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.

Grease is still the word

Grease – The Arena Experience (Harvest Rain Theatre Company)

Brisbane Convention Centre

April 7 – 9

Thanks to the 1978 cult classic movie, “Grease” is a show with which audiences have an intimately familiar relationship. So staging a musical version for Australian audiences is a pretty safe bet. Even so, in its Arena Experience, Harvest Rain Theatre Company does not rest on its laurels, combining nostalgia and freshness to show how Grease is still the word.

For those few who don’t know how the story goes, usually cool-cat Danny (Drew Weston) and goody-goody Sandy (Meghan O’Shea) enjoy a whirlwind summer holiday romance, expecting to never see each other again…. until they both start their Senior year at Rydell High, a school comprised of cliques like the T-Birds and Pink Ladies.

As a musical, it is a challenge to stage, especially in an expansive arena; musical numbers emerge from character dreams and desires so the between-song scenes are needed to advance the narrative. With limited props and backdrops (although the size of the arena stage does allow for appearance of Kenickie’s restored ‘Greased Lightning’ car), it becomes the job of costumes and lighting to set the scenes of 1950s American in all its rock and roll glory. And in this regard the production delivers, with colour and movement aplenty thanks to its youth ensemble cast of over 800 performers, which makes numbers likes like ‘Greased Lightning’ (minus the usual peppering of profanities) a spectacular salute to the hot rod’s promised joy.

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‘Shaking at the Highschool Hop’, too, is an irresistible Act Two opener, as the hundreds of teenagers fill a space bigger than a school gymnasium. Indeed, it is scenes such as this and ‘Born to Hand Jive’ that showcase the production’s tight choreography as the mass ensemble join in the complicated pattern of hand moves and claps with impressive synchronicity.

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Certainly, the most durable and iconic part of “Grease” is the music and its appeal in this regard is obvious from the outset with some audience members singling along to its famous soundtrack from start to finish. After a shaky vocal start with ‘Grease is the Word’, ‘Summer Loving’ soars thanks to O’Shea and Weston’s vibrant vocals. The two are both versatile vocalists and O’Shea’s delivery of ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ is appropriately angelic. Also of strong voice is Ruby Clark as the feisty Pink Ladies leader, bad-girl (Betty) Rizzo, especially in her mockery of the wholesome Sandy in ‘Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee’.

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The most memorable musical numbers, vocally speaking, are of the jukebox musical type that were absent from the film version, such as ‘Those Magic Changes’, ‘Mooning’ and when at Marty’s (Emily Monsma) pyjama party, she tells of a long-distance courtship with a Marine in ‘Freddy My Love’. But it is Dami Im’s ‘Beauty School Dropout’ that is the absolute highlight. In her first musical theatre role, as Teen Angel, Im owns the stage as she delivers the advice to Frenchy about her next move in life, mesmerising the audience in a way that exemplifies all that there is to love about musical theatre. In terms of individual performances, however, apart from Weston’s Danny swagger and O’Shea’s girl-next-doorishness as Sandy, it is difficult to comment beyond vocals as the arena setting (literally) distances the audience from any character connections.

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Messing with a musical theatre classic is a brave move and mostly in this instance, the dialogue tweaks and song reordering, especially adding the movie’s ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ (Olivia Newton-John’s contractually-entitled vocal solo) to the musical set-list and moving it from Sandy’s slumber party over her feelings towards Danny, despite his earlier behaviour, to when she is separated from him at the High School dance, works particularly well from a narrative perspective.

Harvest Rain’s “Grease” is a celebration of many of both the movie and musical’s iconic movements, recreated and wrapped in neon to both celebrate and invigorate them in a fresh and exciting way. Its celebration of the sprint of the show is not only nostalgic, but entertaining, ensuring an infectiously good time on stage and in the stalls alike.

Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey

Loverly lady acclaim

My Fair Lady (Opera Australia and John Frost)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 19 – April 30

Since its 1956 Broadway debut to critical acclaim, Lerner and Loewe’s musical theatre classic, “My Fair Lady” has captured audience imaginations through a popular film version and numerous revivals, including the 60th anniversary production collaboration between the Frost company and Opera Australia, directed by its original Broadway (and later London) star, Dame Julie Andrews. And it is entirely appropriate that opening night of the oft-described perfect musical is met by applause of acclamation, not only in recognition of Andrews’ entry into the Lyric Theatre but as a deserving final ovation.

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Based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion”, the beloved musical tells the tale of a Cockney Covent Garden flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Anna O’Byrne) who takes speech lessons from the brilliant but demanding phoneticist Henry Higgins (Charles Edwards) so that she may pass as a lady fit to work in a flower shop and be presentable in the high society of Edwardian London. The culture clash leads to much witty dialogue; indeed, under Andrews’ direction the production elicits much humour in what is a faithful reconstruction of the original, drawing on elements of the original set designs and costumes.

