Archive for the 'Musical Theatre' Category

02
Apr
17

Chicago

Chicago

Mad About Theatre

The J, Noosa

March 31 – April 02 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Who can forget Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger in the 2002 movie of the smash hit Broadway musical? Kander & Ebb’s Chicago is the classic roaring twenties’ tale of booze, jazz, liquor, chorus girls, lovers and the law. I love it. I loved the Australian revival touring productions (the original in 1998), starring Caroline O’Connor as Velma Kelly and the Sunshine Coast’s Chelsea Gibb, straight out of WAAPA, as Roxie Hart. Hand-picked by Director, Walter Bobbie, and Choreographer, Anne Reinking, Chelsea is still my favourite Roxie. Notably, both Caroline and the sensational Sharon Millerchip have played both Velma and Roxie – amazing – and as Velma Kelly, Caroline enjoyed an acclaimed and extended Broadway season (2002). So these are very tough acts to follow, and to even consider staging the show with less experienced performers is ambitious to say the least.

Director/Choreographer Madison Thew-Keyworth’s Mad About Theatre is one of the Sunshine Coast’s few professional companies (I can vouch for another two: SRT & XS Entertainment), which we’ll just take a moment to clarify, is a company that pays everybody involved, and not just the director, the musical director, the techies and the band. I was impressed to see Mad About Theatre’s debut professional production last year, My Brilliant Divorce, starring Blossom Goodchild, who returns here as Mama Morton. She’s Mama alright, but not as you know her.

The most seasoned performers will invariably look the most comfortable on stage and so it is with Goodchild, who embodies a sassy, flashy (Bob) Fosse inspired Mama Morton, in all-black-everything: pants, jacket, hat and boots. And it’s so refreshing to see this styling rather than try to forgive a poor attempt to imitate the Mamas who have preceded her. Without the powerhouse vocals we might expect to hear in this role, Goodchild sells it, and with a natural instinct for the comedy within the social and moral codes explored throughout the show, this consummate performer provides many of the night’s lighter moments.

Meggan Hickey is our Velma Kelly, complete with shiny black bobbed hair and the same slightly affected Liza-with-a-Z-esque speech as Mama. She’s a con grad and the new and improved Madison-from-Noosa in Judy Hains’ comedy cabaret First World White Girls. She was fabulously funny earlier this year in their Botox Party and we see a bit of the same level of mischief in Velma, however; it’s very staged, almost at odds with the glimpses we get of her darkly delicious haughtiness and nastiness. The character is there, but not always convincingly so. When she settles into the role she’ll put in the solid performance we know she’s got stashed just beneath the surface.

As much a rookie error in the direction, the awkward opening of Act 2 sees poor Velma/poor Meg standing and leaning about on the walkway above the band (Set Design by Goody), “smoking” a cigarette. Except she’s clearly a non-smoker (isn’t everyone now?), probably hates the taste and smell of the (herbal) cigarette (don’t we all?), and seems unsure about how to do that up there for so long. As actors, it’s not until we have a clear intention, a singular focus and our own inner monologue going on that such a seemingly inane action is made as fascinating as it needs to be on stage (or why are we doing it?). If something is not holding our attention it’s usually distracting us, taking us out of the moment, and away from the world of the show.

Courtney Underhill’s Roxie Hart has all the sweet-and-sour we expect to see in this demanding role. A graduate of Harvest Rain’s Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre (BAMT), Underhill has a terrific presence on stage and a singing voice that soars. It’s no wonder she was asked to understudy Lauren McKenna’s Tracy Turnblad in HR’s Hairspray. This girl will do just fine in music theatre.

Billy Flynn, the slick lawyer, a fantastic, fun role made famous in the film by Richard Gere, is almost fully realised by Jens Radda, one of the most beautiful singers to have come through Buderim’s BYTES and then WAAPA. Radda still sings superbly and wears a suit well, but at times he appears to be slightly insecure on stage, particularly in his big courtroom number, Razzle Dazzle, amidst a swirling, fan-dancing chorus of lovely girls (Costumes by Sarah Grandison). This is when we must remember that the leads are not entirely supported by the production elements, and that we’ll look forward to Mad About Theatre’s next musical production, when the depth of the stage might be made available, and lighting and sound will be precise, and the direction will allow for staging that is just as interesting but which brings the action forward so we don’t miss what little nuance the performers have to offer.

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You know I love to see the band, but in this case, under Noel Bowden’s baton, the musicians are a distraction and an unfortunate use of the available space. I know, it’s The J – where else would we put them?! (Insert yet another plea for a purpose built beautiful theatre here). It would have been great to see them in a semblance of costume, watching the action as the story plays out around them, but my guess is that this would have been too much to ask. If the pace and precision has improved by the end of the first short season, you’ll enjoy a much sharper, slicker show when it moves to The Events Centre, Caloundra.

