Everybody wants to rule the world, but who else, asks Simon Wilson in this “partner content” feature, sets out to do it with as much wham-bam glam as the 80s dancefloor revivalist musical Pleasuredome?
Just before the intermission, Lucy Lawless gets up close and personal with the woman she’s seducing and slides into ‘Hey little girl is your daddy home/ did he go and leave you all alone’, and you think, this is not what Bruce Springsteen was thinking. But that’s fine, because songs are for singing and for making your own. You honour them by breathing new life into them. ‘Oh oh oh, I’m on fire’, goes Lucy, playing Sappho, fading star of a fading nightclub, desperate to restore her career, her club, her ability to love.
Springsteen’s song of the outsider, the desperado with a ‘freight train running through the middle of his head’, feels supremely appropriate. Love is what you desire the most, but even love will not roll back time or undo the wreckage you’ve made of your life.
Or maybe it will! That’s the proposition at the heart of every grand musical, and that’s what Pleasuredome is: a musical in the grand tradition. Not a desperate tragedy but a cornball story of triumph over every adversity, through the power of love which is the power of song. And it’s got singer/dancers who sure know how to strut.
Pleasuredome is an original musical just opened in Auckland (to be clear, this piece was written before the show opened and is not a review). It stars Lawless, Moses Mackay from Sol3 Mio (costumed as you will definitely never have seen him before), Vince Harder who was in The Lion King, and Auckland acting stalwarts Stephen Lovatt and Byron Coll (Richie McCaw’s bestie in the Mastercard ads), and introduces to local audiences the vocal superpowers of Ashleigh Taylor from Australia. It’s set in an ’80s nightclub, all retro big hair and clothes that are sometimes super flashy and sometimes almost non existent, and sometimes both.
They’ve got that one song by Springsteen, and one by Annie Lennox, but it’s a dance show and it’s a glam show: the glam stomp of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Tears for Fears, the disco glam of Grandmaster Flash and Diana Ross. And Foreigner, soulful, not so glam, but they get a look-in too. ‘I’ve been waiting for a girl like you to come into my life.’
Because in this world of druggie depravity and patriarchal bullying and the sheer monstrosity of capitalist greed, guess what they’ve got, right in the middle of it all? A sweetly innocent girl-on-girl love story. ‘I’ve been waiting for someone new to make me feel alive.’ With gallons of oestrogen and testosterone too, of course. ‘Relax! Don’t do it, when you want to come!’ That song was banned, back in 1984.
Pleasuredome is soppy and strutting, big and brash and totally out there, far more than most shows you might ever see. Rob Tapert is the impresario staging it, and he’s rumoured to have sunk over $3 million into the project. I asked him if that was right. “It’s the right ballpark,” he said. The whole thing is staged in a giant warehouse, with a big walkup area (more on that below) and an enormous cross-traverse stage, which means the audience sits on four sides and the action takes place on a cross-shaped stage in the middle. A thumping great sound system, enormous panel screens that create a constantly evolving synchronised backdrop: it’s one very smart and very high-tech rig.
But the scale, in itself, isn’t the most impressive thing about this show. There are a few other elements that lay claim to that honour.
The first is its theme. Tapert told me Lucy Lawless is doing it because it’s for a cause she believes in deeply and when I asked Lawless what that was, in one sentence, she said, “Gay rights are under attack, all over the world.”
Pleasuredome is a celebration of gay culture. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome might be the inspiration for the title but it’s “I’m coming out,” the Diana Ross hit, that stamps the most lasting mark. And this isn’t gay culture that needs protecting. This is a celebration of a culture that invites everyone to succumb to its joyful exuberance. In the wake of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Andy Warhol and George Michael, the message of Pleasuredome is that this trash and this treasure are part of everybody’s heart and soul.
Lucy Lawless is right about this. Standing up for gay rights is about all of us. It’s about standing up to horror, but it’s also about knowing what it is we love. You don’t have to become Lou Reed’s ‘slick little girl, all rouge and colouring, incense and ice’, but who doesn’t give thanks for the song? The feather boa is a flag of freedom. ‘You’re a slick little girl’, that’s in the show too, btw.
Pleasuredome is also impressive for the total setup. To get to the action you enter a short hallway got up like a subway tunnel taking you back in time, and emerge onto a ’80s New York street, complete with a couple of cars, a bar, video store, a barber’s shop, a laundry and more. It’s like a sound stage – actually that’s exactly what it is, they made Ash and the Evil Dead here. Entertainers ply their trade, you can buy a drink and get a hot dog or some popcorn, take selfies, discover all that fascinating period detail up and down the street. Soak it up, sink into it. Immerse yourself in the experience.
And yes, they encourage you to dress up, though it’s not compulsory: if you’ve got a pair of platform heels and a big bouffie wig, now’s your chance. Then they usher you into the nightclub, the Pleasuredome itself, and it’s showtime. You can sit or stand – standing’s better for dancing, obviously, and you’re close to the heat of it all, too. But it’s perfectly fine to sit and watch.
No, no spoilers. This is a thing to experience, not be told about. But there are a couple of great elements to this show that you don’t see on stage and they’re worth remembering. One is this: it’s in Avondale, in the industrial heartland of Patiki Road. How splendid is it that a great big Auckland show gets staged in the suburbs? The Globe did it this year, Shakespeare in Ellerslie. Auckland is far, far bigger than what you see downtown, and Pleasuredome is more proof of it.
The other is great thing is the ambitions for this show, which are immense. They won’t make their money from the Auckland season. That’s not the idea. The dream, the plan, the determined hope is to explode out of Auckland and conquer the world. Maybe Tokyo. Eventually Vegas.
This is a time-honoured tradition in showbiz. You open out of town, refine the show and get discovered, maybe tour it, and when the stars align you get booked to play the big city. Maybe Vegas, which is now the natural home for a knock-’em-down glam hits machine like Pleasuredome. Or Tokyo, which is, after New York and London, now the world’s third biggest city for live entertainment shows.
What it means is that New Zealand has now added show business to the growing list of industries where you can make it here – and use the foundation that gives you to go on and make it anywhere. You don’t need to leave to blossom. Everybody wants to rule the world, and now you can, out of Auckland.
At least, you can try. That’s a long way in the future for Pleasuredome. Right now there’s a funkadelic show to put on.
Pleasuredome: what you need to know
This content was funded by Pleasuredome, which plays Wednesdays-Saturdays (7pm) and Sundays (5pm), at 17 Patiki Road, Avondale: less than 15 minutes up the Northwest Motorway from town. There’s a taxi stand outside and they have a discount deal with Uber. Good parking is available nearby. You can book individually, or by the table, and they take corporate bookings too. Make bookings and find out more here.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.