Fight and almost-flight

Peter Pan (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

April 2 – 9

I would say that Beenleigh Theatre Group’s take on JM Barrie’s “Peter Pan” is a strange little show… except it’s not exactly little. With a dog for a nurse, malicious tinker bell puppet, performers facilitating bedroom drawers and the exaggerations of the story’s far-from-perfect father (David Murdoch), there is a lot happening in Act One as the audience is introduced to the show’s protagonist Wendi Darling (Ethan Hill in reappropriation of the traditionally female role), a boy on the edge of adulthood, dreaming of a place to belong.

By Act Two, at the magical boy who can fly’s invitation, the three Darling children, Wendi, Joan (Alyssa Burnett) and Michael (Bailey Ryan) fly skateboard second to the right and straight on ‘til morning to the Never Land island of adventure and fun, realised in a simple graffitied setscape. While there are still some dark moments within the ensuing tale of wonder, Daniel Dosek’s nefarious Hook is more folliful than a fearsome, devilish commander of the Jolly Roger ship and its motley crew of pirates.

All children want to grow up except the captain of the Lost Children, youngsters who fell out of their baby carriages when their nurses were looking the other way, and Dérito da Costa injects dynamism from his first appearance as the animated free-spirited and mischievous Peter Pan. With head tiled upwards and statuesque stance, he captures the classic character’s iconic physicality and brings much joy to early scenes that see the unendingly youthful title character jubilantly jumping about in celebration of having had his shadow sewn back on by Wendie one night in the nursery of the Darling household. And with a child-like lack of emotional complexity, he moves quickly from boastfulness to selfishness and anger at the idea of ever growing up, emphasising the story’s themes of imagination and escapism. Nick Hargreaves, too, brings some wonderful moments of humour to the story in his role as Slightly, Peter’s lieutenant amongst the lost children, with his well-timed, dryly-humorous one-liners bringing many of the show’s laughs.

While the production’s few musical numbers don’t really contribute a lot and, along with Act Three’s mermaid dancers, drag down the story’s momentum, Dudley Powell’s fight choreography enlivens scenes such as Peter’s epic battle with best friend / passionate rival Tiger Lilly (Jai Godbold), which is realised like a hyper-real video game brought to life. Megan Brunett’s sound design also works well to imagine us into the story’s distinct settings, with characters gathered around cracking campfire sounds and Pan’s sworn-enemy Captain Hook commanding a creaking pirate ship across stormy seas.

“Peter Pan” is a show not often performed on stage and it easy to see why. It is a challenging choice for a community based theatre company to bring to life. In this production, which has been adapted and produced by members of the company, Beenleigh Theatre Group makes some clever choices in its attempt to realise this ambition, such as imaginative incantation of the ticking crocodile that took Hook’s hand, in keeping with the celebration of imagination that sits at its core, however, with so many novelties, not everything works. While the production does present as an escapade of sorts, it is just not as big as the awfully big magical adventure story deserves.  

Once upon a twisted tale

Into The Woods (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

February 18 – 26

The late Stephen Sondheim’s works are everywhere at the moment, including a gender-swapped revival of his ground-breaking musical comedy “Company” currently enjoying rave reviews on Broadway. In Beenleigh, however, audiences are heading “Into The Woods” to enjoy one of the greatest musical theatre composer and lyricist’s most enduring and popular works. And from the outset of Beenleigh Theatre Group’s production of the Tony Award winning musical, it is clear that the woods is the place to be. Its epic opening number not only earworms its theme tune into audience hearts, but showcases some of Sondheim’s wittiness lyrics, especially as an immediately-commanding witch (Danika Saal) begins rapping about the virtues of vegetables.

The classic, fairy tale adventure mashup that is “Into The Woods” incorporates plots and characters of several Brothers Grimm stories into an original plot in which a Baker (William Boyd) and his wife (Genevieve Tree) are sent off on a magical quest by the mysterious neighbouring witch to collect various items in order to break a curse that has left them childless. The first act follows their journey as they embark upon the very specific search for a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, which brings them across Little Red Riding Hood, (Emma Burridge), Jack of the beanstalk fame (Aidan Cobb) and others.

