Cathedral classics

An Evening with Amy

St John’s Cathedral

December 9

Brisbane City’s St John’s Cathedral is a structural and engineering feat and the richness of its neo-gothic aesthetic and accompanying acoustics makes it the perfect location for one of Brisbane Music Festival’s final 2022 shows, “A Concert with Amy”. Performing from its nave, Helpmann Award winner Amy Lehpamer echoes her crystalline vocals around its columns to the lofting ceilings, especially in numbers like the charming ‘Vanilla Ice Cream’ from “She Loves Me”.

The concert features a full and varied smorgasbord of modern classic songs about matters of the heart in some way or another from Lehpamer, alongside woodwind multi-instrumentalist Luke Carbon and the festival’s director Alex Raineri on keys. Lehpamer and Carbon both performed in 2015’s “The Sound of Music” (in which Lehpamer earned nation-wide critical acclaim as Maria), so it is appropriate that a Rodgers and Hammerstein number makes an early appearance. The show tune ‘I’m in Love’ from “South Pacific”, not only showcases Lehamers bright vocals in capture of the elation at the core of its declaration, but illustrates Carbon’s impressive musical dexterity in mid-song jumps between flute and clarinet, never missing a beat in its warmly lyrical soundtrack, despite the different holds and embouchure of each instrument.

In Raineri’s new arrangement of George Gershwin’s iconic ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ for woodwind and piano, Carbon is an entire orchestra, luring us in through the number’s full and round opening clarinet sounds to pave the way for Raineri’s brisk keyboard work. It is a dynamic show highlight, irresistible in its vitality and rhythmic invention, yet still full of familiar musical motifs and crescendos for our listening comfort. It is a brilliant interlude to Lehpamer’s performance and it is clear that the two musicians are at ease in work with each other, having collaborated to produce the album “Liquid Crystal” of new arrangements of cherished pieces of the clarinet/piano repertoire. And it is wonderful to also have experience of their combined might in the later pastiche-filled version of hip hop idol Lizzo’s ‘Cuz I Love You’, arranged by Carbon.

From an intoxicating Burt Bacharach to the more overtly melancholic, lower-register The Man That Got Away’, epitomised by Judy Garland in “A Star is Born”, there is an integral light and shade to the show, but also a spirit captured in Stephen Sonheim’s epitomic ‘Being Alive’ from the celebrated “Company”. A through-line in her between song commentary, is Lehpamer’s life as a new mother and it is appropriate, therefore, that Carole King’s ‘A Natural Woman’ features as its celebratory closing number, complete with audience backing vocals singalong, so infectiously unifying is the joy of its experience.

Lehpamer is a genuinely charming performer of clear vocal prowess and Brisbane audiences are fortunate to be able to experience her full flight in such an intimate event. Along with Carbon and Raineri’s talents, “An Evening with Amy” serves as a reminder of the triumphant beauty that live music can convey. As well as showcasing the skill of its performers, the vibrant hour long concert serves as an excellent reminder of the annual year-long festival’s versatility beyond just its usual classical musical program repertoire, and an urge to check out its future line-ups when seasons are announced.

Connections across musical worlds

Stories Untold (Menaka Thomas)

Fringe Brisbane Hub

October 15

This year’s Women in Voice performance was regarded by many as one of the franchise’s best. Part of this elevation came from the debut involvement of Menaka Thomas in showcase of the intersection of traditional and contemporary music. Thomas’ classical Southern Indian Carnatic musical origins are similarly drawn upon in “Stories Untold”. The hour-long Fringe Brisbane show sees the songstress humbly sharing her stories and experiences of life in an intimate and raw musical portrait shaped around her tales of growing up as an Australian-Indian in Brisbane in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, the confronting realities of visits to India, transitioning to motherhood and a chronic disease that nearly claimed her vision.

Starting with a soothing meditative number of gentle percussion accompaniment, the show’s original soul-stirring music is tapestried into the narrative. The unique melodic sounds and rhythmic foundations of South Indian classical music form the base of the setlist, including through inclusion of the soothing drum-like rhythm and bell-ish melody sounds of the handpan, played by accompanist Tsoof Baras. The talented Baras, aka the percussion octopus, is of particular note and difficult to take eyes off as his each hand and leg operate separately from each other with different instruments. He also has a key role in the glorious highlight number, ‘Salaam’, featuring lyrics in Hebrew. The joyous proclamation that peace will come upon us features increasing percussive crescendos into an amazing whole audience sing and clap-along celebration. In contrast, ‘Hold You In My Arms’ is a serene almost-lullaby of love from mother to child, which showcases both Thomas’ smooth vocals and the versatility of pianist Meg Burstow, who seamlessly switches styles and musical patterns throughout the show.

