Early evening [at Bats] is Greg Ellis in his brilliant new one man show Vance Fontaine – Command Performance.
Ellis' years of working with Theatresports and The Improvisors coupled with a number of previously successful stand alone shows, provides him with a wealth of experience to draw on and it shows. Confident and totally at ease with his audience, his formula for this show is simple.
He grew up in a place in NZ suggested by the audience, then left NZ due to a personal crisis suggested by the audience and ended up in a country overseas suggested by the audience. And so it goes on with Ellis cleverly creating witty and often very funny repartee with the audience around whatever they like to throw at him. And he never misses a beat, expertly improvising one story after another with incredible dexterity.
But the highlight of the show is the interaction of songs with the stories, the lyrics all improvised to styles suggested by the audience. R and B, Country and Western, Dub Step, Musical Theatre, Rap and more are all expertly conveyed by the Peculiar Sensations, his 4 piece backing band of L Ron Beattie on drums, John Doe on bass, Tony Fork on guitar and Errol Flanagan on keyboard who are all as adept at improvising the music as Ellis is the lyrics, making this a most memorable evening's entertainment.
Jeff Tollan, stuff.co.nz' The wide collar, white suit and sequin shirt - and, God, that hair ... mesmerising - will have you wondering what you're in for. But, whatever Ellis drags out of the bag will leave you with aching sides and a laugh so hard you'll be fearful of wetting yourself.'open/close
They marketed the show as one of the great solo improv talents returning to the capital. Greg Ellis as Vance Fontaine strides onto the centre stage and - with hair slicked back like Elvis - it is interesting first impression.
The wide collar, white suit and sequin shirt - and, God, that hair ... mesmerising - will have you wondering what you're in for. But, whatever Ellis drags out of the bag will leave you with aching sides and a laugh so hard you'll be fearful of wetting yourself.
His character is a lounge singer and is the first Kiwi to make it big in Vegas. An on-the-spot fabrication of his life story, these are Vance Fortaine's unsung songs.
Ellis' muse is the audience; he calls on them to give the locations, the jobs, the medical episodes (in last night's case: irritable bowel syndrome). What you get in one show, you won't get in another.
Played out in the intimate setting of Bats Theatre in Wellington's Kent Terrace, nearly every row was packed and, while a small crowd can lead to some uncomfortable silences, Ellis didn't have any problem keeping the laughs coming.
In fact, like a bottle of wine, the entire performance kept improving as the show went on and the noise of the crowd gave the impression their numbers were three-fold.
Possibly the best part of the hour-long show was seeing Ellis talk and sing about inventing dubstep then singing his way from R&B to death metal.
''The first thing man does after he invents dubstep is regret it,'' he says over the clapping and whistling. Even dubstep DJ Skrillex would be proud of that on-the-spot performance.
This man and his musical entourage is definitely a must-see. The effort and skill they put into the show, the fact they can switch from one music genre to another at the proverbial clicking of fingers is impressive, no matter what you think of them. And with it lacking profanity, save the occasional f-bomb, it's even the kind of show you could drag grandma to.
If you miss Ellis's Command Performance, you've missed a lot. Don't let the thought of music or sequin shirts put you off. This is a side-splitting show.
The genius of Greg Ellis is fully proved in this show. Who knew he was a fabulous singer alongside all his other skills?
An early adopter, and a long-standing mainstay, of The Improvisors, he is a veritable compendium of general knowledge including, but not at all limited to, pop culture (he could have been a formidable Mastermind contestant back in the day – and if so, I'd love to know what his Special Subject would have been).
It's his ability to hook into world history and geography, draw science and literature into the mix, and add a strong sense of socio-political awareness to the improvised scenarios, that makes him extra special in my experience.
Having played in many ensemble improv shows – for adults, children and corporate events – he branched out into solo improv with Holmes Alone two years ago, then Snake Oil last year. Impressive shows both, evolving as-always from audience offers, the magic of instant group-creation is necessarily absent from those formats, except for the back-up contributions of a solo musician and the lighting operator.
Vance Fontaine in Command Performance reinstates the ensemble factor with a musical quartet known as His Peculiar Sensations, led by guitarist Tony Fork (Tane Upjohn-Beatson, who is also the show's musical director). He is joined by Errol Flanagan (Takumi Motokawa) on Keys, L Ron Beattie (Thomas P. McGrath) on drums, and John Doe (Matiu Whiting) on drums.
Together they create a full set of never-before-heard and never-to-be-heard-again old favourites from the wide-ranging, genre-rich career of liquorice-larynxed lounge-singer Vance Fontaine.
You have to be of a certain age to remember Vance Fontaine, or maybe your parents, uncles or aunties will have spoken of him. Had it not been for certain events – which audience members will remind him of at each performance – he could have been a worthy successor to Sir Howard Morrison, John Rowles and Ray Woolf; internationally he could have been New Zealand's answer to Bobby Darrin, Wayne Newton and Barry Manilow.
So what happened? Each audience will contribute/discover where he grew up, who broke his heart, where he went, what he did while taking a break from song-writing and singing, how he made his comeback … Those who read and recall the famous Rolling Stone interview will be able to prompt his memory on all sorts of details.
All this prompts instantly created renditions of hits from his back catalogue and comes together to reveal a comprehensive life story. Everything discovered along the way is stitched back in – or was on opening night – to create an immensely satisfying whole.
The alchemy involved in evolving the music for each number is so easily taken for granted that one has to think it through quite objectively to realise what a mind-blowing achievement it is. Darryn Woods' lighting adds to the moods, of course, and brings the right blaze to the many climaxes.
Initially I fear the rhyming couple lyrics – redolent of many a group-improvised song in countless other shows – will limit us to the narrative ballad with a recurring chorus and big finish but as the emotional content kicks in, and time and place suggest different genres and styles, variety spices it up no end.
What better compliment can I pay than to say if a CD of last night's show had been available in the foyer as we left, I would have bought it. I'm certainly tempted to go again just to check that it wasn't a fluke; to see and hear what other parallel lives Vance Fontaine will turn out to have led and made music from.
While it's a delight to see Vance Fontaine in Command Performance in the intimacy of Bats – and perfectly pitched sound-wise, too – I can envisage this show in big venues as well. It deserves to travel, not just in NZ but overseas too. Vance Fontaine is ready to embrace the stellar career fate has so cruelly denied him up until now.