Wiz biz

The Wiz (Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

December 5 – 7

“The Wiz” is a rarely seen but resplendent stage musical that offers a heart-warming tale told in a unique way. Despite playing for four years on Broadway, the retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic children’s novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in the context of modern African-American culture is perhaps best known for its film version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, meaning that the talented graduating students from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts have some big shoes to fill in their production… which they do.

The story is a familiar and formulaic one that introduces each new character with a solo, presented with a twists as much as a twister in this production. Dorothy (Serina O’Connor), a restless Cairns girl is transported by a tornado (if Australia had tornados) to a magical outback world of Oz where Munchkins, a sassy Witch of the North (Kelsey Lynn) and a yellow brick road appear alongside the Sturt Dessert Peas of its landscape. On her way to the Emerald City to meet the Wiz (Jamaine Wilsemith), who she believes can help her get back home, Dorothy befriends a Scarecrow (Selwyn Powers), Tinman (Gara Doolah) and Cowardly Lion (Garret Lyon) who help her battle the Wicked Witch of the West, Evilene (Michaella Stubbs)

The energetic production is certainly brimming with talent from those about to enter the biz. Powers is a charismatic straw-filled scarecrow, filling the role with warmth and humour as he lithely limbers about the place. Lyon finds plenty of laughs as a camp cowardly lion; he is always-in role down to the smallest of details and his sass lands perfectly thanks to his precise comic timing. Tinman Doolah has a beautiful voice, even if it is under articulated in his ‘Slide Some Oil to Me’ solo and O’Connor is a delightful Dorothy, with stellar vocals highlighted in ‘Be a Lion’. And when the four leads progressively rally together to ‘Ease On Down the Road, one of the show’s most recognisable tunes, likely due to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson’s iconic partnership in the 1978 movie, the result is quite wonderful.

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As a simple, well-executed song ‘Ease On Down the Road’ is an ongoing, catchy highlight in its every reprise and it aptly represents the Motown feel to many of the score’s numbers. In fact, there is an almost ‘80s pep to its realisation, weaved through its multi-generic musical moods. Michaella Stubbs delivers a punchy gospel-esque number in ‘Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News’ and Kayci-Lee Gillies slays Glinda’s assurance to Dorothy about the power of self-belief, ‘If You Believe’, making us wish the Good Witch of the South could have more stage-time. The singing throughout the show is stellar, with the ensemble also delivering an infectiously buoyantly joyous ‘Everybody Rejoice’ spirited celebration of freedom.

“The Wiz” is a dance-filled musical and in this regard this production is also particularly impressive. Modernised routines within the structure of musical theatre are enlivened by strong capable dancers and dynamically diverse choreography (Director and Choreographer Simon Lind) meaning that a suggestive poppy field number complementing its metaphor sits comfortably alongside a contrasting flying monkey rap number, ‘Funky Monkey’. And costuming also works in support of the choreographic representation of the twister that dances Dorothy into the wonderful fantasy world.

Dramatic costuming also serves to channel touches of Hunger Games capitol wear to the munchkins and Emerald City citizens, while Glenn Hughes’ clever lighting recreates the yellow brick road to be followed towards a lushly silhouetted city. There is also attention to detail evident in the script, which features an Aussie-flavoured modern twist even to its throw-away lines, which is from where much of the humour comes.

While Act Two drags a little, overall, this urbanised retelling of the Oz story is still a high-spirited, engaging showcase of the talent of Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts students. Indeed, there is a strong focus on stagecraft that makes for an entertaining experience, whether it be your first or subsequent ease on down its road.

The silliest of season shenanigans

Spamalot (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

November 23 – January 18

Based on the 1975 classic film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, a cheeky Camelot spoof on the legendary King Arthur’s quest to find the elusive treasure, the musical “Spamalot” is a pretty silly show, just look to its “I fart in your general direction” sort of dialogue. But silly is not as easy to do as it might seem. Thankfully, “Spamalot” sees Brisbane Arts Theatre giving audiences nothing but an immensely fun and highly entertaining show of satire, slapstick and irony, as memorable (and quoteable) as its source material.

