Boho virtuoso

Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Global Creatures)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

May 16 – July 27

The dress code for the Brisbane Premiere of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is ‘Spectacular Spectacular’, which is entirely appropriate given what a glorious spectacle the show is in its every aspect. From the moment audience members enter QPAC’s Lyric Theatre, the aesthetic abundance means that there is much to absorb in Derek McLane’s lavish set design, from the balcony level enormous elephant statue and windmill trademark of Paris’ most celebrated cabaret, a cavalcade of overhead chandeliers and pre-show performer provocations as they move about its lush Parisian nightclub staging. And the wonder only elevates in experience of the show proper as the excess of glitz, grandeur and glory transitions into its storyline. 

For all of its splendour, this jukebox musical is also a sophisticated show of incredible calibre, not just visually, but in its add to Baz Luhrmann’s revolutionary 2001 film. Capitalising on any associated expectation, things start off with a burst of songs from its eclectic soundtrack as nightclub owner Harold Zidler (Simon Burke) welcomes us to what he says is a state of mind as much as the eponymous legendary nightclub, where all your dreams can come true. Burlesque and can-can dancers perform in colourful costumes, as we are introduced to the Montmarte Quarter of turn of the 20th Century Paris and many of the story’s major characters in an opening number that begins with ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Because We Can’.

After these songs, things move swiftly in a more dynamic musical direction as the forbidden love story progresses through its telling. Penniless American songwriter Christian (Des Flanagan) falls in love with ‘sparkling diamond’ cabaret dancer Satine (Alinta Chidzey) who is in the sights of the failing club’s new investor, a man of wealth and taste, aka the wealthy Duke (a dependable James Bryers) whose support is needed to save the fading nightclub. 

The range of tones within the ensuing story is reflected in the many different musical moods and choreographic energy (choreography by Sonya Tayeh) conveyed throughout the show’s 2 hours and 35 minutes’ duration (including interval). Its virtuosic musical mash-up extravaganza features over 70 songs including many of the iconic hits from the film, as well as additions from Beyonce, Bowie, Rhianna, Sia, Lorde … and the list goes on. The incredibly clever combinations see mash-ups of not just one, two or even three songs within numbers, but multiple recognisable snippets even just if as bridge. The inclusions are full of surprise appearances such as when the Duke and Satine sing a mash up of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, all by The Rolling Stones.

It is mostly through the music that movie moments are updated for a new generation with recontextualisations making the cocktail of popular songs all feel relevant and fresh. Of course, iconic numbers from the film source material make appearance in the form of, amongst others, ‘Your Song’ and ‘Elephant Love Medley’, the latter of which incorporates 19 themed songs. Ultimately, however, it is the gloriously loud and proud ensemble numbers that remain most memorable after the curtain has fallen on an infectiously energetic extended ‘More More More!’ encore.

Still, Chidzey’s melancholic solo of Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, sung by Satine to herself in her dressing room, is a showstopper. Flanagan, too, has his standout vocal moments, such as in Act Two’s ‘Crazy Rolling’ in which, as Christian and Satine prepare for the debut of their show at the Moulin Rouge, they separately sing this medley of Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep and Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy. It is Burke, however, who is the clear crowd favourite as the legendary club impresario. Flirty, faithful and flamboyantly full of energy, he gives his bold character some depth without losing the sense of fun that makes you want him to tell at dirty story at your funeral. His famed ‘Lady M’s’ entertainers, Samantha Dodemaide as Nini, Olivia Vasques as Arabia, Chaska Halliday as La Chocolat and Christopher J Scalzo as Babydoll, all give sexy, but also high energy, performances. And from the moment they first proclaim their ideas of truth, beauty, freedom and love, Jarrod Draper and Ryan Gonzalez all bring the bohemia to the supporting children of the revolution roles of artist Toulouse-Lautrec and dancer Santiago, especially in their early attempts to create a play with songs in it, working with Christian in aim of getting their work produced at the Moulin Rouge.

