Without doubt wonderful

An American in Paris (The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

January 8 – 30

“An American in Paris” ‘S Wonderful, without doubt, from even its opening moments. The keenly-awaited Australian premiere collaboration between The Australian Ballet and GWB Entertainment begins with the simple imagery of a lone piano on stage, before we are launched into theimmediate aftermath of French liberation from Nazi occupation post-World War II. Arising from the ashes of the conflict is a city of explosive colour and energy that becomes a character itself as much as a backdrop to its ensuring love story.  

Inspired by the Academy Award-winning MGM film, the four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical tells the entrancing story of a young American ex-soldier, Jerry Mulligan (New York City Ballet principal dancer Robbie Fairchild) and a beautiful French ballerina Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope of London’s Royal Ballet). Mulligan has remained in Paris following the Nazi occupation’s downfall to try his luck as an artist, alongside fellow (now-wounded) veteran Adam Hochberg (Jonathan Hickey). Young Parisian dancer Lise, soon becomes the romantic focus of both men, without them realising her beau is their new friend, aspiring performer Henri (Sam Ward).

With wealthy American patron, Milo (Ashleigh Rubenach) financing the ballet that Adam is writing, in which Lise will appear, the show is, at its core, a tribute to art. Dance is central to its experience from the start; with inventive choreography including intricate ballets, musical theatre and jazz style numbers, chorus lines and tap routines. Act One’s late montage literally brings art to life as we are danced through the Parisian art world, the ballet’s rehearsals and a harlequin masked costume party at which Jerry realises Lise is engaged to his friend.

Under Christopher Wheeldon’s precise direction and choreography, the show is a celebration of both spectacle and skill. Reprising their roles as Jerry and Lise, Broadway and West End leads Fairchild and Cope cannot be faulted. Their signature pas de deux are enchanting in their dreamy romanticism as they soar across the stage. Fairchild, in particular, glides about with effortless ease, but also clear control, creating lithe lines that even those without intimate dance knowledge can appreciate.

With so much dance, the score features less than the usual number of songs for a musical and while sweeping romance is at the core of its identity, lively ensemble numbers, such as when the three main men bond in friendship and imagination of a brighter future in Act One’s toe-tapping ‘I Got Rhythm’, also feature amongst the highlights.

Familiar George and Ira Gershwin tunes such as ‘But Not For Me’, ‘’S Wonderful’ and ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ soar gorgeously under Vanessa Scammell’s musical direction. In particular, Act Two’s ‘Stairway to Paradise’, in which Henri’s fantasises of performing an elegant number in Radio City Music Hall is an absolute art deco, heel and toe, tux and tails triumph of ritzy showgirl razzle dazzle.

A stunning design aesthetic elevates every scene as the enchantment of Paris is realised. Minimal set pieces dance across the stage establishing scene-by-scene locations and clever design allows sets to transform before audience eyes. Costumes changes, too, often happen as if by magic, such as when Lise blossoms from a shop girl to prima ballerina and detailed impressionistic projections awash things with beautiful Monet-esque watercolour palettes.  

The culmination of artistry that is Act Two’s lengthy titular ballet is a masterpiece of design. The elaborate number is enlivened by the orchestra’s bright jazz sounds and projections of avant-garde geometric Picasso-esque shapes. Its unique blend of classical and modern dance makes for sensational show-stopping number that allows for celebration of The Australian Ballet dancers, and even a mid-routine opening night applause for Fairchild’s series of perfectly turned out pirouettes.

Along with its beauty, “An American in Paris” has its humorous moments, such as when Act Two opens to the energetic number ‘Fidgety Feet’, which only adds to the show’s essential charm. The classy production uniquely takes its time, but also never sits still within the extravagance of its top production values. And while its lovely lavishness may be what impresses most, its optimistic romantic escapism to Paris, appropriately also lingers in reminder that from darkness can come light.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Broadway babies’ brilliance

Defying Gravity

January 8

QPAC, Concert Hall

Internationally acclaimed star of Broadway and London’s West End, Caroline O’Connnor is an Australian musical theatre legend about to tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen for the Sydney season of “9 to 5: The Musical”. And her appearance at QPAC’s “Defying Gravity” is certainly cause for celebration. Indeed, her defiant belt of ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ represents one of the concert’s most triumphant of many memorable moments. A smorgasbord of showstoppers is on offer throughout, including the show’s titular big “Wicked” number which makes appearance, with Naomi Price and Irena Lysiuk in duet, as opening to Act Two.

Weaving the numbers together are personal and career stories. The dazzling O’Connor, in particular has a wonderful, personable stage presence that eases the audience into her tell of performing in front of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, and as an Olivier Award nominee. And the associated numbers that are presented represent a varied mix of musical sensibilities. Act One includes an early detour to France courtesy of the epic “Les Miserables”, including a nimble, rollicking ‘Master of the House’ by Price and then O’Connor which reverberates around the theatre, before segue into a serene ‘Bring Him Home’ from special guest Luke Kennedy, in reminder of Valjean’s anguish while sitting among the barricades. And as Kennedy’s beautiful vocals astonishingly soar but also maintain the song’s delicacy, the audience holds its collective breath.

Irena Lysiuk does an excellent job, stepping in as a late replacement for Amy Lehpamer, sharing highlights of Lehpamer’s career, such as from “Dusty – The Dusty Springfield Musical”. In particular, her simultaneously serene and soulful share of Sara Bareilles ‘She Used to Be Mine’ from “Waitress” is beautifully compelling, doing justice to its emotional content.

The setlist features musical hit after musical hit with one big moment after the next. There are brilliant bangers peppered throughout such as Price’s ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ which gives swelling vocal gravitas to the iconic “Evita” anthem. And it is marvellous to have Price and Kennedy share the stunning signature love song ‘Falling Softly’ from the gentle folk musical “Once”. Full of understated, unassuming beauty, their duet conveys both strength and fragility at the core of the song’s emotional lyrics and is absolutely stunning in its expose of the vulnerability at the core of opportunity.

Ever the versatile performer, Price also gives us a sassy, attitude-filled ‘Domino’ from the jukebox musical “& Juliet”, featuring the songs of Swedish pop songwriter Max Martin, infectious in its upbeat energy, while her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ transports us beyond the ABBA classic’s usual mournful, broken-hearted melancholy to reorchestration with more percussive force.

Like Lysiuk’s saxed-up “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady”, O’Connor’s gorgeous ‘Time Heals Everything’ from the little-known “Mack and Mabel” not only illustrates her stunning vocal range, but offers opportunity to showcase the incredible band, conducted by multi-talented musical director James Dobinson, while on piano himself.

“Defying Gravity” is a hugely entertaining concert from three brilliant Broadway babies (and guest), that presents all range of numbers for musical fans, from shows as eclectic as “Chicago” and “Little Shop of Horrors”. Not only are its performers obviously happy to be on stage, but its audience members are clearly rejoicing in the two-hour show’s opportunity to experience their powerful talents.

Photos c/o – Stewart Tyrell, PhotoCo

Celebrating administration

Reception: The Musical

Judith Wright Arts Centre

December 18

A celebration of all things administration, Reception: The Musicalshares the cabareted story of a frontline worker of adifferent sort, classical musical academy receptionist Bethany (writer-performer Bethany Simons) and her frantic day-to-day world of busy-work and customer service. Inspired by true stories from behind the front desk, this original 60-minute cabaret comedy, appearing as part of Brisbane Musical Festival, is a must-see for office workers and theatre lovers alike.

Written by award-winning Simons and leading Melbourne composer Peter de Jager, the show takes the form of a series of vignettes displaying the range of aspects to a receptionist’s life. The original score, performed by composer Peter de Jager on the piano is full of upbeat numbers like a ‘My Name is Bethany (Not Stephanie)’ introduction to our protagonist’s daily phone answering dilemmas and ‘Do You Have Sticky Tape’ because magic tape is indeed a powerful commodity.And the patter song introduction to ‘I can’t help but help’ wonderfully captures the mania of having 20 multi-tasked things going on at once.

Despite telling the story of someone glued to her desk all day, the one-woman show is full of movement, comic energy and entertainment. Simons showcases some lovely vocals, however, it is her mimicry that ensures that interest never wanes. Her characterisations of clients, subscriber audience member encounters and the eclectic characters who wander in to the foyer each day are highly entertaining through her jump in an out of characters both vocally and through nuanced body language. Indeed, this is a show more about performance than staging, which is appropriately minimal, adding to the intimacy of the cabaret.

Clever writing ensures that you don’t have to know about reception work or classical music to appreciate its humour around phone voices, overuse of acronym jargon and the processes of becoming initially acquainted with a new employer’s processes and the unique language of each industry. Indeed, the fact that the show is based on Bethany’s own, very relatable, experience as a receptionist, means that it comes with an appealing authenticity that celebrates the perks more than wallows in the repetition that comes with the role. Accordingly, “Reception: The Musical” presents an uplifting story of not just filing, photocopying and the anxiety of ‘type fright’, but the fun of all the drama that can be seen and heard from the front row seat to the office action.

Bringing back Broadway

The Best of Broadway (QuidPro Co)

Hayward Street Studios

December 8 – 12

Bringing the very best of musical theatre to life is an ambitious undertaking, given the extent of the repertoire on offer. Thanks to the addition of some magnificent medleys, QuidPro Co’s “The Best of Broadway” takes its audience on quite the whirlwind musical journey of entertainment from golden age standards of the “Guys & Dolls” sort to contemporary classics like Jonathan Larson’s “Rent”.

From the simple cabaret staging of Hayward Street Studios, Henry Kafoa, Kayleigh Marven, Jess Papst and Cristian Robba-Colley, accompanied by Musical Director Dennett Hudson, bring both Broadway bangers and ballads to life with powerhouse vocals, meaning that there is plenty of moments to enjoy within the return season’s evening of musical delights.

Especially in lush ensemble numbers, the vocal quartet shines, with exceptional four-part harmonies. Duets are also memorable, especially Kafoa and Papst’s early ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ballad which showcases Kafoa’s sweet and gentle tones in beautiful share of the tale as old as time’s heart-felt theme song. His stunning vocals are also celebrated as part of the show’s touching tribute to the genius of the recently-passed legendary composer Stephen Sondheim, and while ‘No One is Alone’ / ‘Children Will Listen’ is beautifully performed with the support of a 30-voice youth choir made up of performers from Harvest Rain Talent Academy and the Brisbane Academy of Musical Theatre, it is Kafoa’s bittersweet ‘Being Alive’, infused with operatic intensity, that serves as the segment’s standout.

While duets like Marven and Papst’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ / ‘On My Own’ and Marven’s gutsy solo ‘Memory’ darken the tone, there are plenty of light moments too, from a fun Disney medley featuring songs from “The Little Mermaid”, “The Lion King”, “Aladdin”, “Frozen” and “Mary Poppins” and a reminder of the hits of “The Sound of Music”. And Cristian Robba-Colley’s personality-plus vibrancy elevates ‘Heart and Music’ from “A New Brain” to an infectiously joyous place. Indeed, with the audience clapping along, it is easy to appreciate its place as one of his proclaimed favourite numbers. Hudson’s musical medley is also an absolute delight as he vocally and musically journeys us through an assortment of varied Broadway numbers within the space of only three minutes, demonstrating both his vocal versatility and talented musicianship.

As the opening number of reminds us, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’ and certainly there is nothing better than coming together to become lost in the joy of music again. As a show that is equal parts engagingly entertaining in its experience and captivating in its showcase of talent, “The Best of Broadway” is certainly the vehicle for this.

Photos c/o – Let Me Wander Photography

Hold on to that rock feelin’

Rock of Ages (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

November 26 – December 11

“Rock of Ages” is a jukebox musical built around classic rock songs of the 1980s (in particular those of the decade’s glam metal bands), curated together to fit its narrative about young people coming to LA to achieve their dreams. It’s an era and thus a show of big bands with big hair, playing big guitar solos. And so Beenleigh Theatre Group plays the story out to the classic rock anthems of Twisted Sister, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Whitesnake, Foreigner and alike.

It is 1987 in the city build on rock and roll. Along Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Strip, a fictional seedy bar, celebrates rock ‘n’ roll debauchery as the lifestyle of dreamers. Busboy and aspiring rock star from South Detroit, Drew (Dylan Hodge) just wants to rock, but every musical needs a love story so enter innocent, straight off the bus from small-town Kansas Sherrie (Jaime O’Donoghue). Of course Drew has been waiting for a girl like her, but before a budding romance can begin, immediately smitten, she engages in a bathroom tryst with rock god Stacee Jaxx (Clay English).

When Act Two opens, it is the final countdown for the bar and its washed-up rocker owner Dennis (Nathan Skaines), with two villainous German developers, Herz (Jim Price) and his son Franz (Sam Piaggio), scheming to tear down the bar, meaning that it’s up to spirited city planner Regina (Madi Jennings) to stop them. Jennings makes for a fierce Regina, tough and passionate in her bohemian activism, however, it is Will Boyd as charismatic narrator and assistant manager of the Bourbon Room, Lonny who steals the show, clearly having a great time with the demanding role that rarely sees him off stage. His delivery of the script’s many raunchy jokes and sight gags is well timed for maximum comic effect as he recounts the history of the club and narrates events on stage with meta-theatrical fourth wall breaks. And English smoulders as lead singer of the band Arsenal, the egomaniac Stacee Jazz, slinking through his solo, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ with vocals as large as his character’s overblown ego.

Hodge and O’Donoghue share nice vocal chemistry as aspiring rock singer Drew and aspiring actress Sherrie; the epilogue of Journey’s iconic ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is particularly harmonious in their hands. Individually, they each have some powerful vocal moments too, such as in Sherrie’s ‘Harden My Heart’ and Drew’s ‘Oh Sherrie’, which highlights Hodge’s vocal power and impressive ability to hold a note.

