From ridiculous to refine

I Love You, Bro (That Production Company)

Fire Station 101, Ipswich

March 15 – 25

An ominous soundscape accompanies audience wait before That Production Company’s production of Melbourne-based playwright Adam Cass’ “I Love You, Bro”, which is being presented in a boutique performance space in the heart of the Ipswich CBD at Fire Station 101. This is appropriately followed by the steely-blue dimness of Nathaniel Knight’s lighting and AV design, which meets Peter Keavy’s production design with some binary code accented projections befitting the dark dive into the online world of love and deceit to which we are about to bear witness.

The complex story is of lonely 14-year-old digital chameleon Johnny (Nic Davidson in a role being shared across the season with Jordan Stot), who poses as a girl in an online chatroom and then goes on to begin a digital relationship with an unaware, naïve boy he knows in real life. It is an alarming revelation of just how far some young people will go in construction of their presence, mostly as it is based on true events.

Although in summary, it seems like a quite straightforward story, as Johnny’s updates as to his ‘relationship’ progress through to triple digit days, layers are added to the narrative, especially as he attempts to untangle the deceit by clearing some of his lies aside. After we ease into his Mancunian accent (dialect coach Michael Madalios), we settle into a space of appreciation for Davidson’s storytelling, not least the demand of helming a 90-minute one-hander. There is a lot of nuance to his performance as he switches swiftly in and out of an increasing number of other characters through the physicality of differing stance or how his hoodie is worn, or aggressive sneer, shy smile or knowing nod in emphasis of the comedy inbuilt within Cass’s script. And he especially captures the hyperbolic all-consuming first feels of blossoming love, in no way diminished by its online, as opposed to in-real-life, experience.

Despite its occasional moments of levity, the show is overwhelmingly a tense one, with Chris Patrick Hansen’s sound design giving us little reprieve from the serious turn that the narrative is going to take in trip towards it shocking climax. Lighting also rarely gives remit from walloping the audience with emphasis of the work’s thematic tones, aside from when it is used to characterise Johnny’s long suffering mother and the toxic interactions with his also unseen stepfather.

While, under Timothy Wynn’s direction, its elements are all cohesive in their singular focus on descent of us towards the story’s tragically true conclusion, things do drag a little in latter sections as Johnny’s lies escalate beyond any rational imagination. Outrageous when told in one sitting rather than over time as played out in reality, the tale of “I Love You, Bro” is quite disturbing in contemplation of how this really has happened, which only adds to its gripping appeal, especially given That Production Company’s refined take on its storytelling.

Classic recreations

Cinderella (Javeenbah Theatre Company)

Javeenbah Theatre

March 10 – 25

Generally speaking, a two-hander relies on the interaction of its leads and their respective abilities to successfully move the narrative along. In Javeenbah Theatre’s production of Matthew Whittet’s “Cinderella”, Taylor Holmes and Liam Mathers achieve exactly this.

The performers are two in a season that features three rotating companies (which also include Cass Rockley, Megan Frener, Carole Lange and David Anderson). As advertising for the show promises… “This Cinderella isn’t about princes and princesses. It’s about a single woman in her early 40s trying to go on a date, and a single guy who has an unreasonable fear of not being heard over loud music in bars.” And so we see the story of Ash and Ashley’s burgeoning relationship over the course of an evening, affectionately conveyed by Holmes and Mathers.

Holmes is an engaging storyteller in share of her character’s entertaining anecdotes as part of what soon ends up emerging as a date. And Mathers captures the nervous energy of his character’s bumbles, conveying him as a genuinely likeable guy in whose story we become equally invested. The actors certainly work well, both together and independently. In particular, Holmes’s realisation of her character is complete down to nuanced movements and glances to hint as to a perhaps underlying sadness. This means that the Magic Realism that classifies the work, appears, not so much as an integral component, but as a superfluous distraction from a good story. One scene with puppetry of bird fits into the narrative of a recalled story, but the interpretive dance sort of movements from not just the two leads, but sometimes appearance of others on stage, only serves to detract from our absorption into a story whose emotional themes are already being accurately conveyed without the need for such emphasise.