In the show’s opening number, ‘Welcome to the Moulin Rouge!”, the bohemians sing of ‘Burning Down the House’. And this is what “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” certainly do, ablazing the space with a rich aesthetic tapestry of sexy red. Justin Townsend’s lighting design also works to mood us through the story’s romance and bohemian shades alike, with the cautionary tale of ‘El Tango de Roxanne’ and its foreshadowing tell of a story about a man who falls for a prostitute and gets his heart broken, filling the stage with passionate reds in reflection of the rage and lovesick anguish Christian feels in response to being without Satine.

The show is full of memorable visual imagery, including Satine’s grand, glittering entrance which sees Chidzey descending on a swing in ‘Sparkling Diamonds’, an expanded mashup of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ and ‘Material Girl, along with ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ and other like-themed songs. Peter Hylenski ‘s textured sound design also keeps things vibrant in their variety. Justin Levine’s incredible and incredibly inventive arrangements and additional lyrics ensure that everything is woven together cohesively and, despite the eclecticism of the score, the 10-piece band brings it to energetic life under Matthew Carey’s musical direction.

There are also some interesting creative choices contrary to typical expectations of the genre that serve the work well, for example, not ending Act One with a whopping big chorus number and instead returning us from interval with the captivating ‘Backstage Romance’ in which, months later, with rehearsals underway for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Christian and Satine continuing to see each other behind the scenes, Santiago falls in love with Nini. What starts as a steamy duet between the two, soon morphs into a lively ensemble number medley of 5,6,7,8 brass-filled amplification of ‘Bad Romance’ with a touch of ‘Toxic’ and a ‘Seven Nation Army’ bridge, befitting its extended mid-show applause. The fact that the number features some of the more low-key aesthetics in terms of colour, movement and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, illustrates the substance that exists beneath the musical’s spectacle. And swift costume changes and transitions between backdrops to quickly layered Parisian settings, keep things moving at a pace, in keeping with Alex Timbers controlled direction.

Whether invested in the star-crossed lovers’ characters and their supposedly all-consuming affair or not, there is no denying the marvel of this show, or the worth of the musical’s 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Choreography, Orchestrations, and Scenic, Costume, Lighting and Sound Designs. While John Logan’s book brings out some humour from within the story, it’s really all about the music. The soundtrack is addictive and in conjunction with the stunning set design, it brings a palpable energy to experience of the show’s opulence, making it a must see for musical fans. Get tickets to the immersive decadence of its experience while you can can can though as seats for the Brisbane season are selling fast.

Shakespeare hope anew

Bard Wars (Brisbane Arts Theatre)                                                            

Brisbane Arts Theatre

May 4 – 27

A young farm boy named Luke (Aodham Thomas) is torn from his forsaken desert homeland to fight the dark forces of the evil Empire. Trained in ancient magicks by a mysterious hermit and travelling with a scoundrel pirate, his barbarian companion and two bickering slaves, the hero must brave the unknown, rescue a princess and take revenge on the Emperor’s right hand: the black knight who killed his father. Sound familiar… maybe not… for this is not the seminal space-opera movie you might expect, but rather its rather-hilarious Shakespeareanised retelling, “Bard Wars Hope Renew’d”.

Side-of-stage instrumentalists Bernard Compose and Ian Ahles set the scene for the medieval-themed Renaissance language about to be used in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s tell the futuristic story. John Grey’s simple set design sees the space split into black and white, in reminder of the simplicity of its classic good versus evil theme. Indeed, there are many obvious references to the work’s ever-so-familiar 1977 source material, only all with a Bard-themed twist. Princess Leia’s memorable “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re My Only Hope!” repeated message is, instead, for example, shared via a scroll and light sabers transformed into swords.

Shakespeare sensibilities feature throughout with nods to all of the playwright’s big tragedies (#ifyouknowyouknow) a ‘Hey Nonny Nonny’ ditty reference and ruthless antagonist Tarkin’s (a delightfully animated Callum Skoien) ruff. There is humour in the detail in many of the show’s props with the best to come after interval with very clever recreation of the iconic trash compactor scene that sees our ragtag group of freedom fighter heros temporarily stranded while trying to flee to safety from ruler of the tyrannical Galactic Empire Darth Vader’s (Dominic Tennison) Death Star space station. And an on-stage fan is used to both add drama to Luke’s early misery and later allows for Han Sol (Ben Postle) and Princess Leia (Natasha McDonald) to prim and preen to the extreme in anticipation of seeing each other.

