Talented truths

The Last Five Years (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse

October 7 – 17

strings.jpgWhen the opening music of “The Last Five Years” mourns with string sounds it suggests that Jason Robert Brown’s acclaimed 2001 musical is far from a happy story. This may ultimately be accurate, but in its tell of the doomed romance between lovers Jaime, a writer whose career is on the rise and struggling actress Cathy, it is certainly an honest and engaging one and not just in its inspiration from Brown’s failed marriage. And in Wax Lyrical Productions’ hands the musical two-hander is certainly heartbreaking as it traces their relationship from opposite ends.

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Initially it takes some effort to follow what is happening, without knowing of its complicated chronological twist, that sees Jamie’s (Kurt Phelan) story moving forward in time, while Cathy’s (Lizzie Moore) is portrayed in reverse. Once comfortable in the format, however, the show’s 90 minute duration flies by, through love at first sight to marriage breakdown and all that goes in between and it is easy to become absorbed in the musical storytelling, which provides an intimate look at the rise and fall of a relationship from infatuation to disillusionment.

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There’s not much of a plot, with only its melodically rich soundtrack and no dialogue. The sensational score requires performers with endurance, emotional range and soaring vocals. And in this regard, Phelan and Moore are spot-on, bringing clarity to the narrative and engagement to its storytelling.

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As aspiring actress Cathy, the multi-talented Moore moves from lament of the end of her marriage in ‘Still Hurting’ to the show’s most memorable number, the witty and upbeat ‘A Summer in Ohio’ parody of showbiz life and the exquisite torture of waiting for Jaime to visit.

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As Jaime, Phelan is charming, charismatic and vocally compelling from his first appearance onstage to share song of his excitement at encountering the ‘shiksa goddess’ of his dreams, moving through time towards the unhappiness of his unravelled marriage. His versatility is engaging, particularly in characterisation within ‘The Schumel Song’, where, as they celebrate their second Christmas, he tells Cathy of a new story he has written about an old tailor, in which he shows his gift for comedy. Indeed, whether the song is comic, gentle or agonised, Phelan creates an unforgettable experience through his outstanding performance, meaning that while you may see the show for the music, you will tell others to go to see him knock it out of the park.

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Live on-stage music (courtesy of Shanon Whitelock, Joel Woods, Ruth Donovan, Wayne Jennings, Ruby Hunter and Conall O’Neill) draws upon a number of musical genres to provide emotional resonance, while Jason Glenwright’s lighting design transports audience members from moments of triumph to turmoil and tenderness, including when at a single point in the middle Jaime and Cathy’s stories converge and we see them happy and singing together in ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ after Jamie has proposed. Countless (necessary) costume changes also contribute to the sensibility of each relationship phase. Indeed, under Zoë Tuffin’s direction the production is packed with nuanced nods and subtle suggestions as to the passage of time, which is appreciated in contribution to audience understanding.

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With humour, heart and a triumphant combination of cast and creative talent, Wax Lyrical Productions’ “The Last Five Years” certainly does not disappoint. In fact, it will probably stay with audiences long after the actors have left the space, in contemplation of whether we are more Jaime or Cathy or a little bit of both, such is the universal appeal of its thematic truths.

Photo c/o – Joel Devereux

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Broadway business

The Producers (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

September 23 – October 7

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Sometimes the business of Broadway is that you do can do everything right but still go wrong. Sometimes, the opposite can occur too…. Such is the story behind Mel Brooks’ movie and subsequent musical, “The Producers”. Failed Producer Max Bialystock used to be the king of old Broadway, with the biggest hits. Now, he has lost his touch so makes his money by seduction of elderly women as investors. ….until he stumbles upon a seemingly failsafe scheme to profit from a flop. He partners with timid accountant Leo Bloom to produce what they hope will be the biggest failure in the history of commercial theatre (whose shares they can oversell), the offensive “Springtime for Hitler” gay romp about Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden, aka the worst musical ever written, helmed by the worst director in New York City and with the worst actors occupying all of its roles.

