Happy Penzance place

The Pirates of Penzance in Concert (Lynch & Paterson)

Princess Theatre

February 21 – 22

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February 2020 is the perfect time to present a production of “The Pirates of Penzance”. The story features a paradox caused by the once-every-four-years occurrence of February 29. It concerns Frederic, who, having completed his 21st year, is released from his mistaken apprenticeship to the titular band of tender-hearted and inept pirates. When he meets Mabel, the daughter of Major-General Stanley, the two fall instantly in love. Complications ensue of course as Frederic learns, that he was born on the 29th of February, and so, technically, he has a birthday only once each leap year and, as his indenture specifies that he remain apprenticed to the pirates until his “twenty-first birthday”, he must serve for another 63 years.

The show is quintessentially British; set during the reign of Queen Victoria, the comic operetta occurs on a rocky seashore on the coast of Cornwall. And, also appropriately, in this concert version is the profiling of the orchestra on stage, under the baton of its infectiously passionate conductor Lucas D Lynch.

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The energy of the entire show is irresistible; making it pantomimic in nature even though its characters are thoughtfully drawn. Nathan Kneen is a charismatic larger-than-life buccaneer leader who adds much to the show’s sometimes meta-theatre approach with occasional interactions with audience members and Lynch alike. Kneen plays the role of the fashionable pirate king ‘with a pirate head and a pirate heart’, with a touch of Jack Sparrow swagger, however, resists the temptation to over camp his performance.

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Much of the show’s humour comes from Kneen and the over-the-top reactions of those around him, such as those of Ruth (Patricia Dearness), Frederic’s nursery maid when he was younger, in encouragement of Frederick to take her as his ‘beautiful’ wife. And when ‘timidly-inclined’ police march on stage in single file in the iconic, ‘No, I’ll be brave’, their animated facial expressions combine with Kamara Henrick’s clever choreography to result in all-aged engagement.

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Along with its tarantara tunes, the show is known for its patter songs, which require top-notch performers for effective delivery. Accordingly, Grant Cochman is eccentrically the very model of modern major general, delivering his trademark, witty ‘Major-General’s Song’ with an aplomb that sees audience members bopping along to the famous satire of the idea of the ‘modern’ over-educated British Army general of the period. The rapid-fire delivery of nonsensical lyrics in ‘My Eyes Are Fully Open’, featuring Frederic (Jack Biggs), Ruth and the Pirate King in ‘particularly rapid unintelligible patter [that] isn’t generally heard and if it is it doesn’t matter’ is, similarly, another highlight.

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With swashbuckling pirates and bumbling police, a dashing hero and a beautiful maiden, “The Pirates of Penzance” offers much to audiences of all ages. Indeed, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most memorable score serves as a wonderful gateway into the operatic genre. This operetta in two acts features many talented vocalists, including General Stanley’s daughters (Kayleigh Marven, Sophie Price and Belinda Ward), from their initial, exuberant and highly-melodic ‘Climbing over Rocky Mountain’ gaily tread of the measure, and a skilled orchestra that brings its timeless score to life in moments of soft strings and rousing ensemble numbers alike (‘With Cat-Like Tread’ when the pirates steal onto the Major General’s estate seeking vengeance, is a lively and incredibly likeable Act Two highlight). Along with its impressive overture, these numbers not only make it a delight for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan and musical theatre/operetta alike, but an accessible introduction to the genres.

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This is wildly entertaining show of great vitality, full of rich characterisation. Samantha Paterson makes for a formidable Mabel. Biggs is a dashing Frederic and his duets with Mabel convey a lovely tenderness. Dearness’ lovelorn nurse Ruth really comes into her own in Act Two when she is given more to do than lust over her former, much-younger charge.

In Lynch & Paterson’s hands it is easy to appreciate the place of “The Pirates of Penzance” as one of the most enduringly popular of Gilbert and Sullivan’s many comic operas, with many iconic songs, witty dialog and lyrics, its clever narrative and its memorable characters. The music is exquisite in its ability to transport audiences to a happy place of good, old-fashioned entertainment.

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.

Wiz biz

The Wiz (Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

December 5 – 7

“The Wiz” is a rarely seen but resplendent stage musical that offers a heart-warming tale told in a unique way. Despite playing for four years on Broadway, the retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in the context of modern African-American culture is perhaps best known for its film version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, meaning that the talented graduating students from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts have some big shoes to fill in their production… which they do.

The story is a familiar and formulaic one that introduces each new character with a solo, presented with a twists as much as a twister in this production. Dorothy (Serina O’Connor), a restless Cairns girl is transported by a tornado (if Australia had tornados) to a magical outback world of Oz where Munchkins, a sassy Witch of the North (Kelsey Lynn) and a yellow brick road appear alongside the Sturt Dessert Peas of its landscape. On her way to the Emerald City to meet the Wiz (Jamaine Wilsemith), who she believes can help her get back home, Dorothy befriends a Scarecrow (Selwyn Powers), Tinman (Gara Doolah) and Cowardly Lion (Garret Lyon) who help her battle the Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene (Michaella Stubbs)

The energetic production is certainly brimming with talent from those about to enter the biz. Powers is a charismatic straw-filled scarecrow, filling the role with warmth and humour as he lithely limbers about the place. Lyon finds plenty of laughs as a camp cowardly lion; he is always-in role down to the smallest of details and his sass lands perfectly thanks to his precise comic timing. Tinman Doolah has a beautiful voice, even if it is under articulated in his ‘Slide Some Oil to Me’ solo and O’Connor is a delightful Dorothy, with stellar vocals highlighted in ‘Be a Lion’. And when the four leads progressively rally together to ‘Ease On Down the Road, one of the show’s most recognisable tunes, likely due to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s iconic partnership in the 1978 movie, the result is quite wonderful.

