Here we go again… again

Mamma Mia! (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

24 September – 8 October

Especially since in recent years it became available for amateur licensing, I’ve now seen “Mamma Mia!” many times. This makes it a difficult musical to review, but never to watch. As Savoyards’ production shows, the audience favourite is full of familiar songs and infectious sing-along energy to get everyone’s toes tapping.

The story-telling magic of ABBA’s timeless songs is crafted into a now well-known tale of love, laughter and friendship centred around a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Stephanie Lee-Steere) tells the audience how she has set upon a quest to discover the identity of her father by inviting three men from her free-spirited single-mother Donna’s (Vanessa Wainwright) past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago… on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Matthew Bennett). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to Sam (Andrew Dark), Bill (Andrew McCarthur) or Harry (Steven Norris) so that whichever of them is her father can then walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Donna. The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship that is pure entertainment in its every element. 

Wainwright is splendid as ‘feminist icon’ Donna, the former lead singer of the 1970s pop group Donna and the Dynamos, with best friends Tanya (Natalie Lennox ) and Rosie (Jacqueline Atherton), conveying an assurance of self-sufficiency that is belied by her bumbling body language around her confident and composed past love Sam. Vocally, she takes us on quite the journey too. Her vibrato sounds give us a gutsy ‘Mamma Mia’ in response to seeing her ex-lovers, she makes ‘Slipping Though My Fingers’ a beautiful insight into Donna’s emotions at dressing Sophie for her wedding and her ‘Winner Takes It All’ spit back at Sam is heartbreaking. She is supported by a large ensemble of varying energy levels, with notable standouts coming from the support players of Carly Wilson as Sophie’s bubbly best friend Ali, along with Lisa (Kayleigh Bancroft) who have travelled to the island for the wedding and an underused Michael Chazikantis as Sky’s friend Eddie, deliverer of many well-timed comic one-liners.

A brilliant band under the musical direction of Nicky Griffith brings vitality to the ABBA tunes. It is just unfortunate that some opening night moments are affected by sound concerns, with microphone issues detracting from numbers like ‘Does Your Mother Know’, which sees Sky’s flirty friend Pepper (Joshua Brandon) attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’. Similarly, Act One’s highlight ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is shaky in its start before evolving into its usual flipper fun.

Desney Toia-Sinapati’s choreography features as one of the show’s standout aspects throughout. Donna and the Dynamos’ hen party performance of ‘Super Trouper’ is a triumph of shapely simplicity in its in-unison sways and outstretched points, while big ensemble numbers like ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ explode with well-timed focal point entrances and exits to allow each of Sophie’s dads to take centre-stage for their in-turn realisations about their potential parentage.  

A lot of the show’s comedy comes from its small moments, such as the reactions of Father Alexandrios (James Riley), the minister officiating Sophie’s wedding, as things start to go awry. This attention to detail features from the beginning when its title track features pop-up appearance of a Greek chorus of sorts in ensemble emphasis of its iconic chorus. Even the out-of-place Act Two opener ‘Under Attack’, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, emerges with its own surprises. Comedy comes also from the cheeky free-spirited flirtation of Atherton’s warmly endearing Rosie, which cresendos into overt wedding day proposition of Bill in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’.

“Mamma Mia!” is everything you expect it to be and in Savoyards’ hands, its trip down the aisle…. again is one that is full of upbeat fun. And with three weeks of shows, there is still time to join the group in Greece to experience to its joy first-hand, though tickets are selling fast!

Photo c/o – Sharyn Hall

The beat of dancing feet

42nd Street (Queensland Conservatorium)

Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University

August 4 – 13

Based on the 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes and the subsequent 1933 Hollywood film adaptation, “42nd Street” is a musical set at the height of the Great Depression. Audiences at Queensland Conservatorium’s production are taken to the era immediately thanks to gramophone crackling pre-show tunes and projection of a black and white image of New York’s art deco’d skyscraper skyline.

