Celebrating Carole

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

Spotlight Theatrical Company, Halpin Auditorium

May 14 – June 5

Last month, Carole King was announced amongst the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2021 diverse list of inductees. King, who was previously inducted with co-songwriter Gerry Goffin in 1990, is one of the most prolific female musicians in the history of pop music, whose career and legacy are celebrated in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, a jukebox musical beloved by all who experience its joy.

For many, the work of this immensely talented American songwriter and singer is epitomised in her iconic Tapestry album so it is appropriate that it is celebration of this multi-Grammy-award-winning landmark studio album that bookends the moving musical, which opens with King in 1971, as a bonafide solo star, about to perform at Carnegie Hall, after having left behind an established, successful song writing career with her husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin. It is a big story and a potentially risky show choice for an amateur theatre company, however, in the case of Spotlight’s Theatre’s production, it is risk that comes with immense reward thanks to the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members Gabriella Flowers as King, Todd Jesson as Goffin, Rachel Love as Cynthia Weil and Bryn Jenke as Barry Mann.

The biopic chronologically follows Carole King’s rise in the world of music through her tumultuous marriage with husband and song writing partner, Gerry Goffin, as well her relationship with rival composer and lyricist couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The result is a setlist that features celebration of the greatest hits by the acts for which the couples wrote, as well as King’s later original songs such as ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, making for a hugely accessible show.

Flowers gives a solid, fierce and fresh performance as she takes the musical’s protagonist from excitable 16-year-old surprised to have the attention of the dreamiest guy in school, through her time as a hardworking professional to being a mature single mother and accomplished performer. Jesson is an empathetic performer who layers the difficult role of King’s unfaithful and troubled husband with sincerity and sensitivity, which amplifies the complication of the situation in which King finds herself.

Love makes Weil sassy and confident without tipping her into obnoxious territory and Jenke is very entertaining as hyperbolical hypochondriac Barry Mann, complete with a well-timed quip for every occasion. And all of them handle the required accents with ease. The ensemble cast, too, is excellent with Rob Kebba anchoring things throughout as ‘the man with the Golden Ear’, legendary American music publisher, music consultant, rock music producer, talent manager and songwriter Donnie Kirshner.

With the two song writing teams turning out an amazing parade of songs, the audience is treated to a musically strong act one, with hilghlights including ‘On Broadway’ and ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ which soon have everyone smiling widely and tapping happily along. Flowers’ voice is strong throughout, whether sweet, soulful or gutsied-up. Her versatility is seen as she yearns us into intermission with ‘One Fine Day’ upon Carole’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity, before registering the intense discovery of her own voice in Act Two’s commanding ‘It’s Too Late’ description of a relationship’s end.

When Jenke’s robust vocals are shared in Act Two’s changing musical sounds with the iconic ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’, (which accompanying distinctive bass) we are left lamenting that there are not more musical numbers for him to share. The 1965 rock hit for the Animals, written by Mann and Weil comes late in the charted competition between the two couples to not only see their hits become number ones but stay there the longest. Prior to it, we are treated to songs from artists such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Monkees and more.

Under Matt Pearson’s musical direction, the harmonies in the earlier-era songs, are especially satisfying, with The Drifters’ ‘Up on the Roof’ representing a high point thanks to Matthew McKenzie’s range. Similarly, Liam Lockwood switches effortlessly into falsetto, working wonderfully with Mitch Walsh’s bass tone to soar the Righteous Brothers’ ‘ultimate pop record’ number to spine-tingling heights. And the live orchestration of the boppy band includes some entertaining arrangements, such a medley of familiar sixties songs ‘1650 Broadway Medley’ early in Act One as we are first taken into Kirshner’s office at for the first time.

Clever staging doesn’t compromise anything from professional productions of the 2013 musical, backdropping for example, the ski lodge of a Vermont getaway with a framed-off section of the recording building. And in complement to Kim Reynolds’ tight direction, swift set transitions assist in maintaining momentum. Era-evocative costumes by Trish Nissan, Colleen Reynolds and Kim Reynolds take the audience to an Act Two that is very firmly placed in the 1960s and give us a standout costuming reveal in Little Eva’s (Sammy Price) peppy performance of ‘Locomotion’.

