Disco delights

Velvet Rewired

Wynnum Fringe Garden – George Clayton Park, Raine & Horne Wynnum Spiegeltent

November 16 – December 4

There was much conversation from audience members while in line for entry to the 8pm opening night show of “Velvet Rewired”. It was coming, largely, from those who had just seen the 6pm performance, raving to us about how wonderful it was. They needed to be spruiking, however, to those yet to purchase tickets, because this is fabulous entertainment that everyone should experience before it heads south for a season at the Sydney Opera House. The new, reinvented “Velvet Rewired” is the showcase event of the Wynnum Fringe Festival, now is its third year. Its home of the Raine & Horne Wynnum Spiegeltent within the Wynnum Fringe Garden of George Clayton Park on the shores of Moreton Bay, allows audience members to get up-close and personal with its performers, including commanding headliner The Diva, Marcia Hines.

As Hines makes her way out into the audience at one point, it is clear that love for the iconic national treasure is still strong. The Australian Queen of Pop’s voice is as powerful as ever, but still richly warm, and is smoothly complemented in duet with Tom Sharah as Country Mike in ‘You to Me Are Everything’. It is, however, her 1977 hit ‘You’ that really pinnacles the show. And, joined, as she is by a cast of internationally acclaimed circus performers and dancers, the highlights are plenty in this fusion of flawless glamour, glitz and jaw-dropping feats. Multi-skilled circus artist Beau Sargent stuns with aerialist work high about the stage. Indeed, as he hangs from an aerial hoop from just his neck, audible gasps replace the mouth agape awe of onlookers. Harley Timmerman’s too, provides a memorable aerial accompaniment to a multi-faceted ‘It’s Raining Men’ number’.

As with so many numbers, there is so much going on with James Browne’s set and costume design and Amy Campbell’s choreography, that our eyes are spoiled for choice upon where to settle. When ‘greatest dancer’ Craig Reid, aka The Incredible Hula boy storms the stage, our attention is commanded to the one spot. The multiple Guinness World Record holder, is clearly the King of the Rings as he simultaneously hulas hoops on multiple limbs and even while ascending into the air. The Skating Willers, Pierre and Stef too, have difficulty keeping their feet wheels on the ground with a daring number, especially for those seated in its front row danger zone.

As with previous “Velvet” undertakings, while seats close its thrust stage allow for intimate appreciation of the precision, strength and balance of circus performers, those located further back in the venue are rewarded with appreciation of the full spectacle of the show’s dynamism. Inspired by Studio 54, “Velvet Rewired” is full of exciting colour and moment in celebration of freedom, with Matthew Marshall’s vibrant disco lighting design adding to the excitement in its precise execution.

Under The DJ’s (music director Joe Accaria) watchful eye, Siren dancers Sasha Lee Saunders and Jacinta Giliano ensure that energy never wanes as the setlist takes us through over 15 of-era classics, including ‘Disco Inferno’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland’, though not always as we might remember them. In balance to the exuberant sparkle, there are even some more avant-garde moments and more subdued numbers as classic disco era songs are considered anew.

Like its previous incantations “Velvet Rewired” is a fusion of discotheque, nightclub, burlesque and carnival. The Australian-made global smash hit cabaret presents the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas along with the death-defying world of Cirque du Soleil, which results in sheer entertainment of the most exhilarating sort. So break out the sequins and get yourself down to see it at the Wynnum Fringe Speigeltent as soon as possible so you can then be the one urging others along to its disco delights.

Keen for green

Shrek The Musical (Gordon Frost Organisation)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

January 14 – February 7

While the translation of films for the stage has become routine, screen-to-stage musicals can be troublesome, especially when the source material is not a musical in and of itself. In the case of “Shrek The Musical”, however, the stage show has everything that made the movie fun and then some. Through David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics, the musical represents a faithful retelling of the story immortalised in the 2001 animated comedy, full of familiar ‘that will do’ reassurance, onion analogies and gingerbread man interrogation, but also complimented by additions such as the introduction of a backstory for the comic villain Lord Farquaad.

The twisted fairy tale opens up once upon a time with another new addition to the story with the parents of a young Shrek (Ben Mingay) singing ‘Big Bright Beautiful World’ to him in recognition of his seventh birthday, meaning that it is time for him to leave home to go and live on his own. As a result, we then meet the still (and convincingly) Scottish and grouchy green ogre Shrek living alone in his swamp, happy to be hermitted away in a haven from the world’s fearful mocking until a group of homeless fairy tale characters including Pinocchio (Caleb Vines) and the Three Little Pigs (Ross Chisari, Joshua Robson, Tom Sharah) seek swap refuge from the persecution of the Napoleon-esque ruler of Duloc, the ruthless and cruel Lord Farquaad (Todd McKenney).

