The mirth of mediocrity

Disappointments (Judith Lucy and Denise Scott)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 19 – 30

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Comedians Denise Scott and Judith Lucy are at that age now where they can’t be bothered doing anything, especially if it involves being present and mindful. As such, they are more into lie-down than stand-up comedy, welcoming the audience to “Disappointments” from the comfort of on-stage beds, with oversized wine glasses alongside (thank-you bendy straws).

The mirth that follows allows the pair to reflect on their lives, full as they are of disappointments, focussing on oversharing about the crushing discontent of being of that certain age. No topic is too taboo, especially when they venture out into the nervous audience for ad-libbed chats around arthritis, dick pics and menopause, amongst other topics.

Scott also talks of her days on television’s “Winners and Losers” and gives amusing accounts of being mis-recognised both in Australian and abroad, while Lucy  shares a clever riff about nostalgia, taking particular aim at Rick Springfield’s 80’s hit song ‘Jessie’s Girl’. And then things descend into a volley of insults to each other, before changing into their notorious (and hilarious) nude suits. For all the show’s self-loathing and self-doubt, however, what resonates is its celebration of life (including the saggy bits) and essential ponder as to why we hate ageing but love nostalgia, evidenced as they take aim at the idolisation of youth in our culture.

Comedy doesn’t get much better than these Aussie treasures telling it as it is, bounding off each other and the audience with razor sharp wit. While there is a lot of laugh-out-loud humour, there is also an essential message about embracing life’s disappointments and the distinctions that exist between our social media selves and real life experiences. As such, “Disappointments” will leave you not only face-aching from laughter but fit to fist pump the sky “The Breakfast Club” style, in embrace of your own aging mediocrity.

PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.

Sappy song satisfaction

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Thetre

June 16

Alan Cumming is a versatile performer, as well known for his role as cunning political consultant Eli Gold on TV’s “The Good Wife” as for his Tony Award winning turn as the debaucherous “Cabaret” emcee. And versatility, appropriately, characterises “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs”, which contains a perfect balance of songs and stories.

brisbane-powerhouse-Alan-Cumming-3-1178x663.jpgCumming is the consummate cabaret performer and an engaging storyteller (not just because of his ‘soon-to-be-independent’ Scottish accent), creating an intimate connection with the audience, despite the Powerhouse Theatre’s vast size, through his vulnerability in share of personal stories. The show allows Cumming to share some of his favourite songs, looked at anew. “Take off your judgey hat,” we’re told early on, and, as promised we do hear them in a different way, from fellow Scot Annie Lennox’s ‘Why’ as opener to a mid-show mash-up of Adele, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, ‘because they are kind of the same song right’? In each instance Cumming finds the emotional heart of the songs, sharing it as his own, but engaging too through gossipy between-number anecdotes with tell of Liza Minelli, a regretful tattoo, and a retro online commercial he made with Ricki Lake for Trojan condoms.

There are serious times too as Cumming touches on personal traumas that those familiar with his best-selling memoir “Not My Father’s Son”, will recognise. Billy Joel’s ‘Goodnight Saigon’ is dedicated to his combat-traumatised grandfather and Rufus Wainwright’s ballad about father-son estrangement, ‘Dinner at Eight’ is delivered in reference to his abusive father, createing real poignancy.

The band (Lance Horne, piano; Eleanor Norton, cello; Chris Jego, drums) is excellent in musical support, adding to the linger of numbers like Hue and Cry’s ‘Mother Glasgow’, a tribute to the second city of the empire and its perpetual succour, at first comically but then movingly shared. And Cumming sure can sing, as seen in his rousing finale, ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ from the Broadway musical “Company”.

In Cumming’s charismatic hands, this is cabaret as it should be: emotional and personal, yet also chatty and with an easy charm (and sometimes bawdy humour). Indeed, “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs” is old fashioned entertainment from a master showman, easily able to take the audience from laughter to tears through the passion and pathos of his stories and songs. As such, it is not only a treat for Brisbane audiences, but up there amongst the most satisfying ever of Brisbane Cabaret Festival shows.

Austen attraction

Promise and Promiscuity (Penny Ashton)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 11

As if being a sole performer on stage isn’t difficult enough in itself, add in acting in multiple character roles and making it a musical and success is probably going to be no easy feat. Yet, in Penny Ashton’s hands in “Promise and Promiscuity”, the task appears to be a breeze.

