Rocket Man memories

Your Song (The Little Red Company)

QPAC, Concert Hall

September 30 – October 1

The Little Red Company turns 10 this week and how appropriate it is to mark the occasion with return of one of their fastest selling shows, in one of Australia’s most spectacular concert venues. And the mood is certainly celebratory from the start of “Your Song” as ‘Benny and the Jetts’ leads into introduction of the performers returning from the show’s 2021 season at the Judith Wright Arts Centre, Luke Kennedy, Andy Cook and The Sunshine Club’s dynamic duo Marcus Corowa and Irena Lysiuk.

Along with a world-class band (Mik Easterman on Drums, Michael Manikus on piano, OJ Newcomb on bass and Stephen Ward on guitar), the fabulous foursome reminds us of why the show was the 2021 Matilda Award winner for Best Musical or Cabaret. Far from being a typical tribute show (no-one takes on the role of Elton John) creators Adam Brunes and Naomi Price have crafted a unique verbatim musical theatre experience that merges the music and lyrics of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s songs with powerful true stories of heartbreak and hope, pain and passion, first loves, final moments and more.

Nuanced original musical arrangements by Maitlohn Drew, Alex Van den Broek and the cast capture not just familiarity of well-known numbers but the emotion at the core of each song in relation to its corresponding story. And the stellar cast of performers are all compelling as they gateway us into the power of Elton John’s music through the eyes of everyday people.

Andy Cook is again a standout. His stage presence is such that eyes are drawn to him throughout. Not only is his spirited energy infectious, but his strong vocals add a resonate depth to all range of numbers. While he enlivens a surprisingly poignant ‘Crocodile Rock’ to a big-voiced, spirited glam-pop celebration of life, music and memory, his astonishing voice also gives us the show’s highlight in an almost a cappella ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ with the barest of piano accompaniment, enrapturing the Concert Hall audience into mesmeric awe. It is just one of many moving moments evoked through reconsideration of songs’ simple and profound lyrics.

Lysiuk’s ‘Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word’ evokes the raw honesty at the heart of a reflection on loneliness and Corowa’s glorious voice layers his numbers with rich emotional texture, with his ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’ serving as another highlight. Meanwhile, Music Supervisor Kennedy shows his versatility through both giving a beautiful rendition of the ballad ‘Daniel’ and uplifting us into the majestic chorus of ‘Tiny Dancer’.

Characteristically for the company’s shows, everyone is given a chance to shine, including, notably, Michael Manikus during the anthemic piano build of ‘I’m Still Standing’. All of Elton John’s well-known hits make appearance, if only in medley as part of the rousing on-your-feet sing-along encore. Even the show’s titular tune is wonderfully presented in a newly-imagined way with Lysiuk’s lean-in to its simple nativity with a surprise to-boyfriend share that is full of nervous, self-conscious energy showing why she was nominated for the Matilda Award for Best Female Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in last year’s debut season of the show.

The all-true, often deeply-personal stories and secrets presented take us through a range of emotions in reminder of the power of music to evoke associated memories… like (for those of us of appropriate vintage) where we were when we heard of Princess Diana’s passing. ‘Candle in the Wind’ not only does this, but with added emphasis in light of recent royal events. And the Concert Hall acoustics ensure that the group’s harmonies are as vivid as ever.

So authentic is the performers’ storytelling, that is easy to forget that these are in most instances not their own stories. And they are so seamlessly curated together with a craftedness characteristic of The Little Red Company works, that the show’s 90-minute duration flies by in an explosive experience of at-once heart, soul and distinctive Rocket Man camp.

Photos c/o – Stephanie Do Rozario

Cabaret stylings and then some

Women in Voice

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

August 26 – 28

“Women in Voice” (WiV) has been a Brisbane institution since 1993. Surprisingly though, there are still some first timer audience members at the shows. With its diverse range of quality performers, the 2022 outing is sure to convert these to annual attendees. With Master of Ceremonies Sophie Banister as support and guide in journey through the varied sets, it soon become apparent that this year’s “Women in Voice” may well be the best one yet.

Banister is given her own musical moments, comically linked together by the theme of her thwarted quest to become a Brisbane 2032 Olympics opening ceremony performer in order to have her own Nikki Webster ‘Under Southern Skies’ moment. Metaphorically flying, however are the evening’s incredible performers, starting with Naomi Andrew, whose contemplative set highlights her soulful vocals, especially in impassioned share of Rose Royce’s ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’. Not only this, but the heartbreaking song also allows for first standout of the live band’s accompaniment, with Dr Bob Bass (bass guitar and double bass), Meg Burstow (piano), Musical Director Jamie Clark (guitar) and Paul Hudson (drums) swirling their sounds around the song’s hopeless sentiments.

