Happy housewifery

The Real Housewives of Brisbane

Brisbane Arts Theatre

June 24 – August 6

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Joanne (Jessica Meyer), Gillian (Babette Bellini), Lulu (Hayley Fielding), Beezus (Elizabeth Horrowitz) and Penny (Lauren Evans) are the equally loved and feared glamourous Real Housewives of Brisbane. One by one they introduce themselves at the start of the Brisbane Arts Theatre musical of the same name, in parody of the US media franchise of shows that document the lives of a city’s affluent housewives. In the true tradition of the franchise, one day the women are besties, the next day, enemies. And they all have secrets, beyond just their ages and details of their cosmetic works.

The story starts with the group taking time out of their brunching and ladies-lunching lives, to gather at on-the-outs housewife Poppy’s final soiree. The funeral home doesn’t only serve as the perfect selfie backdrop (#amen) but also the location of Poppy’s beyond-the-grave decree that Joanne is the new head housewife. Though the most senior of the ladies, Beezus is shocked, Joanne is not surprised at all; her life is so amazing that even she’s jealous of it.

The resulting narrative unfolds with authentic nods to the motifs of the guilty-pleasure genre that trashbaggery tv tragics will appreciate. On-screen snippets of interview/confessional moments punctuate the on-stage action to assist in transition between scenes and add an appreciated touch through their Brisbane scene backdrops to the ladies who are, of course, always plugging a latest endorsed product of the ‘face yoga mat’ sort. These form an integral component of the reality genre and therefore a necessary part of the storytelling process, however, once the backstory of the ladies’ complicated relationships, both within the group and with others, is shared, things move from the tv show structure to a narrative of its own making, albeit with some recognisable plot lines such as when, like Teresa from “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” a Brisbane housewife and her husband are charged with fraud. Not only that, but there is the intrigue of infidelity and a rat in the ranks of the group, spilling their sex, lies and secret lives online.

Musically, the show is a mixed bag. The irreverence of songs with lyrics like “we tuck and then we nip… sometimes we skinny dip” suits the show’s fun feel, but, ensemble songs like ‘Bully Them Back’, as well Act One’s introductory number, fail to realise their potential due to a lack of collective vocal power. In solo numbers, there are some celebratory moments; Jessica Meyer finishes Act One strongly with sing of the tragedy of her life and, after intermission, Elizabeth Best delivers a strong, jazzy number to open Act Two to her fundraising charity Bitch Ball for deaf dogs.

“The Real Housewives of Brisbane” is full of funny moments and, of the ladies, Elizabeth Best is a standout as the straight-faced, cynical housewife-elder Beezus. In character contrast as Lulu, Hayley Fielding is also dramatically very good in conveying the cavalier ‘new-nose, new-you’ attitude of the always-medicated, newly-divorced housewife Lulu.

It is the supporting cast who are given the most to work with in terms of character though, and Reagan Warner and James Burton make a meal of even the smallest of comic opportunities. Proving his versatility, Warner goes from playing John Proctor in the theatre’s recent “The Crucible” production to becoming, amongst other things, a funeral director, apathetic shoe store worker, Moroccan spiritualist (because every Real Housewives season has a sun and fun vacation trip away) and most memorably an over-the-top fitness instructor leading an absolutely hilarious bouncing ball routine as a show highlight. Burton is similarly very funny in his various roles, particularly in show of lap dance boot camp moves as part of sex therapy with his Christian wife Penny, who remains oblivious to his flamboyance. Unfortunately, the men’s characters also showcase the dodgy wigs that seem to be trademark for an Arts Theatre show, though at least in this instance they sort of fit with the stereotypes that populate the parody.

Unfortunately, another staple of Arts Theatre shows seems to be sound issues and opening night of “The Real Housewives of Brisbane” is no exception to this. Indeed, significant sound concerns sometimes detract from overall enjoyment, especially in Act Two where a chunk of time is spent with songs and dialogue shared in competition with crackling audio static.

Although not the slickest of shows, “The Real Housewives of Brisbane” has a tongue-in-cheek appeal that makes it perfect for an easy-to-watch girls night out. It is full of fun and comfortable humour with digs at Ipswich and the Gold Coast, and a cat-fight of course. Like the tv genre it parodies, it is a wonderful guilty pleasure that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is, therefore, recommended as a very happy couple of light-hearted hours.