Andy Hanrahan makes a fine Mr Cellophane, AKA Amos Hart, Roxie’s unfortunate husband, forlorn and fixed on feeling sorry for himself. This is a classic sad clown role, which I expected Hanrahan to more fully embrace, and to use to deeply connect with his audience, but they adore what he does with it and we do feel a wave of empathy as he exits for the final time…without his exit music. Poor Amos.

Nick Eynaud, another WAAPA grad making his professional Queensland debut, has come from a European touring season of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and MTC’s The Last Man Standing. In the role of Mary Sunshine he makes me feel as if I should warn our mate, Helpmann Award winner, James Millar (Miss Trunchbull in Matilda) to watch his back. These two must be WAAPA’s tallest and most talented male triple threats since Hugh (Jackman) finished. Eynaud’s performance is so sure and detailed that my friend doesn’t realise he’s a he and not a she until he is revealed by Billy Flynn!

Eli Cooper (Dance Captain) shines in the ensemble. A precision performer with a lovely resonant voice and a strong sense of character even in the smallest, most thankless roles, Cooper is an absolute joy to watch. The male ensemble is rounded out by Brendan Kydd, Ricky Borg and Mark Smith. You may recognise any number of the girls, all consistent triple threats with lots to prove. Cell Block Tango is a highlight, yes, but it requires much more room for the girls to really move; as the showstopper it’s intended to be, it lacks impact. Having said that, this is the only number in which we see the lighting concept work as it was intended. (The female ensemble comprises Demi Phillips, Kirra Johnson, Sarah Wrobel, Meghan Lucken, Rachael Russell & Lucy Clough).

While a slightly lagging pace and careful direction has at times let the production down, and as a result the show didn’t sizzle enough for me, I doubt that anyone else will be bothered by the occasional anomalies, which we’ll simply put down to the need to see more and do more (directing). This applies to every single Sunshine Coast director we know at the moment. If you’re making stuff you must see stuff – good and bad – and learn to distinguish between what has real impact and what leaves you (us) unaffected. Learn what works and what doesn’t, and learn how to coax it from your performers to give us scintillating, electrifying performances. All the elements are there. The talent is abundant. It’s a great, entertaining show.

Mad About Theatre is to be commended because this company is far ahead of the community pack in terms of its professionalism (and now we’re talking about the discipline, dedication and resourcefulness required to get a show like this on, as well as the pay packets), and that’s the idea. We talk about this often: community theatre is for everyone, but to level up requires something extra special. Mad About Theatre offers the more ambitious artists an opportunity to step up and see what they’re made of, and invites audiences to an evening of local theatrical entertainment that’s actually worth the asking price. 

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10
Mar
17

Boys of Sondheim

 

Boys of Sondheim

Brisbane Powerhouse & Understudy Productions

Brisbane Powerhouse Turbine Studio

February 2 – 4 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

I was a little bemused by the collateral for this one, a highlight of this year’s MELT Festival. Surely Stephen Sondheim is only recently recognised as “one of the most significant gay artists of the 20th Century”? I grew up with his music and have always recognised him as an artist. I don’t have people within my circles for whom this distinction is anything other than a source of pride and solidarity. MELT has a sense of wonderful community about it, which is typical at Brisbane Powerhouse, regardless of the programming; it’s my favourite venue as much for its vibe as its unlimited possibilities for performance and socialising, but during this festival there’s always something a little more electric (and eclectic) than usual. The energy is super charged and the collective pride shared by the artists and patrons during this time each year makes for an even more appreciative audience, and closer connections. The ‘standard’ of the stuff on show seems to be largely inconsequential. What it comes down to is this: we just want to hear our stories.

Sondheim’s music is some of the most intricate and difficult EVER. It’s not just about hitting the notes (nothing ever is), and given the chance to perform it, most artists will leap in the general direction and enthusiastically “perform” the piece. Some will even sell their song and earn heartfelt applause, and even fewer will leave someone in their audience in tears, or breathless and aching for…something that’s perhaps just out of reach.

Sometimes I do a heap of research and read about previous productions, and their creators and directors and artists, I peek at what the critics have noted, I ask friends what they think, I catch up with the artists or message them to get a sense of where they’re coming from and what they want us to get out of the work. But this is a brand new work, a world premiere, and there’s no precedent except for every other celebration of Sondheim’s music ever. This is certainly a celebration, a tribute to one of the defining voices of musical theatre and mostly, an interesting and entertaining night out, but it’s not all I’d hoped it would be. After a brief development period, the show lacks the polish it needs to win us over completely. It has some heart and some guts, and it’s a great vehicle for its talented performers, but I’d like to see it again in 6 or 9 months time when it might know better what it wants to be.

