Gouti: “A New Musical in 23 Acts” is the kooky and original new musical with book, music, and lyrics by VCA graduate Joachim Coghlan.
Set in the Spanish mountains, we are met by El Todopoderoso – The God of Them All (Christopher Nye) in his school for nursery rhyme writers. The hero, Little Juan (Joachim Coghlan), loves his (rather impressive) rhymes more than his wife, Anita Bonita Maraca Alpaca (Jessica Harris), until a new god, Gouti (Emily Brown) arrives and destroys Juan’s dream of becoming the new God of Them All.
I was privileged to see this show in its first incantation as part of MUDFest (the University of Melbourne's student arts festival) in 2011 and Coghlan has obviously done a lot of work in the intervening years. The show has, for one, expanded from one to three acts, allowing Coghlan to explore new musical styles and techniques (most notably the a cappella number of Act II and Harris’s Puccini-esque ballad in Act II), but the newer book sections tend to lose focus after the more tightly structured first act.
Act I of Gouti is well-rounded and makes for some excellent exposition. Coghlan’s use and development of musical motive is admirable and highly effective, and allowed for some beautiful harmonies later in the show. It is clear that the man is a Sondheim scholar as the ‘God’ himself can be heard throughout – from the excellent use of rhyme (this was one of the most impressive parts of the evening) and Sweeney Todd references; to Coghlan’s own epiphany ballad in Act III; and finally the finale, “Think of Your Friends,” reminiscent of “Children Will Listen,” which, purely through homage itself, brings the idea of nursery rhymes full-circle.
The cast of eight (three doubling as musicians) were well matched in terms of their absurdist abilities and most appear to be classically trained. In the cosy space of The Owl and the Pussycat, these powerful voices more than filled the room during the opening chorus number, “We’re Gods.” It was after this, however, that the developmental stages of the show became clear, with nearly half of the cast not returning to the stage until Act II.
Coghlan arranged a five-piece orchestra (James Brooks – guitar, Kay Cai/Coghlan – piano, Emily Clarke – saxophone, William Cooper – piano accordion, and Tanya Vincent – Flute/Piccolo) that tackled Coghlan’s jaunty tunes with confidence and a good sense of fun. The inclusion of Cooper’s accordion did wonders for the ‘Spanish’ sound and I particularly enjoyed the jig in Act I. Coghlan and Vincent are to be commended for both the composition and execution of some beautiful and often modal flute lines.
Vincent’s costume designs were excellent and appropriately silly, although I don’t envy Christian Gillett (Guimo + the Triple-Breasted Whore) for having to wear all of that fur all evening. I was a little confused by the magical moustache that was discussed throughout the show but only actually appeared in Act III, however I will address that later in the review.
The roles of Pepito the spider (Harris) and the Triple-Breasted Whore were, in this production, realised through the use of puppets created by Tanya, Juliane, and Ben Vincent. I must admit that I enjoyed the simple stupidity of the costuming choices for the Triple-Breasted Whore in the 2011 workshop, however the Vincents must be commended for their efforts carving the whore’s head and setting Pepitos multiple eyes. I actually had genuine feelings for Pepito following his murder at the hands of Little Juan, which is a great success for both the artists and puppeteer.
As mentioned earlier, the hardest part about this production, for me, was the execution of the book. The book itself is a fantastic piece of imagination by Coghlan, yet some uncertainties left me, at times, more confused than amused. Originally we met El Todopoderoso – the God of Them All, but then in Act II we are introduced to Guimo – the New Zealand God of Them All, before the characters start talking about an ‘Ultimate’ God of Them All. Is each God of Them All a Spanish Olympian and the Ultimate God of Them All akin to Zeus? I found myself struggling with this concept more than I feel I needed to in order to enjoy the story. I was also regularly perplexed by references to a magical moustache, not only because the character who appeared to be discussing his own moustache (Nye) actually had a goatee, or that the moustache itself didn’t physically appear until Act III, but that I was also frequently entranced by Coghlan’s own spectacular moustache that trumped any other form of face-fitting on the stage.
For me, this particular production was all about the little things – the one-liners here and impressive rhymes there. Of particular note were both Gillett’s impressive transition from Triple-Breasted Whore to Guimo’s rich baritone, as well as his fleeting Miranda Sings facials in the third act. But it was ultimately, in a word, about the wit. Any failings of the execution of the book were made up through brain-bending riddles, referential gags, and, again, Coghlan’s superb understanding of the art of rhyme, probably creditable to the Sondheim obsession discussed earlier. Wherever he learned it from, he learned it well.
To close with a slightly off-topic thought, this production was successfully funded through a Pozible project – the third I have personally contributed to and the third to be successfully funded. While the concept itself confuses me (I pay to fund your show, and then I pay for a ticket to see your show) this is a really exciting time for new and independent theatre so if you’ve got a project hanging around that you’ve never had the time/money to try out, why not ask your friends – Amanda Palmer’s even made an art out of it.