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And so the chaos begins and in Savoyard Musical Comedy Society’s production of what Mel Brooks himself describes as ‘an evening of insanity and pleasure’, the chaos is quite delicious. The show starts strongly with the two leads, Gary Rose as the very Jewish and over-the-top Bialystock and Joshua Thia as the anxious and unsure-of-himself Bloom, sharing an immediate on-stage chemistry. The production has everything a good old fashioned musical needs, particularly its tried and tested, sometimes politically incorrect, humour. Indeed, it is irreverently self-aware in its offer of something for everyone comedy-wise; there is bawdy, one-liner humour that completely works alongside wittier, more intellectual allusions and puns.

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Musical numbers are quite magnificent in both their eclecticism and their production values. ‘I Want to Be a Producer’ serves as an Act One highlight, as Bloom sings of his secret desire to leave the drudgery of accounting to have his heart set afire by seeing his name in lights, complete with a chorus of supporting showgirls and an entertaining tap dance sequence. ‘Springtime for Hitler’ is another, later, example of the show’s unified choreography, staging, costumes and impressive live music soundtrack under Mark Beilby’s direction.

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To be a genuine success, however, the show needs to nail it with the two leads and in this regard, Savoyards’ production excels. Rose is a perfectly devious but twinkle-eyed Bialystock, while triple threat, Thia is outstanding, from the anxious and awkward Bloom of Act One through to his increasingly excitable sensibility in later sections. His embrace of every opportunity within the role’s physicality, with hilarious facial expressions and exciting physical comedy, make him enormously fun to watch.

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Walter Lago is a riot as Franz Liebkind, the ex-Nazi writer of the musical within a musical, at times conveying a John-Cleese-like sensibility in his normalised absurdity. Grace Glarke is appropriately faux-Swedish as Ulla, the jiggly dancer/receptionist at the newly amalgamated Bialystock and Bloom, David Morris brings immense energy and interest to the role of Director Roger Debris when stepped into the musical’s lead role and Scott Edwards is a scene-stealing Carmen Ghia, his flamboyant common law assistant.

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“The Producers” was a smash hit on Broadway, winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards, so any intended production is going to be an ambitious undertaking, especially for an independent theatre company. This is musical theatre on the grandest of scales with a long running time and cast of over two dozen. Under Gabriella Flowers’ Artistic Direction, Savoyards have produced a polished and professional show. Hannah Crowther’s tight choreography and Sherrly-Lee Secomb’s clever set design work well to establish and quickly transition between scenes while maintaining the show’s essential energy and feel-good factor. Unfortunately, this could not distract from the ongoing sound issues on Opening Night.

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“The Producers” puts the comedy back in musical comedy, with Mel Brooks evident in its every aspect. The show went on to become one of the biggest hits in modern Broadway memory and this production loses none of what made the original such an enormous success. Savoyards’ highly entertaining and thoroughly recommended share of the classic Broadway story is appropriately full of colour and movement, frivolity and funny, funny moments… including a pigeon named Adolf who almost steals the show. As a musically and visually stunning reminder that there is no business like show business, this is one of the best amateur productions around and, as such, should be seen by all who, like Ulla, think if you got it, flaunt it!

Photos c/o –  Christopher Thomas

Bradley’s Becoming Bill

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Sometimes, the experience of musical theatre can be so special as to leave you in want of a thesaurus to do its distinction justice. With its combination of creative talents, “Highlights from Becoming Bill” by Bradley McCaw offers a take-home version of this with its tell of an ordinary family confronting the ghosts from their past as Bill, a first time writer, struggles to write a musical.

Bill is a pretty decent guy. When he gets a phone call from a theatre company asking him to write a new musical for an upcoming season, he struggles to find any inspiration before deciding to base it upon his real life and family. As Bill searches for something ‘interesting’ about which to write, he discovers their lives are not as simple and dull as they first appeared.

