Oz energy

The Wizard of Oz (Harvest Rain)

Brisbane Entertainment Centre

July 12 – 13

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It seems that there is no place like home for Harvest Rain with the company’s return to Brisbane with this year’s arena spectacular show, “The Wizard of Oz”, the most ambitious yet in terms of its scale with an amateur mass ensemble of over 500 performers joining a professional principal cast at the Brisbane Entertainment centre. The result is a bright production full of colour and moment for all ages to enjoy.

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Before the wildly imaginative “The Wizard of Oz” morphs into the technicolour tale we all know from its iconic 1939 musical fantasy movie treatment, it starts with a sepia washed scene, detailed down to even Dorothy’s ‘blue’ gingham dress, as things open in Kansas where farm folk, Uncle Henry (Matty Johnson) and a particularly youthful Aunt Em (Aurelie Roque) attempt to convince young Dorothy (Carly Bettinson) of the need to hand over her dog Toto after he bites nasty neighbour Miss Gulch (Bil Heit)…. until a tornado strikes in impede of Dorothy’s attempt to run away. It is an opening scene full of foreshadowing through introduction of three farm workers, Hunk (Chris Geoghegan), Hickory (Michael Nunn) and Zeke (Josh Whitten), the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion’s alter egos, and the wonderful Professor Marvel (John Wood). Before the tornado sends the farmhouse spinning, however, we are treated to the show’s signature ballad, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, in which Dorothy sings of the need to find a place where there isn’t any trouble, after failing to get the others to listen to her story.

Along with an exploding soundscape and Craig Wilkinson’s wall-to-wall video realisation and animations courtesy of a 9-metre high LED screen backdrops to the set, we are taking through experience of the twister. Then we are awashed with vivid colour, making it clear that we are not in Kansas anymore but rather over the rainbow in the Land of Oz, where Dorothy’s house has landed not just in Munchkinland but on top of the Wicked Witch of the East. While Dorothy is initially greeted by Good Witch of the East Glinda (Aurelie Roque) and troll-haired ensemble munchkins sneaking out from all sorts of nooks and crannies to gleefully sing in celebration of the Wicked Witch’s ‘Ding Don’ demise, her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Bil Heit) is seeking revenge, not so much for Dorothy ‘turning her sister into a house’, as her ‘take’ of her sister’s ruby red slippers. And so, on Glinda’s direction, Dorothy sets out to follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City where she can ask the Wizard of Oz (John Wood) to help her get back home. During her journey, she meets a Scarecrow (Chris Geoghegan) in need of a brain, Tinman (Michael Nunn) who desires to have a heart and a Cowardly Lion (Josh Whitten) in need of courage, who accompany her to Emerald City so they can also ask the Wizard for help.

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With effervescent songs such as ‘Follow the Yellow Bring Road’, ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’ and ‘Merry Old Land of Oz’, there are plenty of opportunities for big choreographic numbers often filling the three basketball court sized space. Indeed, the big ensemble numbers serve as justification of the show’s spectacular descriptor, however, more so than previous arena spectaculars staged at the Brisbane Convention Centre, this also means that other numbers play in a comparatively empty space, which only distances the audience from any emotional engagement.

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Under Dennett Hudson’s musical direction, the music sounds sharp, especially when showcased in initial Overture and Entracte as we resume the story in the Emerald City where things aren’t actually so wonderful, given the Rafferty’s rules behind the smoke and mirrors of the Wizard’s situation. While Act Two takes the audience to some darker places with liquidation of the Wicked Witch, it also features the standout ‘The Jitterbug’ musical number, cut from the MGM movie. The spirited number makes for a wonderful experience thanks to the older ensemble dancers’ on-point, in unison execution of Callum Mansfield’s lively choreography.

Like its backstory show “Wicked”, the “The Wizard of Oz” is sprinkled with malpropisms for humorous effect, though also, on opening night, some less deliberate dialogue lapses. And a smattering of intertextual additions allow additional opportunities for humour. The witches do a good job in their respective roles, even if these are a little jarring in their stray away from cannon. Glinda is more sassy than saccharine and the Wicked Witch is a cackling caricature, not particularly concerned with her sister’s demise. When serious technical issues see the opening night performance stopped, however, their ad-libs in eventual resumption of the show help everyone to move on.

