Festive fave

Spirit of Christmas

QPAC, Concert Hall

December 17 – 18

“Spirit of Christmas” sees the QPAC Concert Hall decked out with boughs of holly et al, ready for some fa la la la la seasonal jolly, and after being welcomed to country by Aunty Raelene Baker, a glorious ‘Christmas Overture’ continues the theme with showcase of the versatility of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra as we are taken from, for example, the tenderness of ‘Silent Night’ to a jovial ‘Jingle Bells’.

While carols are at the heart of the annual celebration concert, its program consists of a mix of seasonal musical offerings from a range of performers. Two of Australia’s leading musical theatre stars, Amy Lehpamer and Lucy Maunder headline the concert with humour and energy, joining a host of special guests in uplifting song, beautifully supported by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under Musical Director and Conductor Simon Kenway and the celebrated voices of the QPAC Chamber Choir.

Recent Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University Bachelor of Musical Theatre graduate Hanlon Innocent makes the charming simplicity of José Feliciano’s ‘Feliz Navidad’ an infectiously joyful experience, with his touch of Spanish rhythm and style, maracas and all. Maunder makes seasonal staple ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ melodically bittersweet, both poignant in its yearning, yet also hopeful. And the beauty of her lingering vocals is complemented by the soothing sounds of its light but building orchestration. Lehpamer’s bright vocals bring a buoyancy to ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ that captures the heartfelt joy and happiness of the popular holiday season song.

The program is one of many highlights. An early one comes courtesy of the 28-voice QPAC Chamber Choir’s triumphant ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. As the upper voices chorus before being joined by others, the boisterous hymn is elevated by the powerful accompaniment of Eduarda Van Klinken on the venue’s iconic, magnificent 6500 pipe Klais Grand Organ.

While choral music plays an essential role in musical experience of the Christmas season, the night’s biggest ovation, comes for guest tenor Rosario La Spina’s share of the 1906’s powerful anthemic carol ‘O Holy Night’. His performance of the rousing Christmas hymn hits every note exquisitely. Indeed, the ease with which he sails from its placid beginnings to its robust high notes is the stuff of goosebumps, worth the price of admission alone. And the perennial holiday tune is also elevated by the QSO’s climactic build-up to full instrumentation.

The Concert Hall has never looked better. Lush greens and reds light the space appropriate to the season, with golds adding to both the aesthetic and narrative of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which is playfully presented by Lehpamer, Maunder and Innocent.

While celebratory in tone, at the core of the show’s sentiment is an inspirational message of peace and love. This is underscored by delivery of a special Christmas Message by The Salvation Army’s Major Scott Allen, with his words about the Christmas rush and understandings of peace leading things easily into the Miniature Overture from Tchaikovsky “The Nutcracker” and its particular showcase of the orchestra’s woodwind and brass sections. Meanwhile, the light orchestral piece “Sleigh Ride” showcases the percussion sections with its musical depiction of jingling sleigh bells, whip cracks, clip clops and even a whinnying horse. And a Christmas version of ‘Seasons of Love’ from Jonathan Larson’s acclaimed, award-winning rock musical “Rent”, arranged by QSO cellist Craig Allister Young, makes for a beautiful concluding message about the way to quantify the value of a year in life.

While Sydney has Carols in the Domain and Melbourne its Carols by Candlelight, in Brisbane it is QPAC’s “Spirit of Christmas”. And clearly, there is a reason why the concerts have been presented every year since 1985. The mix of hymns, much loved classics and popular Christmas songs offers both opportunity for celebration of the true meaning of the festive season and appreciation of our stunning orchestra and vocalists in share of beloved holiday favourites. And everyone can relieve its magic through a free digital broadcast of the concert on Christmas Eve by tuning in to the Spirit of Christmas Digital Broadcast here at 7pm AEST on Friday 24 December to watch this festive favourite from the comfort of your own home.

Photos c/oDarren Thomas

Yipee-ki-yay again

Die Hard: The Move, The Play (Act React)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Platform

December 12 – 23

‘tis the season for Christmas parties and Nakatomi’s is set to be a cracker, hosted as it is by Act React in the return season of the company’s site-specific “Die Hard: The Movie, The Play”. The Brisbane Powerhouse’s Turbine Platform has been transformed into the Nakatomi Plaza of the 1988 action film favourite’s Los Angeles location with its levels adding opportunities to fully experience its explosive unfolding as Nakatomi company’s employees (in this case audience members) gather to celebrate at their annual Christmas party until fanatical terrorists hijack the celebrations.

At the criminal helm is meticulous mastermind renegade German extremist Hans Gruber, played to perfection by James Tinniswood. He not only carries himself with a suave arrogance appropriate to the antagonist’s over-exaggeration, but his smooth-talking showcases a spot-on parody of Alan Rickman’s (in tribute to the British actor’s feature film debut) signature vocal cadences of pitch, pace, emphasis and pro-tract-ed enunciation. 