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There is an immaculate attention to detail in the show’s aesthetics, including an impressive symmetry between Cecil Beaton’s costumes and Oliver Smith’s sensational set of revolves, high ceilings and delicately painted backdrops the add depth and detail. From the beauty of the black and white Ascot scene where characters have the poise of Parisian boutique mannequins thanks to Christopher Gattelli’s impeccable choreography, to the pretty pastels of the Embassy Ball which serves as Eliza’s introduction to proper society, everything is superb. Authenticity to the original means more curtain closes and set change blackouts than what is now the norm, which slows things down, however, when the stage is transformed for the ball scene before audience eyes, it is a moment worthy of the resulting applause.

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The show also features an absolutely stellar cast. O’Byrne easily takes Eliza from squawking squashed cabbage leaf to being stylish and smart as paint, capturing with equal aplomb both her cockney and later polished accents and showing a charisma and flair for comedy as the only person who cheers on a horse at Ascot, becoming fully engulfed in the hysteria of the race.

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Edwards makes the snobbish academic Higgins’s disinterest in people almost endearing as the bumbling, ineffectual romantic lead delivers many a foot-in-mouth moment in his obvious inexperience with women. And equally impressive are the supporting cast which includes the legendary Reg Livermore as Eliza’s dustman father, Tony Llewellen-Jones as the compassionate Colonel Pickering, with whom Higgens makes bet that he can transform Eliza and grand dame of Australian theatre Robyn Nevin as Higgens’ mother, at once composed and comical in her astute advice to her son.

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Also of merit is the orchestration the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, under musical theatre maestro Guy Simpson, which anchors the production, setting the scene from the opening minutes of the overture and continuing in creation of a sense of nostalgia through its diverse range of tunes.

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There is a vaudevillian appeal to many numbers, including Livermore’s completely cockney ‘With a Little Bit o’ Luck’, long for a lack of responsibility. And when he leads the ensemble in ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’ as plea to his friends not to let his drunken merriment affect his need to be prompt to his own wedding, it is one of the show’s standout numbers, joyous in its full scale celebration of song and dance.

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O’Byrne is also expert in delivery of her eclectic numbers, from the feisty frustration of ‘Just You Wait’, in which she dreams of different ways to kill Higgins, from sickness to drowning to a firing squad, to the glorious soar of ‘I Could Have Dance All Night’, which showcases her operatically trained soprano sound as Eliza floats ahigh after a major breakthrough in her linguistics lessons. And Mark Vincent’s moving, emotional declaration of love to Eliza as socialite suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill is captivating in the simplicity of its splendour.

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Everything about the show is absolutely loverly (as Eliza would say) and although it is long, this “My Fair Lady” is a first-rate revival, sure to engage long-time and fresh fans alike with its charming comedy, stunning aesthetics and masterful musicality. And it is certainly easy to understand how in its opening Australian season the production sold more tickets than any other in the history of the Sydney Opera House.

Photos c/o – Jeff Busby

Jurassic jumble

Jurassic Park The Musical

Brisbane Arts Theatre

January 29 – April 24

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The performance you are about to witness is unofficial, unauthorised and not at all like the 1993 film, a start-of-show “Jurassic Park The Musical” announcement declares. Regardless, like its movie muse the show begins with a mosquito. From there, however, things detour from the specifics of the science-fiction adventure film, to delightful comedic effect.

The production is a witty parody of the film, featuring classic scenes being brought to life through song, choreography, and a chorus made up of singing dinosaurs…. That’s right; the dinosaurs sing, dance and fight (which is a hilarious spectacle in itself given how tiny the T-Rex’s arms are). There is even a Bob Fosse inspired routine to the song, ‘Its Vision is Based on Movement’. Although there are perhaps not as many numbers as a typical musical, this is probably a good thing as (despite the band’s decent job) while together performer’s voices harmonise quite well in ensemble numbers like ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park’, individually their vocals are inconsistent in range from its first screechy song about dna, unhelped by a lack of consistency in in microphone levels.

The script in often very clever, filled with a jumble of humorous allusions left hanging for in-the-know audience member appreciation – such as a “Seinfeld” theme accompaniment to the first appearance of Wayne Knight’s (the show’s Newman nemesis) disgruntled and corrupt computer systems programmer character and the pass of a packet of Snakes Alive to the park’s chief engineer, played in the film by Samuel L Jackson. However, at other times, dialogue could be edited for effect to avoid the lulls in engagement that come due to enough-already sibling banter between the park’s founder, John Hammond’s grandchildren Timmy and Alexis.

