Wiz biz

The Wiz (Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

December 5 – 7

“The Wiz” is a rarely seen but resplendent stage musical that offers a heart-warming tale told in a unique way. Despite playing for four years on Broadway, the retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in the context of modern African-American culture is perhaps best known for its film version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, meaning that the talented graduating students from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts have some big shoes to fill in their production… which they do.

The story is a familiar and formulaic one that introduces each new character with a solo, presented with a twists as much as a twister in this production. Dorothy (Serina O’Connor), a restless Cairns girl is transported by a tornado (if Australia had tornados) to a magical outback world of Oz where Munchkins, a sassy Witch of the North (Kelsey Lynn) and a yellow brick road appear alongside the Sturt Dessert Peas of its landscape. On her way to the Emerald City to meet the Wiz (Jamaine Wilsemith), who she believes can help her get back home, Dorothy befriends a Scarecrow (Selwyn Powers), Tinman (Gara Doolah) and Cowardly Lion (Garret Lyon) who help her battle the Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene (Michaella Stubbs)

The energetic production is certainly brimming with talent from those about to enter the biz. Powers is a charismatic straw-filled scarecrow, filling the role with warmth and humour as he lithely limbers about the place. Lyon finds plenty of laughs as a camp cowardly lion; he is always-in role down to the smallest of details and his sass lands perfectly thanks to his precise comic timing. Tinman Doolah has a beautiful voice, even if it is under articulated in his ‘Slide Some Oil to Me’ solo and O’Connor is a delightful Dorothy, with stellar vocals highlighted in ‘Be a Lion’. And when the four leads progressively rally together to ‘Ease On Down the Road, one of the show’s most recognisable tunes, likely due to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s iconic partnership in the 1978 movie, the result is quite wonderful.

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As a simple, well-executed song ‘Ease On Down the Road’ is an ongoing, catchy highlight in its every reprise and it aptly represents the Motown feel to many of the score’s numbers. In fact, there is an almost ‘80s pep to its realisation, weaved through its multi-generic musical moods. Michaella Stubbs delivers a punchy gospel-esque number in ‘Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News’ and Kayci-Lee Gillies slays Glinda’s assurance to Dorothy about the power of self-belief, ‘If You Believe’, making us wish the Good Witch of the South could have more stage-time. The singing throughout the show is stellar, with the ensemble also delivering an infectiously buoyantly joyous ‘Everybody Rejoice’ spirited celebration of freedom.

“The Wiz” is a dance-filled musical and in this regard this production is also particularly impressive. Modernised routines within the structure of musical theatre are enlivened by strong capable dancers and dynamically diverse choreography (Director and Choreographer Simon Lind) meaning that a suggestive poppy field number complementing its metaphor sits comfortably alongside a contrasting flying monkey rap number, ‘Funky Monkey’. And costuming also works in support of the choreographic representation of the twister that dances Dorothy into the wonderful fantasy world.

Dramatic costuming also serves to channel touches of Hunger Games capitol wear to the munchkins and Emerald City citizens, while Glenn Hughes’ clever lighting recreates the yellow brick road to be followed towards a lushly silhouetted city. There is also attention to detail evident in the script, which features an Aussie-flavoured modern twist even to its throw-away lines, which is from where much of the humour comes.

While Act Two drags a little, overall, this urbanised retelling of the Oz story is still a high-spirited, engaging showcase of the talent of Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts students. Indeed, there is a strong focus on stagecraft that makes for an entertaining experience, whether it be your first or subsequent ease on down its road.

The silliest of season shenanigans

Spamalot (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

November 23 – January 18

Based on the 1975 classic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, a cheeky Camelot spoof on the legendary King Arthur’s quest to find the elusive treasure, the musical “Spamalot” is a pretty silly show, just look to its “I fart in your general direction” sort of dialogue. But silly is not as easy to do as it might seem. Thankfully, “Spamalot” sees Brisbane Arts Theatre giving audiences nothing but an immensely fun and highly entertaining show of satire, slapstick and irony, as memorable (and quoteable) as its source material.

