Anniversary score!

Oklahoma! (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

November 16 – December 1

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If there is one thing people know about Rodgers and Hammerstein, it is that they wrote incredibly catchy songs. This was the case from the musical theatre writing team’s first collaboration “Oklahoma!” and the enduring popularity the show is certainly evident in the capacity audience at Beenleigh Theatre Company’s 40th Anniversary production.

Under Conductor Julie Whiting, the 13-strong orchestra soars the audience through the musical’s memorable melodies in its lush and full overture, as its strings glide us into the opening scene of a golden hazed meadow with corn as high as an elephant’s eye. Even with the buoyancy of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’’ and ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’, however, it takes a little while for the show to find its feet and natural dialogue rhythm of pace and pause to move the story along.

The ground-breaking musical presents a classic narrative: in 1906, in the Native American Territory that wouldn’t become the state of Oklahoma until later that same year, two men, cowboy Curly McLain (Connor Hawkins) and farmhand Jud Fry (Lachlan Clark), fight for the affections of farm girl Laurey Williams (Samantha Paterson).

The book musical evokes a range of audience emotions, including laughter. Allison Pattinson’s comic timing as the no-nonsense, respected community leader Aunt Eller sets this tone alongside Josh Cathcart’s simple, sprightly Will Parker who, having just returned from Kansas City, is full of happy-go lucky youthful exuberance in his quest to keep 50 dollars in his pocket to be allowed to marry the ‘Can’t Say No’ young Ado Annie (Terri Woodfine). Woodfine herself has perhaps the most fun on stage as the flighty, feisty Ado Annie who is in the terrible fix of trying to decide between cowboy Parker and a Persian traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Mike Zarate).

The significance of “Oklahoma!” as a musical milestone in its integration of songs and dances into the story often leads to consideration of only its quaint numbers, however, it is a show full of dark undertones. Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Oklahoma” touches on this, through presentation of ranch hand Jud as more menacing outsider than misunderstood loner. Despite his fearful character, however, Clark allows his voice to shine through. Equally excellent, Hawkins brings a naturalness to his moments as the affable and charming cowboy Curly. His rich and resonant vocals are reminiscent of matinee-idol Howard Keel himself and they provide a solid base for blend with Paterson’s accomplished sound in the romantic duo’s playful duet, ‘People Will Say We’re in Love’.

Ultimately, “Oklahoma” is all about the music and some songs work better than others and are rightly reprised. While ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ sets the sunny tone that sweeps the audience into the score, ‘Poor Jud is Dead’, where Curly goes to the squalid shack where Jud lives to talk with him, is despicable in content, with Curly’s suggestion that since Jud does not feel appreciated, he could hang himself. Not only does the scene potentially stand in direct contradiction to any unknowing audience expectations of lightweight entertainment, but it drags an already-long Act One out even more.

Act Two emerges as a livelier affair, uplifting, warm and full of infectious energy. While its fight scenes sometimes fail to connect (#literally), there is much wit to its rousing, brass-filled opening chorus number, ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’. Indeed, the second act zings with humour and song, including the titular celebration of the territory’s impending statehood, which stands as a show highlight thanks to Hawkin’s gusto lead vocals.

Although lighting evokes the varied emotions of the end-of-Act-One dream becoming nightmare sequence that sees a confused Laurey imagining a life with Curly and then Jud, its leisurely choreography is now more nostalgic than innovative. Though not a choreographic highlight like the social dance inspired ‘The Farmer and The Cowman’, the dance still tells a story, so remains necessary for the narrative’s progression.

Although the show is longer than the usual musical length, at over three hours duration, Act Two’s action at least zips along under Mardi Schon’s direction. As such, the tribute to the American frontier seems very much like a show of two distinct halves, dark and torrid subtext and folksy romanticism and optimism of community spirit. The poise between respect and irreverence may not convey a precisely defined vision, but the show’s stylish orchestrations provide a fitting homage, contagiously celebratory in its special anniversary conclusion which, in matinee performance, saw many of the Group’s 1978 cast members joining on stage with the large cast of contemporary counterparts.