Similarly, multi-scenes work well in some instances to share action that occurs concurrently at different places throughout on the island where the billionaire philanthropist Hammon and a small team of genetic scientists have created a wildlife park of cloned dinosaurs, but sometimes continue on well past appreciation to distraction, such as a too-long ride around a passing-by park in makeshift (cardboard) vehicles.

As a parody, the characters are presented more as caricatures, with enhanced flaws and over-the-top idiosyncrasies, although there is a great deal of creative license around some of the ages and genders of characters, such as having Samuel L Jackson’s character played by a young girl, Keeley Liddle. Indeed, the youngest audience members deserve much performance praise; Michael Fryer, as the excitable Timmy, is another standout.

It’s a motley crew of characters and the cast do their best to make them come to life. Gabby Carbon delivers consistent energy as paleobotanist Dr Eillie Sattler and Director Shaun King wrings every comic possibility from his ocker portrayal of the park’s gamekeeper, Muldoon. Chris Kellett is memorable as the slick but chaotic chaos theorist Dr Ian Malcom, David Harrison coveys a Richard Attenboroughish calm as the park’s creator and, Christopher Crane brings hilarity to Dr Alan Grant’s dry humour and anti-children jibes.

“Jurassic Park The Musical” is, at is core, a fantastic parody of much potential. Judging by its velociraptuous applause, audience members will find rewarding comfort in its humour.It’s a bit undergraduate in in tone, and could benefit from a tauter edit, however, it has all the ingredients for a fun night out. And, after all, isn’t the best comedy is supposed to be a bit of a mess?

LBD ladies live on

Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

January 28 – February 19

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The critically acclaimed “Ladies in Black” features over 20 original songs written by legendary singer songwriter Tim Finn, so it is of little surprise perhaps that 14 months after its debut season, its soundtrack is memorable even just in anticipation of its encore season as part of a national tour.

The story, adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, “The Women in Black” and brought to life by Australian screenwriter Carolyn Burns tells of an innocent and bookish but ambitious (against her father’s wishes) school-leaver, Lisa, who lands a coveted job on the sales team at one of Sydney’s most stylish department stores, Goodes, for the Christmas holiday period. It is the late 1950s and with the city contemplating cosmopolitanism, Lisa’s world is expanded as she befriends the unlucky-in-love Fay, the frustratedly childless Patty and particularly exotic European refugee, Magda of model gowns.

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The department story setting gives the show some stunning visuals. The costumes, which include a range of some 30 custom-designed and created dresses and suits, all created at Queensland Theatre, are spectacular, which is entirely appropriate for a store in which the dresses are not just beautiful but have their own names and personalities.

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Opulent drapery, glass and mirrored pillars evoke the glitz of a high-end department store shop floor. The use of revolving platforms allows for seamless scene transitions and David Walters’ lush lighting illuminates proceedings. Every aspect of the production is electrified with lively energy, and dynamic musical numbers, such as Act Two’s ‘Pandemonium’ illustration of the January sales onslaught on the shop floor, are enhanced by clever choreography.

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Every musical number is on-point in its combination of melody and lyrics, despite the soundtrack’s varied sensibilities. From the incidental music of background Christmas carols to the laid-back languish of ‘On a Summer Afternoon’ the live band is excellent in every instance and it is wonderful to see them at-times showcased on stage, behind a scrim screen. And the strings, in particular add enormous emotion to wistful numbers such as ‘The Fountain’. However, the most memorable of musical numbers are so because of their witty lyrics. ‘The Bastard Song’ shared tongue-in-cheek chastise of how all men as bastards is met with exuberant response, even when only in reprise. And Fay’s frank reflection ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’ is an Act Two highlight in its catchy melody and humour as much as its still-relevant social commentary about Australian xenophobia.

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While there have been some cast changes since its first Brisbane outing, Sarah Morrison remains as ingénue Lisa, innocently wide-eyed but with a soaring soprano sound. Musical star Bobby Fox, who wowed audiences playing Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” also returns to nearly steal the show as Rudi (the ‘continental with whom Fay is sharing kisses) along with the award-winning Carita Farrer Spencer who plays Lisa’s torn-between mother.

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New to the cast for the 2017 Australian tour is Natalie Gamsu as ‘crazy continental’ Magda, who dominates the stage in her ever presence. Also joining the show are Madeleine Jones as Patty and Ellen Simpson as Fay. Jones, in particular, is of excellence voice, from start to finish, as evidenced in her ‘Try Again’ tell of attempt to start a family. And all characters bring believability to their roles, capturing the Aussie vernacular and accents of the time and bringing witty delivery to the script’s many dry-humour moments.

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“Ladies in Black” is an utterly charming show that represents the renaissance of the Australian musical and it is easy to appreciate its win of the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work. More than just a stylish frock fest, its experience is lots of fun with some inspiring underling messages about female empowerment. And audiences should be flocking to it either in remind of its greatness or as introduction to this wonderful Australian work.