This is a very funny play, fast-paced as characters sometimes die only to have their actors re-enliven to switch to another role and pantomime like in its appeal. Not only is there a ‘use the force’ united audience urge to Luke and collected cheering at evil’s demise, but even a “they’re behind you” cry out at one stage, such is audience’s embrace of the sense of fun at the core of the show’s creative premise. Kate Clark and Nick Scotney’s inventive costuming sees Eleni Koutsoukis’ Artoo realised through metal hat and silver shoes alongside Threepio’s (Megan Brown) golden shades, as well as a particularly impressive sand folk aesthetic. And lovely lighting (design by Tim Gawne) accompanies Obi-Wan Kenobi’s (John Grey) soliloquy about the loss of the beautiful terrestrial planet of Alderaan.

Medieval flute and lute have maybe never sounded so menacing as when they take us into the story with the instantly recognisable orchestral opening theme. And while they also provide an appropriately jaunty Cantina Band song, fabulous as it is, the music is sometimes too loud in competition with character speech. Similarly, some moments of dialogue delivered from the rear of the stage are lost when action occurs ahead of them.

Thomas makes for a strong Luke Skywalker, especially once he sets upon his Jedi quest, while Postle is appropriately cocksure as smarmy smuggler Captain Han Solo. The over-the-top affection-disguised-as-banter between him and McDonald as Leia brings much humour in Act Two. It is director (along with Tallulah M.E. Grey) John Grey, however, who anchors things as Old Obi-Wan and then a crudely dead Obi-Wan as pseudo narrator and reassurer to Luke that “the force will be with thee”. Solo’s Wookie Chewbacca may be without words, but Tamzen Hunter gives him a presence with only a growl. And Koutsoukis is always energetic as a similarly word-mute Artoo, using bells, whistles, a kazoo and alike in Lassie-like attempts to gain others’ attention.

Clearly, the tongue-in-cheek show does not take itself too seriously, yet it still respects its source material in is parody, through recreation of, for example, the stylised stance imagery of its iconic film poster. John Grey’s script is a crafted one, full of irony. It keeps the story moving quickly and its audience engaged throughout; even those who have perhaps previously found Shakespearean language to be a barrier to understanding, will find hope anew in its galaxy theatre not so far away

Getting grand

Grand Horizons (Pip Theatre)

Pip Theatre

May 11 – 27

If the wedding photos on the wall of their retirement village home (set design by Genevieve Ganner and Sarah Robertson) are not enough of an indication that near-octogenarians Bill (Steven Tandy) and Nancy French (Deidre Grace) have been married a long time (50 years in fact), the opening scene of “Grand Horizons” makes it pretty apparent as the two dance around to dinner in the choreographed routine of those so long in each other’s company as to no longer need words.

It is not the silence of comfort, we soon realise however, as it is broken by Nancy’s declaration of “I want a divorce” and Bill’s immediate agreement. And so the couple’s now adult sons Brian (Cameron Hurry) and Ben (Brad McMurray) descend upon Yeppoon, with Ben’s heavily pregnant, therapist wife Joss (Gabby Carbon) to figure it all out.

Believing their mum’s decision to be short-sighted, her sons are desperate to change Nancy’s mind and have her continue in with the status quo of a life with which she is clearly dissatisfied. What they uncover about their parents, however, not only leaves them reeling, but has them rethinking everything they thought they knew. Bess Wohl’s Tony-nominated play is, in this way, about more than just Nancy and Bill’s stories, but rather the familiar family figures and dynamics the plot illuminates as, for example, before we have even made it to interval Brian and Ben fall into a brotherly banter in comparison of their own lives and their respective worth, with each thinking their emotional or practical support is more worthy.