Recorded in three studios around the country, the new musical theatre record features contributions from some of Australia’s finest performers: Peter Cousens, Natalie O’Donnell, Kathryn McIntyre, Tom Oliver and Bradley McCaw in its varied melodic diet. From the sweet melody of ‘Are You Happy?’ by Natalie O’Donnell (soon to be seen in “Mamma Mia”), with a piano accompaniment to savour, to the poignant drama of a reflective ‘Mother and Son’ by Kathryn McIntyre (of “Ladies in Black”), each number allows for a conviction of delivery in enhance of narrative elements.

And when the ‘stage’ is shared, such as in former Ten Tenor McCaw and McIntyre’s touching, lingering duet, ‘Maybe We’ve Reached it All’, the result is quite glorious in its blend of voices. Indeed, the song is neither too earnest or exposition heavy, yet still manages to carry an emotional punch as its characters determine with haunting lyricism, if they ‘should try again’. In particular, McIntyre’s contribution to the record, shows her immense musical talent, especially in ‘Let’s Not Have This Fight’ (all right?), a compelling upbeat number that soars as a standout, in that “Wicked” type way, thanks also to the personality of McCaw’s ​piano accompaniment.

​After seven years of development, art appears to be imitating life; “Becoming Bill” reflects a true time in this emerging artists life, when McCaw was asked to write a musical (his first foray in the area), “Becoming Bill”, which won the 2016 New Musicals Australia Snapshot Award. The production of a musical soundtrack is an art form itself. And in the case of “Highlights from Becoming Bill” the musical compositions allow us to soar along with their talented performers, in that goosebumpy type way. The record will be released nationally later this year but for now can be purchased via www.bradleymccaw.com. If you are the kind of person who sometimes posts musical theatre memes on your Facebook feed (#guilty), then this is the sort of not-so-guilty pleasure you will love.

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Boots and all

Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel by special arrangement with Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig in association with Cameron Mackintosh)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

August 22 – October 22

“Kinky Boots” is a model of the modern major musical… spirited, triumphant and touching, with a stirring message regarding equal rights, identity and acceptance, that both advocates and stands as evidence of creativity as change agent. As such, the Tony Award winning musical brings Broadway to Brisbane boots and all with a superb cast and soaring score … and the result is simply sensational!

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The story, adapted from 2005 movie (itself based on a true story), takes places in a British working class setting not unlike that of “Billy Elliot”. To workers in the long-established Northampton, England shoe factory Price & Son, a shoe is (according to the show’s opening number) ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’. But business is failing when, as the fourth-generation ‘son’ in the business, Charlie Price (Toby Francis) finds himself recalled from a new life in London after his father’s death.

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As the factory’s now insecure owner, Charlie tries to live up to his father’s legacy, but is almost ready to accept defeat, until a chance meeting with drag queen Lola (Callum Francis), reveals a niche market that could save the factory… kinky boots for women who just happen to be men, beginning with a custom pair of red (not burgundy) ones for Lola herself because whatever Lola wants, Lola is likely to get. As Charlie and Lola work to bring the factor back from the brink of bankruptcy, the unlikely duo discover that they have more in common than they thought. As such, the show become more than just a formulaic story of underdog triumph, as it celebrates friendship, love and self-belief.

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Helping cement the sentiment at show’s heart is Cyndi Lauper’s award winning score, which moves the narrative along while also capturing the story’s emotional extremes. Tapestried together, the range of songs work wonderfully. Highlights include the electric disco anthem ‘Sex is in the Heel’, performed by drag club headliner Lola and her backup ‘angels’ troupe of drag dancers as they try to explain the importance of sex appeal to Charlie and his factory workers, and the touching ballad, ‘I’m Not My Father’s Son’. The emotionally, affecting duet sees Lola (with introduction of her birth name Simon) lament the torment of being his own man and Charlie reflect on his attempt to disassociate himself from his father’s legacy, highlighting the similarities of the characters’ complex feelings and also the chemistry between the two leads.