From the moment the story opens once upon a time to its ‘Prologue: Into the Woods’, in which all the protagonists chorus together to explain their motivations for a trip into the forest, music is at the forefront of the show’s success. Indeed, this first taste of the complex score of beautiful, expressive melodies and bold brassing alike, affirms that under the musical direction of conductor Julie Whiting, the band (hidden away at the back of the stage as if in woods themselves), is more than up for the challenge.

At the emotional centre of the action is the hopeless yet hopeful Baker and his Wife. Boyd and Tree have an easy chemistry that endears them to the audience and their ‘It Takes Two’ duet is elevated by some lovely harmonies. Meanwhile, Saal is glorious as the antagonistic evil witch who prompts their scavenger hunt-like journey into the woods so they can reverse a curse to have a child. While ‘Children Will Listen’ is gorgeous, her earlier anthemic Act Two song, ‘Last Midnight’ is passionate and exciting in its dynamism.

Chloe Smith is also in fine voice as Cinderella, who seems to only encounter kindness when it comes from her feathered friends. She has a beautiful vocal tone making her ‘No One is Alone’ one of the evening’s highlights. Christopher Morphett-Wheatley and Darcy Rhodes dynamically prance about in play off each other’s bravado energy as the two (and two-dimensional) princes (Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince), especially in the pantomime-esque ‘Agony’. Their frolic around while attempting to one-up each other in argument over who has it worse receives an enthusiastic audience response. And in his double as the Wolf, Morphett-Wheatley is beguiling in his stalk of Little Red Riding Hood (Emma Burridge) in ‘Hello, Little Girl’.

Burridge makes for a formidable Little Red Riding Hood, livening things with her every appearance, not only through her animated perkiness but impressive vocals. Her voice is consistently crisp and strong, even when with a mouth full of bread (as if Sondheim’s lyrics are already a mouthful!). And, along with Darcy White ‘as’ his emotive cow Milky-White, Aidan Cobb, as young Jack, gives us some unexpected ‘aww’ moments.

Like the realisation of Milky-White, staging effectively accounts for horse and carriage type props and big story aspects, even giving some standout moments such as our glimpse into what is going on inside Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s house. While missed microphone cues and static sometimes distract from audience engagement, Perry Sanders and Chris Art’s sound design works with Tom Dodds’ lighting design to effectively mark Act Two’s entrance of an angry giant to threaten the kingdom and challenge characters’ until-then fulfilment.

“Into The Woods” is a big musical of many characters and it takes times to tell their stories and then share the moral to be derived from them. The result is a long running time; Act One is almost self-contained, but then there is more as Act Two flips the story as the central characters are forced to band together in attempt to defeat the Giant. To the company’s credit, this production does well to make the twisted tale’s story somewhat easy to follow, especially as it transforms from a comic misadventure to an exploration of the consequences of actions. Even though it may come with a moral, however, this is no feel-good fairy tale for children, with its darkly humourous consideration of popular cultural myths.

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.  

Step, kick chorusing

A Chorus Line (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

January 31 – February 15

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“A Chorus Line” begins with audience members being rushed in to a Broadway audition. True to expectations, it is leg warmers and headbands, self-assurance and nerves as we look upon a cattle call audition of performers each dreaming of stardom and hoping to ‘get it’ (as one of the show’s signature songs signposts).

The authentic approach continues once the diverse group of characters is down to seventeen, when from the back of the tiered stalls seats, the show-within-a-show’s director Zack (Zander Tidmarsh) asks the dancers to share their names, ages, and a little bit of their backstory, that is where they come from and why they dance, as he attempts to shrink the group size further down to eight.

There is a clear undercurrent of troubled history between the largely one-note, brash and un-empathetic Zack and once star dancer Cassie (Jackie Brewster) back in New York after trying to make it in Hollywood, exploration of which brings us back after interval. But beyond this there is not much in the way of conflict. There’s not much in the way of narrative either. Instead, we hear the hopefuls telling their stories and breaking out into the occasional song and dance number as we learn about the dreams and backgrounds that have uniquely shaped their lives. Act Two slows with some confronting content, not only in the form of a lengthy monologue in which Paul (Phil Maas) tells his story of how he was kicked out of home while struggling with his sexuality.

A single location story and bare audition stage setting makes for easy staging. The almost pre-requisite mirrors appear at times at the back of the stage, however, mirror imagery doesn’t contribute significantly to key dance numbers apart from their use in Cassie’s big number, ‘Music in the Mirror’. However, despite the minimalism of its staging, the show is fraught with challenges, given the sheer size of its ensemble cast.

