NZ has proudly watched an outstanding NZ musical comedy duo rise to international stardom over the last decade or so. Alongside them, an equally outstanding character comedian perfected the art of obvious silliness as a way of flawlessly entertaining his audience. And before The Flight of the Conchords and their manager Murray, in the 1980s there was the remarkable groundbreaking Front Lawn. Each of these artists perfected their pace, timing, delivery, story-telling and characterizations to create devised shows for stage and screen that raised the global bar, and set a new standard and audience's expectation.
Tough acts for candidates of the same genre to follow.
I commend much of Robbie Ellis and Sam Smith's offerings in their two-man musical comedy show, Augmented Fourth.
The men are at the strongest when they play rather than banter. Between them, the two accomplished artists switch around between an impressive array of instruments including electric guitar, ukulele, drums, keys, trumpet, harmonica and glockenspiel played with a spoon.
They are both versatile, talented musicians and excellent songwriters, who have devised a show that is very tightly written, relentlessly fast-paced and at times, clever.
However, their links between songs are so quick-fire and overly scripted, that the conversation feels unreal and at times, the jokes are lame and obvious. (The “harmonica in my pocket” line comes to mind…) Natural banter and a normal pace, with pauses and organic rhythms, can be so much easier to engage with as an audience member. By contrast, at times I feel overwhelmed with Robbie and Sam's chats, which are stacked high with puns and piled to the max with information. There's little room to breathe.
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I am still not entirely sure what an augmented fourth is. Something to do with ending a song on a note that is a fourth interval, which is jarring to ears that are more accustomed to seconds and thirds. Nerdy musician humour. Sam loves them and Robbie does not. Robbie tries to explain and Sam won't let him because it is technical and boring.
Sam Smith and Robbie Ellis are fabulous musicians, and amazing song writers. The songs in this show are just the biz. Hard rock, rap, disco, the national anthem, children's music, compositional essays; so many genres, so many clever lyrics. So many instruments employed and exchanged in making those songs happen! Both accomplished musicians, they make it look easy.
These two have taken contrasting personae: Sam is scruffy and irreverent; Robbie is nerdy and pedantic. The contrived tensions this causes are a little over egged and really unnecessary. There is plenty of humour going on there already without trying to generate more; let the music carry the show, it is well and truly capable of doing so. Less is more!
The vague story arc is a retelling of their fictitious career, from circus band to international outcasts to Icelandic rock heroes and winners of the Eurovision Song Contest – with a song that really would leave all the usual entries for dust, if the language would be permissible.
In the closing rock number the guys prove yet again their music is fabulous, but they turn out to be terrible hypnotists because an attempt to hypnotise all the reviewers in the audience into quoting their exact words fails so badly, I have to get Robbie to write them out for me afterwards.