This is a well-paced play with a mix or ensemble and two-hander scenes to keep things moving along. This also allows opportunities for all members of the talented cast to have their individual moments to shine. Special mention must go to Hurry’s realisation of neurotic Brian, the youngest of the couple’s children, who, like his brother, just needs to get his shit together. His dramatically passive aggressive and temper tantrum behaviour brings humour throughout, cresendoing in Brian’s physical reactions to the torment of hearing Nancy’s surprisingly detailed take of long-ago events with her high school sweetheart. His interaction, also, with Regan Warner as ‘random stranger’ Tommy who he brings back to his parents’ place for a late night tryst, vodka and Tang, and some troublesome role-playing brings many laughs, until he is giving some self-truths about the fine line between his sensitivity and selfishness.

All performers’ realisation of the script ensures that every moment of comic possibility is explored, even if just through vocal inflection or pace of a line’s delivery. Whether dad or dirty, Tandy tells a good joke as former pharmacist but now wanna-be stand-up comedian Bill. Younger floozy Carla (Lisa Hickey) thinks he is a hoot! And his one liners, about how, for example, he would have just slogged it out, might be amusing, in Tandy’s capable hands, before long we see that behind Bill’s matter-of-fact lack of emotion ‘big whoop’ and ‘what’s the big deal’ exclamations, are peeks into a poignancy that make his character ultimately so complex.

Deidre Grace is excellent as the apparently unemotional former librarian Nancy, all pursed lips, furrowed brow and raised shoulders, before she becomes truly liberated from the constrained box that she considered marriage to be. The nonchalance of their delivery, means that she has some of the show’s funniest lines and who knew that watching someone make a sandwich could be so funny. But, Nancy also has a lot of sad moments as she talks about not being seen, ever feeling like yourself of seeing that reflected in the mirror. Grace makes Nancy’s conversation with the effervescent Carla not just funny in its frankness, but punctuated with pathos about how getting old is perceived. This reflects the layer of depth that director Bronwyn Nayler brings out in what could easily have been a wafer-thin comedy of just readily identifiable stereotypes.  

Grand Horizons may be the name of the Bill and Nancy’s senior living community, but it also serves as a metaphor for all that lies beyond their marriage. In exploration of the what and why of this, there is much to take away from the play’s consideration of the key role of communication in relationships, how intimacy looks and the multiple ways that love can be illustrated. The text is so well-written and its characters so vividly realised, that it does not take long for us to think that we know these people and thus feel their frustrations and brutally honest reflections, ultimately laughing with, rather than at, them. And a packed Wednesday night audience shows that there is wide appeal to being a fly on the wall to witness the life of the Frenchs. Do yourself a favour and get a ticket to experience their hilarity while you can!

Bakersfield blink

Bakersfield Mist (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

May 11 – June 3

“When you walk into a house it only takes two seconds to make an impression,” sophisticated world-class art expert Lionel Percy (Steven Grives) claims in justification of his knowing-without-thinking ‘blink’ intuitive assessment of a work’s merit. From the moment we enter the Ad Astra theatre for Stephen Sachs “Bakersfield Mist”, we can tell a lot about Maude Gutman (Fiona Kennedy) by the detail of her kitchen and living room space, which is cluttered with tchotchke type gaud and beer bottle chimes, shot glasses and alike bric-a-brac collected from what others have discarded. As the ex-bartender enters, filling the space of her ‘nothing fancy’ trailer park abode with swath of swear words and desperation to be thrown a blessing in life, she is driven by the anticipation of her life potentially changing in the space of 30 seconds.

You see, amongst Maude’s $3 junk shop finds is a painting that she is convinced is that work of American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, potentially, therefore, worth between $50 – $100 million. When the eminent New York art critic arrives as consultant on the case, he comes with seemingly undeniable calibre and experience, including at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, thus, a determination to deny to the painting’s authenticity. Forgeries are his specialty, but perhaps it is easier to say something is fake than it is to prove it is real.

The painting makes an appearance within the first 30 minutes of the 90-minute two hander, meaning that although it serves as catalyst, the play is about so much more than just question around its authenticity. Valid-seeming as Maude’s explanation of her conviction that it is, indeed, a Jackson Pollack, may be, despite it being unsigned and of unknown ownership history, the most engaging part of the play’s experience is the interplay between the two polar-opposite characters as Maude’s lack of social polish eventually softens Lionel’s determination to maintain professional conduct.

