Broadway babies’ brilliance

Defying Gravity

January 8

QPAC, Concert Hall

Internationally acclaimed star of Broadway and London’s West End, Caroline O’Connnor is an Australian musical theatre legend about to tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen for the Sydney season of “9 to 5: The Musical”. And her appearance at QPAC’s “Defying Gravity” is certainly cause for celebration. Indeed, her defiant belt of ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ represents one of the concert’s most triumphant of many memorable moments. A smorgasbord of showstoppers is on offer throughout, including the show’s titular big “Wicked” number which makes appearance, with Naomi Price and Irena Lysiuk in duet, as opening to Act Two.

Weaving the numbers together are personal and career stories. The dazzling O’Connor, in particular has a wonderful, personable stage presence that eases the audience into her tell of performing in front of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, and as an Olivier Award nominee. And the associated numbers that are presented represent a varied mix of musical sensibilities. Act One includes an early detour to France courtesy of the epic “Les Miserables”, including a nimble, rollicking ‘Master of the House’ by Price and then O’Connor which reverberates around the theatre, before segue into a serene ‘Bring Him Home’ from special guest Luke Kennedy, in reminder of Valjean’s anguish while sitting among the barricades. And as Kennedy’s beautiful vocals astonishingly soar but also maintain the song’s delicacy, the audience holds its collective breath.

Irena Lysiuk does an excellent job, stepping in as a late replacement for Amy Lehpamer, sharing highlights of Lehpamer’s career, such as from “Dusty – The Dusty Springfield Musical”. In particular, her simultaneously serene and soulful share of Sara Bareilles ‘She Used to Be Mine’ from “Waitress” is beautifully compelling, doing justice to its emotional content.

The setlist features musical hit after musical hit with one big moment after the next. There are brilliant bangers peppered throughout such as Price’s ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ which gives swelling vocal gravitas to the iconic “Evita” anthem. And it is marvellous to have Price and Kennedy share the stunning signature love song ‘Falling Softly’ from the gentle folk musical “Once”. Full of understated, unassuming beauty, their duet conveys both strength and fragility at the core of the song’s emotional lyrics and is absolutely stunning in its expose of the vulnerability at the core of opportunity.

Ever the versatile performer, Price also gives us a sassy, attitude-filled ‘Domino’ from the jukebox musical “& Juliet”, featuring the songs of Swedish pop songwriter Max Martin, infectious in its upbeat energy, while her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ transports us beyond the ABBA classic’s usual mournful, broken-hearted melancholy to reorchestration with more percussive force.

Like Lysiuk’s saxed-up “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady”, O’Connor’s gorgeous ‘Time Heals Everything’ from the little-known “Mack and Mabel” not only illustrates her stunning vocal range, but offers opportunity to showcase the incredible band, conducted by multi-talented musical director James Dobinson, while on piano himself.

“Defying Gravity” is a hugely entertaining concert from three brilliant Broadway babies (and guest), that presents all range of numbers for musical fans, from shows as eclectic as “Chicago” and “Little Shop of Horrors”. Not only are its performers obviously happy to be on stage, but its audience members are clearly rejoicing in the two-hour show’s opportunity to experience their powerful talents.

Photos c/o – Stewart Tyrell, PhotoCo

Anything Goes all aboard

Anything Goes (Opera Australia and John Frost)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 25 – August 16

The all-singing, all-dancing big Broadway musical “Anything Goes” is the type of show in which, as the title suggests, nothing is predictable, as its audience is taken on a madcap ride along in a vehicle of legendary Cole Porter songs. And the result will surely have you leaving the Lyric Theatre with a smile on your face and song on-the-hum.

The romantic comedy, which was first produced in 1934, is set aboard the transatlantic ocean liner SS American, shown in some wonderfully styled Art Deco staging. On board for the trip are an assortment of characters. There’s nightclub singer Reno (Caroline O’Connor) and her pal Billy (Alex Rathgeber), who has stowed away to be near his love, socialite Hope Harcourt (Claire Lyon) who is actually engaged to the wealthy Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Todd McKenney).

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Throw in Public Enemy Number Thirteen, mobster Moonface Martin (Wayne Scott Kermond) and his sidekick moll Erma (Debora Krizak) with a violin case of cash and gangster gun, and the scene is set for a whole lot of chaos, complete with disguises, a bit of blackmail and some highly entertaining improbabilities. Understandably perhaps, the show is slow to start as characters and relationships are introduced, however, it soon builds towards a show-stopping Act One ‘Anything Goes’ closer. And Act Two is absolutely hysterical.

With its mix of lovely romantic numbers and energetic slapstick comedy sections, “Anything Goes” certainly has something for everyone. In many ways it is of its time (#inagoodway) with its incorporation of casual mentions of Mae West, Greta Garbo and Jimmy Durante that may well be lost on some audience members. And while its romantic moments reflect a real Fred and Ginger finesse, its upbeat numbers will also easily take audiences back to the golden days of MGM movie musical duos of great.

Despite its vintage feel, however, this is a very funny show. Musically, the almighty Act Two opener ‘Blow Gabriel Blow’ sees the production’s star, O’Connor, whipping the capacity crowd into fevered frenzy with the sermon song. Her Act One number, ‘Friendship’ with Kermond is another superb vaudevillian showcase of her comic talents. McKenney too is quite hilarious when he is finally able to cut loose about his dark and savage family secret in Act Two’s revelatory ‘The Gypsy in Me’.

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The crowded cast is full of talented performers, none more so that the amazing Caroline O’Connor who is absolutely deserving of her 2015 Helpman Award for Best Female Actor in a Musical. Her stage presence is magnetic in its projection of an infectious sense of fun and her versatility as singer, dancer and actor is magnificent.  As complement, in reprise of his supporting role as the bumbling Hugh-Grant-ish Englishman Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, McKenney also shows a flair for comedy in his character’s inability to accurately grasp American idioms. Scenes are stolen too by Krizak as the girlish vamp Erma, all womanly long legs and deliberately awkward in her attempts to distract characters.

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“Anything Goes” is a show renowned for its large ensemble tap numbers and in this expectation, it does not disappoint. There are many musical highlights brought to life by, in particular, the orchestra’s brass section. And the comedy is tempered by some beautiful operatic musical numbers from Rathgeber, most notably, whose tenor voice simply caresses the music. With its long list of classics, including ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’, ‘You’re the Top’, ‘It’s De-Lovely’ and ‘Anything Goes’, the show’s soundtrack is sure to stay with you long after leaving.

This is classic musical theatre, pure escapist in nature and full of high-energy, feel-good fun to make it a top night of entertainment. And it is easy to see how its recent Broadway run resulted in three Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival. “Anything Goes” is the perfect piece for a large ensemble cast, which this production celebrates in a big, bright and joyous way. Although it may be dated, its design elements (in particular its glorious costumes) are so delightful as to make it absolutely charming and evidence, it would seem of the adage that ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’.