NYC seclusion songs

From NYC with LOVE (Kurt Phelan)

May 22

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From the moment Queensland-born performer Kurt Phelan shares weird puppet musical “Avenue Q” song ‘Purpose’ as one of the opening songs of his “From NYC with LOVE” show from COVID-19 seclusion, it is clear to his online audience that his purpose is to entertain. As his love letter show from inside the epicentre progresses, this truth is realised, and not only through his tell of how he was just days out from directing and choreographing a now-on-hiatus show in Kansas City when the pandemic hit.

Phelan, who been living and working in New York for the past year, has not only been experiencing “Rent” in real life courtesy of the city’s East Village setting, but the charismatic NIDA graduate has played both Mark and Roger in various productions of Jonathan Larson’s generation-defining musical. And his thoughtful ‘One Song Glory’ certainly recaptures the first moment we all fell in love with struggling musician Roger, even when cleverly inset with some “American Idiot” moments. Indeed, there is a clear comfort in Phelan’s musical theatre numbers, and pleasingly, amongst anecdotes of side-hustles from while in upstate New York quarantine, the musical memories keep coming courtesy of “Tootsie” number ‘I Won’t Let You Down’.

Accompanied by his husband, Emmy Award-winning composer Lance Horne, Phelan presents a characteristic hour of songs, stories and cabaret cheek, as his versatility takes the audience from a topical ‘Catch My Disease’ and ‘I think We’re Alone Now’ to a reappropriated ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. There are also pop-up Aussie music nods amongst the show’s eclectic set list, courtesy of Divinyls and Peter Allen numbers. In particular, Phelan’s tender and compelling ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ showcases his impressive vocal technique and serves as a touching reminder that we will soon be welcoming the actor, singer, writer and choreographer back home to Australia.

When it comes to intimate shows, one from someone’s Upper West Side home, is about as cosy as it can get, especially when it comes complete with some familiar new-normal shared screen technical issues. Even through these hic-ups, however, Phelan’s infectious energy and character shines through … and that’s the way we like it.

Photo c/o – Austin Ruffer

 

Boho Boom!

Tick, Tick… Boom! (That Production Company)

Crete Street Theatre

March 12 – 14

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Like Bobby in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”, struggling artist Jon (Jackson McGovern) is grappling with a 30s birthday. As many do, he considers this as a turning point in life, as he sees those around him all appearing to be settling down. Especially, he is filled with pre-mid-life-crisis self-doubt around his decision to be a composer, given how his musical theatre career has stalled. Exploration of this is what makes up the 90 minutes of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”, the musical by “Rent” composer Jonathan Larson, an autobiographical work that Larson performed on-and-off as a solo show prior to the debut of his magnum opus musical.

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In 2001, five years after Larson’s death, a revised, three-character version of “Tick, Tick … Boom!”, premiered off-Broadway. Even expanded to a three-person show, this remains an intimate piece of theatre. More reflective rock monologue than musical, it traverses a range of somewhat obscure song inspirations, with numbers like ‘Green Dress’ and ‘Sugar’. The songs are written by Jon as part of this story about ambitiously writing a show, the dystopian musical Superbia. And while he is waiting on tables and trying to write the “Hair” of the ‘90s, those around him are equally at odds with their lives; his girlfriend Susan (Stephanie Long) wants to get married and move out of New York City, and his best friend Michael (Josh Whitten) is making big bucks on Madison Avenue.

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Whitten is delightful as Jon’s fabulous friend Michael who relishes the lavish Gucci lifestyle he enjoys living in Victory Towers in contrast to that of his composer friend-since-summer-camp-days. And he contributes immensely to the humour of two particularly memorable scenes, when Jon takes up Michael’s offer to work at his advertising agency and during the dance break of ‘No More’. Similarly, Long jumps in and out of numerous roles with ease and showcases incredible vocals in the musical-within-a-musical’s show stopping number, ‘Come to Your Senses’. And McGovern is excellent in the demanding role as the passionate protagonist Jon, one that sees him on stage for the show’s duration. His energetic almost frenetic performance projects an authentic sense of time running out, that sits well with the show’s themes.

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It is unfortunate that “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is performed so infrequently. The style that eventually blossomed into “Rent” is certainly evident. ‘No More’, for example, has a real ‘Rent’ fast-paced rock sound. A range of emotions is covered in its soundtrack of diverse styles (Larson took much pride in being able to write music in a wide variety of genres) and subjects, with witty lyrics like those of Jon’s idol, Stephen Sondheim. ‘Sunday’, for example, is about the boorish patrons of the diner in which Jon works, while ‘No More,’ is a humorous ode to materialism.