The iconic show, which revolutionised the notion of what a musical could be when it opened in 1975, presents the audience with a rotation of stories straight from real life. Each tale is based on interviews between Michael Bennett (who originally conceived, directed and choreographed the show) and his friends. And in Beenleigh Theatre Group’s hands, it is ably brought to life anew three decades after its record breaking 15-year Broadway run ended.

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As the lives of the dancers converge on the audition stage, performers all tell their characters’ stories with heart. Harley Coghlan is an early standout as the flamboyantly eccentric Robert and Aimee Monement commits to sour Sheila’s eye-roll obnoxiousness throughout her every gesture, action and reaction, even if this leaves little room for juxtaposition between her aggression and the pathos of her description of the role of ballet in offering her an escape from domestic conflict. As Cassie, Jackie Brewster tries her best to live up to the many mentions of her being the best dancer on the stage, especially given her character’s solo number and lengthy, but seemingly simple, dance routine.

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Ensemble numbers feature good harmonies, while Taylah McLennan gives a standout vocal performance as the animated Diana, leading the cast during the iconic but almost out-of-place ‘What I Did for Love’. And ‘Dance: Ten; Looks: Three’ (aka the Tits and Ass song) from Rockette wannabe Val (Tabitha Woods), will stay with you long after its conclusion. Meanwhile, the role of Richie, provides Abu Kebe with a wonderful showcase of his talent as a dancer. Although his character’s profile is relatively minor in comparison to other roles, his stage presence when dancing more than makes up for this.

The high energy step kick kick leap kick touch, again choreography (Director and Choreographer Stewie Matthews) is a real treat, especially given the large ensemble. It is simple, elegant and almost too big for the space (#inagoodway), especially in the singular sensation signature tune ‘One’, in which the dancers finally dance the chorus number for an unnamed and unseen star. However, some occasional obtrusive, strangely-hued spot-lighting detract from the impact of others.

Marvin Hamlisch’s score (“A Chorus Line” was the composer’s first Broadway show) fills the theatre with a variety of musical styles, which are delivered without fault by the live, unseen-until-encore band, led by musical director/conductor Steven Days. Its contribution to the glorious reveal of the show’s razzle dazzle finale in which the auditionees all reunite on stage for the final number, dressed identically in ironic removal of the individuality we saw in earlier scenes, makes for a magical moment.

As a meta musical about the making of a musical, “A Chorus Line” may be ground-breaking in its celebration not of the stars of a show, but their anonymous chorus members support, but it is not necessarily a musical that propels itself to the top of people’s list of favourites. It is at times intense and often humourous in its capture of the essence of a Broadway chorus audition and in Beenleigh Theatre Group’s hands, a comforting take back to the musical’s intimate roots and core emotions, which makes for an enjoyable night out in experience of a classic of the musical stage.

BTG’s notorious BNC

Bonnie & Clyde (Beenleigh Theatre Company)

Crete Street Theatre

November 15 – 30

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“Bonnie & Clyde” starts at its end, with the image of its titular American criminal couple sitting in a car, dead, accompanied by some energetic Bluegrass sounds (‘Prologue’). Before long, however, we are transported from the Louisville location of the folk hero couple’s final run’s end to their younger, hopeful Texas selves. At 10-year-old Bonnie’s (Denyella-Sophia Duncan) father’s funeral, the young girl shares her fantasy movie-star ambition, which is inset with young Clyde’s (Kieran McGinlay) juvenile delinquency and career criminal aspirations through idolisation of Billy the Kid and Al Capone (‘Picture Show’). Fast forward five years to the meeting of the car loving criminal Clyde (Connor Hawkins), just escaped from prison with his brother Buck (Brad Kendrick) and Rowena waitress Bonnie (Lauren Conway) and the rest, as they say, is history… only a history about whose detail we perhaps know very little. And so we discover the lover’s story as they journey from robbery to murder and folk hero status.