The second, double-bill, segment sees regular performer Leah Cottrell, joining with Menaka Thomas in her “Women in Voice” debut, to showcase the intersection of traditional and contemporary music, drawing upon Thomas’ classical Southern Indian Carnatic musical origins. After whisking our troubles away with a sweet lullaby in her mother tongue, things become infectiously joyous with the audience clapping along to a fusion number featuring join-in from Cotterell in emphasis of the cross-cultural shared language of music at the centre of the show’s celebration. And when Thomas sings of Indian goddess Vata it is with a mixture of precision and emotion that elevates this year’s WiV to being amongst the franchise’s best, especially as it then transitions into a thumping, tempoed Cotterell-led ‘Rolling in the Deep’, complete with Vata rap and Indian dance off. It’s all very clever and lots of fun.

Not only do Cotterell and Thomas share the stage, but the featured songstresses often serve as support for each other, with assistance also from Mel Lathouras and Olivia Weeks, blending their voices together to create a harmonious bed upon which other performances can shine. Musical highlights aside, the show is also very funny. Banister’s musical recount of explanation of Brisbane to New Yorkers in terms of the most significant of films to ever be shot here, in so animated in its delivery and has such a catchy hook line, that it is difficult not to toe tap along with an accompanying smile. And her re-representation of Maria Von Trapp’s third youngest adoptive daughter Brigitta gives us an angstsy ten-year-old’s reimagining of the musical theatre classic “The Sound of Music” through the lens of unresolved middle child issues.

“Women in Voice” is about empowering women to share their voices. Accordingly, the program is curated so as to present a variety of experience levels and musical styles. Act Two features another WiV debutant, Irena Lysiuk giving a stunning operatic Italian-merging-into English version of ‘To The Moon and Back’. With trademark lush Powerhouse Theatre lighting and acoustics, it’s a commanding few moments as her flawless vocals introduce us to her proud Logan girl love of pop duo Savage Garden. In fact, the 1990s group’s popular songs make up her entire set list, albeit in reimagined forms, as she considers them through the perspective of a range of musical genres to take us through opera and a stripped back ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’ to a musical theatre themed ‘Shake Me Break Me’ (with Clark punctuating things along in add to its dynamism) and a country styled ‘Affirmation’ complete with twang and a great hat. (#whatcantshedo?) And her between-song banter and share of her journey to becoming a singer (inset with Savage Garden trivia) is incredibly funny in its easy nuance, making her set another of the show’s high points.

Responsibility for rounding things out goes to larger-than-life fabulous cabaret diva Dame Farrar (Carita Farrer Spencer), who stumbles onto stage direct from her bedroom in Melbourne to give us a smashing ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. Her voice is powerful, she sure can hold a note and her commitment to the little jokes that contribute to the elaborate tapestry of her over-the-top, insult-laden characterisation throughout her set is commendable, resulting in circulating tears of laughter from the thoroughly entertained audience members.

With tight direction, cohesive tie together of ideas and finely tuned performances, the 2 hours + (including interval) duration of 2022’s “Women in Voice” has all the ingredients for a wonderful night out… extraordinarily talented performers, authentic stories, humour and songs we thought we knew presented afresh. Get tickets now … if you can

Shining bright again

The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

July 9 – 30

“The Sunshine Club” opens in the summer of 1946 with World War II just over. Ambitious Aboriginal solider, former boxing champion Frank Doyle (Marcus Corowa) has spent years fighting for freedom shoulder-to-shoulder with troops from all over Australia. Despite its opening number, ‘Lest We Forget’, the war, however, does not set the narrative tone of Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical.  

