Pee-ple perfection

Urinetown (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

May 5 – 27

Urinetown is a kind of mythical place… like Venice, but different, filled with symbolism and things like that. But despite its titular significance, we won’t become directly acquainted with its reality until into Act Two of “Urinetown”, according to Officer Lockstock (Lachlan Clark), the pontificating policeman who grimly welcomes its audience, with assistance from 12-year-old street urchin Little Sally (Abby Page). From them we are taken to the first setting of Phoenix Ensemble’s show and told that a 20-year drought has caused a terrible water shortage, which has rendered the idea of private toilets as unthinkable. In immediate introduction to its meta style of calling out clichés and parodying genre tropes, that is all we are really given because overloading us with exposition could really kill the show.

As the action opens upon the filthy Public Amenity #9, the backstory unfolds as to the megacoporation control of Urine Good Company (or UGC). To control water consumption, people have to pay to use the amenities and harsh laws mean that if payment cannot be made, an offender is taken to Urinetown, never to return. Hopelessly down and out, and living in fear, the poor turn to the story’s dashing hero Bobby Strong (an excellent Isaac Tibbs), to stage a revolt in fight for the freedom to pee “wherever you like, whenever you like, for as long as you like, and with whomever you like.”. Along with just-returned-from university Hope Cladwell (Lauren Clark), who happens to be the beloved daughter of UGC’s corrupt CEO Caldwell B Cladwell (Caleb Holman), he embarks on a journey of love, justice and following his heart, only to be tested as secrets are revealed and alliances are fraught along the way to righting the wrongs of their world.

The self-aware satirical comedy musical “Urinetown” (with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book and lyrics by Greg Kotis) is likely to be unlike anything you have seen on stage, not just because it was the winner of three 2002 Tony Awards, including Best Book and Score, but due to its contrast of an infectiously merry score with the confrontation of its themes about climate change and corporate corruption. The story is full of clever twists and the less actually known of details the better, in order to fully appreciate the skill of its subversion of expectations.

A talented cast brings the story’s colourful characters to life. Lachlan Clark’s accomplished comic timing ensures that Longstock’s tongue-in-cheek commentary lands as intended and Page captures the plucky spirit of irreverent quasi-narrator Little Sally, often questioning Longstock as to the show’s logic, colouring his deadpan delivery style. Holman is formidable as the tyrannical Cladwell, especially in his ‘the powers that me’ attempts to justify the controlling consumption that characterises what the society of the story has become. Tibby makes Bobby a sincere and charismatic rebellion leader, ensuring that his heart-felt (#literally) romantic connection with Hope appears credible (in musical terms at least), despite its velocity. And Lauren Clark easily takes Hope from innocent new company fax/copy girl to a determined revolutionary. Also of particular note is Zoe Costello as Penelope Pennywise, the tough jaded warden of the poorest, filthiest town urinal.

Costello gives us an early show highlight in her belt out of “It’s a Privilege to Pee”, reminder of water’s worth in the brave new world of the story’s setting. Her voice is strong in sustain of its high-energy, offering up reminder of the bright tone and sustained notes expected of classic musical theatre numbers. Meanwhile, Tibbs’ tenor is flexible throughout and Clark is appropriately sweet-voiced as Hope, which makes their ‘Follow Your Heart’ a lovely duet of their fall in love moments. Indeed, these principal cast members’ vocals are the most pefect of any Phoenix show I have seen and their vocal amplification is handled with perfect clarity without any lapses in sound. Full ensemble numbers are, likewise, well harmonised. Performers all work together as a strong team, while also embracing their featured moments to shine, with Angelina Mustafay, in particular, showing a consistent reliability in her every energetic appearance as poor rebel Robby The Stockfish. Their collective step-up to assume responsibility for so much of the comedy of Act Two’s telling is not only refreshing, but ably handed.