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The story (book by Monty Python’s Eric Idle) is pretty irrelevant to proceedings, but goes as follows… In the 10th century A.D., the self-assured King Arthur (Alexander Thanasoulis) travels England with his servant, Patsy (Oliver Catton) seeking men to join the Knights of the Round Table. Members of the fellowship ultimately come to include Sir Robin (Lachlan Morris), Sir Galahad (Ben Kasper), Sir Lancelot (Damien Campagnolo) and Sir Bedevere (Liam Hartley). Arthur’s belief in his destiny as ruler of England has come from having been given the Excalibur sword, Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake (Laura Fois). Still, when he receives a message from God tasking him with finding the Holy Grail, he embraces the mission and its ensuing extensive search by him and his knights. As any Monty Python fan knows, a whole lot of nonsense follows, including a host of encounters with eccentric characters, taunting of the English knights by French soldiers, and an additional challenge set by The Knights who Say Ni, who will only allow Arthur to pass through their forest if he puts on a musical (‘but not an Andrew Lloyd Webber’).

It’s all quite ludicrous, but in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands, it actually makes sense. The lead performers are all excellent. Thanasoulis brings an appealing, assured stage presence to the role of King Arthur, the very versatile Matthew Nisbet is incredibly funny in all of his multiple character roles and, as ‘Brave’ Sir Robin, Morris is wonderfully animated and expressive, both and dialogue and songs like Act Two’s ‘You Won’t Succeed On Broadway’. Fois is vocally very strong as Arthur’s ‘watery tart’ diva love interest, especially in ‘The Song that Goes Like This’ parody of generic love songs that ‘start off soft and low and end up with a kiss’. Most notably, though, in every instance it is clear that everyone is enjoying themselves and the fun is infectious.

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“Spamalot” may be shorter than usual musical fare, however, this is barely noticeable, packed full of laughs as the highly irreverent parody is in its execution of that quirkily individual Python-esque style of humour. There is a lot from which to draw laughs, with absurd situations and nonsensical expressions peppered with puns, dad jokes and ridiculous rhymes.

The music is entertaining, even if the numbers are not that memorable, however, the musical numbers, in particular, make good use of the small stage space. Television screen projections add interest and it is wonderful to see them used to enable full line of sight access to all audience members. And the production does well in its realisation of key sketch moments such as the Black Knight’s ‘tis but a scratch flesh wounds and the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

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When it comes to putting the silly in this end-of-year season, “Spamalot” is a perfect show to have you smiling the whole way through to its ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ final singalong. It makes good use of the comedic talents of the cast who also showcase strong harmonies across the score’s range of musical styles. Its exuberant shenanigans certainly cannot be taken too seriously, however, this is still a show only really suited to those who have familiarity with the comedy troupe’s idiosyncratic style, lest they just find the whole thing bafflingly bonkers.

Grown up greatness

Adulting (Tash York)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 28 – December 1

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Tash York may be a #blessed veteran of theestival scene, through shows like “These Things Take Wine”, but that doesn’t make her an adult. This is by her own admission in her latest solo cabaret outing, “Adulting”, which energetically explores the theme of exactly what being an adult entails. As it unfolds annecdotes about relationship fails, parking fine debt and poor dietary choices are woven into hilariously rewritten cover songs from the likes of Destiny’s Child, Ace of Base and a marvellous mashup of Heart’s ‘Alone’ and Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’.

The comedy continues through reimagined Disney numbers and musical standards, along the way to an ultimately uplifting concluding message about being the best version of adults we can courtesy of ‘Everyone’s Free’. Even nursery rhymes make an appearance in entertaining rapped illustration of the harsh reality of adult life vs the sugar-coated fantasy of childhood happy-endings.

On paper it is an eclectic mix, but in reality it works, elevating “Adulting” to a greatness above standard cabaret fare of the same sort and it is easy to appreciate its Adelaide Fringe Best Cabaret Weekly Award and sold out Edinburgh Fringe season. While York’s charismatic charm, big hair and exuberance may lure us into the show’s casual spontaneity, there is also a real craftedness to its content callbacks working towards the light and shade surprise of a captivating “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, in tribute to her mother.