Director Jennifer Flowers makes some bold choices to put us right in the experience with these characters, beyond just playing the story out in real time. Most notably, when the painting is revealed in all of it gargantuan glory, propped up against a kitchen chair, we are left to sit in the silence of almost three minutes as Lionel runs his expert aesthetic eye over it and Maude anticipates his decision. This works well in emphasising their respective investments; she needs the painting to be genuine, whereas he needs his decision to be right.

The fact that the work is loosely based on real-life events is engaging in and of itself, but the play is also a well-written one, delivered with passion and conviction, especially in Lionel’s talk about the characteristics and exhilaration of Pollack’s work in reconfiguration of the art world. The seduction with which Grives describes Pollack’s Kerouac-on-canvas engagement with the ritual of his art making is mesmeric as orchestrates monologue words to rise and fall at his evocative will. This represents a turning point in the story, as the narrative becomes more layered though revelation of character backstories. Bit by bit Maude and Lionel are changed by each other as he softens and opens up and she starts to understand the spiritual power of art. And in the intimacy of Ad Astra’s theatre spaces we get to witness it up close and personal.

There is a lot of humour too, arising from the characters’ collision of class and cultures, and resulting banter and bounce off each other’s ideals and life experiences, from Lionel’s early quipy comebacks to Maude’s straight-talk questioning, and then later as an increasing number of whiskey shots are shared. And Maude’s feisty challenge of his truths and reliance of apparently random analogies in attempt to push back against his accusations of ignorance, ensure that energy never wanes. Indeed, her crude comebacks and attack of Lionel’s core beliefs belie the merit upon which her case is perhaps based. And as, over time, Kennedy paves pathos into her crafted characterisation though unanswered questions and looks away, we find ourselves warming to Maude’s character and understanding her world, so credibly created by Bill Haycock’s set and costume design, and Geoff Squires’ lighting design.

With resonance to the company’s 2020 production of John Logan’s “Red”, “Bakersfield Mist” provokes consideration of the relative worth of art. It’s also an excellent vehicle for two virtuoso performers and Kennedy and Grives do not disappoint, engrossing us in their characters’ eventual play-out of big themes around the idea of art acting as a metaphor and the comparative value of opinion. Just as forgery is as old as art, true worth authenticity has long been sort after in people. It is this quest that forms the basis of the messaging of “Bakersfield Mist” as the inaccuracy of each character’s first impressions lead its audience to consider what can be missed in a blink.

Pee-ple perfection

Urinetown (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

May 5 – 27

Urinetown is a kind of mythical place… like Venice, but different, filled with symbolism and things like that. But despite its titular significance, we won’t become directly acquainted with its reality until into Act Two of “Urinetown”, according to Officer Lockstock (Lachlan Clark), the pontificating policeman who grimly welcomes its audience, with assistance from 12-year-old street urchin Little Sally (Abby Page). From them we are taken to the first setting of Phoenix Ensemble’s show and told that a 20-year drought has caused a terrible water shortage, which has rendered the idea of private toilets as unthinkable. In immediate introduction to its meta style of calling out clichés and parodying genre tropes, that is all we are really given because overloading us with exposition could really kill the show.

As the action opens upon the filthy Public Amenity #9, the backstory unfolds as to the megacoporation control of Urine Good Company (or UGC). To control water consumption, people have to pay to use the amenities and harsh laws mean that if payment cannot be made, an offender is taken to Urinetown, never to return. Hopelessly down and out, and living in fear, the poor turn to the story’s dashing hero Bobby Strong (an excellent Isaac Tibbs), to stage a revolt in fight for the freedom to pee “wherever you like, whenever you like, for as long as you like, and with whomever you like.”. Along with just-returned-from university Hope Cladwell (Lauren Clark), who happens to be the beloved daughter of UGC’s corrupt CEO Caldwell B Cladwell (Caleb Holman), he embarks on a journey of love, justice and following his heart, only to be tested as secrets are revealed and alliances are fraught along the way to righting the wrongs of their world.