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Always right on Q

Avenue Q

Brisbane Arts Theatre

November 10 – December 22

Before there was “The Book of Mormon” the equally delightfully-offensive “Avenue Q” was wowing musical audiences with its witty combination of childlike whimsy and adult issues. The hilariously vulgar puppet show of sorts features similarly skilful lyrics in its balanced and catchy soundtrack, from the upbeat catchy sounds of ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ to the sentimental reflections of ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to College’.

We first meet just-graduated with a B.A. in English, puppet Princeton, he is longing to find his purpose on Avenue Q, a fictional street in an outer-outer New York borough. His neighbours include a number of fun adult and puppet characters, from the sweet Kate Monster to the offensive, reclusive internet-obsessed Trekkie Monster (and no they are not related – you racist). As if living under the control of superintendent, Gary Coleman (Natalie Mead) isn’t enough, everyone is struggling with the challenges of life; slacker Nicky and his best friend, Republican investment banker fusspot Rod (who is totally not gay) are having Bert and Erniesque roommate issues, while Princeton’s romance of kindergarten teaching assistant Kate is shaken by skanky chanteuse Lucy the Slut and the temptations encouraged by a couple of bullying Bad Idea Bears.

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The foul-mouthed puppets are operated and voiced by neutrally dressed puppeteers, who are always in full view of the audience, mingling with three human actors. However, the strength of the puppet characterisation and the complexity of their unobtrusive operation mean that the audience quickly forgets about their operators. The cast delivers superb character performances, clearly comfortable multitasking across multiple roles (and multiple puppets). Joshua Moore is particularly effective in his animation of the Ernie-esque Nicky and Cookie-Monster-type Trekkie.

The three ‘human’ characters Christmas Eve (Jordan Boyd), Brian (Matt Shield) and Gary Coleman (Natalie Mead) integrate and interact with the puppets with ease. Mead, in particular, nails the sarcasm of her Gary Coleman both vocally and physically. William Toft and Kate Routson are lovely together as protagonist couple Princeton and Kate Monster. Routson’s sweet and tender vocals suit the pure sunshine of her idealistic puppet character and her Act One closer, ‘There’s a Fine, Fine Line’, in which she responds to commitment-phobic Princeton’s panic with a vow to no more waste her time, serves as a wonderful illustration of this

As with its format, the show’s colourful staging serves as a tribute to familiar children’s shows with a Sesame Street sidewalk of exposed brick New York terraces, however, familiarity with the homage is not essential to the entertainment value of the show. Similarly, dated jokes of a time when the internet was only on desktops and Gary What-you-talking-about-Willis Coleman was still alive still come across as funny. Clever and quirky details also add visual interest throughout, while some details (cue extended, energised puppet sex scene) can never be unseen.

Despite its raunchy hilarity, from its magical opening number, there is a warmth and humour to “Avenue Q”. And it seems that it’s a combination that right up Brisbane’s street, with the loveable furry friends making their fifth and final (for now) outing as one of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s biggest hits. As winner of the ultimate Tony Award trifecta of Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book, the irreverent show is a clever and engaging must-seem perfect for the whole family… if you are okay with your kids seeing full puppet nudity, hearing naughty words and witnessing a furry sex scene. See what the fuzz is all about again until December 22.

Nothin’ but a rockin’ good time

Rock of Ages (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

October 5 – 27

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“Rock of Ages” is a jukebox musical built around classic rock songs of the 1980s (especially those of the glam metal bands of the decade), curated together to fit the admittedly-thin narrative. It may not be a musical for the purists, but, in its celebration of rock and roll excess, in Phoneix Ensemble’s hands, its experience is nothin’ but a good time.

It is 1987, in the city build on rock and roll. Along Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Strip, the fictional Bourbon Bar celebrates rock ‘n’ roll debauchery as the lifestyle of dreamers. Busboy and aspiring musician from South Detroit, Drew (Adam Goodall) just wants to rock, but every musical needs a love story so enter innocent small-town Kansas girl Sherrie (Jayde Bielby). Of course Drew has been waiting for a girl like her, but before a budding romance can begin, she engages in a bathroom tryst, wanting to know what love is, with rock god Stacee Jazz (Stevie Mac).