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Callum Francis is outstanding as the unashamedly outrageous, but also quietly vulnerable, Lola and it is easy to understand his win of the 2017 Helpman Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Not only does his dynamic performance engender an immediate rapport with the audience but his powerhouse vocals are absolutely on-point. Toby Francis, is charming as Charlie, the everyman alongside effervescent Lola. His vocals add lovely layers to ballads and upbeat numbers alike, making songs like Act Two’s ‘Soul of a Man’, in which he struggles with the weight of his father’s legacy, at-once heartfelt and powerful. There is plenty of comedy too, not just through Lola’s sassy comebacks but from Sophie Wright’s nuanced performance as feisty factory worker Lauren who longs for Charlie’s love. And her ‘The History of Wrong Guys’ number is perfect in its exploit of every comic opportunity.

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Every aspect of “Kinky Boots” is on-point. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design easily transforms the stage from industrial factory to the fabulous, flamboyant land of Lola, allowing for full appreciation of Jerry Mitchell’s inventive choreography. And John Shivers’ sound design ensure that its musical theatre and pop soundtrack blend seamlessly.

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As co-creator Harvey Fierstein has said, “Kinky Boots” is a joyous show, sure to leave you overwhelmed with happiness. Not only is there lots of colour and movement, but an overarching, uplifting message about how you can change the world if you change your mind, realised in the rousing full company finale, ‘Raise You Up/Just Be’ when the factory’s collection of boots hits the runway in Milan. Indeed, its drama, humour and pathos make it big-hearted entertainment of the highest calibre, making it a force of nature, not to be missed.

Photos c/o – Matthew Murphy

Guilty pleasure pop

The Bodyguard The Musical (John Frost, Michael Harrison and David Ian)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 19 – August 13

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“The Bodyguard The Musical” begins with a bang… literally… with gunshots and a full production number of lasers, lights and flame projections as superstar Rachel Marron (Paulini Curuenavuli of Australian Idol fame in her musical theatre debut) rocks out ‘Queen of the Night’. The melodramatic story then (more or less) follows its source material, the 1992 Warner Bros film starring Whitney Houston as the pop diva and Kevin Cosner as former Secret Service agent Frank Farmer, the reluctant bodyguard brought in to protect her (and later falling into a relationship with her) when an obsessive stalker starts making threats.

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The movie spawned one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time and it is upon this merit that the musical relies, ebbing and flowing through upbeat numbers and ballads alike. Unlike “Dirty Dancing”, this screen-to-stage adaptation does not attempt to provide an on-stage carbon copy of the film. The original screenplay has been significantly reduced to make space for more of Whitney Houston’s back-catalogue. This makes for unsatisfying narrative, but also a pleasing live experience, packed with pop classics, including from the contribution of Prinnie Stevens as Rachel’s jealous, overlooked sister Nicki, whose impressive vocals make ‘Saving All My Love For You’ a highlight.

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Humour comes courtesy of added scenes such as one set in a karaoke bar where a trio of tipsy girls sing their way through Houston’s ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go?’ before unsuspectingly hearing it from Rachel Marron herself. It also provides opportunity for soap star Kip Gamblin to contribute more but a commanding presence to his bodyguard role, as he reluctantly delivers a deliberately pitch-poor (and very funny) ‘I Will Always Love You’.

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Curuenavuli is no Whitney Houston, and she’s clearly more singer than actor (especially with addition of American accent), but vocally she more than does justice to the central role. She is blistering in performance of Houston power ballads like ‘I Have Nothing’ and her delivery of the soundtrack’s carrier soul ballad ‘I Will Always Love You’ is flawless, beginning with goosebumpy a cappella introduction before soaring (literally) into the chorus.