Whether you let the music wash over you, engage in the call and response numbers or clap along to the soul-stirring ‘My Eyes Can See’ prayer to be led forward out of the darkness, there is much to appreciate about Thomas’ “Stories Untold”. The Brisbane-based Indian fusion singer and songwriter has a unique vocal style, that blends sweetly with those of her fellow performers. Indeed, the musical fabric is fascinating in its diversity of its vocal harmonies and multi-layered instrumentations a. In the intimate location of the Fringe Brisbane hub, the world premiere performance of “Stories Untold” is particularly special. As a classically trained Indian devotional singer, Thomas is clearly talented, however, she is also a genuine and generous performer, and her show serves as a lovely, thought-provoking reminder of how we are all the same in our humanity and how music can connect us.

Elucidation engagement

Elucidation (Belinda Griffith)

South Brisbane Sailing Club

October 23

Wet weekend weather may have necessitated that the campfire be moved from Orleigh Park inside of the nearby South Brisbane Sailing Club, but the sentiment still stands clear from the outset of Belinda Griffin’s original Fringe Brisbane show, “Elucidation”. When we hear stories, we can see ourselves written with them and consider our possibilities, Griffin reminds us early on. The one-woman show, written and performed by Griffin, a lover of music and seeker of life’s deeper meanings, has a clear throughline with numbers curated around the idea of the desire for happiness as part of the human condition. As part of its exploration of this, content covers evolution from creation myths of survival through ancient legends of Greek and Roman origins, and the hero’s journey. It is from here that the show’s obscure title originates, as tribute to the prequel ancient text that shares why the holy grail of King Arthur’s tale was needed to restore the Wasteland, left barren after the departure of its abused Well Maidens.

From here, we are linked into a range of lyric-driven numbers, including, ‘Prism’ which serves as a gentle reassurance that light will shine after darker times. ‘Choose Again’, similarly starts with a quieter melody before cresendoing towards its resounding reminder of the need to seek and offer forgiveness to move forward towards inner peace because ‘you only live one; you only get one life’.

Griffin has a clear sense of musical style. Her smooth vocals suit the often folksy sounds, but also flexibly blend in some country-esque interest to some of the score’s numbers. Due to this, the ‘Dark Water’ tribute to the dreamers and thinkers et al who came before us serves as an early highlight, while the memorable ‘No Mud, No Lotus’ attests to the need for the bad to appreciate the good of life. It’s consideration of the concept of namaste sees the audience (who are gathered in circle around the faux campfire), joining in singalong of its ‘om mani padme’ Sankrit hum mantra.

Over the 60 minutes of its duration, “Elucidation” covers a lot in terms of content as, in her narration, Griffin draws together the guiding threads of the familiar storytelling device of the hero’s journey. Explanation of the songs that inspired the show is detailed, perhaps excessively so. For a music show, there is a lot of commentary. And interesting as it is, it could be more effectively managed to account for assumed audience knowledge, meaning that definitions and multiple examples may not be needed for every point, for example discussion of the scientific studies of energy by Einstein and even Tesla in relation to the laws of attraction and affirming power of words, or lone “The Wizard of Oz” mentions amongst what is a throughline based around the rich-enough story of Arthur origins. This could allow for enhanced authentic audience engagement rather than energy being focussed on trying to remember every little detail to be included in between-song discussion.

Still, there is something quite beautiful in this intimate little show and its uplifting ideas, which are wonderfully captured in its final ‘Shine’ song and its testament to bringing the light. Griffin is a passionate performer and in “Elucidation” she gives us an accessible tale of profound resonance for modern times.

Combined craft connection

Heartland

Brisbane Powerhouse, Underground Theatre

September 23

Brisbane Festival’s “Heartland” sold out well ahead of its performance. Given the stature of its headliner, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist William Barton, this is of little surprise. Barton is widely recognised as one of Australia’s leading didgeridoo players and composers. (The morning after the performance he is jumping on a plane for Melbourne to appear as part of the AFL grand final’s half-time entertainment.) It is not just Barton performing, but also powerhouse versatile violinist Véronique Serret. Together they combine crafts to share connected stories as traditional songlines and modern storytelling blend in a distinctive evocation of our uniquely Australian landscape.

Brisbane Powerhouse’s intimate Underground Theatre is the perfect location for the expansive but also at-once personal meditation that “Heartland” represents, with moments of poetry written by Barton’s mother Aunty Delmae Barton interspersed throughout the hour-long collaboration. At times, the recitations are almost like slam poetry thanks to Serret’s punchy, powerful delivery, which adds to their soaring emotion. Numbers are fluidly anthologised together and, as with songs of worship, there is not opportunity of need for punctuating applause. Rather the captivated audience is held silent in attention of the stillness of the show’s moments, which are enhanced by lighting normally only seen in the Powerhouse Theatre, which lushes us from the earthy tones of dusk’s glory to fresher emerald greens, for example.