While the score of “Urinetown” isn’t particularly memorable as a whole of even a sum of its parts, in experience of the show, its songs are all quite wonderful. Every one has its own style, with numbers covering multiple interweaving genres. And musical theatre fans will appreciate its nods to iconic musicals. From Act Two’s titular opener, which is very “Fiddler on the Roof” in its sensibility to the following Fosse-like “Chicago” feel of the high-octane dance number ‘Snuff That Girl’, there is a differing energy to their musical allusions. Following a pacy, almost patter song ‘Mr Cladwell’ introduction of Hope to her co-workers, Holman channels King Herod type mockery in his ‘Don’t Be the Bunny’ random tell of little bunnies at a toll booth in offer of metaphoric advice to his daughter, and there is even a Les Mis Act One finale, complete with revolutionary flag of appropriate making.

Under Benjamin Richards’ musical direction, the orchestra enlivens every number within the challengingly diverse score. Richards is energetic on keyboard, adding much vitality to the experience of numbers such the gospelesque audience-favourite cry for freedom ‘Run Freedom Run’, which is well chosen as a hallelujah curtain call revisit. And, on reeds, Monique Matthews provides the smooth clarinet sounds to add a soul not so often seen in musical scores. And Breanna Gear’s costume design vividly captures the contrasting, but each tonally-themed aesthetics of the disparate rich and poor groups as well as the characters within them, putting the pretty and perky Hope, for example, in an appropriately prim and proper pussy bow blouse, until her due-to-being-in-love transformation.

Experience of “Urinetown” can best be described as unexpected. This is acknowledged in one of its self-referential moments when Little Sally suggests that bad subject matter or a bad title even could kill a show pretty good. It might not be (as Officer Lockstock surmises) a happy musical, but it is a hilarious one. It is very clever in foreshadowing and sophisticated in its witty humour, even when in the form of vaudeville gags and low-brow laughs. The result is a very funny night out, especially in Act Two, in its dialogue, but also imagery of cartoon violence. Then there are the pantomimic in-unison ensemble reactions that lead us towards its ultimate altruistic messaging about free access for all and not just the wealthy few. Under Hayley Gervais’ insightful direction, like any good allegory, it works on many levels, all of them entertaining, meaning that whether your take-away be of its social satire, parody of the art from of musical theatre or just entertainment in or of itself, this Phoenix Ensemble show will not disappoint. The light-hearted, lesser-known work is highly creative and a must-see for musical theatre fans looking to expand their experience of the genre.

Let the memory live again

Cats (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

May 12 – 21

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” may be divisive, but it is also a bit of a musical gateway drug. There is reminder of this all around at Queensland Musical Theatre’s latest production of the juggernaut mega-musical, which is based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, as its unrecognisable performers interact with audience members, alighting the faces of enlivened youngsters, clearly about to experience the spectacle for the first time.

Many older-than-that folk are returning again, such is the lure of Lloyd Webber’s score through the song and dance stories of a tribe of domestic cats on the night of the annual junkyard Jellicle Ball. And just as every cat is different (with unique coat-patterns and appearance thanks to Deian Ping’s costuming coordination from Renee Milton’s 2019’s design), so is its every production and thus its highlights from the anthology of numbers revealing each Jellicle cat’s story. On this occasion it is the mischievous knockabout clowns Mungojerrie (Amy Davison) and Rumpleteazer (Georgina Walsh) whose lively ‘Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser’ dance number is an Act One favourite, especially come its consecutive tandem cartwheels conclusion. Their strong Cockney-accented commentary of their petty cat burglar antics causing trouble around their human neighbourhood, makes their story as clear as their personalities. Walsh, in particular, conveys an infectious energy as she punches into every dance move with precision.

Acrobatic dance adds energy throughout, particularly in the company’s ‘The Song of the Jellicles and The Jellicle Ball’ after Old Deuteronomy (Paul Fegan) summons the cats from the nooks of crannies of the oversized props that populate the junkyard space of Gerard Linsey’s stage design, for the celebration to begin. Technically demanding choreography, often based on feline movements (choreographer Jo Badenhorst) is handled with ease as each cat shares their backstory. Cheerful lazy-by-day Gumbie Cat Jennyanydots (Emma Hodis) provokes an elaborate chorus line tap number in ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’ and, as the original, enigmatic conjuring cat, Josh Cohrane gives us an impish ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ number, full of impressive razzle dazzle dance moves like multiple a la seconde turns. And, Mike Lapot’s Rum Tum Tugger introduction is all Elvis style swagger to drive the kitties wild.