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The reign of rebel rock

We Will Rock You

Brisbane Arts Theatre

June 2 – July 28

“We Will Rock You” is an ambitious show, especially for an independent theatre company. Yet, despite the accordingly variable talent levels on stage, Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production serves as a treat for classic-rock fans.

The Orwellian-esque dystopian rock musical, which is filled with about two dozen Queen songs, takes place 300 years into the future of earth, now named the iPlanet, controlled by Globalsoft leader Killer Queen (a fabulous Natalie Mead), where everyone dresses, thinks and acts the same, rock is unheard of and all musical instruments have been banned. Enter hero Galileo Figaro (William Toft), who just wants to break free and, after dreaming of a world with rock music, sprouts the lyrics of past songs without knowing their meaning or origin, including the first few lines of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (a device which adds much humour to Ben Elton’s tongue-in-cheek script, before becoming overdone).

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When the rebel is captured by the Killer Queen and her chief crony, Police Commander Kashoggi (Liam McDonnell) he meets the sassy, smartmouthed Scaramouche (Katie Rouston), another rebel thinker who won’t conform to Globalsoft’s ways so is mocked by her peers for just wanting somebody to love. After escaping, they team up with a rebel gang of Bohemians, including Brit (Mackenzie Kelly) and Oz (Row Blackshaw), who are searching for items they think will make a musical instrument.

It is a narrative of convenience to allow for inclusion of feature of some of Queen’s all time biggest hits because, as a jukebox musical, “We Will Rock You” is all about the music and while some members of the ensemble project a lacklustre lack of energy, there are a number of strengths from the lead performers.  William Toft brings an impressive vocal range to Gallileo’s songbook, rocking with bombastic sounds to the famous one-two-three beat of ‘We Will Rock You’, but also offering a soft, soulful touch in uplifting duet with Scaramouche, ‘You’re My Best Friend’. Row Blackshaw, too, is vocally very strong as Oz, but nobody else has the commanding stage presence of Killer Queen Natalie Mead, and not just due to her amazing costume pieces (costume design by Erin Tribble and Frankee Walker). She simply ignites the lyrics of the band’s first international hit, ‘Killer Queen’ with soaring vocals.

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Liam McDonnell gives his dialogue an appealing Riff-Raff-like sinister slink, but is underused in duet with Mead of the funky ‘Another One Bites the Dust’.  Mark Tuohy’s appearance as Buddy Holly, leader of the archeologically-clueless bohemians, whose literal interpretations muddle the mythology of the analogue past’s cherished artefacts, appears all too short. His wistfully reflective delivery of ‘These Are the Days’ equips the ballad with much melancholy, making the audience want to hear more of his smooth vocals.

“We Will Rock You” requires a big musical sound and in this regard the show generally delivers, although some sound issues affect the fluency of transitions. There are lighting lapses too, like missed spotlights and combining stage lighting with shine-out to audience during moments of musical emphasis which seems a little amateurish.

“We Will Rock You” has always been an audience favourite, since it opened in London’s West End in 2002 without critical acclaim. It’s certainly contrived and overlong, but still an enjoyable night out in either reminiscence of or introduction to the many beautifully crafted and unapologetically bombastic songs of the iconic four-piece hard rock band, even if the show has moved its setting to the USA and, accordingly, worship of Elvis rather than Queen lead singer and flamboyant showman Freddie Mercury as messiah. Indeed, as audience members clap, swap and sing along, it is clear that Queen’s kind of magic still reigns for many.

Bursting Bare

Bare (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 24 – June 3

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Understudy Production’s “Bare” is one of those much-buzzed-about shows whose run has been pretty-much sold out since before its opening night, and so its packed audience is filled with anticipation. Thankfully, it is an expectation that is realised in a slick production bursting with talent.

Since the pop-opera debuted in Los Angeles in 2000, before its 2004 off-Broadway production, it has become a contemporary cult classic. Its shades of “Holding The Man” story is of star-crossed lovers Peter (Shaun Kohlman), who is preparing to come out to his mother (Jenny Woodward), and resident golden boy Jason (Jason Bentley), who desperately wants to keep their attraction secret. The boys are among Catholic boarding school students rehearsing for a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while struggling with their own ideas around religion, sexuality and identity. So emotions are running high when the boys’ romance gradually comes to light (finding echoes in the drama club’s production) not just for the boys themselves but those around them, including Jason’s sharp-tonged and self-deprecating sister Nadia (Sarah Whalen) and the popular Ivy (Jordan Malone) who has been cast as Juliet to Jason’s Romeo in the play, but whose feelings transcend the stage.