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The story (book by Monty Python’s Eric Idle) is pretty irrelevant to proceedings, but goes as follows… In the 10th century A.D., the self-assured King Arthur (Alexander Thanasoulis) travels England with his servant, Patsy (Oliver Catton) seeking men to join the Knights of the Round Table. Members of the fellowship ultimately come to include Sir Robin (Lachlan Morris), Sir Galahad (Ben Kasper), Sir Lancelot (Damien Campagnolo) and Sir Bedevere (Liam Hartley). Arthur’s belief in his destiny as ruler of England has come from having been given the Excalibur sword, Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake (Laura Fois). Still, when he receives a message from God tasking him with finding the Holy Grail, he embraces the mission and its ensuing extensive search by him and his knights. As any Monty Python fan knows, a whole lot of nonsense follows, including a host of encounters with eccentric characters, taunting of the English knights by French soldiers, and an additional challenge set by The Knights who Say Ni, who will only allow Arthur to pass through their forest if he puts on a musical (‘but not an Andrew Lloyd Webber’).

It’s all quite ludicrous, but in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands, it actually makes sense. The lead performers are all excellent. Thanasoulis brings an appealing, assured stage presence to the role of King Arthur, the very versatile Matthew Nisbet is incredibly funny in all of his multiple character roles and, as ‘Brave’ Sir Robin, Morris is wonderfully animated and expressive, both and dialogue and songs like Act Two’s ‘You Won’t Succeed On Broadway’. Fois is vocally very strong as Arthur’s ‘watery tart’ diva love interest, especially in ‘The Song that Goes Like This’ parody of generic love songs that ‘start off soft and low and end up with a kiss’. Most notably, though, in every instance it is clear that everyone is enjoying themselves and the fun is infectious.

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“Spamalot” may be shorter than usual musical fare, however, this is barely noticeable, packed full of laughs as the highly irreverent parody is in its execution of that quirkily individual Python-esque style of humour. There is a lot from which to draw laughs, with absurd situations and nonsensical expressions peppered with puns, dad jokes and ridiculous rhymes.

The music is entertaining, even if the numbers are not that memorable, however, the musical numbers, in particular, make good use of the small stage space. Television screen projections add interest and it is wonderful to see them used to enable full line of sight access to all audience members. And the production does well in its realisation of key sketch moments such as the Black Knight’s ‘tis but a scratch flesh wounds and the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

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When it comes to putting the silly in this end-of-year season, “Spamalot” is a perfect show to have you smiling the whole way through to its ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ final singalong. It makes good use of the comedic talents of the cast who also showcase strong harmonies across the score’s range of musical styles. Its exuberant shenanigans certainly cannot be taken too seriously, however, this is still a show only really suited to those who have familiarity with the comedy troupe’s idiosyncratic style, lest they just find the whole thing bafflingly bonkers.

BTG’s notorious BNC

Bonnie & Clyde (Beenleigh Theatre Company)

Crete Street Theatre

November 15 – 30

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“Bonnie & Clyde” starts at its end, with the image of its titular American criminal couple sitting in a car, dead, accompanied by some energetic Bluegrass sounds (‘Prologue’). Before long, however, we are transported from the Louisville location of the folk hero couple’s final run’s end to their younger, hopeful Texas selves. At 10-year-old Bonnie’s (Denyella-Sophia Duncan) father’s funeral, the young girl shares her fantasy movie-star ambition, which is inset with young Clyde’s (Kieran McGinlay) juvenile delinquency and career criminal aspirations through idolisation of Billy the Kid and Al Capone (‘Picture Show’). Fast forward five years to the meeting of the car loving criminal Clyde (Connor Hawkins), just escaped from prison with his brother Buck (Brad Kendrick) and Rowena waitress Bonnie (Lauren Conway) and the rest, as they say, is history… only a history about whose detail we perhaps know very little. And so we discover the lover’s story as they journey from robbery to murder and folk hero status.

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Depression times are tough in the 1930s of Bonnie and Clyde’s two-year crime spree, with the businesses failing, banks collapsing and many people out of work. Still, as Clyde graduates from theft to murder, Bonnie agonises back and forth about following him down a fatal path (‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’), ultimately finding herself seduced by her growing fame as a ‘ravishing redhead’. As the tag-line from the also-named “Bonnie and Clyde” 1967 movie surmises, “they’re young, they’re in love, they kill people”. This also aptly sums up what goes on in the musical realisation of Bonnie and Clyde’s story. Still, under Kaitlyn Carlton’s strong direction, it is a pacey and engaging show, helped along by multi-media display of real-life newspaper headlines in chronicle of the ill-fated couple’s robbery spree and on-the-run rampage.

