Reindeer revelations

A Very Naughty Christmas (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 7 – 16

“Naughty is the new nice” we are told as “A Very Naughty Christmas” begins with Pentatonix’s ‘Good to be Bad’. From here, the show follows snippets more so than stories the little family that surrounds Santa (Stephen Hirst), the scantily clad Saint Nicolas who sizzles onto stage with a swaggersome ‘Santa Claus is Back in Town’, Elvis style.

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Featuring a live band, ten performers and Christmas songs as you’ve never heard them before, this is a Christmas at its most salacious. And its winter wonderland is never as hot as when the dryly-humourous Vixen (Aurélie Roque) shares a filthy and fabulous ‘Jingle Bells’. Apparently, animosity runs through the reindeers’ ‘classic office dramas’. Not only is Vixen regretful of her romance with Nick, but Comet (Claire Owen) hates the oft put-upon Rudolph (Jason Bently) for trying to steal her role as head navigator, so is determined to seduce Santa to let her light the way. And the scampy Prancer (Adwan Dickson) is somewhat inhibited by his Judaism.

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The show is cleverly constructed to combine santa-mental yuletide songs with reimagined Understudy Production’s unique and far-from traditional takes. An all-ensemble finish with Tim Minchin’s contrarian carol, ‘White Wine in the Sun’ is perfect in its universal emotion and inclusive sentiment as much as its melodic delivery, leading into Mariah’s merriful ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ to fill even the most bah humbug of souls with the sprint of the season. The lovestruck Dasher (Lachlan Geraghty) and anxious Dancer (Monique Dawes) also share a lovely ‘Last Christmas’.

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Certainly “A Very Naughty Christmas” showcases the abundance of vocal talent within its cast. More roadie than reindeer-like, Cupid (Chris J Kellett) delivers a strong, melancholic initial traditional take of ‘White Christmas’ before transporting it to a tongue-in-cheek more literal, bigoted bogan place of reminisce. Ruby Clark showcases strong vocals in her sing of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ to equally naughty Donner (Emily Vascotto). And when Rudolf is finally given his moment to shine, shine he does, courtesy of Bently’s vibrant vocals. This is all of course due in no small part to the wonderful work of the on-stage band of Keita Neralic on guitar, Dan Smith on drums and Elliot Parker on bass, under Musical Director Tnee Western-Dyer on keys.

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With everything from classic carols to modern pop and even an all-male “Mean Girls” bit, “A Very Naughty Christmas” is the perfect experience to get audiences in a holiday mood. Though there are some political pokes, everything is light-hearted. Indeed, there is a tap number and even a ‘Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer’ singalong. With sugar and spice and all things both naughty and nice, it is a wonderful celebration of the sentiment of this special time of year, full of delightful fun and rather-not-know revelations like why Santa needs to get the sleigh reupholstered so often.

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Wolfgang women

The Wives of Wolfgang (Hannah Belansky & Co)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Platform

December 1 – 3

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“Three women: the cat, the wife and the mistress, meet in the wake of their mutual lover’s death to ensure that he doesn’t take all his secrets with him to the grave.” Certainly “The Wives of Wolfgang” is enigmatic in its self-promotion as a sexy and entertaining cabaret of songs, burlesque and dark comedy to awaken the senses… and the dead. In execution it is just as enigmatic, but in a beguiling and intriguing way.

‘What’s the time mister wolf?” its three female characters chant in combined question to Wolfgang (Michael Whittred). The occasion is the lone-wolf’s funeral, where the three unacquainted ladies meet, set upon solving a few mysteries and share some secrets. When they do so in poetry, it makes for a wonderful artistic experience, especially as lush lighting compliments the stylised, sexy movement of stage. It is an aesthetic that is established from even before the show starts, with Wolfgang frozen in stance on stage alongside his coffin, but one which is unfortunately not always maintained throughout the show’s realisation, as comical moments of dialogue parroting contrast to the sophistication of others, created a confused rather than coherent tone. The show’s music, however, is a standout, especially the numbers featuring Composer and Performer Whittred on guitar. And his vocals, in particular, resonate richly, particularly in a number sung to his wife in admission of wrong doing but belief still in their relationship.

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Jessica Kate Ryan has a beautiful voice but even in a catchy, melodic introduction to her cat character, the lyrics are not always clear in competition with the soundtrack. Writer and performer Hannah Belanszky gives a committed performance as the perfect wife, self-indulgent and better in all that she does, while Caitlin Hill exploits every comic possibility from her role as the mistress in search in validation. They are all strong, yet flawed, complex female characters, which is superb to see, even if at times it seems like we only scratch the surface of their characters in what feels like a rush through their stories. Although its aesthetic is generally mesmeric, things could be clearer. The cat metaphor, for example, creates some unnecessary complication and has audiences potentially urging for the simplicity of less elements, all given opportunity to excel, as opposed to the woe of mismatched content and sensibility.

As cabarets go, “The Wives of Wolfgang” is certainly original in its sensory experience. And although overt references, for example, clang against its generally sexy and seductive tone, it is, on the whole, entertaining. Its “The Stepford Wives” meets “Chicago” description is absolutely apt and something worth focusing on without distraction for its potential to be realised.

Histrionic history

Elizabeth 1 (Monsters Appear)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 1 – 3

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Elizabeth 1st, the Virgin Queen is of such infamy that she is recognisable by image alone, so from its pre-show marketing, we know that she is to be the focus of the new one woman show from the award-winning Monsters Appear, “Elizabeth 1”. It’s office setting, complete with bulky desktop computer et al, suggests that this new comedy is not of her era. The setting is, in fact, East Sydney pharmaceuticals circa the late 1990s. Emily Burton is Elizabeth Templeton and this is her tale…. or is it?