York is a talented cabaret comedian with an impressive, powerful voice bigger than the Powerhouse’s intimate Turbine Studio. She is a dynamic entertainer who embraces every opportunity for comedy; her timing and exaggerated facial expressions only make the experience of “Adulting” even more enjoyable.

As original as song interpretations and lyric reimaginings are, it’s also to recognise the sounds of their source material as we are given opportunity to revisit songs such of ‘Cruel to be Kind’ of our “10 Things I Hate About You” memories. And she totally had me from her initial number ‘Ice, Ice, Baby’ re-rap. It is also nice to see the show’s general rather than exclusively-millennial perspective. Indeed, there is an essential relatability to its shared human experiences and celebration of how being adult is the worst.

This is a show for everyone who has ever attempted and failed at adulting in all of its aspects, worthy of a break from busy Facebook-filtered lives and adult expectations of home ownership dreams, costly university education and changeable career ambitions, different from previous generations.

 

Future funny

Slack Mirror (Nice Loud Voices)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Graffiti Room

November 28 – December 1

Sketch comedy is not often seen on stages anymore, perhaps due to the fluidity of its definition, but as a comedic exploration of a concept, character or situation, it has much to offer audiences, as Nice Loud Voices’ “Slack Mirror” shows audiences. Also increasingly less-often seen in the world is real-life human interaction, especially during the time in which performer Drew Lochrie has been in voluntary hibernation, as the Wonderland Festival show establishes in its introductory sketch.

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It’s a quickly moving world that is easily parodied in the show’s series of sketches, which explore 21st century connections. And so over their duration we feed together in worship of our sacred tablets, always with warning about attempt to fight the algorithms. Still, there is something in the show for those who both relish and abhor the immersive online world of GoFundMe videos and Google Home, meaning audience members are always in on the jokes, even if mentions of pokes and Twitter talk almost already seem dated.

While sketches are all linked by common through-lines of technology, relationships and our increasingly bleak future, some, such as one that that takes us to the extremes of guided mediation, go on a little long, in that “Saturday Night Live” type of way. In the intimacy of Brisbane Powerhouse’s Graffiti room, suited to the show’s low-key, minimal approach to costumes and props, it’s easy to warm to performers Amy Currie and Drew Lochrie who are not overly-earnest as often can be case in such shows, but rather subtle and nuanced in their performances. Currie does straight-faced over-animation to perfection and just a change of hats allows Lochrie to authentically inhabit each new and distinct character.

With Currie and Lochrie as our guides into the future, “Slack Mirror” is a pleasant way to spend an hour (or thereabouts) especially given its contrast to the too-often doomsday approach to bleak dystopian themes. It is easy-to-watch, with identifiable premises that don’t require too much thought for enjoyment and it is full of genuinely funny moments because even if living in the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, it something we may as well laugh about.

Wonderland walk

Fire Walk with Us (Electric Moon)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

November 24

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There is a distinct feel to the “Twin Peaks” otherworld, captured in the aesthetic of The Powerhouse Theatre during the venue’s Wonderland Festival, despite the still-afternoon sunshine outside. The saturation of lighting creates an unsettling sense of warmth at odds with the constant menace lurking in the underbelly of what was a unique television experience, but it makes it all the easier to be enthralled into the intriguing journey that is Electric Moon’s “Fire Walk with Us” live re-imagining of songs and music from the iconic, instant-hit “Twin Peaks” mystery, horror, drama television series of early 1990s.

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As drowsy saxophone sounds lure the audience into the acclaimed score, the lush lighting captures the distinct mood of the show’s early numbers, despite a sometimes bothersome spotlight in audience eyes during Lucinda Shaw’s mesmeric ‘The World Spins’, in which she effortlessly channels the recognisable ‘low and slow’ signature Lynch sound texture in delivery of the spine-tingling memorable series number (it featured in a climactic second-season episode that revealed the killer of troubled prom queen Laura Palmer).

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The set list features a sampling of songs from the original iconic David Lynch series, the prequel film “Fire Walk with Me” and even an Alison St Ledger share of a Latin-infused ‘No Stars’ from the recent third series of the franchise, perfectly curated together in authentic album track listing sequence.

