Rocket Man memories

Your Song (The Little Red Company)

QPAC, Concert Hall

September 30 – October 1

The Little Red Company turns 10 this week and how appropriate it is to mark the occasion with return of one of their fastest selling shows, in one of Australia’s most spectacular concert venues. And the mood is certainly celebratory from the start of “Your Song” as ‘Benny and the Jetts’ leads into introduction of the performers returning from the show’s 2021 season at the Judith Wright Arts Centre, Luke Kennedy, Andy Cook and The Sunshine Club’s dynamic duo Marcus Corowa and Irena Lysiuk.

Along with a world-class band (Mik Easterman on Drums, Michael Manikus on piano, OJ Newcomb on bass and Stephen Ward on guitar), the fabulous foursome reminds us of why the show was the 2021 Matilda Award winner for Best Musical or Cabaret. Far from being a typical tribute show (no-one takes on the role of Elton John) creators Adam Brunes and Naomi Price have crafted a unique verbatim musical theatre experience that merges the music and lyrics of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songs with powerful true stories of heartbreak and hope, pain and passion, first loves, final moments and more.

Nuanced original musical arrangements by Maitlohn Drew, Alex Van den Broek and the cast capture not just familiarity of well-known numbers but the emotion at the core of each song in relation to its corresponding story. And the stellar cast of performers are all compelling as they gateway us into the power of Elton John’s music through the eyes of everyday people.

Andy Cook is again a standout. His stage presence is such that eyes are drawn to him throughout. Not only is his spirited energy infectious, but his strong vocals add a resonate depth to all range of numbers. While he enlivens a surprisingly poignant ‘Crocodile Rock’ to a big-voiced, spirited glam-pop celebration of life, music and memory, his astonishing voice also gives us the show’s highlight in an almost a cappella ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ with the barest of piano accompaniment, enrapturing the Concert Hall audience into mesmeric awe. It is just one of many moving moments evoked through reconsideration of songs’ simple and profound lyrics.

Lysiuk’s ‘Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word’ evokes the raw honesty at the heart of a reflection on loneliness and Corowa’s glorious voice layers his numbers with rich emotional texture, with his ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ serving as another highlight. Meanwhile, Music Supervisor Kennedy shows his versatility through both giving a beautiful rendition of the ballad ‘Daniel’ and uplifting us into the majestic chorus of ‘Tiny Dancer’.

Characteristically for the company’s shows, everyone is given a chance to shine, including, notably, Michael Manikus during the anthemic piano build of ‘I’m Still Standing’. All of Elton John’s well-known hits make appearance, if only in medley as part of the rousing on-your-feet sing-along encore. Even the show’s titular tune is wonderfully presented in a newly-imagined way with Lysiuk’s lean-in to its simple nativity with a surprise to-boyfriend share that is full of nervous, self-conscious energy showing why she was nominated for the Matilda Award for Best Female Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in last year’s debut season of the show.

The all-true, often deeply-personal stories and secrets presented take us through a range of emotions in reminder of the power of music to evoke associated memories… like (for those of us of appropriate vintage) where we were when we heard of Princess Diana’s passing. ‘Candle in the Wind’ not only does this, but with added emphasis in light of recent royal events. And the Concert Hall acoustics ensure that the group’s harmonies are as vivid as ever.

So authentic is the performers’ storytelling, that is easy to forget that these are in most instances not their own stories. And they are so seamlessly curated together with a craftedness characteristic of The Little Red Company works, that the show’s 90-minute duration flies by in an explosive experience of at-once heart, soul and distinctive Rocket Man camp.

Photos c/o – Stephanie Do Rozario

Here we go again… again

Mamma Mia! (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

24 September – 8 October

Especially since in recent years it became available for amateur licensing, I’ve now seen “Mamma Mia!” many times. This makes it a difficult musical to review, but never to watch. As Savoyards’ production shows, the audience favourite is full of familiar songs and infectious sing-along energy to get everyone’s toes tapping.