In the 1930s, just as it is now, 42nd Street was known for its theatres, and is where chorus dancers want to be, especially once they hear that notorious director Julien Marsh (Aidan O’Cleirigh) is putting on a new show, which is sure to be the hit of 1933. The opening audition scene’s base tone aesthetic suits the era and enables Keith Clark’s lighting design to brighten the entrance of plucky Peggy Sawyer (Katie Loxston), fresh off the bus from Allentown Pennsylvania, lucky scarf and all. Wholesome at heart and hard not to love, she is everything we want from a protagonist. The star of “Pretty Lady”, however, is the less likeable and very demanding Dorothy Brock (Lucy Goodrick), a past-her-prime prima donna, renowned for inability to dance.

Dancing is at the core of the story and experience of the tap-infused extravaganza and, appropriately, when things open to the synchronised rhythm of a tap-dancing chorus scene, it is met with deserving applause. The show is filled with glorious spectacles thanks to its big ensemble numbers. Act One’s closer, ‘We’re in the Money’ is a lively glittering green number that not only showcases the talent of everyone on stage, but captures the essence of the show as a whole in terms of its good old fashioned song and dance.

Dan Venz’s choreography makes full use of the vast Queensland Conservatorium stage space to fill it with the production’s large ensemble cast. ‘Getting out of Town’, when the show-within-a-show’s cast departs for a run in Philadelphia, sees circa 50 performers in a tightly-timed and highly energetic number. And when leading tenor Billy Lawler (Hudson Glynn) sings of the beautiful dames you go to see a show for, it is as part of a gorgeous MGM musical style number, of extravagant Busby Berkeley type flowing-gowned, dancing-girl geometric patterns, with an art deco touch to the details of its design aesthetic. Highlights are peppered throughout the production, including in Act One’s ‘Shadow Waltz’, when, during Dorothy’s audition song key check, shadows are made by wheeled lamps. It’s a sublimely executed number that emphasises the calibre of the production.

All aspects of this “42nd Street” are on point, from both cast and creatives alike. Vintage pin-curled hair combines with high-waisted pants and suspenders to authentically replicate its early 1930s setting (costume and set design by Penny Challen). Scene transitions are swift and feature simple but highly-effective set pieces of abstract angles and art deco design touches, such as in the theatre’s star dressing room and when a shop-front window descends to border the diner lunch of co-writer and producer Maggie (Jacqui Dwyer) and the chorus girls offering advice to Peggy.

Confident, assured performances capture the spirit of the show’s era and also the grand musical genre. Glynn impresses with some lithe dance moves and Loxston capture the range of emotions experienced by Peggy in rise from role as chorus girl to leading lady, especially her increasing exhaustion in response to relentless rehearsal to realise her potential in her ultimate role. O’Cleirigh gives us a layered performance as Julien, the driving force behind Peggy’s transformation, elevating a role that could so easily have been one-note. And his strong voice makes his numbers some of Act Two’s highlights.

Dwyer is another standout as thewisecracking Maggie, stealing scenes, especially in duo with Jack Ingram as the other “Pretty Lady” writer Bert. Her comic timing is spot-on and her vocals are impressive.Ingram, meanwhile, makes the somewhat superfluous ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo’ number about going by sleeper train to Niagara for a honeymoon, charmingly entertaining thanks to the commitment of his highly animated tongue-in-cheek, vaudevillean-esque performance, which elevates the relatively simple song to a standout production number.

The Tony and Olivier Award winning musical’s story may be a simple one, but its realisation is coloured by its toe-tapping musical numbers thanks to the production’s quality orchestrations. Under Heidi Loveland’s musical direction, the orchestra finds character within each of its songs, giving its iconic titular number a sauntering sound and cresendoing ‘Lullaby of Broadway’ to breathtaking heights. And under Alister Smith’s slick direction, it is all very clever in its meta-theatre aspects, including in nods to the orchestra and raise of house lights into intermission when the show-within-the-show’s star is injured and the “Pretty Lady” performance has to be cut short.