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The show is, indeed, an emotional one of much light and shade. Act One explores the characters and the cast connect well with each other, however, Act Two is the standout as it takes a heartbreaking turn thanks to the consummate performances of the cast’s principle players. Kohlman brings depth and emotional range to the vulnerable Peter. He not only has tears running down his cheeks at times, but evokes them in audience member eyes also in response to the show’s tragic final moments. And Bentley has a strong stage presence as the popular athlete Jason who fears losing his family and status. His charisma effectively conveys not only Jason’s natural charm, but his complexity, making him difficult to dislike despite his poor decisions and treatment of the tender Peter. Malone gives a strong but tender performance as the troubled Ivy, who has her sights set on Jason, at her best in ballads such as ‘All Grown Up, which vocally capture her heartbreak.

Also of note is Sarah Whalen whose perfect comic timing makes Jason’s outspoken sister Nadia’s biting wit, hilarious in its tell-it-as-it-is put-downs of Ivy for her pursuit of her brother. And Melissa Western is superb as the school’s sassy, no-nonsense drama teacher, Sister Chantelle, who also appears to an intoxicated Peter as a vision of the Virgin Mary, complete with backup Angels, to sing a funky gospel number about how he needs to come out to his mother (‘911 Emergency’).

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There are no weak links among ensemble performances either. Fresh from his run as Collins in “Rent”, James Shaw is committed in his performance of the Priest’s Old Testament judgment and makes his Act Two song ‘Cross’, during which, at confession, he advises Jason to deny his natural feelings, vocally very strong. And Maddison McDonald and Trent Owers are delightfully authentic in their moments on stage as the frisky teens with attitude.

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The show’s sung-through score features a variety of melodies, from rock numbers to soaring ballads and even a rap about rave drugs (‘Wonderland’), and, accordingly, it is easy to appreciate its sometimes-description as the artistic child of “Rent”. The band is excellent throughout. In Act One, in particular, Musical Director Luke Volker creates a solid rock sound, while when souls are bared in Act Two, with Jason struggling through his problems with Ivy (‘Touch My Soul’) and Peter deciding to come out to his mother (‘See Me’), musical moments are softened with some exquisite string sounds courtesy of cellist Kate Robinson.

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The musical pace, is, however, relentless. With 36 numbers in total, it becomes difficult to recall standouts beyond sassy Sister Chantelle’s belting ‘God Don’t Make No Trash’ during which she shows intuitive sensitivity and New Testament compassion to calm Peter’s fears of losing his great love. Aside from the final number ‘No Voice’ which represents a beautiful combine of ensemble voices, it is the solo numbers in this production that are most affecting, beginning with duet between Peter and his mother which features as a turning point in the show’s tone, given its raw emotion.

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The complex conversations set to music in many of the show’s numbers give their words an appealing honesty and the integration of Shakespearean prose as lyrics adds another, wonderful layer to an already impressive aesthetic. Versatile use is made of the Visy Theatre space, with a stained glass backdrop and benches shaped together as a cross, not only achieving an intimacy in spite of its large cast, but reminding that religion is always present. And the choreography is excellent, making the relatively small stage seem anything but, yet never impinging of the enthusiastic energy of ensemble rock numbers. Only some missed microphone cues clunk up an otherwise perfectly polished, professional production.

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“Bare” is no breezy musical experience. Its weighty subject matter of turmoil and moral hypocrisy amidst the breakdown of institutions like religion, education and the family make for an emotionally charged, tension-filled story. The pop-rock chronicle of ill-fated gay love at a co-ed Roman Catholic boarding school may be an ambitious undertaking, but it is an aspiration resolutely realised.

As an important piece in its portrayal of those still struggling to be heard even in today’s yes-vote world, it is perfect for inclusion in the Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture. The honest and real story of teenage love and loss confirms Understudy Productions not just as a rising star, but a company with a prominent place in the Brisbane theatre scene, and, as such, should not be missed.

