Hail holy queens

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves (little red company)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

February 17 – 20

When last in New York for a bit of Broadway, I was lucky enough to attend a Sunday gospel mass in Harlem. It was one of my most incredibly joyous travel experiences, back to which experience of the little red company’s “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”, transported me back in sound and sentiment. Indeed, the show’s relive of the joy of the “Sister Act” soundtracks (appropriately in the first film’s 30th anniversary year) is sure to fill all in its audience with the light of a happy day.

The show begins with our favourite new girl band of performers (Angela Fabian, Irena Lysiuk, Prinnie Stevens and Alisha Todd) taking us to church with ‘Amazing Grace’. Lavishly costumed by designer Gail Sorronda, these sisters are certainly doing it for themselves as they preach the gospel according to Sister Mary Clarence (aka nightclub lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier) under a stained glass imaged backdrop.

Alex Van den Broek’s vocal arrangements not only acknowledge audience nostalgia for the iconic film franchise, but balance this with some interesting new momentum builds in Peggy March’s ‘I Will Follow Him’, for example, performed by the nuns’ chorus for the Pope in the original film. Also in support of the on-stage dynamism are the four apostles of music, Mik Easterman (drums), JaZZella (guitars), Michael Manikus (piano), OJ Newcomb (bass) who appropriately provide pathos or energy as needed to enhance the diverse musical program.

A gentle share of India Arie’s plaintiff balad, ‘I Am Light’, in which the four holy queens are joined by JaZZella in tender guitar accompaniment, allows an opportunity for Todd to take the lead in slowing things down, adding a richness to the tapestry of the show’s unfolding. And as the songstress share personal anecdotes as to their own journeys, including the teachers who nurtured them along the way, the result is touching but also essentiality celebratory.

Director Naomi Price and co-creator Adam Brunes have crafted a celebratory and spirit-lifting show that effectively balances sentiment and humour. And it is wonderful to see the serenely-voiced Lysiuk showing her vivacious comic side, to repeated hilarious effect, especially in her appropriation of classic Kathy Najimy et al interjections in a bouncy ‘My Guy’ (as ‘My God’).

The vocal talents of all four performers are undeniable. The celestial cast of divine divas harmonise beautifully, especially in an cappella ‘How Great Thou Art’ hymn lead in to an upbeat ‘Rescue Me’. And, together, they sizzle in testimony of a burning love in ‘Heatwave’. Fabian has a powerhouse voice and Stevens smooth vocals are elevated by a commanding, sassy stage presence that sees her leading ‘Oh Happy Day’ into an infectious congregation clap-along highlight.

With catchy heaven-sent hits from Diana Ross and the Supremes, Lauryn Hill and Tina Turner, “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”, is stacked with joyful joyful moments to leave audiences holy satisfied in understanding that, as its early ‘Dancing in the Street’ number proclaims, all we need is music, sweet music. And in trademark little red company tradition, there is also some mass audience interaction and larger-scale surprises, along with announcement of their next outing, “Skyfall” in build upon their 2021 Brisbane Festival cabaret show success. Amen to that!

Photos c/o – Steph Do Rozario

Broadway babies’ brilliance

Defying Gravity

January 8

QPAC, Concert Hall

Internationally acclaimed star of Broadway and London’s West End, Caroline O’Connnor is an Australian musical theatre legend about to tumble outta bed and stumble to the kitchen for the Sydney season of “9 to 5: The Musical”. And her appearance at QPAC’s “Defying Gravity” is certainly cause for celebration. Indeed, her defiant belt of ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ represents one of the concert’s most triumphant of many memorable moments. A smorgasbord of showstoppers is on offer throughout, including the show’s titular big “Wicked” number which makes appearance, with Naomi Price and Irena Lysiuk in duet, as opening to Act Two.

Weaving the numbers together are personal and career stories. The dazzling O’Connor, in particular has a wonderful, personable stage presence that eases the audience into her tell of performing in front of Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey, and as an Olivier Award nominee. And the associated numbers that are presented represent a varied mix of musical sensibilities. Act One includes an early detour to France courtesy of the epic “Les Miserables”, including a nimble, rollicking ‘Master of the House’ by Price and then O’Connor which reverberates around the theatre, before segue into a serene ‘Bring Him Home’ from special guest Luke Kennedy, in reminder of Valjean’s anguish while sitting among the barricades. And as Kennedy’s beautiful vocals astonishingly soar but also maintain the song’s delicacy, the audience holds its collective breath.