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When Act Two opens, it is the final countdown for the bar with German developers scheming to tear down the strip’s district. The paper-thin premise brings with it one-dimensional characters such as washed-up rockers Lonny (Scott Johnson) and club owner Dennis (Frog Johnson) as protagonists against the cartoonish German villains Herz (Joel Mikkelson) and his song Franz (Beau Wharton). Indeed, the realest thing about the show is the talent of many of its performers.

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Goodall and Bielby are well-cast, bringing a genuine likeability to their protagonist roles. Jacqui Power makes for a fierce Regina, tough and passionate in her bohemian activism and blistering in her vocal lead of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’, while as the owner of the strip club at which Sherie accepts work, Rebecca Kenny-Sumiga is vocally thrilling. Indeed, her ‘Shadows of the Night’ mashup with Bielby’s ‘Harden My Heart’ is an Act One highlight.

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Scott Johnson is simply sensational as energiser-bunny narrator, Lonny. His energy never wanes in the demanding role which rarely sees him off stage and while his knowing parody delivery is well timed for maximum comic effect, his rough-edged vocals are also perfectly era-evocative. And Stevie Mac smoulders as the more-swagger-than-substance egomaniac Stacee Jazz, slinking through his solo, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ with Axl Rose/Bret Michaels electricity.

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But every rose has its thorn and occasional microphone lapses sometimes take the audience out of the show’s moments. Otherwise, the aesthetic is on-target, apart from a rogue 1990s Incubus band t-shirt. Indeed, the production’s use of the Tin Shed space shows that it is not the size of the theatre, but what you do with it that counts. The band appears on-stage amongst scaffolding that not only gives the setting some grunge, but effectively allows for multiple cast entry and exit points. The choreography is far from ground-breaking in its simulation of the era of excess’ moves, but it is full of energy, even within its limited stage area.

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Silly story aside, “Rock of Ages” is all about the music, packed full, as it is, of rock anthems and warm and fuzzy big-hair ballads alike. In each and every song of its 22 long setlist, the band (Musical Director Nick Ng) brings it, pumping out songs of the Whitesnake sort along with lighters-in-the-air Foreigner-type ballads, live and loud as they were meant to be experienced, even if initially it is at volume that sits atop rather than in support of the singing voices.

Comedy comes from rock ‘n’ roll antics, fourth wall breaks and audience interaction, mostly from narrator Lonny, but also from the deliberately over-the-top, campy characterisation of Beau Wharton as Franz from Hambug, especially in his crowd favourite number ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’. Be warned though, even though there is even a jazz hands number, its content is often of adults-only type innuendos.

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As is often the case with community theatre, the cast represents a mixed bag of performance talent, however, all have an infectious, spirited energy. A show that doesn’t take itself too seriously often brings with it an automatic sense of fun and this is certainly the case with this take of the mega rock musical; you will know the lyrics and want to sing along, such is its nostalgic musical appeal.

Razzle dazzle drag

Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical (Michael Cassel Group and Nullabor Productions in Association with MGM on Stage)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

September 26 – November 4

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Finally, after playing 135 cities in 29 different countries around the world, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical” has sashayed itself to Brisvegas for the show’s Queensland premiere season. Based on the now-iconic 1994 Oscar-winning Australian film, the musical is the story of three friends who hop aboard a battered old bus in Sydney bound for Alice Springs to put on the show of a lifetime. As audience, we join them for the journey in the broken down old bus they christen as Priscilla, as they ‘Go West’ to the back of woop woop and beyond, with along-the-way social interactions, mechanical setbacks and some surprisingly amusing roadkill.

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The reason for the journey is for Sydney-based drag queen Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose (David Harris) to visit his estranged wife, Marion (Adele Parkinson), the mother of his young son, Benji, by bringing his act to her casino, which will give Benji the opportunity to finally meet his father. Tick invites former Les Girls showgirl, transgender woman Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), whose husband has just died and also asks fellow performer Felicia (Euan Doidge) along for the ride, much to Bernadette’s chagrin. The unlikely friends may have been thrown together by circumstance, but it soon becomes apparent that their similarities are more than just skin-deep as all are desperate to escape the Harbour city’s club scene in some way.

