’81 fun

9 to 5 The Musical

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

May 22 – July 2

Based on the original 1980 film of the same name starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, “9 to 5 The Musical” is a workplace revenge comedy that follows the story of three women, each subjected to sexual discrimination and inequality in the workplace. Their takedown of male chauvinism appropriately begins, via pre-recorded video with Dolly Parton (who wrote the music and lyrics) herself, introducing the audience to the story’s leading ladies and taking us into its opening, iconic title song.

This is the world of 1981, complete with of-era mentions of Atari et al. Chauvinism abounds in the workplace with unequal pay, sexist jokes and a yet unnamed, but still very real, glass ceiling for female executives, which sets the scene for a gender battle between the three disgruntled office workers Violet Newstead (Marina Prior), Doralee Rhodes (Erin Clare) and new employee Judy Bernly (Casey Donovan) and their narcissistic boss Frankin Hart Jrn (Eddie Perfect), the president of Consolidated Industries.

Tired of being passed over, harassed and disrespected the three women take their revenge by holding their boss captive while they run company under his guise. Under them, things are transformed and productivity increases. The workplace literally lightens up with Tom Roger’s set and costume design taking us from the monochromatic office of Act One to splashes of ‘80s neon and a lot of fun. Indeed, design elements bring about much the musical’s experience. The stage, for example, is framed by a string of boxy of-era computers and smooth scene changes means things move swiftly, especially during a slickly choreographed hospital scene of many moving parts and bodies, both dead and alive.    

A perfect cast fronts an energetic ensemble. There is a good chemistry between Prior, Donovan and Clare, especially as they bond over their fantasies of enacting revenge on their sexist boss and they are all given independent moments to shine. Prior is sharp as the smart widowed mother Violet, constantly being passed up for promotion in the boys’-club world. Frustrated, but not bitter, she engages us with her wit.

Clare is wonderful as the initially-misunderstood sexy country gal Dorale, secretary to Hart. She captures her blend of warm optimism and no-nonsense comic timing, and her ‘Backwoods Barbie’ playful plea to not be judged by her looks, is vocally strong, with a lovely balance of light airiness and a nip of grit. And Perfect seems to be loving every minute of his time as the smarmy sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss, always attempting to seduce Doralee. One of the show’s comic highlights, however, comes courtesy of stage icon Caroline O’Connor’s antics as the infatuated Roz, culminating in the fantasy tango sequence ‘Heart to Hart’ in which she confesses her obsessive love and fantasies to Hart.

The star of the show, however, is Casey Donovan. In a departure from her previous musical roles, she plays Judy’s soft-spoken meekness to wide-eye perfection as she embarks upon her first foray into the working world after her husband runs off with his secretary. Donovan makes Judy’s change into a force of reckoning believable in the subtlety of its transition. Her Act Two power ballad, ‘Get Out and Stay Out’ is an emotional highlight, moving some opening night audience members to leap to their feet is deserved end-of-song ovation.

“9 to 5 The Musical” is a fast-paced, energetic slice of nostalgia. And while it may be a pantomime-ish delight, there is still a degree of substance through some of its still-unfortunately-ironic comments about equal pay for equal work and the addition of epilogues, again told through video appearance of Parton, in which it is revealed how the character’s lives progressed into the future. For all its silliness and occasional contradictions, there is a clear, overriding message of feminist empowerment, captured in numbers like Act Two’s ‘One of the Boys’, in which Violet dreams of being a female CEO and the earlier ‘Shine Like the Sun’ which sees the three leads’ voices blending beautifully.

With no songs as memorable as its catchy titular number, the soundtrack of “9 to 5 The Musical” largely blends together. Still, the musical preserves the key elements that made the original film such an audience favourite. It is full of iconic lines and moments to delight those who are familiar with the source material, and for those who aren’t, it is still a whole heap of fun.

Photos c/o – David Hooley

Chicago showcase

Chicago

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 1 – December 7

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Even before the QPAC curtain raises on “Chicago”, its experience is evocative, with a black derby hanging on the back of a black downstage chair, as signpost to the show’s indelible choreographic style and Fosse-esque attention-to-detail sensibility. The story of murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery (as its opening lines impart) may be set in the pre-depression, Prohibition-era 1920s in the corrupt city of its title, but it is soon apparent that its satirical look at the cult of celebrity and the media is incredibly timely and so still feels fresh, especially given the current media and political climate. Indeed, despite its sensational aesthetic. there is a clear authenticity to both the show’s story and themes. Based on real-life cabaret singers Belva Gaertner (who inspired the role of Velma) and Beulah May Annan (who inspired the role of Roxie), the work draws on the burgeoning Jazz age of vaudeville’s evolution into risqué cabaret clubs.