With all of these on-point elements combined, Spotlight Theatre’s “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is certainly deserving of its end of show standing ovation. Indeed, it is easy to understand why the season sold out before even opening. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is that kind of musical though… a joyous crowd favourite of an experience whose additional matinee show feels akin to a cosy musical hug on a cool almost-winter afternoon.

Photos c/o – Vargo Studios

Broadway business

The Producers (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

September 23 – October 7

Savoyards THE PRODUCERS Media 1 Gary Rose (Max Bialystock) and Joshua Thia (Leo Bloom) Photo credit Christopher Thomas.jpg

Sometimes the business of Broadway is that you do can do everything right but still go wrong. Sometimes, the opposite can occur too…. Such is the story behind Mel Brooks’ movie and subsequent musical, “The Producers”. Failed Producer Max Bialystock used to be the king of old Broadway, with the biggest hits. Now, he has lost his touch so makes his money by seduction of elderly women as investors. ….until he stumbles upon a seemingly failsafe scheme to profit from a flop. He partners with timid accountant Leo Bloom to produce what they hope will be the biggest failure in the history of commercial theatre (whose shares they can oversell), the offensive “Springtime for Hitler” gay romp about Adolf and Eva in Berchtesgaden, aka the worst musical ever written, helmed by the worst director in New York City and with the worst actors occupying all of its roles.

Savoyards Brisbane THE PRODUCERS Gary Rose is Max Bialystock.jpg

And so the chaos begins and in Savoyard Musical Comedy Society’s production of what Mel Brooks himself describes as ‘an evening of insanity and pleasure’, the chaos is quite delicious. The show starts strongly with the two leads, Gary Rose as the very Jewish and over-the-top Bialystock and Joshua Thia as the anxious and unsure-of-himself Bloom, sharing an immediate on-stage chemistry. The production has everything a good old fashioned musical needs, particularly its tried and tested, sometimes politically incorrect, humour. Indeed, it is irreverently self-aware in its offer of something for everyone comedy-wise; there is bawdy, one-liner humour that completely works alongside wittier, more intellectual allusions and puns.

Savoyards Brisbane THE PRODUCERS.jpg

Musical numbers are quite magnificent in both their eclecticism and their production values. ‘I Want to Be a Producer’ serves as an Act One highlight, as Bloom sings of his secret desire to leave the drudgery of accounting to have his heart set afire by seeing his name in lights, complete with a chorus of supporting showgirls and an entertaining tap dance sequence. ‘Springtime for Hitler’ is another, later, example of the show’s unified choreography, staging, costumes and impressive live music soundtrack under Mark Beilby’s direction.

Savoyards Brisbane THE PRODUCERS Joshua Thia is Leo Bloom.jpg

To be a genuine success, however, the show needs to nail it with the two leads and in this regard, Savoyards’ production excels. Rose is a perfectly devious but twinkle-eyed Bialystock, while triple threat, Thia is outstanding, from the anxious and awkward Bloom of Act One through to his increasingly excitable sensibility in later sections. His embrace of every opportunity within the role’s physicality, with hilarious facial expressions and exciting physical comedy, make him enormously fun to watch.

Savoyards Brisbane THE PRODUCERS Walter Lago as Franz Liebkind.jpg

Walter Lago is a riot as Franz Liebkind, the ex-Nazi writer of the musical within a musical, at times conveying a John-Cleese-like sensibility in his normalised absurdity. Grace Glarke is appropriately faux-Swedish as Ulla, the jiggly dancer/receptionist at the newly amalgamated Bialystock and Bloom, David Morris brings immense energy and interest to the role of Director Roger Debris when stepped into the musical’s lead role and Scott Edwards is a scene-stealing Carmen Ghia, his flamboyant common law assistant.

Savoyards Brisbane THE PRODUCERS Scott Edwards as Carmen Ghia.jpg

“The Producers” was a smash hit on Broadway, winning a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards, so any intended production is going to be an ambitious undertaking, especially for an independent theatre company. This is musical theatre on the grandest of scales with a long running time and cast of over two dozen. Under Gabriella Flowers’ Artistic Direction, Savoyards have produced a polished and professional show. Hannah Crowther’s tight choreography and Sherrly-Lee Secomb’s clever set design work well to establish and quickly transition between scenes while maintaining the show’s essential energy and feel-good factor. Unfortunately, this could not distract from the ongoing sound issues on Opening Night.