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‘30/90’ is a catchy opening rock number in its build to an explosive chorus, immediately showcasing the small, but talented band (under Luke Volker’s musical direction) hidden from view high above the stage. And Daniel Anderson’s lighting evokes an array of emotional palettes and settings in complement of Lachlan Van Der Kreek’s vision design, capturing the beauty that lies at the core of this thoughtful work.

Its themes are familiar to those in the ‘La Boheme’ no-day-like-today know, as Jon laments the difficulty of being idealist and original in the unimaginative early 1990s (as a solo show it was initially known by the title “Boho Days”). Indeed, when Jon explains how he believes that his brand of rock music could change Broadway, one cannot help but think of their prophecy in relation to Larson’s revolutionary rock opera “Rent”, one of the industry’s most influential works from even its hugely successful off-Broadway run.

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While “Tick, Tick … Boom!” has no musical numbers as memorable as those of the latter “Rent”, it does include hint enough to tantalise the taste-buds of Rent-heads and newbies alike. It is an entertaining boho-ish show, experience of which flies by in what appears to be the shortest of times, thanks to Timothy Wynn’s tight direction. Whilst it is a must-see show for all the lovers of “Rent”, That Production Company’s “Tick, Tick … Boom!” is also a compelling show for musical theatre fans in general, superbly realised, as always, by a company that never disappoints.

Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits – Volume 1

Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits – Volume 1

Casa Mia Restaurant, Ipswich

February 14 – 15

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Dinner theatre is always a difficult mix. The more relaxed atmosphere is an attraction to many, but, even with courses being served between theatre acts, there are also difficulties that can come from ambient restaurant noise. In the case of “Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits – Volume 1” at Ipswich’s Casia Mia Italian Restaurant, this is, initially at least, magnified by the volume of Director/Musical Director Sean Fagan’s skilful electric piano musical accompaniment, making it difficult to hear the vocals of the show’s initial number. Thankfully, the sound situation soon improves, meaning that audiences are able to be easily entertained by a versatile cast (Andrew Alley, Roger Davy, Nikki Fagan, Gary Farmer-Trickett, Sandra Harman and Rebecca Kenny-Sumiga) in presentation of Greatest Hits – Volume 1 of the Forbidden Broadway franchise of musical theatre parody revues conceived, written and directed by Gerard Alessandrini in 1982.

Rebecca Kenny-Sumiga is a real standout, from the moment she appears as a now rough-around-the-edges 30-year-old Annie in ‘Tomorrow’. As Broadway star Chita Rivera she is full of energy in a ‘America’ reimagine and share of the reality of her dancers life, and her strong vocals soar in every instance, showing how ‘Defying Gravity’ is still impressive even in parody of its lack of subtlety. Sandra Harman also notably takes us from a saucy ‘Glossy Fosse’ to memorable character performances as she channels Carol Channing’s distinctive vocals in ‘Hello Dolly’ parody and spoofs Ethel Merman. As the show’s title suggests, a knowledge of Broadway personalities will serve audience members well its experience, however, while some are more obscure than others with tease of Mandy Patinkin’s indulgent over-articulated style and Cameron MacIntosh’s role as the marketing emperor of Broadway sitting alongside numbers about the great songwriter Stephen Sondheim, there are enough mainstream references for lay theatre nerds to still be entertained.

Intimate staging allows for an up close and personal experience of a show that does not pretend to be something it is not. Lynette Wockner’s choreography is appropriately simple and costume changes, some of which occur on stage, do well to establish the revolving door of theatre characters. Although pacing could occasionally be tighter to account for the sometimes awkward silences, there are lots of moments of shared celebration, including audience singalong to a catchy ‘Into the Woods’ type number.

“Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits – Volume 1” features both modern and long-time classics from Phantom, Les Mis and Liza’s ‘one-note Cabaret’ to a Mama Mia celebration of theatre queening. And just as you can’t stop the camp of the upbeat Act Two “Hairspray” take-off, you also can’t deny the energy of what they do for love (#seewhatididthere) that transcends the below the belt repartee (by own encore admission) of this easy-to-watch theatre experience.

And don’t it feel good!

