More Marys merriment

There’s Something About Mary(s) (Cassie George)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 23 – 26

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Although promoted as being an insight into the mildly unhealthy symbiotic relationship between one woman and the entire gay community of Brisbane, “There’s Something About Mary(s)” is no ‘Lady Ga Ga at the Superbowl’ type spectacular. There’s no rainbow flag, but there is some Cher amongst plenty of well-known tunes as Cassie George presents her hopeless romantic love timeline from devout and demur Christian school days to university study of musical theatre and being queen-in-waiting to a gaggle of gags.

As audiences saw when the then-ten-minute version of the show played as part of the 2016 Short+Sweet festival, Cassie’s needs are simple; she wants romance with someone who is smart, sensitive, and sincere and all the things summed in ‘Kiss’. This is just one example of how songs are made her own as the narrative finds its way to ‘Believe’ admission of being in love with love.

George has a powerful voice that is showcased in vibrant delivery of Hilary Duff’s ‘What Dreams are Made of’ talk of dates with legitimate heterosexuals. Jewel’s ‘You Were Meant for Me’ is another strong number that platforms her solid, clear and characterful vocals. Her charisma as a performer is best showcased, however, in numbers where she moves from internal thoughts to awareness that she’s been singing them aloud, like Christina’s Aguilera’s ‘Come on Over (All I Want is You)’, animated and amusing, even before audience involvement enhances its humour even further.

Another highlight is a sassy Salt-N-Pepa breakout, despite Musical Director Luke Volker’s reluctance to rap along with ‘the voodoo that makes you wanna shoop’. Volker is a vital part of the show. Not only can ‘no pianist improve on the way he plays that groove’ but his reactions and interactions with George are part of the work’s special charm.

As cabaret shows go, “There’s Something About Mary(s)” is a burst of humorous, energetic and light-hearted fun. At less than 60 minutes running time, it seems over just as it has begun and although its songs are strong lyrically and musically, they could be crafted together to fashion more narrative clarity in support of its genuine feel-goodness.

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Captivating cabaret

Torch Songs (Mama Alto)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 23 – 26

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“Torch Songs” is not a fun drag queen lip sync show. This is evident not just from Mama Alto’s own admission but, in fact, from the moment the gender transcendent diva and jazz singer statuesquely slides on to the stage, hair clustered with gardenias, to open the cabaret show with the legendary Billie Holiday’s ‘Blues are Brewin’.

The self-confessed big Melbourne star is compelling performer with a versatile countertenor voice as she tributes vintage torch singers of the Ella Fitzgerald sort (torch songs meaning usually ballads sung by the great divas in share of their strong emotions of desire or loss).

In Della Reese’s ‘Stormy Weather’, her textured voice is stylish, seductive and full of emotion. Similarly, when she flawlessly shares a melody of Sarah Vaughan’s ‘Wild is the Wind’ inset with Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, it makes for a captivating experience, bringing tears to some eyes, such is pure and heartfelt honesty of its beauty. As notes are lingered lovingly for savour by songstress and audience alike, there is no denying both the lusciousness of her vocal textures and the superbness of her vocal control, whether in belting out an ending or favouring distinction and delicacy.

When we indulge her in performance of Leo Sayer’s ‘When I Need You’, we are rewarded with a sublime experience that entrances all. And a late-show share of ‘Songbird’ showcases her intuitive delivery of both lyric and melody, serving as a highlight in its musical mashup with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, courtesy of collaborator and Musical Directress Miss Chief’s perfect piano accompaniment. Having worked together for seven years, the duo have a natural, witty banter with each other and the audience alike, full of fun but also mutual respect. It is an appreciation that is also shown for all songs, even when ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ becomes an audience sing-along.

“Torch Songs” is a spellbinding experience thanks to the exceptional talent of its star. This may be Mama Alto’s first solo show in Brisbane (she also appeared at 2015’s Wonderland Festival as part of the Glory Box ensemble), but you have to hope it will not be her last. Beyond her mastery of jazz standards, she sings with such dramatic power and interpretive depth that the result is an unforgettable, absolutely beguiling experience of musical magic in which to marvel.

