Peepshow play

Peepshow (Circa)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

January 14 – 25

Like Rachel Burke’s tinsel installation that decorates the foyer, there is an infectious sparkle to the Cremorne Theatre as audiences enter for Circa’s acclaimed “Peepshow”, courtesy of a shimmery backdrop and notable neon sign…. sparkle with a bit of burlesque. Performer clothes do come off a bit later with a little help from an audience member of sorts. (This is show with partial nudity, recommended for those aged 15 years and older; take your youngsters instead to “Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus” the company show which is playing by day in the same theatre).

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The hit “Peepshow” from Brisbane’s own Circa Contemporary Circus is dynamic from its very outset with a divine Act One soundtrack that features beguiling reworkings of some familiar tunes like Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’. Dreams appear broken, however, as we somersault into a seedier Act Two, in which the soundscape basses along as jerky and exaggerated dance moments morph into circus moves. The show is based around the concept of voyeurism and in Act Two, the audience often appears as a mirror in front of which performers pep and preen themselves, before sensibility is turned back to the gentler beginnings of Act One’s physical feats.

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This is a technically tight show with slick, sleight-of-hand type transitions but its success comes from more than just the thrill of its risky formations. The cheeky attitude of performers engages and creates a connection beyond just experience of its captivating acrobatic tricks. There is a lot of lifting, but other acts also, including stylish hoop routines, mesmerising aerial silk climbs, wraps, and drops and gravity-defying trapeze tricks.

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Director Yaron Lifschitz has given us a circus show for adults that turns the genre on its head… literally, as time and time again its seven performers (Ela Bartilomo, Jessica Connell, Luke Thomas, Maggie Fayne, Gerramy Marsden, Lachlan Sukroo, Billie Wilson-Coffey) astonish with an array of aerials, towers of balanced bodies and bending that beggars belief. While the show is often sexy in its sensibility, however, it doesn’t subscribe to the traditional idea of a peepshow; its women are strong, powerfully controlled and incredibly flexible as they anchor others atop their shoulders and balance performers on their torso in arch pose.

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The show’s triumph is also its tight ensemble work as performers use balance and counter-balance to perfection, sustaining intensity throughout, especially in their human pyramids and twists and turns while balanced atop each other. Indeed, they make complex contortions look effortless, but still show sparks of spontaneity that give a life to that work that is not always seen in circus shows.

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As with “Humans”, “Peepshow” is clearly a celebration of the beauty and strength of the human body through its stunning display of breathtaking moves. Its feats of extreme physicality take circus to another level, revealed through the collective audience reactions of awe and I was certainly thankful to be sedately seated a few rows back rather than being thrust into the front row exhilaration of having performers appear to be flying right at you, in catch and release routines made all the more astounding by their figure of eight rotations complete with leg changes. As thrilling as its execution is, however, there is also a playfulness too with juggling, human skipping ropes and a very clever Fosse-esque glove routine of intertwined hands and bodies. It’s the dramatic bending and flexing of the human body that is most memorable though, especially getting to see someone turn their body inside out to totally touch their own elbows!

 Photos – c/o Darren Thomas

Kurioser and Curioser

Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities (Cirque du Soleil)

Northshore Hamilton, Grand Chapiteau

January 10 – February 23

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Guests get a taste of the Cirque du Soleil experience as soon as they enter the Grand Chapiteau for “Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities” as while audience members wait for the show to begin the intrigue on stage starts to play out. The initial fantasy world setting of writer/director Michel Laprise’s imagination resembles a mad scientist’s lab with an accordion man and alike characters of hybrid forms and oversized shapes, including a set of robot assistants that seem to be taken straight from the pages of Shaun Tan’s “The Lost Thing” picture book. Clearly this is a place where wonders abound, an alternate yet familiar past.

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Master of the House, the Seeker is convinced that there exists an invisible world where the craziest ideas and the grandest dreams await. And so, out of his curio cabinet steps a collection of otherworldly characters made up of world-class gymnasts, acrobats and contortionists (a cast of 47 artists from 17 countries). The central story of this scientist’s attempts to uncover the mysteries of the universe is a very loose framing narrative, but this does not matter once you are engrossed in its wonderful, dark, mysterious makeshift mechanical world.

