and that’s a 2018 wrap


A quick pre-Christmas trip to Melbourne this week has not only give me my favourite theatre experience of the year in Calamity Jane, but provided a chance to reflect on a theatre year now done. Although still in the triple digits, I saw fewer shows in 2018 than in previous years, because…. Netflix. And, as usual, there have been many highlights, making it difficult to providing a definitive list of favourites. But reflective lists are what the end of a year is all about, so here is my eclectic top 10 of the memorable, the musical, the moving and the mirthful, and some honourable mentions.

  1. Calamity Jane – Encore Season (Arts Centre Melbourne in association with One Eyed Man Productions, Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co)
  2. Hamnet (Dead Centre) as part of Brisbane Festival
  3. Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)
  4. Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)
  5. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The National Theatre)
  7. The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)
  8. Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects) as part of Brisbane Festival
  9. At Last: The Etta James Story (Brisbane Powerhouse)
  10. The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

And mention also to the following highlights:

Best performance:

  • Virgina Gay as the titular feisty frontierswoman in Calamity Jane
  • Paul Capsis as 1970s gay icon, English writer, raconteur and actor Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture.

Best AV – A Christmas Carol (optikal bloc for shake & stir theatre co)

Most thought provoking –- Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

Best new work – The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Best musical

  • Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  • Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)
  • Bare (Understudy Productions)

Best cabaret:

Best music – The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)

Best dance – Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

Funniest – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Most joyous – I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

Cleverest – North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)

Most moving – Hamnet (Dead Centre)

Soul legend love

At Last: The Etta James Story

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 27 – 30

Band 2.JPG

Etta James’ sassy soul anthem ‘Tell Mama’ may reassure listeners to ‘tell mamma about it’, but when Vika Bull begins Act One of the smash hit show “At Last: The Etta James Story” with the funky, high-spirited number, it is the audience who has desire to hear more.

Bull’s love for James is clear and immediately her dynamic vocals compel as she invests her heart and soul into this unforgettable show, in celebration of the soul legend’s life, work and voice that in Keith Richards’ words, “could take you to hell or take you to heaven”. Over the course of two hours, Vika is joined on stage by some of Australia’s finest musicians to tell the turbulent but remarkable story of the artist formerly known as Jamesetta Hawkins, including her tumultuous youth and time as Chess Records first major female star and periods of petty crime, drug addiction, poverty and psychiatric hospitalisation on the road to becoming a six-time Grammy Award winning music icon with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, who continues to inspire artists’ today.

The narrative concert careers us through the jazz and blues singer’s chaotic life and 30 albums, as it nestles narration between some of her most beloved songs, in show of how her music transcends genres. It is a story set to history and it is wonderful to hear this reflected in the soundtrack’s different styles as it takes us from to doo-wop of James’ first, 1954, R&B hit ‘Roll with Me, Henry’ (re-titled ‘The Wallflower’ when Modern Records decided the original title was too explicit) through to the sounds of ‘70s soul funk in ‘Out on the Streets Again’.

Vika Bull is absolutely sensational. Her force-of-nature voice is ideal for recreation of James’ distinctive sound. She sings every number fiercely and with her entire body, soaring her guteral vocals to the rafters. And while ‘In the Basement’ best suits her sound, her vocal versatility means that her rawness and emotional expression enlivens snappy jazz and raunchy blues numbers alike, luring audiences in love songs and laid-back, slow-burn ballads.

Act Two’s ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ is goosebumpily good. Bull’s moving expression of the sad song about the one you want wanting someone else, is passionate and heartfelt. And her smoky ‘Fool that I Am’ and sorrowful ‘I Want a Sunday Kind of Love’ are likewise beautiful. And there is, of course, James’ sultry signature song and popular wedding number, the titular ‘At Last’ from her 1960 debut album. In Bull’s hands the immortal song is appropriately poignant in its vulnerability. She also sizzles through ‘I Just Wanna Make Love to You, and uses her high-octane vocals to take ‘W.O.M.A.N’ and James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’ to fantastic, feisty places.

Bull is a generous performer who personally gives her all, yet still celebrates the musicianship of those on stage along with her, members of the seven-piece ensemble, The Essential R&B Band, led by John McAll. And while collectively they are excellent, particularly in their add of big band sound to Act One’s closer, ‘Sugar on the Floor’, it is marvellous that band members are all given their respective moments to shine. ‘Tough Lover’, features an impressive trumpet solo by fellow narrator Tibor Gyapjas and Anton Deleca adds saxophone swing to ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’. On piano, McCall attaches an upbeat feel to make ‘Lovesick Blues’ all the more invigorating and Act Two opens with an impressive guitar solo from Dion Hirini, leading the audience into the raw and earthy ‘Come to Mama’.

“At Last: The Etta James Story” is a slick show, as one would expect from a production that has already experienced such national and international success; yet it never feels like performers are going through the motions. Indeed, its energy is infectious, especially in showcase of the cross-selection of James’ various styles. The songs sizzle compared to the in-between narration, especially thanks to Bull’s stunning performance and right from the beginning of the show’s first number, it is apparent that her efforts will be received with a well-deserved standing ovation. This is a show for Etta James fans of course, but also for music lovers too and it is one not to be missed.