’50s fab

Billy Buckett – A Rock and Roll Love Story (Footlights Theatrical Inc)

Logan Entertainment Centre

May 16 – 19

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It’s post-war Britain and Mr Cool, Billy Buckett (Stephen Dorrington) is rocking more than just his double denim look as lead singer of the small-town rock ‘n’ roll band, The Asteroids; the young singer/songwriter dreams of fame, fortune and mass adoration with his trusty old guitar Lizzy by his side. That is until he meets and falls in love with Jan (played with considerable charm by Lauren Lee Innis-Youren), who longs to break away from her over protective father Arthur (Ian Maurice). Drama arises when the young lovers are torn apart and fame sees Billy’s long-held dreams coming true. This is the story of “Billie Buckett”, an original 1950s inspired musical by Jay Turner, whose big sounds are like those of a jukebox musical, but of an era rather than a musical act… an era when, for example, it was ok to sing of how ‘A Girl is Like a Car’.

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The show is jam-packed with original musical numbers that reflect the time when Britain was feeling the impact of American rock and roll and establishing its own popular music culture in lead-up to the British Invasion cultural phenomenon of the mid-1960s. While they are tuneful and melodic, however, the 20 musical numbers could be edited down a little in number to allow more opportunity for the most memorable ones to resonate; some especially early songs seem superfluous as rather than playing a role in how the story is told and moving the plot forward, they serve instead to reinforce character aspects already revealed or setup late reprises. While this gives all of the primary characters a song of their own, a few less numbers could also allow for more audience investment in the emotional core of the story through the main couple’s swift love story.

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The largely rockabilly style soundtrack hits its straps though by midway through Act One with the sentimental and romantic ‘Tender is the Night’ with Dorrington and Innis-Youren in duet. Indeed, while the songs all showcase the different sounds of the ‘50s era, it is the slower, more wistful numbers that work the best. Allison Nipperess, who stars as Jan’s visiting friend Maureen is another particularly strong vocalist, as showcased in her ‘Feather on the Wind’ solo, sung in surprise of her feelings for mechanic Big Ted (Douglas Rumble). Unfortunately, though, shifting sound levels feedback and missed mic cues plague many early scenes and at times some songs’ lyrics are difficult to decipher underneath the loud live band’s (particularly percussion) sounds. But in contrast, there are some impressive ensemble production numbers as the show progresses.

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There are also many clever moments at the core of the show’s spirited heart. Punny humour peppers Act One and Sammy Gee as Brian and Jermia Turner as Shirley, are excellent in the exaggerated comedy of their character roles. And kudos must go to the entire cast for their varied but equally spot-on English accents. Dorrington and Innis-Youren shine as central couple Billy and Jan. Their vocals and characterisation are spot-on in the pivotal roles. Innis-Youren, in particular, has an era-evocative voice that is flawlessly showcased in Act Two’s opening number ‘Mr Cool’, in which an isolated Jan shares her steadfast faith in Billy.

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Supporting cast members offer some appropriately understated performances too. In particular, as Jan’s mother Helen, Linda Hall is wonderful as a woman being torn between loyalty to the grand plans of her self-made businessman husband and desire to see her daughter’s dreams of happiness fulfilled. And Allison Nipperess is splendid as the strong-willed, free-spirited biker Maureen, particularly in strut about the stage in leather pants and jacket.

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Costumes are evocative of the era, which adds to the colour and movement of the work and complex choreography enhances ensemble numbers like ‘Restless’, which tells of how there is nothing to do in the town. Staging also works well to show off the accomplished live band.

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In a landscape that often seems dominated by West End and Broadway blockbusters, leaving little room for new works to break through, “Billy Buckett” stands tall as a show that could. After its previous sold out seasons and acclaim, it is brilliant to have it bringing its ‘50s fabulousness back in what is mostly a reunion of its earlier cast and creatives. While, like most musicals, it has its plot holes and the preview that reviewers were invited to consider was not the show at is best, the work is clearly full of heart in its capture of the character of its era, easily drawing audiences into it energetic, entertaining world.