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This Montreal circus troupe big-top extravaganza outing comes with a steampunk theme with its dazzling circus acts presented in a Victorian era setting, which makes for not just a creative central theme but a lavish matching design aesthetic. The show is a visually-dense spectacle (with, for example 426 props in, the most of any production in Cirque du Soleil’s history). It is full of reveals and more than a hundred detailed costumes too, seen, for example, during the Act Two opener Acronet in which acrobats appear as underwater creatures to tumble about with superby synchronicity on a giant, trampoline-like net above a vast ocean. However, there is no net featured in a lot of the awe-inspiring acts, most notably, Aerial Straps, in which two strapping initially-conjoined twin males soar to impressive heights and crisscross the stage in a stunning overhead display.

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Over and over again audience members encounter acts they may think they have seen before, only to have them taken to even further extreme. Indeed, edge-of-your-seat acrobatics lead to many audible oohs and ahhs from the crowd. In Banquine, a group of acrobats execute routines with precise synchronisation, including somersaulting and crisscrossing in the air, pyramiding and standing atop each other three and four high. Contortion, too, features a quartet of deep-sea electric eel creatures come to life to perform a series of incredible contortion pyramids on a mechanical hand platform.

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A lively host of sorts moves things along, as oddball ringmaster directing an entertaining miniature circus of invisible artists, until Felipe the invisible lion escapes, although his comic act, which sees him inviting an audience member on stage in attempted courtship, drags a little. In fact, audience involvement in all of its instances appears unnecessary, such is the highly polished world of whimsy on stage.

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“Kurios” not only showcases imaginative staging and presentation, but a boisterous live music score that adds to the aesthetic with gypsy jazz sounds (BOB & BILL Composers and Musical Directors). This is sophisticated circus but not necessarily as you may know it. Amongst all of the show’s stylised segments, there is still something for everyone… from aerial bicycle acrobatics to extreme yo-yo wizardry. In every instance the performers skills are astonishing in their transportation of the audience into a fantasy world where everything is possible.

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Even if you have seen a previous Cirque du Soleil show, the creative re-interpretations of classic circus acts seen in “Kurios” will have you thankful for the return visit. It’s not only an immensely entertaining retro-future exhibition of first-class gymnastic skills and imaginative production design, but, true to its title, a successful showcase of the joy that can be borne out of curiosity. Despite being the company’s 35th production since 1984, it still brings magic and romance of the circus to the Big Top in a spectacular display of artistry and art to fuel the imaginative curiosity of young and old, both in its moments and for days afterwards in recollection of its wonders.

Mozart mayhem

Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus (Circa)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

January 7 – 18

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Circa’s family-friendly show, “Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus” is a stunning display of daredevil acrobatic artistry set to the dramatic tunes of Mozart, making it a wonderful way to introduce children to the composer’s music come to life.

The family show with an energetic circus twist starts slowly with a lonely birthday girl (Kathryn O’Keeffe) who conjures Mozart (real-life husband Paul O’Keeffe), and a live accordionist (Gareth Chin) from her refrigerator by putting on her favourite of the classical composer’s records. Despite his period costume attire and wig, Wolfgang is soon stretching, lifting and tumbling about with the girl, before departing from the fantasy. A quick record flip and he is back for us to hear and see more (much more) of him as he sets to entertain with ‘don’t try this at home’ bicycle tricks and farcical antics. There is then juggling, creative play with the show’s spotlight and a very funny slow-motion fight scene; it’s mayhem that the youngest children and adults alike all love.

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As the cheeky and eccentric musical prodigy, Paul O’Keeffe provides most of the laughs through his mischievous animated expressions, silly but genuinely-funny slapstick antics and over-the-top man-child tantrum reactions to prop malfunctions. As expected in a Circa show, both of the performers are physically strong artists, as evidenced by their balancing and hand-to-hand routines and it is especially impressive to see Katherine O’Keeffe serve as the anchor in so many of these. Together they present some truly impressive stunts tumbling and jumping over and atop each other and do well to hold the attention of an audience of children.

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While the on-stage comedy routine antics and snippets of audience involvement provide playful laughs and a feeling of fun, it is the show’s reinvention of Mozart’s magical music that sets it apart from others. Movement is perfectly timed to its accompanying, bringing it to such life as to inspire little ones to hum Mozart’s ‘Little Night Music’, as they are heading off afterwards.

Of course you don’t need to be a youngster, to appreciate the refreshing concept behind this whimsical journey, or the skills of its physical theatre performers. And this is what makes “Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus” another of the renowned international circus company’s special successes.

