Talented truths

The Last Five Years (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse

October 7 – 17

strings.jpgWhen the opening music of “The Last Five Years” mourns with string sounds it suggests that Jason Robert Brown’s acclaimed 2001 musical is far from a happy story. This may ultimately be accurate, but in its tell of the doomed romance between lovers Jaime, a writer whose career is on the rise and struggling actress Cathy, it is certainly an honest and engaging one and not just in its inspiration from Brown’s failed marriage. And in Wax Lyrical Productions’ hands the musical two-hander is certainly heartbreaking as it traces their relationship from opposite ends.

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Initially it takes some effort to follow what is happening, without knowing of its complicated chronological twist, that sees Jamie’s (Kurt Phelan) story moving forward in time, while Cathy’s (Lizzie Moore) is portrayed in reverse. Once comfortable in the format, however, the show’s 90 minute duration flies by, through love at first sight to marriage breakdown and all that goes in between and it is easy to become absorbed in the musical storytelling, which provides an intimate look at the rise and fall of a relationship from infatuation to disillusionment.

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There’s not much of a plot, with only its melodically rich soundtrack and no dialogue. The sensational score requires performers with endurance, emotional range and soaring vocals. And in this regard, Phelan and Moore are spot-on, bringing clarity to the narrative and engagement to its storytelling.

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As aspiring actress Cathy, the multi-talented Moore moves from lament of the end of her marriage in ‘Still Hurting’ to the show’s most memorable number, the witty and upbeat ‘A Summer in Ohio’ parody of showbiz life and the exquisite torture of waiting for Jaime to visit.

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As Jaime, Phelan is charming, charismatic and vocally compelling from his first appearance onstage to share song of his excitement at encountering the ‘shiksa goddess’ of his dreams, moving through time towards the unhappiness of his unravelled marriage. His versatility is engaging, particularly in characterisation within ‘The Schumel Song’, where, as they celebrate their second Christmas, he tells Cathy of a new story he has written about an old tailor, in which he shows his gift for comedy. Indeed, whether the song is comic, gentle or agonised, Phelan creates an unforgettable experience through his outstanding performance, meaning that while you may see the show for the music, you will tell others to go to see him knock it out of the park.

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Live on-stage music (courtesy of Shanon Whitelock, Joel Woods, Ruth Donovan, Wayne Jennings, Ruby Hunter and Conall O’Neill) draws upon a number of musical genres to provide emotional resonance, while Jason Glenwright’s lighting design transports audience members from moments of triumph to turmoil and tenderness, including when at a single point in the middle Jaime and Cathy’s stories converge and we see them happy and singing together in ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ after Jamie has proposed. Countless (necessary) costume changes also contribute to the sensibility of each relationship phase. Indeed, under Zoë Tuffin’s direction the production is packed with nuanced nods and subtle suggestions as to the passage of time, which is appreciated in contribution to audience understanding.

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With humour, heart and a triumphant combination of cast and creative talent, Wax Lyrical Productions’ “The Last Five Years” certainly does not disappoint. In fact, it will probably stay with audiences long after the actors have left the space, in contemplation of whether we are more Jaime or Cathy or a little bit of both, such is the universal appeal of its thematic truths.

Photo c/o – Joel Devereux

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PM pleasure

Joh for PM (Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

July 7 – 16

Like other states, we in Queensland have a distinctness and difference beyond just climate. And in recent history there is nothing more uniquely Queensland than the era of our contradictory longest-serving Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Given his uncompromising conservatism and corruption, mounting a show based on his reign is a brave move, but one which, in the hands of Jute Theatre Company and Brisbane Powerhouse, pays off in the easy entertainment that is “Joh for PM”.

The framing device of the new musical by Stephen Carleton and Paul Hodge is the 1987 campaign launch of Joh’s grandly-ambitious, but ultimately-doomed, Canberra bid, complete with leggy lounge singer host Nikki Van Den Hoogenbranden (Chloe Dallimore), assisted by Kurt Phelan and Stephen Hurst, all dressed in gaudy ‘80s pink spandex, featuring all the stars of the day (#notreally).

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The musical comedy that emerges satirises the events that occurred during the Bjelke-Petersen era, following his early farm life, religious upbringing and courtship of wife Flo, as well as his ‘accidental’ assent to the political heights from which he would fall following that Chris Masters’ ‘Moonlight State’ ABC 4 Corners report and the resulting Fitzgerald enquiry. The original songs that support the narrative are all clever, catchy and engaging, especially when, in ‘We Don’t Do That Nonsense Here’ (about the intended Queensland response to 1971’s controversial six week rugby union tour by the South African Springboks to Australia) audience members are involved as placard-carrying protestors.