The story-telling magic of ABBA’s timeless songs is crafted into a now well-known tale of love, laughter and friendship centred around a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Stephanie Lee-Steere) tells the audience how she has set upon a quest to discover the identity of her father by inviting three men from her free-spirited single-mother Donna’s (Vanessa Wainwright) past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago… on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Matthew Bennett). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to Sam (Andrew Dark), Bill (Andrew McCarthur) or Harry (Steven Norris) so that whichever of them is her father can then walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Donna. The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship that is pure entertainment in its every element. 

Wainwright is splendid as ‘feminist icon’ Donna, the former lead singer of the 1970s pop group Donna and the Dynamos, with best friends Tanya (Natalie Lennox ) and Rosie (Jacqueline Atherton), conveying an assurance of self-sufficiency that is belied by her bumbling body language around her confident and composed past love Sam. Vocally, she takes us on quite the journey too. Her vibrato sounds give us a gutsy ‘Mamma Mia’ in response to seeing her ex-lovers, she makes ‘Slipping Though My Fingers’ a beautiful insight into Donna’s emotions at dressing Sophie for her wedding and her ‘Winner Takes It All’ spit back at Sam is heartbreaking. She is supported by a large ensemble of varying energy levels, with notable standouts coming from the support players of Carly Wilson as Sophie’s bubbly best friend Ali, along with Lisa (Kayleigh Bancroft) who have travelled to the island for the wedding and an underused Michael Chazikantis as Sky’s friend Eddie, deliverer of many well-timed comic one-liners.

A brilliant band under the musical direction of Nicky Griffith brings vitality to the ABBA tunes. It is just unfortunate that some opening night moments are affected by sound concerns, with microphone issues detracting from numbers like ‘Does Your Mother Know’, which sees Sky’s flirty friend Pepper (Joshua Brandon) attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’. Similarly, Act One’s highlight ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is shaky in its start before evolving into its usual flipper fun.

Desney Toia-Sinapati’s choreography features as one of the show’s standout aspects throughout. Donna and the Dynamos’ hen party performance of ‘Super Trouper’ is a triumph of shapely simplicity in its in-unison sways and outstretched points, while big ensemble numbers like ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ explode with well-timed focal point entrances and exits to allow each of Sophie’s dads to take centre-stage for their in-turn realisations about their potential parentage.  

A lot of the show’s comedy comes from its small moments, such as the reactions of Father Alexandrios (James Riley), the minister officiating Sophie’s wedding, as things start to go awry. This attention to detail features from the beginning when its title track features pop-up appearance of a Greek chorus of sorts in ensemble emphasis of its iconic chorus. Even the out-of-place Act Two opener ‘Under Attack’, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, emerges with its own surprises. Comedy comes also from the cheeky free-spirited flirtation of Atherton’s warmly endearing Rosie, which cresendos into overt wedding day proposition of Bill in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’.

“Mamma Mia!” is everything you expect it to be and in Savoyards’ hands, its trip down the aisle…. again is one that is full of upbeat fun. And with three weeks of shows, there is still time to join the group in Greece to experience to its joy first-hand, though tickets are selling fast!

Photo c/o – Sharyn Hall

Contemporary courting

12 Angry Men (Ghostlight Theatre Company)

KSP Theatre

September 9 – 23

Reginald Rose’s iconic “12 Angry Men” is a classic of the theatre. The courtroom drama may be set in 1950s New York, but as brand new not-for-profit community theatre group Ghostlight Theatre Company shows us, the only thing truly dated about the work is its title. While we still have a dozen ‘men with ties’ deciding the fate of a teenager (in this case of a lowered, 16 years of age) accused of murdering his abusive father, this contemporary take includes female performers in some of the roles and the use gender neutral pronouns, amongst other tweaks that easily transport the story into consideration through a modern lens.

As the case’s judge reminds the titular jurors in introduction, “Murder in the first degree—premeditated homicide—is the most serious charge in our criminal courts… your verdict must be unanimous… (and) the death sentence is mandatory in this case”.  While eleven are convinced of his guilt, however, despite the testimony of an alleged eye witness to the killing, one has doubt… and reasonable doubt is a safeguard that has enormous value in the legal system. “This is somebody’s life,” Juror Number 8 tells his peers. “We can’t decide in five minutes.” And so the story continues over two and a bit tense hours (including interval) under Susan O’Toole Cridland’s taut direction which ensures that the audience remains gripped for its duration.