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While there are no real standout songs with the score, the music of “Bonnie & Clyde” (Composer Frank Wildhorn) works well in telling the show’s story, with its smooth combination of rockabilly, blues and gospel numbers. Under Musical Director Julie Whiting, the polished orchestra is flawless in its musical transitions. ‘God’s Arms Are Always Open’ conveys an infectious gospel energy courtesy also of Preacher Stuart Fisher’s compelling vocals (wonderfully revisited in Act Two’s opener ‘Made in America). And Act One’s finale, ‘This World Will Remember Us’, which sees Clyde convincing Bonnie to smuggle a gun into his cell so he can break out of prison, is a jaunty showcase of the talents of Liam Madden (drums/percussion) and versatility of Annie Silva (fiddle/mandolin/banjo) who both impress as standouts from the show’s very first number. Well-balanced orchestrations lay a solid foundation for the singers, never overpowering the vocals. And the beautifully orchestrated score is complimented by the honesty and emotion that the performers find within the music.

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Bonnie and Clyde’s mutual infatuation is obvious in their unquestionable loyalty; they convey a chemistry even as they quarrel (their favourite form of foreplay). Connor’s Clyde may be no bed or roses but he is charismatic. Indeed, despite his unlikeable actions and sometimes questionable treatment of Bonnie, audience members are on his side thanks to Hawkins’ magnetism. And his prison cell lament towards the end of Act One, ‘Raise A Little Hell,’ is a powerful moment thanks to his strong vocals. Conway, too, is vocally impressive, especially in her delicate Act Two solo, ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’, in which Bonnie passionately declares that she’d ‘rather breathe in life than dusty air’.

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Conway also impressively overcomes the inherit challenge of eliciting audience emotional investment in a character that spends the entire show making poor choices and determining herself to die by Barrow’s side. Indeed, there is much to like about the vigour she brings to the character, as her zealous anti-heroine rebellion is also boldly that of a woman in a time when women were not afforded equal rights. Kendrick captures the juxtaposition of Buck simple, but simultaneously complex supporting character, devoted to his wife Blanche (Katya Bryant) yet also eager to conspire with his daring brother. And Bryant gives a measured showcase of Blanche’s morality, love for her husband and fear for his safety, particularly platformed in the honest and heartbreaking ‘That’s What You Call a Dream’.

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Simple yet inventive staging (Production Design by Bradley Chapman) allows for swift set changes, although cohesion sometimes suffers due to missed sound cues and severe lighting switches. Mary Oliver’s costumes are, however, a standout. Outfits are era-evocative without being clichéd and appropriate to history’s most stylish bank robbers, with channel of Bonnie’s iconic beatnik beret and striped sweater blouse alongside general 1930s form-fitting, softly tailored style pieces.

“Bonnie & Clyde” is an interesting exploration of an infamous couple we know but not really. It’s also, however, a story about American dreams, giving it an ongoing resonance beyond its depression era setting. While its songs aren’t particularly memorable in and of themselves, this musical serves more as a complete experience than a sum of its parts. While, as Clyde’s sister-in-law observes, the characters deserve each other, Lauren Conway and Connor Hawkins give us memorable portraits of the notorious duo, making this “Bonnie & Clyde” quite the triumph.

 

Chicago showcase

Chicago

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 1 – December 7

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Even before the QPAC curtain raises on “Chicago”, its experience is evocative, with a black derby hanging on the back of a black downstage chair, as signpost to the show’s indelible choreographic style and Fosse-esque attention-to-detail sensibility. The story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery (as its opening lines impart) may be set in the pre-depression, Prohibition-era 1920s in the corrupt city of its title, but it is soon apparent that its satirical look at the cult of celebrity and the media is incredibly timely and so still feels fresh, especially given the current media and political climate. Indeed, despite its sensational aesthetic. there is a clear authenticity to both the show’s story and themes. Based on real-life cabaret singers Belva Gaertner (who inspired the role of Velma) and Beulah May Annan (who inspired the role of Roxie), the work draws on the burgeoning Jazz age of vaudeville’s evolution into risqué cabaret clubs.

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We begin when Roxie Hart (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) shoots her lover Fred Casey (Andrew Cook). Her long suffering, devoted husband Amos (Rodney Dobson) initially offers to take the fall for her, believing her initial claim that Casey is a burglar, but soon the truth emerges and Roxie is sent to Cook County women’s jail, run by the crooked Matron ‘Mama’ Morton (Casey Donovan). Here she meets a lot of women of similar scenarios (cue the iconic ‘Cell Block Tango’), including famous vaudeville actress Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey) who murdered her own sister and husband. As Roxie changes into a calculating survivor, she soon deposes Velma to become infamous defence lawyer Billy Flynn’s (Tom Burlinson) new star client of the moment. …. all set to a hot jazz score.

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As always, the show’s iconic soundtrack is integral to its success; the Kander and Ebb classic has a score full of iconic, toe-tapping tunes in homage to the music of the 1920s, presented by a 15-piece orchestra under the baton of Musical Director Daniel Edmonds. There is a vaudevillian style to its realisation through the band’s positioning on stage and involvement in the action as part of the story. Sounds levels are generally appropriate, although they do compete with the vocals of Burlinson’s ‘All I Care About is Love’, but the big band instrumentation with lots of brass is delightful in its appeal, especially in Act Two’s ‘Entr’acte’, which results in its own deserving ovation.

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While tenacious but soft-hearted crime reporter Mary Sunshine’s (J. Furtado) optimistic Act One number ‘A Little Bit of Good’ drags a little (pun not intended) up until this, things power along through a strong Act One, full of highlights. And when Dobson delivers Amos’s plaintive ‘Mister Cellophane’, its tone is not one of sadness but mourning of mediocrity and a relatable regard of how others view him (or rather don’t). This is not the withdrawn and depressively dejected Amos that is so often seen and the audience loves his genuineness in contrast to wife Roxie’s insatiable desire for fame. And his solo number brings us another delicious choreographic call-back in his don of white gloves to enhance the expressiveness of his hands, a classic Fosse move.

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Although the sexy work was written almost 40 years ago, its music and choreography are also as fresh as ever, thanks to its minimal but considered staging, with its use of stage levels reminding us that we’re watching a vaudevillian version of a musical. Not only members of the ensemble assume roles without change of costume, but they become part of the set, sitting along the side of the stage, sometimes as part of the fabric of a scene, interacting with the conductor for example, but always in character. The smoky atmosphere is akin to that of a jazz club and lighting is an integral part of the experience, especially in the Pop! Six! Squish! Uh-uh! Cicero! Lipschitz! Of ‘Cell Block Tango’ (cleverly without any sign of a cell) where it isolates each of its six women in turn as they explain their presence in the jail and how he had it comin’.

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There is an exception detail to the show’s choreographic realisation, which showcases dancer strength and agility while honouring choreographer Bob Fosse’s distinctive style of finger-snapping, scrunched shoulders, thrusting pelvises and small movements in emphasis of the words and rhythms of the songs. The dancers are absorbing to watch, from the very first step of the ‘All That Jazz’ opening welcome. Every detail is exceptionally executed with impeccable less-is-more 5,6,7,8 precise isolations. Contrast and formation variety also add interest, with smoothly fluid aerials sitting comfortably alongside sharp staccato jazz moves.

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Costumes may play within a seductive black palette, but the aesthetic is far from dull, with a gold frame edging enhancing its razzle dazzle atmosphere. Still, this is a “Chicago” that doesn’t take its self too seriously. Roxie’s ‘Me and My Baby’ is wonderfully vaudevillian and Billy Flynn’s first appearance is in song from behind a gathering of feather-paddled chorus girls, Busby Berkeley style. And humour features heavily, especially in Roxie’s fourth wall breaks and the animated ventriloquism of ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ in recall of vaudeville’s requisite specialty acts of the era.

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Chidzey is a dynamic as viper Velma, impeccable in the timing of her dance and delivery, however, the name of everybody’s lips has to be Bassingthwaighte. She gives the ditzy Roxie a personality beyond just selfish self-absorption, making her at once foolishly naïve and overly worldly, and yet also sympathetic in her lack of malicious intent. In terms of support players, while Burlinson’s Billy Flynn is more cringy showman than charismatic legal player, Casey Donovon demands attention whenever she is on stage, especially in the sassy and solid ‘When You’re Good to Mama’.

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“Chicago” stands as the second longest-running musical in Broadway history (after “Phantom of the Opera”) and this production shows why. Whether you only know of the show through its 2002 film adaption or “Chicago” is one of your all time musical theatre favourites, this is a slick showcase of all of its aspects, set to sizzle into your memory. It is sin styled exactly, infectious in its energy and compelling in its choreographic character.

Photos c/o – Jeff Busby

 

 

Jellicle joy

Cats (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 25 – November 3

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is a show that polarises musical theatre fans; people either love it or hate it, but are rarely ambivalent, which alone makes it an ambitious choice for any production company, aside from it being so heavily grounded in dance. On the heels of their accomplished “Annie”, Queensland Musical Theatre are, however, more than up for the task, given its expandable cast of different age groups.

Based on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the anthology-style, fully sung-through musical takes place over the course of one night, telling the story in song and dance, of the annual junkyard gathering of Jellicle cats, during which one special cat is selected to ascent to the Heaviside layer. Most people probably know the musical, however, because of its operatta-ish ‘Memory’, one of the only songs that doesn’t come from a T.S. Eliot poem and one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous compositions, which represents the story’s climax as the character Grizabella, engages in a melancholic remembrance of her glamorous past as a plea for acceptance. And, appropriately, the numbers stands as one of this production’s standout moments as Alison McKenzie’s deeply rich and mellow take, moves the audience to goosebumps in its power and impressive key-change sounds during the number’s Act Two reprise.

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The show’s music is a significant part of its success. From the overture, the band, under Conductor Julie Whiting, is excellent in its execution of the eclectic score, even if, on opening night, things were a little loud at times, making it difficult to understand performer lyrics in the softer moments. Still, ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ is a magnificent introduction to the multi-faceted but melodic score, full of layered tones that take audiences from playful prance to poignant dignity and back again.

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Any good “Cats” has to create a visual spectacle, and with over 40 performers on stage at times, this is certainly the case with this production, starting with its cats’ purr-fect pre-show audience interactions as they sneak and strut throughout the stalls, making the memory of my first experience of the show on London’s West End live again. Schonell Theatre’s large stage allows for Jo Badenhorst’s dynamic choreography, which is strong and engaging but general enough to allow for all levels of participation. Still, numbers ebb and flow as each individual cat tells the audience their backstory.

This “Cats” is characterised by an impressive attention to detail. Costumes capture the individual characters of the cats, beyond just their different fur patterns, especially in the case of the befallen Grisabella, however, no costume (except maybe a cane prop addition) can make the wise patriah Old Deuteronomy appear appropriately elderly when he is moving so nimbly across the stage.

The complex set, which serves as the backdrop for the entire musical, is complex, with built-in entrances and exits, and also platforms and levels on which the performers can stand and move around. The oversized junkyard staging also contains many Easter-egg details like graffiti from the mystery cat Macavity (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley), a monster of depravity of which there is no like, and a book pile that includes ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and The Bible (the musical is full of religious symbolism beyond just the Moses-like leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy’s share of name with the fifth book of The Bible). London mentions are effectively peppered through things, but the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’s number is oddly over-accented, meaning that the athletic and playful young cats’ antics as knockabout clowns and quick-change comedians are overshadowed by lost diction

As anyone familiar with the contentious show knows, its structure is quite unique, as an anthology rather than through-lined plot, with each cat getting opportunity to introduce themselves and share the story of their life, loosely tied together by narrator and second-in-command of the Jellicle tribe, Munkustrap (David McLaughlin). As the storytelling tomcat, McLaughlin is able to direct audience attention at will, thanks to his commanding voice and physicality, even when just in unmoving stance.

It is the leather-clad Darcy Rhodes as rebellious alpha loner ladies man and lime-light lover Rum Tum Tugger, however that gives the most engaging and memorable of performances, and not just in his song, ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ and his ‘Magical Mr. Mistoffelees’ number, which both radiate with infectious energy (and vocal talent). Even when he is not center stage, he absorbs audience attention in his unfaltering commitment to his flirtatious, swaggersome character, down to the littlest nuances of gesture, movement and stylised changes of position. And how wonderful it is to see him returned to rockstar status after the 2014’s revival’s reimagining of him as a ‘street cat’ rapper. Also noteworthy is the delightful, measured performance of Eric James as Asparagus, (Gus) the elder Theatrical Cat with shaking paws, reflecting with reverence upon his life on the stage.