2020 aplenty

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While I am well into planning what West End shows to see in 2020, I know that Brisbane theatre has plenty of its own highlights coming. This is what I am most looking forward to seeing (so far) in the year to come:

1. Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)

I just missed seeing the sci-fi teen musical on Broadway, so until the Phoenix Ensemble’s late 2020 production will have to live in anticipation of the Evan Hansen heir with last year’s elaborate Tony Awards homage to the show’s Michael in the Bathroom solo.

2. 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

I love this musical comedy and its oddball characters … fearless spellers at a fictional spelling bee who love scary words. It is a peppy frolic of colour, music and fun that I am sure Brisbane Arts Theatre will bring to vibrant life come late 2020.

3. Hello Dolly! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

There has been a great display of on-stage talent in recent Queensland Musical Theatre shows and I am yet to see the enduring musical theatre hit and appreciate how it has earned its exclamation point.

4. Emerald City (Queensland Theatre)

Nobody does drama better than Australia’s own David Williamson and given that the Melbourne Theatre Company co-pro revival of his 1987 classic opens in early February, we don’t have long to wait to consider the worth of sacrifice for success and fame.

5. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

… the theatre coup of the year, to which anyone what has read the smash-hit, triumphant Australian novel, loosely based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood, will attest. #theraversareright

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Sugar, spice and Nutcracker nice

The Nutcracker (Queensland Ballet)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

December 13 – 21

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“One of the things I love most about The Nutcracker is the way it brings families and generations together…” so reads Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director Li Cunxin’s program greeting, a sentiment that is immediately realised upon entry into the Lyric Theatre for experience of the classic ballet in two acts. Seeing “The Nutcracker” is a dearly-held Christmas ritual for countless families around the world and now I understand why.

The timeless story, based on ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 tale of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” about a nutcracker come to life is dazzling one, whether audience members be return viewers or new to the enchanting experience. It is a whimsical, beautiful holiday classic brought to life by Queensland Ballet in a fabulous spectacle of a show.

The story is simple enough and easy-to-follow; guests are being greeted at a Christmas Eve party where the mysterious, magical Drosselmeier (a charismatic Jack Lister) delights with magic tricks and gives Clara (Lou Spichtig) a wooden Nutcracker. He later returns to take us into the next chapter as, at midnight, little Clara begins a magical journey into a wondrous world where her surroundings grow around her as toys come to life. Her nutcracker comes to life to soldier the toys against King Rat and his giant mice army before himself turning into a handsome prince, her house is transformed into the Land of Snow complete with delicate dancing snowflakes, and a beautiful Sugar Plum Fairy appears in reign over the Kingdom of Sweets in which entertainment comes from a range of international dances.

It really is a story of two halves. While Act One’s theatrical amusements entice children in their pantomime-ish sensibilities, Act Two’s repeated ballet sequences serve as a celebration of the art form in and of itself. Impressive choreographic detail (Ben Steveson choreographer) features throughout, adding depth to the flurried Christmas party opening scene in its presentation of the subtleties of generational and gender dynamics at such a gathering, and an ensemble approach allows for many moments of humour, such as in the animated antics of elderly characters at the party, most notably Grandmother (Serena Green) and Grandfather (D’Arcy Brazier). Even the more traditional second act affords opportunity for impressive attention to detail, even if only in background character interactions. And the motifs representative of each country are complemented by costumes within the Arab, Chinese and Russian dances, without compromising the integrity of traditional classic ballet.

Act Two also features the most familiar sections of Tchaikovsky’s iconic, melodic score, one of his most famous compositions. Its nimble sounds are flawlessly delivered by The Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Music Director and Principal Conductor Nigel Gaynor, from the light and lively first theme through to the triumphant ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ and the wintry and delicate ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’. Also lush is the layered Lyric Theatre staging of Christmas red and green, before transformation into the dreamy Land of Snow, with a beauty that extends even into the stalls. And the special effects that see the house’s Christmas tree grow before our eyes, offer one of many magnificent moments.

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The serene snow scene allows for the creation of beautiful symmetrical patterns and formations on stage amidst falling snow, and accompanied by the flickering flutes and flurrying orchestral sounds of the Waltz, it makes for a magical move into interval. Costumes (Design by Desmond Heeley) and movements replicate the idea of unique snowflake swirls and groupings. The mastery of the dancer’s synchronisation is striking, not only when they are dressed as sparkling snowflakes in the first act, but also as flowers in Act Two’s whimsical ‘Waltz of the Flowers’.