With popular musical theatre standards (lyrics by Al Dubin and Johnny Mercer and music by Harry Warren) and show-stopping ensemble production numbers, there is much to love about Queensland Conservatorium’s “42nd Street”. Indeed, this is a massive, but also incredibly professional production at every level. Though the backstage musical may be set in depression-era New York, its iconic characters, classic plot lines and extravagant show-within-a-show make its 2022 experience one of pure entertainment for everyone coming to meet those dancing feet.

SpongeBob silliness

The SpongeBob Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

August 5 – 27

Those with even just passing familiarity with the iconic Nickelodeon, animated tv series “SpongeBob SquarePants”, created by marine science educator and animator Stephen Hillenburg, should have some idea of what to expect from its 2017 musical adaptation. As expected, from its ‘Bikini Bottom Day’ opening number, which sees SpongeBob (Clark Kent Bryon-Moss) awakening to welcome the day with his pet sea snail Gary, it’s all energetic colour, movement and pool noodle kelp silliness.

The dynamic and critically acclaimed stage musical (with 12 Tony Award nominations) sees SpongeBob amongst the motley inhabitants of the fictional benthic underwater Pacific Ocean city of Bikini Bottom (beneath the real-life coral reef Bikini Atoll) face the total annihilation of their world, thanks to threatened eruption of the inconveniently located volcanic Mount Humongous. SpongeBob, his bestie Patrick Star (Harley Roy) and his squirrel friend, Sandy Cheeks (Ebony Banks) devise a scheme to keep it from erupting. But the supervillain Sheldon J Plankton (Joshua Moore) has other plans. As chaos and corruption ensure under the doomsday clock’s countdown, lives hang in the balance until a most unexpected hero rises up with a message about the life-saving power of optimism!

Kyle Jarrow’s book allows for the apocalyptic story to be fleshed out in a figurative way with social satire though science deniers, ineffectual politicians, an alarmist journalist and corrupt business people. This never detracts from the Phoenix Ensemble production’s essential sensibility and vibrant aesthetic. There is always something interesting to look at. Props are incredibly creative, Justin Tubb-Hearne’s costume design works with hairstyling and make-up to give each character a unique sea creature look and each character / group of characters (a school of sardines for example) has distinct physicality.

Even with all of its allegorical inclusions, the musical’s optimistic message remains at the forefront, with Act One’s closing number, ‘Tomorrow Is’, written by The Flaming Lips, reminding of the value of a moment. With an original pop and rock-infused score by a long list of legendary songwriters, including Cyndi Lauper, Panic! At the Disco and Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, the show is full of catchy musical motifs and a selection of original songs from across a range of musical styles. ‘BFF’, in which SpongeBob attempts to cheer up an upset Patrick by reiterating that they are best friends forever, is clearly country in in sensibility and ‘Super Sea Star Savior’ in a gospel-tinged chronicle (complete with tambourines) of Patrick’s appointment as cult leader to worshiping sardines, believing him to their saviour from the volcano. ‘When the Going Gets Tough’ in which the villainous Sheldon tries to convince the citizens to enter an escape pod as cover-up for he and his wife Karen’s (Kristen Barros) secret scheme to hypnotise citizens into liking what is served at their Chum Bucket restaurant, features an impressive speed rap. However, while in and of themselves, these numbers are all good, the eclecticism makes for a lack of musical cohesion overall.

Though momentum lags a little, Act Two gives the best vocal performances. Banks’ voice is strong in Sandy’s encouragement of SpongeBob to use karate knowledge to conquer climbing the volcano in ‘Chop to the Top’ and Roy’s voice is gently divine in John Legend’s ‘(I Guess I) Miss You’, in which he voices how nothing feels quite right without SpongeBob, corny lyrics and all.

Bryon Moss shows commendable commitment to the demanding role of the musical’s perky yellow sponge everyman protagonist, gleeful in his always-grinning over-the-top reactions and bouncing about in exhausting eternal optimism. Our sympathies, however, are with Zach Price’s Squidward Q Tentacles, downtrodden in his depression as the loser nobody likes he becomes a clear audience favourite, especially when his dream of performing is finalised realised in a colourful ensemble tap number of magenta Muppet-esque sea anemones.