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In parody of the novels of Jane Austen, the show follows the fortunes of husbandless writer Elsbeth of Brisbaneshire (in this instance) who writes thrilling stories under the male pseudonym Wilbur Smythe and would rather die an old maid than concern herself with frivolity in possession of foolish notions of love.

It begins with Elsbeth’s socially-ambitious mother lamenting over her aged 2 and 20 daughter’s lack of husband, but also excited by the family’s invitation to a ball at Quigley Manor. Things move quickly as Ashton clearly establishes characters with physicality and vocals. To her credit, each character, whether male or female, is well-defined and well-distinguished from each other with their own, unique physical quirks and characteristics, whether it be excitable younger daughter Cordelia or the aloof Mr Dalton, who is search of intellectual endeavour rather than romance.

With such a crowded cast and quick changes, it takes time to ease into the show’s rhythm and unique Austen-like language. There is a veritable array of well-known Austen characters and although there are no wet shirts, male characters are the most memorable amongst the eight that Ashton plays, particularly, a snorting cousin Horatio, unable to offer compliment without also causing offence.

The script is full of witty incorporation of not just quotes for Austen aficionados but motifs that most people should recognise and double-entendre innuendo that nobody can miss. And the Ashtonisation of modern and pop culture references from Trump to Target and 50 Shades of Grey, add an often very funny touch to things.

Original music, composed by Robbie Ellis adds to the experience, especially when a dance partner must be sought from within the audience. Indeed, musical numbers that outline the importance of proper etiquette (to not be a strumpet) and the broken dreams of a family evicted from their cottage after accusations of wanton promiscuity (by writing as a male) could easy work in a mainstream musical.

“Promise and Promiscuity” may not be entirely proper in a Regency way, but it is genuinely good-natured. Ashton’s energy is infectious and, as a naturally engaging performer, she makes the show’s experience all the more delightful. While those familiar with the fiction of its source material, will appreciate its homage, its attraction goes to beyond audiences with this experience. It’s not so much a musical (as billed) but rather a play with some songs about the curse of being a woman in Austen’s world, yet it is still all sorts of wonderful.

Bush best

In The Warm Room – The Music of Kate Bush 1978 – 1980 (Electric Moon)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 9

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When a show is billed as “the voices of eight seasoned cabaret performers will shine Bush’s creativity, imagination and innovation”, expectations are high. Appropriately so, given Electric Moon’s previous shows, and as-anticipated, realised from its opening, beautifully-mournful number, ‘Moving’, by Josh Daveta, with ethereal additions from Bethan Ellsmore. And then there is Alison St Ledger who sounds just like the iconic and unique artist in the meta-music ‘Wow’.

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It is not all whimsical, however, with Daniel Hack rocking ‘Don’t Push Your Foot on the Heartbreak’. Indeed, there is something for everyone, from everyone; the stage is cluttered with collaborators (#inagoodway) and the show is all the better for it. The ten piece band, for example, does an excellent job in evoking a variety of moods and genre influences, as eclectic as its source songstress’ musical catalogue.

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Highlights include Daveta’s rollicking ‘Oh to be in Love’ and a haunting ‘’Oh England My Lionheart’ from an imposing (as always) Sandro Colarelli. And there is also Lucinda Shaw’s guttural ‘The Kick Inside’ and later symphonic post-apocalyptic ‘Breathing’, and a wonderful ‘Wuthering Heights’ from Bethan Ellsmore, in nod to Bush’s trademark cinematic and literary references and as example of Ellsmore’s vocal prowess.

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In each instance, the songs in the warm room are almost shared anew as the performers each bring something different to bringing out Kate Bush’s very best. But one would expect no less from Sandro Colarelli, Lisa Crawley, Josh Daveta, Bethan Ellsmore, Daniel Hack, Lucinda Shaw and Alison St Ledger… the best bringing out Bush’s best in make of an infectiously-entertaining evening.

Photos c/o – Lachlan Douglas

Stories and song (lines)

Song Lines (Michael Tuahine)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

June 1

For aboriginal and Torres Strait island people, a song line is who you are and where you come from. Accordingly, in his Queensland Cabaret Festival debut, “Song Lines”, acclaimed actor and singer, Michael Tuahine takes audiences on quite the journey of his ’42 and single’ song lines, weaving in and out of each other as the most genuine of stories often do.