Savoyards THE PRODUCERS Media 5 Photo Credit Christopher Thomas.jpg

“The Producers” puts the comedy back in musical comedy, with Mel Brooks evident in its every aspect. The show went on to become one of the biggest hits in modern Broadway memory and this production loses none of what made the original such an enormous success. Savoyards’ highly entertaining and thoroughly recommended share of the classic Broadway story is appropriately full of colour and movement, frivolity and funny, funny moments… including a pigeon named Adolf who almost steals the show. As a musically and visually stunning reminder that there is no business like show business, this is one of the best amateur productions around and, as such, should be seen by all who, like Ulla, think if you got it, flaunt it!

Photos c/o – Christopher Thomas

Slammed struggles

Slammed (Crosstown Artists)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

July 23 – August 1

Creating a new work can be both joy and challenge and both of these aspects are evident in the realisation of Stefanie Brooke Harper’s “Slammed” on stage following its release as a text for school study. As a resource, it is a work that promises to explore “the life and hard times of everyone you know” through examination of thought-provoking themes and contemporary social issues, which is, of course commendable in intent, for exposure brings understanding and there are few vehicles for understanding more effective than the theatre. And in this regard, the theatrical fulfilment of the show certainly delivers what it promises on the page and a whole lot more; this is the problem.

The story begins in a fictitious but familiar contemporary Australian high school with a classroom scene of teacher trying to engage her Year 10 class, clearly featuring students of varying interest levels, in study of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. This is one of many engaging schoolroom scenes, whose exaggerated authenticity produce some genuinely funny moments. These also serve to showcase a naturalism in dialogue and realness of connection with audience members. However, the story of “Slammed” is about more than just the students, with teachers refreshingly given backstories alongside those of the teenage characters. This allows opportunity to explore a multitude of social issues which, unfortunately, is ultimately to the show’s detriment, as indicated by the increasingly restless audience as the show’s duration approached the 2.5 hour mark.

By adding backstory, the play moves beyond dramatic familiarity into the tragedy of real people’s lives, however, this is not used sparingly so works against itself. Minor and unnecessary scenes (such as the provision of an Act Two divorce backstory to an insignificant character, from a narrative perspective) seem only to have been included to ensure coverage of a wide variety of teenage experiences and parenting styles and actually detract from overall cohesion. However, while some of the narrative threads are a little stereotypical in this regard, they are well-written and powerfully acted, meaning that any initial cliché is easily overlooked.

BPH_Slammed_4_2015-1178x663

The cast is a large one, of varying experience and abilities. Chris Kellett anchors the ensemble in his contrasting parental roles, but features so infrequently that his talents seem wasted. And newcomer Dane Brady, as protagonist Jake Ryan, neglected by his father and abandoned by his mother, is authentic in his conveyance of sullen teenager, to the impairment of vocal projection and audience engagement when so many of his Act One lines are delivered with back to the audience and his poetry slam moment is sans gesture as enhancement of message.

In contrast, Daniel Hurst delivers a memorable performance as bullying victim David Lawson, particularly in his poetry slam, which is delivered with an entertaining rhythm that sets it apart from the others, even if its environmental focus is quite superfluous to the central narrative. And as genuine, well-meaning teacher Fiona Finlay, Gabriella Flowers gives a measured, nuanced and natural performance that captures the cadence central to her character’s demeanour.

Staging is simple and functional, allowing audiences to look thorough the walls of people’s lives to see that all are slammed in some way. This versatile use of the Visy Theatre space is of particular credit to the show’s creatives, given that the work was originally devised for a standard proscenium stage. However, with scenes established so effectively, the use of technology to announce locations and time of day seems tokenistic.

With its fusion of thought-provoking ideas and contemporary, edgy elements, “Slammed” has much to offer audiences. It is full of moments of truth and connection, making it an easily accessible piece for young people and non-theatre goers. And its passion in dealing with so many important social issues is to be applauded, even if, in its current cluttered form it serves as illustration of the truth of the cliché that less is more.