Experimental as it may be, however, this “Cinderella” is still a work of much potential in its concept as we follow the pair’s relationship blossom over an evening, with little nods to the original story through a lost shoe and slowly-creeping-forward clock, for example. The timing of the show’s season starting during the week of International Women’s Day represents a particularly apt opportunity for some quality subversion of the original fairy tale’s traditional saviour plot through a feminist lens. While there is foreshadowing of an impending plot change of direction, without real establishment of motivation, this perhaps alienates rather than endears the conclusion of what is an otherwise quite lovely story.

“This is where the magic begins,” a staging statement tells the audience as Act One opens. In many ways this is true beyond even its particular genre, as, thanks to Jocelyn Moore-Carter’s direction we easily become enveloped in the cocoon of a catchy (but also aptly-chosen) Hall and Oats soundtrack and well-paced story. Indeed, the engagement created makes experience of this retold story of Cindy and her fella a quite lovely way to spend a Gold Coast evening.

All aboard in Beenleigh

Anything Goes (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre 

March 3 – 22

The SS American luxury ocean liner is ready for boarding in Beenleigh as a close to two-dozen strong cast of characters sets sail for “Anything Goes” on a transatlantic trip from New York to London. Amazingly, however, the tin shed stage doesn’t feel overcrowded, thanks to Phoenix Ensemble’s trademark clever set design (in this case by Andy Kennedy), which sees the ship’s decks opening up into state rooms as needed, yet also serve as platform for the show’s spectacular titular Act One close.  

The hilarious and heart-warming Tony Award winning musical’s narrative is a lightweight one, complicated just enough to ensure its play out of madcap mistaken identities, disguises, blackmail attempts and witty one-liners as in between of its familiar songs and lively dance numbers. Firstly, there’s nightclub cabaret singer Reno (Jaime O’Donoghue) and her self-proclaimed ‘dime-a-dozen’ pal Billy Crocker (Zach Price), assistant to gruff elderly millionaire Elisha Whitney (Rod Jones). Broken down stockbroker Billy has stowed away on-board to be near his love, debutant Hope Harcourt (Kristen Barros), who is actually engaged to the wealthy, but bumbling Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jordan Ross), at urging of her mother Evangeline (Nat Box), in seek of the resulting financial advantage.

The musical with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, was written in 1934, and has been revived many times. Not just of its time, this “Anything Goes” celebrates its era (which makes the inclusion of occasional modern references more jarring thanjoking.) While some dialogue and lyric mentions of the Jimmy Durante and Bo Jangles kind are nuanced in their of-the-time-ness, there is still a lot of laughs to be held, such as when Public Enemy Number…13! gangster Moonface Martin (Tristan Vanyai) attempts to cheer up a depressed Billy by telling him to ‘Be Like The Bluebird’, complete with increasingly irritated ballet dancer accompaniment. Under Miranda Selwood’s direction, the show never takes itself too seriously and a ‘soft’ start to each act that sees the audience being entertained by musical numbers and then interaction in petty-crim card tricks, only adds to the joy of the whole experience.

The tremendously talented O’Donoghue is a delight as the charismatic, free-spirited lapsed evangelist Reno. Flawless in song and dance, she aptly portrays her character as both a confident knockabout and glamorous kitten, and commands the stage in every number. Her strong vocals are pitch-perfect and controlled in their confident belt of Broadway-esque musical numbers and her Act One duet, ‘Friendship’, with Vanyai’s Moonface is a superb vaudevillian showcase of both performers’ magnificent comic talents. Vanyai’s characterisation of the buffoonish gangster disguised as a preacher is another show highlight, particularly in work with Vivien Wood as sultry Jersey gangster’s moll Erma. Their interplay, along with the pickpocketing antics of petty crims Spit (Aaron Anderson) and Dippy (Julie Eisentrager), ensures that thre is always something to look at.