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Depression times are tough in the 1930s of Bonnie and Clyde’s two-year crime spree, with the businesses failing, banks collapsing and many people out of work. Still, as Clyde graduates from theft to murder, Bonnie agonises back and forth about following him down a fatal path (‘Too Late to Turn Back Now’), ultimately finding herself seduced by her growing fame as a ‘ravishing redhead’. As the tag-line from the also-named “Bonnie and Clyde” 1967 movie surmises, “they’re young, they’re in love, they kill people”. This also aptly sums up what goes on in the musical realisation of Bonnie and Clyde’s story. Still, under Kaitlyn Carlton’s strong direction, it is a pacey and engaging show, helped along by multi-media display of real-life newspaper headlines in chronicle of the ill-fated couple’s robbery spree and on-the-run rampage.

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While there are no real standout songs with the score, the music of “Bonnie & Clyde” (Composer Frank Wildhorn) works well in telling the show’s story, with its smooth combination of rockabilly, blues and gospel numbers. Under Musical Director Julie Whiting, the polished orchestra is flawless in its musical transitions. ‘God’s Arms Are Always Open’ conveys an infectious gospel energy courtesy also of Preacher Stuart Fisher’s compelling vocals (wonderfully revisited in Act Two’s opener ‘Made in America). And Act One’s finale, ‘This World Will Remember Us’, which sees Clyde convincing Bonnie to smuggle a gun into his cell so he can break out of prison, is a jaunty showcase of the talents of Liam Madden (drums/percussion) and versatility of Annie Silva (fiddle/mandolin/banjo) who both impress as standouts from the show’s very first number. Well-balanced orchestrations lay a solid foundation for the singers, never overpowering the vocals. And the beautifully orchestrated score is complimented by the honesty and emotion that the performers find within the music.

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Bonnie and Clyde’s mutual infatuation is obvious in their unquestionable loyalty; they convey a chemistry even as they quarrel (their favourite form of foreplay). Connor’s Clyde may be no bed or roses but he is charismatic. Indeed, despite his unlikeable actions and sometimes questionable treatment of Bonnie, audience members are on his side thanks to Hawkins’ magnetism. And his prison cell lament towards the end of Act One, ‘Raise A Little Hell,’ is a powerful moment thanks to his strong vocals. Conway, too, is vocally impressive, especially in her delicate Act Two solo, ‘Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad’, in which Bonnie passionately declares that she’d ‘rather breathe in life than dusty air’.

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Conway also impressively overcomes the inherit challenge of eliciting audience emotional investment in a character that spends the entire show making poor choices and determining herself to die by Barrow’s side. Indeed, there is much to like about the vigour she brings to the character, as her zealous anti-heroine rebellion is also boldly that of a woman in a time when women were not afforded equal rights. Kendrick captures the juxtaposition of Buck simple, but simultaneously complex supporting character, devoted to his wife Blanche (Katya Bryant) yet also eager to conspire with his daring brother. And Bryant gives a measured showcase of Blanche’s morality, love for her husband and fear for his safety, particularly platformed in the honest and heartbreaking ‘That’s What You Call a Dream’.

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Simple yet inventive staging (Production Design by Bradley Chapman) allows for swift set changes, although cohesion sometimes suffers due to missed sound cues and severe lighting switches. Mary Oliver’s costumes are, however, a standout. Outfits are era-evocative without being clichéd and appropriate to history’s most stylish bank robbers, with channel of Bonnie’s iconic beatnik beret and striped sweater blouse alongside general 1930s form-fitting, softly tailored style pieces.

“Bonnie & Clyde” is an interesting exploration of an infamous couple we know but not really. It’s also, however, a story about American dreams, giving it an ongoing resonance beyond its depression era setting. While its songs aren’t particularly memorable in and of themselves, this musical serves more as a complete experience than a sum of its parts. While, as Clyde’s sister-in-law observes, the characters deserve each other, Lauren Conway and Connor Hawkins give us memorable portraits of the notorious duo, making this “Bonnie & Clyde” quite the triumph.

 

Finding Fidelity

High Fidelity (Beenleigh Theatre Company)

Crete Street Theatre

June 28 – July 13

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Music-loving record shop owner Rob (William Boyd) is a self-centred, self-confessed everyman in his thirties going through a painful re-evaluation of his life and lost loves, with a little help from his music, in the hope of finding real happiness. By day, Rob holds court at his record store, which is where “High Fidelity” opens with one of its highlight numbers, the catchy ‘Last Real Record Store on Earth’. By this, we are also introduced to ‘musical moron twins’, his co-workers Barry (Lachlan Clark) and Dick (Isaac Tibbs) and learn of Rob’s breakup with lawyer Laura (Katya Bryant) who is now in relationship with new-age interventionist Ian (Bradley Chapan).

Their stories are ones that many know well; “High Fidelity” is based on British author Nick Hornby’s instant-hit 1995 novel and the 2000 film adaptation, which starred John Cusack and became a cult classic. As in their earlier incantations, armed with their collective encyclopaedic knowledge of all things musical, the trio of characters compile top five lists for every occasion, so of course Rob’s breakup prompts him to song with ‘Desert Island Top 5 Breakups’, as said women from his history sass about the stage. Things slow after the ballad ‘Ready to Settle’ when we find out the details behind Rob’s breakup, but Act Two momentums along in journey through a range of musical styles (This is a musical whose score is original but pays tribute to existing bands or songs, with influences for each listed in its program).

Act Two is full of musical highlights. ‘Conflict Resolution’ represents a wonderful parody number, on repeat, as Rob reflects upon alternative ways that he could have reacted during an uncomfortable conversation with Ian. Its Guns ‘N’ Roses, Beastie Boys and Snoop Dog segments are each as entertaining as each other in their distinction and give Aaron Hamilton a change to shine on drums. Parody also appears in a fantasy sequence, ‘Goodbye and GoodLluck’, during which Bruce Springsteen materialises to advise Rob how to be like The Boss. The number not only has the icon’s energy and distinctive rousing rock sounds, bit it even features appearance of The Big Man Clarence Clemons and a ‘Dancing in the Dark’ style Courtney Cox pull up onto stage to dance along.

Across the show, the small band does a stellar job with musicians often playing multiple instruments. Act Two’s opener ‘I Slept with Someone/Lyle Lovett’ offers opportunity for Tess McLennan to provide a softer, violin touch to the soundtrack, however, the lyrics of songs like ‘She Goes’, in which mutual friend Liz delivers some harsh home truths to Rob about his macho act, become difficult to decipher under the band’s boom. On-stage there is a clear energy to the songs and pleasing harmonies in the big choral numbers that see the company come together.

The trio of diverse record shop workers are brilliantly played, drawing upon but not allowing their performances to be defined by their famous film archetypes. Clark’s brash Barry is somewhat unlikable but undeniably funny in his angry, arrogant mania. Tibbs makes the painfully shy Dick a standout character, capturing his awkward insecurity in his every heightened reaction, especially in attempt to talk with women. Boyd is a relatable, flawed Rob and his conversational monologues to the audience from centre stage go some way towards capturing the story’s integral introspection, however, ultimately the production suffers somewhat due its departures from the story’s emotion for the sake of comedy.

While the story’s central pop culture threads are still evident, its honest observations about human relationship aren’t as readily apparent. Although Rob says he has changed from one who speaks with passion about the power of a well-curated mixtape to remedy all, we don’t really see his new-found emotional intelligence emerging, perhaps because of all the distractions on stage. Some moments are very funny, however, the laughs come mostly through throw-away lines not central to their scenes. And although little background details (beyond just seeing the “Beaches” soundtrack in the Hip Hop section) add amusement, there is a fine line between these being incidental additions and distractions from the main action.

It’s little details that prove to be the show’s undoing. While it attempts to pay homage to the music of geek culture, appearance of a Little Dum Dum Club tshirt in the ensemble, brings era authenticity into question. And although scene transitions are swift, choreography is a little rough around the edges and doesn’t always exploit the possibilities of the space.

As a musical “High Fidelity” will not be to everyone’s tastes as it includes course language and partial nudity. In some ways it is easy to understand how the Broadway production of the show closed after 18 previews and 13 regular performances, given its lyrics’ unimaginative rhymes of the ‘I’d be making fun of them …. I’m really one of them’ and ‘Now you finally got a winner. Did you even cook her dinner’ sort. And while though the iconic line ‘which came first the, music or misery’ makes appearance it seems that Rob’s unhappiness and this fidelity to its source material have been sacrificed for the sake of comedy, meaning that the narrative wears a little thin. It is not without its charm though and music still stands strong as a central theme, resulting in at least numerous opportunities for nostalgic indulgence courtesy of the record covers on display.