Review by Kathryn Thomas
Chop Chef, composed and written by Julie Koh and Paul Smith, is a new, absurdist, satirical opera, making its debut at the iconic Riverside Theatre in Parramatta. This new opera is a satire of competition-based reality television and the new age obsession with such programs.
Walking into the Lennox Theatre at Riverside, you are greeted with an all-white set, shining white flooring and a linen type structure pulled across the almond shaped set. The orchestra are seen through a sheer material to stage right. The audience is electric with anticipation on the opening night of Chop Chef, with applause breaking as soon as the lights began to dim.
From the opening moments of this show, you are laughing. Jermaine Chau as Kitty, or as the stereotypical and self titled ‘Hot Asian Chick’ (stereotypes being a hot topic of this production) plays the audience like a puppet with her charm and control. Chau has a voice that transcends and absolutely booms within the space, plus big snaps to any opera actor who can convey and give justice to subtle comedic nuances that are traditionally missed by being ‘melo-dramaed’ within opera.
As the rest of the cast enters the show, we are met with hilarious, well rounded stereotypes of typical reality TV stars, plus a few more niche but equally as hilarious characters thrown in. Some of these characters are the rockabilly soufflé queen, the Byron stoner, the flawless foreign chef, the misogynist barber, and the white guy who’s just a little too immersed in Asian culture.
The entire cast is rich with natural talent, not only vocally but they, with the work of their directors Kenneth Moraleda and Nicole Pingon, have created incredibly well-rounded portrayals, with the actors working so well individually and as a cohort. This cast work together, and it really is one of the biggest highlights of the show.
Gavin Brown as Andy, the ‘Asian obsessed’ white guy is a standout, on paper, he is probably the character most likely to offend viewers, however his innocence and oddly relatable vulnerability is incredibly endearing. Lisa Cooper as the rockabilly soufflé queen so accurate in her performance, every single reality TV competition has this woman in it, and Cooper plays her perfectly. Nick Geddes as the Byron stoner is an unusual breath of fresh air, breaking the mould of a typical opera performance. Benjamin Caulkwell as the misogynist barber is a huge presence on stage, as a character you absolutely love to hate. Ayako Ohtake as the flawless foreign chef is breathtaking, her voice is effortlessly stunning and she is a joy to watch, with one of my favourite quotes from the show ‘Tom is my best friend in the competition’, seemingly moments after they met for the first time. Finally, David Hidden, who plays all 3 of the Chop Chef Judges, is fantastic, with incredible versatility and comedic presence.
At the entrance of the theatre, and in our programs, is a sign that states that Chop Chef satirises racism, cultural attitudes, and tropes, and therefore contains material that may be confronting for some. I am glad I read this sign before entering the space, as the content of this show is not for everyone and is definitely to be taken with a grain of salt. However, this show is created, director and (mostly) performed by people of colour, which personally made the show and its content all the more valuable.
With all its positive attributes, Chop Chef is a little rough around the edges. There are moments where the joke is lost by the script dragging, and although this show is a satire of reality TV and opera itself, the prolonged moments (traditional to opera) deserve a trim to keep the show punchy and as hilarious a those other, tighter moments within the production. There were some other moments of confusion in the show, like at one point where the projection of the three Judges begins to glitch (on purpose), for about 10 minutes, and it was never made particularly clear why this happened. However, for a first run, and an opening night viewing, this show has a fantastic foundation and is incredibly memorable.