Banks is solid as scapegoated squirrel Sandy, the Texas scientist and karate expert (because yes, there’s a squirrel under the sea) and Roy is wonderful as SpongeBob’s dim but brawny best friend Patrick whose scenes as accidental cult leader saviour to the sardines, give us some of the show’s funniest moments. The standout performances, however, come from Moore and Barros as evil genius Sheldon and his digital wife Karen the Computer. They complement each other well, not only in costumes layered in detail, but in their appealing chemistry and interplay as he gleefully gloats about his plans for domination. Moore’s comic performance is excellent, full of outrageous physical expressions and a mania that makes all eyes draw to him in his every scene.

Under Benjamin Tubb-Hearne’s detailed direction, Phoenix Ensemble’s “The SpongeBob Musical” is good old-fashioned fun. Kids in the audience love the pre-show and interval-end interaction from Patchy the Pirate, SpongeBob’s number one fan and it is clear that Nicholas Joy is having a great time in the role. Indeed, there is an infectious spirit of fun conveyed from the buoyancy of the whole cast, especially in interaction with creative props, meaning that it works for all ages. The musical’s narrative may be weak and the running time a little longer than it need be, but experience of its moments is jubilant and ladies, gentle-fish and younger folk alike, whether familiar with the beloved animated series or otherwise, will surely appreciate the vibrant production both in terms of its heartfelt humanity and theatricality alike.

Shining bright again

The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

July 9 – 30

“The Sunshine Club” opens in the summer of 1946 with World War II just over. Ambitious Aboriginal solider, former boxing champion Frank Doyle (Marcus Corowa) has spent years fighting for freedom shoulder-to-shoulder with troops from all over Australia. Despite its opening number, ‘Lest We Forget’, the war, however, does not set the narrative tone of Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical.  

Frank thinks the world can be different, but upon return to his hometown of Brisbane, quickly realises this isn’t the case when he is denied entry to the Lord Mayor’s Victory Ball to see his childhood friend Rose (Irena Lysiuk) sing at the Cloudland ballroom. In this not-that-long-ago era, systematic discrimination of indigenous Australians is all around, including through curfews and travel restrictions. Hopeful in want of a better life, where he can be more than just an exception to the rules, Frank sets up his own dance hall, the fictitious The Sunshine Club, where everyone is invited and he can dance with Rose, daughter of Reverend Morris (Andrew Buchanan), for whom his Aunty Faith (Roxanne McDonald) has worked for many years as housekeeper… cue catchy titular song ‘The Sunshine Club’, which sets the mood of what is a defiantly joyous musical experience. What follows is spirit-soaring in its entertainment, making its 2 hours 30 min duration (with interval) fly by in move through Frank and Rose’s story towards an operatic climax and meta-theatrical ending that reframes the work with call upon the audience to reflect on how far Australia has come, and how far the country still has to go, towards Reconciliation.

Directed again by Enoch, who wrote the book and lyrics of the Helpmann Award nominated 1999 original, which also played at The Playhouse, the revival includes a number of creatives from the original production alongside a new generation of First Nations artists, many of whom are making their Queensland Theatre debut. Marcus Corowa is outstanding in the role of protagonist Frank Doyle; his vocals are powerful and he effectively emotes Frank’s varied responses as he works through his return to an unchanged society and then optimism about moving forward in a romantic relationship with Rose. Lysiuk, gives the girl of Frank’s dreams feistyness and well-intentioned naivety, but also endearing passion. She looks and sounds the part, especially in her celebration of potential love in the brassy ‘Let It Rain’, which soars with her gorgeous soprano sounds.

The heart and soul of the show, however, is undeniably McDonald, in reprise of her role as Aunty Faith, after more than 20 years. A clear audience favourite, she makes the strong-willed cyclone of a matriarch’s quips very funny, but balances this nicely with her caring nature, always looking after the strays and loving her family fiercely. And while Faith may have to rely on others at times, such as Rose to read Frank’s wartime letters home, she knows of the reality of the world, often speaking the most sense. Buchanan similarly gives Rose’s strict Christian Reverend father a considered light and shade, which is of particular credit given how easily the role could have been realised as an antagonistic caricature.