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Like its big-screen source material, the show is filled with anthemic disco-era classic songs like ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘I Love the Nightlife’ and ‘Finally’, but also, comparatively a lot of narratively-unnecessary musical filler, starting with Miss Understanding’s (Blake Appelqvist) over-the-top drag take of ‘What’s Love Got To Do with I’. Even ‘A Fine Romance’ now seems like an unnecessary interruption to give dialogue-mentioned backstory as to Broken Hill based mechanic Bob’s (everyone’s favourite flamin’ galah, Ray Meagher of “Home and Away” infamy) nostalgia towards a years-ago Les Girls visit.

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Other additions, like a poignant ‘True Colours’ and rousing ‘We Belong’ realisation of the importance of family in all of its forms, are more effective, especially in ebbing and flowing audience emotions and cementing the tale as a first-and-foremost story about mateship, self-discovery and acceptance. Angelique Cassimatis, Samm Hagen and Clé Morgan add much to the show’s songbook as the three divas who descend from on-high to lead chorus numbers with their powerful vocals, to which the drag performers lip-sync.

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All the music, however, is secondary to the spectacle of costumes on show. Indeed, this is a musical of much colour and movement, featuring an array of more than 500 costumes and 200 headdresses, often (as with dialogue) in nod to its on-screen origin and Australiana-with-a-twist theme.

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The costumes are across-the-board exceptional in their avante guarde over-the-top detail and little surprises and although, at times, it seems like Act One has a ‘going through the motions’ type feel, the way that a final tour stop show sometimes does, its ‘I Will Survive’ pre-interval number is a real highlight courtesy of its visual spectacle.

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Tony Sheldon returns to reprise the role of sassy and acid-tongued, but still classy desert queen Bernadette, one which has earned him both Tony and Olivier nominations amongst his 1800 times playing the role. Along with David Harris as Tick, he anchors the show with a poise that serves as effective contrast to Euan Doidge’s exuberant and energetic Kylie-come-lately Felicia. And together they banter believably like the family that they become.

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Along with the scathing wit of its dialogue, which is very funny, humour comes from the colourful characters encountered along the way en route to Alice Springs as light-hearted contrast to the attitudes and actions of homophobic locals. In particular, notable scenes come courtesy of Emma Powell as butch bogan Black Stump barmaid Shirley and Lena Cruz as Bob’s out-of-place wife Cynthia, complete with a popping ping pong number that even those already familiar with the film will find hugely entertaining.

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At times, it is easy to recognise this as a 10th anniversary celebration tour. Although the show is visually dynamic and full of fun, its colour and movement cannot compensate for the passing of time that has made its content more homogenised. While it may not be as spectacularly camp as when it first appeared on stage in southern states (and where I first experienced it at Sydney’s Star City Casino), this “Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical” is still a spectacle and a trip that many will want to jump on-board for, because what is not to love about a show that celebrates dancers dressed as pink paintbrushes and candled cupcakes amongst other razzle-dazzle displays.

All that razzle dazzle jazz

Chicago (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

September 29 – October 13

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Everyone knows six time Tony Award winning musical “Chicago”, if only from its 2002 movie. And it is little wonder; the Kander and Ebb classic has a score full of iconic, toe-tapping tunes in homage to the music of the 1920s. Its popularity is evident in Savoyard’s virtually sold-out season of the show prior even to its start. And after opening night, it is easy to appreciate why.

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Firstly, the company allows the show, first and foremost, to be about its music. The marvellous elevated orchestra (Musical Director Benjamin Tubb-Hearne) not only takes centre stage visually but is wonderfully showcased in both the overture and finale of the spirited show. And from the moment they lead us from overture to ‘All That Jazz’, as vaudevillian Velma Kelly (Joanna Nash) welcomes us to mid-1920s Chicago with tell of how she murdered her husband and her sister when she found them in bed together, we are well and truly in the mood, even if it is a somewhat sedate take of the seductive opener.