Irena Lysiuk does an excellent job, stepping in as a late replacement for Amy Lehpamer, sharing highlights of Lehpamer’s career, such as from “Dusty – The Dusty Springfield Musical”. In particular, her simultaneously serene and soulful share of Sara Bareilles ‘She Used to Be Mine’ from “Waitress” is beautifully compelling, doing justice to its emotional content.

The setlist features musical hit after musical hit with one big moment after the next. There are brilliant bangers peppered throughout such as Price’s ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ which gives swelling vocal gravitas to the iconic “Evita” anthem. And it is marvellous to have Price and Kennedy share the stunning signature love song ‘Falling Softly’ from the gentle folk musical “Once”. Full of understated, unassuming beauty, their duet conveys both strength and fragility at the core of the song’s emotional lyrics and is absolutely stunning in its expose of the vulnerability at the core of opportunity.

Ever the versatile performer, Price also gives us a sassy, attitude-filled ‘Domino’ from the jukebox musical “& Juliet”, featuring the songs of Swedish pop songwriter Max Martin, infectious in its upbeat energy, while her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ transports us beyond the ABBA classic’s usual mournful, broken-hearted melancholy to reorchestration with more percussive force.

Like Lysiuk’s saxed-up “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from “My Fair Lady”, O’Connor’s gorgeous ‘Time Heals Everything’ from the little-known “Mack and Mabel” not only illustrates her stunning vocal range, but offers opportunity to showcase the incredible band, conducted by multi-talented musical director James Dobinson, while on piano himself.

“Defying Gravity” is a hugely entertaining concert from three brilliant Broadway babies (and guest), that presents all range of numbers for musical fans, from shows as eclectic as “Chicago” and “Little Shop of Horrors”. Not only are its performers obviously happy to be on stage, but its audience members are clearly rejoicing in the two-hour show’s opportunity to experience their powerful talents.

Photos c/o – Stewart Tyrell, PhotoCo

Songbook soundtrack

Your Song (The Little Red Company)

Judith Wright Arts Centre

April 22 – May 1

When the little red company opens the world premiere of “Your Song” with the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road numbers, ‘Bennie and the Jets’ and ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)’, the jubilant energy, both on stage and amongst the top-taping, clapping-along audience, has an infectious ‘not wanting to go to work tomorrow’ feel. The lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam is a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour (helped by Jason Glenwright’s lively lighting design). And it is a standard of excellence is maintained throughout the show’s 90-minute duration.

“Your Song” sees the company of talented singers and musicians tackle Elton John’s biggest hits. However, far from being a typical tribute show (no-one takes on the role of Elton John) creators Adam Brunes and Naomi Price have affectionately woven the music and lyrics created by Elton John and Bernie Taupin around connected, often deeply personal memories and stories shared by people who have been intimately affected by the music. It is a formula that works incredibly well as, in her directorial debut for the company, its artistic director and co-founder Naomi Price, crafts a taut show that encourages the audience to consider the music megastar’s unforgettable global hits anew, with songs being cleverly chosen from the performer’s catalogue to not only illustrate his musical versatility but connect intrinsically to the core, often heartfelt message of the real-life stories.

The incredible cast of Marcus Corowa, Irena Lysiuk, Luke Kennedy and Andy Cook (Corowa and Cook in their Little Red debuts) are superb in their vocals, and also musicianship with Corowa and Lysiuk giving a guitar duet of Elton’s lively and likeable 1976 number with Kiki Dee. Corowa also especially impresses in a soulful ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’, which is layered with melancholic yearning thanks to his richly textured vocals. And Lysiuk’s vocals are as lovely as ever.

Throughout the show, light and shade are factored into the curation not only of the set list but its anthology of stories, which allows for a beautiful rendition of the ballad ‘Daniel’ by Music Supervisor Kennedy and a captivating stripped-back ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ from Cook. Indeed, this captivating number is one of the show’s highlights, with Cook’s astounding voice creating a mesmeric performance that is worthy of admission alone. Cook is a thoroughly entertaining and energetic performer who not only can make the word shandy sound seductive but execute a full splits drop of which any drag queen would be proud. And his versatility easily takes us from a big-voiced, buoyant tease into the introduction of ‘Crocodile Rock’, complete with La la la la la la audience chorus contribution, through to the heartfelt sentiment of its story’s context.