Ensemble numbers are always a visual spectacle. All performers show an impressive commitment to bringing their cat characters so consistently to life, such as in share of animated reactions to the nostalgic recollections of the frail, but esteemed Asparagus Gus, The Theatre Cat (Andrew McArthur). The entirely sung-through nature of the show makes the effect of differing microphone levels quite noticeable at times, however, when vocals unite in harmony, there are some lovely moments, such as in the chorus of the first full production number in which the concept of Jellicle Cats is introduced to the audience.

The orchestra, under conductor and musical director Michael Keen, cannot be faulted in its execution of such a multifaceted score, which is demanding in its eclecticism. As it should, it culminates in the show stopping ballad, ‘Memory’ which sees a broken and bedraggled Grizabella (Kathryn Bradbury) melancholically remembering her glamorous past and pleading for acceptance from the tribe. Her ‘Touch Me’ key change the stuff of goosebumps, amplified by a lighting design by Tom Dodd that takes us through its emotional phases to almost silhouette her as she joyously ascents up up up to the Heaviside layer in final plot resolution.

In Caley Monro’s safe directorial hands, this “Cats” serves are a crowd pleasing reminder of all the reasons why the musical is so loved by those who aren’t amongst the haters. The Queensland Musical Theatre production easily transports its audience into a feline fantasy world of memorable music and vibrancy, for first-times and those wanting to let the memory live again alike.

Photos c/o – Creative Street

Adults only avenue

Avenue Q (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

April 21 – May 6

The smash hit West End and Broadway musical “Avenue Q” tells the story of optimistic recent College graduate Princeton (Michael Mills) trying to find his way in the world. As the fresh-faced English graduate takes up residence on outer-outer New York borough’s Avenue Q (because he couldn’t afford anything better), he meets friends and finds love while searching for his purpose alongside a multicultural neighbourhood of marginalised puppet and adult characters, including superintendent Gary Coleman (Zara Lassey), who are all similarly facing real-world problems. It might sound similar to a scenario at the centre of the street of Sesame, but children’s television this is not.

The delightfully-offensive musical has been entertaining audiences for years with its witty combination of childlike whimsy and adult themes. And while the Beenleigh Theatre Group audience might be divided as to their recognition of ‘Diff’rent Strokes” catchphrases, everyone is united in enjoyment of the show’s hilarity. The show still brings lots of big laughs, for example from especially from Bad Idea Bears’ (Laura Coulton and Sarah Engelsmann) encouragement of bad behaviour.

The cast of human and puppet characters is cohesive in its presentation of the provocative story. The puppetry is effortless, with the cast operating the puppets so unobtrusively that is easy to forget the actors are there. Dan Konstantinos brings big laughs as addicted-to-the-internet reclusive pervert Trekkie Monster, particularly in his reveal to innocent and unlucky-in-love kindergarten assistant Katie Monster what the internet is really for. The charming Rachel Love is delightful in her portrayal of kind kindergarten teaching assistant Kate, making the dreamer’s journey an engaging one of all range of emotions. She provides much of the heart behind the irreverence in musical numbers like the sweetly-voiced ‘Mixtape’, that sees Kate determining that, despite Princeton’s puzzling gifted song selections, he does really like her. Mills, meanwhile, gives an impassioned performance as the earnest protagonist Princeton, who, after a graphic sex scene with Kate, finds himself being seduced by vixen nightclub singer Lucy the Slut, who is all hair tosses and alluring looks thanks to the attitude and voice of Clare Thomson.  

Reactions indicate that the audience is especially invested in the Bert and Ernie type story of the very republican and totally-not-gay Rod (Michael Ware) and mild-mannered Nicky (Mark Rickell). Ware and Rickell bounce off each other wonderfully as the roommates. Ware, in particular, is a standout as the hot-headed investment banker Rod, especially in his musical insistence that he has a girlfriend that nobody on the street has met in ‘My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada’, made even more entertaining by his own facial reactions and expressive body language. And while slacker Nicky requires two puppeteer operators, it is Rickell who gives him an especially nuanced voice so like his “Sesame Street” inspiration.  