Behind the scenes satisfaction

Scenes from a Marriage (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 11 – December 3

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Marianne (Marta Dusseldorp) and Johan (Ben Winspear) are cosy in the comfort of their overly-scheduled, boring bourgeois lives … well that’s what they tell a magazine interviewer when being asked about their union. But what lies behind their façade and how long will it be before their imperfect love begins to dissolve? These are the initial questions at the core of “Scenes from a Marriage”, and the answers, as they unravel, are far from comforting.

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Originally a 1970s Swedish television series by accomplished and influential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “Scenes from a Marriage” is a beast of a play. The stage adaptation by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith takes audiences behind the scenes into the intimacy of a marriage as it tries to survive secrets and suffering in the shadow of a single event and over-time, innate animosity. With a focus on domestic relationships, it has all the emotional and cognitive ingredients for audience engagement. Yet despite being a polished and visually stunning production with a first-rate cast, its resonance is more satisfaction in a neutrally-beige type way, than standout amongst a sensational season of shows.

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Even to those unfamiliar with the nuance of its Swedish creator, the production is noticeably Bergman. Staging screams Scandinavian in its simplicity, functionality and minimalism, opening as it does to a clinically white and sparely-furnished room. Even when, late in Act One, things open up to the reveal the reality of the couple’s conjoined life in a scene in the their holiday home, it is one of timbre tones affront a tree-lined lake backdrop. The aesthetics are quite stunning, enhanced by lighting that adds a theatricality to the sometimes shocking action on-stage.

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The authentic anatomy of a marital breakdown also comes courtesy of well-crafted dialogue that takes audience members from the light relief of predictable jokes through the devastating dynamics of divorce (and what comes next) and contemplation of if whether dislike is better than indifference.

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Real-life husband and wife Ben Winspear and Marta Dusseldorp are excellent in their respective roles, presenting the couple as two individual and complexly layered individuals. Their chemistry is clear… unsettlingly so in a physical fight sequence in one of the play’s uncomfortable scenes. Winspear’s glib Johan, shallowly self-assured and overconfidently narcissistic, allows Dusseldorp’s intense and ultimately vulnerable performance to take centre stage. And they are both well-supported by superb performances from Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary as the couple’s mutually, mercilessly bitter, married friends.

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For most of the story, Marianne and Johan are unlikeable people curiously drawn to the mutual misery of their marriage, yet there are also sometimes glimpses of them as ordinary, suffering humans who love each other in their own way…. necessary for audience empathy and investment in their story. Like so often in life, there is no happy ending to “Scenes from a Marriage”, but its experience brings a satisfaction of sorts from the confrontation of its truth.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

Lonesome laughs

The Lonesome West (Troop Productions)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

November 8 – 18

“The Lonesome West” is one of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s Leenane trilogy which also includes “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “A Skull in Connemara”. However, it doesn’t take this pre-knowledge to know that the show is set in a tiny village in County Galway on the West Coast of Ireland. The scene is set not only by its pre-show Celtic soundtrack, but the staging, which includes portraits of the Pope and JFK hanging on the wall of the rundown-farmhouse set.

The bleak dwelling is the home of the adult Connor brothers Coleman (Christopher Story) and Valene (Cameron Hurry). After the death of their father, the vindictive Coleman and miserly Valene are thrust upon each other to endlessly bicker, squabble and fight over anything and everything, from Valene’s collectable figurines to who is the bigger virgin. The animosity is long-standing, but has been revived by Valene’s sole inheritance of the dwelling as part of his father’s estate, leading to his gleeful withhold of money, moonshine poteen and even packets of Taytos potato ‘crips’, from his brother and to him marking all his belongings with a big ‘V’.