It is to their credit that all the performers tell the show’s stories so engagingly that it is easy to forget that they are not of their own experiences. Lysiuk, in particular, is a charming storyteller who provides a lot of the show’s humour, including through on-stage synchronised swimming and a most-memorable reveal during ‘Tony Danza’ ‘Tiny Dancer’. And her fabulous energy makes it easy to consider ‘I’m Still Standing’ anew as a feminist anthem (#yeahyeahyeah).

As always musicians Mik Easterman on drum, Michael Manikus on keyboards and OJ Newcomb on bass provide strong support for the vocalists. In particular, Manikus shines in his realisation of the songs of one of the most iconic piano players in modern history, including through his rapid-fire ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)’ and funky ‘Honky Cat’.

Described as ‘the songs you know, the stories you don’t’, “Your Song” represents a clever concept, realised by outstanding performers along with first-rate original arrangements from Maitlohn Drew, Alex Van den Broek and the cast. It is a slick show full of entertaining energy, heart and humour and when the company’s mega-mix encore tradition sees audience members on their feet in elation, it is easy to appreciate the good reasons why this has been the fastest selling show in Little Red history, requiring the scheduling of additional performances. Not only does “Your Song’ remind us of the works of an incredible artist who has soundtracked our lives, but in, in the little red company’s hands, it creates an emotional connection that may catch us aware and linger long afterwards.  

Photos: c/o Steph Do Rozario

IsoLation appreciation

The IsoLate Late Show – Episode 10 (The Little Red Company)

May 29

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Proving that isolation’s more fun when you do it together, the little red company has, for the last 10 weeks, been banding together with other talented performers for an online live concert series to raise money for Queensland’s creative workforce who are facing perilous loss in the wake of COVID-19’s catastrophic hit to the arts industry. The concept concert, “The IsoLate Late Show”, is not only entirely philanthropic, but also immensely enjoyable for audiences watching its weekly Friday night live Facebook broadcast. And appropriately, its final episode sees both a set list of audience requests from the past 10 weeks and the show’s core artists making music in the same (socially distanced) space. Not only are they finally making music together in real life, but they are doing it on the stage at Brisbane’s beloved art-deco music venue the Tivoli theatre. And with tons of tinsel and a razzle dazzle jacket, the atmosphere is sparkling as they set towards an ultimate $100K fundraiser goal for the Actors’ and Entertainers’ Benevolent Fund QLD.

Amongst its reflection on the last ten weeks of shows from home, Episode 10 of “The IsoLate Late Show” enables its own highlights, especially thanks to its bigger space and increased performer numbers. The duets are what make our dreams come true, from Luke Kennedy and Lai Utouvou’s Hall and Oats to Tom Oliver and Irena Lysiuk’s ‘Kids’ and a feel-good ‘Time of My Life’ closer from Kennedy and the show’s host Naomi Price to remind us that nobody puts the arts in the corner.

Numbers also provide opportunity to give live band members their moments to shine. Tom Oliver’s epically-rock ‘My Sharona’ allows Jason McGregor to show some impressive guitar riffs and, helping Luke Kennedy doing what he does best in Farnham’s ‘Age of Reason’, Michael Manikus is a maestro on keys. Naomi Price, too, is on-point in show of her versatility, from a high-energy ‘River Deep Mountain High’ opener to a croony ‘Make You Feel Your Love’ gentle and sweet take back to her Adele cabaret show “Rumour Has It”.

There is eclecticism to the show’s set list of audience requests, curated together in the most magnificent of ways, taking audiences from Rachel Everett-Jones and Lai Utouvou’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’, full of pep courtesy of its quick paced vocals and trademark percussion, to Tom Oliver’s infectious disco energy, being finally allowed to do a Bee Gees number.

Songs are also strategically selected with on-point messages, appropriate for these uncertain times. Quarantine Queen Irena Lysiuk gives audiences another stunning Cher number with a beautifully-arranged ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’, while Rachel Everett-Jones offers reminder that it’s going to be bright and sunshiny on the other side of these dark and difficult days, with ‘I Can See Clearly Now’. The strings musicians of Camerata, Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, remind us of both our wonderful world and the wonderful art form that classical music can be with a moving arrangement of Satchmo’s signature song and, appropriately for the season’s finale, Luke Kennedy and Rachel Everett-Jones’ ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ makes for a spectacular high point.

After ten weeks of tireless effort assembling and delivering theatre to our lounge rooms, the cast and creatives of “The IsoLate Late Show” deserve only the most hyperbolic of acclamation for reminding audiences of both Brisbane’s talent and an industry that is determined to still stand. And for that, we should be we should be dancing in appreciative celebration indeed (#takeitfromTom).