Stirring up a Christmas classic

A Christmas Carol (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

December 7 – 20

Shake and Stir’s “A Christmas Carol’ begins with a tune, the ironic ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ (because there is little about which to be merry for those suffering in Victorian era poverty). Still, it’s a lovely yuletide introduction, before it is interrupted by protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge (Eugene Gilfedder) and his famous humbug exclamation.

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Fast forward to Christmas Eve seven years later after the death of Jacob Marley and we see the money-lender Ebenezer again, a cold-hearted penny-pincher who despises Christmas, tight-fisted and hunched over his accounts counting his coals and cursing the happiness of others, despite being rich enough not to be miserable. In his disdain for do-gooders and desire to just be left alone, he is clearly far from merry… just ask his long-suffering clerk Bob Pratchett (Lucas Stibbard).

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After Scrooge is visited by his dead former business partner (Bryan Probets), now bound for eternity in the chains of his own greed after a life of hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor, three other ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and Future show Ebenezer the error of his ways. He consequently changes to see Christmas as a charitable and forgiving time of togetherness.

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Nelle Lee’s wondrous adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella conveys a storybook feel, enhanced by the in-schools experience of many of its ensemble, which enables a craftedness of appeal for children and adults alike. At times, there is a pantomime atmosphere, not in the “he’s behind you!” sensibility of the peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theatre, but rather in the all-encompassing spirit and sentiment of a traditional tale told in way that allows families to share in a theatre experience.

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QPAC’s notoriously chilly Playhouse Theatre in this instance suits the bleakness of the story’s shadowy staging and accompanying haunting soundscape. The large stage space is used to full and frenetic advantage, particularly in the flurry of early set transformations, that sees almost Escher-like creation and disassembly of sets while in use, as gothic house frames are precisely positioned to project laneways and interiors alike.

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The most highly impressive moments, however, come courtesy of the crucial design efforts of Jason Glenwright (Lighting), Chris Perren (Sound) and Craig Wilkinson (Video) in awakening the story’s supernatural forces, particularly through its ghostly visions. Although there may be a couple of frightening moments for the youngest of viewers (the show is recommended for children eight years and over and includes warning about its supernatural themes, haze, smoke, strobe effects and loud music), it is these production values that keep this “A Christmas Carol” innovatively fresh. Not everything is big and bold, however. The pathos of ‘all skin and bones’ Tiny Tim, the youngest song of Bob Cratchit, gravely ill as his family cannot afford to properly treat him on the salary Scrooge his father, for example, is captured perfectly in his ingenious representation.

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The last time I saw “A Christmas Carol” on stage, I found it bothersome that in realisation of his salvation, Scrooge sent a passing youth to buy a turkey for the Cratchit family’s Christmas meal, without giving the errand-boy any funds. Thankfully, in this show, the request is accompanied by some coins. It is but a small detail of course, but one that reflects the overall care the company takes in all of its productions, for it is the combination of these smallest considerations which ultimately group in production of such consistently high-quality work.

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 Under Michael Futcher’s direction, everything about the show is tight and well-paced to maintain engagement of young and old alike. Many of the show’s hardworking cast members play multiple roles with ease. Gilfedder is perfection as the cantankerous Scrooge, both in his mostly-dour demeanour and when he excitedly transforms into a kindhearted person. And Probets is also wonderful as all four of the ghosts, often bringing an infectious sense of pantomime whimsy to his realisation of their characters. His Ghost of Christmas Past, in particular, is a jolly delight of impish, gleeful energy.

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I have never really been “A Christmas Carol” fan, apart from maybe the Muppet’s movie version (because I’m not totally heartless). Clearly, I am in the minority though; the Victorian morality tale of an old and bitter miser who undergoes a profound experience of redemption over the course of an evening, remains a classic holiday story despite being written in 1843. That this company can ignite the imaginations of the young and not-so, to regard its charm anew is a wonderful testament to their energy and spirit. Hopefully it will form part of a Christmas show ritual as audiences obviously cherish the tradition of its story and the endurance of its themes. Its tell of compassion, forgiveness, redemption and the might of kindness is made even more powerful by its humour and heart, making it maybe even better than the Muppets.

There is no better way to kick off your Christmas season than with the defining tale of the holiday in the English-speaking world, brought to magical life in a brand-new adaptation. With live musicians (Composer Salliana Campbell), yule-tide carolling, innovative video design, lavish costumes and, of course, snow, “A Christmas Carol” has something for everyone, even those who imagine themselves to be more bah humbug than Christmas Carole.