Little Miss Sunshine (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

January 31 – February 22

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Of all the graffiti that backdrops the staging of Phoenix Ensemble’s “Little Miss Sunshine”, there is one word that stands out, thematically if not visually…. #family, because it is a celebration of this that is central to this quirky show’s success. The musical, like its multi-award winning film source material, tells the story of a dysfunctional family, the Hoovers, driving 10-year-old daughter Olive from their home in New Mexico to a child beauty pageant in California, in an unreliable Volkswagen van.

The story, taken straight from the 2006 film, is not a complex one, with focus more on characters and their feelings, making it perfect material for a musical make-over. Awkward Olive (Eva Rose McMurray), who almost always seems to be celebrating the sunshine of life, dreams of becoming a beauty pageant winner. Unfortunately, her family all have their own issues on which to focus; her parents self-help entrepreneur Richard (Michael Ware) and stressed-out Sheryl (Samara Marinelli) remember dreams only in the distance as maxed-out credit cards and unpaid bills take primary precedence, teenaged son Dwayne recently took a vow of silence until he becomes a test pilot to ‘get away from his loser family’ and Richard’s formerly estranged, disreputable father (played with wit by Chris Catherwood) is getting little worse for wear as he ages. Even Sheryl’s brother Frank (Dom Bradley) is along for the ride as he attempts to recover from the tragedy of the loss of his first love.

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Unlike some more static productions of the show, which rely on an on-stage minivan to recount the road trip that changes the family’s lives, Phoenix have adopted a more abstract approach which allows for an energetic experience. The minimalist set sees, for example, the family’s KFC-clad dinner table effectively transform into the mini-van setting. Costuming (Justin Tubb-Hearne, Tammy Richards & Victoria Sica) and lighting (Benjamin Tubb-Hearne) are nuanced in their symbolism and passage-of-time transitions. Unfortunately, however, through no fault of the musicians, the soundtrack features few memorable musical numbers. Still, the arrangements are upbeat and Grandpa’s unsolicited ‘The Happiest Guy in the Van’ ode to the joys of sex, is memorable for its shock factor as much as its humour. Indeed, the show is filled with often inappropriately hilarious one-liners thanks to the perfect comic timing of its performers.

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The show is certainly well performed. While he remains very un-pc, but with a less apparent abruptness than in the film version, Catherweed’s Grandpa gives his tender scenes with Olive the required emotional sensitivity, especially in his reassurance to her being ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’, presenting a believable connection between the two as has been coaching her into pageant readiness (and the reveal of his dance routine for her is an absolute delight). McMurray is a charmer, impressing in the title role and performing her big ‘Badonkadonk’ number with infectious enthusiasm.

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Nietzsche-obsessed teen Dwayne is brought to life through Blake Omundson’s on-point facial expressions, making him a stand-out despite his lack of dialogue, while Michael Ware’s smooth vocals make the big emotional number ‘The Things You Left Behind’ soar in sentiment beyond its also abrasive comic lyrics. And as one of the sassy mean girls of Olive’s mind, Tia Godbold is a real can’t-turn-your-eyes-away talent.

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“Little Miss Sunshine” is a lively musical satire that is immensely likable in its charm. The quirky little musical is a feel-good escape from the world that flies by in what seems like the shortest of times. Indeed, under Bradley Chapman’s direction, it is a tight show, settling in at two hours’ duration including interval. Its dialogue is snappy and its aesthetic is dynamic, which makes for an easy-to-watch show and a thoroughly enjoyable albeit off-beat night of entertainment that leaves it audiences walking on sunshine out of the theatre. It is outrageously funny but not at the expense of character development and lessons in the Hoover’s move towards becoming a more functional family, which makes its heart-warming to experience.

Step, kick chorusing

A Chorus Line (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

January 31 – February 15

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“A Chorus Line” begins with audience members being rushed in to a Broadway audition. True to expectations, it is leg warmers and headbands, self-assurance and nerves as we look upon a cattle call audition of performers each dreaming of stardom and hoping to ‘get it’ (as one of the show’s signature songs signposts).

The authentic approach continues once the diverse group of characters is down to seventeen, when from the back of the tiered stalls seats, the show-within-a-show’s director Zack (Zander Tidmarsh) asks the dancers to share their names, ages, and a little bit of their backstory, that is where they come from and why they dance, as he attempts to shrink the group size further down to eight.