A narrative penned by Anthony Nocera offers us mostly amusing fleeting glimpses of some of the joys and pitfalls of gay dating and loving and living. Not unlike Dean Bryant’s GAYBIES, the structure relies heavily on these brief monologues, delivered in turn by the actors, to break up the musical numbers, an assortment of somebody’s favourite songs, loosely stitched together in an it’s-interesting-to-be-gay overarching way. Unfortunately, towards the end, the narrative breaks up one of Sondheim’s greatest accomplishments and Being Alive is brought to a painful death by continual interruptions. This makes it almost impossible for Tim Carroll to build the song and bring it to its bitter sweet soaring end, and makes me wonder, why?

With only a few shows in this short season, the opening number needed to be ready for opening night, and the insecurity or reticence or something of three quarters of the cast members makes the first 8-10 minutes ever so slightly uncomfortable. This is so weird, because they’re all fantastic performers, but the music is challenging and the lesser known songs don’t help to win us over. I love Kurt Phelan’s choreography, utilising the catwalk and the narrow space in front of a gay-mancave-bar, the conceit being that these guys have gathered in someone’s home for a lovely champagne catch up.

Kurt Phelan, Sean Andrews, Stephen Hirst, Alexander Woodward and Tim Carroll certainly go to some lengths to expose the “soulful, masculine underbelly” of Sondheim’s work as well as much of the comedy (Hirst’s (Not) Getting Married Today is sidesplittingly funny), but we know there’s more to this lovely little show and I can’t wait to see it reborn and restaged sometime.

07
Mar
17

American Idiot

American Idiot

shake & stir and QPAC

QPAC Playhouse

February 25 – March 12 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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DO YOU HAVE TIME TO LISTEN TO ME WHINE?

THIS IS THE DAWNING OF THE REST OF OUR LIVES.

In fact, this is the dawning of a whole new age of Aquarius; the new moon in Pisces during the opening week and an auspicious year one, in the first of a cycle of nine. This means we were already craving change; something new, something edgy, something to make us sit bolt upright and inspire us to sow some seeds for the future. We don’t have to be a part of the 24/7 news cycle to appreciate that in the current political climate, much of American Idiot rings as true as it did when the concept album went straight to the top of the Billboard charts in 2004, and when the show smashed onto the Broadway scene in 2009.

The Age of Aquarius is about acknowledging the system is broken…and not waiting for someone else to fix it.

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Green Day’s American Idiot is a new kind of music theatre experience, and unlike the string of political and social rock musicals with which we’ve grown up (West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal), which all have super strong stories, incredibly, this show rides on only the flimsiest excuse for a book (by Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, also the show’s original director). In fact, the entire story is probably just the album description. (It’s not, I checked). More like Lloyd Webber’s Superstar in form, also groundbreaking in its time, American Idiot even has a Christ-like figure (or two, if we count the alter ego angel/devil dealer St Jimmy), Johnny, Jesus of Suburbia, whose story is told over the course of the song of the same name.

American Idiot relies on its punk rock pop and acoustic sound, its grungy rebel aesthetic and the star power brought to the stage by creators, Green Day, and the contemporary artists who star in it, in this case, The Living End’s Chris Cheney until February 26 and then Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson.

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Michael Mayer told the New York Times in April 2010, “My idea all along was to keep the 13 songs in their original order and to interrupt it at times with other Green Day songs and the sparest of dialogue, because I didn’t want to have any extraneous words”. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

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The Australian premiere company is sensational, bringing big voices and rampant energy to QPAC’s Playhouse stage. The look and feel is fantastic, chaotic. It’s shake & stir’s first foray into this more expansive space and with a bold creative team, led by Director, Craig Ilot, to create the terrifying world of an idiotic America, they’re a welcome fit. A massive departure from their previous offerings, although with the same rock star energy and attitude we see applied to the schools’ touring company, this is not the usual shake & stir show. It’s inspired programming, perfect timing, and set to shift the gaze from shake & stir as a tight knit team of contemporaries, to MainStage presenters with a bolder mission to reach newer audiences still, and prove massive success at the box office while other companies continue to, by choice or necessity, play small.

