Lonesome laughs

The Lonesome West (Troop Productions)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 8 – 18

“The Lonesome West” is one of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy which also includes “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Skull in Connemara”. However, it doesn’t take this pre-knowledge to know that the show is set in a tiny village in County Galway on the West Coast of Ireland. The scene is set not only by its pre-show Celtic soundtrack, but the staging, which includes portraits of the Pope and JFK hanging on the wall of the rundown-farmhouse set.

The bleak dwelling is the home of the adult Connor brothers Coleman (Christopher Story) and Valene (Cameron Hurry). After the death of their father, the vindictive Coleman and miserly Valene are thrust upon each other to endlessly bicker, squabble and fight over anything and everything, from Valene’s collectable figurines to who is the bigger virgin. The animosity is long-standing, but has been revived by Valene’s sole inheritance of the dwelling as part of his father’s estate, leading to his gleeful withhold of money, moonshine poteen and even packets of Taytos potato ‘crips’, from his brother and to him marking all his belongings with a big ‘V’.

Putting aside another crisis of faith, troubled but well-meaning and gentle priest Father Welsh (Derek Draper), attempts to reconcile the brothers, fearing their violence will spiral towards a bloody end. Girleen, (Eva McGillivray) a beautiful young school girl, provides hope for a brighter future, if only the men can find compassion in their hearts. But soon we realise their feud is about more than just Coleman’s disrespect of Valeen’s new stove.

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The more-marathon-than-sprint result is, perhaps surprisingly, a darkly irreverent but uproariously funny black comedy full of political incorrectness in the brothers’ interactions. And as the two grown-up brothers still stuck in a cycle of adolescent squabbling, Story and Hurry are excellent. Indeed, all members of the cast give impressive performances, mastering the Irish accent, which becomes easier of ear with every ‘feck’ exclamation. Hurry, in particular, give a dynamic (and very funny) performance as Valene, who can’t help but react to his brother’s every little antagonism.

The two make the first act, in particular, absolutely entertaining. After intermission, things stall a little as the story drags with too many too-long pauses and unnecessary staging faffs, extending the show’s duration by almost an additional hour beyond the advertised running time as old ground is recovered, albeit wittily. Still, as the brothers’ cyclical behaviour sees moments of hope emerge only to be then snatched away as outrageous apologies serve to open old wounds, entertainment turns to introspection as audience members are guided to consideration of when it is no longer ok to laugh at someone’s selfish behaviour.

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Director Keiran Brice ensures that, initially, at least, the production uses pace and physicality to escalate the brothers’ acts of aggression. Comparatively, things falter when the tone shifts jarringly, with the revelations that come from both Girleen, the only female character in the story, and Father Welsh. Even considering its shifting sensibility, this initially funny but ultimately grim show is certainly worth the effort of its lengthy duration for a sometimes touching and often laugh-out-loud funny show, but maybe not on a tired school night.

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Counterpilot cleverness

Spectate (Counterpilot)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 7 – 18

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Those who have encountered Counterpilot’s collective of interdisciplinary artists previously, know that their theatre is more experience than static show. And “Spectate” is no different. The all-encompassing work is immediately intriguing as, upon entry into the theatre, audience members are met with the sight of velvet red curtains in frame of a black and white film. With sounds of Dixieland-esque tunes soundtracking, it is evocative of a time almost a century ago when Harry Houdini was a marvel amongst men.

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Through audience member headphones, we are told that we are at the show of the incredibly famous Austro-Hungarian-born American stage magician and stunt performer. The dimming light makes for a meditative start as an interior monologue is provided, describing the sensation of sitting in the theatre and typical pre-show contemplations, from practical consideration of if we missed getting a program to larger concerns like ‘what if I don’t get it?’ Through this headphoned narration, along with live projection, we are taken to the Houdini’s final, October 1926 Detroit show. We are expecting acts of magic, escapism and hopefully his vanishing elephant illusion. So the card ticks and straightjacket escape that follow are almost disappointing.

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But Houdini (a beguiling Toby Martin) is looking pale and lethargic, occasionally clutching at his sides as foreshadowing for those familiar with the circumstances of the entertainer’s death less than a week later. Indeed, the waters run black for the master of mystery, worsening as he prepares for his famous Water Torture Cell trick.