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We begin when Roxie Hart (Natalie Bassingthwaighte) shoots her lover Fred Casey (Andrew Cook). Her long suffering, devoted husband Amos (Rodney Dobson) initially offers to take the fall for her, believing her initial claim that Casey is a burglar, but soon the truth emerges and Roxie is sent to Cook County women’s jail, run by the crooked Matron ‘Mama’ Morton (Casey Donovan). Here she meets a lot of women of similar scenarios (cue the iconic ‘Cell Block Tango’), including famous vaudeville actress Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey) who murdered her own sister and husband. As Roxie changes into a calculating survivor, she soon deposes Velma to become infamous defence lawyer Billy Flynn’s (Tom Burlinson) new star client of the moment. …. all set to a hot jazz score.

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As always, the show’s iconic soundtrack is integral to its success; the Kander and Ebb classic has a score full of iconic, toe-tapping tunes in homage to the music of the 1920s, presented by a 15-piece orchestra under the baton of Musical Director Daniel Edmonds. There is a vaudevillian style to its realisation through the band’s positioning on stage and involvement in the action as part of the story. Sounds levels are generally appropriate, although they do compete with the vocals of Burlinson’s ‘All I Care About is Love’, but the big band instrumentation with lots of brass is delightful in its appeal, especially in Act Two’s ‘Entr’acte’, which results in its own deserving ovation.

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While tenacious but soft-hearted crime reporter Mary Sunshine’s (J. Furtado) optimistic Act One number ‘A Little Bit of Good’ drags a little (pun not intended) up until this, things power along through a strong Act One, full of highlights. And when Dobson delivers Amos’s plaintive ‘Mister Cellophane’, its tone is not one of sadness but mourning of mediocrity and a relatable regard of how others view him (or rather don’t). This is not the withdrawn and depressively dejected Amos that is so often seen and the audience loves his genuineness in contrast to wife Roxie’s insatiable desire for fame. And his solo number brings us another delicious choreographic call-back in his don of white gloves to enhance the expressiveness of his hands, a classic Fosse move.

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Although the sexy work was written almost 40 years ago, its music and choreography are also as fresh as ever, thanks to its minimal but considered staging, with its use of stage levels reminding us that we’re watching a vaudevillian version of a musical. Not only members of the ensemble assume roles without change of costume, but they become part of the set, sitting along the side of the stage, sometimes as part of the fabric of a scene, interacting with the conductor for example, but always in character. The smoky atmosphere is akin to that of a jazz club and lighting is an integral part of the experience, especially in the Pop! Six! Squish! Uh-uh! Cicero! Lipschitz! Of ‘Cell Block Tango’ (cleverly without any sign of a cell) where it isolates each of its six women in turn as they explain their presence in the jail and how he had it comin’.

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There is an exception detail to the show’s choreographic realisation, which showcases dancer strength and agility while honouring choreographer Bob Fosse’s distinctive style of finger-snapping, scrunched shoulders, thrusting pelvises and small movements in emphasis of the words and rhythms of the songs. The dancers are absorbing to watch, from the very first step of the ‘All That Jazz’ opening welcome. Every detail is exceptionally executed with impeccable less-is-more 5,6,7,8 precise isolations. Contrast and formation variety also add interest, with smoothly fluid aerials sitting comfortably alongside sharp staccato jazz moves.

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Costumes may play within a seductive black palette, but the aesthetic is far from dull, with a gold frame edging enhancing its razzle dazzle atmosphere. Still, this is a “Chicago” that doesn’t take its self too seriously. Roxie’s ‘Me and My Baby’ is wonderfully vaudevillian and Billy Flynn’s first appearance is in song from behind a gathering of feather-paddled chorus girls, Busby Berkeley style. And humour features heavily, especially in Roxie’s fourth wall breaks and the animated ventriloquism of ‘We Both Reached for the Gun’ in recall of vaudeville’s requisite specialty acts of the era.