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Josh McIntosh’s set design, utilising scaffolding and stairs, a hidden bed and eight enormous in-built television screens, provides the perfect anarchic playground for the cast of angry characters and also, for optikal bloc’s vivid AV design, which includes a barrage of chaotic images and lyrics – we get a taste of what’s to come in the opening minutes with the 24-hour news cycle popping up, as it does if we let it, on each screen – and a clever representation of that sacred ground, 7-Eleven. Matthew Marshall’s rock concert lighting states offer exactly the right mix of chaos and abandon, although we are blinded frequently and for some sensitive types this will not be a happy memory of the show. Lucas Newland’s choreography is edgy and angsty, sharply conceived and executed. Melanie Knight’s costumes capture a perfectly punk style, incorporating leather, tartan, torn denim, black hosiery and boots. It’s actually refreshing to see army fatigues, and Dirty Dancing’s Kurt Phelan cutting a fine figure in an officer’s uniform, despite the negative connotations of war at this point (at any point) in the not-quite-a-narrative. The look and feel and gritty sound will attract a whole new generation of theatregoers, but at the same time another set may well stay away. And that’s entertainment. At the first show on opening night – I can only assume the oldies and those having to travel from farther afield because we’ve never built our Instagram numbers to 10K and struck a deal with any of the nearby accomodation options (I’m counting myself in the latter category), were invited to the early show – the sound was muddy and the band overbearing. I thought it might be a punk thing? But no, and it will have been rectified by now. Under the musical direction of music industry stalwart Glenn Moorhouse (also on guitar), the on-stage band could easily sell a national tour without the rest of the show happening around them. These are some freakishly talented, dynamic performers.

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Ben Bennett, in his professional stage debut, leads a uniformly excellent cast, as a convincing Johnny, Jesus of Suburbia, styled to look alarmingly like Billie Joe Armstrong (the original Broadway Johnny). The Living End’s charismatic Chris Cheney gives St Jimmy a wicked Machiavellian grin and legit Green Day frontman movements like a snake, making it easy for us to believe in the simple allure of spending hard won cash on the drugs he magically procures from his pocket. Bringing the hyperactivity down a notch, Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Wake Me Up When September Ends capture the melancholy that underpins the show’s inherent angst. 

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Rowena Vilar’s dream sequence aerial is accomplished and delightful to watch while we question what the hell is it doing in there? We can forgive this very poor excuse to throw in a super sexy number because she’s mesmerising. Likewise, Strictly Ballroom’s Phoebe Panaretos (Whatshername) and Ashleigh Barlow (Heather, the only female character granted an actual name), do their best with embarrassingly underwritten roles that continue to perpetuate the myths of (Vilar) the sexy nurse/slave to men, (Panaretos) the girlfriend/good fuck/slave to men and (Barlow) the doting mother and desperate wife/slave to men. Definitely a theme there. While there are some shoddy attempts to lift these women out of their boxes, even when Heather ups and leaves the hopeless, useless Will (a stereotypical sofa slob, played by Alex Jeans, a performer who could do so much more given half a chance), it’s at the insistence of a friend. Likewise, Cameron MacDonald does what he can with the role of Tunny, similarly thinly veiled as representative of a vast section of the population (because we all dream of that extraordinary girl in dazzling white and crystal embellishments performing aerial acts for our viewing pleasure during a stint in hospital).

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In case we haven’t felt affected along the way (or in case we’ve felt more affected than we had expected to), the show closes with an overly sincere and unnecessarily sentimental, full company acoustic rendition of Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), which would have been better left as the play out music. It undoes much of the hard work, apologising in a way that feels very Robin Goodfellow, too earnestly hoping we can all still be friends by the end! But that’s okay because otherwise, of course we might leave and kick over a trash can, or shout impatiently at somebody waiting for their Uber. As it turns out, we have a delightful conversation for the next hour while one of the friends is waiting for her Uber, so perhaps it is, after all, the perfect note on which to end.

The contemporary collective voice of several generations, American Idiot is Brisbane’s biggest, loudest, funnest, most offensive premiere of the year. You’d be an idiot to miss it.

27
Jan
17

A Night at the Musicals

 

A Night At The Musicals

Brisbane Powerhouse and Strut & Fret Production House

Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre

January 25 – 29 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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MELT Festival exploded onto the Brisbane scene this week with its iconic pastel inflatable icy poles, brightly coloured cocktails, stilettos galore, a glitter cannon and a wall of 100 naked men.

 

Joel Devereux’s FOODP*RN is a photographic exhibition of perfectly plated portions of nude males, all thoroughly enjoying an array of condiments and special treats. What I can only imagine was a series of very messy shoots, smothered in chocolate sauce, covered in milk and cream and popcorn, dripping with glistening syrup, shaking toffee apple maraccas, balancing buns on top of buns and grasping bananas as if their love lives depended on it. If you’ve been following this project on Instagram, you will have seen the admiration Devereux has for each of his subjects, and the care with which he has approached each shoot as a unique show-within-a-show, something that comes through in the final result. The figures, even those in repose, leap out of a whirl of colour with the energy of the unconcerned, completely comfortable with the brief and clearly proud to be a part of such a magnificent celebration of so much deliciousness. There’s a sense of mischief about the piece as a whole and in its parts is so much variety – something for everyone – and so much delight that I can’t imagine anyone standing in front (or above) the work without a smile on their face.