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Are we about to witness Houdinin’s death and how does this make us feel? This is what “Spectate” is really about in its challenge of the nature of audience roles as spectators. In doing so the interdisciplinary work prompts audiences to think, but also to feel in response to the beauty crafted on stage in realisation of Writer/Director/AV Co-Designer Nathan Sibthorpe’s ambition to construct a world of contemporary illusion through use of 3D printed performers, live video compositing and immersive audio. The result is both fascinating and entertaining. The layered projections of diorama and live action are not only interesting in themselves, but accompanied by the prompt of the headphoned voice inside audience heads, they assist in suspending audience experience between layers of reality and versions of truth and fiction.

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Narrative interjections occur also through cross to conversations with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and alike as Houdini pursues debunking psychics and mediums as part of his desire, as President of the Society of American Magicians, to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. There is surprise too when audience members are texted in conversation with a show’s ‘character’ and also in a final cameo-filled short film that, although quite hilarious, appears unnecessary and out-of-context.

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“Spectate” is a ground-breaking new production that engenders fascination both in experience itself and in recollection afterwards. While the immediacy given to an experience from a century ago is intriguing, its legacy comes courtesy of what it contemplates about audience membership. Even without a vanishing elephant, it is spectacularly clever on so many levels, in a way probably never seen before.

Wonderful wizardry

The Wizard of Oz (John Frost and Suzanne Jones by arrangement with The Production Company)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 4 – December 3

dorothy.jpgAs exciting as modern jukebox type musicals may be, there is something comforting about seeing traditional stories being retold on stage. In its Australian premiere, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of “The Wizard of Oz” combines the best of these two takes, giving audiences an exciting spectacle that enhances previous experience of the perennially popular film and/or American fairytale story by Frank Baum.

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The same but better story tells of Dorothy Gale who lives on a farm in Kansas until a tornado arrives and picks her, her house, and her dog up and deposits them in the strange land of Oz. Dorothy who just wants to get back home, follows the instruction of the Good Witch of the North to head towards the Emerald City to meet the Wizard. En route she meets a Scarecrow in need of a brain, a Tin Man missing a heart and a Lion who longs for courage and discovers that no matter how yellow its bricks, the road is not always smooth travelling.

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The London Palladium Production offers a new and fresh take on a story that is still full of the songs audiences know and love. Dorothy’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ ballad muse to little dog Toto that there must be a place where there isn’t any trouble is initially rushed but still absolutely beautiful in its magical fusion of music, lyric, situation and singer. The Munchkinland Sequence of ‘Come Out, Come Out’, ‘Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead’ and ‘We Welcome You to  Munchkinland’ with Glinda, Dorothy and the Munchkins is simply joyous and you will find ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ and ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard” in your head for days (#inagoodway).

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There are five new songs too, with additional music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and additional lyrics by Tim Rice, which like the originals, advance the story and allow the witches to have voice in song through ‘Already Home’ sung to Dorothy by Glinda with beautiful message about having everything she needs already at home and ‘Red Shoe Blues’ in which the Wicked Witch plots “she’s pretty and clueless and I want her shoeless” as she sends her flying monkeys to capture Dorothy and Toto and bring them to her castle. Of course, the musical extravaganza would be nowhere without the orchestration, which is superb.

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Performances are appropriately pantomimic to a point, but full of heart. Remarkable and talented favourites Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix rejoin to weave their magic together on stage again, having previously portrayed Glinda and Elphaba respectively in the Australian production of “Wicked”. In an enlarged blue-rinsed good witch Glinda role, Durack is shrill in cutting comments, delivered with perfect comic timing. And Rix is nothing short of a deliciously evil green Wicked Witch of the West, cackling her threats and demands to have Dorothy’s magic ruby slippers.

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Anthony Warlow, makes for a wonderful, Wizard of Oz, revealing humanity behind the pretenced narcissism of the venerated ruler behind the curtain, but is best as Professor Marvel who woos runaway Dorothy with a new patter song, ‘Wonders of the World’ (and in cameo as the Oz doorman). Last seen on stage in Brisbane in 2012’s “Annie”, he is an absolute hoot in the charismatic character role.

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Samantha Dodemaide is similarly charming as the plucky Dorothy. And her beautiful voice is showcased in the iconic principal song, one of the most enduring standards of the 20th Century (#nopressure), soaring audiences along in melancholic memory of why only bluebirds fly over the rainbow.

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Dorothy’s improbable yellow brick road travelling companions are delightful too in share of much of the show’s punny humour. As the gelatinous scarecrow, Eli Cooper is nuanced in his every action, reaction and inflection. The cheeky cowardly lion, John Xintavelonis is an audience favourite and Alex Rathgeber gives a memorable tap number as the Tin Man.