Photos c/o – Vincent Swift

Rent rejoice

Rent (Matt Ward Entertainment)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 2 – 20

You might not be able to buy love, but you can Rent it. I discovered this 22 years ago when I saw Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock musical “Rent” on Broadway, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and received four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. As a self-confessed Renthead, I not only know the soundtrack by sing-a-long heart, but have now been fortunate enough to see over half a dozen different productions. And compatibility speaking, Matt Ward Entertainment’s 2018 realisation, is right up there with the best, which is particularly impressive given the theatre company’s emerging status.

The high energy take on the modern bohemian classic packs a musical punch. In fact, it is always about the music, which barely breaks during the show’s duration. The entire musical is brilliantly performed by a live band that is showcased from within the scaffolding that helps set the scene of Bohemian life in the East Village’s Alphabet City. With a song range that includes soul, techno, Latin and gospel, there is an eclectic mix of styles, yet the soundtrack sounds smooth and succeeds in evoking a range of emotions. When the entire cast communes on stage for the slower, signature Act Two opener, ‘Seasons of Love’ to ask what the proper way is to quantify the value of a year in human life, for example, one cannot help but both rejoice in their harmony but also reflect on Larson’s passing following the show’s off-Broadway final dress rehearsal.

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Appropriately, the show begins musically too, with lone musician Roger (Luigi Lucente) sitting atop a table, playing his electric guitar. Even without conventional theatrical elements, the audience is immediately absorbed in the show’s whirlwind of raw emotion. It is not just Roger’s story, but one of a tight-knit group of complex characters, impoverished young artists living in New York City’s East Village in the late ‘80s, based on Puccini’s beloved opera “La Bohème”. From one Christmas to the next we follow their dreams, losses and loves as they struggle through life under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

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Roger is a grieving HIV-positive rocker. His roommate Mark (Tom Oliver) is a passionate filmmaker dedicated to intimately capturing the pivotal life moments of his closest friends. Together they live in a rundown, unattended warehouse loft owned by their former roommate Benny (Isaac Lindley), whose marriage into money has seen his become not only a budding entrepreneur but their rent collector. Their anarchist College instructor and computer genius friend Collins (James Shaw) is embarking on a new romance with Angel (Trent Owers), a big-hearted drag queen and street drummer who, like Collins, has AIDS.

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Roger fears falling in love with Mimi (Stephie Da Silva), a spirited exotic dance and drug addict, while Mark still has feelings for his kooky centre-of-attention artist ex Maureen (Ruby Clark) who stages a performance piece, ‘Over The Moon’, to protest Benny’s plans to evict the homeless camp in the empty lot next to the loft. Unfortunately for Mark though, Maureen has left him for Joanne (Kirrah Amosa), a crusading lawyer from a rich family.

Despite the multiple, intersecting storylines, all members of the key cast are given moments to shine and shine they do. Indeed, there are no weak links amongst the entire ensemble cast. Tom Oliver is an endearing Mark in a Johnny Galecki type way. Lucente is an ultimately-passionate Roger and his ‘One Song Glory’ solo rock ballad sing about his dying wish to leave his mark on the world is a sensitive and expressive early show highlight. While Owers is a little breathy in his physically-demanding solo ‘Today 4 U’, his gentleness projects Angel as the sweet soul of the show. And Shaw makes Collins’ Act Two ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise an absolutely heartfelt reminiscence, at-once emotional and commanding. There is phenomenal vocal prowess amongst the ladies too. Da Silva makes easy work of Mimi’s high-energy attempt to seduce Roger alone in his apartment, ‘Out Tonight’ and ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ is a powerful duet between Amosa and Clark during a dramatic breakup between the controlling Joanne and flirty Maureen.

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It is the ensemble numbers, however, that ultimately shine brightest. The optimistic ‘Another Day’, is stirring in its rallying cry to embrace love and live in the moment according to the slogan ‘Forget regret — or life is yours to miss’. There is visual interest in every ensemble number too, with performers fully absorbed in their characters. Owers, for example, is especially nuanced in every glance and movement as Angel, even when as background to centre-stage action.

This is an exciting and passionate production of a ground-breaking work that shows why its rock soundtrack has been a pinnacle of musical theatre history for over two decades. While aspects of its storyline may have dated, many of its themes of homelessness, poverty and substance abuse are still sadly relevant. More importantly still, is its beautiful, overriding message of love enduring beyond all else, which, as this production shows, still stands as central to the narrative for both old and emerging Rentheads to rejoice.