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MELT celebrates queer art and culture, and not only those who identify as LGBT but those who support them. It’s Brisbane’s most diverse and original festival, flamboyant and genuinely friendly. I was proud to be a part of the program last year, appearing in Dean Bryant’s GAYBIES directed by Kris Stewart, with the likes of Bec Mac, Margi Brown Ash, Barb Lowing, David Berthold, Brad Rush, Christopher Wayne, Kurt Phelan and Lizzie Moore. You’ll see Moore (with Brad Rush on keys) return to the Powerhouse during MELT with her hilarious cabaret, On A Night Like This: The Erin Minogue Experience and Phelan in Kris Stewart’s exquisite Boys of Sondheim. Other MELT highlights this year include RENT, Hedwig 15, An Evening With Amanda Palmer and A Night at the Musicals. Cake Face, Queer Comics, Virtual Drag and the MELT Portrait Prize round out the visual arts component of the festival.

I wanted to get into musical theatre…so I became a drag queen.

– Jonny Woo

 

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Jonny Woo and Le Gateaux Chocolat raise the bar with their cabaret show, A Night at the Musicals, a self-effacing, funny look at a few of their favourite musical theatre things. Given the extraordinary talent of its stars, this show has the potential to evolve into a much slicker and more sophisticated something, but perhaps this is not the intention – ever – within the world of drag. Is it? I don’t know. I just love Trevor Ashley’s new-found class, which he brings to his latest show Liza’s Back (is broken), and the precision and artistry of impersonators such as Simply Barbra / Steven Brinberg, as opposed to the original misogyny of ugly “tacky drag”.

Drag is for everybody.

– Jonny Woo

 

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Perhaps it was RuPaul’s Drag Race or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on stage, or Slide or the Butterfly Club, or Trashley’s latest work that’s helped to change the face (or the sound) of the drag scene here, but I had long been under the impression that even the most popular drag acts were lip syncs rather than singers and for me, no matter how good the lip synching, it’s not as satisfying as hearing a great voice live. Jonny Woo and Le Gateaux Chocolat have great voices, and when Woo indulges in some old-school lip synching, it’s highly effective. In the first instance we hear the ensemble of Les Miserables while he contorts his face and posture to mimic every single character actor in At the End of the Day and later, we hear Liza Minelli singing Mein Herr as Woo dons giant jazz hands and dances around and over an audience member seated in a cabaret chair centre stage. There’s nothing “ragged” about it, Woo is cheeky and carries out the original choreography with precision. It’s extreme clowning, the grotesque in a good way, and the statuesque Woo makes it both alarming and completely charming to watch.

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Le Gateux Chocolat’s indulgence is different, giving us a shamelessly Star Wars inspired Phantom of the Opera and then a quick rundown on how Fantine comes to chop her hair off before he sings superbly, I Dreamed A Dream. In what becomes a running joke for the rest of the night, he runs the opening words together (no one ever really knows the intro, do they?) before getting to the bits that really matter. And let’s not neglect to mention a glorioius rendition of Let It Go, with Woo’s budget conscious SFX, absolutely hilarious. His voice is rich, sonorous, just beautiful, but whenever we begin to take him too seriously, he breaks the slightly more sombre mood and breaks into a fantastic scat or free dance until we have tears of laughter streaming down our cheeks. 

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Before the night is over we’re invited to offer suggestions and sing along to Summer Nights. There is no Funny Girl, despite hearing something from the soundtrack as we take our seats before the show. There is no Chicago or South Pacific orThe King and I or Singin’ In the Rain. No West Side Story or Oklahoma or Avenue Q. There is no Into the Woods or The Book of Mormon. No Aladdin. If you’re a serious musical theatre fan you might take the opportunity to shout our your suggestions during the requests segment of the show. You’ll be rewarded with an acapella excerpt of your preferred musical numbers. A Chorus Line complete with high kicks and The Lion King are the highlights for us.

In true, trusted Strut & Fret style, A Night at the Musicals offers a riotous evening in an intimate space, which we could easily enjoy again. If you haven’t yet come across Le Gateaux Chocolat or Jonny Woo – I just adore them both – this is your chance to discover a whole new beautiful world of quality high class camp entertainment. 

10
Dec
16

Phelan Groovy

Phelan Groovy

Brisbane Powerhouse & Kurt Phelan

Brisbane Powerhouse Turbine Studio

December 1 – 3 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

– Kurt Phelan

Kurt Phelan is one of those hard-working, long-time-coming “overnight” success stories. You may have heard of him. He’s been in such shows as Kiss Me Kate, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Singin’ In the Rain, Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing. Phelan hails from Townsville and his cabaret show, the fantastically funny Phelan Groovy, is both a tribute and a tongue-in-cheek exposé of what it’s like to come from the tropics and conquer the world of musical theatre.