Putting aside another crisis of faith, troubled but well-meaning and gentle priest Father Welsh (Derek Draper), attempts to reconcile the brothers, fearing their violence will spiral towards a bloody end. Girleen, (Eva McGillivray) a beautiful young school girl, provides hope for a brighter future, if only the men can find compassion in their hearts. But soon we realise their feud is about more than just Coleman’s disrespect of Valeen’s new stove.

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The more-marathon-than-sprint result is, perhaps surprisingly, a darkly irreverent but uproariously funny black comedy full of political incorrectness in the brothers’ interactions. And as the two grown-up brothers still stuck in a cycle of adolescent squabbling, Story and Hurry are excellent. Indeed, all members of the cast give impressive performances, mastering the Irish accent, which becomes easier of ear with every ‘feck’ exclamation. Hurry, in particular, give a dynamic (and very funny) performance as Valene, who can’t help but react to his brother’s every little antagonism.

The two make the first act, in particular, absolutely entertaining. After intermission, things stall a little as the story drags with too many too-long pauses and unnecessary staging faffs, extending the show’s duration by almost an additional hour beyond the advertised running time as old ground is recovered, albeit wittily. Still, as the brothers’ cyclical behaviour sees moments of hope emerge only to be then snatched away as outrageous apologies serve to open old wounds, entertainment turns to introspection as audience members are guided to consideration of when it is no longer ok to laugh at someone’s selfish behaviour.

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Director Keiran Brice ensures that, initially, at least, the production uses pace and physicality to escalate the brothers’ acts of aggression. Comparatively, things falter when the tone shifts jarringly, with the revelations that come from both Girleen, the only female character in the story, and Father Welsh. Even considering its shifting sensibility, this initially funny but ultimately grim show is certainly worth the effort of its lengthy duration for a sometimes touching and often laugh-out-loud funny show, but maybe not on a tired school night.

Counterpilot cleverness

Spectate (Counterpilot)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 7 – 18

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Those who have encountered Counterpilot’s collective of interdisciplinary artists previously, know that their theatre is more experience than static show. And “Spectate” is no different. The all-encompassing work is immediately intriguing as, upon entry into the theatre, audience members are met with the sight of velvet red curtains in frame of a black and white film. With sounds of Dixieland-esque tunes soundtracking, it is evocative of a time almost a century ago when Harry Houdini was a marvel amongst men.

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Through audience member headphones, we are told that we are at the show of the incredibly famous Austro-Hungarian-born American stage magician and stunt performer. The dimming light makes for a meditative start as an interior monologue is provided, describing the sensation of sitting in the theatre and typical pre-show contemplations, from practical consideration of if we missed getting a program to larger concerns like ‘what if I don’t get it?’ Through this headphoned narration, along with live projection, we are taken to the Houdini’s final, October 1926 Detroit show. We are expecting acts of magic, escapism and hopefully his vanishing elephant illusion. So the card ticks and straightjacket escape that follow are almost disappointing.

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But Houdini (a beguiling Toby Martin) is looking pale and lethargic, occasionally clutching at his sides as foreshadowing for those familiar with the circumstances of the entertainer’s death less than a week later. Indeed, the waters run black for the master of mystery, worsening as he prepares for his famous Water Torture Cell trick.

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Are we about to witness Houdinin’s death and how does this make us feel? This is what “Spectate” is really about in its challenge of the nature of audience roles as spectators. In doing so the interdisciplinary work prompts audiences to think, but also to feel in response to the beauty crafted on stage in realisation of Writer/Director/AV Co-Designer Nathan Sibthorpe’s ambition to construct a world of contemporary illusion through use of 3D printed performers, live video compositing and immersive audio. The result is both fascinating and entertaining. The layered projections of diorama and live action are not only interesting in themselves, but accompanied by the prompt of the headphoned voice inside audience heads, they assist in suspending audience experience between layers of reality and versions of truth and fiction.