The initial loyal pharmaceutical employee’s story is a sad one of ineffectual alarms, missed buses and too-hot coffee as she plays with her pug dog, reads about famous monarchs and looks forward to an after-work Halloween costume party. And Burton is magnificent in her realisation of her flighty character as much as her later transformation into a Queen with the heart and stomach of a king. She glides around the stage in glorious Elizabethan garb and hits every cue with precision in merge with sound and lighting. The stylised result is at once dramatic and memorable, as they accompany the ghost-like vision of the Tudor monarch in take of the audience on a shamelessly theatrical trip inspired by the poems and future visions of Good Queen Bess herself, as well as the words of her famous 1588 Speech to the Troops at Tibury in preparation for the expected invasion by the Spanish Armada.

“Elizabeth 1” has Director Benjamin Schostakowski all over it, from its opening title sequence to blast of a Cutting Crew contemporary soundtrack, but, short as it is on narrative, it feels more experiment than complete work, running significantly shorter that its advertised 60 minute duration. Indeed, while its histrionic tackle of history takes audience members to many different places and periods in the show, in its current form, the journey is more intriguing than engaging.

Actually argued

Love/Hate Actually (Act/React)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

November 20 – December 3

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The film “Love Actually” was on free-to-air tv last week, which was of luck for the makers of “Love/Hate Actually”… although maybe not particularly coincidental given the 2003 romantic comedy’s place as a seminal Christmas favourite. As implied by the show’s title, having a familiarity with the film is needed, but let’s face it, who doesn’t, given its place as the most noteworthy Christmas movie of the modern era. Turns out though, that not everyone is a fan of its saccharine sentimentality. Indeed, even within friendships it can cause disagreement all around.

Amy loves it. Natalie hates it. Who’s right? Amy thinks the film “Love Actually” represents everything good about the human experience of love while Natalie believes it to be unrealistic and manipulative crap. These two long-time creative collaborators are staking their friendship on the ultimate test – an audience vote. In doing so they take the audience through recall of the ensemble cast and their ten separate but interlinked stories in consideration of whether they are simply lovely or shallow and pointless plotlines.

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Natalie Bochenski is purposely persuasive in her use of logic and reason to outline the film’s manipulation and overall awfulness courtesy of an actively annoying Kiera Knightly, but an admittedly watchable Colin Firth. And in her pie chart expose of the script’s almost 100 distinct scenes, she is very convincing in expose of its problematic continuity and uncomfortable content of unlikely scenarios, stalkers and fat shaming. Richard Curtis disciple Amy Currie is contrastingly emotional in her gushing about what she considers to be a heart-warming romantic comedy encapsulating all that is wonderful about the festive season.

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The respective arguments that follow allow opportunity for much humour, however, some of the biggest laughs come from when concerns are given further consideration through trademark Act/React audience involvement in segments such as ‘Art of Porn?’ As always, this ‘volunteer’ participation is not confrontational, but well-supported and still very funny. Our male Mia was particularly entertaining is sexy show of what is not appropriate when it comes to workplace behaviours and office dialogue.

Even if do not think of love as surprise trombones, you are sure to find “Love/Hate Actually” thoroughly entertaining as each performer throws herself into her passionate presentation. With turtlenecks and bit with signs, it is sure to appeal to Colin Firth fans and Hugh Grant groupies alike (especially in its ‘All we want is Colin and Hugh’ musical number). And its reminder of the movie’s gaping logical flaws of post 9/11 airport security lapses and the gift of a CD to a woman who, as a Joni Mitchell fan would assumedly already own it, will only validate those who share in the frustrations.

Whether you are Team Natalie or Team Amy, is a decision that in itself if full of merriment as the audience decides who is right. … not that it really matters because the joy of this loving tribute/savage takedown of the best/worst rom-com of all time, is more about the journey than the destination. Hopefully it is an experience that reappears on our stages again soon, regardless of if it is Christmas season.

Free range comedy

Organic (Arj Barker)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

December 1 – 17

The audience in the Powerhouse Theatre for opening night of Arj’s Barker’s tenth Australian show is eclectic and wide-ranging in its age demographic. This not only stands as testament to the American comic’s Australian popularity, but the accessibility of his material, which is not controversial or confrontational, but still very, very funny.

In talk of relationships and marriage, Uber and television spoilers, “Organic” is filled with hilarious commentary. Although early references to Benny Hill and the tv show “Monkey” are more appreciated by those audience members of a similar vintage, the well-structured set features a free-range comic style with something for everyone, satisfying for all.

There is only token reference to current affairs and US politics from the Californian and the show is all the better because of it. Instead, the comedian draws upon his knowledge of our politics and culture to build an instant rapport with the Bris-vegas audience as he tries to trademark his own new Aussie saying, peppering the work with hilarious one-liners and throw-backs to previous content in show of the subtle craftedness of the experience. A finale titular song ‘Organic’ is an excellent example of this, even if it ends the show on a whimper more than a bang.

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Barker is an animated and energetic, but still charming performer and it is easy to appreciate his popularity as even when audience members are called out, his humour is such that is seems like he is laughing with, rather than at, them. This connection is the most endearing component of his comedy. And when he philanthropically announces at show’s end that $1 from every ticket is going to the charity Doctors Without Borders, his integrity is heart-warming.

The show’s title emerges from Barker’s discussion of recent lifestyle changes towards eating organically and going gluten free. This leads to perhaps the show’s funniest segment, where he throws himself into presentation of his caveman bread theory, which is infectiously passionate and well-timed.

If comedians are the new rock stars, then Arj Barker is a supernova of the Australian comedy landscape and with a two week show-run, there is plenty of opportunity to do your face a favour and check out a show that will have you laughing loudly and smiling from start to finish.

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.

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.