Shrek seeks out Farquaad and strikes up a deal: if Shrek can rescue the Princess Fiona (Lucy Durack), whom Farquaad wishes to marry for her crown, then Farquaad will ensure the return of Shrek’s swamp by returning the fairy tale creatures to their homes. So, along with his ‘noble steed’ sidekick Donkey (Nat Jobe), the unlikely hero travels to Princess Fiona’s prison, rescues her from a fire-breathing (and soon love-sick) dragon (Marcia Hines), and attempts to bring her back to the evil Lord Farquaad. Strong-willed Fiona, however, is not your typical princess, which complicates things towards the story’s ultimate happily ever after ending.

Whereas in the film we first meet Fiona as an adult, this changes in the musical which sees her shown at three different stages of life, as an optimistic seven-year-old dreaming of the brave knight that storybooks tell her will be her rescuer, hopeful teenager and then headstrong, cynical and stir-crazed adult. This is an effective addition as it not only gives audience character background and development, but some lovely harmonies as the Fionas join together for ‘I Know It’s Today’ exploration of her frustration as she spends years waiting for her prince to arrive. Determined Fiona is clearly not your run-of-the-mill fairy tale princess and Lucy Durack soon shows this. As always, she sparkles in a spirited performance. Ben Mingay, similarly, makes the eponymous Shrek a likeable and appropriately sympathetic character, more misunderstood than mean-spirited.

It is Todd Mckenney, however, who steals the show as Lord Farquaad, delivering a fabulous pantomime-esque realisation of Duloc’s evil dictator, determined to rid the world of fairytale characters. From the moment he first waddles onto stage, full of over-inflated self-importance, you will be laughing and his fine-footed ‘What’s Up, Duloc?’ expression of his love for his kingdom, accompanied by his cheerful army of Disneyland ‘It’s a Small World’ style Duloc Dancers is an early highlight that settles the show into its sensibility with young and old along for the ride. Comedy comes also from goofy Nat Job’s charisma and comic timing in delivery of Donkey’s cutting one-liners.

Under Dave Skelton’s musical direction, the orchestra more than rises to the challenge of the show’s varied score of 19 songs. Though none are particularly memorable, the musical’s songs serve their purpose well, written as they each are in the voice of the characters. Even Lord Farquaad gets to tell his story in ‘The Ballad of Farquaad’. Shrek’s ‘Who I’d Be’ Act One closer represents some beautiful storytelling, ensuring that there is an emotional foundation beneath the silliness of so much of the show’s energetic colour and movement. And Mingay’s vocals are faultless in their revelation of a completely different side to the protagonist.

The original score, with music by Jeanine Tesori, includes a mix of musical styles. For example, as Shrek and Fiona’s newfound camaraderie begins to grow into love, Donkey, with the accompaniment of a diva trio of three blind mice attempts to encourage Shrek with ‘Make a Move’, a stylishly smooth number that moves from soulful to rousing in an Otis Redding sort of way. Much like the movie, the musical ends with a high-energy rock performance of Smash Mouth’s hit “I’m a Believer”, featuring all of the characters, however, despite the wonderful tableaux image of its curtain call conclusion, the musical highlight comes courtesy of the anthemic Act Two ensemble number ‘Freak Flag’ which sees the gang of fairytale misfits singing to Pinocchio in encouragement of him to embrace the puppet he is. Like ‘Raise You Up/Just Be’ in “Kinky Boots” its championing of difference is not only infectious in its energy, but its sentiment emphasises the show’s focus on what it is like to be lonely and shunned.

Special guest Marcia Hines provides powerful vocals as the voice of the almighty dragon that ferociously guards Princess Fiona. Her formidable ballad ‘Forever’ shows her vocal prowess in that spine-tingling way that only a Queen such as she can elicit. The number, which sees the impressive dragon that fills the Lyric Theatre stage, moving about at the hands of skilled puppeteers in cue to her singing, is also one of many choreographic highlights. Josh Prince’s choreography also impresses in Act Two’s high energy opener ‘Morning Person’ which sees Durack leading a troupe of tap dancing rats in a fabulous Fosse-like routine as Fiona sets about showing the Pied Piper how it is done.

The humour that lies at the heart of the show’s success is filtered through to musical numbers too. In homage to Irving Berlin’s ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)’, Shrek and Fiona flirt through a farty attempt to out gross each other. And from an adult humour perspective, there are lots of sight gags and innuendo courtesy of McKenney’s Lord Farquaad. The show is very clever too, particularly in its work around the character transformations within the plot. Also, just as the film made extensive use of cultural references especially to other Disney movies, in “Shrek the Musical” this is referenced by the inclusion of nods to popular musicals like ‘Wicked”, “The Lion King”, “Les Miserable” and “Dreamgirls” through notes and lyrics, staging and props. There are also sprinkles of pop culture, Australian and even some uniquely-Queensland mentions to delight the audience.