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The same creative team from the Palladium original repeat their work and, accordingly, staging is quite spectacular, starting with a sepia-washed Kansas (like the movie’s initial scenes) in contrast to later under a rainbow reveal of vibrant technicolour. And, in Act Two when the narrative darkens, lighting creates a richly-red gothic aesthetic within the shadowy lair of the Wicked Witch and her winged monkeys. The most spectacular set, however, is that of an Art Deco Emerald City, reaching to the rafters.

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Computer generated graphics transition scenes, including showing the twister that transports Dorothy from Kansas to the Land of Oz to begin her colourful journey home. And the visual styling of the inhabitants of the Emerald City is magnificently detailed, evident especially in Glinda’s sparkling gown.

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Clearly, this “The Wizard of Oz” is much anticipated for a reason. It is an energetic, glittering wonder, full of humour and marvel alike to enthral all ages, in show of why the classic story is so universally loved. Those who cherish the film should expect faithful adaptation and more. Those unfamiliar with the source material (if there is anyone), will want to embrace the world’s favourite musical all the same.

Photos – c/o Jeff Busby

 

Artefact excellence

Bogga (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Geoffrey Rush Studio, University of Queensland

November 8 – 18

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Bogga” begins with a rent-a-crowd supported riot at Brisbane’s infamous Boggo Road Gaol; it’s one of the ‘80s riots probably provoked by the university 4ZZZ radio station as was seemingly the norm, soundtracked by songs of the ‘Pig City’ sort. And the old Cement Box Theatre proves to be the perfect location from which to experience it as things are thrown from the gantries and sounds boom from above in an almost surround-sound experience for audiences in the centre of the action.

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The new work by Rob Pensalfini uses verbatim oral histories to explore the decline and fall of the infamous Bjelke-Petersen regime through the microcosm of Queensland’s notorious Boggo Road Gaol in the 1970s and 1980s. Arising from historian Chris Dawson’s record of oral histories from a dozen former guards and prisoners, the work recounts not only riots, murders, corruption and escapes, but the hum-drum of daily prison life in the world within the walls. And after its initial scenes, it settles more into itself in subsequent segments, including interesting profile of famous face inmates (prisoners as they were called then), including Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire-bombers James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart, actor and professional wrestler Nathan Jones and old-timer ‘Slim’ Halliday, The Houdini of Boggo Road.

Interesting too are the corruption stories of the Sir Joh era, when prisons were prioritised along with police, despite then being separate political portfolios. But things lag a little towards the end of Act One in reflection of the callous attitude that prisoners had to assume. Indeed, although there has obviously been years of work in curating the real life contributions (all of the words and events in the play come directly from the oral histories without addition or alteration), content could be culled from the repetition amongst the real-life recollections to enable a tighter production. Still, “Bogga” is an excellent example of verbatim theatre, with direct address of the audience adding the obvious authenticity of dialogue like “I whacked him and he let go because I whacked him.”

Under long-time Core Ensemble member Rebecca Murphy’s direction, staging makes good use of all aspects of the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio space, even spilling ideas into the foyer where audience members can contribute graffiti to the walls. And music is a highlight, deserving of the thoughtful inclusion of song and artist list in the program, alongside a handy Bogga slang guide.

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The small cast features some standout performances. Paige Poulier is impressively imposing as a Boggo Road guard and Chris Vaag is excellent in all sorts of multi-roles, from cleanskin criminal without a previous record to long term, foul-mouthed and full-of-venom deviant.

The years of work in development of “Bogga” are not only apparent but clearly have been rewarded with an interesting show about an interesting place that stood the test of some interesting times in this state’s history. As an anthropological artefact, its value is immense. As a work of theatre it is at turns humorous and chilling. Combined, it is well worth the attention of anybody with even passing interest in the notorious heritage prison’s incredible history in particular or the city’s fascinating history in general.

Photos: c/o – Benjamin Prindable Photography

Behind brotherhood

Nineteen (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 9 – 12

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Wax Lyrical Productions’ dark comedy “Nineteen” begins with a confronting challenge: to consider the reasons behind the four male characters’ behaviour rather than dismissing it as offensive. And what follows is offensive as we see a group of mates in all of their bravodish binge-drinking glory in talk to each other and about women. (The show comes with warning of coarse language, partial nudity and adult themes, drug and alcohol use, smoking, self-harm and sexual themes).