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Top-of-mind numbers like the soaring, airy ‘Nightingale’ and the signature theme song ‘Falling’ are there as highlights of floating, soft-focus, sweetly-serene vocals along with the spiralled frenzied jazz jams of the doomy ‘The Pink Room’ and the innocent sounds of ‘Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart’ (in juxtaposition to its deliciously dark lyrics).

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Indeed, it’s an eclectic mix of dream pop warbles and benchmark jazz bass lines and finger-snap rhythms, but it absolutely works in evoking the beauty, yearn, mystery and playfulness of everything “Twin Peaks”. ‘Just slow things down and it becomes more beautiful’, David Lynch once said and “Fire Walk with Us” is certainly testament to this in its evocation of many moods and a range of emotions.

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A 12-piece ensemble of musicians works together to elevate experience of the Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch compositions to more than just backing for the four diverse vocalists Mia Goodwin, SS.Sebastian, Lucinda Shaw and Alison St Ledger, giving, for example, the surreal ‘Sycamore Trees’ an orchestral swell in sit against the song’s essential stillness. This means that whether part of the show’s devoted cult following or as a newcomer to the pop culture classic, there is much to be enticed by in the dreamy, dark, moody and emotional journey of the “Fire Walk with Us”. Its experience more than delivers on its promise to provide a masterclass in minimalist synthpop atmospheres, haunting vocals, occasionally off-kilter jazz stylings and sinister soundscapes.

Photos c/o – Jade Ellis Photography

Actually again

Christmas Actually (The Little Red Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

November 27 – December 7

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From the moment that Naomi Price kicks into a third time lucky ‘Love Christmas is All Around’, the toe-tapping triumph of the return season of “Christmas Actually”, is infectiously clear, to returning audience members and newbies alike. For the uninitiated, the little red company’s concert cabaret show is inspired by the soundtrack of 2003’s “Love Actually”, the ultimate bittersweet romantic comedy film from director Richard Curtis.

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As such, it takes us on a musical tour of love’s twists and turns, capturing the eclectic musical spirit of the beloved rom com with a range of songs well chosen for the characters and the stories that they represent. Indeed, the show, which is written by Price and Adam Brunes, consistently captures the film’s sensibility, reminding the audience of the incredible sorrow of some of the film’s storylines, in addition to its jubilant exuberance, with help from Sam Gibb’s gorgeous lighting design.

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Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ still stands as a highlight in its poignant reminder of the complexity of Emma Thompson’s relationship with her husband in the film. Price’s thoughtful vocals haunt its stark declarations with appropriately-haunting emotional havoc, ripping our hearts out with its ‘You really don’t know love at all’ realisation. Indeed, she sings the Joni Mitchell classic as though for the first time, which makes her interpretation all the more heartbreaking, but still ultimately uplifting. Price is a vocal powerhouse, whose versatility is nicely showcased across the show’s numbers. In the Sugababes ‘Too Lost in You’ she stunningly powers through the dark and dramatic melodies, while in heartfelt interpretation of Eva Cassidy’s exquisite ‘Songbird’ she effortless conveys a sense of unrushed beauty and sensitivity.

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Although this is clearly Price’s show, she is never one for divadom, generously performing backup as others are given their time to shine centre-stage and encouraging individual showcase of the talents of all members of the four-piece band, Mik Easterman (drums), Scott French (guitar), OJ Newcomb (bass) and Michael Manikus (keyboard). French, in particular, layers Santana’s ‘Smooth’ with impressive, expressive instrumental rhythms.

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Backup singers Stefanie Caccamo, Tom Oliver and Alex Rathgeber harmonise beautifully and each contribute much to the show’s musical character. Caccamo makes Dido’s pivotal ‘Here With Me’ a magical examination of the extremes of love and longing through her pure and plaintive vocals, Rathgeber gives us a melodic ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys and Oliver swaggers through a bluesy version of Bing Crosby’s holiday perennial ‘White Christmas’.

