McCaw moments

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“Any Moment a new musical by Bradley McCaw” The Concept Recording, is a new work from award winning writer/performer and emerging composer Bradley McCaw. Set over the course of 24 hours, the work begins at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and moves throughout a single town, hearing stories from various individuals as the clock tumbles toward a New Year. Its inspiration from the famous John Lennon quote, ‘Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans’ is clear in this narrative premise and through-line exploration of what a minute in time truly represents.

It starts as we meet four strangers; a young man running away from home, a woman at a party, a truck driver heading home to his family and a new mother with her crying child in the cresendoing ‘Twenty More Till​’, which tantalises with suggestion of the spectacle that sets great opening musical numbers apart from the humdrumness of others.

The recording is inspired by hit musicals like “Songs for A New World,” and “Closer Than Ever,” and the musical influence is seen across the familiar feel of its 11-song soundtrack. There is humour too, in, for example, ‘My Phone’, in which two strangers (Judy Hainsworth & Shaun Kohlman) sing about their most prominent personal relationship and Emily Kristopher’s cute rendition of the bright and breezy ‘Rovers Song’, in which she sings as a young girl explaining her parents impending divorce, to her dog.

It is the ‘big’ numbers, however, that are the most memorable especially in their feature of performances by some of the finest performers from our musical theatre stages. Kurt Phelan implores his character to move on, as his ex gets married at the Church across town in ‘A Church on Murphy Street’, a tender, emotional highlight, that is both sentimental and soaring. And Lizzie Moore is exhilarating in sassy Sutton Foster-esque vocal presence in the final song, ‘Hard to Keep a Good Girl Down’, in which a woman unpacks the ending of her marriage.

Across its track listing, “Any Moment a new musical by Bradley McCaw” The Concept Recording features much variety and many musical highlights dependent upon personal preferences. While the recording aims to not showcase a Complete Final Musical Theatre work, it provides us with enough hint as to what “Any Moment” could be, to only want more. Lucky Melbournians will get the exclusive first look at the new work in celebration of its release at Chapel off Chapel this June as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival.

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More Minchin

Back (Tim Minchin)

QPAC, Concert Hall

April 9 – 12

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Tim Minchin’s new show “Back” begins suddenly with the internationally acclaimed Australian composer and musician appearing almost out of nowhere, spotlit in his seat at the centre-stage piano. A fumble at the beginning of one of his newer songs forces a restart so we get to see his (re)entrance after all. It is actually quite an apt beginning, indicative of the show’s organic, bespoke feel.

The responsible song is the metaphoric and meaningful ‘If This Plane Goes Down’, (“remember me as someone who cared, often, but not always, about his hair, self-righteous when shit wasn’t fair.”) Its sentiment is a theme that appears a number of times throughout the show, such as in the haunting ‘I’ll take lonely tonight’. As the show’s tag line of ‘Old songs, new songs, f*** you songs’ attests, the set list features a lot of retrospective focus, going back even so far as Minchin’s complicated beat poem ‘Mitsubishi Colt’ set to impressive improvised jazzy piano accompaniment.

All numbers of course showcase his penchant for puns and interesting deft phrase rhymes of the Cole Porter sort, only with swearing in their rhyming couplets. It is accurate assumption too that “Back” is polemical in its Ted Talk style touch on controversial issues of religion et al. While he talks of confirmation bias, increased tribalisation and the hypocrisy of assumed religious indemnity, ‘Come Home (Cardinal Pell)’ does not feature. ‘Pope’ and ‘Thank You God’ (“for fixing the cataracts of Sam’s Mum”) do, however, and are as wonderfully jaunty as ever, especially ‘Thank You God’, which features as an early show highlight in its lyrical avalanche of mockery of how prayer might mobilise religious response from an omnipotent ophthalmologist god.

“Back” is a mixed but still balanced bag of a musical experiences and laughs aplenty, full of sharp turns that take us from talk of George Pell to Minchin’s epic rock song opera ode to cheese and then the lovely ‘Leaving L.A.’ ‘Rock N Roll Nerd’ features a marvellous musical reveal that is worth the price of admission alone and things only soar higher from there. The absence of ‘Dark Side’ is disappointing, with encore instead featuring songs from his ill-fated Broadway musical adaptation “Goundhog Day” and also “Matilda”, for which he wrote the music and lyrics.