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Narrative interjections occur also through cross to conversations with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and alike as Houdini pursues debunking psychics and mediums as part of his desire, as President of the Society of American Magicians, to uphold professional standards and expose fraudulent artists. There is surprise too when audience members are texted in conversation with a show’s ‘character’ and also in a final cameo-filled short film that, although quite hilarious, appears unnecessary and out-of-context.

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“Spectate” is a ground-breaking new production that engenders fascination both in experience itself and in recollection afterwards. While the immediacy given to an experience from a century ago is intriguing, its legacy comes courtesy of what it contemplates about audience membership. Even without a vanishing elephant, it is spectacularly clever on so many levels, in a way probably never seen before.

Wonderful wizardry

The Wizard of Oz (John Frost and Suzanne Jones by arrangement with The Production Company)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 4 – December 3

dorothy.jpgAs exciting as modern jukebox type musicals may be, there is something comforting about seeing traditional stories being retold on stage. In its Australian premiere, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of “The Wizard of Oz” combines the best of these two takes, giving audiences an exciting spectacle that enhances previous experience of the perennially popular film and/or American fairytale story by Frank Baum.

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The same but better story tells of Dorothy Gale who lives on a farm in Kansas until a tornado arrives and picks her, her house, and her dog up and deposits them in the strange land of Oz. Dorothy who just wants to get back home, follows the instruction of the Good Witch of the North to head towards the Emerald City to meet the Wizard. En route she meets a Scarecrow in need of a brain, a Tin Man missing a heart and a Lion who longs for courage and discovers that no matter how yellow its bricks, the road is not always smooth travelling.

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The London Palladium Production offers a new and fresh take on a story that is still full of the songs audiences know and love. Dorothy’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ ballad muse to little dog Toto that there must be a place where there isn’t any trouble is initially rushed but still absolutely beautiful in its magical fusion of music, lyric, situation and singer. The Munchkinland Sequence of ‘Come Out, Come Out’, ‘Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead’ and ‘We Welcome You to  Munchkinland’ with Glinda, Dorothy and the Munchkins is simply joyous and you will find ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ and ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard” in your head for days (#inagoodway).

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There are five new songs too, with additional music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and additional lyrics by Tim Rice, which like the originals, advance the story and allow the witches to have voice in song through ‘Already Home’ sung to Dorothy by Glinda with beautiful message about having everything she needs already at home and ‘Red Shoe Blues’ in which the Wicked Witch plots “she’s pretty and clueless and I want her shoeless” as she sends her flying monkeys to capture Dorothy and Toto and bring them to her castle. Of course, the musical extravaganza would be nowhere without the orchestration, which is superb.

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Performances are appropriately pantomimic to a point, but full of heart. Remarkable and talented favourites Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix rejoin to weave their magic together on stage again, having previously portrayed Glinda and Elphaba respectively in the Australian production of “Wicked”. In an enlarged blue-rinsed good witch Glinda role, Durack is shrill in cutting comments, delivered with perfect comic timing. And Rix is nothing short of a deliciously evil green Wicked Witch of the West, cackling her threats and demands to have Dorothy’s magic ruby slippers.

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Anthony Warlow, makes for a wonderful, Wizard of Oz, revealing humanity behind the pretenced narcissism of the venerated ruler behind the curtain, but is best as Professor Marvel who woos runaway Dorothy with a new patter song, ‘Wonders of the World’ (and in cameo as the Oz doorman). Last seen on stage in Brisbane in 2012’s “Annie”, he is an absolute hoot in the charismatic character role.

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Samantha Dodemaide is similarly charming as the plucky Dorothy. And her beautiful voice is showcased in the iconic principal song, one of the most enduring standards of the 20th Century (#nopressure), soaring audiences along in melancholic memory of why only bluebirds fly over the rainbow.

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Dorothy’s improbable yellow brick road travelling companions are delightful too in share of much of the show’s punny humour. As the gelatinous scarecrow, Eli Cooper is nuanced in his every action, reaction and inflection. The cheeky cowardly lion, John Xintavelonis is an audience favourite and Alex Rathgeber gives a memorable tap number as the Tin Man.