The journey through Dreamtime stories and spirits of the ancient land of their mother country (their heart land) is not just a message of peace, but a showcase of talent. Barton’s virtuosic didgeridoo playing showcases his agility as its drone-ing sounds are interjected with percussive tapping. And when a late show number about the passing of cultures from generation to generation sees the addition of guitar and Barton’s traditional vocals, the unique melding of western music with the ancient sounds of the land uplifts the show’s ending.

Throughout the performance, numbers make use of an expansive sound pallet to vividly elevate their evocation of the resulting unique, meditative world, inspired by the Australian landscape and the power of connection to place. Barton’s didgeridoo mimicry vocalisation is evocative of animal sounds, while the sweet strains of Serret’s upper violin registers layer the musical stories to share a range of sounds and pure emotions. Indeed, there are a number of beautiful moments where earthy didgeridoo sounds are canopied by the sometimes soft touch of the more ethereal violin, along with Serrett’s gentle feathery vocals which rise away to sweet whispering lingers.

Serrett is a dexterous instrumentalist. The concertmaster of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra is far from traditional in her playing, using all parts of the instrument. Short and separated staccato sounds add a dryness to the aesthetic, while playing the back of the violin creates vibrations that resonate in the air.

As audience members, we might not always know the specifics of the story being told, but were certainly recognise the sentiment that comes from the heart and soul at the core of this genre-defying share of connection to county. While the voice of the didgeridoo is a core part of storytelling and teaching, the violin is often said to be the instrument closest to the human voice, so it makes sense that they would pair so well together. United, they serve to elevate the sounds of the language of cultural identity, ensuring that it remains a legacy for generations to come

North Country resonance

Girl from the North Country (GWB Entertainment)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

September 8 – 18

“Girl from the North Country” is not your typical type of musical. Its premise has been seen before in its creation around a collection of Bob Dylan’s songs, however its realisation is far from the colour, movement and energy of typical musical fare. Instead, its aesthetic centres around a colour scheme befitting the depression era of its setting of Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota in 1934, the north country of its title. The story, too, is quite Steinbeck in its sensibility as, we are introduced to Nick Laine’s (Peter Kowitz) rundown guesthouse, under threat of foreclosure. Not only is each member of his family dealing with their own turmoil, but there are also the characters staying at the guesthouse, who have their own challenges trying to get by in life.

With a large ensemble cast, there are lots of characters’ stories with which to engage as part of Conor McPherson’s story, none of them particularly joyous. Nick’s wife, Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) appears to be in the advanced stage of dementia, while their son Gene (James Smith), struggles with alcoholism and their adoptive daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) is pregnant and facing life as a single mother. Guests include a recently released from prison boxer (Elijah Williams), a shady bible salesman (Grant Piro), the widowed Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill) hoping to soon receive her husband’s estate, the Burkes (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore) who lost their money in the stock market crash, and their intellectually challenged adult son Elias (Blake Erickson).

It doesn’t take family physician Dr Walker’s (Terrence Crawford) assuring narration to tell us that things are grim. Staging and projected imagery set us firmly in the economics and social truths of the era, while Rae Smith’s costume design evokes both the era in time and its economic realities of the characters’ experiences. Mark Henderson’s lighting design bleakens things through the sepia-tinged tone of time, but also adds interest though lashing punctuation of the accents of numbers like ‘Hurricane’. Similarly, ‘Slow Train’ is elevated to be an early highlight thanks to the dramatic silhouetted shadowing of ensemble singers behind the main action.

Musical Director Andrew Ross leads a four-piece band shadowed at the back of the stage. Not only do they give us rich reproductions of Dylan’s tracks, but layer them with emotion to poetically journey the story along, with help from some lovely vocal harmonies. With 22 songs (11 in each act) from the American singer-songwriter’s back catalogue, rather than just the greatest hits of usual jukebox musical fare, there is much for Dylan fans to appreciate. And while tambourine and harmonica sounds flavour things as expected, some songs are especially noteworthy for their reimagination. A McCune-led ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (one of the show’s standout vocal performances), for example, allows us to see the song anew and is then moving in reprise before interval thanks also to its violin-induced emotion.

The entire cast give strong performances. Of note, is McGune’s nuance as Elizabeth, transitioning from catatonic detachment to childlike, exhibited outbursts with ease, but also commitment to the little details of her character’s attention. But with so many characters often on stage, it is difficult to find standouts beyond the interaction of Stone and Erickson in a finely balanced father and son dynamic.