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As required holiday season viewing the film “Love Actually” features more than just a sprinkling of seasonal songs, which is reflected in the on-stage homage. And what would a decking the halls season be without the addition of the up-tempo modern holiday standard, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You” and a ‘who needs carols in the Domain’ memorable medley. Not only this, but Price’s sparkling audience interactions make “Christmas Actually”, the ultimate silly season starter. Her charismatic manner, quick wit and wicked sense of humour ensure that she makes the best of every opportunity for audience involvement and the inclusion of some updated royal family jokes and commentary about ‘that awful Kiera Knightly’, only add to the humour. Indeed, the show is baubles of fun, especially in Rathgeber’s best Christmas present ever recreation of the film’s iconic scene, featuring Hugh Grant’s interpretive dance around 10 Downing Street to ‘Jump’ by The Pointer Sisters.

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Sometimes it is difficult to experience shows again in their return season and still feel the excitement of their initial experience. In the case of “Christmas Actually”, however, the show’s genuine sentiment and jubilant escapism, means that it still stands strong as unashamed, crowd-pleasing entertainment. This is a cracker of a Christmas show that is thoroughly entertaining in and of itself, but also serves to remind us of how, without its music, “Love Actually” would probably not work at all.

Photos c/o – Dylan Evans

Astonishing Simone sounds

Feeling Good (Mama Alto)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 28 – December 1

Dr Nina Simone was one of the most important and unique voices in music history, while gender transcendent cabaret diva jazz singer Mama Alto is a charismatic performer with a voice is to die for; in combination they make Wonderland Festival’s “Feeling Good” a match made in cabaret heaven.

The dip into Nina Simone’s vast songbook is more than just a stunning tribute to the High Priestess of Soul who refused to be pigeonholed; the hour long show is a charming experience of light-hearted banter and exquisite music, with accompaniment coming courtesy of pianist extraordinaire Miss Chief. In true cabaret style, Mama Alto gives us unscripted between-song shares of thoughtful unscripted stories of Simone’s glorious career, strugglesome life of marginalisation and iconic music.

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Songs, meanwhile, are well-chosen to connect the personal and political of the peerless vocal stylist Simone’s lived experiences. From the enigmatically-styled but still so-soulful ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ to the light and playful ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’, the song that introduced Simone to a new audience upon its feature in that perfume commercial, we are also charted through the songstress’ intricate musical signatures. Mama Alto’s easily adapts to the genre fluidity that characterises Simone’s repertoire, sprying us along for the anthemic ride of the civil rights song, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, for example.

From the hauntingly elegant, enduring ballad ‘Wild is the Wind’ early number, it is clear that Mama Alto respects the precision of her vocal instrument and shows remarkable control of it, holding a note like nobody’s business. Astonishing vocal gestures add texture, magnifying the emotional depth and meaning of songs. In the heartbreaking ‘The Other Woman’ she pays great attention to the musical expression of emotions, filling the audience with melancholy in her tender and poignant realisation and trembling deliver yof its lyrical devastation. Indeed, there is captivating heart and soul evident in every number, in fact, every note and word she sings. And her technique is incredible, meaning that she can take us from silky sounds to tremulous musical exclamations with ease.

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Just as Miss Chief’s musicology reflects Simone’s essential meeting of jazz and classic components, Mama Alto gives us an astounding tribute to Simone’s vocal nuances and flavours in an always-engaging performance. While possibly Simone’s best-loved song, the titular ‘Feeling Good’ makes for a memorable encore, ‘Sinnerman’ is the show’s standout number, not just in its representation of Simone’s complex relationships with family and religion, but its thrilling vocal unleash of thematic intensity (the song tells of a sinner’s futile attempt to seek salvation on judgement day).

As I know from experience, you will always remember the first time you become aware of the commanding musical presence that is Mama Alto. The consummate musical storyteller’s shows should not be missed. In fact, they need to be discovered as soon as possible, because the act of doing will fill you with regret at having missed her previous Brisbane visits. As “Feeling Good’ signals, the gifted vocalist’s shows come with guaranteed passion, emotional honesty and strength of technique that make them sublime shares of the human experience.