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The same creative team from the Palladium original repeat their work and, accordingly, staging is quite spectacular, starting with a sepia-washed Kansas (like the movie’s initial scenes) in contrast to later under a rainbow reveal of vibrant technicolour. And, in Act Two when the narrative darkens, lighting creates a richly-red gothic aesthetic within the shadowy lair of the Wicked Witch and her winged monkeys. The most spectacular set, however, is that of an Art Deco Emerald City, reaching to the rafters.

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Computer generated graphics transition scenes, including showing the twister that transports Dorothy from Kansas to the Land of Oz to begin her colourful journey home. And the visual styling of the inhabitants of the Emerald City is magnificently detailed, evident especially in Glinda’s sparkling gown.

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Clearly, this “The Wizard of Oz” is much anticipated for a reason. It is an energetic, glittering wonder, full of humour and marvel alike to enthral all ages, in show of why the classic story is so universally loved. Those who cherish the film should expect faithful adaptation and more. Those unfamiliar with the source material (if there is anyone), will want to embrace the world’s favourite musical all the same.

Photos – c/o Jeff Busby

 

Artefact excellence

Bogga (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Geoffrey Rush Studio, University of Queensland

November 8 – 18

Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s “Bogga” begins with a rent-a-crowd supported riot at Brisbane’s infamous Boggo Road Gaol; it’s one of the ‘80s riots probably provoked by the university 4ZZZ radio station as was seemingly the norm, soundtracked by songs of the ‘Pig City’ sort. And the old Cement Box Theatre proves to be the perfect location from which to experience it as things are thrown from the gantries and sounds boom from above in an almost surround-sound experience for audiences in the centre of the action.

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The new work by Rob Pensalfini uses verbatim oral histories to explore the decline and fall of the infamous Bjelke-Petersen regime through the microcosm of Queensland’s notorious Boggo Road Gaol in the 1970s and 1980s. Arising from historian Chris Dawson’s record of oral histories from a dozen former guards and prisoners, the work recounts not only riots, murders, corruption and escapes, but the hum-drum of daily prison life in the world within the walls. And after its initial scenes, it settles more into itself in subsequent segments, including interesting profile of famous face inmates (prisoners as they were called then), including Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub fire-bombers James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart, actor and professional wrestler Nathan Jones and old-timer ‘Slim’ Halliday, The Houdini of Boggo Road.

Interesting too are the corruption stories of the Sir Joh era, when prisons were prioritised along with police, despite then being separate political portfolios. But things lag a little towards the end of Act One in reflection of the callous attitude that prisoners had to assume. Indeed, although there has obviously been years of work in curating the real life contributions (all of the words and events in the play come directly from the oral histories without addition or alteration), content could be culled from the repetition amongst the real-life recollections to enable a tighter production. Still, “Bogga” is an excellent example of verbatim theatre, with direct address of the audience adding the obvious authenticity of dialogue like “I whacked him and he let go because I whacked him.”

Under long-time Core Ensemble member Rebecca Murphy’s direction, staging makes good use of all aspects of the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio space, even spilling ideas into the foyer where audience members can contribute graffiti to the walls. And music is a highlight, deserving of the thoughtful inclusion of song and artist list in the program, alongside a handy Bogga slang guide.

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The small cast features some standout performances. Paige Poulier is impressively imposing as a Boggo Road guard and Chris Vaag is excellent in all sorts of multi-roles, from cleanskin criminal without a previous record to long term, foul-mouthed and full-of-venom deviant.

The years of work in development of “Bogga” are not only apparent but clearly have been rewarded with an interesting show about an interesting place that stood the test of some interesting times in this state’s history. As an anthropological artefact, its value is immense. As a work of theatre it is at turns humorous and chilling. Combined, it is well worth the attention of anybody with even passing interest in the notorious heritage prison’s incredible history in particular or the city’s fascinating history in general.

Photos: c/o – Benjamin Prindable Photography