In keeping with tradition of the Brisbane-based company’s other low-fi film-to-stage pop-culture-inspired performances, the biggest role, however, is left to an audience member, with scaffolded support through the film’s narrative from the Act React team and an inner monologue voiceover. On opening night our white-singlet-clad, bare-footed New York cop John McClane does a marvellous job in dealing with the chaos when all he wants to do is patch things up with his semi-estranged high-powered corporate wife Holly (Natalie Bochenski). With only the dad from TV sitcom “Family Matters” (Simon Chugg) as backup, he throws himself into the role and down and through elevator and ventilation shafts et al, entertaining the audience with his put-on-the-spot dialogue delivery of some memorable wisecracking walkie-talkie one-liners beyond just the Yipee-ki-yay of our expectations. And the consequential improv in response only cements the comic apabilities of the Act React performers.

Experience of “Die Hard: The Movie, The Play” is about little (sometimes unpredictable) moments as much as complete package of its parody of the ‘80s time capsule film franchise. The interactive show cleverly operates on many levels, including through pop culture nods to the bodies of work of the film’s cast of actors. Trademark Act React low-fi special effects and inventive low budget props not only help bring the Christmas classic to stage in a way that ensures all key plot aspects make appearance (extreme acts of violence, impressive pyrotechnics, a helicopter and all), but provide much of its comedy. This is chiefly the case through the antics of 3DS (Ellen Hardisty) in motion capture green skin tight suit, especially in her flirtatious distractions with certain audience members.

“Die Hard: The Movie, The Play” is mindless entertainment of the most enjoyable sort… light-hearted escapism that you don’t have to think about too much in order to enjoy. Indeed, a lot of the show’s charm comes from it never taking itself too seriously, which makes its infectious fun perfect for the festive season for both full-on “Die Hard” fans and those with casual pop culture familiarity alike.

Photos c/o – Images by Anderson

‘tis the season for sexy

A Very Naughty Christmas (Woodward Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

December 9 – 19

Featuring a live band and ten sexy performers, “A Very Naughty Christmas” is the holiday comedy event you didn’t know you had to experience. With Christmas classics as you’ve never heard them before, this show is bound to get you into the holiday spirit. And back as it is for its fifth helping, it really is the gift that keeps on giving…and giving… and giving, for this is Christmas at its most salacious.

The show’s adults-only sentiment is evident from the outset and from the moment things open with Steel Panther’s ‘Sexy Santa’, it is clear that Santa (Stephen Hirst) is the star of Christmas. Saucy from the start, he is down to his underwear within 10 minutes, such has become tradition of the totally inappropriate (#inagoodway) tone of the filthy festive folly. Aurelie Roque is similarly as wonderful as ever in delivery of jaded musical numbers and audience interaction alike, while an Andrews Sisters style bung, bung, bung, bung reappropriation of ‘Mr Sandman’ to ‘Mr Santa’ is full of suggestion. And audience participation in re-enactment of a “The Night Before Christmas” storytelling segment is hilarious as always.

This is low brow humour, but crafted with wonderful wit. Indeed, it is surprising how many opportunities there are for punny innuendo around the iconography of this time of year. The scripts and musical numbers alike are full of clever erotic worsmithery, especially in their ability to keep the show fresh for a fifth season. Still, appearance of a “Mean Girls” ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ from Santa and his helpers goes down a treat as it has in the past.

After Emily Kristopher’s play up of the controversial ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ in attempted seduction of Elliot Baker and a desirous duet proposition of Santa in a highly-suggestive ‘Santa Baby’, one of the funniest face-hurting-from-laughter scenes comes from an attempted redirection of the tone of Santa’s message to be 2021 appropriate and inoffensively non-specific.

Directed and choreographed by Dan Venz and Maureen Bowra the energy of the show’s electric performers (Aurelie Roque, Carla Beard, Dan Venz, Elliot Baker, Emily Kristopher, Kate Yaxley, Patrick Whitbread, Shay Debney, Stephen Hirst and Taylah Ferguson) never wanes. And the live band (Chris Evans, David Spicer and Elliot Parker) is excellent in both turning familiar songs like ‘Santa Clause in Coming to Town’ into something never before imagined and adding energy to numbers like an SNL Christmas song classic.

With sexy carollers, a divine disco number and a tap-dancing nutcracker soldier, Brisbane’s favourite adults-only Christmas comedy is sure to have you feeling festive throughout. The now comedy cabaret tradition’s frisky fun is full of highlights, the memory of which will stay with you long afterwards, even if only in consideration of how dirty Christmas talk can literally spice up your life. With its peppering of pop culture references (including Elliot Baker leaning more into mumbling Mr Bean contrivances) and new take on mischievous Christmas concepts, “A Very Naughty Christmas” is sure to take its non-feint-hearted audience members on a sleigh ride to hilarity, regardless if they are on the naughty or nice lists.

