Mad About Theatre
The J, Noosa
March 31 – April 02 2017
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
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.
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.