There is a clear undercurrent of troubled history between the largely one-note, brash and un-empathetic Zack and once star dancer Cassie (Jackie Brewster) back in New York after trying to make it in Hollywood, exploration of which brings us back after interval. But beyond this there is not much in the way of conflict. There’s not much in the way of narrative either. Instead, we hear the hopefuls telling their stories and breaking out into the occasional song and dance number as we learn about the dreams and backgrounds that have uniquely shaped their lives. Act Two slows with some confronting content, not only in the form of a lengthy monologue in which Paul (Phil Maas) tells his story of how he was kicked out of home while struggling with his sexuality.

A single location story and bare audition stage setting makes for easy staging. The almost pre-requisite mirrors appear at times at the back of the stage, however, mirror imagery doesn’t contribute significantly to key dance numbers apart from their use in Cassie’s big number, ‘Music in the Mirror’. However, despite the minimalism of its staging, the show is fraught with challenges, given the sheer size of its ensemble cast.

The iconic show, which revolutionised the notion of what a musical could be when it opened in 1975, presents the audience with a rotation of stories straight from real life. Each tale is based on interviews between Michael Bennett (who originally conceived, directed and choreographed the show) and his friends. And in Beenleigh Theatre Group’s hands, it is ably brought to life anew three decades after its record breaking 15-year Broadway run ended.

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As the lives of the dancers converge on the audition stage, performers all tell their characters’ stories with heart. Harley Coghlan is an early standout as the flamboyantly eccentric Robert and Aimee Monement commits to sour Sheila’s eye-roll obnoxiousness throughout her every gesture, action and reaction, even if this leaves little room for juxtaposition between her aggression and the pathos of her description of the role of ballet in offering her an escape from domestic conflict. As Cassie, Jackie Brewster tries her best to live up to the many mentions of her being the best dancer on the stage, especially given her character’s solo number and lengthy, but seemingly simple, dance routine.

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Ensemble numbers feature good harmonies, while Taylah McLennan gives a standout vocal performance as the animated Diana, leading the cast during the iconic but almost out-of-place ‘What I Did for Love’. And ‘Dance: Ten; Looks: Three’ (aka the Tits and Ass song) from Rockette wannabe Val (Tabitha Woods), will stay with you long after its conclusion. Meanwhile, the role of Richie, provides Abu Kebe with a wonderful showcase of his talent as a dancer. Although his character’s profile is relatively minor in comparison to other roles, his stage presence when dancing more than makes up for this.

The high energy step kick kick leap kick touch, again choreography (Director and Choreographer Stewie Matthews) is a real treat, especially given the large ensemble. It is simple, elegant and almost too big for the space (#inagoodway), especially in the singular sensation signature tune ‘One’, in which the dancers finally dance the chorus number for an unnamed and unseen star. However, some occasional obtrusive, strangely-hued spot-lighting detract from the impact of others.

Marvin Hamlisch’s score (“A Chorus Line” was the composer’s first Broadway show) fills the theatre with a variety of musical styles, which are delivered without fault by the live, unseen-until-encore band, led by musical director/conductor Steven Days. Its contribution to the glorious reveal of the show’s razzle dazzle finale in which the auditionees all reunite on stage for the final number, dressed identically in ironic removal of the individuality we saw in earlier scenes, makes for a magical moment.

As a meta musical about the making of a musical, “A Chorus Line” may be ground-breaking in its celebration not of the stars of a show, but their anonymous chorus members support, but it is not necessarily a musical that propels itself to the top of people’s list of favourites. It is at times intense and often humourous in its capture of the essence of a Broadway chorus audition and in Beenleigh Theatre Group’s hands, a comforting take back to the musical’s intimate roots and core emotions, which makes for an enjoyable night out in experience of a classic of the musical stage.

BTG’s notorious BNC

Bonnie & Clyde (Beenleigh Theatre Company)

Crete Street Theatre

November 15 – 30

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“Bonnie & Clyde” starts at its end, with the image of its titular American criminal couple sitting in a car, dead, accompanied by some energetic Bluegrass sounds (‘Prologue’). Before long, however, we are transported from the Louisville location of the folk hero couple’s final run’s end to their younger, hopeful Texas selves. At 10-year-old Bonnie’s (Denyella-Sophia Duncan) father’s funeral, the young girl shares her fantasy movie-star ambition, which is inset with young Clyde’s (Kieran McGinlay) juvenile delinquency and career criminal aspirations through idolisation of Billy the Kid and Al Capone (‘Picture Show’). Fast forward five years to the meeting of the car loving criminal Clyde (Connor Hawkins), just escaped from prison with his brother Buck (Brad Kendrick) and Rowena waitress Bonnie (Lauren Conway) and the rest, as they say, is history… only a history about whose detail we perhaps know very little. And so we discover the lover’s story as they journey from robbery to murder and folk hero status.