A natural performer, warm and genuinely welcoming, Phelan demonstrates from the outset perfect comic timing, a flair for rewriting our favourite musical theatre songs and a knack for nailing the sort of impersonations usually left to the drag queens. His delivery of Memory in (broken) Debra Byrne style, with her permission, of course, and complete with enormous dark sunglasses, an oversized martini glass and what could be a wrap or the green room rug thrown across his shoulders, is sidesplittingly funny and painfully accurate. Byrne is just one of the celebs Phelan dishes the dirt on during the show. When the balance is struck between a little bit nasty and a little bit naughty, these moments will land with greater aplomb.

A re-worked Dream A Little Dream paints the picture of Phelan’s birth on the laundry steps of his parents’ house up north. I Dreamed A Dream describes his heartbreak upon seeing the woeful film version of Les Miserables. And I’ve Had the Time of My Life is dedicated to the women who groped him during the touring production of Dirty Dancing (during the show!). Whether the entirety of this story – or any story – is truth or fiction we’ll never know, but the question doesn’t keep me from laughing until mascara tears stream down my cheeks.

When Phelan leaves the stage momentarily to slip into “something more comfortable” it’s to lose his dress shoes to flip flops. Only in Australia. And later, we’re certain only Peter Allen could be as comfortable as Phelan appears to be in a garish tropical shorts and shirt combo. Phelan wears it proudly. He’s a gorgeous performer with a cheeky grin that lets him get away with saying the most outrageous things in the most outrageous dress ups. Bare-chested and bold before conceding defeat in the face of Disney, he shares the infuriating discomfort of all the dads whose children are still singing/screeching Frozen’s Let It Go.

The show takes a serious turn when Phelan reflects on the too-soon deaths of some industry friends (Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles, stunning in its unadorned delivery) and again, as he shares JRB’s superb song, Someone to Fall Back On. It’s an incredibly difficult number to do, vocally demanding and emotionally complex, but Phelan sells it with a stirring, stinging honesty, just as he did during a masterclass with the composer.

There’s no ceremony about Phelan; he’s the real deal, as frank and honest, and as heartwarming and entertaining as any cabaret performer can ever hope to be. 

Joined by Luke Volker on keys for this Brisbane Wonderland season, Phelan shows us what it is to be human and fallible and funny and loveable and laughable, in that typically Australian, incredibly ironic sense. While the show in its current state is clearly meant for our audiences, and probably the more theatrically inclined among them, with a few tweaks it could travel, and it should. Phelan’s appeal is universal, and talent such as his in this context deserves a larger, broader audience.

08
Dec
16

More Than A Boy

More Than A Boy

Brisbane Powerhouse with Two&Co

Brisbane Powerhouse Turbine Studio

November 24 – 27 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Brisbane’s darling, Tom Oliver, in his fearless debut cabaret directed by David Bell, shares an epic family story, told to him countless times by his mother. We know it’s often the true stories that make the best cabaret shows. We also know cabaret is a genre we grow into, and it’s not for everyone. But Tom Oliver is made for cabaret and he comes of age in More Than A Boy

The 60-minute show feels like it’s got some settling to do and this will happen over time. Comprising a surprisingly eclectic mix of musical numbers, it’s a treat to hear original songs penned by Oliver, Andrew McNaughton and Wes Carr, alongside a few reimagined gems, each neatly placed to punctuate or advance the true tale of a young Croatian who flees a terror stricken Yugoslavia. Have you ever even heard Where Do I Go performed away from a production of Hair? Oliver sings this with the candour and longing of a refugee prepared to flee one life and cross unknown territory to find another, in this case in New Zealand. We go on a long, strange sea journey (More Than A Boy and McNaughton’s The Search and Tears in My Throat) before the shock and surprise of the clever, comical Swear Song, which reminds me of Briony Kimmings’ The Fanny Song.

The title track is a standout, a stunning songwriting achievement for McNaughton and for Oliver a terrific showcase. Could it be Oliver’s next new release? It’s a chair turner. It belongs on an EP with Carr’s Hey Brother and the sure-hit These Are the Times. Will somebody make that happen?

I sort of want the start of the show to let us know more clearly where we are headed – on one level we need earlier, clearer contextualisation – but then it’s such a lovely not-really-a-surprise-at-all to learn by the end of the journey that everything Oliver’s shared is about a family member and probably actually really happened that way.