The self-aware satirical comedy musical “Urinetown” (with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book and lyrics by Greg Kotis) is likely to be unlike anything you have seen on stage, not just because it was the winner of three 2002 Tony Awards, including Best Book and Score, but due to its contrast of an infectiously merry score with the confrontation of its themes about climate change and corporate corruption. The story is full of clever twists and the less actually known of details the better, in order to fully appreciate the skill of its subversion of expectations.

A talented cast brings the story’s colourful characters to life. Lachlan Clark’s accomplished comic timing ensures that Longstock’s tongue-in-cheek commentary lands as intended and Page captures the plucky spirit of irreverent quasi-narrator Little Sally, often questioning Longstock as to the show’s logic, colouring his deadpan delivery style. Holman is formidable as the tyrannical Cladwell, especially in his ‘the powers that me’ attempts to justify the controlling consumption that characterises what the society of the story has become. Tibby makes Bobby a sincere and charismatic rebellion leader, ensuring that his heart-felt (#literally) romantic connection with Hope appears credible (in musical terms at least), despite its velocity. And Lauren Clark easily takes Hope from innocent new company fax/copy girl to a determined revolutionary. Also of particular note is Zoe Costello as Penelope Pennywise, the tough jaded warden of the poorest, filthiest town urinal.

Costello gives us an early show highlight in her belt out of “It’s a Privilege to Pee”, reminder of water’s worth in the brave new world of the story’s setting. Her voice is strong in sustain of its high-energy, offering up reminder of the bright tone and sustained notes expected of classic musical theatre numbers. Meanwhile, Tibbs’ tenor is flexible throughout and Clark is appropriately sweet-voiced as Hope, which makes their ‘Follow Your Heart’ a lovely duet of their fall in love moments. Indeed, these principal cast members’ vocals are the most pefect of any Phoenix show I have seen and their vocal amplification is handled with perfect clarity without any lapses in sound. Full ensemble numbers are, likewise, well harmonised. Performers all work together as a strong team, while also embracing their featured moments to shine, with Angelina Mustafay, in particular, showing a consistent reliability in her every energetic appearance as poor rebel Robby The Stockfish. Their collective step-up to assume responsibility for so much of the comedy of Act Two’s telling is not only refreshing, but ably handed.

While the score of “Urinetown” isn’t particularly memorable as a whole of even a sum of its parts, in experience of the show, its songs are all quite wonderful. Every one has its own style, with numbers covering multiple interweaving genres. And musical theatre fans will appreciate its nods to iconic musicals. From Act Two’s titular opener, which is very “Fiddler on the Roof” in its sensibility to the following Fosse-like “Chicago” feel of the high-octane dance number ‘Snuff That Girl’, there is a differing energy to their musical allusions. Following a pacy, almost patter song ‘Mr Cladwell’ introduction of Hope to her co-workers, Holman channels King Herod type mockery in his ‘Don’t Be the Bunny’ random tell of little bunnies at a toll booth in offer of metaphoric advice to his daughter, and there is even a Les Mis Act One finale, complete with revolutionary flag of appropriate making.

Under Benjamin Richards’ musical direction, the orchestra enlivens every number within the challengingly diverse score. Richards is energetic on keyboard, adding much vitality to the experience of numbers such the gospelesque audience-favourite cry for freedom ‘Run Freedom Run’, which is well chosen as a hallelujah curtain call revisit. And, on reeds, Monique Matthews provides the smooth clarinet sounds to add a soul not so often seen in musical scores. And Breanna Gear’s costume design vividly captures the contrasting, but each tonally-themed aesthetics of the disparate rich and poor groups as well as the characters within them, putting the pretty and perky Hope, for example, in an appropriately prim and proper pussy bow blouse, until her due-to-being-in-love transformation.