Big-scale storytelling

Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

April 27 – May 19

“Big Fish” may have failed to make a splash on Broadway, closing after three months after proving too expensive and not quite popular enough to sustain a long run, but still, the show represents a huge undertaking for any community theatre. And so Beenleigh’s Phoenix Ensemble deserves only the most superlative of praise for its Queensland premiere production of the show.

The scope of the story is evident from its first ensemble number, the anthemic ‘Be The Hero’ that introduces many of the fantastical characters that audience members may know from Tim Burton’s 2003 film version and the original novel by Daniel Wallace. The motley crew of characters populate travelling salesmen Edward Bloom’s life story … and what an epic, inspirational story it turns out to be.

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Edward Bloom (Nathaniel Currie) has experienced a full and fantastical life, inhabited by witches, mermaids and an apparently friendly giant called Karl (Luke O’Hagan). Our glimpse into it begins on the eve of his journalist son Will’s (sensitively played by Connor Clarke) marriage. Will unsuccessfully begs his father not to make a speech at the ceremony. Whereas once he was entertained by his rarely-there father’s incredible Alabama accounts, now the ever-changing scenarios of how Edward met Will’s mother Sandra (Kellie Ireland) are more maddening than amusing. As a now-adult, Will wants a rational rather than a fantastical account of his father’s life. As he says: “My father talks about a lot of things he never did, and I’m sure he did things he never talks about.” When Edward’s health declines, Will tries to reconcile the fact from fiction of his father’s baffling life and whether he is really a hero of Hicksville, just a big fish in small pond or even indeed a hero at all.

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Currie is wonderful as the roguish protagonist Edward, childlike in his playfulness and generous of spirit despite his self-aggrandising fantasies. Indeed, he is an engaging storytelling, and not just due to his charming southern accent. And his warm vocal tones add wonder, joy and whimsy to his many musical numbers. In perfect balance to his enthusiasm, Ireland is a patient and calm Sandra, adoring of her husband but also the rock in the middle of the father and son’s turbulent relationship. Her vocal prowess is outstanding, especially when showcased in the hauntingly beautiful ballad, ‘I Don’t Need a Roof’. Still, the on-stage magic mostly comes courtesy of scenes shared by the larger-than-life father and straight-laced son duo of Currie and Clarke, both dramatically and musically in numbers like ‘Showdown’ in which they have a Western-style duel and trial for Edward’s lying.

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As a folksy, family-friendly show, “Big Fish – The Musical” is full of heart, which is more-than captured in this joyous realisation thanks to the intimate staging of the Pavilion Theatre’s ‘tin shed’. Director Tammy Sarah Linde moves the story along at a good pace; transitions between flashback scenes and those of the present are seamless and there is light and shade throughout the production with lots of laughs but also an essential romanticism to its stories. And although the narrative ends in celebration of the legacy of Edward’s big life, Act Two is also quite moving, bringing more than a few tears to opening night audience members’ eyes.

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From a technical perspective, opening night was spoiled by some sound issues, however, lighting, is excellent in take of the audience from the depths of a witch’s swamp to the warm of Will’s childhood bedroom. A storybook backdrop adds interest as its pages are turned for changes and it works well as platform for added animation to enhance the production’s realisation of the mythical stories.

The soundtrack represents a montage of styles from the sentimental balladry of ‘Daffodils, in which Edward and Sandra declare their love, to the tap-dance razzle dazzle of ‘Red, White and True’, which is performed as part of a USO show during Edward’s alleged wartime antics. And, as is unfortunately, often not the case, the live band is not only accomplished but plays at a level appropriate to allow for vocalists to be clearly heard.

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Impressive performances pepper the 20+ cast of adults and children. Of particular note, Amos Calloway is a larger than life circus ringmaster, while Emma Whitefield is commanding in her stage presence as the ageless witch, not just because of her standout costume but beguiling vocal performance in Act One’s “I Know What You Want’.

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Storytelling doesn’t get much better than “Big Fish – The Musical”. Although it is far from a perfect musical, with a werewolf, flying fish and even a dancing elephant, the show is full of circus colour, movement and fun for young and old alike. But there is substance to it its sentimentally too. It’s themes about identity about choosing your own adventure are heart-warming, making it both an impressive and a memorable theatre experience.

