round, so that they fully appreciate that they are watching something ‘real' and magical being created right in front of them.
I'm pleased to observe the kids are just as transfixed by the timeless old-fashion theatrical-tricks, as they are by the modern wonders of projection-technology-creature-creation-animation-fusion. We all murmur a collective ‘wow' as the Voodoo puppeteers (Gavin Sainsbury, Daniel Flood, Michael Latini, Amanda Maddock and Brian Parker) use a good-old-fashioned sheet, their expert craft and the shadows of gorgeous 'puppets' (costume and projection design Dan Potra – inspirational work throughout the night) to teach the class of Dragon-slayer students (and us) about Dragon-identification.
We are all equally spellbound by the self-illuminated ships, which glide gracefully across the stage en masse. Lighting Design by Philip Lethlean is full of little details like this, plus, at the other end of the scale, an incredible number of lights aloft allow for grand and expansive work when required.
The hand-made, authentic-looking sextet of triangles, with huge horn to finish the phrase, as they perform the Viking National Anthem, is a quirky and very likable addition to open the ‘games' in the second half. Finally, it's good to see that despite all the bells and whistles, the show's creators are not above a good ole well placed fart joke.
The large creative team behind this majestic arena spectacle have a great formula – a fusion of technology and conventional theatrical craft on a grand scale – that is nigh on perfect, as a digestible family show. Admittedly a few young kids seem to completely ‘freak' at the arrival of the first Dragon – a couple of parents quickly exited with young ones bundled up in their arms: sensory overload no doubt, when faced with how life-like these creations are, plus the music, lasers and lighting are often elevated to maximum effect; necessary to match the majesty of the stars (expansive sound design by Peter Hylenski). However, with these few exceptions, the audience is willingly drawn into to his new world.
Being the effect-du-jour, the Dragons steal the show. However, this is a production with an abundance of enhancing special effects. Particularly impressive are the vibrant blue lasers representing the ocean (laser design and engineering by Oracle Laser) and flame jets, (pyro special effects by Peter Stubbs) – both in synch with Powell & Jonsi's strident score, in all the right places.
The one aspect of the journey that did irk me, is how stilted and forced some of the dialogue is. Ironically, the chat between human and dragon is often more fluid and real, than the human-to-human interaction. Some pregnant pauses in two-person scenes are so long, the story is in danger of losing its momentum. Perhaps each word or phrase is finely tuned to technical cues, in which case, perhaps the script needs a little added to it, to ensure constant natural flow in the narrative.
Physical performances and athleticism are impressive across the entire company. In terms of the vibrant ensemble, which execute a mean Viking break-dance-hip-hop-party-piece (movement direction Gavin Robins), stand-out entrances from Ruffnut (Virackhaly Ngeth), Tuffnutt (Frace Luke Mercado) and larger-than-life Fishlegs (Dexter Mayfield) ensure they take the limelight well, when directed.
Vocal presence is equally exciting, in particular Robert Morgan's full and throaty Scottish Viking King, Stoik. Sarah McCreanor's 'Don't mess with me' stance, in the role of fearless Astrid, is suitably animated, plus her and Miner's gravity-defying aerial work is world-class. Miner's well-directed opening sequence is extraordinary and its perfect execution showcases the teamwork of the production, projection, movement, lighting and sound designers, brilliantly.
In a theatrical genre where timing between human action and technical operation is everything, this production meets the challenge, as simply mime, such as Hiccup sketching, is flawlessly swept on to surfaces before we can even register it as a fusion of two genres.
The credits for this extravaganza take up 10 pages in the mighty program. Too many to mention, but collectively – from expert riggers, to inspirational costume, prop and creature makers, to cutting edge media personnel – this show obviously employs the best. Very good to see the row of technical operators get a dedicated fully lit acknowledgement in the bows too: richly deserved.
DreamWorks have created another epic theatrical world, and it is very much worth seeing. I asked the kids if they had any more highlights to share. They replied, “Everything.”
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