With an all-star band (including The Whitlams’ Jak Housden) in support, familiar songs like ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ are given a new, and in this case, sexy feel. Minchin himself is as skilled as even on piano, as is showcased in numbers like ‘Prejudice’ and from the opening song his voice is a smooth as ever in that ‘White Wine in the Sun’ sort of sentimental way, making us especially thankful for the Concert Hall’s impressive acoustics. Ever-talented, he takes to the guitar too in the closing anti-American anthem ‘Fuck’, another highlight in its hyper-real realisation.

“Back” tickets may set audience members back some decent coin, but they are worth every cent in every regard, even down to detail of lighting which enhances the little moments of songs as much as it awashes the stage with narratively-theme colours. But above everything else, after a seven-year stage absence it is just marvellous to see the multi-talented musical comedy genius touring our stages again. While his talk of his admittedly now rich white man privilege is tongue-in-cheek, there is an honesty too in his reflection about what has brought him home to Australia.

“I’m not saying I’m Jesus” Tim tells us in the lyrics of ‘Woody Allen Jesus’, despite his bare feet, long hair and bearded appearance, but he is a god of musical comedy cabaret and without doubt he is well and truly back. And given that his one sold out Brisbane show immediately morphed into a four night run, it seems audiences are excited by the prospect.

The joy of the show is infectious; for over two high energy hours (without intermission), Minchin is pure entertainer, jumping about the stage, squatting at his piano and posing atop it in his trademark bare feet, yet it feels like the shortest time. Indeed, while each evening may deliver a unique experience, it is sure to be an entertaining one…. Maybe less so for those unknowing audience members who were overhead after-show expressing their surprise at the ‘interesting’ religious focus of his repertoire, but from the standing ovation at show’s end, it seems they are in the minority.

Philadelphia freedom for something different

Orphans

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 7 – May 6

“Orphans” begins to the strains of Springsteen’s ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ in establishment of the play’s location for those who may not be familiar with the little known, but critically successful, work by Philadelphia-born playwright Lyle Kessler. Shortly thereafter, its opening sweary dialogue sets its tone as big brother Treat (Matthew Hamlin) returns home with the ill-gotten jewellery gains of his typical day of petty thievery.

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The dynamic of Treat’s relationship with his also grown orphan brother Philip (Stef Gimanez) is similarly quickly apparent; Treat is not only physically domineering, but psychologically torments his brother, who is ill-equipped to be of equal match. With Philip forcibly isolated, both physically and emotionally, it is clear that this is their existence rather than life. Treat’s sneakers are gaffer-taped together and Philip’s attire is of frayed fabric and they live on tinned tuna and mayonnaise in somewhat squalid surroundings.

Treat may have a violent temper but he is soon exposed as a rank amateur criminal when he attempts to kidnap for ransom Harold (Jon Darbro), a gangster in fancy silk suit and crocodile shoes, drunkenly mumbling about his sentiment towards fellow orphans and ‘dead end kids’ in reference to the street urchins of Depression-era movies. And as he transforms from the co-dependent brothers’ hostage into their mentor and eventual employer, a power shift is seen on stage.

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When Act Two opens some weeks later, staging and costumes show how things have changed with regards to the boys’ success, making Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ lead-in an unnecessary, overt signpost. Staging of the production is simple, though not entirely sturdy, but choreography within the space is considered to make maximum use of its possibilities to add interest to a lengthy narrative (two and a half hours plus, including interval) of repetitive dialogue. This three-hander, however, is all about its performances and in this regard, everyone delivers.

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Gimanez is tremendous as the beat-down and understandably nervous Philip, in need of a supportive shoulder squeeze. He not only captures the innocence and enthusiasm of his simple faith, but shows a versatile range, appreciated after a very funny re-enactment scene in Act Two. And Darbro, in particular, brings a commanding presence to the role of Harold, bringing welcome humour to the dark, emotional story, most notably when as hostage gagged and tied to a chair.

“Orphans” may be set in a certain time of LPs and daytime tv of Errol Flynn films (the play was written in 1983), but its moral ambiguity and themes of power, self and identity are universal and thus appealing. It is the something different that represents everything that Brisbane Arts Theatre does so well in its diverse program curation because as was overhead from among the departing post-show opening night crowd, ‘it’s good to see something I don’t know much about’.