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It is not just the musical’s iconic status that is grand. And despite the production’s over 40 cast members, things never feel claustrophobic on stage. In fact, the ensemble numbers really shine in their razzle dazzle. And Act One’s ‘Cell Block Tango’ in which inmates describe the circumstances that led to their imprisonment, showcases Desney Toia-Sinapati’s creative choreography that allows its monologues’ punchlines to shine amongst expressive vocals without losing its Bob Fossey feel. And it is not only a choreographic style that is evident; costumes are era-evocative in their detail with art deco-esque touches to the dance attire of the Tango’s merry murderesses for example. Staging is similarly visually imaginative, especially in Act Two’s courtroom circus scenes.

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While the story is primarily of publicity-hungry murderesses, Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart (Heidi Enchelmaier), in Cook County Jail competition to outwit each other and obtain more media fame, it is enhanced by its cast of supporting characters. In this instance, Danika Saal may not be all Mamma Morton sass, but she does do vocal justice to the saucy, show-stopping outline of the Matron’s mutual-aid corruption, ‘When You’re Good to Mama’. Joshua Moore makes for a youthful Billy Flynn (the very reason Hugh Jackman passed on the movie role). The masterful (but costly) lawyer seems more slick than suave in his shiny suit, but again, his vocals are excellent in unfeeling rather than charismatic croon about how all he cares about is his love of money (‘All I Care About’). Another less exuberant number comes from Roxie’s discarded, downtrodden husband Amos who laments his chronic invisibility in ‘Mr. Cellophane’. Rod Jones not only makes the solo wistful in sentiment, but manages the balance of pathos and humour required of the role.

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Ultimately, however, this is a show about celebrity criminals, Velma and Roxie. Heidi Encheimaier is excellent in conveying Roxie’s transformation from a nobody chorus girl ‘dumb mechanic’s wife’ to brassy, brazen celebrity after she murders her nightclub regular lover Fred.

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Encheimaier’s performance is not so much as a vulnerable little-girl-lost but a woman of single-minded ambition, and the result is compelling despite her character’s dislikeable self-absorption and her goofy animation as dummy atop Billy’s knee as her press conference turns into a ventriloquist act with Billy dictating her version of the truth while she mouths the words in ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’, is one of the show’s highlights. And she is superb in songs of her own voice too, especially in share of her narcissistic satisfaction with being the name on everybody’s lips in realisation of her fame fantasy, ‘Roxie’.

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While Roxie is trying to get to vaudeville, vampy Velma Kelly has already been a star there. And Joanna Nash is dynamic in her vibrant stage presence as the slinky vixen, both vocally and physically. Her singing voice is era-appropriately smoky but strong, and she moves about the stage with an infectious, lithe energy. This is especially evident in her desperate musical attempt to entice Roxie to refashion the sister act, ‘I Can’t Do It Alone’, in which she acrobatically recreates both parts of the dance duet, along with improvised musical accompaniment of saxophones and alike.

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“Chicago” is a solid-hit Broadway musical of the old-school sort, not just in its 1920s setting, but its sensibility of razzle dazzle jazz hands song and dance, even if its purpose is to satirise American values, corruption and cult of the celebrity criminal. While opening night of Savoyards “Chicago” suffers from some sound issues, these are minor and don’t spoil what is an entertaining evening for all, especially given its additional humour, such as is courtroom re-enactments of Roxie’s crime. Indeed, in its tribute to its music and libretto, under Sherryl-Lee Secomb’s direction, this “Chicago” is an over-the-top and whole-lot-of-fun night out in affection of the art of murder.

Photos – c/o Chris Thomas

In good Company

Company (Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University Performing Arts)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

July 28 – August 4

“Company” begins with New Yorker Robert readying himself to spend his 35th birthday celebration in the company of his mostly married friends. The musical takes place in his head at the moment he’s about to unlock the door to his apartment for the surprise of his party as he mind is kaleidoscoped with memories of past conversations with his friends and previous dating experiences.

The 1970s concept musical, based on 11 one-act plays by George Furth tells its story through a series of vignettes (with birthday party scene resets often in-between) during which Bobby gets a glimpse into the reality behind his friends’ romances in realisation of the loneliness that his bachelorhood is masking behind his ‘drive a person crazy’ demeanour (as he is unflatteringly portrayed in song by three of his girlfriends).