Restirring a Christmas classic

A Christmas Carol (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

December 2 – 24

At certain times of year or age, we have perhaps all felt a little like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol”. As shake and stir theatre co’s adaptation reminds us, however, the cold-hearted elderly miser that we meet at the outset of the story is still capable of transformation. The initially spiteful and mean-spirited character’s redemption comes after he is visited, on the night before Christmas, by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley (now bound for eternity in the chains of his own greed after a life of hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor), and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, which takes audiences to a lovely celebration of the festive generosity of spirit at the core of the Christmas season.

The award-winning production is as pantomime as Brisbane gets, particularly in the performances of Eugene Gilfedder as the misanthropist Scrooge, whose disdain for do-gooders and Bah! Humbug! desire to just be left alone, indicates that he is clearly far from merry… just ask his long-suffering clerk Bob Pratchett (Lucas Stibbard). More than just being cantankerous, however, Gilfedder’s Scrooge is quite funny, especially when relishing in his own amusements, which gives the character a depth beyond caricature. Bryan Probets, too, is wonderfully engaging as Marley’s ghost of Christmas past, present and future, particularly in drag as an Edwardian lady all dressed in white. And his physical commitment to floating in place and hovering across the stage is impressive in its add to the story’s authenticity.   

Michael Futcher’s nimble direction sees the perennial story pace along with performers jumping in and out of scenes and roles without detracting from audience investment in their worlds. Ross Balbuziente is magnetic as the younger, almost-once-married Scrooge of earlier times. He also banters buoyantly with Nick Skubij as children in the Christmas-present Cratchit family experience, both to juxtapose the family’s innocence and happiness against Scrooge’s misery, and also in foreshadow of the tragedy coming should Scrooge not change his miserly ways.

This is a grand production, perfect for the entire family, complete with live music, yule-tide carolling, innovative video design, lavish costumes, snow and a supersized turkey. Josh McIntosh’s design ensures that Dickensian London is brought vibrantly to life through a complicated but versatile mobile set design. Guy Webster’s sound design and Jason Glenwright’s lighting design, both cool us into the Victorianness of its drama and warm us towards its final affirming messages. And on-stage musicianship courtesy of internationally-acclaimed violinist Tabea Sitte soundtracks our transport across times.

While the show is now in its fourth year, this “A Christmas Carol” remains thoroughly innovative, particularly in its state-of-the-art video projections by Craig Wilkinson which awaken the story’s supernatural forces, particularly its ghostly visions and give us some Doctor Who type time vortex travel visions. While there are some moments of darkness, in keeping with its grim gothic ghost story origins, Nelle Lee’s adaption is ultimately a heart-warming tale that maintains the essence of the original, while igniting the appeal of the magical story to a modern-day audience. Indeed, it is difficult to leave the Playhouse Theatre upon the show’s end without being filled with uplifting appreciation for the Christmas spirit as something to be lived out every day.

Photos c/o – David Fell

Downstairs at Darcy’s

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of the Arts

November 19 – December 12

The concept of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is clear from the outset of Growl Theatre’s production of the charming Christmas-themed story. The Regency-era romance takes its audience immediately into the downstairs kitchen world of The Wickhams of Jane Austen’s classic novel of manners “Pride and Prejudice”, where nothing ever changes…. until it does when the household staff encounter a holiday scandal while the Bennetts and Darcys are celebrating upstairs during a festive time of puddings with raisins and many, many orangey biscuits

As a companion piece to the company’s 2020 Christmas production, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”, the show, likewise, represents a continuation of Austen’s popular novel. Elizabeth (Melanie Kempton) and Darcy (Ewan Paterson) are married and living at his grand country estate Pemberley, where her sister Lydia (Bella Mott) is joining them for Christmas. Enter an uninvited late-night visitor in the form of Mr Darcy’s infamous sworn enemy and Lydia’s horribly flawed husband George Wickham (a cheekily charismatic Tyler Harris) and busy holiday preparations must be balanced with keeping his presence undiscovered, all while being interrupted by a parade of guests from upstairs.

The addition of new secrets to old misunderstandings soon sees things start to spiral out of control to great comic effect. Indeed, written as it is in regency style, the text includes both the entanglements and ironic and satirical style of humour that typifies Austen’s work. But there are also moral considerations such as the conflict between generosity or judgement. And, in addition to offering commentaries on class and privilege, there are also warm and fuzzy themes around family and forgiveness, suited to the festive season’s sentiments.