Much of the captivating spectacle of the show comes from its performances. As Dr Drosselmeyer, Jack Lister delivers magic tricks and precise illusions with well-executed grand and deliberate moments, while the dolls, particularly Patricio Reve as Soldier Doll, are impressive in their stiffly mechanical physicality and never-wandering eyes-straight-ahead stares, demanding audience attention. And crowd favourite David Power gives a hyper-energetic performance as Act Two’s whirling Russian dancer, leaping about the stage with impressive athleticism.

Spichtig again makes for a youthfully exuberant and innocent Clara, taking the audience along on her wonderful dream within a dream journey, while the Snow Queen and Snow Prince (Liam Kim and Liam Geck) display a captivating synergy, with clean movements. Lucy Green gives a technically-assured performance in the demanding Sugar Plum Fairy role, with impressive point work both in solo and pas de deux with the Prince (Victor Estevez). Indeed, her partnership with the Prince (Victor Estevez) is so breathtaking as to elicit spontaneous applause from the audience during their grand pas de deux, possibly the most beautiful dance of the production. Estevez makes for an elegant prince who showcases apparently effortless entrechats and strings of fouette turns with ease, and stately extensions beyond the ballerina frame, counterbalance and the pair’s triumphant lifts.

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Experience of Queensland Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” is a wonderful ‘tis the season treat. In the company’s hands it is easy to appreciate its place as one of the most beloved ballets of all time. Its music is glorious and gorgeously evocative, with a score that is full of unforgettable melodies, turned into a range of beautiful shapes and movements. It has become a tradition for the company to perform it every year during the festive season (this is their seventh successive Nutcracker year) and with its combination of gorgeous sets and costumes, stunning dance and Tchaikovsky’s music, it continues to serve as the perfect festive ballet to get you and yours in the holiday mood, accessible to all ages in its just-over-two-hours running time and warm-hearted combination of comedy, magic and beauty. Whether the show serves as an annual family outing or you are coming into it with knowledge only through pop culture references like in a holiday episode of “Will & Grace” (#guilty), “The Nutcracker” will fill you with the sugar, spice and all things nice of this time of year.

Christmas quirk continued

A Very Kranksy Christmas (The Kransky Sisters)

December 17 – 21

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

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The multi award-winning Kransky Sisters (Annie Lee as Mourne, Christine Johnston as Eve and Carolyn Johns as Dawn) are back at QPAC this festive season, having travelled from their home town of Esk to share their otherwise shrouded-in-secrecy traditional Christmas festivities. Returning too, are many repeat audience members who appear not to mind that not much of the show has changed from its previous versions, at least in its initial sections, such is the loyal following for this quirky musical trio. Conversely, there are also some new-viewers in the audience who may struggle to get their head around what exactly they are seeing, such is the acquired taste that is a The Kranksy Sister show, chock-full of musical and cultural references for those of a certain vintage and experience to appreciate.

In the first night of the 2019 return season of “A Very Kransky Christmas”, it takes a while for the between-sister and audience banter to find its place and Christine Johnston in particular, keeps things moving with an engaging energy. As the put-upon half-sister Dawn, Johns repeatedly steals the show, despite being a woman of very few words, making their ‘Orinoko Flow’ number particularly memorable.  Another highlight comes when the group is expanded with addition of audience member ‘volunteers’ in a ‘Pop Muzik’ tambourine-along.

As in the show’s previous incantations, the off-beat pop music covers and Christmas song mashups (accompanied by the trio’s unusual array of instruments which include toilet brushes, kitchen pots and a musical saw alongside tuba, guitar and reed keyboard) don’t so much propel the story along, but act as its soundtrack as they recall songs playing on wireless and alike as key past events occurred.

An often macabre tone and clever lyrical reappropriation make the musical numbers very funny accompaniments to the tell of eccentric Christmases at the Kransky house in hope of a Santa visit, deliberately naïve as the fictional sisters often are to their messages (cue Johnny Cash’s ‘Burning Ring of Fire’). And it wouldn’t be Kranskys without some Nana Mouskouri, such is their unique quirk and endearing obliviousness… always amusing and enormously entertaining.