Becoming Bill’s best

Becoming Bill (Old Fashioned Production Company)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

August 14 – 25

“Becoming Bill” is a new musical from first time writer/composer Bradley McCaw. The story centres around the life of struggling 25-year-old actor Bill (McCaw) who can’t seem to get his life together. His years-long relationship with Kimberley (Stephanie Long) is clearly strained, including by Bill’s dedication to his mother Jane (Rachael Beck) and defence of his lay-about younger brother James (Oliver Sampson) whose spends his life gaming on the couch.

When Bill is asked to write a musical, he follows the advice of writing what you know, basing the work on himself and those around him. Although this creates upset of his family and relationship dynamic as his ‘ordinary’ but slightly off-beat family faces the ghosts of their past, it is confrontation without much insight. Indeed, there are some noticeable gaps in backstory and motivation that stand out amongst an otherwise seamless experience. Thankfully, writing what you know isn’t about events so much as emotions and in this regard the show works well. Its soundtrack especially is effortless in its emotional observations, enhanced by the live band’s inclusion of strings to soar the sentiments of McCaw’s orchestrations in numbers like mother Jane’s revealing reminiscence ‘When We Were Younger’.

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The titular ‘Becoming Bill’ is paced, shaped and melodied to linger long after the show’s end. Its placement as the opening number is not just appropriate by its contextual establishment, but allows the show’s writer/composer to take the spotlight at the front-of-stage. Unfortunately, it also separates him from the initial action with arrival of his mother, however, once he joins the others, things settle. Similarly, early meta-theatre mentions make for some funny moments, but are perhaps unnecessary given that they only top and tail the work rather than serve as an integral component.

National musical theatre treasure Rachel Beck is perfect as mother Jane, presenting her as realistic blend of quirky, emotional, oblivious and, in musical numbers like ‘Are You Happy’, honestly heartfelt. McCaw is a charming Bill, relatable so that we share his frustration with his not-necessarily likable brother’s lack of application. His vocals have a smooth, comforting quality and his keyboard skills are first-rate. The most outstanding vocals, however, come from Long. ‘Let’s Not Have This Fight’ serves not only as showcase of her effortless vocal range, but is an early highlight. In fact, in all instances Trevor Jones’ vocal arrangements create some wonderful harmonies in full company numbers like ‘What Do I Want?’

There is a lot to like about “Becoming Bill”; the thing I liked best was that it is not dominated by a typical romantic focus, but rather a story about a finding your feet and writing your best life, for the promising new Australian work is quite heart-warming in the everydayness but also thoughtfulness of its themes. Seeing new theatre is often a privilege, especially so when it is as quality as this, because “Becoming Bill” is a strong work whose music never disappoints, well on its way to being its own best self.

Bradley’s Becoming Bill

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Sometimes, the experience of musical theatre can be so special as to leave you in want of a thesaurus to do its distinction justice. With its combination of creative talents, “Highlights from Becoming Bill” by Bradley McCaw offers a take-home version of this with its tell of an ordinary family confronting the ghosts from their past as Bill, a first time writer, struggles to write a musical.

Bill is a pretty decent guy. When he gets a phone call from a theatre company asking him to write a new musical for an upcoming season, he struggles to find any inspiration before deciding to base it upon his real life and family. As Bill searches for something ‘interesting’ about which to write, he discovers their lives are not as simple and dull as they first appeared.

Recorded in three studios around the country, the new musical theatre record features contributions from some of Australia’s finest performers: Peter Cousens, Natalie O’Donnell, Kathryn McIntyre, Tom Oliver and Bradley McCaw in its varied melodic diet. From the sweet melody of ‘Are You Happy?’ by Natalie O’Donnell (soon to be seen in “Mamma Mia”), with a piano accompaniment to savour, to the poignant drama of a reflective ‘Mother and Son’ by Kathryn McIntyre (of “Ladies in Black”), each number allows for a conviction of delivery in enhance of narrative elements.

And when the ‘stage’ is shared, such as in former Ten Tenor McCaw and McIntyre’s touching, lingering duet, ‘Maybe We’ve Reached it All’, the result is quite glorious in its blend of voices. Indeed, the song is neither too earnest or exposition heavy, yet still manages to carry an emotional punch as its characters determine with haunting lyricism, if they ‘should try again’. In particular, McIntyre’s contribution to the record, shows her immense musical talent, especially in ‘Let’s Not Have This Fight’ (all right?), a compelling upbeat number that soars as a standout, in that “Wicked” type way, thanks also to the personality of McCaw’s ​piano accompaniment.

​After seven years of development, art appears to be imitating life; “Becoming Bill” reflects a true time in this emerging artists life, when McCaw was asked to write a musical (his first foray in the area), “Becoming Bill”, which won the 2016 New Musicals Australia Snapshot Award. The production of a musical soundtrack is an art form itself. And in the case of “Highlights from Becoming Bill” the musical compositions allow us to soar along with their talented performers, in that goosebumpy type way. The record will be released nationally later this year but for now can be purchased via www.bradleymccaw.com. If you are the kind of person who sometimes posts musical theatre memes on your Facebook feed (#guilty), then this is the sort of not-so-guilty pleasure you will love.

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