It is so unfortunate that, on opening night at least, the cast was let down by the show’s lighting and especially sound, which, dropping in and out as it did, effectively ruined Act Two’s ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’ music hall drama tribute as part of Gus’ reminiscence about his favourite role in the old-fashioned melodrama, as well as sections of other songs. For audiences unfamiliar with the musical, the lyrics lost due to microphone lapses in early numbers would assumedly make the story more difficult to access.

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There are still some standout numbers, however, such as Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat’s (Jonathan Taufatofua) tell of being unofficially in charge of the night train to Glasgow, during which a moving locomotive train is formed out of objects in the rubbish dump. The ensemble number is not only full of fun, but it represents the energy and spectacle that is at the core of this production, which is visually lavish and joyously dynamic in intent and realisation… mostly.

Dynamic doctoring

Jekyll and Hyde (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavillion Theatre

October 18 – November 9

In each of us there are two natures. If this primitive duality of man, good and evil, can be housed in separate identities, life will be relieved of all that is unbearable. It is the curse of mankind that these polar twins will be constantly struggling…. It is this understanding, as outlined in the prologue of “Jekyll and Hyde” that forms the basis of the musical’s action; obsessed with the ability of one person to be both good and evil, driven Doctor Henry Jekyll develops a potion to rid humanity of evil. Although he has the support of his loving fiancé, Emma Carew and her father and his trusted friend John Utterson, his proposal is denied by the Board of St Jude’s Hospital, so he sets about experimenting on himself and so becomes Edward Hyde.

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It’s a story based on the 1886 gothic novella “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson, which has been adapted many times for film and stage. This interpretation, first seen on Broadway in 1997 with music by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, takes some creative license on the original story, but still serves up a darkness that is far from usual musical theatre fare with a death toll of the Titus type. And Phoenix Ensemble effectively handles the confrontation of its many murders, which are well-realised through Dudley Powell’s fight choreography in balance against playful lyrics of the ‘they’ve murdered dear old Bessie, I hear it was extremely messy’ sort.

Lauren Conway’s choreography is vibrant and engaging, which is no better seen than in Act Two’s catchy entire company opening number ‘Murder, Murder’. Simple but effective staging also serves the show well, allowing Justin Tubb-Hearne’s vivid costume palate the opportunity to shine. Indeed, from Act One’s rousing ‘Bring On the Men’ introduction to the rough Red Rat establishment, the atmosphere is set as a visually rich experience in its tartaned take of cabaret complete with fishnets, lace, corsetry and ruffles of red and black in contrast to the purples of respectable society.

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The seedy Red Rat is where Dr Jekyll (Michael Mills) has a chance meeting with lady-of-the-night Lucy (Ebony Hamacek), which results in his decision to self- experiment and a grim Act Two journey through the crimes of the unpredictable Edward Hyde within Dr Jekyll himself. It also facilitates Hamacek’s strong entrance, positioning her in contrast to Jekyll’s poised and elegant fiancé Emma (Kelly Cooper), whose operatic voice is simply beautiful alongside Mills’ in ‘Take Me as I Am’, in which Emma and Henry pledge their love and allegiance at their engagement party, one of many showcases, also, of the talent of the show’s musicians (Musical Director Trenton Dunstan).

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This is, however, Mills’ show. Not only does he realise both the misguided but well-meaning scientist and the demonic, beastly Hyde with captivating confidence, but his voice is gorgeously musical theatre. In the musical’s most enduring hit, the ballad ‘This is the Moment’, when Jekyll is about to test his formula on himself, he passionately soars the number towards its requisite key change before impressively holding its final notes in triumph.

Doing double duty as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde is no easy feat and Mills’ embrace of the energy required is to be celebrated. He switches between the characters with ease, especially in duet with himself, Act Two’s ‘The Confrontation’, where, aided by Jason Gardner’s on-point lighting design (and Stephen Eggington’s lighting operation), he flawlessly transitions between the two in illustration of his internal struggle, to jaw-droppingly good effect. Under Elodie Boal’s strong direction, each member of the ensemble also gives a committed, focused performance, leading to a very cohesive whole, even if the start of some scenes stall a little without dialogue or song.

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As one of the most polarising of all Broadway musicals, “Jekyll and Hyde” is perhaps an acquired taste type of show, however, in Phoenix Ensemble’s hands, the evocative tale of the epic battle between good and evil is given a dynamic realisation. This is a show for theatre-goers who enjoy something different, when different is done well…. it is all about looking behind the façade of expectations that might be associated with its subject matter.