The unapologetically flawed four, friends since a teen pact to always be best mates, live together in a rundown house. With a fridge to keep their beer cold and a toilet the mostly flushes, they seem happy enough, but appearance and reality are out of alignment and it doesn’t take much for the group to change from inseparable mates to lonely individuals.

There is, as narrator of sorts George Mills (Leonard Donahue) reflects, something deeper. Milsey, as he is known, is studying to be a writer so likes to tell stories such as this. It’s a story shared through a foreshadowing lens, as the audience is told early on that one of the four will be soon be dead. Clearly, each one has their demons and, in watching, audience opinion oscillates between whose fate is doomed (not necessarily noticing the hints that are easily acknowledged retrospectively), because being a man is not easy and uncomfortable honest confessions are not always as profound in themselves as they are in their consequences.

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Emotionally vulnerable George, gym obsessed Josh (Jackson McGovern), obliging Adam (Daniel Hurst) and his older, angry brother Noah (Silvan Rus) don’t talk about things in any meaningful way; that’s not what men do. And silence is well used to emphasise the things unsaid. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a less-than-subtle repeat of ‘when you’re a man’ in explanation of perpetuated ‘real-man’ expectations of boorishness and lack of communication.

Staging is naturalistic, allowing for use of all of its space, but with a long rope symbolically webbing its way around the stage. And, the soundscape plays an important part in highlighting the housemates’ hide from their complex inner worlds. What raises the show to greater heights, however, are the performances, particularly those of Hurst and Rus as bantering brothers; it is obvious how talented and committed they are to their performances.

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From beers and brotherhood to loss and loneliness, “Nineteen” uncovers the hidden, toxic aspect of masculinity through its exploration of ‘if only’. Beyond being an exercise in male privilege, it rawly reflects real hopes and fears, having been crafted from interviews with over 90 young people. As such, it reveals not only an unmistakable Australian extreme sense of humour but rips apart the mythology of masculinity, making it an important and necessary work for right now.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Silver songstresses

Women in Voice #25 (Women in Voice in Association with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

November 10 – 12

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“Women in Voice” is a much-loved feature of the Brisbane music and theatre landscape, which not only goes from strength to strength, but increases in popularity each year, as evidenced by its packed Powerhouse Theatre audience. The local phenomenon is not only well-liked, but unique in many ways, including its allowance for all performers to leave their distinct mark in curation of its program. In its silver anniversary show, this is ever the case with its versatile program ranging from ethereal ‘60s numbers from the stellar Allison St Ledger to Carita Farrer-Spencer’s faded diva delivery of self-lamenting standards and all things French, from Pepe Le Pew to Manu, featuring alongside segments also from a soulful Pearly Black and powerhouse vocalist Ellen Reed.

With such a formidable line-up of superlative songstresses, of course all performers are of excellent voice. Indeed, the immense talent of all the women is undeniable, especially when they join together for a final ‘Good Vibrations’. Ellen Reed, is, however, a standout, especially in stunning delivery of a soaring ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ from “The Rose”. The song features as part of a unique set in which she sings ‘man’ songs whose narrative changes when sung by a woman.

Offering a different perspective is a key factor of the show’s success as the songstresses ensure audiences appreciate well-known songs and lyrics anew. Pearly Black moves from Carole King’s ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ to a raw and vulnerable ‘Jealous’ yearn by the divine Chrissy Amphlett. And Reed both strips back George Michael’s synth-y ‘90s chart-topper ‘Fast Love’ and shares an intimate rendition of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ complete with carivalesque musical accompaniment.

Under the musical direction of Stephen Russel, the Women in Voice Brand is versatile in support, but given chance to shine in numbers like Black’s share of Joni Mitchell’s sweet ‘Edith and the Kingpin’. The most memorable moments, however, come from a very funny Bridget Boyle as emcee in role as ‘fine Rockhampton artist Anna Smart’ who entertains with a tambourine/interpretive dance routine, complete with ‘Piano Man’ sing-along. She also provides a hilarious highlight with a ‘needed’ political statement through mashup of Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name Of’, which serves as contrast to the an earlier ensemble ‘Meet You in the Middle of the Air’ by Paul Kelly in fitting tribute to those of the Women in Voice cannon who have been lost, including pioneering rock chick Carol Lloyd.