Greg Delchau’s stage design places us firmly within the 1954 court jury room. There is nothing to hide within the confines of the locked room and the resulting tension is engrossing. Far from coming across like a play reading from around its centrepiece table, however, the action is ongoing with natural movement that does not distract from where focus is required. Blocking is effective to ensure authentic physical movement maintains audience interest while adding to the action of rising tensions as the group attempt to come to a consensus through discussion of probability vs possibility, because before DNA and CCTV, there was just speculation.

Even if the evolution of the afternoon’s heat into an Act Two rain storm threatens to overwhelm the audibility of some dialogue, this is a play of words much more than action. Its success relies on its cast in bringing its words to life while creating their own characters, with its range of personalities adding to its conflict. Jon Darbro gives a controlled performance as the central character of the play, Juror 8, the only one to initially vote not guilty, thus preventing an immediate unanimous guilty decision. He effectively balances the architect’s mild-mannered nature with the charisma needed to build a case of reasonable doubt in the minds of others, methodically taking us along for the ride through his reasoning. In contrast, Mark Blackmore balances Juror 3’s entitled rising self-righteousness with the grief of an angry father determined for some sort of justice.

Also of note, Luke Lilley is excellent in portrayal of die-hard baseball fan Juror 7, frustrated by the sceptical caution which forces the group to more carefully consider the evidence before jumping to the initially anticipated hasty verdict. It’s an absorbing performance physicalised by anxious moments to keep us focussed on the fast-talking salesman’s motivations and mindset. John Stibbard also insightfully establishes his character, the elderly Juror 9, as one who may not speak much, but when he does, speaks thoughtful sense arising from quiet observation of the trial’s witnesses. And they are well supported by David Murdoch, Aether Beyond, Mark Blackmore, Lindi Milbourne, Tallis Tutunoa, Greg Delchau, Sandra Harman, Amanda Burgess and Julia Cox as the other jury members we see gradually reconsidering their positions.

Each of the jurors has their own agenda and Murdoch is solid as the calm and methodical, but consequently frustrated, foreman trying to keep the group of headstrong strangers in order, especially when under fire from Harmon’s brash Juror 10, who is without tact or any sense of civic duty. Rude and prejudiced in a deep-seated ‘us versus them’ mentality, Juror 10’s explosive xenophobic rant results in one of the most memorable moments of the play. When, provoked by consideration of the accused’s upbringing in the worst part of town, into unleash about how ‘the kids who crawl outa those places are real trash’, the in-turn movement of other characters turning their back from their various vantage points around the room, creates a clever statement both in and of itself but simultaneously about how far we have come from the context of the story’s first creation.

It is this considered approach to the play’s reimagining, that makes for a powerful production from start to the finish. Indeed, Ghostlight Theatre Company’s “12 Angry Men” is a riveting, rewarding revisit of a classic that not only respects the original text, but finds a place for it from a contemporary perspective. One can now only await with anticipation the new company’s next work.

Combined craft connection

Heartland

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

September 23

Brisbane Festival’s “Heartland” sold out well ahead of its performance. Given the stature of its headliner, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist William Barton, this is of little surprise. Barton is widely recognised as one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players and composers. (The morning after the performance he is jumping on a plane for Melbourne to appear as part of the AFL grand final’s half-time entertainment.) It is not just Barton performing, but also powerhouse versatile violinist Véronique Serret. Together they combine crafts to share connected stories as traditional songlines and modern storytelling blend in a distinctive evocation of our uniquely Australian landscape.

Brisbane Powerhouse’s intimate Underground Theatre is the perfect location for the expansive but also at-once personal meditation that “Heartland” represents, with moments of poetry written by Barton’s mother Aunty Delmae Barton interspersed throughout the hour-long collaboration. At times, the recitations are almost like slam poetry thanks to Serret’s punchy, powerful delivery, which adds to their soaring emotion. Numbers are fluidly anthologised together and, as with songs of worship, there is not opportunity of need for punctuating applause. Rather the captivated audience is held silent in attention of the stillness of the show’s moments, which are enhanced by lighting normally only seen in the Powerhouse Theatre, which lushes us from the earthy tones of dusk’s glory to fresher emerald greens, for example.