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Colin Lane (of Lano and Woodley fame) is wonderful as the titular Joh, capturing his bumbling country-bumpkin manner of mixed metaphors in an embodiment rather than impression of his larger-than-life character. And Barb Lowing is perfect as the forgetful Flo, especially in her later years; her ‘Pumpkin Scone Diplomacy’ rap is the icing of the Iced VoVo as Joh would say. Indeed, Director Kris Stewart makes excellent use of every cast member’s talents. As press secretary Allen Callaghan, Kurt Phelan is appropriately Machiavellian, especially in his Henry Higgins type training of how Joh needs to respond to the media by repetition for emphasis and to buy time, in the memorable “Feed the Chooks” musical number.

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Although the Powerhouse Theatre stage is slightly tight, the razzle dazzle retro staging works a treat. Music follows the time period of the story and enhances the satire with catchy tunes and lyrics that make it difficult not to sing and toe-tap along in pleasure to memorable numbers like ‘Don’t You Worry About That’, ‘Joh For PM’ and ‘White Shoe Shuffle’.

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Thanks to a witty script, appropriately, the show is packed with political references for appreciation by Queenslanders of a certain age, whether that be that they remember the oppressive state of emergency response to Springbok protests or just how the 1985 Sequeb electricity strikes impacted upon their “The Goodies” and “Monkey” tv viewing. While its narrative is obviously rooted in particular times and places of the past, however, the show also contains some contemporary digs at other Australian politicians that are well-received by the audience.

Although those audience members who have read Matt Condon’s “Three Crooked Kings” trilogy may be bothered by a perceived downplay of the stormy time of our history, its surrealism makes it perfect subject matter for satire. As sure as eggs and eggs, as Joh would say, humour is a defining part of Queensland culture and “Joh for PM” stands as evidence of this.

Sondheim songs and secrets

Boys of Sondheim (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 2 – 4

Stephen Sondheim is not only one of the most significant gay artists of the 20th century but one of the greatest musical theatre composer and lyricists in history. To celebrate the works of the award-winning composer in cabaret-concert is, on its own, a champion idea. To do with a talented cast that includes Kurt Phelan (“Dirty Dancing” Australian tour as Johnny Castle), Sean Andrews (“Phantom of The Opera” the International Asian tour), Tim Carroll (“Grease The Arena Experience” with Harvest Rain), Alexander Woodward (“Grease The Arena Experience” with Harvest Rain), and Stephen Hirst (“Into The Woods”), makes “Boys of Sondheim” more than just a salute to Sondheim’s songs.

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From its jazzy opening sounds, there is a clear intimate, tongue-in-cheek elegance to its share of Sondheim songs that are mostly sung by women, reappropriated and cleverly curated together to guide the audience along an emotional journey of relationships for gay men, from the anxiety of Hirst’s introductory ‘Everyone’s Got the Right to Love’ from “Assassins” to Phelan’s ‘I Feel Pretty’ insecurity (from “West Side Story”). With monologues capturing the essence of what it is to be a gay man in modern Australia, it is a concept that works well without any change of original lyrics, resulting in many tender moments, including Phelan and Woodward’s sumptuous take on the ballad ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, also from “Assassins” and share of the melodious pain of ‘Send in the Clowns’ From “A Little Night Music” by Andrews in duet with Hirst.

In preparation for the pathos, there is a lot of early humour courtesy of witty dialogue and animated delivery, including an upbeat ‘Buddies Blues’ from “Follies” by Caroll and a naughty take of ‘I Know Things Now’ from “Into the Woods’ by Phelan. All the performers have an engaging stage presence, however, Phelan is a versatile standout as he shows off his ‘hot young thing’ dance moves in a gorgeous ‘Sooner or Later’ from “Dick Tracey”.

The secret joy of Sondheim’s music is the songs are often ones you don’t realise you know, which adds to joy of re-discovery of the show’s mix, including songs from “Company”, ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ and “Getting Married Today’, which features Hirst’s rapid fire lyrics juxtaposed with Phelan’s top falsetto, to wonderful comic effect. And thanks to the musical direction of Dominic Woodhead (also on piano), and Michael Thrum on sax and clarinet, and Kirsten Baade on bass, every number is musically on-point in its poignancy and intricate melody.

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Drawing from ten musicals, five performers, a three piece band and one composer, Director Kris Stewart has created a sensational work of celebration, with a twist. Not only does it take audiences on a journey though Sondheim’s songs, but, “Boys of Sondheim” presents a honest and heartfelt exploration of males trying to find place in the world, perfect for inclusion in Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival celebration of queer arts and culture.

Phelan fun

Phelan Groovy (Kurt Phelan)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

December 1 – 3

One of the rules of cabaret is that it has no rules. This is certainly true of “Phelan Groovy”, given that over the course of its duration, musical theatre star Kurt Phelan takes audiences from anecdotes of his time onstage as Johnny Castle in “Dirty Dancing’ to a political campaign of Townsville truths to the tune or ‘Royals’, while dressed in a safari suit and thongs. Indeed, if you are looking for fun, then all is groovy here.