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Bettinson does a decent job as the show’s adolescent protagonist, however, it is her companions that steal the most audience attention, Whitten as the nerveless lion, Nunn as the heartless Tin Man and particularly Geoghegan as her first friend, the lively but mindless Scarecrow. In particular, Geoghegan stands out thanks to his physicality, convincingly flopping about the place as if really made of hay and his duet with Bettinson, ‘If I Only Had a Brain’ is a memorable, energetic explanation about what each wants from the Wizard. Ultimately, however, there is a clear camaraderie conveyed as the four venture together into the forest of lions and tigers and bears.

Harvest Rain’s “The Wizard of Oz” offers audiences a change to spend some time with a favourite story. It captures the nostalgic sweetness of the original tale but balances it with an integral energy and dynamic design aesthetic that gives each scene a distinct, detailed palette. And its ensemble encore of ‘Over the Rainbow’ serves as an ideal reminder of its excellent score, making it a charming way to end school holidays.

Grease is still the word

Grease – The Arena Experience (Harvest Rain)

Brisbane Convention Centre

April 7 – 9

Thanks to the 1978 cult classic movie, “Grease” is a show with which audiences have an intimately familiar relationship. So staging a musical version for Australian audiences is a pretty safe bet. Even so, in its Arena Experience, Harvest Rain Theatre Company does not rest on its laurels, combining nostalgia and freshness to show how Grease is still the word.

For those few who don’t know how the story goes, usually cool-cat Danny (Drew Weston) and goody-goody Sandy (Meghan O’Shea) enjoy a whirlwind summer holiday romance, expecting to never see each other again…. until they both start their Senior year at Rydell High, a school comprised of cliques like the T-Birds and Pink Ladies.

As a musical, it is a challenge to stage, especially in an expansive arena; musical numbers emerge from character dreams and desires so the between-song scenes are needed to advance the narrative. With limited props and backdrops (although the size of the arena stage does allow for appearance of Kenickie’s restored ‘Greased Lightning’ car), it becomes the job of costumes and lighting to set the scenes of 1950s American in all its rock and roll glory. And in this regard the production delivers, with colour and movement aplenty thanks to its youth ensemble cast of over 800 performers, which makes numbers likes like ‘Greased Lightning’ (minus the usual peppering of profanities) a spectacular salute to the hot rod’s promised joy.

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‘Shaking at the Highschool Hop’, too, is an irresistible Act Two opener, as the hundreds of teenagers fill a space bigger than a school gymnasium. Indeed, it is scenes such as this and ‘Born to Hand Jive’ that showcase the production’s tight choreography as the mass ensemble join in the complicated pattern of hand moves and claps with impressive synchronicity.

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Certainly, the most durable and iconic part of “Grease” is the music and its appeal in this regard is obvious from the outset with some audience members singling along to its famous soundtrack from start to finish. After a shaky vocal start with ‘Grease is the Word’, ‘Summer Loving’ soars thanks to O’Shea and Weston’s vibrant vocals. The two are both versatile vocalists and O’Shea’s delivery of ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ is appropriately angelic. Also of strong voice is Ruby Clark as the feisty Pink Ladies leader, bad-girl (Betty) Rizzo, especially in her mockery of the wholesome Sandy in ‘Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee’.

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The most memorable musical numbers, vocally speaking, are of the jukebox musical type that were absent from the film version, such as ‘Those Magic Changes’, ‘Mooning’ and when at Marty’s (Emily Monsma) pyjama party, she tells of a long-distance courtship with a Marine in ‘Freddy My Love’. But it is Dami Im’s ‘Beauty School Dropout’ that is the absolute highlight. In her first musical theatre role, as Teen Angel, Im owns the stage as she delivers the advice to Frenchy about her next move in life, mesmerising the audience in a way that exemplifies all that there is to love about musical theatre. In terms of individual performances, however, apart from Weston’s Danny swagger and O’Shea’s girl-next-doorishness as Sandy, it is difficult to comment beyond vocals as the arena setting (literally) distances the audience from any character connections.