Certainly, the “Women in Voice” celebration of individuality of entertainers from different musical backgrounds and generations offers something for everyone in its diversity of musical choices and arrangements. And at well over two hours duration, the immensely entertaining musical experience makes for a marvellous night out. See these ladies once and you will surely be in their audience annually as the institution continues to journey from an intimate concert in an alternative café in West End to the longest constantly running local production in Brisbane’s history.

Sharing the Lanza love

Mark Vincent Sings Mario Lanza and the Classics (Lunchbox Productions)

QPAC, Concert Hall

October 29

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Modern connections to Mario Lanza, it seems, are many and varied. Mine is courtesy of a mother’s nostalgia, but one that doesn’t go much beyond knowing that for a short time the American Tenor was the greatest star of the 1950s. Yet, still I adored every moment of “Mark Vincent Sings Mario Lanza”, such is the infectious passion and immense talent of Australian tenor Mark Vincent in the touring celebration of Lanzo as one of the greatest voices of all time, lost suddenly and too early at only 39 years of age in 1959.

The show, which serves as expansion of the songlist of his Area Classical Crossover Chart topper album “A Tribute to Mario Lanza”, allows opportunity for Vincent to share the rich repertoire of songs and arias made popular by the great Italian-American tenor and actor. And from the playful opening number, ‘Granada’, his flawless vocals fill the flamboyant song about the Spanish city of the same name with full emotional resonance. Not only in this musical standard, but throughout the show, there are many light-hearted and joyous moments; audience members clap along to the famous Neapolitan song ‘Funiculi Funicula’ and sing along with Verdi’s lively ‘Brindisi’ from “La Traviator”, one of the best-known opera melodies, otherwise referred to as ‘The Drinking Song’.

It is revisits to Lanza’s movie career that make for the show’s best moments. There is the romantic aria from Puccini’s operatic thriller “Tosca”, ‘E lucevan le stelle’, which featured in Lanza’s 1951 film “The Great Caruso”, memorably melodic in its musical texture, and the simply beautiful ‘Be My Love’, which featured both in Lanza’s 1950 MGM musical “The Toast of New Orleans” and also as the theme song for his radio program, “The Mario Lanza Show “.

Vincent is a simply stunning vocal performer, including when he revisits Wimpole Streetmand his time as idle socialite Freddie Eynsford-Hill in the recent Australian anniversary production of “My Fair Lady” with a vaulting ‘On the Street Where You Live’, full of intensity and vibrato. The musical also features in the repertoire of guest, Jennifer Little, which see the New Zealand soprano sharing a light and breezy ‘I Should Have Danced All Night’ in contrast to the piercing heights of her ‘Art is Calling for Me (I Want to Be a Prima Donna)’, from the 1911 Broadway Comic Opera “The Enchantress”.

Under versatile Conductor Guy Noble, the 20 piece orchestra serves as a perfect accompaniment to the honest emotional expression on stage. The sounds are never overpowering, yet when given opportunity, they certainly shine, whether it be through the sombre clarinet introduction to the romantic aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’ or the expressive strings that create the swaying sounds of ‘Come Priva’, a Lanzo love song favourite of many in the audience. Lighting, too, contributes much to the aesthetic experience, painting the Concert Hall in beautiful blues, rich reds and orange sunset shades in accompaniment to the syrupy sounds of the popular ‘The Loveliest Night of the Year’.

The spectacular venue is a perfect location in which to hear Vincent’s exquisite tones, particularly in the show’s encore songs. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is inspirational in its rise from low notes to a powerful and emotional crescendo. And then there is every tenor’s favourite ‘Nessun Dorma’ from the final act of Puccini’s “Turandot”, which kick-started Vincent’s career as a 15 year old on “Australia’s Got Talent”. Affecting and emotional, the aria of all arias makes for a tear-to-the-eye conclusion, so moving is its experience. And the standing ovation and calls of “bravo” certainly do it justice.

Mark Vincent is a stunningly talented opera singer and this is the perfect vehicle to showcase his magnificent golden tenor sound, always respectful of the integrity of the source material. Indeed, “Mark Vincent Sings Mario Lanza and the Classics” is a wonderful and long overdue tribute to Lanza’s unforgettable vocals, charisma and talent, as a classical artist, not just a film star. And in Vincent’s hands, the famous tenor’s legacy continues to resonate, regardless of initial audience connections. His voice conveys richness, emotion and narrative conviction, which, alongside the show’s lush orchestration, showcases not only his own versatile voice but the uncanny vocal similarities he shares with one of the 20th Century’s best tenor voices.