Naarah makes the spirited Pearl Doyle a moving juxtaposition to Rose, of similar talent and ambition for the future, but limited comparative opportunity. Not only is she a commanding performer dramatically, but her strong vocals are showcased in tormented tribute to the tragedy of lost dreams, the powerful ‘Passionfruit Vine’. And Beau Dean Riley Smith makes her lovesick admirer Dave Daylight a loveable larrikin, more than just an askew-dressed slacker cannery-worker.

A five-piece onstage band (Mika Atkinson, Stephen Newcomb, Katie Randall, Michael Whitaker, led by the original production’s Music Director Wayne Freer) fills John Rodgers’ score with brass-filled of-era sounds with songs about subjects like the door-to-door sales of Pearl’s ‘Sellin’ Man’ love interest Peter (Trent Owers), and of course love, adding much to the atmosphere of the dance club scenes, along with Jacob Nash’s set and property design. There is an infectious energy to the lively numbers, enhanced by the Yolanda Brown’s dance choreography and numbers like the jazzy ‘Strictly Saturday Night’ allow for showcase of individual instrumentation.

‘Dancin’ Up a Storm’, during which the characters kick up their heals while a Brisbane summer storm threatens the sky outside, is incredibly catchy and even the more subdued dreaminess of the ‘We Danced’ duet between Corowa and Lysiuk sways the audience beautifully tinto interval. ‘Shadow Dancer’, a duet of assurance between the two lovers serves as a clear highlight, thanks to the precision of both vocalists. Corowa’s vocal range, in particular, is outstanding and gives a serenity to texture atop angst in his attempt to understand his post-war frustrations and want for the world to change in ‘Homecoming’.

Internationally acclaimed Nunukul and Ngugi playwright and director Wesley Enoch AM directs the work with a dexterity that allows statements about first nations people in the world to be layered within its dialogue rather than overtly signposted in and of themselves. The humour and optimism that cushions their confrontation allows for reminders such as the lack of aboriginal franchise (until 1962) to be shared in, for example, the swinging ‘Sit Down Mr. Menzies’ and moving ensemble finale ‘If Not Now Then When’ in response to Frank’s ask of “when is my time?” National issues aside, however, “The Sunshine Club” is very much a Brisbane story, full of location landmark mentions and thanks to Richard Roberts’ costume design, ‘40s era evocation. While it is a historical work of a particular time, “The Sunshine Club” is also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love, and then also consider in terms of its still-powerful messaging celebration of resilience.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Coming Away again

Come from Away

Home of the Arts

July 2 – 31

“Come From Away” is the type of musical you can easily see multiple times (as I have now done), such is the joyousness of its experience and its always-applicable reminder about the human spirit’s triumph over adversity. The musical is quite unlike any other, not just because of the heart and soul that operates at its core. There are a lot of moving parts to its achievement ….. literally. Not only is there a revolve stage, but Beowulf Borritt’s apparently simple scenic design of a collection of chairs is anything but, as they are seamlessly repositioned to create all range of settings, including the transportation that brings the ‘plane people’ to the remote government and airport town at the centre of the extraordinary tale.

The documusical (book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein) tells theremarkable real-life story of stranded September 11 passengers and the small edge-of-the-Atlantic island town in Newfoundland (off the north east tip of Canada) that welcomed them when 38 planes were ordered to land there unexpectedly as part of closing United States airspace, effectively expanding the town’s population from 9000 to 16000 people overnight.

Not only are chairs moved about in transition from plane to community centre and local tavern scenes, but simple props and jacket and hat type costume changes allow the ensemble cast of 12 performers to jump in and out of roles as the scared and exhausted international plane passengers, and the Gander townspeople alike. Choreography not only allows for flawless transformations, but uses stylised movement to pause scenes in striking tableaus of reactions and responses, such as to transition things through the hours and hours that passengers were kept aboard before being permitted to deplane. And Howell Binkley’s lighting design gives some memorable moments such as when it is used to create the effect of frantic traffic controllers all at individual devices.