Just in jest

The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

March 30 – April 27

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Brisbane Arts Theatre’s latest mainstage production sets a frenetic pace from its opening scene. It’s a necessity perhaps given its titular in-jest aim to share with the audience the complete history of comedy, albeit abridged. What follows is a somewhat comprehensive trip through comedy in many of its guises, including memorable tell of ‘the chicken’ and its multiple road crossings – in Ancient Greece, Elizabethan England…. the common riddle even experiences a postmodernist take and a Broadway musical portrayal. Although “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” has many laugh-out-loud moments like these, however, a momentum is difficult to sustain due to its essentially quite feeble premise.

The show revolves around its players (Willem Whitfield, Ben Kasper and Stephen Snape) uncovering an ancient Chinese 13-chapter manuscript on the art of comedy by Ah Tsu (say it out loud for the joke), brother of “The Art of War” writer Sun Tsu. The sacred relic is, however, missing its final chapter. Act One, which starts strongly as homage to the history of comedy, sees the audience guided through the twelve surviving chapters, including introduction to characters in commedia del arte, slapstick (and use of an actual slapstick) and the recurring threat of a potential cream pie attack. Act Two, in particular, ebbs and flows as the 13th chapter is discovered and the iconic, overplayed clown Rambozo (Ben Kasper) is called upon to share his wisdom after much earlier ‘what would Rambozo do’ foreshadowing.

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Of course any show covering a topic of such personal taste as comedy is going to lead itself to mixed audience appreciation, especially in its coverage of such a wide variety of comic styles, but there are some clear standout scenes. While early physical comedy bits fall a little flat (pun not intended), Act One ends with a brilliant Charlie Chaplinesque strobe-light sequence, that not only captures the look of a silent film but gives audience members some of the night’s biggest laughs. And, after this, despite its audience participation, theatre-sports style, the second act seems less dynamic compared to Act One’s energy and use of screens to support its lessons around the funniest duos and alike.

While “The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” may not always live up to the potential of its title, this is not through its cast’s lack of enthusiasm, which cannot be faulted. With simple staging and basic black costumes, the three jump in and out of numerous roles with ease, managing the madcappery of its many necessary props and costume additions. The versatile performers not only play off each other well but each have standout individual scenes in which to showcase their talents.

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“The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)” is an irreverent take of what is shown to be the complex art of comedy. The show is marketed as being comedy from the high-brow to the low and all that is in between, yet its stick to the simplest of comedy types mean a lot of its jokes are of the same ilk that eventually lose appeal. Its variety of this base level humour, however, still offers something for most audience members to have as a highlight, whether it be from its slapstick, mime, clowning or double (and single) entendres. Some local and topical additions are well-received and there are many ‘I can’t believe they went there’ groans in response to political and religious references, which do much to enliven its essentially kinda, sorta just funny and especially drawn-out construct. As is observed in its dialogue “If you smile, it’s amusing. If you laugh, it’s funny.” How big your grin or bold your giggles, may just depend on your personal fondness for funny.

Reagan in real life

Reagan Kelly (Rocket Boy Ensemble and Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

March 20 – 30

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20-something former school captain Reagan (Emily Carr) used to be brilliant, until ‘nothing in particular’ happened and she fell from grace to indifference and an unlikeable attitude, with a touch of kleptomania. Afraid of being bored to death in Brisbane suburbia, her life has become one of drunken nights in the Valley and one-night-stands. Dropped out of uni, unemployed and heading towards thirty, she is yet to get her shit together, so has returned to living at home.
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Reagan features in Lewis Treston’s play “Reagan Kelly” being presented at Metro Arts by Rocket Boy Ensemble. While she may be the inspiration for the show’s title, however, this is about more than just Reagan’s story. The dysfunctional family orbiting around her self-obsessed world has its own issues. Her parents Kirsty (Elise Grieg) and Ewan (Chris Kellet) are walking a fine-line between relationship crisis and breakthrough, while her secretly-engaged twin brother Oliver (Jeremiah Wray) is experiencing his own identity struggle. The result is a slice-of-life story without entire resolution, in that real-life type of way. Indeed, there is a realism especially to when the family gathers together at home, down to the ongoing interruptions of the won’t-stop-barking dog. Realistic dialogue and witty banter make it easy to get caught up in their stories and when all erupts at family dinner at a local restaurant before interval, we are hooked.