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Recognisable songs of all sorts have their lyrics reappropriated in the cleverest and most memorable of ways throughout the show, from Les Miserable’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ to Frozen’s ‘Let it Go’. It’s not all musicals though as Phelan both belts out a sensational ‘Simply the Best’ and shares a bouncy Whitney/Dirty Dancing mashup. This show has something for everyone and you don’t have to know Australian divas Rhonda Burchmore and Debra Byrne to find the funny in his not always flattering but absolutely hilarious impersonations.

Phelan’s charisma is similarly on show in the between song banter about his career thus far, including comical stories of life growing up in North Queensland and fascinating tidbits about being employed as Prince Charming at the happiest place on earth, Disneyland.

Showing the versatility of his talent, he takes things to a serious place too, with an honest and moving tribute to he gone-too-soon Daniel Scott, the original Felicia for whom he understudied in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”, the piano-driven ‘A Thousand Miles’, so poignant and vulnerable as to bring some audience members to tears. The NIDA graduate has a wonderful voice and his impressive vocal technique and control are particularly showcased in this touching number. Regardless of tone, however, transitions between dialogue and song are all seamless, which helps the show maintain a packed pace.

“Phelan Groovy’ is a thoroughly entertaining and full-of-fun show from an energetic and talented performer who can tell a good story as much as sing a great song. With Luke Volker as pianist and provider of animal impressions, and an audience karaoke sing-along, what’s not to love?

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Dancing to the beat of audience hearts

Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage (John Frost, Karl Sydow, Martin McCallum & Joye Entertainment in association with Lionsgate & Magic Hour Productions)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

May 28 – July 19

“Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage” is one of those ‘it is what it is’ shows; it is far from high culture and hardly groundbreaking theatre, but for fans of the movie (and let’s face it, what gal isn’t?) this doesn’t really matter. What matters is the experience and its fidelity to the feelings generated in response to the much-loved 1997 film.

The story has not changed. It’s the summer of 1963 and 17 year old Frances (Baby) Houseman is on holidays at Kelleman’s resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains with her older sister and parents. When she stumbles upon a staff dance party, her life is changed forever as she is steps in to become the resort dance instructor Johnny Castle’s partner in dance and more.

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Scenes are faithful to the movie, down to the smallest nuances of movement and reaction, however, intimate moments do not always translate in emotion to a large venue staging. Perhaps to stretch out what is only a 100 minute movie, the stage show features the addition of some extra scenes, often with the focus on emphasising the turbulent political climate of its 1960s context, however, these are unnecessary and not in keeping with the feel of the story.

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Certainly establishment of this context is important, as is highlighted in the display of information in the QPAC tunnel, however, ultimately this is a coming-of-age story that has transcended this to become more about its cheesy one-liners – think, “I carried a watermelon” and “nobody puts baby in the corner.”

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Kirby Burgess is a charmingly naïve and idealistic Baby, bringing, at times, a depth to the character that touches on the story’s feminist discourse, balanced with an inner dag that explodes in her secret solo dance practice “Wipeout” scene. As the sexy dance instructor, Johnny, Kurt Phelan is very Hugh Jackman-esque in his demeanour – all hunk of manly man of experience with all the right dance moves. And their bedroom bungalow scene is as hot as ever.

Adam Murphy and Penny Martin put in solid performances are Baby’s parents who feature more in the stage show due to a number of Act Two filler scenes. Although the fleshing out of their characters is largely unnecessary (it is not the sort of show requiring fully-formed characters), they keep things grounded. Murphy, in particular, should be commended for his portrayal of a character so iconically brought to life by the late Jerry Orbach, for to command the stage as he does in a scene in which he never even speaks a word, is the mark of an accomplished performer.

This ‘you let me down too daddy’ scene represents one of the few times the show’s momentum pauses for breath. Act One especially begins with a whirlwind (and sometimes clunkily transitioned) tour through its introductory scenes and perhaps, consequently, by the time Act Two arrives, the energy is beginning to wane. The soundtrack, however, is full of energy in its evocation of the era, leaving the audience wanting more than just abbreviated versions of some of the movie’s iconic songs.

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The problem is its confused identity as it is made clear that his is not a musical, but instead a dance show. And while the dancing is good and fully of energy, it lacks variety beyond raising legs high overhead, accompanied with some bumping and grinding. The moves are indeed impressive…. on first observation. With repetition, the desire is for something a little bit more. Attempts to add interest are included in staging with the projection of grass and water for the learning to dance montage which are effective in recreating the movie’s imagery, however, when Johnny ‘drives’ Baby back to the Kellermans after their dance performance at the nearby Sheldrake resort, it is in an imaginary car, which brings laughs to the scene for all the wrong reasons.

“Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage” is a nostalgic nod to a much loved film, sure to dance to the beat of fan’s hearts. It’s a perfect girls night out, complete with catchy songs, frozen watermelon daiquiris and a whole lot of pink, but it is what it is – a Clayton’s musical of questionable quality.

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Production photos c/o – http://dirtydancingaustralia.com