Though “Girl from the North Country” is crowded with many characters and individual stories, they are united in a bleakness that makes us feel. Indeed, there is a real spiritedness to the production and a messaging about the resilience of the human spirit that resonates beyond its final curtain. McCune’s final moving share of 1974’s ‘Forever Young’ makes for a fitting conclusion as the story is epilogued with a tableau image of the family before foreclosure splinters their bonds. It not only tenderly captures the drama of this very un-musical type of musical, but ensure that its beauty resonate long afterwards.  

Lovely night invite

Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Opera Australia and John Frost)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

August 5 – September 3

Opera Australia’s production of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” is glorious from its very start as in the village square, a Town Crier proclaims, to the delight of the ladies of the land, that ‘The Prince Is Giving a Ball’ to celebrate his birthday. Though there is no real standout number, the musical’s soundtrack is glorious and easy-on-the-ear, filled as it is with recognisable Rogers and Hammerstein type melodies and lyrics, and Anna Louizos’ set design is superb, featuring slick transitions through scenes the sometimes include animal hard puppets poking out during song and dance numbers.

The Tony Award winning Broadway musical isn’t the Cinderella story we know from the 1950 Disney animated film, but instead a musical originally written expressly for a 1957 television special by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Though its story is still a little shallow and its themes perhaps questionable, the fairy tale has been fleshed out with twists and turns, and a more modern sensibility centred on the idea of kindness and the political ideals of having every voice be heard. Thanks to new book writer Carter Beane, it is also very funny with Nicholas Hammond as Prince Topher’s Lord Chancellor effortlessly establishing the comic tone early. Laughs also come aplenty thanks to the comic timing of Ainsley Melham as the dashing and also sincere Prince Topher, who is having a hard time finding his purpose in life, even though he is soon to become King.

Brisbane’s own rising musical theatre star Shubshri Kandiah shines in the demanding titular role of Ella, reimagining the orphaned Cinderella as a more modern heroine with the kindest heart in the kingdom who dreams of escaping her endless chores so she might one day see the world beyond keeping house for her ill-tempered and selfish stepmother Madame (Debora Krizak) and two stepsisters Gabrielle (Matilda Moran) and Charlotte (Bianca Bruce).

Krizak’s Madame makes Ella’s stepmother appropriately vain and tyrannical in her concern only for her wealth. Well-versed in the art of ridicule, she has a deliciously devilish tongue and Krizak delights in her melodrama. Moran and Bruce are similarly fabulous as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte and it’s lovely to see how the story has changed to have Gabrielle secretly supporting Cinderella, while wanting for her own freedom to unite with her radical social advocate love interest Jean-Michel (a memorable Josh Gardiner). While Gabrielle’s character is fleshed-out, however, there is still recognisable traits to Bruce’s Charlotte, who is pantomimishly self-involved and ignorant of others, cresendoing in the campy ‘A Lovely Night’ during which, the morning after the Prince’s ball, Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters reminisce about the event only to discover Cinderella’s intuitiveness about what it must have been like.

Silvie Paladino soars (#literally) as the Fairy Godmother Marie, especially in her flawless share of impressively strong vocals in ‘There’s Music In You’, in which she encourages Ella to truly believe in herself. William Ivey Long’s vibrant costumes are a feast for the eyes, especially Cinderella’s sparkling glass slippers and the beautiful gowns that swirl around the ball scenes, and enable blink-and-you-will miss them costume changes such as when Marie transforms from beggar woman in reveal of her true self as Ella’s compassionate Fairy Godmother with a plan to get Ella to the ball by magically transforming animals into royal attendants, and creating a carriage from a pumpkin in ‘Impossible / It’s Possible!’

“Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” is a stunning spectacle of song and dance, especially in its big ensemble numbers. The dancing is sensational, whether it be the beautiful twirls of ballroom waltzes or the finely formed ballet number that opens Act Two with a chase of a pre-midnight fleeing Ella, featuring run through the forest as her attendants turn back into their original animal forms.

With musical direction by Simon HoltIs, the live orchestra finds the overall lushness of the musical’s score, but also characteristic motifs within individual numbers such as the sparkle of the couple’s eventual unite.  And Melham and Kandiah join together to form some gorgeous harmonies, such as in ‘Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?’ in which, amongst all the excitement, the Prince and Ella wisely question their newfound love.

Directed by Mark Brokaw, this is a dazzlingly magical production, easy to watch, not just due to its story’s basic familiarity, so it is the perfect vehicle for introducing a younger audience to the magical joy that live musical theatre can bring. While refreshing in its take on a classic tale, it is also ultimately uplifting in its messaging and incredible production features, making it a lovely night out at the ball for invited audiences of all ages.

Photos c/o – Jeff Busby & Ben Fon