Much of the show’s charm lies in the easy interaction between its human and puppet characters. Would-be comedian Brian (Lonnie Toia) and his sharp-tongued therapist wife Christmas Eve (Rowena Orculla Ryan) communicate just as well with their furry avenue residents as they do with each other. And then there is Lassey as the wise-cracking, scene-stealing former child star Gary Coleman, who showcases perfect comic timing and a strong stage presence, especially in Act One’s ‘You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You’re Makin’ Love’, response to the enthusiastic antics of Princeton and Katie Monster.

The show’s soundtrack is a balanced one, full of catchy and upbeat numbers like ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’ that work alongside sentimental reflections such as ‘I Wish I Could Go Back to College’. And while its 6-piece live orchestra (led by Peter Lavrencic) is only glimpsed through occasional open apartment doors, their full reveal and celebration in curtain call is welcomed for the audience to offer well-deserved acclaim.

Under Tayla Simpson and Daniel Dosek’s secure direction, there are so many on-point aspects to this “Avenue Q”, making it my favourite of all reviewed BTG productions. While there are some minor sound lapses, these do not distract from the show’s momentum. Simple staging and swift scene transitions also move things along with a minimum of fuss. Attention to detail is evident everywhere. Act One’s uptempo ‘Purpose’, as Princeton moves into the fictional street, is backdropped by moving-box backup dancers and puppet pyjamas are later likewise matched in the costumes of the ensemble. Pre-show and interval songs of “The Muppet Show” and “Fraggle Rock” sort set the scene (#kinda #sorta) and the ongoing show of on-screen puppet themed advertisements is hilarious in and of itself.

“Avenue Q” is a joy from start to finish. The coming of age parable, which was originally written by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (with the book by Jeff Whitty), clearly stands the test of time, beyond just its pedigree of having won the ultimate Tony Award trifecta of Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book. Alongside its light-hearted satire, there is a real warmth to its messaging about purpose. And there is also the delight that it brings in observation of the reactions of first-timers to its adults-only world of puppet-on-monster porn. See it before its season rightfully sells out.

All aboard in Beenleigh

Anything Goes (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre 

March 3 – 22

The SS American luxury ocean liner is ready for boarding in Beenleigh as a close to two-dozen strong cast of characters sets sail for “Anything Goes” on a transatlantic trip from New York to London. Amazingly, however, the tin shed stage doesn’t feel overcrowded, thanks to Phoenix Ensemble’s trademark clever set design (in this case by Andy Kennedy), which sees the ship’s decks opening up into state rooms as needed, yet also serve as platform for the show’s spectacular titular Act One close.  

The hilarious and heart-warming Tony Award winning musical’s narrative is a lightweight one, complicated just enough to ensure its play out of madcap mistaken identities, disguises, blackmail attempts and witty one-liners as in between of its familiar songs and lively dance numbers. Firstly, there’s nightclub cabaret singer Reno (Jaime O’Donoghue) and her self-proclaimed ‘dime-a-dozen’ pal Billy Crocker (Zach Price), assistant to gruff elderly millionaire Elisha Whitney (Rod Jones). Broken down stockbroker Billy has stowed away on-board to be near his love, debutant Hope Harcourt (Kristen Barros), who is actually engaged to the wealthy, but bumbling Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Jordan Ross), at urging of her mother Evangeline (Nat Box), in seek of the resulting financial advantage.

The musical with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, was written in 1934, and has been revived many times. Not just of its time, this “Anything Goes” celebrates its era (which makes the inclusion of occasional modern references more jarring thanjoking.) While some dialogue and lyric mentions of the Jimmy Durante and Bo Jangles kind are nuanced in their of-the-time-ness, there is still a lot of laughs to be held, such as when Public Enemy Number…13! gangster Moonface Martin (Tristan Vanyai) attempts to cheer up a depressed Billy by telling him to ‘Be Like The Bluebird’, complete with increasingly irritated ballet dancer accompaniment. Under Miranda Selwood’s direction, the show never takes itself too seriously and a ‘soft’ start to each act that sees the audience being entertained by musical numbers and then interaction in petty-crim card tricks, only adds to the joy of the whole experience.