Alien nation angst

American Idiot (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 13 – 21

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I’m not a huge Green Day fan. Even so, this did not stop my enjoyment of the band’s high octane rock opera, “American Idiot”. The energy is infectious from the moment the sung-through stage adaptation of the punk rock band’s seventh studio album screams to an explosive start with its powerful, catchy title track of angsty frustration shares the experience of a group of suburban youths unhappily living mind-numbing, aimless existences in the Alien Nation’s Jingletown USA.

The onstage band is brilliant in contribution to the show’s rock concert sensibility. Dialogue is limited and there is barely any break in the music. As someone unfamiliar with the majority of the lyrics, it would be been helpful to have been able to follow more than just the choruses of the rapid-fire numbers that suffered under their booming musical accompaniments. Still, the narrative can be followed easily enough with numbers like the mammoth anti-war power ballad ‘21 Guns’ providing some light and shade respite.

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Like a rocking “Rent”, “American Idiot” has at its heart, a simple story of friendship. In this case, the story, expanded from that of the “American Idiot” concept album, is of three disillusioned and dissatisfied boyhood best mates, Johnny (Ben Bennett), Tunny (Connor Crawford) and Will (Alex Jeans) who are searching for meaning in a post 9/11, now Trump-era, America. Sick of life in the suburbs, self-proclaimed ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ Johnny flees with Tunny, while Will remains with his pregnant girlfriend. Tunny quickly gives up on life in the city, joins the military to be sent off to war, while the adolescent anti-hero Johnny turns to drugs and experiences lost love with Whatsername (Phoebe Panaretos in reprise of the role that earned her a Helpmann nomination last year).

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As narratives go, it isn’t a particularly complex one. However, the show’s spectacle is not in its story so much as it’s hyper-real realisation. Craig Wilkinson’s video design is amongst the best even seen on the Brisbane stage, bringing the show’s songlist to life with projections of everything from graffiti to weather and elevating songs like ‘Holiday’ which shares Johnny’s city-experience high and its bleak and sombre hangover ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, in which he wanders the city alone, to amongst the most memorable of the show’s earlier numbers. Choreography is dynamic, staging is simple and functional in its unclaustrophobic clutter and costumes represent the subculture with a grunge 101 checklist of leather, plaid, tank tops, band t-shirts, denim and chunky combat boots.

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Numbers are not always high-energy; the beautifully melancholic ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ is a wonderful showcase of the male talent of stage. The knockout numbers, however, come from the ladies. As Johnny’s rebellious, destructive alter ego St Jimmy, triple Aria Award Winner Sarah McLeod of Australian rock band The Superjesus (who is playing the role in rotation with other Aussie rock legends Phil Jamieson of Grinspoon and Adalita of Magic Dirt) is a commanding presence every time she steps on stage. Not only does she look the rock-chic part with platinum blonde highlights, smoky eyeliner for days, a killer pair of boots and all sorts of attitude, but her powerhouse vocals in ‘St Jimmy’, during which Johnny injects heroin for the first time, are flawless. And as a frightened and fed-up Whatsername, Phoebe Panaretos is blistering in ‘Letterbomb’ during which she shatters Johnny’s illusions in attempt to bring him to maturity.

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Despite its tight 90-minute duration, the show is filled with musical highlights such as its final number ‘‘Whatsername’ which literally reverberates through the audience as one year later, Johnny laments that he lost the love of his life, but looks towards a hopeful future of acceptance. Although we all probably wanted to hear ‘(Good Riddance) Time of Your Life’, even as encore, the inclusion of the high-school graduation staple seems to be awkward one at odds with the feel of the show’s infectious energy.

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Without intermission, “American Idiot” hurdles forth at an in-your-face unrelenting pace. It is not a jukebox musical but a pop-punk rock opera. Not only does it demand your attention musically, but it takes you along a ride of rebelliousness, resolve and reflection. Indeed, its versatile Green Day soundtrack offers much to contemplate through its a damning message about American values and mass media orchestrated public paranoia, brought to epic life in this highly-polished, politically-charged production. But as a musical for a younger generation, it abounds with foul language and also drugs-and-sex-references so is not for the easily offended.