The production, like the estate is helmed by earnest, no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs Reynolds (an endearing Dale Murison). Of most early note, however, is the appearance of the resilient young serving girl Cassie, newly hired to help prepare the house for its many festive season guests. Ciara-Mei Cheng is simply wonderful as the fiercely independent young orphan, full of feminism and speaking the most sense of anyone. Her budding romance with childhood friend, Head Footman and part-time inventor Brian (Sam Hocking), also layers the story with tension as the audience looks upon his fixation with fondness, thanks to Hocking’s nervous energy and well-placed smitten smiles.

Paterson is appropriately stately in stature and demeaner as the now somewhat less aloof Darcy, while as the heroine of Austen’s novel, Kempton casts a calming demeaner over things, even when torn between loyalty to her husband and sister. And Mott is perfect as the flighty, flibbertigibbet Lydia, the most adventurous and first to marry of the Bennett girls, giving the reckless and impulsive youngest sister some depth in her conversations with Cassie, vulnerability in interaction with George and ultimate development of her own sense of self.

Aside from some lengthy pauses in scene transitions, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is a well-crafted welcome back to Regency-era romance, with notable of-era costumes (design by Anne Grant) and staging (set design by Jason Sharland). While of course appreciation of its nuances will come more easily to literary fans of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, the relationships and emerging plots are clear enough for anyone to follow and its playfully feminist spirit is sufficiently embedded for everyone to appreciate.

Behind the Bells

Jingle Bells Sucks Baubles (Astra Nova Youth Creatives)

Ad Astra

December 8 – 20

Thanks to John Birmingham et al, Queensland has a tradition of share house tales, meaning that experience of on-stage stories like Astra Nova Youth Creative’s “Jingle Bells Sucks Baubles” brings an instinctive comfort. The show, which is performed and commissioned as part of Astra Nova Youth Creatives, revisits 2019’s share-house story of Max, Dani, Jayden, Tristan and Andre, with an update of how the Paddington housemates and their friends are faring after a year of people moving in, out and sideways.

Like living in a share house is not complicated enough, however, the story again takes place in this festive season and Christmas is horrific in a way worse even than Australia Day… in fact it sucks baubles, especially in this COVID-19 year of border closures and restricted travel to families. Add in the wedding between youngest group member, social media micro-influencer Dani (Aliandra Calibrese) and her fallen-on-his-feet financial planner fiancé Keenan (Owen Green), and you have stage set for comedy.

It is a crowded house, both on stage and in the stalls with many audience members returning to revisit 2019’s show and it is easy to appreciate why so much of its season is sold out, given the comic timing that positions the show’s fun. Even those new to the characters and stories can still walk away rewarded by memorable performances from across the cast.

With housemates past and present and also some unseen-but-mentioned characters, it’s a sizeable who’s who across which to track relationships, however, these are soon easy enough to follow. Stereotypes set up some automatic conflict beyond just fights over consumption of each other’s fridge food. Laser-focussed personal trainer Cameron (Hayden Parsons) is always operating at 110% which aggravates an impatient Jayden (Jarvis Taylor) who just wants to get high and play COD in his living room. And against the hyperbolic shoutiness of some Act One performances, Taylor gives us some good light and shade moments allowing for Jayden’s delivery of many of the show’s funniest lines, especially in response to keen-for-a-cause (and an argument), but also kind of ignorant newest house member Cass (Bronte Price).

In some ways things settle in ActTwo as we all head to Dani and Keenan’s wedding rehearsal, especially as best man Andre (Mitchell Bourke) takes over the microphone for some very funny emcee commentary. All-over-the-place Woolies worker Andre is a man of many ideas but few concrete plans, much to the frustration of will-they-or-won’t-they friend from uni Jessie (Caitlyn Leo), who just hopes he can sort himself out. Though she has her own issues, trying to reconcile her passion and her career path, it is long-time household member Maxine (Lara Rix) who speaks the most sense, especially in a standout scene featuring passive-aggressive conversation with Dani about social media and influences.

As complement to the performances, the production conveys a clear attention to detail. Simple props establish a lived-in feel to the share-house thanks to bookshelved bongo drums, Cards Against Humanity and even a ‘do the dishes’ reminder amongst photos and post-it note insults on the fridge. And the set transforms easily to scenes at The Creek establishment where some of the housemates work, only adding to their complications.

The new work by Pierce Gordon is well written, especially in its inclusion of COVID-19 complications into the narrative, but also in its meta-theatre mention, meaning that even if audience members are not of the on-stage demographic themselves, they can appreciate the chaos behind the scenes of the yuletide bells and baubles. Perfect for the holiday season, “Jingle Bells Sucks Baubles” is a light-hearted comedy that reflects how our lives are forever changing and the ways we cope with that change. While its story includes weddings, break-ups, career changes and unexpected surprises, these are all wrapped up in a hopeful and therefore ultimately heart-felt ending.