The tremendously talented O’Donoghue is a delight as the charismatic, free-spirited lapsed evangelist Reno. Flawless in song and dance, she aptly portrays her character as both a confident knockabout and glamorous kitten, and commands the stage in every number. Her strong vocals are pitch-perfect and controlled in their confident belt of Broadway-esque musical numbers and her Act One duet, ‘Friendship’, with Vanyai’s Moonface is a superb vaudevillian showcase of both performers’ magnificent comic talents. Vanyai’s characterisation of the buffoonish gangster disguised as a preacher is another show highlight, particularly in work with Vivien Wood as sultry Jersey gangster’s moll Erma. Their interplay, along with the pickpocketing antics of petty crims Spit (Aaron Anderson) and Dippy (Julie Eisentrager), ensures that thre is always something to look at.

Ross is an absolute hoot as the goofy fish-out-of-water Evelyn, trying to learn, but repeatedly mangling, American idioms in his speech. And Price is appropriately lovesick as protagonist Billy, who smuggles himself aboard the luxury cruise liner to make his intentions clear to the girl who got away from him. His ‘Easy to Love’ and later iconic ‘It’s De-Lovely’ duet with a sweetly-voiced Barros as Hope, also shows his impressive vocal register.  

Everyone gets a musical number as the show’s characters deal with the ramifications of trying to connect, meaning that there are ample opportunities for the band (under conductor Jacob Cabanough) to shine. The small band gives big band sounds throughout, presenting not just the individual character of songs, but adding a brassy vibrancy to of-era numbers such as Act One’s ‘There’s No Cure Like Travel’, in which the crew of the vessel prepare to set sail. And Jared Lehmann, in particular, gives more than a touch of Tango to Act Two’s ‘The Gypsy in Me’, in which The Earl reveals his Romani ancestry.

Of similar energy, the spirited gospel number ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’, performed by Reno one night in the ship’s nightclub, begins Act Two proper with a bang with all of its brassiness and gospel sounds. The sermon song is a standout of choreography, with Bec Swain’s design suiting its energy, sentiment and sensibility (almost up there with the razzle-dazzle, tap dance marathon of ‘Anything Goes’, which is hands-down the best musical number I’ve seen at a Phoenix show). Although sometimes ill-fitting in the ensemble, costume design captures the era of the story’s setting, especially in the glamourous evening attire of ‘Blow, Gabrielle, Blow’, and the art deco design motifs of Reno’s gowns are a standout at establishing the era.

There is something quite special about the sentiment of this all-singing, all-dancing vehicle for Cole Porter classics. Indeed, its mix of sweetly romantic numbers and energetic slapstick comedy sections, ensure that this big, bright and bold “Anything Goes” has something for everyone looking for some high-energy, fabulously feel-good musical escapism…. After all, as one of its most famous numbers surmises, “it’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely”.

Word Up!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Savoyards)

Wynnum State High School, Star Theatre

February 11 – 18

Savoyards production is my third time reviewing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in Brisbane, yet its early scenes promise that this version may well be the funniest. The Bee (as it is affectionately known) is the kind of musical that can easily been seen again and again, particularly given the unpredictability of its audience participation, which can make each experience unique.

With music and lyrics by William Finn, a book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman with additional material by Jay Reiss, the show chronicles an eclectic group of six earnest mid-pubescent characters (played by adults) vying for the fictional spelling championship at the Putnam Valley Middle School. Joining them during Act One are previously-registered audience spellers who become integrated into the bee’s play-out, inspiring some extra ad-lib hilarity on opening night from the competition’s judge, odd-ball Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Nathaniel Young) and returning moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Emma Erdis). And then there are the always amusing definition and example sentences provided to assist spellers before attempting their words.  

The book of the musical is filled with opportunities for exaggerated humour, from the emerging commonality of random words allocated to the ‘not that smart’ home-schooled Leaf Coneybear (William Chen) and the hyperbolic outrage of the group in response to the comparative ease of other speller’s words, to the anatomical distraction that sees poor Chip Tolentino (Clark Kent Byron-Moss) far from his best in front of the microphone. And then there is Joshua Brandon’s arrogant and awkward William Barfee (it’s pronounced Bar-FAY) and his ‘magic foot’ method, which has boosted him to previous spelling glory, including as a finalist in the previous year’s competition. Brandon’s is a slick, standout performance throughout. His overstated foot movements are thing to behold, marking his song (and dance) number about his technique a musical highlight of heightened energy and Fosse-esque chorus-line dance moves from the others.