Frank thinks the world can be different, but upon return to his hometown of Brisbane, quickly realises this isn’t the case when he is denied entry to the Lord Mayor’s Victory Ball to see his childhood friend Rose (Irena Lysiuk) sing at the Cloudland ballroom. In this not-that-long-ago era, systematic discrimination of indigenous Australians is all around, including through curfews and travel restrictions. Hopeful in want of a better life, where he can be more than just an exception to the rules, Frank sets up his own dance hall, the fictitious The Sunshine Club, where everyone is invited and he can dance with Rose, daughter of Reverend Morris (Andrew Buchanan), for whom his Aunty Faith (Roxanne McDonald) has worked for many years as housekeeper… cue catchy titular song ‘The Sunshine Club’, which sets the mood of what is a defiantly joyous musical experience. What follows is spirit-soaring in its entertainment, making its 2 hours 30 min duration (with interval) fly by in move through Frank and Rose’s story towards an operatic climax and meta-theatrical ending that reframes the work with call upon the audience to reflect on how far Australia has come, and how far the country still has to go, towards Reconciliation.

Directed again by Enoch, who wrote the book and lyrics of the Helpmann Award nominated 1999 original, which also played at The Playhouse, the revival includes a number of creatives from the original production alongside a new generation of First Nations artists, many of whom are making their Queensland Theatre debut. Marcus Corowa is outstanding in the role of protagonist Frank Doyle; his vocals are powerful and he effectively emotes Frank’s varied responses as he works through his return to an unchanged society and then optimism about moving forward in a romantic relationship with Rose. Lysiuk, gives the girl of Frank’s dreams feistyness and well-intentioned naivety, but also endearing passion. She looks and sounds the part, especially in her celebration of potential love in the brassy ‘Let It Rain’, which soars with her gorgeous soprano sounds.

The heart and soul of the show, however, is undeniably McDonald, in reprise of her role as Aunty Faith, after more than 20 years. A clear audience favourite, she makes the strong-willed cyclone of a matriarch’s quips very funny, but balances this nicely with her caring nature, always looking after the strays and loving her family fiercely. And while Faith may have to rely on others at times, such as Rose to read Frank’s wartime letters home, she knows of the reality of the world, often speaking the most sense. Buchanan similarly gives Rose’s strict Christian Reverend father a considered light and shade, which is of particular credit given how easily the role could have been realised as an antagonistic caricature.

Naarah makes the spirited Pearl Doyle a moving juxtaposition to Rose, of similar talent and ambition for the future, but limited comparative opportunity. Not only is she a commanding performer dramatically, but her strong vocals are showcased in tormented tribute to the tragedy of lost dreams, the powerful ‘Passionfruit Vine’. And Beau Dean Riley Smith makes her lovesick admirer Dave Daylight a loveable larrikin, more than just an askew-dressed slacker cannery-worker.

A five-piece onstage band (Mika Atkinson, Stephen Newcomb, Katie Randall, Michael Whitaker, led by the original production’s Music Director Wayne Freer) fills John Rodgers’ score with brass-filled of-era sounds with songs about subjects like the door-to-door sales of Pearl’s ‘Sellin’ Man’ love interest Peter (Trent Owers), and of course love, adding much to the atmosphere of the dance club scenes, along with Jacob Nash’s set and property design. There is an infectious energy to the lively numbers, enhanced by the Yolanda Brown’s dance choreography and numbers like the jazzy ‘Strictly Saturday Night’ allow for showcase of individual instrumentation.

‘Dancin’ Up a Storm’, during which the characters kick up their heals while a Brisbane summer storm threatens the sky outside, is incredibly catchy and even the more subdued dreaminess of the ‘We Danced’ duet between Corowa and Lysiuk sways the audience beautifully tinto interval. ‘Shadow Dancer’, a duet of assurance between the two lovers serves as a clear highlight, thanks to the precision of both vocalists. Corowa’s vocal range, in particular, is outstanding and gives a serenity to texture atop angst in his attempt to understand his post-war frustrations and want for the world to change in ‘Homecoming’.

Internationally acclaimed Nunukul and Ngugi playwright and director Wesley Enoch AM directs the work with a dexterity that allows statements about first nations people in the world to be layered within its dialogue rather than overtly signposted in and of themselves. The humour and optimism that cushions their confrontation allows for reminders such as the lack of aboriginal franchise (until 1962) to be shared in, for example, the swinging ‘Sit Down Mr. Menzies’ and moving ensemble finale ‘If Not Now Then When’ in response to Frank’s ask of “when is my time?” National issues aside, however, “The Sunshine Club” is very much a Brisbane story, full of location landmark mentions and thanks to Richard Roberts’ costume design, ‘40s era evocation. While it is a historical work of a particular time, “The Sunshine Club” is also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love, and then also consider in terms of its still-powerful messaging celebration of resilience.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

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