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.

How can we resist you?

Mamma Mia! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

November 5 – 14

Since opening in London in 1999, the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” has become a global phenomenon, with good reason. The ultimate feel-good show is the type that can be returned to again and again, such is the combined appeal of its score of ABBA hits and celebratory sentiment. Still, it is interesting to see how different companies but their own stamps on the show’s formula, and in this regard Queensland Musical Theatre’s production stands tall.

The wafer-thin plot is of a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Sophie Mason) tells the audience how her quest to discover the identity of her father has seen her invite three men from her free-spirited mother’s past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago…. on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to loyal and loving Sky (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to one of the men so that he can walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Carole Williams). The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship. 

What makes the musical so joyful is the brilliance of ABBA’s strong story-led lyrics which weaves the songs into the storyline. Even from the opening overture montage of instrumental versions of ABBA’s hits, there is a display of excellence. Under Julie Whiting’s musical direction, the score still unfolds with some interesting touches to make it the company’s own, such as a synthy sounding ‘Honey Honey’, in which Sophie discovers her mother’s old diary, complete with intimate description of her dates with the three men, and the Greek musical characteristics that appear woven within the instrumentation of Act Two’s closer, ‘I Have a Dream’.

Bec Swain’s choreography transitions the musical numbers along with effortless efficiency, such as when Donna’s best friends, and former Donna and the Dynamos girl group, Tanya (Lisa Alsop) and Rosie (Fiona Buchanan) move us from their attempt to cheer her up with ‘Chiquitita’ to effort to convince her that she can still be the ‘Dancing Queen’ she once was in a full-scale ensemble number. The title track is similarly, smoothly punctuated by pop-up appearances of a Greek chorus of sorts and the stylised, out-of-place Act Two opener ‘Under Attack’, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, is up there with its best realisations. Similarly, the flipper boys of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me, elicit the most amplified audience reaction, thanks mostly to Darcy Rhodes, whose elevated performance of Sky’s goofy bartender best man Pepper steals every scene. And when he attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, his acrobatic animation makes for a standout number.

As with previous Queensland Musical Theatre shows, “Mamma Mia” consists of a large ensemble, all of whom project an infectious energy throughout. The lead and supporting roles are perfectly cast, with some obvious standouts. Buchanan is simply wonderful as the wisecracking, clumsy and fun Rosie. She dominates in her comic role, especially during Rosie’s wedding day proposition of Bill (David McLaughlin) in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’. Together, Buchanan and McLaughlin represent another highlight, given their genuine chemistry, her physical comedy and his animated facial expressions, which tell us so much more than his dialogue alone ever could. 

Jordan Ross as Sam and Peter Bothams as ‘Headbanger’ Harry, McLaughlin delivers strong Act Two musical numbers in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Our Last Summer’ and Williams, Alsop and Buchanan harmonise together beautifully as Donna and Dynamos. Mason has a lovely singing voice that provides some touching moments to young and optimistic bride-to-be Sophie’s journey. And in the role made famous by Meryl Streep in the movie adaptation, Williams layers strong-willed single mother Donna with some fragility in her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ admission to Sam that he broke her heart. 

While opening night sees some microphone issues and a whole lot of unnecessary theatre haze, the vitality, entertainment and engagement of this “Mamma Mia!” is undeniable. Its celebration of ABBA’s 70’s music by a cast of talented performers, creates a joyously energetic experience, which is only amplified by its now-traditional finale medley of ABBA hits and accompanying audience rise to their feet to sing and dance having the time of their lives, ‘Dancing Queen’ style.

Photo c/o – CF Photography Families

Jellicle joy

Cats (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 25 – November 3

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is a show that polarises musical theatre fans; people either love it or hate it, but are rarely ambivalent, which alone makes it an ambitious choice for any production company, aside from it being so heavily grounded in dance. On the heels of their accomplished “Annie”, Queensland Musical Theatre are, however, more than up for the task, given its expandable cast of different age groups.