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As a simple, well-executed song ‘Ease On Down the Road’ is an ongoing, catchy highlight in its every reprise and it aptly represents the Motown feel to many of the score’s numbers. In fact, there is an almost ‘80s pep to its realisation, weaved through its multi-generic musical moods. Michaella Stubbs delivers a punchy gospel-esque number in ‘Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News’ and Kayci-Lee Gillies slays Glinda’s assurance to Dorothy about the power of self-belief, ‘If You Believe’, making us wish the Good Witch of the South could have more stage-time. The singing throughout the show is stellar, with the ensemble also delivering an infectiously buoyantly joyous ‘Everybody Rejoice’ spirited celebration of freedom.

“The Wiz” is a dance-filled musical and in this regard this production is also particularly impressive. Modernised routines within the structure of musical theatre are enlivened by strong capable dancers and dynamically diverse choreography (Director and Choreographer Simon Lind) meaning that a suggestive poppy field number complementing its metaphor sits comfortably alongside a contrasting flying monkey rap number, ‘Funky Monkey’. And costuming also works in support of the choreographic representation of the twister that dances Dorothy into the wonderful fantasy world.

Dramatic costuming also serves to channel touches of Hunger Games capitol wear to the munchkins and Emerald City citizens, while Glenn Hughes’ clever lighting recreates the yellow brick road to be followed towards a lushly silhouetted city. There is also attention to detail evident in the script, which features an Aussie-flavoured modern twist even to its throw-away lines, which is from where much of the humour comes.

While Act Two drags a little, overall, this urbanised retelling of the Oz story is still a high-spirited, engaging showcase of the talent of Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts students. Indeed, there is a strong focus on stagecraft that makes for an entertaining experience, whether it be your first or subsequent ease on down its road.

The silliest of season shenanigans

Spamalot (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

November 23 – January 18

Based on the 1975 classic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, a cheeky Camelot spoof on the legendary King Arthur’s quest to find the elusive treasure, the musical “Spamalot” is a pretty silly show, just look to its “I fart in your general direction” sort of dialogue. But silly is not as easy to do as it might seem. Thankfully, “Spamalot” sees Brisbane Arts Theatre giving audiences nothing but an immensely fun and highly entertaining show of satire, slapstick and irony, as memorable (and quoteable) as its source material.

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The story (book by Monty Python’s Eric Idle) is pretty irrelevant to proceedings, but goes as follows… In the 10th century A.D., the self-assured King Arthur (Alexander Thanasoulis) travels England with his servant, Patsy (Oliver Catton) seeking men to join the Knights of the Round Table. Members of the fellowship ultimately come to include Sir Robin (Lachlan Morris), Sir Galahad (Ben Kasper), Sir Lancelot (Damien Campagnolo) and Sir Bedevere (Liam Hartley). Arthur’s belief in his destiny as ruler of England has come from having been given the Excalibur sword, Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake (Laura Fois). Still, when he receives a message from God tasking him with finding the Holy Grail, he embraces the mission and its ensuing extensive search by him and his knights. As any Monty Python fan knows, a whole lot of nonsense follows, including a host of encounters with eccentric characters, taunting of the English knights by French soldiers, and an additional challenge set by The Knights who Say Ni, who will only allow Arthur to pass through their forest if he puts on a musical (‘but not an Andrew Lloyd Webber’).

It’s all quite ludicrous, but in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands, it actually makes sense. The lead performers are all excellent. Thanasoulis brings an appealing, assured stage presence to the role of King Arthur, the very versatile Matthew Nisbet is incredibly funny in all of his multiple character roles and, as ‘Brave’ Sir Robin, Morris is wonderfully animated and expressive, both and dialogue and songs like Act Two’s ‘You Won’t Succeed On Broadway’. Fois is vocally very strong as Arthur’s ‘watery tart’ diva love interest, especially in ‘The Song that Goes Like This’ parody of generic love songs that ‘start off soft and low and end up with a kiss’. Most notably, though, in every instance it is clear that everyone is enjoying themselves and the fun is infectious.

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“Spamalot” may be shorter than usual musical fare, however, this is barely noticeable, packed full of laughs as the highly irreverent parody is in its execution of that quirkily individual Python-esque style of humour. There is a lot from which to draw laughs, with absurd situations and nonsensical expressions peppered with puns, dad jokes and ridiculous rhymes.

The music is entertaining, even if the numbers are not that memorable, however, the musical numbers, in particular, make good use of the small stage space. Television screen projections add interest and it is wonderful to see them used to enable full line of sight access to all audience members. And the production does well in its realisation of key sketch moments such as the Black Knight’s ‘tis but a scratch flesh wounds and the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

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When it comes to putting the silly in this end-of-year season, “Spamalot” is a perfect show to have you smiling the whole way through to its ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ final singalong. It makes good use of the comedic talents of the cast who also showcase strong harmonies across the score’s range of musical styles. Its exuberant shenanigans certainly cannot be taken too seriously, however, this is still a show only really suited to those who have familiarity with the comedy troupe’s idiosyncratic style, lest they just find the whole thing bafflingly bonkers.