Despite the show’s upbeat performances, some shorter sections lag a little and occasional microphone lapses sometimes take the audience out of its moments. Holly Leeson’s energetic choreography takes the audience back to the excesses of glam metal music videos and far-from-subtle costumes effectively capture the era’s idiosyncrasies. “Rock of Ages” is, however, all about the music and the on-stage band (musical director Julie Whiting) brings the range of its soundtrack of well-known songs to life, from a synthy-sounding ‘Final Countdown’ to an initially stripped-back and ultimately revealing ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’. In each and every song of its 20+ long setlist, the band brings it, pumping out tunes with attitude, even if initially it is at a volume that sits atop rather than in support of the singing voices in the opening number.

Comedy comes from rock ‘n’ roll antics, fourth wall breaks, overt innuendo and deliberately over-the-top, campy characterisation, all of which are appreciated by a buoyant Saturday night crowd. While in its take back to a sexier, sexualised time, the story relies of stereotypes, there is a clear sense of not taking itself too seriously. Indeed, there is an infectious, spirited energy from all members of the large on-stage cast that ensure that audience members walk away holding on to the feeling of its satisfaction.  

How can we resist you?

Mamma Mia! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

November 5 – 14

Since opening in London in 1999, the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” has become a global phenomenon, with good reason. The ultimate feel-good show is the type that can be returned to again and again, such is the combined appeal of its score of ABBA hits and celebratory sentiment. Still, it is interesting to see how different companies but their own stamps on the show’s formula, and in this regard Queensland Musical Theatre’s production stands tall.

The wafer-thin plot is of a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Sophie Mason) tells the audience how her quest to discover the identity of her father has seen her invite three men from her free-spirited mother’s past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago…. on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to loyal and loving Sky (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to one of the men so that he can walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Carole Williams). The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship. 

What makes the musical so joyful is the brilliance of ABBA’s strong story-led lyrics which weaves the songs into the storyline. Even from the opening overture montage of instrumental versions of ABBA’s hits, there is a display of excellence. Under Julie Whiting’s musical direction, the score still unfolds with some interesting touches to make it the company’s own, such as a synthy sounding ‘Honey Honey’, in which Sophie discovers her mother’s old diary, complete with intimate description of her dates with the three men, and the Greek musical characteristics that appear woven within the instrumentation of Act Two’s closer, ‘I Have a Dream’.

Bec Swain’s choreography transitions the musical numbers along with effortless efficiency, such as when Donna’s best friends, and former Donna and the Dynamos girl group, Tanya (Lisa Alsop) and Rosie (Fiona Buchanan) move us from their attempt to cheer her up with ‘Chiquitita’ to effort to convince her that she can still be the ‘Dancing Queen’ she once was in a full-scale ensemble number. The title track is similarly, smoothly punctuated by pop-up appearances of a Greek chorus of sorts and the stylised, out-of-place Act Two opener ‘Under Attack”, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, is up there with its best realisations. Similarly, the flipper boys of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me, elicit the most amplified audience reaction, thanks mostly to Darcy Rhodes, whose elevated performance of Sky’s goofy bartender best man Pepper steals every scene. And when he attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, his acrobatic animation makes for a standout number.

As with previous Queensland Musical Theatre shows, “Mamma Mia” consists of a large ensemble, all of whom project an infectious energy throughout. The lead and supporting roles are perfectly cast, with some obvious standouts. Buchanan is simply wonderful as the wisecracking, clumsy and fun Rosie. She dominates in her comic role, especially during Rosie’s wedding day proposition of Bill (David McLaughlin) in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’. Together, Buchanan and McLaughlin represent another highlight, given their genuine chemistry, her physical comedy and his animated facial expressions, which tell us so much more than his dialogue alone ever could. 

Jordan Ross as Sam and Peter Bothams as ‘Headbanger’ Harry, McLaughlin delivers strong Act Two musical numbers in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Our Last Summer’ and Williams, Alsop and Buchanan harmonise together beautifully as Donna and Dynamos. Mason has a lovely singing voice that provides some touching moments to young and optimistic bride-to-be Sophie’s journey. And in the role made famous by Meryl Streep in the movie adaptation, Williams layers strong-willed single mother Donna with some fragility in her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ admission to Sam that he broke her heart. 

While opening night sees some microphone issues and a whole lot of unnecessary theatre haze, the vitality, entertainment and engagement of this “Mamma Mia!” is undeniable. Its celebration of ABBA’s 70’s music by a cast of talented performers, creates a joyously energetic experience, which is only amplified by its now-traditional finale medley of ABBA hits and accompanying audience rise to their feet to sing and dance having the time of their lives, ‘Dancing Queen’ style.

Photo c/o – CF Photography Families