The performers are all excellent and authentic in their multiple roles, thanks, in part, to the work of dialect coach Joel Goldes. Indeed, cast members are all incredibly versatile in their talents, assuming so many character parts. Ash Roussett is a vocal standout as Kevin T, particularly in the emotional ballad ‘Prayer’ which sees several characters make their way to houses of worship around the town. Jasmine Vaughns gives a moving performance as Hannah, mother of a missing Manhattan firefighter, delivering a soulfully emotional ‘I Am Here’, in reflection of the helplessness she feels not knowing of his fate. And Noni McCallum projects an endearing charm as the warm-hearted and empathetic local Beulah who bonds with Hannah over the fact that both of their sons are firefighters. 

There is also a great deal of humour. Kyle Brown’s comic timing makes native New Yorker Bob’s scepticism as funny as it is endearing as he struggles to understand the kindness of the Canadian strangers. And Kat Harrison makes the character of Bonner her own, capturing the animal carer’s manic determination to take care of the animals on board the grounded flights, without venturing into dogmatism

Tight pacing means that the show’s 100 minutes duration (no interval) flies by. Even so, the story does not shy away from difficult aspects such as its reminder of the anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the 2001 attacks. This handled well through the quietly dignified Ali, thanks to an appropriately-pitched performance from Joseph Naim; as well as seeing the fellow-passenger fear and suspicious growing around him, we are witness also to the compassion shown by American Airlines captain Beverley Bass (Alana Tranter), American Airlines’ first female captain.

While the score contains only 15 songs, under Michael Tyack AM’s musical direction, it seems like the music never stops between the opening ‘Welcome to the Rock’ describing the town of Gander, to the tearfully reflective ‘Finale’ in which characters reunite to celebrate the lifelong friendships and strong connections they formed in spite of the terrorist attacks. A range of musical influences within August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations and arrangements sweep the story along through traditional Irish, American folk and sea-shanty type songs, to name but a few, and appropriately the end-of-show standing ovation continues beyond acknowledgment of the cast to celebration of the on-stage band members.

A high point comes from the fiddle-filled ‘Screech In’, during which the Newfoundlanders host a party for their guests, complete with an initiation ceremony involving a shot of the province’s 40% alcohol rum and other traditions, the second of its fiddle-filled drinking songs. There is also Tranter’s inspirational ‘Me and the Sky’, in which Bass attempts to reconcile her once optimistic view of the world with how it has suddenly changed. Again, the tone is well tempered, with up-tempo numbers sitting alongside more moving numbers, like when, in ‘Lead Us Out of the Night’, the passengers finally get to see what has actually happened for themselves and watch helpless, barely knowing where they are but still thankful it is not there.

“Come From Away” weaves together a rich tapestry of charm in all of its aspects. At the centre of the Tony and Olivier Award winning Canadian musical is its beautiful storytelling. The fact that it is the story of ordinary people (while some characters are amalgamated all are based on real testimony), makes it all the more captivating. And its messaging about how to welcome those who may be different to us is inspiring in the warmest of fuzzy, feel-good ways.

Comic colour

Shrek The Musical (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

July 9 – September 3

Although based on the first film in the hit franchise of the same name, “Shrek The Musical” has some differences. The twisted fairy tale opens up once upon a time with backstory of the young Shrek and also of his later love Fiona. Unfortunately, all of this is lost on opening night of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production due to lack of any vocal amplification apart from anyone other than Shrek (Tim Buckney). Indeed, microphone issues are a distraction throughout the evening with music often drowning out vocals, especially in solos. This means, for example, that we miss a lot of Donkey’s (Natalie Mead) assurance to Shrek that they ‘gotta stick together’ in ‘Don’t Let Me Go’.