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As stage musicals go “The Bodyguard The Musical” has its share of flaws in staging, pacing and acting performance. And its wafer-thin script is full of clichés. But still it serves as the guiltiest of pleasures, particularly in moments like a club performance scene mash-up of ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ and ‘So Emotional’. And when the ensemble has audience members on their feet for an encore ‘I Wanna Dance’ reprise, it is a sing-along that carries out into the foyer post-show. Indeed, the main reason to see the “The Bodyguard The Musical” is its score, both of songs from the 1992 movie and Houston’s extensive pop catalogue.

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PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.

Burke Street brothers and brides

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Queensland Conservatorium – Performing Arts)

Burke Street Studio Theatre

May 6 – 13

The Queensland Conservatorium’s Burke Street Studio in Woolloongabba is not a great theatre location; the parking is terrible and it is an uncomfortable place to have to wait until the audience’s last minute entrance into the theatre is allowed. However, in the case of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” it all becomes worth it upon entry and hear of the preshow fiddling of its familiar soundtrack of songs.

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Presented by its 2nd Year students, this is an imagining true to its 1954 movie musical (and then much later Broadway show) roots. The plot is an adaptation of the short story “The Sobbin’ Women” parody of the Ancient Roman legend “The Rape of the Sabine Women” (rape meaning abduction). And, as stories, go it is pretty absurd (as most musical plots are). In 1850s Oregon Territory, a determined Adam Pontipee travels from his backwoods ‘bear country’ home to find a bride in the lower township, returning with new and unsuspecting wife Millie to the six rowdy younger brothers for whom his has cared since his parents’ passing. Although initially miffed at Adam’s oversight in non-mention of the brood awaiting their return, declaring that she is nobody’s slave, Millie soon bonds with her husband and takes it upon herself to civilise the unruly mob of men towards finding brides of their own. This become complicated, however, when the overenthusiastic brothers decide to kidnap their own brides from their families and beaus in the town.

This is show that is all about its music with a plot crafted to create situations to call characters into song and in which plot and character development occurs courtesy of its choreography and songs. And musically, it is excellent, thanks to the efforts of its skilled orchestra, anchored by Musical Director Trevor Jones on keys. Vocals come together well too, supported by some wonderful harmonies from the ensemble. From the rotating roles of its cast, Clayton Turner and Paige McKay are particularly excellent as an initial Adam and Millie pairing, with vocals that are of great compliment in numbers such as ‘Love Never Goes Away’. Indeed, as the spunky Millie with a store full of dreams, McKay is superb. She hits every note with ease, and the power behind her voice brings a strong-willed femininity to even the lighter moments of songs like ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’.

It is not all mournful lamentation, however, with comedy coming courtesy of the brothers’ own interactions and reluctant acceptance of their new sister-in-law. And Act One numbers like when Millie gives the brothers ‘a little feminine advice’ about ‘things you gotta know’ about how to court girls in ‘Goin’ Courtin’ and when, in ‘Sobbin’ Women’, Adam, realising that all the brothers are in love, tells them to follow the example in one of Milly’s books and do ‘like the Romans did with the Sabine Women’ and just take the girls (and a preacher to marry them).

While the lead performances are impressive, the choreography is by far the highlight of the show. Simple staging and practical set pieces make for swift transitions, but the small stage can become easily crowded in ensemble numbers like the final full company shotgun wedding number, ‘Wedding Dance’. Act One, however, is where most of the highlights occur. The spirit at the idiosyncratic heart of the musical is captured to perfection in the scene during which, at a town social, the brothers and girls’ town suitors square off in a rousing challenge dance which ends in a brawl and the brothers’ banishment from the town. There is so much to look at as nimble choreography is executed with energetic high kicks and scissoring legs.

To present a well-known and widely beloved musical such as “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is certainly an ambitious undertaking and one, which, in this instance, is well-realised in its mindfulness of the story’s boisterous comedy and sense of fun. Those who love the movie will have their feelings cemented, while those unfamiliar will probably still leave with at least one song in their head, as is always the resonance of a great musical experience.