What is your anthem? It’s an early question that not only leaves audience members pondering, but sums up the central premise of Shake and Stir’s uplifting new work, Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas!, appearing as part of Brisbane Festival. More than a favourite tune, a person’s anthem is a theme song declaration of who they are and what they stand for. And the show’s spirited protagonist Tae (Maya Dove) cannot leave the magical land of Yaaas without making it happen and articulating hers.
After having been paralysed in a car accident when she was just six years old, quadriplegic Tae is struggling with the reality of what her future may hold. We met her in hospital as she is about to undergo another spinal surgery, where her younger sister Annie (Nelle Lee) is having a sleepover. Too old for the colouring-in books suggested by her nurse (Helen Cassidy), the pair manifests an imaginary world where being in a wheelchair is not a thing. Enter a fabulous Fairy Godmother in the form of Drag Queen Maxi Shield of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame aka the The Queen of Yaaas and a glittering journey ensures as the sisters reluctantly enter into the world without nos, but with a never-ending supply of KFC, where they can both travel back and forward in time to see life before the accident and into Tae’s uncertain future.
Inspired by the true story of Estee Lee, written by her sister, shake & stir’s Nelle Lee, Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas! is full of heartwarming sentiment. Queenie Maxi Shield’s lip-sync share of Bette Middle’s ‘Baby of Mine’ in soundtrack to Tae’s mother’s despair at her daughter’s plight, makes for a poignant moment. Character depth is also given to Queenie’s character through reveal of her probation status motivation and fear of the fairy godmother bosses (Cassidy and Johnny Balbuziente) who determine fairy godmother status. The narrative never wallows though, inset as it is with many times of joyful nostalgia, such as initial ‘Xanadu’ skating rink scene moment and when Tae is taken back to a Primary School slumber party, featuring Maxi Shield in hilarious role as the most ‘developed’ of Tae’s girlfriends.
Music occupies a key component of the show’s pacing and engagement. From her ‘I’m Coming Out’ initial appearance to an anthemic, crowd-pleasing ‘I’m Every Woman’, Maxi Shield’s numbers are highlights. Every song snippet that is also included seems to be perfectly placed, from Cyndi Lauper’s bubbly ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ to Irene Cara’s more melancholic ‘Out Here On My Own’ ballad from Fame … and of course the tay, tay, tay, tay, t-t-t-tay-ta take into Mel and Kim’s ‘Respectable’.
Guy Webster’s vibrant sound design quickly transfers the narrative between points in time, working with Trent Suidgeest’s lighting to warm us through Tae’s emotional journey, and effectively echoing the exclamations of characters’ shocking discoveries of the fragments of possible futures. Josh McIntosh’s multi square and rectangular shaped set design is dynamic in and of itself, but also allows for quick change disappearances and reappearances, especially for those performers appearing in multiple roles. There is a real creativity to solution of storytelling restraints, such as when Annie’s tell of Tae’s fairy tale rescue by a cheesy Prince Charming (Balbuziente) is re-enacted through clever use of props and the performance space itself. Angela White’s costumes are simple, but effective; while those of Queenie are flamboyantly-detailed highlights, another honourable mention goes to the avant-guard design of the fairy godmother bosses.
Cassidy and Balbuziente are wonderfully versatile in their range of vastly different roles. In particular, Cassidy brings depth to the role of Tae and Annie’s mother, and humour as a doddery retiring principal. Balbuziente, likewise enables a lot of laughs as slumber party host Stacy’s mum (who’s got it goin’ on) and the girls’ brother Jamie, which allows for a natural banter between the story’s three siblings.
Lee conveys warmth as Tae’s protective sister and Dove layers dance-loving Tae with sassy determination, with the duo combining together in believable bond to their fairy godmother until their anthems are lodged, including insult trades with her upon her middle of the night arrival. And, rounding out the cast, Maxi Shield brings vivaciousness as their faithful Fairy Godmother, but also some depth to a role that could easily have been one-note.
Under Ross Balbuziente’s tight direction Tae Tae in the Land of Yaaas! is a succinct and vibrant fairy tale of bright colour and energetic movement. Journey into its magic is not just an all-inclusive celebration of inner strength, however, but also a reminder of the power of resilience and that survival is never a mistake. Its bravely vulnerable honesty and themes around embracing uniqueness and everyone finding their place in the world are not only clear, but fitting with the show’s intent to head theatre into a future that is diverse and respectful.