Thde musical masterpiece about modern marriage and its ​discontents is the work of ground-breaking American composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim so it is a show that is all about music. Its polite soundtrack is full of eclectic songs, including classics like the fierce ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’, in replacement of any real plot. Revolutionary at the time as one of Broadway’s first non-linear musicals, it earned a record-setting 14 Tony nominations and won six Tony Awards, and, in the hands of Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University Performing Arts cast and creatives, it is easy to appreciate why.

Brilliant orchestrations (Musical Director Heidi Loveland) ensure that the soundtrack’s easy-listening melodies and crafted refrains remain with you in hum after its experience. The ensemble’s titular opening number is not only accomplished, but establishes a compelling musical charm thanks to the strong vocals of members such as Jarrod Moore and Patrick Connolly. As the story’s protagonist, Carlo Boumouglbay’s (in a role shared with Jerrod Smith) initial vocals seem to be timidly hidden under the orchestral accompaniment, however, his Act One closing wish for someone to ‘Marry Me a Little’ is deeply emotional and his voice belts out an urgent and gripping rendition of Act Two’s ‘Being Alive’ long for intimacy and someone with whom to share his life.

This “Company” is a polished production, featuring a number of stand-out performances, particular from its ladies. Chenaya Aston is memorable as Robert’s naïve, self-described dumb, flight-attendant girlfriend, conveying the perfect use of pause and extended beat for comic effect. And Grace Royle brings a more relatable humour to the role of sweet but self-confessed square Jenny, who after loosening up while stoned with Bobby and her husband David (Lachlan Greenland) remains happy with her ‘marriage and kids’ life choices. However, as is often the case with “Company”, Kyra Thompson steals the show with her marriage-phobic portrayal of the neurotic Amy, whose ‘Getting Married Today’ tour-de-force is one of Sondheim’s most arduous songs. Not only is her frenetic delivery of the demanding patter song’s mile-a-minute manic meltdown lyrics magnificent in its list of panicked reasons why she is not getting married to Paul today as planned, but her facial expressions and body language in anticipatory overwhelm make her whole performance utterly hilarious. Indeed, under Jacqui Somerville’s direction, the show’s entire entertainment value is enhanced by considered pacing, including the prudent use of pauses.

Despite its age, “Company” is still a very funny show in songs like the ‘The Little Things You Do Together’, in which the oldest and most cynical of Robert’s friends, the multiple-divorcee Joanne (Hannah Bennett) sarcastically tells the audience about the things that make a marriage work, and also in its drama. Its second scene, for example, in which competitive couple Harry (Alex Watson) and Sarah (Julia Pendrith) strike an interesting balance between both over-the-top and passive aggressive, contains surprising physical comedy and clever verbal quips as they literally face-off against each other in culmination of their relentless niggling about each other’s weaknesses.

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Notwithstanding its lack of a traditional narrative, Act One especially flies by. And while Act Two’s pace slows somewhat, it does open with the sensational number ‘Side By Side By Side’, followed by the up-tempo ‘What We Do With Out You?’ which, although out-of-place amongst the show’s other scenes, brings a bit of Bob Fossey type Broadway to the wider-than-usual Visy Theatre stage. With razzle-dazzle sensibility, the on-point chorus line choreography in its mid-number dance break is an absolute treat, especially given the rarity of its experience in such an intimate environment.

There’s no doubt that Sondheim is a genius, and “Company” is a testament to this. The score is stellar and the songs are at once witty and wonderfully beautiful. Their complex lyrics stand the test of time, meaning that although Sondheim wrote the music so early in his career, now nearly 50 years ago, it holds up well today, so that the show only needs the subtlest of updates (such as the appearance of mobile phones in a nightclub scene). And the attention to detail is another of this production’s merits. Costumes work well to establish the diversity of characters and lighting is effective in its perceived simplicity, such as when Robert is captured in multiple spotlights in his moment of ‘Being Alive’ realisation. The conceptual musical study of contemporary relationships may no longer be innovative, but is certainly still sophisticated and very enjoyable, especially when realised by a group of cast and creatives as good as this.