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Bad Santa salaciousness

A Very Naughty Christmas The Second Coming (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 6 – 16

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, especially for new-to-the-workplace Joseph (Elliot Baker) who is keen to embrace the spirit of the season, especially with Holly (Sophie Christofis). And that isn’t the only of the shy little elf’s problems, as he struggles to keep his real identity secret. So begins Understudy Productions’ “A Very Naughty Christmas The Second Coming”, which rather than telling the story of Santa’s raunchy reindeers as it did in the show’s initial 2017 outing, gives us insight into the sex and drug-fuelled world of his elves, who despite stereotypes to the contrary are not super jolly all of the time.

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Although its cast is smaller, the adult only tone of the show remains the same; the 80-minute experience is full of political incorrectness, dirty language and a whole lot of skin. And sure enough Santa’s pants are off within the first five minutes. Indeed, this is a Christmas as you may have never seen before, even though it has all the hallmarks of a seasonal television special: The Night Before Christmas story re-enactment courtesy of audience ‘volunteers’ in reindeer et al roles, song dance breaks and even a tap dance number. Its more in-your-face than innuendo style of Santa-mental celebration is still shocking and very funny, but some jokes fall a little flat and overall the show lacks a little of its previous on-point, a little rough-around-the-edges salacious appeal. Still, the audience seems to love its every inappropriate moment.

Highlights include Aurelie Roque’s dry delivery of a tell-it-as-it-is song about the roasty-toasty weather the comes along with Christmas in Australia. And No-el’s (Austin Cornish) reappropriated ‘Winter Wonderland’ revelation of what is beneath his surface. Indeed, Cornish gives a dynamic performance physically and though his versatile vocals, seen for example in the show’s take on Saturday Night Live’s ‘My Dick in a Box’.

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Stephen Hirst has a charming appeal as the cheeky Nick, loving the attention of dirty girl Carol (Emily Kristopher) and in fact everyone who wants to ride on his sleigh. He is also once-again perfect in his nudge-and-a-wink nods to the audience, although you will never look at Santa the same way again. Indeed, if the movie “Bad Santa” was a musical, it would probably be something like this. There are no real morals to these stories, just lots of frivolity and indelicate amusement.

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Director Dan Venz’s choreography is full of colour and movement, and the live band (Chris Evans, Ellito Parker and Music Director Tnee Dyer) is excellent in filling familiar songs like ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ with energy and interest, meaning that whether you’re naughty or nice, you will likely enjoy this mischievous celebration of all things Christmas because just as last year’s smash success showed, the comedy cabaret’s unadulterated, frisky fun is undeniable.

Silly season spirit

Christmas Actually (the little red company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

December 5 – 8

As Act/React’s “Love/Hate Actually” recently revealed, the Christmas-themed Richard Curtis film “Love Actually” is a contentious one. It seems that everyone has an opinion because come December time it seems that is always all around with its ten interconnected love stories told over five weeks leading up to Christmas.

As a concert cabaret show inspired by the film’s soundtrack, “Christmas Actually” begins aptly with the reappropriated ‘Love is all Around’, complete with that attempt to squeeze an extra syllable into the fourth line. It’s a somewhat slow start, but by the time the audience becomes the brass bit of ‘All You Need to Love’, it is clear that its festive spirit is going to be contagious.

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Its headliner, Naomi Price is a generous performer, allowing both band members (Mik Easterman, Scott French, Andrew Johnson, and Michael Manikus) and singers alike their own opportunities to shine in share of the film’s iconic music. In particular, fellow “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” alumnus Stefanie Caccamo haunts Dido’s ‘Here with Me’ with her lingering, vulnerable vocals. Luke Kennedy is every bit the part in Santana’s ‘Smooth’ and in Tom Oliver’s talented hands ‘White Christmas’ has never sounded better.

Meanwhile, the simple sincerity of Joni Mitchell’s serene ‘Songbird’, is a wonderful showcase of Price’s voice. Even more enthralling is her reverential and plaintive version of Mitchell’s heartbreaking ‘Both Sides Now’, echoing Emma Thompson’s beautiful play of the scene in the film and moving many in the audience to both tears and then mid-show standing ovation. The mature sounds of its bittersweet sincerity, are not only captivating, but also serve to showcase Price’s vocal versatility alongside her upbeat soar of schmaltzy sing-a-long seasonal staples like Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’.

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With “Christmas Actually” there is no need to think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport to cast any gloom aside; its joy is all around. The show is full of fun and humour, often courtesy of Price’s wicked sense of humour and quick wit in interacting with the audience and shift into seemingly surprising segues. And then of course, there is also a perfectly choreographed ‘Hugh Grant’ dance number, an energetic nativity play lobster and an on-point Carols in the Domain parody, complete with ‘appearance’ of an array of Australian musical talent.

As past experience has shown, the little red company’s shows are defined by their balance of whimsy, sentiment and comical commentary and “Christmas Actually” is no exception. The brainchild of Price and Adam Brunes is the ultimate silly-season starter, crafted to crescendo to joyous celebration of the Christmas spirit that not even the bah-humbugiest of humans can resist. And once it is over (all too soon), you will bounce out in jubilant memory of its charm, knowing that no Spotify Christmas ride-home playlist will do it justice (#wetried).

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans 

Back for more Wars

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

Brisbane Convention Centre

December 1

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Although it is held in the spacious Convention Centre, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in Concert” is the type of show where having seats right up the front does not necessarily provide the best experience. This is because the collection of musicians on stage is so immense that only view of the vista from afar can truly do it justice.

Following on from its earlier-this-year “Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert”, the show sees the Queensland Symphony Orchestra performing every note of the iconic score to the 1980 film “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” live, to picture. And as with the original trilogy’s first outing, it is quite the spectacle, with the original film playing in high-definition on a 12-metre screen, while, under conductor Nicholas Buc, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra enliven John Williams’ score in enhance of the on-screen mythic storytelling, captivating characters and at-the-time ground-breaking special effects.

Live music enhances any artistic event, however in the case of “The Empire Strikes Back”, it takes the film’s grandeur to an all new level. In particular, it captures all of the story’s epic clashes when in a dark time for the Rebellion, battle for the galaxy intensifies in a galaxy far away on the glacial planet of Hoth where the remains of the brave rebel alliance, under the command of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), makes a stand against the evil Imperial Forces of the Galactic Empire, causing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia to flee to Cloud City where they are captured by Darth Vader.

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It begins with a blast as the rebel base is attacked. And there are a lot of uncharacteristically violent violins, thunderous brass and array of percussion instruments, especially in case of the menacing, intimidating ‘Imperial March’, Darth Vader’s ominous and oppressive militaristic theme song inspired by Chopin’s funeral march, which makes first appearance in the saga in this film, ahead of his climatic lightsaber battle with and legendary revelation to Luke. As the most famous leitmotif in the series, the theme is rightly played at full-blast the moment the sinister Vader roars onto screen, resulting in irresistible audience applause, which, thanks to the film’s subtitles, does not detract from the viewing experience. Rather, enjoyment is enhanced by being able to more boisterously respond to a film seen so many times before.

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The score’s eclecticism is seen not only in the soundtrack’s high woodwinds, percussion parts and the frantic chaos of the rise and fall of the brass-filled ‘The Asteroid Field’, but in the soft touch of the magical ‘Yoda’s theme’ which sees Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) journey to the mysterious, marshy planet of Dagobah, where the diminutive yet wise Jedi Master Yoda teaches the impatient apprentice the ways of the Force, with brutal honesty and nuggets of undeniable wisdom about having a more serious mind,  that bring mid-scene audience applause, along with an exciting musical swell from soft strings to multi-layered crescendo, stirring in its underlie of when Yoda lifts Luke’s sunken X-wing out of the swamp. There is also a playful musical accompaniment to the banter between Han and Leila in their ultimately lush, romantic theme, which we hear everywhere in illustration of the inevitability of the growing attraction between the dashing, daring scoundrel and spirited Princess.

The QSO does justice to every aspect of the second “Star Wars” (through it is the fifth chapter of the space saga) film’s versatile score, allowing us to hear the heroism of Luke Skywalker and sinister villainy of Darth Vader. And Buc does a magnificent job of keeping so many players together, and in perfect sync with the film’s emotions and moods.

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To experience the adventure and excitement of such a beloved “Star Wars” film, the most critically acclaimed chapter in the saga in a live symphonic concert experience is very special indeed. Despite its now-dodgy special effects, it’s dazzling spectacle and adventure, have an ongoing, multi-generational appeal that only adds to the collective excitement evidenced in shared pre-show conversations. Indeed, so much has its iconic musical score become a part of our cultural consciousness that although there is no neat, happily-ever-after ending, the film’s fanfare conclusion of soaring strings conveys a clear sense of victory-against-the-odds, in arguably the most recognisable theme in cinema history, with audience members not only staying until the end of its credits, but then erupting in well-deserved ovation.

Pulp-theatre Tarantinoness

Two Man Tarantino (Christopher Wayne in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 29 – December 2

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“Two Man Tarantino” is pretty metatheatre. Its tagline absolutely sums up the show as “Two people. One video store. Every cult classic”. The framing narrative of the pulp-theatre experience is very loose but appropriate for a homage to former video-store clerk Quentin Tarantino.

It’s a video store on the last night of video stores, when a staff member (Stephen Hirst) and a customer (Emily Kristopher) have a conversation about movies, leading to realisation that they are both hard-core Tarantino fans. Their resulting Tarantino-off to decide who is the bigger enthusiast doesn’t ever develop beyond mere parody, but is still very funny in its creative and increasingly intense re-enactments. (It’s Tarantino; it’s going to be violent and it’s going to bloody).

In competition for fan points the duo tries to outdo each other with both obvious and obscure Tarantino movie references and recreation of key scenes from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Hateful Eight” and everything in between, including even “Jackie Brown”, because only a true fan would quote from the audacious caper film. And audiences really need familiarity with the films, otherwise without much narrative, the show is just an hour of actors simulating violence, swearing and placing strange fetishised emphasis on women’s feet.

With simultaneous re-enactment of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” as its conclusion, the show heads towards a brilliantly-choreographed bloodbath ending for which the front row splash zone warning and plastic cover sheet barely seems sufficient. Indeed, “Two Man Tarantino is a very physical, fast-paced show full of energetic and inspired fight scenes such as a Hattori Hanzo sword fighting scene, but not with a sword. The tight choreography is particularly impressive in “Kill Bill” (Volumes 1 and 2) attempt by the Bride to avenge the deadly viper assassination squad who ruined her wedding, including O-Ren Ishii and her Crazy 88 army.

Also notable are some of the performers’ impressions. Stephen Hirst is perfectly squinty-eyed John Travolta in conversation about a royale with cheese and Emily Kristopher is brilliant, as Christopher Walken and Samuel mother-f’n Jackson. And they join together nicely in iconic Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance scene snippet.

“Two Man Tarantino” is a must sen for any fan of the director’s catalogue of films, however, there is still enough in it for casual, interested viewers and visitors to the Tarantinoverse. Its hilarious chaos, complete even with an interpretive dance, is of the sort that only the manic director’s work can conjure and revisit to the commotion will probably result in you wanting to return to the genius film-maker’s works, if not at least their connoisseur soundtracks.

Familiar fables reframed

Happily Ever After (Little Match Productions in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 29 – December 1

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Straight from a sold-out Queensland tour, the three talented princess of Babushka are back in the magical land of Brisbane to turn your favourite bedtime stories inside out as, along with their trusty companion Sir Luke-a-lot (Luke Volger) on piano, the trio bring their own brand of fairy tale to the fabled kingdom of New Farm with “Happily Ever After”.

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As with the group’s earlier “Doll”, there is an immediate appeal to the show’s colour and infectious energy, enhanced by the performers animated and over-the-top characterisations. The divas’ princess personas are clear from the start with their costume nods to Snow White (Alicia Cush), Rapunzel (Judy Hainsworth) and Red Riding Hood (Bethan Ellsmore).

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While each princess performer is given individual opportunities to shine, the most magnificent moments are actually where their talents combine. The harmonious voices of the three performers and co-creators meld melodically in, for example, Lorde’s ‘Royals’ and Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’, the latter also featuring violin accompaniment from Ellsmore.

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In true Babuska style, there is more to “Happily Ever After” than there first may appear. There is a theme of female empowerment at the core of its fable reframes for modern maidens, perfectly tempered to be neither too in-your-face or too subtle to succeed, but in true fairy-tale fashion, just right in placement and plentifulness. What also makes Babushka so special is their unique reappropriation of familiar songs for new thematic purposes. Hainsworth’s tale of a down and dirty Cinderella to Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, for example, is an appreciated audience favourite, full of humour. And their reinvigoration of old-school song mashup of Madonna and Duran Duran is inspired.

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With their magical maestro in skilful musical support, the group presents songs in ways that allow for different lyric interpretation and appreciation, which makes for a dynamic cabaret experience. Full of fun one minute and darky seductive the next, “Happily Ever After” cleverly takes audiences from Britney to Metallica in its inside out turn of childhood favourites. The result is not only musically accomplished but wickedly funny.

Photos c/o – Natalia Muszkat

Love and murder at first sight

North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 27 – December 9

“There’s an interval about an hour in, just after the plane crash and fire,” the usher explains as we enter the Lyric Theatre for “North by Northwest”. And true-enough, remarkably the show absolutely does justice to the visually-iconic late-period Alfred Hitchcock classic chase film of the same name. Not only do see our hero ambushed by a crop duster in a cornfield, and attempt a literally cliff-hanging escape down the faces of Mount Rushmore in the suspense of an attempted across-America escape, but a human creation of the film’s opening title sequence design of titled blocks and a playful nod to the film director’s signature cameos. Indeed, immediately it is clear that the show’s complex film projections and blue screen technology special effects, are going to recreate for us all that is ionic about the 1959 movie.

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The Cold War-era story tells of the efforts of C.I.A. chief of sorts, The Professor (Robert Menzies) attempting to force the hand of a group of enemy agents by placing an invented Caplan character on their trail. Savvy advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Matt Day), played memorably in the film by Cary Grant, lands himself in trouble when he is mistaken for the mythical Mr Caplan and kidnapped. As his life is thus thrown into chaos, he is chased across the country as he attempts to avoid capture, meeting a beautiful and mysterious love interest, Eve Kendall (Amber McMahon) along the way.

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It’s a confusing account. Veteran Hitchcock actor Grant himself noted how baffling he found the film’s screenplay. This production cleverly captures even this ambiguity through simple, but skilful, representations like moving giant fans in as aircraft noise in the scene when The Professor explains what the plot is about and why the mysterious, villainous Vandamm (Jonny Pasvolsky) is hunting Thornill.

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Carolyn Burns’s script adaptation is not word perfect, but it does capture the film’s sharp dialogue, particularly in the quick quips of often forward sexual banter. And the typical Hichcockian situations are evident from the outset, despite a more hurried pacing, that brings added comedy to the bustling busy scenes and quick-change set pieces.

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Most impressive, is the way in which cinema effects are created live by the cast against green screen backdrops either side of the stage and integrated into the show through video screen projection. In nod to the early days when special effects came courtesy of miniature set models, these almost dodgy dioramas work a treat, allowing for a drunken car drive down twisting mountain roads and fantastic real-life Mount Rushmore reveal. All the while, the central live action remains the focus; rather than serving as novelty, the projections are integral to the storytelling, especially in progressing the narrative along with show of newspaper headlines and alike.  Clearly, there is a very modern appeal to this “North by Northwest”, but it not at expense of the old-school suspense and charm the is at the core of the film. The experience is filled with era-evocative details such as the costuming recreation of Grant’s loose-fit, iconic stylish suit.

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The story also includes an array of secondary and passer-by characters, courtesy of the hardworking support cast. Brisbane’s own Christen O’Leary, for example, jumps in and out of roles and accents with ease. The primary cast bring excellent performances to what are essentially paper-thin characters. Pasvolsky makes for a smooth arch-villain and McMahon is every bit a put-together platinum blonde leading lady who could tease a man to death without half trying, albiet with a little more assertion in modernisation of the character. And while not as suave as the glossy Grant, Matt Day is certainly of the type, bringing a likeable charm to the debonair central character in all of his roles: the outraged Madison Avenue man who claims he’s been mistaken for someone else, the fugitive from justice, supposedly trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didn’t commit and a peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal. And his delivery is on-point with the overarching tongue-in-cheek tone, with line after line landing with one-liner appeal.

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Another authenticity comes from the show’s musical score which takes the audience through chases, suspense and love. From the whip and wail of the opening title-sequence overture, the musical story develops in compliment of the narrative and define of its situations and emotions. But the soundscape is also smartly silent when it needs to be too and without music or other sounds, the immensity of the crop-dusting sequence makes it a memorable lead in to intermission.

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“North by Northwest” is a dynamic, highly-creative show from a clever group of cast and creatives. While some microphone cue lapses were evident on opening night, the show will obviously settle into its season as it is otherwise seamless in every regard. Presenting a play in the large Lyric Theatre is an unusual undertaking and “North by Northwest” is particularly ambitious given the action that defines the famous film, but as QPAC CEO John Kotzas noted, the theatre is only as big as our imagination, and in its precision and awe in attention to detail, “North by Northwest” fills audience imaginations and recollections, for although allusions will be appreciated by those familiar with the film in some way, audience members who don’t have this prior knowledge, won’t miss out either. The well-paced two-hour show (under Simon Phillips’ tight direction) offers a nice balance between action, romance and comedy, but with a considered restraint that never allows the cloak-and-dagger chase storyline to descend into farce. And the result is a must-see show of love and murder at first sight.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas