Top and tail treats

Rather than jinx things again with a post about the shows I am most looking forward to seeing in the year to come (at least we got Emerald City and Be More Chill), I take this time of year as an opportunity to reflect on the theatre year that mostly wasn’t. From its top and tail months, these have been my highlights of the 40 rather than usual 140(ish) shows seen:

Best dramatic performance

  • Richard Lund’s layered, contained performance as recent art school graduate Ken, assistant to abstract expressionist American painter Mark Rothko in the two-hander Red from Ad Astra.
  • Jayden Popik’s bold and powerful Queensland Theatre debut, as Declan in Mouthpiece, the company’s must-see return to the QPAC stage.

Best Staging

  • Set Designer Bill Haycock’s transformation of the Ad Astra’s small theatre space into an artist’s studio complete with an imposing set of replica canvasses, in John Logan’s Red.
  • Chloe Greaves’ detailed production design of fragmented country-house rooms jigsawed together for QUT’s early-in-March presentation of Anton Chekhov’s seminal Three Sisters.

Best Video Design

  • Nathan Sibthorpe’s stunning video projections, creating a sense of immersion into Queensland Theatre’s world premiere production of David Megarrity’s The Holidays.

Best Musical

  • Phoenix Ensemble’s dynamic September strut out of the super-fun 2012 musical Kinky Boots.

Top moment

  • When the rollicking Pirates of Penzance in Lynch & Paterson’s In Concert production sneak up on the Major-General’s house with Catlike Tread while singing at their top of their Tarantara lungs in the eponymous parodic Gilbert and Sullivan song.

QSO ’21

Orchestral music is back in full force in 2021, with Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) last week unveiling a season of 18 concerts, all to be performed in the Concert Hall at QPAC, including three commissioned world premieres and headlined by the acclaimed Maestro series; a collection of 10 world-class classical celebrations. 

The season fittingly will open in February with a special event, “QSO Favourites”, celebrating favourite pieces as nominated by audience feedback. From Mozart’s Overture from “The Marriage of Figaro” to Gershwin’s “An American In Paris” and Ravel’s unforgettable “Bolero”, this promises to be a wonderful program for both avid listeners and those looking for a life-changing experience alike.

Another revisit is coming courtesy of April’s “Cinematic – Heroes and Heroines” special event concert featuring a mix of blockbuster movie music and tunes from films as diverse as “The Avengers” and “The Man From Snowy River”. Similarly, Shakespeare’s plays will again provide the inspiration for a blockbuster Music on Sundays in May, “Shakespearean Classics – Music Inspired by the Bard”, including Mendelssohn’s iconic music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Prokofiev’s extraordinary ballet music for “Romeo and Juliet”.

Also, in May, will be “Musical Theatre Gala – Broadway to West End” featuring soloists sopranoLorina Gore and tenor Simon Gleeson (along with two emerging Musical Theatre soloists from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University), with the full power of a large orchestra, treating audience members to the music of theatre favourites such as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” and the more recent “Frozen”.

In an Orchestra first, three world premieres will be staged in 2021, commissioned by QSO and all by Australian composers.Over the weekend of 30 April and 1 May, QSO musicians Irit Silver and Alison Mitchell, will perform a world premiere double concerto for flute, clarinet and orchestra, by Australian composer Gordon Kerry during the “Pictures at an Exhibition” performances. In June, “Epic Sounds” will feature the world premiere of a new work by acclaimed Australian didgeridoo player and composer William Barton, in a performance that also features Wagner’s dramatic Overture to “The Flying Dutchman” and the “Symphony No.5” by Sibelius. Fittingly, too, Season 2021 will also see Queensland Symphony Orchestra again travel throughout Queensland to perform, educate and inspire, an important part of the company’s commitment as the state orchestra. 

Soloists performing with the QSO in 2021 include one of the greatest pianists Queensland has ever produced in the internationally acclaimed Piers Lane, revered didgeridoo artist William Barton, dynamic young violinist Grace Clifford, one of Australia’s leading woodwind playersoboist Diana Doherty, organist Joseph Nolan, and Australian sopranos Emma Pearson, Lorina Gore and Rebecca Cassidy (Opera Queensland Young Artist). Queensland Symphony Orchestra musicians will also, of course, take centre stage with solo performances for Concertmaster Warwick Adeney, Section Principal Flute Alison Mitchell, Section Principal Clarinet Irit Silver, Principal Tuba Thomas Allely and Acting Section Principal Cello Hyung Suk Bae.

Leading the conductor line-up is the Orchestra’s celebrated Conductor Laureate Johannes Fritzsch, together with dynamic Australian conductor Dane Lam, Umberto Clerici, Elena Schwarz, Benjamin Northey, Max McBride, Alexander Briger, Benjamin Bayl, and of course hosting Music on Sundays, the irrepressible Guy Noble. Celebrated Conductor Emeritus of the Seattle Symphony Ludovic Morlot will also join the Orchestra as the only international artist for the season to make his Queensland Symphony Orchestra debut to conduct “Song to Symphony” in November and the Season Closing Gala, “Four Last Songs”, in December.

As previous QSO concerts have shown, listening to a live orchestra concert is not only a captivating aural experience, but it is one that can take audience members on an emotional journey along with its sweeping musical arrangements. For those wanting to join in the season’s celebration of live performance and its power to inspire us and draw us together, subscription packages are on sale now online at http://www.qso.com.au Single tickets, meanwhile, are on sale from Monday December 14.

2020 2.0 and more

It seems fitting that whether coincidently or otherwise, the day after Queensland Theatre welcomed audiences back to previews of Kieran Hurley’s “Mouthpiece”, the company has unveiled plans for the brave new world of theatre in 2021. The program, the first from Artistic Director Lee Lewis is certainly a season for our times, filled with love, laughter, tragedy, triumph and connection, starting on January 30 with Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Our Town”, a big but simply-told story of people in a country town that Lewis, as its director, cites as one of her favourites.

The bold program promises not to disappoint with its feature of four world premieres including the much-anticipated staging, in conjunction with Brisbane Festival, of Trent Dalton’s raw, honest and full-of-heart hit novel “Boy Swallows Universe”. The 1980s Brisbane coming of age story is not the only familiar production returning from the 2020 season that never quite came to be. “Triple X” by Glace Chase (who also stars as the lead), will try again in March after having only just begun previews when the COVID-19 lockdown saw theatres closed. The 21st century story from the pen of Australian-born, New York-based playwright, comedienne and performer Glace Chase, is hilarious, honest and an emotionally affecting look at entitlement, hypocrisy and the realities of love. (And it features one of the most eye-popping sex scenes in recent theatre history).

Also re-joining the line-up is human rights lawyer-turned-playwright Suzie Miller’s tour de force indictment of the legal system, “Prima Facie”, a one-woman show which sets about exposing the shortcomings of a patriarchal justice system where it is her word against his.

Discussions of gender will also be front and centre in May as Director Damien Ryan finds a way for classic comedy of complication, “Taming of the Shrew” to live in the new world as the company’s first Shakespeare in the Bille Brown Theatre. By transporting the divisive play to a time in which Kate is less of a problem and more of a promise of great women to come, the work suggests discussions of the world today alongside its glamour, romance, song, laughter… and a plane.

Of similar social currency will be Anchuli Felicia King’s new play, “White Pearl”, a comic portrait of the corporate culture of beauty (and casual racism) that ends up being about so much more, including the complexity of pan-Asian relations and the legacy of colonialism in the region.

And, as a world premiere, will be another new play, the first staging of the 2020–21 Queensland Premier’s Drama Award-winning “Return to the Dirt” by, (and also starring) Steve Pirie. The play, about death and trying to live promises to be all sorts of funny and not just through its setting in a funeral home.

November 20 will see the finale of the 2021 Season in the form of a very special, specifically-commissioned theatre experience, the world premiere and strictly limited season of “Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook”, available only for subscribers. While there won’t be any ‘Khe Sanh’, the Australian legend will be celebrating the way song has shaped our national identity, including through the lens of acknowledgment of the great writing of our first nations people.

In another first, the company is partnering with Australian Theatre Live to produce digital versions of three productions: Taming of the Shrew (available 14 to 20 June), Return to the Dirt (available 22 to 28 November) and Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook (available 13 to 19 December). Like their popular online Play Club digital readings (which will continue with six live events in 2021), this will allow theatre to be shared beyond just the company’s Brisbane home base.

With seven mainstage events, including some familiar productions from 2020 as well as new works and tried-and-true classics, there is much to anticipate about Queensland Theatre 2020 2.0. While the company is excited to share the 2021 Season with in-person audiences, seating in line with COVID-19 physical distancing requirements means that fewer than usual seats will be available, so secure yours now with purchase of a season package and then await the approaching reminder of the essence and essentialness of theatre.