Some kind of wonderful

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 13 – September 2

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“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, is as its title suggests, is a musical tribute to one of the greatest female singer-songwriters of all time. Everyone knows Carole King’s songs, maybe without even realising it, such is the extraordinary legacy of this ordinary woman’s immense talent. This means that the show has a wide appeal, allowing each audience member to bring their own memories to its experience. For me it is recall of Murphy Brown singing ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ to her newborn son and, from the guilty pleasure of “Dirty Dancing”, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, one of the first hits King wrote in partnership with her then-husband Gerry Goffin  for The Shirelles.

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The true story of Carole King’s extraordinary rise from behind-the-scenes songwriter to solo-act stardom opens with her first concert performance in front of an audience (at Carnegie Hall no less), following the multi-Grammy-award-winning success of her landmark second studio album “Tapestry”. The story then rewinds to her early days as a piano prodigy in Brooklyn, writing music after school before becoming a professional songwriter at 16. While studying at New York’s Queens College, King (Esther Hannaford) meets aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman). As their songwriting and romantic relationships soar, they produce a considerable number of the hits of the time for artists such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, The Monkees and more.

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The show is not just about King’s life and her ultimately tumultuous marriage however; especially in Act One, it explores the idea of song writing as a commodity through chronicling the competitive friendship between King and Goffin and song-writing peers Barry Mann (Mat Verevis) and Cynthia Weil (Lucy Maunder). The competition not only adds to the drama, but allows for a journey through the music of the ‘60s as the audience is also treated to Mann and Weil’s chart successes and iconic songs, distinctive in their sounds despite the era’s desire for formulaic homogeneity. The show’s period impersonations of the artists who sang the songs make for some memorable moments. Barry Conrad, Marcus Corowa, Nana Matapule and Joseph Naim make The Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’ a razzle dazzle high-point, while Jason Arrow and Andrew Cook soar ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ as The Righteous Brothers. And the live orchestration, led by Musical Director/Conductor Daniel Edmonds includes some entertaining arrangements, such a medley of sixties songs early in Act One.

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Direction is tight and the showcase of hit songs allows not only for quick scene transitions of Derek McLane’s slick design, but changes to hair and wardrobe to chronicle the passage of time through the decade of ‘60s sweet girl groups, boy bands, crooners, doo-wop and dance songs like ‘The Locomotion’. As the sensibilities of the time change, there is increasing instability in Goffin and King’s marriage and, after Goffin’s infidelity and mental break-down leaves King yearning into intermission with ‘One Fine Day, she finds her own voice in Act Two’s earnest description of the end of a loving relationship, ‘It’s Too Late’, in move towards “Tapestry” and her triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall performance.

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While there are no weak links in the cast, this is clearly Esther Hannaford’s show; she is tremendously talented and it is easy to appreciate her Best Female Actor in a Musical Helpmann Award win. She is effervescent as the self-confessed ‘square’, Jewish good-girl with an old-woman sensibility, conveying a perfect balance of humility and empowerment. Like her accent, her imitation of King’s singing style is uncanny, both in big numbers like the up-tempo Act Two closer, ‘Beautiful’ and the pure and emotionally-honest reassurance of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’.

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“A good song makes you feel like there is a friend in the room with you”, a 16-year-old Carole tells her mother in response to suggestion that women should teach, not write, music. Luckily for the world, she stayed true to her calling to define a career of hits as a songwriter and later singer. It is an inspiring story that makes for a must-see show that is as entertaining as it is empowering, with some wonderful comic moments too, most notably from Jason Arrow as a pop-out Neil Sedaka singing his hit ‘Oh! Carol’ (named after King after the pair dated in high school) and from the smart comebacks of straight-talking, sassy Cynthia.

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In the case of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, the ravers really are right; it is some kind of wonderful in every single way. Indeed, like a comfortable lazy Sunday afternoon movie that can be watched over and over again, it is a toe-tapping musical experience that immediately inspires a return visit for continued appreciation of its five 2018 Helpmann Awards, including the most coveted Best Musical.