Oliver succeeds in juxtaposing You’ve Got a Friend in Me (Toy Story) against I Won’t Grow Up (Peter Pan / American Idiot) followed by Queen’s Under Pressure and The Beatles’ beautiful Blackbird, and these are the transitions that will need to be a little smoother in the next incarnation of the show. Very smooth – we knew it would be – is Sondheim’s There Are Giants In the Sky (Into the Woods) and the deceptively gentle opening number Nature Boy cut short to good effect. These early numbers and later, literally shifting gears once more, a lilting Every Now and Then (Thirsty Merc), as well as a New Zealand accent and a gorgeous Colin Farrell/Colin Fassnidge winking Irish brogue, spot on, are delivered in Oliver’s signature style, his vocal work strong and sweet. He’s a young, wide-eyed sage, wisdom beyond this lifetime locked away behind a baby face, and able to bring out a powerful rock persona when things need to be taken up a notch.

But a one-man show is never simply that. Beneath the melody of many of the musical numbers, Oliver’s three-piece band offers a subversive late-night/all-night underground jazz vibe. At times this threatens to fray a song’s narrative thread but the essence remains, like messing with the Christmas Pudding. Everyone can see something funky has happened in the kitchen – perhaps the chef has enjoyed more brandy than the batter – and the flavour and foodie photos will be just as satisfying, of course, but it’s not what Mum used to make. This is both shocking and refreshing, a proper cabaret shake up in terms of what we’ve seen recently jumping from the bandwagon. Oliver tells me the sure, solid sound comes from the musicians having worked together before. And with just one rehearsal for this Brisbane Powerhouse Wonderland season, the result is impressive.

More Than a Boy will undoubtedly tour and deservedly so. It’s a highly engaging all-new-ancient universal coming-of-age tale. One of our most versatile and adaptable and adorable performers, Oliver genuinely connects with his audience, gives us his all and leaves us wanting more, much more.

If you missed it this time, look out for More Than A Boy’s return season somewhere, sometime…

In the meantime, there is VELVET

05
Dec
16

Matilda the Musical

Matilda the Musical

Royal Shakespeare Company

QPAC Lyric Theatre

December 1 2016 – January 8 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Matilda the Musical is hands down the best made and the best promoted show we’ve seen in this country. Not many productions live up to the hype preceding them but this one exceeds expectations. The elements combine in a perfect alchemy of joy, morality, imagination and witty, wicked humour, delighting kids, and daring adults to look around, pay attention to the children and begin to listen again to their own inner child.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda is the extraordinary little girl who, armed with a vivid imagination and a sharp mind, dares to take a stand and change her own destiny.

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Queensland’s Matildas are Izellah Connelly, Annabella Cowley, Venice Harris and Eva Murawski.

On opening night we saw Venice Harris, and as the rockstar chocolate-cake-eating Bruce, Exodus Lale, both superb. We will have to return a little later in the season to see our Eva perform! Last night she was on standby and she was able to appear on stage for a very special curtain call with the standby cast, and composer and lyricist, Tim Minchin.

We rarely see a genuinely rapturous, heartfelt standing ovation from an actual full house at QPAC.

(Don’t believe every accolade you see on social media. I’m so often surprised/bemused to see claims of a standing ovation when only a smattering of the audience is on its feet!), but the opening night Matilda audience was as excited and appreciative and awestruck as you’ll ever get at the end of a show. 

It’s no secret that opening nights are a special kind of magic but Matilda the Musical is a show with a buzz that makes you feel like every night is opening night. If there’s a person in the world who hasn’t enjoyed it, I’d like to meet them and ask, “WHAT’S YOUR DAMAGE?” There’s nothing to dislike here (except Miss Trunchbull and the Wormwoods and we’re supposed to loathe them). Matilda the Musical is an uplifting, life affirming, incredibly moving experience, and the cast of children a dynamic new breed of Australian talent. (Minchin has said the girls who play the Brisbane Matildas are four of the best, in this extremely demanding role, in the world. High praise indeed!). We recognise them by their tremendous hearts and rich, clipped voices, their explosive energy and their neatly contained egos. There are adults in the industry who can learn from these hard working and humble kids. (Those adults are not in this show!). And the synergy between adult and child performers makes this show extra special. The ensemble’s opening number, the fast-paced, bright and brilliant, memorably cheeky Miracle, followed by Matilda’s Naughty, and the School Song, choreographed and executed with military precision, testament to the extraordinary talent on stage and off.

There are also a number of must-be-something-in-my-eye moments.

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One of these moments is the beautifully bittersweet When I Grow Up. This is a smiling-while-tears-are-running-shamelessly-down-cheeks scene, reminiscent of Mary Poppins’ Let’s Go Fly a Kite. The use of a slippery slide and timber seated swings hanging from the gods creates a child-sized whimsical world of wide-eyed possibility. I want a swing hanging from the gods in my backyard! When the “big kids” fly out over the audience we gasp in surprise and delight and abandon – even those of us who have seen it before – and our hearts fill to bursting.