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The show features a talented ensemble of performers. Carr is excellent as the titular Reagan, rampaging into our experience with a memorable opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley ‘getting fucked up’. She plays being pissed perfectly, in increasing slur of words and also reactions to sudden discover of what has been there all along. It’s a recognisable scene, beyond its 2015 setting, in its description of the atmosphere, interactions and assaults on the senses, reminding those of us of a certain vintage as to why we are thankful to have had our time around before there was capacity to have it shared on social media. And trying as it is to hear those in their twenties lamenting the youth of others and complaining about being old, this fits with Reagan’s character who, by her own admission, is bored and selfish (and not particularly likeable).

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Still, the optimistic, even-younger Guy (Fraser Crane) plays smitten in his every interaction with Reagan, happy with their relationship arrangement, but longing too for her to be serious and stop deluding herself. And Lisa Huynh is a steadying force as Oliver’s intuitive fiancé Bianca. In contrasting tone, Jackson McGovern is very funny as Reagan’s sassy gay best friend Hugh, even if his flamboyant performance is very one (loud) note in nature. And parents Kellett and Grieg play off each other wonderfully.

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#whoisreagankelly, the company’s social media posts have hashtagged. After seeing the show, I still don’t really know much besides the fact that being with Reagan is a crazy ride. Even so, I’d love to see her and her family again, hopefully next time in a longer show run. As new shows go, it is a standout in many ways. Projections are used with discretion, however, play an integral role in bringing the opening nightclub scene to choreographed life, and under Tim Hill’s direction, clever choices in blocking add interest. All aspects combine to make for a thoroughly entertaining show that is well-paced and very funny, but still has some quality core messages about who we are how we treat others. There is also perhaps no better place for a play inspired by Brisbane, than Metro Art and given its near-full Wednesday night audience it seems that others agree.

Still so rightly wrong

The Book of Mormon (Anne Garefino, Scott Rudin, Important Musicals and John Frost)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 16 – May 31

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The New York Times calls it “the best musical of this century” and Entertainment Weekly says it is “the funniest musical of all time.” Understandably the arrival in Brisbane of the outrageous nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” has been much hyped, in part due to its clever marketing campaign of reduced-price ticket lotteries and alike, but also due to good old fashioned word-of-mouth. Since seeing it in London five years ago, before “Hamilton” took to the top of the hottest show list and it was still one of the most elusive (and most expensive) tickets around, I have been one of its many ravers, equally abuzz with anticipation as the uninitiated audience members at the gala Brisbane opening night. And while it shows its age a little now, as satire so often does, it is still easy to appreciate how it stands as one of the most successful musicals of all time.

“The Book of Mormon” is the odd couple story of two mismatched young missionaries, Elder Price (Blake Bowden) and Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak) who are sent to Africa for the most important time in their Mormon lives … their mission. Naively eager to spread the divine word and help heal the world in a different place they are ill-prepared for the remote Ugandan village that they encounter, with its famine, poverty, disease and dangerous militia.

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Initially the villagers aren’t particularly interested in hearing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, until Elder Cunningham starts ‘Making Things Up Again’ to keep them from getting bored by his bible stories, reconceptualising the little he knows of the doctrine with his favourite pieces of science fiction and fantasy. Just as the missionaries begin to feel connected with the people of Uganda, the mission president comes to visit and the truth is revealed in full-throttle hilarity.

The highly offensive musical is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone – the creators of the American adult animated sitcom “South Park”. And in keeping with this, the show is utterly audacious in its gratuitous ridicule, pushing the boundaries between satire and stereotype in that “South Park” heyday way. It’s blasphemous, profane and very, very funny in dialogue and musical numbers alike as it makes light of various Mormon beliefs and practices, while ultimately endorsing the positive power of the church’s service. Despite its veneer of crudeness, the uncensored comedy is quite clever, often in its simplicity, down to the details of costumes and choreography, continuing even into the program. Indeed, it is a testament to the truly funny from start-to-finish experience that different versions of the same joke just seem to get funnier, such as each time that Elder Cunningham awkwardly messes up the name of his desired love interest Nabulungi (Tigist Strode).

“The Book of Mormon” is about more than just its shock value. Since its Broadway opening in 2011, it has received not just popular praise but critical acclaim for its plot and score. It is a highly-polished musical of international standard and its first 30 minutes are particularly tight, full of huge energetic numbers, starting with its catchy, upbeat opening sequence number ‘Hello’ in which doorbells chime as young missionaries in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints army practicing their spiels on mock doorsteps outside the church’s training centre in Salt Lake City, which sets a light-hearted tone.