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Messing with a musical theatre classic is a brave move and mostly in this instance, the dialogue tweaks and song reordering, especially adding the movie’s ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ (Olivia Newton-John’s contractually-entitled vocal solo) to the musical set-list and moving it from Sandy’s slumber party over her feelings towards Danny, despite his earlier behaviour, to when she is separated from him at the High School dance, works particularly well from a narrative perspective.

Harvest Rain’s “Grease” is a celebration of many of both the movie and musical’s iconic movements, recreated and wrapped in neon to both celebrate and invigorate them in a fresh and exciting way. Its celebration of the sprint of the show is not only nostalgic, but entertaining, ensuring an infectiously good time on stage and in the stalls alike.

Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey

Hairspray happiness

Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular (Harvest Rain)

Brisbane Convention Centre

April 8 – 10

Harvest Rain’s “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” is everything it promises…. It’s big, fat and full of fun, perfect for the final days of school holidays. With a mass ensemble of 900 young performers (some as young as nine years old), the Brisbane Convention Centre is often filled to the point of never knowing where exactly to look, which is perhaps befitting for a show in which the bulk of the characters are teenagers themselves.

The musical has evolved through various incarnations, from the 1988 John Waters’ big-screen original to a Tony Award winning Broadway production and subsequent 2007 film. The plot here remains the same as the audience is taken to segregated 1962 Baltimore. Fiesty teen Tracy Turnblad (Lauren McKenna), a big girl with a big heart and even bigger hair, has only one desire – to be a dancer on the popular Corny Collins TV show. When her dream comes true, Tracy is transformed from social outcast to sudden star alongside her teen idol, Link Larkin (Dan Venz), but it is a transition that doesn’t come without its problems as her social conscious compels her to spearhead a campaign to racially integrate the show.

It is a production filled with movement and energy from its opening moments. After a rousing ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ in which Tracy muses about her fondness for her hometown, her love of dancing, and her desire to be famous, the pace pumps with a toe-tapping introduction to the Corny Collins TV cast, the ‘Nicest Kids in Town’. The mass ensemble adds interest to the aesthetic when synchronized in their choreography and while a full scale ‘The Madison’ is a little overwhelming, the tsunami of performers that floods the stage for the show’s famous final anthem ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’ makes for a memorable conclusion. The optikal bloc projections across the screen (bigger that the biggest IMAX in the world) also enhance the explosion of colour created by staging and costumes.

McKenna (seen recently as Martha in “Heathers”) is fabulous as the ever-optimistic Tracy, big on voice and personality. And her comic performance in swoon over Link during her Act One ‘I Can Hear The Bells’ dream about what life would be like if she pursued a relationship with him, makes her all the more infectiously likeable. She is supported by a strong cast, including Venz as teenage heartthrob Larkin and Emily Monsma as Tracy’s dorky and devoted best friend Penny. Indeed, Monsma embraces every opportunity provided by the side-kick role, making it very much her own and stealing every scene in which she appears. Simon Burke is touching in the classic cross-dressing role of Tracey’s house-bound, fearful mother Edna, who makes for an endearing double act with on-stage husband Wilbur (Wayne Scott Kermond). Their performance of ‘You’re Timeless to Me’ is at once tender and comic-filled.

Tim Campbell is perfect as the peppy Corny Collins, with sensational voice and smooth dance moves that leave the audience wanting to see more. And as Seaweed Stubbs, Barry Conrad (perhaps best known for his time on “X-Factor Australia” in 2013) showcases some outstanding vocals. Amanda Muggleton seems to delight in the dastardly role of station producer Velma Von Tussle with Cruella de Vil like glee, bringing a cartoonish villainy to the larger-than-life character. And as the self-described big, blonde and beautiful Motormouth Maybelle, host of The Corny Collins Show’s Negro Day, Christine Anu brings attitude and then some. Her soulful rendition of the musical’s most serious-minded song, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ makes for a powerful and inspiring anthem.