Ross is an absolute hoot as the goofy fish-out-of-water Evelyn, trying to learn, but repeatedly mangling, American idioms in his speech. And Price is appropriately lovesick as protagonist Billy, who smuggles himself aboard the luxury cruise liner to make his intentions clear to the girl who got away from him. His ‘Easy to Love’ and later iconic ‘It’s De-Lovely’ duet with a sweetly-voiced Barros as Hope, also shows his impressive vocal register.  

Everyone gets a musical number as the show’s characters deal with the ramifications of trying to connect, meaning that there are ample opportunities for the band (under conductor Jacob Cabanough) to shine. The small band gives big band sounds throughout, presenting not just the individual character of songs, but adding a brassy vibrancy to of-era numbers such as Act One’s ‘There’s No Cure Like Travel’, in which the crew of the vessel prepare to set sail. And Jared Lehmann, in particular, gives more than a touch of Tango to Act Two’s ‘The Gypsy in Me’, in which The Earl reveals his Romani ancestry.

Of similar energy, the spirited gospel number ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’, performed by Reno one night in the ship’s nightclub, begins Act Two proper with a bang with all of its brassiness and gospel sounds. The sermon song is a standout of choreography, with Bec Swain’s design suiting its energy, sentiment and sensibility (almost up there with the razzle-dazzle, tap dance marathon of ‘Anything Goes’, which is hands-down the best musical number I’ve seen at a Phoenix show). Although sometimes ill-fitting in the ensemble, costume design captures the era of the story’s setting, especially in the glamourous evening attire of ‘Blow, Gabrielle, Blow’, and the art deco design motifs of Reno’s gowns are a standout at establishing the era.

There is something quite special about the sentiment of this all-singing, all-dancing vehicle for Cole Porter classics. Indeed, its mix of sweetly romantic numbers and energetic slapstick comedy sections, ensure that this big, bright and bold “Anything Goes” has something for everyone looking for some high-energy, fabulously feel-good musical escapism…. After all, as one of its most famous numbers surmises, “it’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely”.

JCS considerations

Jesus Christ Superstar (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

February 10 – 25

The Crete Street Theatre stage is affronted by two distinct and appropriately placed sides in Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”. To the left are fist-in-the-air fliers of the Nazareth party encouraging citizens to fight the power, while to the right there is Roman Party political propaganda promising that we can ‘Count on Caiaphas’, who sees Jesus as a threat to the nation. Between them, things open upon infamous apostle Judas Iscariot (a committed Isaac Brown), who sings of his concern at the rising prolife and increasingly crazed followers of Jesus, predicting that they may threaten the powerful empire to the point of punishment in an impassioned ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.

Judas is singing from his room in Hotel Gethsemane, in reposition of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s contemporised depiction of the final days of the life of Jesus Christ to a more recent reimagining. This fits alongside the production’s theme of enhancing the musical’s commentary on celebrity culture from before celebrity culture was even a thing, with, for example, modernising touches of the mass communication that Israel in 4BC lacked. While apostles with mobile phones obviously in-hand and a phone-lit musical number are maybe unnecessary, King Herod’s (Cassie Baan) Hardline TV show that appears on screen in lengthy pre-show and interval loops works well in drawing modern parallels through the King’s provocation of fellow Galileans to question the buzz around the upstart Jesus of Nazareth (Sophia Dimopoulos), including the authenticity of his birth certificate, and creates a nice arc to Act Two’s catchy ‘Herod’s Song’, which sees Baan leaning into the hammy mocking of its caricature as the flamboyant King pressures Jesus live on air to prove his divinity by performing his fabled miracles.

Despite the frequent, perhaps again unnecessary, set piece movement by ‘hotel staff’, the sung-through rock opera moves quickly, helped along by Donovan Wagner and Kaela Gray’s lighting design which, on its own, creates appearance of a hotel elevator in which Judas is propositioned towards his ultimate betrayal, and takes us from a seedy hotel scene into the darkness of Jesus’ torment. And while its titular number is maybe more lacklustre than full-on focal-point, there are some memorable moments within the musical, such as creation of the tableau of Jesus’ final supper with his disciples and the colour-themed nods within Natalie Jean and Hannah Collines’ costume design.

Kylie Davis-Davenport’s choreography works well when advancing the narrative such as when Jesus’ rag tag follows are being turned away from discovery of ‘What’s the Buzz?’ and when Mary Madeline (Abigail Ellerton) anoints Jesus towards spa relaxation with instruction that ‘Everything’s Alright’ so they should treasure the comforts they have. At other times, however, it serves as more of a distraction to the main focus, when representing in interpretive dance and movement themes from an already obvious plot element or stylising a pivotal musical moment such as Jesus’ 39 lashes without any grounding explanation for those perhaps unfamiliar with the detail of New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life from arrival in Jerusalem to his crucifixion.   

Restraint is rightly shown in stunning realisation of Jesus’ emotionally-charged musical soliloquy ‘Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)”. Dimopoulos gives this crucial moment for her character everything that it requires as Jesus wrestles with doubts about the success of her mission, demands to know why she should continue given what awaits and ultimately surrenders to God’s will. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has called this the most difficult song to sing he has ever written and Dimopoulos absolutely does this assessment justice, making it a standout moment of equal parts defiant conviction, potent desperation and ultimate dignity. While her vocals are well-pitched and she brings out the conflict and fear of her character’s plight throughout the production, this is, without doubt, the highlight of the show, thanks to the depth and soar of her vocals, and the considered lighting that backdrops her performance.

In support, Brown effectively conveys the internal conflict driving Judas’s actions, showing control in his lower vocal registers, but not the belt that Act Two’s ‘Damned for All Time’ deal with his betrayal perhaps requires, in keeping with its riff-driven rock sounds. Ellerton, gives us a compelling Mary, instilling the character with both strength and vulnerability through touching subtlety. While her ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ is another of the production’s great moments, she also creates some solid harmonies with Georgia Cooper as Peter in their ‘Could We Start Again, Please?’ wish to return to a time of hope and peace. Justin Harreman makes for a strong Governor Pontius Pilate, who holds Jesus’ fate in his hands. Also excellent are Daniel McNamara as High Priest Caiaphas and Michael Mills as his chief advisor Annas. McNamara’s bass vocals are especially deep and rich in their Act One duet of conclusion that for the greater good ‘This Jesus Must Die’

Ever since it first appeared on the musical scene in 1971, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has been considered sacrilegious to select conservative Christian groups and there are sure to be some troubled by the idea of re-gendering Jesus as this production has done. Apart from jarring the pronouns of Mary’s lovely ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ lament of how her feelings for Jesus frighten her, that Jesus is female, is not the most significant part of how this story is told. What stands out most is her crucial role in an impending election and what takes shape from that in terms of commentary on a person becoming more important than their deeds.As Director Kaela Gray notes in the show’s program, “this production isn’t a commentary on religion or theology; rather, it’s using the millennia-old story (as told through now-vintage tunes) to carry an incredibly modern message.”

While, at times, devotion to his modernity becomes unnecessarily detailed in distraction, what remains clear is the distinction of Lloyd-Webber’s catchy 1970s-inspired high-energy rock score, especially when kept in original key throughout. From the bombast of its epic shredding electric-guitar-filled opening overture onwards, the dynamic score is brought to rocking life by onstage JCS orchestra, under baton of Musical Director Benjamin Richards (also on keys). The perfectly balanced David Chivers (keys 2), Joel Sanchez-Carn (guitar), Phil Kan (bass) and Abbie Chadirchi (drums / percussion) are hidden away underneath the staging’s raised platform and it is unfortunate that there is no opportunity to ever seen them or rightfully acclaim their talents.  

Comedy cresendoing

There’s a War On, You Know (Mates Theatre Genesis)

Redland Museum

January 26 – February 3

In late 1941, St Cecilia’s School for Young Ladies is all about tradition. The annual production at every year’s sacrosanct Founders Day celebration is always a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and it is about to rotate around to “The Mikado”. The program has been designed and numbers already rehearsed in anticipation of the coming year’s production …. until on the last December day of term, Japan enters the war. With things reworked into a Chinese-themed “The Mandarin”, the hope is that the production will still please the difficult-to-satisfy bishop’s wife (Lynda Dwyer). Further complication then also arises with the arrival of the VDC (Volunteer Defence Corp), which meets at the school, requiring reallocation of areas for their equipment storage.

It takes a little while for the two storylines of Australian playwright Peter Flanigan’s “There’s a War On, You Know” to be fully formed. Along the way, however, Mates Theatre Genesis’ show is full of recognisable sensibilities of the time and place of a prestigious private girls’ school where the head girl is such because her parents paid for the tennis courts about to be turned into trenches by the VDC. The storylines intersect in Act Two when the girls young ladies of school (Winter McCourt, Angelina Mustafay and Sammy Jo Toussaint Guild) meet the disastrous Lance Corporal Foster (Ronan Mason). In their hurried attempt to explain the plot of “The Mikado” “The Mandarin”, along with the reasoning behind their teachers’ nicknames, they inadvertently set in motion his belief that a coded Tojo-type invasion is imminent.

Simple staging and an intimate performance space at the Redland Museum initially belies the large ensemble of players required to tell the story and from within its cast, there are some clear standouts. Ashley McArthur anchors things with an easy, assured performance as the school’s likeable drama teacher Dymphna, and her scenes of interaction with Father Anthony (Roland Dean) are a particular highlight, especially as they increase in flirtatious tone. Dean, himself, brings some light-hearted delight to Act Two’s crescendoing comedy. And Linda Stevenson makes for an appropriately stern headmistress Miss Thistleton.

Glynis Sequeira’s costumes convey character and reflect an era of rations and spy paranoia … because there is a war on you know. And while early scenes could be pacier or trimmed a little, such as when we see ‘Jerusalem’ performed as part of a school assembly, there is still much to enjoy in the story’s discovery of humour in the dirty business of war. Ian Stevenson’s Captain Woods and Mason’s dim Lance Corporal Forster, are a constant source of humour in their provision of a “Dad’s Army” type comedy of overconfident incompetents, bumbling through mutual misunderstandings, which, with pre-interval hilarity, sets the scene for the chaos to come.

Experience of “There’s a War On, You Know” makes for an entertaining night out at the Redland Museum, especially when it is experienced as part of the dinner and a show deal. The play is one of mainstream, easy-to-watch laughs from big but also little details (like when the home army recruits hilariously attempt to synchronise their watches) and there is a distinct Aussie humour to the comedy of errors that seems to appeal to everyone in its audience.

Iconic Intentions and then some

Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical (David Venn Enterprises)

Home of the Arts

January 20 – 28

“Let’s do this!” Kathryn Merteuil (Kirby Burgess) proclaims as The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ swells over the final scenes of “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical” in recreation of its source material’s iconic conclusion. This musical, created Jordan Ross, Linsey Rosin and Roger Kumble (writer and director of the film of the same name), however, is more than just an on-stage recreation of its 1999 Hollywood namesake.

Filled with throwback hits, it is more of ‘90s jukebox musical arranged around faithful recreation of the cult-hit film’s narrative about two vicious step-siblings, Mertevil and Sebastian Valmont (Drew Weston) who, fuelled by passion and revenge, make a wager for Sebastian to deflower the innocent daughter of their elite Manhattan prep school’s new headmaster before the start of term. As the two set out to destroy Annette Hargrove (Kelsey Halge), as well as anyone else who gets in their way, they find themselves playing a perilous game in what is a modern-day telling of the 1782 French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos , faithful in its recreation of another of its adaptions, “Dangerous Liaisons”.

Things remain true to the film with inclusion of iconic ‘Kiss Me’ type scenes and “silly rabbit” dialogue quips, however, familiarity with the source material is not required to enjoy the high-energy spectacle on stage as, under Alister Smith’s direction, the plot is made efficiently accessible. This is aided by Craig Wilkinson’s striking video design which serves to emphasise the main take-aways from character interactions and allows for a final focus on the damming text of Valmont’s journal. Simple (and seamless) scene transitions keep things moving with smooth blocking allow for, as an example, speedy transitions between four separate conversations as plans fall into place to allow Sebastian’s woo of Annette to occur. And Declan O’Neill’s stunning lighting design heightens key emotional moments.

Storytelling is also enhanced by intertwined placement of appropriately lyric-ed ‘90s era classics with a score that includes  back to back hits, including by Britney, Christina and alike. Indeed, there are many highlights from amongst the score’s different musical personalities. Performing from scaffold above the stage, revealed at various times throughout the show, the band’s musicians (David Youings, Chris Connelly, Anthony Chircop, Michael Chewter, Toby Loveland, Glen Moorehouse and Sam Blackburn) are also given individual opportunities to shine through the versatile set list. Annette’s entrance is to a rocking guitar and drum filled ‘Just a Girl’, while Counting Crows’ ‘Color Blind’ contains contemplative piano to accent the magnitude of Sebastian’s mood late in Act Two. And *NSYNC pop and TLC R&B boy and girl group numbers elicit overwhelming response as clear audience favourites.

Surprisingly perhaps, there is a sophistication to the musical’s score that elevates the show’s craftedness as songs are cut, sliced and melded together, including in a brilliant Act One closing overlapping medley of many of its songs. And Act Two includes a memorable ‘Bitch’ and ‘Losing My Religion’ mashup from Burgess and Weston. Freya List’s choreography also captures the core intent of songs in character revelation and plot progression, with ‘Sex and Candy’ between Blaine (Ross Chisari) and the closeted Greg (Joseph Spanti) who is about to be blackmailed by Sebastian, standing as a playful highlight. And Isaac Lummis’s costume design is all 90s and also of the film, down to even the detail of jewellery and accessories.

There are no weak links in the talented cast of performers who are each given individual moments to shine. Playing a well-known character on stage that someone else has portrayed so iconically in film can come with some expectation, however, Burgess adds her own touches of hurt-people-hurt-people humanity to the scheming seductress Kathryn, stealing the show with her fierce portrayal and rich vocal tones, from her very first ‘I’m the Only One’ appearance which conveys impressive intonation in its Bonnie Raitt like belt.

Weston, meanwhile, gives us a strong ‘Iris’, while Halge makes her following ‘Foolish Games’ heartbreaking in its stirring emotion. Rishab Kern’s (as music teacher Ronald) vocals are also impressive in his share of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with his character’s forbidden lover Cecile (Sarah Krndija) when the two are pushed together as unknowing pawns in Kathryn and Sebastian’s game. And though ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ feels narratively superfluous, Fem Belling, as Cecile’s mother, gives it the necessary, empowering vocal oomph.

In a story of highly sexualised characters, Krndija’s more wholesome Cecile is an absolute delight. Always angular in movement, she captures the awkwardness of the quirky character, new arrived and clearly childish, naive, spoiled and inexperienced, making her an easy target to Kathryn’s self-motivated manipulations. And her Boyz II Mean seduction attempt is a hilarity of well-timed physical comedy and perfectly pitched exaggeration.

If opening night is any indication, “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical” is sure to be a popular trip down ‘90s memory lane. Its experience of debauchery (its warning notes the show’s nudity, course language and adult content), discman and a dash of Dawson’s Creek type tunes is at-once glossy and gritty, provocative, but also still somewhat problematic in its narrative. In terms of nostalgia, however, this is pure infectious celebration of an era. You will need to get your guilty pleasure on quickly though as its limited season means that the show will be saying ‘Bye Bye Bye’ before you know it.

Photos c/o – Nicole Cleary