The journey through Dreamtime stories and spirits of the ancient land of their mother country (their heart land) is not just a message of peace, but a showcase of talent. Barton’s virtuosic didgeridoo playing showcases his agility as its drone-ing sounds are interjected with percussive tapping. And when a late show number about the passing of cultures from generation to generation sees the addition of guitar and Barton’s traditional vocals, the unique melding of western music with the ancient sounds of the land uplifts the show’s ending.

Throughout the performance, numbers make use of an expansive sound pallet to vividly elevate their evocation of the resulting unique, meditative world, inspired by the Australian landscape and the power of connection to place. Barton’s didgeridoo mimicry vocalisation is evocative of animal sounds, while the sweet strains of Serret’s upper violin registers layer the musical stories to share a range of sounds and pure emotions. Indeed, there are a number of beautiful moments where earthy didgeridoo sounds are canopied by the sometimes soft touch of the more ethereal violin, along with Serrett’s gentle feathery vocals which rise away to sweet whispering lingers.

Serrett is a dexterous instrumentalist. The concertmaster of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra is far from traditional in her playing, using all parts of the instrument. Short and separated staccato sounds add a dryness to the aesthetic, while playing the back of the violin creates vibrations that resonate in the air.

As audience members, we might not always know the specifics of the story being told, but were certainly recognise the sentiment that comes from the heart and soul at the core of this genre-defying share of connection to county. While the voice of the didgeridoo is a core part of storytelling and teaching, the violin is often said to be the instrument closest to the human voice, so it makes sense that they would pair so well together. United, they serve to elevate the sounds of the language of cultural identity, ensuring that it remains a legacy for generations to come

Super Girl sensitivity

Sunshine Super Girl (Performing Lines)

QPAC, Playhouse Theatre

September 22 – 24

There was a large group of school students in the audience at Opening Night of Brisbane Festival’s Sunshine Super Girl. Clearly unfamiliar with the details of its content, their investment in its story of Wiradjuri tennis legend Evonne Goolagong Cawley AC MBE was such that the genuineness of their reactions to its unfolding were apparent to everyone around. It was wonderful to see, leading to ponder about why there is no film retelling of the tennis champ’s extraordinary tale, given how her sporting prowess as one of the world’s leading players in the 1970s and early 1980s inspired a nation and paved the way for future generations of Indigenous sportspeople (including Ash Barty, who cites her as a key influence and mentor).

Created from interviews with Goolagong Cawley, who was very much part of the play’s development, the fascinating work tells the story of the first Indigenous woman to win a tennis Grand Slam, the first mum in 66 tears to win at Wimbledon and a player whose formidable blend of offensive and defensive play saw her defeat other greats like Margaret Court and Billie-Jean King. The show’s biopic structure takes us on journey of the living legend’s career from small town tennis prodigy to iconic seven-time singles grand slam tournament winner (she also won six in women’s doubles and one in mixed doubles), beginning serendipitously with discovery of the previous owner’s tennis ball in her father’s broken-down-again car. From her humble origins as the third of eight children, whose first tennis outfit was made out of a bedsheet, we see the heart-warming support of her local community to get her to a Sydney tennis school after being scouted in Barellan, however, it is a story that is steeped in poverty, adversity, and racism.

Ella Ferris is magnetic as Evonne, asking ‘why me’? She is immediately endearing as she takes us in to the energetic and innocent world of seven-year-old Evonne, in excitement at the simple joy of discovery, such as when using a tennis racket instead of a wooden bat for the first time. She also captures her contemplative connection to country, as things open to Evonne breathing in the Murrumbidgee, and is charismatic even when taking us through career injuries and illnesses.

The supporting cast includes Katina Olsen, Jacqueline Compton, Lincoln Elliott, Kirk Page and Sermsah Bin Saad who work together to vividly create a range of characters in aid of the storytelling, including amusing John Newcombe and Martina Navratilova caractures (both from Compton) and even sheep to be shawn by Evonne’s father. Their dynamic physical performances work well with the play’s unique staging to enhance its engagement (set and costume design by Romanie Harper).