Rise and respond

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We Will Rise (Topology)

Aria-nominated and internationally regarded Topology, is an established leader of musical creativity in Australia, renowned for the unique collaborations that determine much of the group’s distinct style. So the release, this month, of the vibrant local quintet’s 16th album “We Will Rise” is worthy of attention on pedigree alone. The fact that the concept album features ten tracks curated by the group’s members (John Babbage – saxophone, Robert Davidson – upright bass, Bernard Hoey – viola, Therese Milanovic – piano and Christa Powell – violin) from their 23-year back catalogue and new compositions, reflecting contemporary concerns, makes it worthy of particular attention. The compilation of original music from the late 90s through to the present day has been curated to empower, inspire, and support, making it an innovative journey through a variety of moods with the common theme of working through challenging times.

The album’s theme is evident throughout, but most obviously in its titular track ‘We Will Rise’ by Topology’s Artistic Director, Robert Davidson. The number, which features the group’s instrumental accompaniment interwoven with Prime Minister James Scullin’s inspiring 1931 address to the Australian people during the Great Depression, brings with it memories of the group’s 2015 show, “Unrepresentative Swill” which was inspired by famous speeches from Australian history. Giving the speech about rising out of difficulties and depression the Topology treatment, serves as showcase not only of skilled musicianship, but how the best speeches showcase a musicality to their structure and delivery. Indeed, the number not only empathises with the text’s insistent and deliberate motivating meter, but makes the energy of the speech’s cresendoing rhythm accessible with strings finding its natural stirs and melodic cadence.

 Just like in great speeches, there is a certain poetry to “We Will Rise”, giving people a sense of order in a life of current chaos. The work is interwoven with social messages as the group continues with their connection to community, even at this time in which the industry is taking a significant beating. ‘Drought Stories – Texas, a recently premiered work composed by John Babbage is an at-first slowed-down and tender, but ultimately upbeat testimony to resilience, inspired from the share of the honest stories of Texas locals from many visits to the rural Queensland town. Meanwhile, Bernard Hoey’s optimistic ‘One Day Gavin Stomach’ is a chaotic conclusion that sees musicians simultaneous playing atop an energetic MC Hammer baseline in different meters before unifying together in hope

While strings give flight and swirl to John Babbage’s Millennium Bug’, a number inspired by the anxieties surrounding Y2K, the piano features strongly throughout the album, in the energetic solo, ‘Glare of Fire and also ‘Rush’, which sees the controlled chaos of ten hands on one piano, in symbolism of the common experience of us all at the moment. In all instances, there is an obvious clarity and separation between the instruments, that makes for a crisp listening experience.

Topology’s “We Will Rise” not only captures a moment in time, but serves as a reminder that without arts workers there is no art. The album captures the Brisbane-based ensemble’s idiosyncratic blend of classical and contemporary sounds in its expressions, illustrating how music can communicate beyond just lyrics. The collection of music in response to the need for inspiration, strength, and collective healing, is available to stream and download now.

2020 aplenty

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While I am well into planning what West End shows to see in 2020, I know that Brisbane theatre has plenty of its own highlights coming. This is what I am most looking forward to seeing (so far) in the year to come:

1. Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)

I just missed seeing the sci-fi teen musical on Broadway, so until the Phoenix Ensemble’s late 2020 production will have to live in anticipation of the Evan Hansen heir with last year’s elaborate Tony Awards homage to the show’s Michael in the Bathroom solo.

2. 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

I love this musical comedy and its oddball characters … fearless spellers at a fictional spelling bee who love scary words. It is a peppy frolic of colour, music and fun that I am sure Brisbane Arts Theatre will bring to vibrant life come late 2020.

3. Hello Dolly! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

There has been a great display of on-stage talent in recent Queensland Musical Theatre shows and I am yet to see the enduring musical theatre hit and appreciate how it has earned its exclamation point.

4. Emerald City (Queensland Theatre)

Nobody does drama better than Australia’s own David Williamson and given that the Melbourne Theatre Company co-pro revival of his 1987 classic opens in early February, we don’t have long to wait to consider the worth of sacrifice for success and fame.

5. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

… the theatre coup of the year, to which anyone what has read the smash-hit, triumphant Australian novel, loosely based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood, will attest. #theraversareright

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.