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.

Frankenstein funnery

Young Frankenstein (Phoenix Ensemble)

Pavilion Theatre

February 1 – 23

“I’ve never seen it, but it is Mel Brooks so should be funny.” This is how I attempted to entice a +1 along to Phoenix Ensemble’s production of “Young Frankenstein”, the stage version of Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof. It is quite an apt summary actually; the musical is very Brooks and very funny in its witty parody of the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.

The story of “Young Frankenstein” (officially known as “The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein”) closely parallels that of its source text. Despite attempts to distance himself from his heritage, American professor of neurology Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced at his insistence as Fronkensteen) is lured back to Transylvania to settle his grandfather’s Victor’s estate. Once he arrives, he is tempted to stay by faithful hunchback, and grandson of Victor’s henchman, Igor (David McLaughlin) and yodelling-lab assistant Inga (Vivien Wood). Soon Frederick is lured to join the family business and repeat his grandfather’s experiment of implanting a new brain in the body of a giant corpse, thus enlivening The Monster (Brendan Dieckmann).

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Along the way, there are laughs aplenty and the spectacle of ensemble song and dance number entertainment, such as the multi-styled ‘Transylvania Mania, a doozie new dance phenomenon invented on the spur of the moment to distract angry villagers from the sounds of the awakened monster. But the early highlight is when the duo of Frederick and Igor unite ‘like Ginger and Freddie… or meatballs and spaghetti’ in ‘Together Again (for the first time)’ a delightful send-up of a musical comedy double act number. As in this song, clever lyrics and mischievous rhymes showcase much of the show’s not-so-subtle double-entendred innuendo, which is also often enhanced by the nuanced looks and gestures of McLaughlin who is always on-point as Igor.

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This is a dynamic group of performers who all convey an exuberant comic charm through their apparent understanding that comedy only works if it is played played straight.  As Frederik, Zach Price is pure musical theatre in both his vocals and physical style, particularly seen in his nervous awkwardness around the buxom assistant he has working under him (cue puns a-plenty, all intended), until his untouchable high-maintenance fiancée Elizabeth (Samara Martinelli) reappears on the scene. In complement, McLaughlin is a simply sensational as the impish sidekick Igor. All bug-eyed, bent-over and clown-like, he commands attention, even when as backdrop to the main on-stage action. His non-sequitur comedy and comments contribute much to the show’s hilarity, both in dialogue and song.

Fiona Buchanan’s performance as mysterious violin player Frau Blucher, the stern housekeeper of the estate, is also spot-on. She is not only hilarious in in her straight-faced intensity, but her Cabaret-esque tell of her past with the late Victor in ‘He Vas My Boyfriend’ is another genuine musical highlight. And while The Monster barely speaks a word, in Dieckmann’s hands, the character is a riot, especially as he progresses from pitiful to new-and-improved, in the top-hat-and-tails Fred Astaire-style tap number, Irving Berlin’s ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’. His barely coherent bellows are hilarious even in repetition and the eventual full ensemble chorus number stands strong as Act Two’s highlight.

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Impressive harmonies characterise each of the musical numbers; the entire cast showcases excellent vocal abilities, not just in comic numbers but melodic songs like Act Two’s early ‘Listen to Your Heart’ from Wood as Inga. Musical numbers are also enhanced by Hanna Crowther’s quick choreography which interacts well with a simple scenic design that allows for some great gimmicky moments. Initially music competes with vocals in audience introduction to the villagers of Transylvania Heights in ‘The Happiest Town in Town’, however this soon settles to its place in support. Some microphone cue lapses and static also occasionally interrupt enjoyment, but these can be evenly forgiven given the otherwise overall excellence.

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Unlike Brooks’ hit musical “The Producers”, “Young Frankenstein” is very much an ensemble vehicle and Phoenix Ensemble has assembled an absolutely stellar cast, meaning that experience of the show flies by in a well-paced flood of laughter and song. This is, indeed, a monster of a show and while it may be old-fashioned in its shtick, its energetic fun is so shamelessly silly that you can’t help be caught up in the madcappery of its high-quality low comedy. It is not often that audience members probably leave an amateur show already wanting to see it again, however, the funnery of experience of “Young Frankenstein” is so impressive that this is very much the case, in fitting with it being among the best amateur productions I have ever seen.