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So skilled and entertaining are the core cast that it almost makes you wish for the usual theatre stage experience where intimacy and character connection have not been sacrificed in creation of the record breaking production, as like in 2014’s “Cats”, the spectacular’s scale is sometimes alienating to full appreciation of individual lead performances.

“Hairspray” is a happy musical of good humour and fun. With the addition of 900 excited youths, the joy within the “Hairspray The Big Fat Arena Spectacular” eventatorium is infectious. With buoyant performances and toe-tapping ‘60s-style musical numbers, there is certainly much to smile about both during and in memory of the experience of being welcomed to the ‘60s.

Once upon a twisted fairytale time

Into the Woods (Harvest Rain)

QPAC, Concert Hall

October 1 – 4

Since its premiere on Broadway 30 years ago, “Into the Woods” has endured in many stage productions and, recently, a cinematic release, meaning that, although this Harvest Rain Theatre Company incantation is the first to have been produced professionally in Queensland, it is a story well known to many audience members.

Typically fairytale-like the story tells of how once upon a time, in a small village at the edge of the woods in a far off kingdom a collection of childhood fairy tale characters’ lives were interwoven together. It’s an ultimately complex and twisted tale that begins simply enough with The Baker (Eddie Perfect) and his wife (Rachael Beck) embarking on a journey into the woods when they discover they are cursed in being forever childless by a vengeful Witch (Rhonda Burchmore).

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To break the spell the couple must collect the ingredients needed to restore the Witch’s beauty: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, whereupon they come across Jack (of the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. This makes it sweeping ear-worm Prologue theme all the more memorable as it introduces the carefree characters and their wishes without hint of what is yet to come.

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In true Stephen Sondheim’s fashion, the show features a delicious orchestral score with some great songs including the pantomime-esque ‘Agony’ argument of two princes over who has it worst, and the soaringly-eerie witch’s’ anthem ‘Last Midnight’, focused more often on conversational lyrics rather than emotional belting. And the orchestra, silhouetted upstage as if in the woods, does an excellent job under conductor Jason Barry-Smith in bringing them to triumphant or lingering life.

“Into the Woods” is a show of contrasts beyond just its musical numbers. Act One is almost self-contained with characters seeing their wishes realised. However, sometimes desired achievement can be fraught with danger. And, in exploration of this, the second act is quite dark (and a little dragging). Sound and lighting capture this juxtaposition well, particularly in mark of the entrance of an angry giant to challenge the characters’ new-found fulfilment.

While the Concert Hall stage has been transformed into an effectively gnarled forest of delights and ultimate darkness, with such a large ensemble cast often on stage if not together than in relatively quick succession, the action often appears cramped, despite the precision of entrance and exit choreography. This also means that the show’s headliner stars don’t always have room to appropriately shine.

phonda glamRhonda Burchmore is powerfully diva-esque as she belts out ‘Last Midnight’ in a manner befitting a Bond theme, however, within withered witch mode she is faced with a linguistically challenging prologue introduction rap about greens that fails to do her voice justice. Rachel Beck is wholesome as ever as the Baker’s wife and Eddie Perfect’s performance is full of charm, and together their voices harmonise well. Tom Oliver is a spritely and engaging Jack, complete with his push-bike ‘cow’, while as his mother, Penny Farrow projects a solid stage presence and great diction.

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Some of the most noteworthy performances, however, come courtesy of the comic talents of Kimberley Hodgson and Steve Hirst. Hodgson is full of sass as the not-easily-frightened Red Riding Hood, complete with her own rape whistle, making the role her own with a lively and engaging take. Like in the original Broadway production, there is a doubling of parts, with Hirst playing the lewd wolf and lustful Cinderella’s prince, both unable to control their appetites, with equally sensational performances, appreciated by generous audience applause.

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Although its source material is one of the more family-friendly and audience-accessible works in the Sondheim library, this “Into the Woods” is no feel-good fairy tale for children, with acts of murder, mutilation, adultery and sexual harassment emerging as the initially innocent-enough story unfolds. Although it gets there is the end with its messages about accepting responsibility for one’s actions, Harvest Rain’s “Into the Woods” sometimes falls short of its potential. However, its humour is appealing and its sounds are strong, which is enough to keep most musical fans satisfied.

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Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey