Matilda magic

Matilda The Musical (Royal Shakespeare Company)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 25 – February 12

“Matilda” is why we love musical theatre. It’s the type of production that stays with you so long after your first experience that you grieve for that moment a little in subsequent acquaintances with the text. As soon as you enter the theatre, Rob Howell’s set design strikes you with its wonder, filling the stage and proscenium with an overflow of coloured Scrabble-like letter squares. Not just through staging, however, “Matilda the Musical” is an uplifting experience in every possible way. The winner of five Tony Awards and overseas hit, may have retained some of its English sensibilities with mentions of treacle and trousers, but the Australian production is much less panto-esque than its West End counterpart, which, despite the Christmas-holiday timing of its Brisbane run, is a good thing.

staging

Matilda Wormwood (played by Venice Harris on opening night) is a miracle child – a prodigy who read Dickens and Dostoyevsky, much to the chagrin of her self-centred parents. Only her teacher Miss Honey (Elise McCann) appreciates Matilda’s uniqueness. Unfortunately, her kindness is subverted by the school’s horrible headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (James Millar), a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion, who regards children as maggots to be ruled with iron-fisted punishment.

Venice Harris (Matilda) and Elise McCann (Miss Honey) Pic by James Morgan.jpg

As means of escape, Matilda evokes her own stories, including a fantastical tale that takes the role of story-within-the-story ‘The Acrobat and the Escapologist’, which she shares in snippets with the school’s enraptured librarian Mrs Phelps (an engaging Cle Morgan). While Peter Darling’s vibrant choreography is infectiously endearing, even the carnival-eque mime and shadow puppetry portrayal of Matilda’s ‘The Acrobat and the Escapologist’ story cannot save its distraction for the primary (and original Roald Dahl) narrative.

Even though it contains all the necessary musical elements, including refrains to earworm songs into your mindset long after the curtain comes down, the show’s songs don’t move the story along so much as offer emotional connection. And they certainly rise to this occasion. Act One’s ‘School Song’ is a highlight in its synergy of all the show’s creative aspects, as glowing alphabet letters emerge from the gates as children head to Crunchem Hall Primary School. And when the show’s ‘adult’ children soar on swings above audience heads singing ‘When I Grow Up’ early in Act Two, it projects a simplicity that captures the show’s essential spirit. It is a wonderful moment too in the way it unites the child and adult performers singing in harmony.

When I Grow Up Pic By James Morgan.jpg

Adults and children alike are perfectly polished in their performances. There is a delicacy to many of the characterisations thanks to adult performers who have honed their comic timing and delivery. As Matilda’s dismissive parents, more into looks than books, Nadia Komazec and Daniel Frederiksen are fabulously exaggerated. And Travis Khan is sensationally over-the-top when ‘in the zone’ as Rudolpho, Mrs Wormwood’s ‘part-Italian’ competitive dance partner.

TRUNCHBULL2_PIC_BY_JAMES_MORGAN.jpg

Millar is equal parts funny and fearful as the imposing Miss Turchbell, towering over everyone on stage. His relish of the spiteful, spirited character is of the traditional panto sort, bringing a great amount of glee to the children of the audience in particular, who delight as every attempted prank against the oppressive headmistress is enacted. And McCann is wonderful as the peachy Miss Honey, fragile as a character who has also suffered, yet robust in voice, particularly in stirring delivery of the touching ballad ‘My Home’.

Revolting QLD Si.jpg

The dynamic energy of the show’s child performers is what impresses the most, especially given its ultimate display in the final ‘Revolting Children’ celebration of successful rebellion against the tyrannical Trunchbull, which Exodus Lale absolutely owns. Similarly, as naughty Nigel, Alfie Jamieson steals many scenes. On opening night, Venice Harris makes for a memorable Matilda, cheeky (#inagoodway) as she speaks up with ‘that’s not right’. Her commitment to the weighty role (that she shares with Izellah Connelly, Annabella Cowley and Eva Murawski) is absolute, even through the wild standing ovation that follows her performance.

matildas.jpg

This is, however, composer/lyricist Tim Minchin’s show and his unforgettable melodies and his wicked lyrical wit are what raise it to the heights of the modern musical cannon. And as if his appearance on the red carpet for Brisbane’s opening night is not enough, to see him in a special curtain call with the standby cast, makes an already magical experience just that little more special.

Minchin.jpg

“Matilda The Musical” is full of fun and wicked charm, balanced with moments of melancholy and pathos in which you could ‘hear a flea burp’. Its ode to the power of story is so central to the wonder at the core of childhood experience that it cannot be anything but glorious, for children and adults alike. Rarely do shows live up the hype in such entirety, but in this case, it experience is so complete in its magic that whether you are new to the show or a repeat audience member, you cannot leave without a face full of smile and a heart full of feels.

Courageous collaboration

Orpheus and Eurydice (Judith Wright Centre, Blue Roo Theatre Company and Opera Queensland)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

December 1 – 3

cupid.jpg

Theatre events don’t come more joyous than that realised in “Orpheus and Eurydice”. The rare collaboration sees a group of physically and intellectually disabled amateur performers from the inspiring Blue Roo Theatre Company performing alongside the state’s best operatic voices in staging a modified version of the 18th  century love story.

eurydice

The classic opera is a good choice; its story is a simple one, without any complex subplots and its scenes are packed with potential for emotional fulfilment. When Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife, dies, Orpheus, moved by his love decides to descend into the Underworld to bring her back. Hades, the ruler of the Underworld, agrees to let her go so long as Orpheus doesn’t gaze upon her until after she has re-entered the world of the living.

In this realisation, changes are made… beginning with a female Orpheus. The show does not suffer from the creative decision with Louise Dorsman still making for a conflicted Orpheus of powerful voice alongside Jessica Low’s soaring vocals as Eurydice. Their emotion-filled duet, with Eurydice fading in her love’s arms is a highlight on account of its moving intimacy. Indeed, all of the Opera Q principal vocalists are excellent in conveying the emotional journey of the main characters.

duet.jpg

The Blue Roo ensemble members, meanwhile, accompany Opera Q with gusto, assuming roles as the story’s fabled creatures, which they embody through gesture and physicality. And while as heavenly blessed sprits all dressed in white, they add much to the mood, it is clear that what they relish most is being the vicious furies blocking Orpheus’s path. After eight months of rehearsal to get the show ready, their outpouring of excitement and expanded personalities highlight the charisma that makes for much of the show’s success.

ensemble.jpg

The point of opera is that people are moved by the emotions and music. Accordingly, further adding to the collaboration, the new English translation of the opera is supported by a live orchestra of outstanding local musicians. The music gives a seriousness to story that could otherwise be dismissed as melodrama, yet provides whimsical moments of beauty in the blessed spirits scenes, thanks to the light touch of its strings and flute sounds.

Although there is much occupying the stage, with over two dozen ensemble members, a band of musicians, an Ausland interpreter and big screen for share of the opera’s English translation, staging remains relatively simple in support of the story’s varied emotional states. Josh Bilyj’s lighting design lifts Orpheus’ perilous journey across the River Styx yet also stunningly conveys the burning savagery of Gates of Hades

lighting.jpg

Blue Roo’s work to redefine inclusive community engagement is certainly important and this celebration of its ensemble members and their passion for performance represents all that is good about the arts. “Orpheus and Eurydice” is a unique and heart-warming inclusive theatre production, inspired in its conception and inspiring in its realisation, sure to stay with audience members long after the show ends. Making the arts accessible to all, both on-stage and in the audience is a courageous aspiration, not because many of the people involved have disabilities but because of where they dare to go with their ambition.

Warring worlds

The Heart Awakens (Rob Lloyd)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

December 1 – 4

If you’ve see his solo show “Who, Me”, you will know that Rob Lloyd is a fan of “Doctor Who”. Turns out, however, that before he turned to the Timelord (which changed his life forever) his heart belonged to another. “The Heart Awakens” is a love letter to that relationship… with “Star Wars”.

heart awakens.jpg

Like most long-term relationships, it has had its rocky moments since its inception over 30 years ago in a country town far far away (in Central New South Wales). As he takes audiences through his Dubbo childhood, high school and university experiences, talk tours through his early loves of Adam West’s Batman, “The Transformers”, “Ghostbusters”, “The Muppets” and the one that initially tore him away from “Star Wars”, the on-board-Battlecat, He-Man (because people grow apart you know?)

The hot and cold, but always-ongoing relationship that ensures with epic space opera franchise is the focus of the hour-long show. Although initially, Lloyd thinks himself to be nothing without Star Wars, he turns to Doctor Who, who eventually lets him down. Needing to move on, they take begin a hiatis and so Star Wars returns with the prequels and he becomes a fanatic for the second time. But with her determination to do things bigger, better and more expensive, Star Wars, and thus their love, has clearly changed and so he turns from her soulless focus only on the way she looks. But with both franchises now back in rejuvenation, which of this warring worlds will Lloyd choose?

It’s a clever idea to have Lloyd’s primary pop culture loves personified. His co-star, Jennifer Speirs does a great job in establishing differentiation between Star Wars and Doctor Who and together they entertain with some sensationally-choreographed fight scenes (sans light sabers). However, the best moments come when Lloyd is alone on stage. He is a naturally engaging performer, energetic in every characterisation as he inhabits each moment with not just changed voice but his entire body.

“The Heart Awakens” is a witty ode to the power of pop culture to become so much a part of one’s sense of self. Indeed, although it represents the final instalment of Lloyd’s obsession trilogy, it is a show or anyone who has ever loved and lost, not just Star Wars fans. That said though, there are, of course, references aplenty for fan appreciation, including the severest of slurs regarding Jar Jar Binks, making for laughs aplenty for everyone.

‘Tisn’t always the season

The Fall and Rise of Mr Scrooge (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

November 19 – December 10

Deck the halls with boughs of holly; it may only be November but the Christmas season has well and truly arrived! And shows don’t come much more Christmassy than Sue Sewell’s adaption of “A Christmas Carol”, “The Fall and Rise of Mr Scrooge”, the final production in Nash Theatre’ 2016 season.

scrooge.jpg

The story follows the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (Barry Haworth) who, through greed, has lost all that is good but undergoes redemption on Christmas Eve after being visited by the ghosts (spirits in this instance) of Christmas past, present and future  It’s a cheery but dreary spectacle that has been retold in such a variety of different ways that audience members are likely to be in attendance with previous experience against which to make comparison, making it a challenge to create a captivating encounter. Unfortunately, it this regard Nash Theatre’s take falls a little flat. With the exception of Haworth and Stuart Fisher as the Spirit of Christmas Present, cast members don’t appear to take ownership of their characters, resulting in on-stage interactions that lack conviction. The consequential loss of connection with the characters means that the show sometimes drags along, especially in Act One.

Under the co-direction of Brenda White and Jonathan Collins, this version of the classic story amplifies the materialist side of its message: Scrooge learns in the nick of time to stop hoarding and start spending, strangely sending a passing boy, without funds, to buy a turkey from a shop open on Christmas Day. Plot concerns aside, Haworth gives a pleasing performance as the grumpy Ebenezer, a scrooge in need of redemption from his ‘Christmas is humbug’ attitude. And his vocal strength serves to bolster the show in juxtaposition to others of more timid voice.  Indeed, although large ensemble numbers are melodic, smaller numbers are often spoiled by projection difficulties, leaving audience members straining to hear, especially when singers turn from facing the front before a line is complete.

The change of the visiting ghosts to Spirits of Past, Present and Yet to Come reflects this somewhat light-hearted take on the tale. The appearance of Marley (Steve Tonks), Scrooge’s deceased business partner is far from its traditionally terrifying haunt. The clunky chains that are dragged onstage as part of his ensemble don’t just distract from his dialogue but also disrupt the preceding monologue from their backstage sounds.

Although scene transitions and the movement of props could be more efficient, the use of a full-stage scrim behind which dream scenes are staged works well visually. And Fisher brings some wonderful whimsy to the role of Spirit of Christmas Present. In a different production it could be more celebrated, but in this small venue, it is overwhelming when weighed against the timidity of those around him.

present

The script is complimented by a lively score, with excellent solo piano accompaniment by Stuart Crisp, yet the audience is left with few memorable numbers from the mix of Christmas carols with some simple original songs, beyond ‘Thank You Very Much’. Still, its lovely story shines through, particularly in Act Two, full of the essential themes of Christmas, even if this is not quite the cast’s season.

Provocation at play

Other Women (Charming Rebel and Wax Lyrical Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Platform

November 25 – December 3

other women.jpg

Cabaret can change the world and with Lizzie Moore at the helm, it can do so by reminding us that what we do has consequences, that change is possible and that we all matter. This is not the Moore of “On A Night Like This – The Erin Minogue Story”, as she shares early in the provocative “Other Women” a sultry, lingering ‘Cherry Bomb’, stripping away the hard rock sensibilities of its story of a girl who is lots of trouble, to present The Runaways’ signature song as a slow burn. It’s a sizzle that continues as she struts about the show in burlesque corset, complete with sexy purr and perfect poise. Her timing, too is flawless as sexual double standards are exposed in more interactive moments.

There is no fourth wall here as the important feminist questions are asked, such as ‘if a man is a stud, what is a woman?’ Audience participation takes Moore into the crowd to illustrate the misogynist double standards of song lyrics. Delivered in spoken word, out of context, these are surely shocking (especially from The Beatles), but still, the segment goes on a little too long past the last point having been made.

The message of “Other Women” is clear in its communication without the need for over-zealous production elements. Yet, the circus-cabaret still entices with a live three-piece band, circus soloists and burlesque cheek. And Freyja Edney, Rosie Peaches, and aerial artiste Eliza Dolly are all wonderful in their respective roles. Contemporary circus artist, Edney, for example, goes from demure 1950s housewive to hoop performer, each absolutely entertaining, while burlesque beauty Rosie Peaches leaves a lasting impression with her final solo act, which is a lingering striptease number to Etta James’ ‘At Last’.

The show features a diverse mix of songs from artists like Burt Bacharach, Peaches and Prince that not only showcase Moore’s vocal versatility, but facilitate exploration of promiscuity and our contradictory views towards women and their sexual behaviour. From her take of Goldfrapp’s ‘Ooh La La’, filled with glitter lust playfulness to her sassy belt of Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’, Moore’s vocals are outstanding in every eclectic instance.

While, by her own admission, Moore cannot speak for other women, she can speak to them, and men too. As such “Other Women” becomes proof of how a more than a century old artistic form can still resonate with audiences, even when ‘full of dirty words’. Although ‘preaching to the converted’ Wonderland Festival crowd, its celebration of pussy power is certainly empowering in its message that she’s not your competition or your property but, rather, just another woman.

More cabaret magic

More than a Boy (Tom Oliver)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 24 – 27

Tom Oliver is a fabulous entertainer – charismatic, energetic and of fantastic voice and “More Than a Boy” more than does justice to his talents. The one-man cabaret show, which features an eclectic mix of original songs (written by Tom, Andrew McNaughton and Wes Carr), theatre tunes and reworked contemporary hits, is a playful right-of-passage about family and adventure, a tale that is close-to-home for Oliver.

It is the type of story that is written in our very humanity… of a Croatian boy who, dreaming of a life away from the turmoil of a united Yugoslavia, migrates to New Zealand. With pathos and humour, Oliver shares tell of the sacrifices that must come with dislocation from family and heritage, but enlightens the moods with some skilled characterisation, never missing an accented beat. In its title song too, he delivers outstanding vocals and impressive ability to hold a note, both within the show proper and in later refrain. His share of Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’ is another standout as he travels from tormented to triumphant in the re-appropriated lyrics.

While audience members may not recognise all the numbers, this serves as no barrier to engagement; in fact the range of genres represented only adds to appreciation of the performer’s skill as he delivers “Moulan Rouge” musical poignancy alongside a “Toy Story” anthem and then pumping punkish number. But the show never seems comfortable in its soundtrack; in early sections, the rapid transition in styles is a little jarring at the expense of the fluency of an essential narrative that is appealing enough in itself.

tom-oliver

“More than a Boy” packs a lot into its hour-long running time as it jumps around musical styles in support of its story. While a particularly profane later number, for example, is appreciated by the audience, it undos a lot of the momentum of the show’s story. Enhancing the experience however, is the live band that accompanies Oliver through the journey of the story’s emotions, working with lighting to set the scene aesthetically through, for example, a rolling high-seas journey.

With a solo show, there is nowhere for a performer to hide, a truth that Oliver embraces; he is the kind of performer who understands the power of simplicity, captivating the audience again and again with his marvellous voice in show of the magic of cabaret. And in his hands, the show is set to only go from strength to strength.

Doll debauchery

Doll (Babushka)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 24 – 27

As far as cabarets go, Babushka’s “Doll” is right up there in terms of craziness as it takes audience members along a trip down memory lane (of sorts) through examination of dolls in all their guises – cute, creepy and crude – and our experiences in treasuring and torturing them…. from their perspectives.

Crowded with accessories, the Visy Theatre stage is pinker than the Barbie aisle at Kmart. The increased intimacy compared to the show’s last Brisbane outing brings some virtues, however, such as allowing for a more commanding unplugged, mournful performance of ‘Barbie Girl’ from Judy Doll (Judy Hainsworth). Appropriately animated and over-the-top in her princessness , she takes audiences through her longing to know of life outside of her box, before also singing of her Bonnie-Tyler like need for a hero. And when she gets down and dirty with bursts of Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ during the trio’s terrific take of ‘The Clap Song, it is absolutely hilarious.

judy

Even so, it is Bethan Doll (Bethan Ellsmore), who is the naughtiest, sculling audience champagne as she tells of her wild life going from bargain bin to garden shed, in contrast to Alicia Doll (Alicia Cush) who multi-tasks about the place intent to overcome modern motherhood pressures and have it all.

Together the trio’s voices meld in perfect harmony in songs as such ‘You’re My Best Friend’ and when Ellsmore and Cush add opera’s most famous duet for sopranos, ‘The Flower Duet’ to Garbage’s ‘Cherry Lips’, they make for some sublime musical moments. This number also serves as perfect illustration of just what makes Babushka so special; their combination of classic (and classical) works with pop culture pieces in a contemporary context is inspired. And when Ellsmore blasts of Guns and Roses’ ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ in the show’s closing number, it is worth the price admission alone.

doll.jpeg

Despite all the pinkness, things are not all froth and bubble. Pre-show play of Destiny’s Child’s ‘Independent Women’ signposts the show’s essential theme of empowerment, which is further emphasised by the dolls’ delivery of ‘When I Realised I was a Girl’ and some updated political references. Whether tongue-in-cheek or of more serious message, transitions between dialogue and music are always absolutely seamless, exploiting in the most wonderful of ways the different lyric interpretations that unpin the show’s premise.

As always, “Doll” is a simultaneously stylish and sassy show. Its balance of commentary and song is perfect and its dips in to the dark world of sex dolls and Ken and Barbie’s usually behind-closed-doors sessions, make it ideal for the debaucherous end-of-year carnival of circus, comedy, music, physical theatre, magic and burlesque that is Wonderland.