Review By Lisa Lanzi
Six musicians enter and seat themselves on stage, the pianist announces the anticipated entrance: “like Jessica Rabbit… he’s not really bad, he’s just drawn that way”. A spotlight pierces the darkness of the aisle as a glorious voice floats from the rear of the auditorium singing the Eartha Kitt favourite ‘I Want To Be Evil’. Hayden Tee (Ngāti Kahungunu) is in the building.
This proud Māori performer, director and makeup artist grew up in Maungaturoto, a town of just 800 people in New Zealand, trained in Musical Theatre at NIDA and has since played on the world’s stages to great acclaim. He has taken on Javert in Les Misérables on Broadway, London’s West End, Australia, Dubai, and New Zealand, Marius in Les Misérables in the West End, and Miss Trunchbull in Matilda in London and for the international tour, and much more.
As if we were old acquaintances Tee speaks to the audience with warmth, humour, and a delightful degree of insouciance. However at the core of this cabaret offering is his connection to his cherished Takatāpui identity - as a member of the LGBTIQA+ community. Tee relates how ‘other’ forms of attachment were always accepted in traditional Māori society pre-colonisation. The earliest record of the word appears in The Dictionary of Māori Language compiled by missionary Herbert Williams in 1832, where the meaning is listed as “intimate companion of the same sex". Tee also alludes to the fact that a great many indigenous peoples include words in their traditional languages that mention practices other than heterosexuality and being cisgender.
This show might be about ‘bad guys’ but this performer seems a kind, connected, generous, and sensitive soul. His acting cred and tenor voice allow him to transform into these evil, or misunderstood, characters such as The Little Mermaid’s Ursula as he gleefully delivers ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’, or Matilda’s Mrs Trunchbull singing ‘The Smell of Rebellion’. Tee openly revealed his isolation ‘go to’ strategies when the theatres were dark: therapy and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. He also postulated that our inner saboteur or critic, “that little weasel”, although they are damaging if out of control, might also be there to inspire us to do better. ‘Those Were The Good Old Days’ from Damn Yankees was an ode to the devilish inner.
A little surprise was a snippet of Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ as a lead in to a chat about fairy-tale villainy and the universality of the fable of The Blacksmith and The Devil, while the band were adorned with pirate paraphernalia from Tee’s ‘bag of bad’. We were also treated to a cheeky rendition of Jerry Bock’s ‘The Apple Tree (Forbidden Fruit)’. While the vocals were strong, and Tee’s stories and revelations captivating, there was a general lack of cohesion in the structure of the show. As I overheard an audience member saying: “there was a little bit of everything”. There was a slightly frazzled, dare I say under rehearsed, element where the through lines didn’t always quite gel.
Tee proceeds to enlighten us about 1776, a little-known American musical (Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone). Premiering in 1969, the work is based on events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Tee was cast as Edward Rutledge for the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 2013 and sings the slavery-themed Molasses to Rum with utter conviction. He follows this with another ‘historical’ bad guy, Javert and the outstanding ‘Stars’.
There is an undeniable warmth and authenticity that flows from this performer paired with his big tenor voice that can also reach some gorgeous baritone depths and sweet softness as required. Tee was enthusiastic about the onstage band and his long-time collaborator, friend and musical director, Nigel Ubrihien at the piano, and accordion. With guitar, drums, cello, violin, double bass and keys, the accompaniment was simply beautiful, particularly in the last song where we were invited to embrace “everything, both naughty and nice” as all good humans should. ‘Language’ is a Dave Dobbin song and the tenderness Hayden Tee brings to it is very special. He revealed prior to singing this how triggered he was recently, thinking back to his vulnerable and questioning six year old self: Lawmakers in New Zealand recently passed a bill to ban the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. Tee was very emotional speaking of young people who now have the opportunity to live their lives truthfully.
In his light-hearted fashion, Tee offered to dispense with the encore trope - him leaving the stage, we all yell and applaud, he returns. Instead, he sat by the piano and sang with innate sensitivity a song by Simon Beck, ‘Self Portrait / The Human Heart’, from Beck’s 2015 album Courage of a Dreamer. The words of the song are a call to recognise our shared humanity: “… you are part, part of the human heart… ”.
Next up for Mr Tee is directing the premiere Australian professional production of Jekyll and Hyde at the Hayes theatre in Sydney starring Brendan Maclean in the title roles. Let’s hope we will still be graced with the beauty of Hayden Tee’s voice on stage.