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Chidzey is a dynamic as viper Velma, impeccable in the timing of her dance and delivery, however, the name of everybody’s lips has to be Bassingthwaighte. She gives the ditzy Roxie a personality beyond just selfish self-absorption, making her at once foolishly naïve and overly worldly, and yet also sympathetic in her lack of malicious intent. In terms of support players, while Burlinson’s Billy Flynn is more cringy showman than charismatic legal player, Casey Donovon demands attention whenever she is on stage, especially in the sassy and solid ‘When You’re Good to Mama’.

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“Chicago” stands as the second longest-running musical in Broadway history (after “Phantom of the Opera”) and this production shows why. Whether you only know of the show through its 2002 film adaption or “Chicago” is one of your all time musical theatre favourites, this is a slick showcase of all of its aspects, set to sizzle into your memory. It is sin styled exactly, infectious in its energy and compelling in its choreographic character.

Photos c/o – Jeff Busby

 

 

Rock on!

We Will Rock You (John Frost in association with Queen Theatrical Productions, Phil McIntyre Entertainment and Tribeca Theatrical Productions)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 10 – August 14

In the dystopian future of the I-Planet, ‘Honkey Tonk Woman’, ‘Dirty Diana’ and ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ are poetic text relics of the past, as rock has been replaced by a mix of social media and manufactured computer generated pop. Despite expectations of mindless conformity, dreamer Galileo (Gareth Keegan) wants to break free and, not being like other (gaga) girls, the smart-mouthed, assertive Scaramouche (Erin Clare) just wants someone to love. The pair unite to escape from the evil Killer Queen (Casey Donovan) and her henchman Kashoggi (Simon Russell) to join a group of bohemians (lead by Brian Mannix as Buddy) to release the hidden ‘axe’ and bring down the evil GlobalSoft regime.

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It is a flimsy narrative clearly conceived as convenient vehicle to its soundtrack of Queen classics. And that is ok, because, as is announced pre-show “We Will Rock You” serves as a promise as much as a show title. And rock audiences they do, thanks to the band’s brilliant recreation of Queen’s iconic sound. Indeed, at times the show appears more concert-style in its presentation, with songs performed directly to the audience rather than as onstage interactions.

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As the naïve Galileo, Keegan showcases an able rock tenor voice that only really rises to occasion during its ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ encore. Eric Clare, meanwhile, is sensational as the sarcastic and cynical misfit Scaramouche, showing great comic timing and powerful and controlled vocals. Alongside Bohemian boyfriend Brit (Thern Reynolds), Jaz Flowers is another dynamic stage presence as Oz, equally impressive in her delivery of rock numbers like ‘I Want It All’ as in poignant performance of ‘No-One But You’ in Bohemian tribute to the legends who have died young.

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Casey Donovan is an intimidating Killer Queen, brought to life by uploading herself from a computer game, full of fierce facial expressions that add to the show’s initial pantomime feel but make for a vocally inconsistent performance. Uncanny X-Men’s Brian Mannix, however, is a likable chief of the Bohemians, engaging the audience with his often self-deprecating humour and mispronunciation of words as part of the group’s muddled mythology of cherished artefacts from the analogue past.

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Sparse staging and simple choreography serve to showcase the sanitisation of the show’s dystopian world from the opening ensemble number ‘Radio Ga Ga’ and later effectively construct the Hard Rock Café rebel headquarters. Bohemian costumes in this section are also interesting in their detailed nods to iconic rock fashions. There is attention too in the not-so subtle littering of song references throughout the show’s dialogue (as Galileo shares the rock lyric fragments he hears in in his head), with mentions ranging from the Beatles, Stones, Springsteen and U2 to Brtiney, Gaga and even our own Farnsy . Though perhaps overdone, they are amusing enough and serve to widen the show’s appeal to a younger audience.

While the plot remains largely unchanged, this “We Will Rock You’ offers a new incarnation of Ben Elton’s 2002 work as it accounts for modern technology to include references to hashtags, lols and alike and morphs ‘Radio Gaga’ into ‘Internet Gaga’. The inclusions are often overdone to the point of distraction. Also, many scenes are simply too long thanks to unnecessary songs, tenuously forced into the narrative at the expense of its overall cohesion.

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Despite its ongoing flaws and initial-release critical panning, “We Will Rock” remains a popular jukebox musical, with good reason. At the core of its opportune narrative is a classic tale with Arthurian legend echoes. Sure its story is played out in all sorts of silliness, but that it what makes it such a magnifico-o-o-o-o-opportunity to rock on.