Judge Ian Visser will watch any school production that involves pelting the audience with ping pong balls.
Balloons, ping pong balls, and a rampaging bowling ball…all together on one stage.
If you've never heard of the North Haven Community School, don't feel bad. Not only is it located on an island twelve miles off the coast of Maine, it's also the smallest K-12 school in the entire state. So when it comes to putting on a school play, you'd probably expect something along the lines of The Wizard of Oz or Oklahoma, right?
Well, guess again. The students and staff of North Haven (who are raising money for a new school) decided to go off and do something a little different. Music and drama teacher Courtney Naliboff took San Francisco band Deerhoof's 2004 album Milk Man, transcribed and arranged it, and produced a show that is part ballet, part surreal performance art, and part rock show. The result is a school play that is unlike anything you've ever sat through in your local gymnasium.
I had already read the press release for Deerhoof's Milk Man, but I still wasn't quite sure what I was in for. It all seems a little bizarre; take a relatively obscure band, re-imagine their entire album, and get it performed by school kids as a fundraiser. It sounds almost Quixotic in its ambition, a reaction to the usual staid selections chosen for school performances. But would anyone pay to see something like that? Would it be worth watching? And what would the end result be?
During the performance, a band stands half-concealed at the back of a stage, while students dance, sing, and play-act along to the music. Through eleven songs, the performers act out their choreography while the band jams along with a variety of instruments, from banjos and kazoos to glockenspiels and horns. Throw in a rolling bowling ball, some balloons, and lots of ping pong balls, and you have an interpretive piece of performance art.
A lot of what makes this production so interesting has to do with the origins of the ballet. There's something intriguing about a tiny school (somewhere around eighty students) undertaking a challenge as unique as this. It's almost like an anti-play, a kind of antidote to the usual staid performances one sees during school productions. It's that freshness that one experiences when watching the DVD, seeing something that hasn't been tried before and might not be tried again.
As unique and original as Deerhoof's Milk Man may be, it suffers from its creative choices. You'll spend parts of performance wondering why the entire album of songs had to be transcribed; the run-time is only 43 minutes, but there is still a lot of repetition in its themes. It's a case of having too much of a good thing, especially since little of the scenery varies during the course of the performance (likely a result of a limited budget). And this is still a school play, which means you'll spend a couple of hours watching kids that aren't yours dancing around on a stage, trying to hit their marks and lines.
Deerhoof's Milk Man is presented in what appears to be 1.78:1 widescreen. For an amateur release, the image on the DVD is quite good. The stage is well-lit and the transfer doesn't appear to contain any significant defects. The press release suggests the final DVD product was cut together from multiple performances and rehearsals. If that is the case, the editing is solid enough that it's not obvious you're watching anything other than a single performance. Multiple camera angles mix wide and tight shots, allowing the viewer to experience multiple views of the on-stage action. Unfortunately, the audio portion of the DVD doesn't fare as well. It's a stereo mix, but many of the vocal performances are difficult to make out. The musical elements come across nicely, however, without becoming distorted or fuzzy.
Deerhoof's Milk Man also includes a few bonus features. Most significant is an interview with Deerhoof member Greg Saunier, who gives his impression of the show and details the transition of the material from song to stage. Also included is a brief text introduction to the production and a gallery of photographs from the performances and rehearsals.
Deerhoof's Milk Man: A Ballet by North Haven Community School can't quite overcome the restrictions imposed by its own material, and the audio quality of the release suffers because of the recording. But the enthusiasm and originality of the performance far outweighs any negatives, demonstrating how thinking outside the box can produce some unique and rewarding results. It may not be your typical school musical, but that is what makes it worth experiencing.
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• Interview with Deerhoof member Greg Saunier
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