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Depression times are tough in the 1930s of Bonnie and Clyde’s two-year crime spree, with the businesses failing, banks collapsing and many people out of work. Still, as Clyde graduates from theft to murder, Bonnie agonises back and forth about following him down a fatal path (‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’), ultimately finding herself seduced by her growing fame as a ‘ravishing redhead’. As the tag-line from the also-named “Bonnie and Clyde” 1967 movie surmises, “they’re young, they’re in love, they kill people”. This also aptly sums up what goes on in the musical realisation of Bonnie and Clyde’s story. Still, under Kaitlyn Carlton’s strong direction, it is a pacey and engaging show, helped along by multi-media display of real-life newspaper headlines in chronicle of the ill-fated couple’s robbery spree and on-the-run rampage.

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While there are no real standout songs with the score, the music of “Bonnie & Clyde” (Composer Frank Wildhorn) works well in telling the show’s story, with its smooth combination of rockabilly, blues and gospel numbers. Under Musical Director Julie Whiting, the polished orchestra is flawless in its musical transitions. ‘God’s Arms Are Always Open’ conveys an infectious gospel energy courtesy also of Preacher Stuart Fisher’s compelling vocals (wonderfully revisited in Act Two’s opener ‘Made in America). And Act One’s finale, ‘This World Will Remember Us’, which sees Clyde convincing Bonnie to smuggle a gun into his cell so he can break out of prison, is a jaunty showcase of the talents of Liam Madden (drums/percussion) and versatility of Annie Silva (fiddle/mandolin/banjo) who both impress as standouts from the show’s very first number. Well-balanced orchestrations lay a solid foundation for the singers, never overpowering the vocals. And the beautifully orchestrated score is complimented by the honesty and emotion that the performers find within the music.

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Bonnie and Clyde’s mutual infatuation is obvious in their unquestionable loyalty; they convey a chemistry even as they quarrel (their favourite form of foreplay). Connor’s Clyde may be no bed or roses but he is charismatic. Indeed, despite his unlikeable actions and sometimes questionable treatment of Bonnie, audience members are on his side thanks to Hawkins’ magnetism. And his prison cell lament towards the end of Act One, ‘Raise A Little Hell,’ is a powerful moment thanks to his strong vocals. Conway, too, is vocally impressive, especially in her delicate Act Two solo, ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’, in which Bonnie passionately declares that she’d ‘rather breathe in life than dusty air’.

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Conway also impressively overcomes the inherit challenge of eliciting audience emotional investment in a character that spends the entire show making poor choices and determining herself to die by Barrow’s side. Indeed, there is much to like about the vigour she brings to the character, as her zealous anti-heroine rebellion is also boldly that of a woman in a time when women were not afforded equal rights. Kendrick captures the juxtaposition of Buck simple, but simultaneously complex supporting character, devoted to his wife Blanche (Katya Bryant) yet also eager to conspire with his daring brother. And Bryant gives a measured showcase of Blanche’s morality, love for her husband and fear for his safety, particularly platformed in the honest and heartbreaking ‘That’s What You Call a Dream’.

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Simple yet inventive staging (Production Design by Bradley Chapman) allows for swift set changes, although cohesion sometimes suffers due to missed sound cues and severe lighting switches. Mary Oliver’s costumes are, however, a standout. Outfits are era-evocative without being clichéd and appropriate to history’s most stylish bank robbers, with channel of Bonnie’s iconic beatnik beret and striped sweater blouse alongside general 1930s form-fitting, softly tailored style pieces.

“Bonnie & Clyde” is an interesting exploration of an infamous couple we know but not really. It’s also, however, a story about American dreams, giving it an ongoing resonance beyond its depression era setting. While its songs aren’t particularly memorable in and of themselves, this musical serves more as a complete experience than a sum of its parts. While, as Clyde’s sister-in-law observes, the characters deserve each other, Lauren Conway and Connor Hawkins give us memorable portraits of the notorious duo, making this “Bonnie & Clyde” quite the triumph.