Experience of “Urinetown” can best be described as unexpected. This is acknowledged in one of its self-referential moments when Little Sally suggests that bad subject matter or a bad title even could kill a show pretty good. It might not be (as Officer Lockstock surmises) a happy musical, but it is a hilarious one. It is very clever in foreshadowing and sophisticated in its witty humour, even when in the form of vaudeville gags and low-brow laughs. The result is a very funny night out, especially in Act Two, in its dialogue, but also imagery of cartoon violence. Then there are the pantomimic in-unison ensemble reactions that lead us towards its ultimate altruistic messaging about free access for all and not just the wealthy few. Under Hayley Gervais’ insightful direction, like any good allegory, it works on many levels, all of them entertaining, meaning that whether your take-away be of its social satire, parody of the art from of musical theatre or just entertainment in or of itself, this Phoenix Ensemble show will not disappoint. The light-hearted, lesser-known work is highly creative and a must-see for musical theatre fans looking to expand their experience of the genre.

Let the memory live again

Cats (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

May 12 – 21

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” may be divisive, but it is also a bit of a musical gateway drug. There is reminder of this all around at Queensland Musical Theatre’s latest production of the juggernaut mega-musical, which is based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, as its unrecognisable performers interact with audience members, alighting the faces of enlivened youngsters, clearly about to experience the spectacle for the first time.

Many older-than-that folk are returning again, such is the lure of Lloyd Webber’s score through the song and dance stories of a tribe of domestic cats on the night of the annual junkyard Jellicle Ball. And just as every cat is different (with unique coat-patterns and appearance thanks to Deian Ping’s costuming coordination from Renee Milton’s 2019’s design), so is its every production and thus its highlights from the anthology of numbers revealing each Jellicle cat’s story. On this occasion it is the mischievous knockabout clowns Mungojerrie (Amy Davison) and Rumpleteazer (Georgina Walsh) whose lively ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser’ dance number is an Act One favourite, especially come its consecutive tandem cartwheels conclusion. Their strong Cockney-accented commentary of their petty cat burglar antics causing trouble around their human neighbourhood, makes their story as clear as their personalities. Walsh, in particular, conveys an infectious energy as she punches into every dance move with precision.

Acrobatic dance adds energy throughout, particularly in the company’s ‘The Song of the Jellicles and The Jellicle Ball’ after Old Deuteronomy (Paul Fegan) summons the cats from the nooks of crannies of the oversized props that populate the junkyard space of Gerard Linsey’s stage design, for the celebration to begin. Technically demanding choreography, often based on feline movements (choreographer Jo Badenhorst) is handled with ease as each cat shares their backstory. Cheerful lazy-by-day Gumbie Cat Jennyanydots (Emma Hodis) provokes an elaborate chorus line tap number in ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ and, as the original, enigmatic conjuring cat, Josh Cohrane gives us an impish ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ number, full of impressive razzle dazzle dance moves like multiple a la seconde turns. And, Mike Lapot’s Rum Tum Tugger introduction is all Elvis style swagger to drive the kitties wild.

Ensemble numbers are always a visual spectacle. All performers show an impressive commitment to bringing their cat characters so consistently to life, such as in share of animated reactions to the nostalgic recollections of the frail, but esteemed Asparagus Gus, The Theatre Cat (Andrew McArthur). The entirely sung-through nature of the show makes the effect of differing microphone levels quite noticeable at times, however, when vocals unite in harmony, there are some lovely moments, such as in the chorus of the first full production number in which the concept of Jellicle Cats is introduced to the audience.

The orchestra, under conductor and musical director Michael Keen, cannot be faulted in its execution of such a multifaceted score, which is demanding in its eclecticism. As it should, it culminates in the show stopping ballad, ‘Memory’ which sees a broken and bedraggled Grizabella (Kathryn Bradbury) melancholically remembering her glamorous past and pleading for acceptance from the tribe. Her ‘Touch Me’ key change the stuff of goosebumps, amplified by a lighting design by Tom Dodd that takes us through its emotional phases to almost silhouette her as she joyously ascents up up up to the Heaviside layer in final plot resolution.

In Caley Monro’s safe directorial hands, this “Cats” serves are a crowd pleasing reminder of all the reasons why the musical is so loved by those who aren’t amongst the haters. The Queensland Musical Theatre production easily transports its audience into a feline fantasy world of memorable music and vibrancy, for first-times and those wanting to let the memory live again alike.

Photos c/o – Creative Street