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The show features a kaleidoscope of memorable musical numbers, often in lampoon of contemporary Broadway styles, such are the layers to its clever story craftedness. “The Lion King” is parodied and referenced, in ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ is the first truly vulgar song in the show which ends with members of the Ugandan community giving the finger to and screaming four-letter words at God. And ‘All American Prophet’ in which Elder Price testifies in a very abridged tribute as to how Joseph Smith came across the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon, has a “Jesus Christ Superstar” feel to its orchestration.

Across soaring power-ballads, tribal singalongs and rock anthems, extravagant sets and choreography contribute to the world class production. Perhaps the musical’s biggest showstopper, ‘Turn It Off’, in which the young missionaries share advice on how to deal with dark thoughts (“Don’t feel those feelings, hold them in instead”) comes completed with a razzle dazzle elaborate tap dance number. And when things seemingly can’t go much further, the surreal ‘Mormon Hell Dream’ sees a super spooky-wooky Satan and his minions of Genghis Khan, Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran welcoming a worrying Elder Price to his perceived consequences for leaving his missionary companion all alone.

Direction is always sharp and the performances are all first-class. Bielak is masterful as the childishly exuberant Elder Cunningham, contributing much to the show’s high energy. The very versatile Blake Bowden is every part perfect, plucky Mormon poster boy Elder Price, conveying a presence even in his stature. He carries the show solo in the inspirational ‘I Believe’ proud announcement, when, after re-affirming his faith, he confronts the show’s violent warlord villain General with determination to convert him, belting out the key track with crisp, show-stopping vocals. Also of vocal note is Strode as Nabulungi, especially in her innuendo-filled soft-rock duet with Bielak, ‘Baptise Me’ and also Act Two’s ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ repreise and purely joyous evangelical company number ‘Tomorrow Is a Latter Day’.

“The Book of Mormon” is a difficult show to review because when it comes to praise it has all pretty much been said before. The ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical will not be to everyone’s tastes; it’s a very adult show and if you don’t like bad language it isn’t one for you. But if you are ready to forget your troubles for an evening and laugh until your face is sore, it’s a book that will change your life (#believethehype).

Spirited satire

Spirit Animal (#firstworldwhitegirls)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Rooftop Terrace

March 19 – 24

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In break from their woke world adventures and spiritual journeys, superprivileged Tiffany (Judy Hainsworth) and her best friend, millennial vlogger Madison (Kyra Thompson) are living the physic-told truths of their best lives and ready to tell audiences all about them (#irl). Over the top in their first world struggles, they remind us of the way to bliss through mindfulness and worship of our body temples, all with tongues firmly in cabaret cheek. The result is heaps of fun for everyone in the audience, even during a mass meditation session and shared mantra.

Endearingly egoed (‘I’m Better than You’ is a very funny early number), the characters are easily brought to (larger than) life by the talented duo. As the common denominator of the #firstworldwhitegirls brand, Hainsworth, in particular, has an assured stage presence as the narcissistic Tiffany, not-so-passive-aggressive in her reaction to ex-boyfriend Harry’s new bride Meghan (her angsty anti Meghan Markle ranty rap is a hilarious highlight).

The duo’s vocal talents are showcased in a range of catchy original songs in a variety of musical styles from a sultry song about how to create a perfect Instagram flatlay photo (with help from audience ‘volunteer’) to the pop-ballady ‘Dick Pic’. And it is always great to experience revisit of the anthemic ear-worm ‘Little Black Babies’.

Social media themes throughout, even in the ongoing show prop of accompanying Instagram post posters, detailed in humour even down to their hashtags and likers. And there is a nice Disney thread too that ties together with Thompson’s ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman’/’Let It Go’ type attempt to motivate Tiffany to return to the stage, because #hatersgonnahate.

As with all #firstworldwhitegirls shows, “Spirit Animal” is a tight, topical satire of the silliness of first world problems and the girls’ over-the-top journey has many relatable aspects. It is easy to appreciate how the bespoke local show slayed at this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival; with whip-smart wit and nuanced comic timing, nothing can bring these spirit guides down. So do yourself an hour-long favour with experience of its full-of-funny songs and dialogue; it’s better than staying home Netflixing and Facebook stalking.