Dear Evan addiction

Dear Evan Hansen

Music Box Theatre, New York City

From November 14, 2016

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From before its beginning, audiences at “Dear Evan Hansen” see its 8-piece orchestra take their places in the upper level of David Korin’s simple but effective set. It’s an appropriate placement given the show’s award-winning, standout soundtrack and by the time we get to Evan’s (Andrew Barth Feldman) first solo, ‘For Forever’, it is easy to appreciate the show’s six Tony Award wins, including for Best Score and Best Musical.

This is “Dear Evan Hansen”, the contemporary Broadway stage musical with music and lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Steven Levenson, that tells the story of neurotic misfit high schooler Evan Hansen, a shy and self-conscious loner who struggles with crippling social anxiety so is assigned by his therapist to write letters to himself (hence the title) about why each day will be good, one of which becomes the catalyst for the gripping story.

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After, over the summer, Evan breaks his arm in fall from an orchard tree, his mum (Lisa Brescia) suggests that he get others at school to sign his cast. When, sadly nobody takes up the offer, Evan resigns himself to a life of being ignored, while secretly pining his unrequited, long-time love for Zoe (Gabrielle Carrubba), until Zoe’s troubled brother Connor (Alex Boniello) finds his ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ letter and things unfold from there in a surprisingly upbeat way, for while the score is filled with beautiful ballads like Evan’s ‘For Forever’, these are counter balanced with catchy numbers and many humourous moments, mostly arising from Evan’s social anxiety disorder awkwardness.

The humour comes despite the story’s dark themes for it is not long into Act One that Connor commits suicide, with Evan’s stolen letter to self still in his pocket, which everyone takes as a suicide note, assuming that he and Evan were actually friends. Empowered by suddenly finding himself noticed, Evan works with Jared (Sky Lakota-Lynch), the closest thing he has to a real-life friend, to make Connor into his best and dearest friend who ran to Evan when he fell and broke his arm. This also caters to the needs of Connor’s grieving parents Larry and Cynthia (Ivan Hernandex and Ann Sanders) who affectionately welcome Evan into their family with an attention that his busy single mother, working as a nurse’s aide while attending night school, is, despite her best attempts, unable to provide. As things snowball into the Connor Project social media movement, instigated by enthusiastic go-getter acquaintance Alana (Samantha Williams), Evan feels increasingly overwhelmed with guilt and doubt over his decisions.

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Especially for such a small musical (with a cast of eight), “Dear Evan Hansen” has a huge heart. There is a deep humanity to its themes; this is a show about wanting to belong, with comments about difference, grief and acceptance. Indeed, the musical is moving in its subject matter but also incredibly hopeful in its ‘You will be Found’ (the show’s highly emotional Act One finale) sentiment. It is this combination that makes it a thing of both beauty and joy that will both break your heart and give you hope.

The show’s score is outstanding. From start to finish, the music is absolutely beautiful, but also its songs are incredibly catchy. The songs are storyline based, meaning that the insightful lyrics seamlessly merge with the dialogue, without becoming overly sentimental, yet they are also perfectly written to convey the emotions and lives of the characters. From fan favourite ‘Waving Through a Window’, in which Evan wonders if it is his destiny to be ignored and an outcast for the rest of his life, perfect in its every lyric and key change, to the upbeat ‘Sincerely Me’, in which ‘Evan’ and ‘Connor’ play out the fake, backdated email conversations of Jared’s playful imagining, the soundtrack is full of light and shade and a fine balance of tone.

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The completely original story is also engaging thanks to the performances of its cast; experience of the show feels like observation of real people and relationships in a story also authenticated by its inclusion of a social media aspect. Especially noteworthy is Andrew Barth Feldman who is rarely off stage as Evan. His embodiment of the titular character is nuanced down to the cadence of his physicality in a manner akin to the character of Christopher Boone in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. His performance is choreographed to make his emotional discomfort evident even in the subtlety of physical and vocal tics. Indeed, it is astounding to consider that the role represents his Broadway debut.

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Musical theatre does not get any better than “Dear Evan Hansen”. Its legacy is so genuine that it is easy to appreciate the fandom community that has been built around the landmark musical and its experience ensures immediately subscription as a new admirer and addiction to repeat plays of its cast recording.