Based on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the anthology-style, fully sung-through musical takes place over the course of one night, telling the story in song and dance, of the annual junkyard gathering of Jellicle cats, during which one special cat is selected to ascent to the Heaviside layer. Most people probably know the musical, however, because of its operatta-ish ‘Memory’, one of the only songs that doesn’t come from a T.S. Eliot poem and one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous compositions, which represents the story’s climax as the character Grizabella, engages in a melancholic remembrance of her glamorous past as a plea for acceptance. And, appropriately, the numbers stands as one of this production’s standout moments as Alison McKenzie’s deeply rich and mellow take, moves the audience to goosebumps in its power and impressive key-change sounds during the number’s Act Two reprise.

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The show’s music is a significant part of its success. From the overture, the band, under Conductor Julie Whiting, is excellent in its execution of the eclectic score, even if, on opening night, things were a little loud at times, making it difficult to understand performer lyrics in the softer moments. Still, ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ is a magnificent introduction to the multi-faceted but melodic score, full of layered tones that take audiences from playful prance to poignant dignity and back again.

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Any good “Cats” has to create a visual spectacle, and with over 40 performers on stage at times, this is certainly the case with this production, starting with its cats’ purr-fect pre-show audience interactions as they sneak and strut throughout the stalls, making the memory of my first experience of the show on London’s West End live again. Schonell Theatre’s large stage allows for Jo Badenhorst’s dynamic choreography, which is strong and engaging but general enough to allow for all levels of participation. Still, numbers ebb and flow as each individual cat tells the audience their backstory.

This “Cats” is characterised by an impressive attention to detail. Costumes capture the individual characters of the cats, beyond just their different fur patterns, especially in the case of the befallen Grisabella, however, no costume (except maybe a cane prop addition) can make the wise patriah Old Deuteronomy appear appropriately elderly when he is moving so nimbly across the stage.

The complex set, which serves as the backdrop for the entire musical, is complex, with built-in entrances and exits, and also platforms and levels on which the performers can stand and move around. The oversized junkyard staging also contains many Easter-egg details like graffiti from the mystery cat Macavity (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley), a monster of depravity of which there is no like, and a book pile that includes ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and The Bible (the musical is full of religious symbolism beyond just the Moses-like leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy’s share of name with the fifth book of The Bible). London mentions are effectively peppered through things, but the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’s number is oddly over-accented, meaning that the athletic and playful young cats’ antics as knockabout clowns and quick-change comedians are overshadowed by lost diction

As anyone familiar with the contentious show knows, its structure is quite unique, as an anthology rather than through-lined plot, with each cat getting opportunity to introduce themselves and share the story of their life, loosely tied together by narrator and second-in-command of the Jellicle tribe, Munkustrap (David McLaughlin). As the storytelling tomcat, McLaughlin is able to direct audience attention at will, thanks to his commanding voice and physicality, even when just in unmoving stance.

It is the leather-clad Darcy Rhodes as rebellious alpha loner ladies man and lime-light lover Rum Tum Tugger, however that gives the most engaging and memorable of performances, and not just in his song, ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ and his ‘Magical Mr. Mistoffelees’ number, which both radiate with infectious energy (and vocal talent). Even when he is not center stage, he absorbs audience attention in his unfaltering commitment to his flirtatious, swaggersome character, down to the littlest nuances of gesture, movement and stylised changes of position. And how wonderful it is to see him returned to rockstar status after the 2014’s revival’s reimagining of him as a ‘street cat’ rapper. Also noteworthy is the delightful, measured performance of Eric James as Asparagus, (Gus) the elder Theatrical Cat with shaking paws, reflecting with reverence upon his life on the stage.

It is so unfortunate that, on opening night at least, the cast was let down by the show’s lighting and especially sound, which, dropping in and out as it did, effectively ruined Act Two’s ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’ music hall drama tribute as part of Gus’ reminiscence about his favourite role in the old-fashioned melodrama, as well as sections of other songs. For audiences unfamiliar with the musical, the lyrics lost due to microphone lapses in early numbers would assumedly make the story more difficult to access.

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There are still some standout numbers, however, such as Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat’s (Jonathan Taufatofua) tell of being unofficially in charge of the night train to Glasgow, during which a moving locomotive train is formed out of objects in the rubbish dump. The ensemble number is not only full of fun, but it represents the energy and spectacle that is at the core of this production, which is visually lavish and joyously dynamic in intent and realisation… mostly.