Atmosphere is created by transformation of QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre to a tennis court, complete with tiered on-stage ‘courtside’ audience seating facing out into the auditorium. Movement upon the court is used as a language with live and mimed ball play action as the sport is imaginatively represented in dance and movement (choreography by Katina Olsen and Vicki Van Hout). A standout scene comes when tennis postures are physically deconstructed in terms of body positioning in its return of a ball represented by a performer. The precision of its realisation is not only quite beautiful in and of itself, but coveys the consideration given to all aspects of the production.

The anecdotal quality to Andrea James’s writing warms us into the story’s sensitivities and the playwright’s love of the game is evident. Under her direction, the tribute is skilfully told to balance Goolagong Cawley’s ultimately triumphant story with its inherent poilticalness, because even though the tennis great thought of herself as apolitically just a tennis player, even this was a political positioning given the pressure of representation. Indeed, her achievements are made all the more impressive when we are reminded of the racism and sexism she showed strength to rise above, through reference to the social and political climate of the time and feature of 1962’s Commonwealth Electoral Act, the 1965 Freedom Rides, the establishment of the tent embassy in Canberra and South African apartheid. The balance this gives to the storytelling ensures that the powerful true tale ultimately serves as a celebration of sprit and passion over adversity, albeit with a distinctively Australian sensibility that makes it an entertaining 95-minute game, set and match.  

‘80s city heart

Queen’s City (Blak Social)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 21 – 24

Alethea Beetson’s“Queen’s City” is full of imaginative ideas that on their own could each easily sustain an engaging piece of theatre. Together, they are a lot, meaning that there is much to take away from this new theatre work inspired by missing narratives and rewritten histories in the story of ‘urban’ colonisation as often depicted in museum collections and archives

The provocative show is set in the nostalgic ‘80s in the titular fictional capital city location of Queen’s City, where dreams can supposedly come true. With Queen’s Coast theme parks just to the south and a boundary street division location about to be demolished to make way for culturally significant attractions, including a museum to celebrate the city’s history, as part of upcoming bicentennial celebrations, its resonance as Brisbane is barely veiled, and nor does it need to be.

The story mostly takes place in the heart of the city at All Ways Skate + Sing, which is run by local matriarch Truth. The karaoke bar and skating rink hot spot is a space of equality for all the mob, so when threat of losing it looms large from the government and state institutions on the other side of Restriction Avenue, its riff raff family of attendants Justice, Magick and Grace mobilise to try and save it.

This debut work from performance collective Blak Social (presented by Brisbane Festival, Screen Queensland and Queensland Performing Arts Centre Present) has been many years in the making, resulting in a finely-tuned craftedness to some of its aspects. It’s writing is clever and its humour is spot-on, particularly in its peppering of politically-toned potential pickup lines. While all performers give enthusiastic performances, however, varying dialogue vocal levels mean that impact sometimes fluctuates.

The creativity cresendos when the story sees characters transporting into the past courtesy of the Space Invader and Pac-Man et al arcade game machines that feature as part of its nostalgically neon set. The show is a long one though at 1 hour 40 minutes without interval and it sometimes feels it, as the time travelling storyline sees repeat of previously seen conversations.

Karaoke also features as a vehicle for its storytelling. Song keeper vocalists guide us through the story, signal the occasional song and keep the soundscape on-point beyond expectations of a ‘typical’ indigenous play. Their fourth wall breaks add yet another, this time meta-theatre, layer to all that is going on, however, their rocking original musical numbers both guide things along with plot information (helped by of-the-era karaoke style appearance of their lyrics on screen) and help to cement the show’s ‘80s sensibilities.

“Queen’s City” is a big work. Part gig, part theatre show, part political commentary, its multi-genre approach is all focussed on highlighting the danger of silence and showing how looking back is needed to move forward from our previously unbalanced, singular storytelling. Telling its first nations stories through the modality of the ‘80s works to not only make them accessible in new and interesting ways, but forces contemplation of if first nations art makers had the space then that they do now. And the fun of its ‘80s glam rock aesthetic adds another layer, building upon its visual nostalgia and its ‘Time After Time’ type of musical memories.