The bulk of the show’s musical numbers (supported by a wonderful side-of stage band (under conductor and musical director Mark Beilby), serve to either introduce or acquaint the audience with each speller’s unique personality and backstory, which allows us to appreciate the commonality of their social isolation and love of learning. Although the numbers all work well in fulfilling this brief, the only real standout is the chaotic “Pandenmonium” (keep an eye on the background antics of some of its singers), in which the cohesive cast of contestants comes together in protest realisation that the best spellers don’t necessarily win. 

It is the detailed approach of Savoyards’ production that brings its biggest reward as while other contestants are at the microphone, we see Brandon in the background limbering up William’s magic foot and using it to spell out others’ words from his seat. And there is also the deliberate disinterested dispassion of Tallis Tutunoa as Comfort Counsellor Mitch Mahoney, who is performing community service with the Bee, offering comfort to the losing spellers with a juice box and quietly pickpocketing some of the for-sale snacks along the way.

In addition to the many heightened characterisations of the child contestants, Edris anchors things as Ms. Peretti, who herself won the Third Annual Bee by correctly spelling syzygy. Her vocals are lovely as she introduces the concept of the show with My Favourite Moment of the Bee and also in its regular reprises which weave the story together. And while Olive’s Ostrovsky’s ‘The I Love You Song’ does drag Act Two a little, Cameron Grimmett showcases some beautifully-sweet vocals as the quiet but quirky word-loving dreamer of little means or support from home.

While Byron-Moss and Maegan Micola von Furstenrecht are given less to do, by mere means of their characters’ narratives, all cast members give solid vocal and character performances. Claire Thomson comes into her own in Act Two as enthusiastic liberal social activist Lorainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, including in a break-free rant about Elon Musk’s Twitter take-over, to keep the show’s content fresh, and Chen’s comic timing endears the easily-distracted Coneybear to us as a clear crowd favourite.

There is an undeniable heart at the core of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, which gives the quirky musical a lot of its charm. Under Tammy Sarah Linde’s direction, the eccentricities of each character are shared with humour, but also a genuine underlying sensitivity without overindulgence. And its efficient single-event narrative and functional staging paces things towards a shorter overall running time the average stage musical. The crowd-pleaser makes for a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre, even those up for some on-stage spelling, because “the words are easy…except for the hard ones!”

Photos c/o – Sharyn Hall

JCS considerations

Jesus Christ Superstar (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

February 10 – 25

The Crete Street Theatre stage is affronted by two distinct and appropriately placed sides in Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”. To the left are fist-in-the-air fliers of the Nazareth party encouraging citizens to fight the power, while to the right there is Roman Party political propaganda promising that we can ‘Count on Caiaphas’, who sees Jesus as a threat to the nation. Between them, things open upon infamous apostle Judas Iscariot (a committed Isaac Brown), who sings of his concern at the rising prolife and increasingly crazed followers of Jesus, predicting that they may threaten the powerful empire to the point of punishment in an impassioned ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.

Judas is singing from his room in Hotel Gethsemane, in reposition of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s contemporised depiction of the final days of the life of Jesus Christ to a more recent reimagining. This fits alongside the production’s theme of enhancing the musical’s commentary on celebrity culture from before celebrity culture was even a thing, with, for example, modernising touches of the mass communication that Israel in 4BC lacked. While apostles with mobile phones obviously in-hand and a phone-lit musical number are maybe unnecessary, King Herod’s (Cassie Baan) Hardline TV show that appears on screen in lengthy pre-show and interval loops works well in drawing modern parallels through the King’s provocation of fellow Galileans to question the buzz around the upstart Jesus of Nazareth (Sophia Dimopoulos), including the authenticity of his birth certificate, and creates a nice arc to Act Two’s catchy ‘Herod’s Song’, which sees Baan leaning into the hammy mocking of its caricature as the flamboyant King pressures Jesus live on air to prove his divinity by performing his fabled miracles.