Annie appeal

Annie (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

June 5 – 9

Little Orphan Annie has been a part of American pop culture since first appearing as a 1924 comic strip. Although the story became a hit Broadway musical, “Annie” in 1977, it is probably its 1982 film version that is its most widely known and recognised realisation, whether that be because of the titular Annie’s iconic red party dress, her loveable mutt Sandy or the inspired casing of Carol Burnett as orphanage matron Miss Hannigan. And from the moment that Queensland Musical Theatre’s production of “Annie” opens in overture, we are reminded not only of this, but of its enduring soundtrack thanks to the 14-piece orchestra’s brilliant realisation (Conductor Trenton Dunstan). The show is packed full of musical highlights from the early ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ and anthemic ‘Tomorrow” to ‘NYC’ and ‘I think I’m Gonna Like It Here’ and their orchestral arrangements are a wonderful reminder of why the musical won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

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The excellence continues into the show’s opening orphanage scenes where we meet the energetic Annie (Jade Kelly). Although living in the orphanage under the care of the happiness-hating Miss Hanigan (Lisa Mellor), Annie refuses to accept that she is an orphan, believing that one day she will be re-united with her parents. Kelly’s flawless voice and beautiful high range are showcased in the plucky ‘Tomorrow’, sung in comfort to ‘her’ friendly stray dog Sandy. She also embodies the kind-hearted protagonist when offered the chance to spend Christmas with billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Nathaniel Currie), softening the sophisticated entrepreneur, as well as US President FDR towards his optimistic new deal.

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The youth cast of orphans is outstanding. In addition to Annie, of particular note is Tia Godbold as the littlest orphan, Molly, who loves making her friends (and the audience) laugh. Not only is she gorgeously precocious and full of personality, but she shows impressive professionalism to cope with a mid-scene dis-attached microphone dilemma.

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Meanwhile, Currie embodies the role of the charismatic Warbucks and he sings like a dream; his Act Two ‘Something Was Missing’ where he shares his realisation that he’s spent his whole life building up his empire without allowing time for love in any way, is simply beautiful.

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Annie’s stay at the billionaire’s mansion, however, is not all gifts and good times with Warbucks and his faithful secretary Grace (Abby Page), as she is left vulnerable to fraudsters, including the rough and tumble brother to Miss Hannigan, Rooster (Darcy Rhodes) and his egotistical gold digger girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Ellen Axford), who pose as Annie’s parents in attempt to get their hands on Warbuck’s advertised reward. As convict Rooster, Rhodes is the show’s absolute standout. His razzle dazzle performance is expressively larger-than-life as he exploits all of its comic possibilities, making it impossible to divert your eyes in his every on-stage appearance. He also helps to make the jazzy ‘Easy Street’ another Act One high point, full of energy and showcase of on-point harmonies.

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There are many performance highlights in this professional production. The large cast means that there are busy ensemble numbers featuring over two dozen performers on stage, such as when, in escape from the orphanage, Annie comes across New York’s Hooverille, where people made homeless by the Great Depression have come together a community. Projected backdrops establish the era, with suffering all around.  Costumes are well-chosen, however, some props not of the era, even if added for joke value, detract from the otherwise careful attention to detail. And sound lapses in microphone cues cause some minor distraction, as does an annoyingly very wobbly set door. Still, it is easy to understand why the Schonell Theatre is at audience capacity, for this not only a musical with wide appeal, but a production of immense worth, obviously enjoyed by all, given its rapturous curtain call applause.

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Although it is set at the ‘hard knock life’ time of the Great Depression, “Annie” is far from downbeat. Instead, its affirmation of the unyielding hope of tomorrow makes it a buoyant family friendly favourite. While the story has cute and cheeky orphans to appeal to youngsters and the guaranteed awe of appearance of a dog onstage, there is adult attraction too, through dialogue humour around the politics and personalities of the time. In many regards, this is a triumphant production of the classic rags-to-riches story that will have you leaving with smile on your face, warmth in your heart and its catalogue of catchy tunes in competition in your head.