There is an appealing authenticity from the tale that follows, stemming from the stories of his proud and determined Central Queensland mother and New Zealand Special Air Service Maori father, told with photographic slideshow accompaniment to help in celebrating the history and icons that have shaped his story. The show’s soundtrack is impressive in its considered curation, from Goanna’s ‘Solid Rock’ in tell of his mother’s life at Cherbourg Mission under total control of the Aboriginal Preservation Protection Act to Jenny Morris’ ‘She’s Has to Be Loved’ as chronicle of her journey, ‘waiting for some recognition’ to New Zealand, in search on her dreaming place.

There is much humour too, often at New Zealand’s expense. Indeed, Tuahine is a charismatic performer with a natural, comforting charm. The show is still a little rough around the edges; the live band accompaniment is competingly loud in, for example, in an otherwise outstanding ‘Great Southern Land’ opening number and there are few distracting sound and lighting issues. However, these a minor detractions from an otherwise absolutely entertaining cabaret experience.

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The Aussie and NZ soundtrack is a real treat, featuring as it does, songs from Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel and Split Enz, alongside lesson known numbers like ‘Brisbane Blacks’ and of course a singalong ‘Slice of Heaven’. While there is light and shade within the show’s soundtrack, including a wailing performance of Rob Orbison’s organic ‘Crying’, Tuahine is best when with guitar in hand in share of country rock sounds, which serves as reminder of his wonderful work as Jimmy Little in Queensland Theatre’s 2015 celebration of the musician’s life and music, “Country Song”.

Although it is a one man show, “Song Lines” is so much more than just one man’s story. In its trace of ancestry through music, it presents a rocking story of family, identity and belonging, told with pride and love. Its only pity is that it is a one-night-only season, as the want to return with others is strong, such is its infectious appeal.

Sinatra satisfaction

Seven on Sinatra

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 2

With a stellar cast of some of Brisbane’s greatest songstresses in celebration of the Leader of the Pack, “Seven on Sinatra” is a real night to remember as Liz Buchanan, Jo Doyle, Jacqui Devereux, Bethan Ellsmore, Rebecca Grennan, Claire Walters and Melissa Western do it their way with a swing band of the Sands Hotel Copa Room sort.

With a catalogue of 200 career chart songs, Sinatra leaves the ladies copious crooner choices and the show’s selection of swinging tunes and suave sounds allows every performer their chance to shine, from the melodically charming ‘It Had to Be You’, now of “When Harry Met Sally” association to the ultimate love song to love, ‘Moon River’. And the result is a show of many highlights with some stunning vocal ranges giving the songs new life and depth, including Ellsmore’s beautifully ethereal take on the swinging ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, Devereux’s ‘You Can’t Take that Away from Me’, at once tough and tender in its mix of joy and sadness, and a declarative ‘That’s Life’ that Western makes all her own in belt to the back of the room. In every instance the power and pure emotion behind each number is clear, with the overall mix of ballad and uptempo numbers working well.

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It’s not all solos though; the magic begins with a ‘That Old Black Magic” duet and ends with an encore of a shared ‘The Lady is a Tramp’. The range of songs from the canon of the most important and influential American standards not only allows the songstresses to showcase the memorable melodies, but gives the live band opportunity to shine. And shine they do, in numbers like, ‘Night and Day’, for example, where the jazz musicians breakaway with multi-layered, seductive soundscapes, worthy of mid-song recognition applause. And amidst the smooth sounds are fun moments too like an interesting take on ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and surprises such as when Doyle emerges from the crowd to croon a syrupy ‘Strangers in the Night’.

Frank Sinatra is one of the most influential popular singers of the 20th century, not just because of the longevity of his success, but his cement of many of the songs that occupy the American Songbook. This show not only includes the most essential Sinatra songs, all impeccably arranged, but showcases the strong technique of some talented vocalists. Indeed, with seven styles of singing, “Seven on Sinatra” offers satisfaction for everyone, be they a Frank fan or not, sure to satisfy in its mellifluous melodies and show of how Sinatra is Sinatra and why we love him still.