Despite the frequent, perhaps again unnecessary, set piece movement by ‘hotel staff’, the sung-through rock opera moves quickly, helped along by Donovan Wagner and Kaela Gray’s lighting design which, on its own, creates appearance of a hotel elevator in which Judas is propositioned towards his ultimate betrayal, and takes us from a seedy hotel scene into the darkness of Jesus’ torment. And while its titular number is maybe more lacklustre than full-on focal-point, there are some memorable moments within the musical, such as creation of the tableau of Jesus’ final supper with his disciples and the colour-themed nods within Natalie Jean and Hannah Collines’ costume design.

Kylie Davis-Davenport’s choreography works well when advancing the narrative such as when Jesus’ rag tag follows are being turned away from discovery of ‘What’s the Buzz?’ and when Mary Madeline (Abigail Ellerton) anoints Jesus towards spa relaxation with instruction that ‘Everything’s Alright’ so they should treasure the comforts they have. At other times, however, it serves as more of a distraction to the main focus, when representing in interpretive dance and movement themes from an already obvious plot element or stylising a pivotal musical moment such as Jesus’ 39 lashes without any grounding explanation for those perhaps unfamiliar with the detail of New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life from arrival in Jerusalem to his crucifixion.   

Restraint is rightly shown in stunning realisation of Jesus’ emotionally-charged musical soliloquy ‘Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)”. Dimopoulos gives this crucial moment for her character everything that it requires as Jesus wrestles with doubts about the success of her mission, demands to know why she should continue given what awaits and ultimately surrenders to God’s will. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself has called this the most difficult song to sing he has ever written and Dimopoulos absolutely does this assessment justice, making it a standout moment of equal parts defiant conviction, potent desperation and ultimate dignity. While her vocals are well-pitched and she brings out the conflict and fear of her character’s plight throughout the production, this is, without doubt, the highlight of the show, thanks to the depth and soar of her vocals, and the considered lighting that backdrops her performance.

In support, Brown effectively conveys the internal conflict driving Judas’s actions, showing control in his lower vocal registers, but not the belt that Act Two’s ‘Damned for All Time’ deal with his betrayal perhaps requires, in keeping with its riff-driven rock sounds. Ellerton, gives us a compelling Mary, instilling the character with both strength and vulnerability through touching subtlety. While her ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ is another of the production’s great moments, she also creates some solid harmonies with Georgia Cooper as Peter in their ‘Could We Start Again, Please?’ wish to return to a time of hope and peace. Justin Harreman makes for a strong Governor Pontius Pilate, who holds Jesus’ fate in his hands. Also excellent are Daniel McNamara as High Priest Caiaphas and Michael Mills as his chief advisor Annas. McNamara’s bass vocals are especially deep and rich in their Act One duet of conclusion that for the greater good ‘This Jesus Must Die’

Ever since it first appeared on the musical scene in 1971, “Jesus Christ Superstar” has been considered sacrilegious to select conservative Christian groups and there are sure to be some troubled by the idea of re-gendering Jesus as this production has done. Apart from jarring the pronouns of Mary’s lovely ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ lament of how her feelings for Jesus frighten her, that Jesus is female, is not the most significant part of how this story is told. What stands out most is her crucial role in an impending election and what takes shape from that in terms of commentary on a person becoming more important than their deeds.As Director Kaela Gray notes in the show’s program, “this production isn’t a commentary on religion or theology; rather, it’s using the millennia-old story (as told through now-vintage tunes) to carry an incredibly modern message.”

While, at times, devotion to his modernity becomes unnecessarily detailed in distraction, what remains clear is the distinction of Lloyd-Webber’s catchy 1970s-inspired high-energy rock score, especially when kept in original key throughout. From the bombast of its epic shredding electric-guitar-filled opening overture onwards, the dynamic score is brought to rocking life by onstage JCS orchestra, under baton of Musical Director Benjamin Richards (also on keys). The perfectly balanced David Chivers (keys 2), Joel Sanchez-Carn (guitar), Phil Kan (bass) and Abbie Chadirchi (drums / percussion) are hidden away underneath the staging’s raised platform and it is unfortunate that there is no opportunity to ever seen them or rightfully acclaim their talents.