It’s not often that a production succeeds in pouring pure glee over an entire audience. 

A fully engaged little kid sitting next to me, so smart, asks his mama if they are sad because they don’t want to grow up. The kid is no older than four or five. Other innocent comments throughout the evening earn smiling, murmured responses from a lovely older gentleman in front and giggles from the rest of us. There’s a little bit of healthy fear happening too. True to the original story, there are some quite frightening moments in the show, just as there are in our dreams and ordinary lives, and the mother does her best to quietly comfort her child. I know parents sometimes avoid taking kids to the theatre because they know it will be their kid to shout out something in the middle of a show. They think this will annoy the other punters and leave themselves embarrassed and apologetic so they decide to give it a miss until the kids are older, and they and the child miss out on an awesome experience and lifelong memories. If you’re a parent wondering whether or not you should take the kids to the show, STOP WONDERING, BOOK THE TICKETS AND TAKE THE KIDS TO THE SHOW.

If the teens and the spouse are slightly wary, they should know Matilda the Musical is also, obviously and subversively, a very grown up show. If nothing else, tell them to hang in there until the final number, the epic kid rock anthem, Revolting Children, which is a showstopper they’ll be singing (and stomping!) for you for days, even weeks. Probably for the next six weeks…of school holidays…lucky you.

The burning woman, hurling through the air with dynamite in her hair, flying over sharks and spiky objects, caught by the man locked in the cage…

The Acrobat and the Escapologist, the story-within-the-story, which has been somehow magically more fully woven through the production since last seen, and which Matilda tells to Mrs Phelps (the fabulous Cle Morgan, a delicious performer of exquisite expression and passion; she shines in this underwritten role). You’ll remember it doesn’t appear in Roald Dahl’s book. The dramatisation of – spoiler alert – Mrs Honey’s parents’ romance, is a neat theatrical device to move us into another realm of storytelling, the segments perfectly placed throughout the show now to allow us to wander through Matilda’s imagination. Her voracious reading and imagining is her escape from a despicable family and horrible home life (loud, brassy, not-real-classy caricatures of the worst possible parents, in Daniel Frederickson & Nadia Komazec in Marika Aubrey’s absence).

There are so many dark themes and dastardly deeds detectable in life, which children need to be able to process just as grown ups do. Roald Dahl knew this, and Minchin and Dennis Kelly make a considered art of serving it straight up, without apology.

Elise McCann is a stronger, more focused and better settled Miss Honey than when we saw her early on in the Sydney season, her rendition of My House poignantly, perfectly delivered, the vocal tone just divine. And the incomparable James Millar, as the formidable Miss Trunchbull, takes the cake (and makes poor Bruce eat it!). Millar’s hilarious, highly physical performance is another highlight. His performance is so polished and so perfectly ridiculous and reasonable at the same time that you might have a hard time now, as I do, listening to the original Trunchbull, the much-loved Brit, Bertie Carvel. Sorry, Bertie.

Can we have an original Australian Cast recording please and thank you. 

Hugh Vanstone’s lighting and Rob Howell’s costume and set design transfer spectacularly well to the Lyric Theatre and MD Peter Rutherford’s orchestra is spot on. The only superfluous number for me is Mr Wormwood’s Telly, but others love it. 

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Matilda the Musical lifts our spirits and raises the musical theatre bar. It’s a show that proves the book, the film and the real life lens we look through every day can be improved upon. YES. The way we view the world is a choice we make every day. And Matilda reminds us that putting things right and standing up for ourselves and for others is easier than we’ve been led to believe.  

Don’t even think for a second you can miss it. There is no gift more magical or inspirational you can give yourself and those you love than Matilda the Musical

 

Brisbane Opening Night Company:

Matilda – Venice Harris
Bruce – Exodus Lale
Alice – Tahlae Colson
Amanda – Isla White
Hortensia – Madison Randl
Lavender – Charlotte Smith
Eric – Elias Geffen
Nigel – Alfie Jamieson
Tommy – Jake Binns
Adult Cast as follows:
Miss Trunchbull – James Millar
Mrs Wormwood – Nadia Komazec
Mr Wormwood – Daniel Frederiksen
Miss Honey – Elise McCann
Mrs Phelps – Cle Morgan
Ensemble – Stephen Anderson, Reece Budin, Travis Khan, Daniel Raso, Rachel Cole, James Bryers, Leah Lim, Adam Noviello, Patrick Whitbread
Swings – Cristina D’Agostino, Matt Douglass, Hannah Stanton, Clay Roberts, Danielle Cook