Words Leo Koziel
I was I think 13 or 14 years old in the Year of Frankie.
After mowing lawns in our Wairoa backyard on a hot sunny day I’d listen to the faint signal of the “Bay City” radio station down in Napier, and they’d play a weird song called “Relax” that sounded way too sexually suggestive for the times.
It was 1984, and things were about to change in the world of Pop and also in the world of Aotearoa. At the same time, folks were living it up in the last days of Disco in downtown New York City. A bonfire of disco records had recently been blown up on a football field full of hooligans in Chicago, the rot of over-commercialisation had set in (Disco Duck, for heaven’s sake), and the shadow of AIDs was about to hauntingly hinder a global age of hedonism. Cocaine had fuelled weekend long insomniac disco dancers, and they were all about to be replaced by coked-up merchant bankers and financiers. Glass towers were about to destroy downtown Auckland, a new socially progressive Labour government was soon to legalise homosexuality and ban nuclear weapons from our shores, but in Wairoa of the 1980s the only window you had to the world outside was a half hour weekly of Ready to Roll (RTR), a smattering of mostly state-owned radio stations and overpriced pop music magazines at the local stationers. And through Frankie, the spirit of disco was reawakening through new electronic beats.
In the Year of Frankie, “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” somehow magically appeared under the Christmas tree for me, so I took it camping at Mahanga for three weeks. I played it on rotate on my Walkman. The whole time. It blew my little 14-year old mind. Opening track “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” is a 14-minute opus that takes near on 5 minutes to even approach a chorus. All the hits were there: “Relax” and “Two Tribes” and “Power of Love” but it was the snippets of spoken word and weirdness and randomness that intrigued me the most. “The World is my Oyster” intones Holly Johnson throughout the album, in homage to Coleridge and Kublai Khan. I dreamt of a utopian sex-filled Shangri La as I listened to a faux Prince Charles intone how orgasm has become a most mystified state of feeling and a faux Ronald Reagan muses on war and what “Frankie” has to “Say.” The album as a whole was trippy and weird, a terribly heady mix for a 14-year old mind, a Rubik’s cube of ideas and sounds and images with mysteries somehow to be unlocked.
Which somehow brings us to Auckland in 2017, and the terribly heady mix presented to a 40-something me at the “Pleasuredome,” a new stage show that has somehow popped up in an out-of-the-way suburban warehouse. The stage show Disneyland for grown-ups that is “Pleasuredome” is the brainchild of Lucy Lawless and husband Rob Tapert, a hedonistic, gay-friendly, audience-friendly musical extravaganza that like recent hit musical “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is destined to find legs in far-flung shores. Expect to see it in the West End. Soon. And Vegas. Las Vegas.
Like “Priscilla” the musical the whole storyline is held together with a mish-mash of classic 1970s and 1980s tunes. The premise of the show is relatively simple, almost paint by numbers: find a story loosely based on the “Death of Disco” and closure of famed “Studio 54” in New York City; get the rights to a number of 80s and 70s hit pop songs; weave it all together on stage in an immersive “videodrome” type environment. The show is presented “in the round” so there are no backdrops or sets, per se, but the huge warehouse space has allowed for seven massive video walls cleverly used to make an immersive show: the skyline of New York City is all around you, elevators rise and fall and you drift down dark, sleazy Manhattan streets all while the show takes place centre stage and on a massive catwalk from the rear of the hall.
Going into the show, I tried to research what songs were included in the musical, but the promoters have (cleverly?) kept any available images and video of the show to a minimum. The house was packed on a Sunday night, so the show is clearly a success from word of mouth as well as the usual promo and advertising. So, I sat at my cabaret table and let the show wash over me. Some of the 70s and 80s hits “remade” into the musical worked really well. “Thieves Like Us” by New Order was woven excitedly into the storyline, as was Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” Others get lost in the reversioning: “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is presented as an angry, capitalist rant and misses the dystopian sweetness and irony of the Tears For Fears original. Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” turns into a fierce conversation between lead character Sappho and her drug of choice, which she’s trying to “break up” with. I missed the original’s electronica beat, but sat in wonder at its new incarnation. The same goes for “Relax” – the Frankie anthem gets hot and heavy and becomes a trippy pansexual headrush of 2010s love in all its permutations (as well as remaining an anthem to delayed ejaculation).
Lucy Lawless as Sappho is the star of the show, but the award for best vocals goes to Australian import Ashleigh Taylor who soars on Godley & Creme’s “Cry” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love.” I’ve yet to mention the New York street that’s presented as the lobby to the show: it’s fantastic, though its recent history as “Mainstreet USA” in “Ash Vs Evil Dead” means it feels more like middle America street rather than Times Square circa 1980 (the furniture store sign was the giveaway). Which was fine by me, as the randomness of a New York nightclub located on a middle America street is the same as the randomness of the show’s soundtrack: funk, rap, gay disco, new wave, electronica, bubble-gum pop, new romantic, post punk, rock, house, hyperballads and AOR soft rock.
Go and see this show, you won’t regret it. I’ve never been to a show before where the whole audience gets up and dances at the end for two songs and then goes out into the “lobby” and boogies down for another hour or so afterwards! It is simply great to see such talent coming out of Aotearoa, and its simply great to see Kiwis having such a great time. I think there was a time when “cultural cringe” meant kiwi talent was always seen as second rate and Auckland audiences as less than open minded. It’s either a generational shift, or the marked talents of the likes of Lucy Lawless, but things aren’t the same as they were anymore. The crowd cheered at the gay lovers and booed at the homophobe. The lyrics of the songs soared and you could see in the audience how people were touched to reawaken memories of their youth, be it Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Wham! or Chaka Khan or Godley & Creme’s “Cry” (the show stopper).
A one of a kind show better in many respects than any other in the world is somehow hidden away in a West Auckland warehouse. And that’s the simple reality of NZ in 2017.
Go see it. You’ve got until Christmas. Just go.
Frankie Says “Go!”