When the ensemble unite in voice, the volume is such to compensate for the intensity of the music, but it takes a little while for the show to settle into itself and for the audience to ease into its entertainment and even when sound issues continue in Act Two’s ‘I Think I Got You Beat’ during which Shrek and Fiona (Stephanie Collins) compete for the harshest life story, there are still enough burp and fart gags in the number to keep kids in the audience amused. Assumedly these issues will be fixed as the show progresses in its season and the opening night performers need to be commended for their efforts to compensate for the sound issues.

The Shrek story is a big one, with some scenes featuring many supporting characters; while the grouchy green ogre Shrek lives alone in his swamp, happy to be hermitted away in a haven from the world’s fearful mocking, this is only until a group of homeless fairy tale characters seek swap refuge from the persecution of the Napoleon-esque ruler of Duloc, the cruel and clueless Lord Farquaad (Douglas Berry). A deal is struck that if Shrek can rescue the Princess Fiona (whom Farquaad wishes to marry for her crown), Farquaad will ensure the return of Shrek’s swamp by allowing the fairy tale creatures back to their homes.

When the refugee fairy tale characters gather on stage, such as to explain of their banishment in ‘Story of My Life’, scenes are full of colour and movement. Still, there are some standouts. Rachael McFarlane is an assured Pinocchio, including in lead of Act Two’s ensemble number ‘Freak Flag’, which sees the gang of fairytale misfits championing their differences. Featured dancers are also kept busy in a range of roles from swan lake type dancers to Pied Piper mice and even stunt doubles, with Amy Wisemann standing out in every instance, in terms of stage presence as much as her obvious technical skill.

The show’s leads are all excellent. Collins is a charismatic Fiona and Buckney’s already-strong performance is elevated by the quality of his vocals, as evidenced in Act Two’s ‘Build a Wall’ after a misunderstanding about Fiona’s affections sees Shrek committing to return to his swamp alone in shield from the world around. Mead is a standout as Donkey, not just for her dexterity in handling props with hoof hands, but for the layered humour she brings to what could easily be a hyperbolic, one-note characterisation. Her varied vocal intonations, as well as physicality, add much to the humour of the ‘noble steed’ sidekick’s persistence and also fear when he finds himself aside unlikely hero Shrek travelling across a flimsy bridge over lava to rescue Fiona from a fire-breathing dragon.

Berry is another standout as the silky-haired Lord Farquaad, at his best in razzle dazzle introduction to the world of Duloc, complete with a cheerful army of Disneyland ‘It’s a Small World’ style dancers. His animated facial expressions often say more than any dialogue could and effectively complement the pantomimic play that is at the core of the physical representation of the half-pint rule.

The original score includes a mix of musical styles. For example, as Shrek and Fiona’s newfound camaraderie begins to grow into love, Donkey, with the accompaniment of a diva trio of three blind mice attempts to encourage Shrek with ‘Make a Move’, in a smooth, soulful number. Michelle Radu and Steph O’Shea’s choreography accounts for the small stage space in big ensemble numbers such as ‘The Ballad of Farquaad’, which introduces a backstory for the comic villain. Choreography is particularly impressive in Farquaad numbers, which show creativity around the character’s short-statured representation. While blocking is good, however, there are some sight issues, meaning those at the end of some rows miss prop gags and a shadowed revelation to Donkey of the specifics of Fiona’s childhood curse.  

Just as onion boy Shrek has layers, “Shrek the Musical” has levels, with jokes for young and old, as well as a lovely concluding message about acceptance. The show is meta-theatrical in and of itself, but also in reference to iconic motifs of other musicals, such as when, in ‘Morning Person’, Feona leads a troupe of tap-dancing rats in a fabulous Fosse-like routine to show the Pied Piper how it is done. This is a show that is full of comic-book type fun and vibrant imagery (including puppets), with an attention to detail in its comedy. And it is very funny in its punny props and the little details of Donkey’s dry dialogue and then not-so-subtle encouragement of romance between his new friends Shrek and Fiona. Much as it is a happily-ever-after fairy tale of the romantic sort, the relationship between the ‘fearsome’ ogre and talkative donkey is one of the show’s highlights, especially appreciated by the children in the audience (though an 8pm start time does make for a very late finish for families).