Adding much to the musical’s dynamism is the visual delight of Tim Hatley’s dazzling, detailed sets and intricate costumes. Whether in woods, swamplands or tall towers of probable Farquaat compensation, the imagery is striking and thoroughly theatrical. Indeed, “Shrek The Musical” delivers to those keen for green on many levels with adventure, laugher, romance and razzamatazz. It captures what made its subversive fairy tale source material so beloved without diminishing it, in what is a well-crafted show, witty and also irreverently fun for adult and child audience believers alike.

Photos (from the 2020 season of Shrek The Musical) c/o – Brian Geach

Disco dazzle

Velvet (Organised Pandemonium)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

April 20 – May 15

After amazing audiences at last year’s Brisbane Festival, “Velvet” is back for an encore season at QPAC to razzle dazzle back to the days of diva disco delirium, with addition of some amazing acrobatics.

The 70s cabaret, featuring her highness Marcia Hines at the helm, is infectiously fun but also seriously sexy in that hedonistic Studio 54 way. From the moment musical director, mix master and percussionist Joe Accaria begins the show with ‘Boogie Wonderland’, the dazzle is almost overwhelming in its assault on the senses. There is not a lot in terms of narrative; what unites the show instead is its eclecticism; it serves as showcase of the diverse talents of sassy singing sirens Chaska Halliday and Rechelle Mansour, muscle man Stephen Williams, cheeky hula boy extraordinaire Craig Reid, acrobatic wunderkind Mirko Köckenberger and sizzling aerialist Emma Goh.

acrobats.jpg

Singer/songwriter Brendan Maclean again takes lead in the ensemble of circus, cabaret and music talent. Infectiously energetic, for most of the show, he is equally impressive in delivery of a moving, acoustic rendition of ‘Stayin’ Alive’ which, although brilliant, seems out-of-step with the show’s ostentatiousness and buoyant energy.

brendan singing.png

The star, however, has to be Hines, who illuminates the stage in every instance, showcasing her enduring vocal prowess in classic numbers like ‘You’ and ‘Never Knew Love Like This Before’. Indeed, the soundtrack is sensationally ‘70s featuring numbers like ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Turn the Beat Around’ alongside a slightly sadomasochistic circus show to ‘I Feel Love’.

marcia closeup.jpg

In many ways, “Velvet” is a state of mind as much as an experience. Everything within its amalgam of forms is extravagant and while seats close its thrust stage allow for intimate appreciation of the precision, strength and balance of circus performers, those located further back in the venue are rewarded with appreciation of the full spectacle of the show’s dynamic lighting, slick transitions and mirror ball décor. But there is also realisation that in its previous Powerhouse incantation, aerial gymnastics presented as much more impressive to the larger venue’s room to move and higher ceilings from which to dangle.

lighting.png

While polished in every aspect, “Velvet” still comes across as funky, fun and as fresh as ever. Its carefree comedy and intoxicating atmosphere guarantees enjoyment for even the most jaded of audience members. When it comes to on-stage parties, you don’t get more celebratory than this. The fact that the fantasy comes courtesy of a nostalgic trip back through musical time, is but an added bonus.

Mind blown!

I saw 15 of the 78 Brisbane Festival productions during September … not my best year (stupid Influenza B) but not a bad effort, given its Term 3 timing (#teacherlife). This leads to difficulty though in reflecting upon preferences, especially when shows can be so wildly different in type and tone, yet still be equally mind-blowing (to steal the festival’s tagline intent).

Velvet (4)

The razzle dazzle ‘70s cabaret “Velvet” featuring her highness Marcia Hines was infectiously fun, while at the other extreme, W!ld Rice’s witty all-male telling of Oscar Wilde’s immortal “The Importance of Being Earnest” offered delightful take on the classic.

hero_2_the_importance_of_being_earnest_web_banner

Certainly, the Singapore Snapshots and Congo Connections provided many of the highlights of harrowing and happiness alike and I hope that the focus on particular nations is set to continue in future festivals in affirmation of the event’s role in connecting artists and audiences through attracting world class entertainment.

World premieres of commissioned productions like the equally intense and profound, but very different works of boxing-based “Prize Fighter” and opera/circus fusion “Il Ritorno” of course add a specialness to theatre experiences. The fact that they additionally come courtesy of Brisbane creators also fosters the type of conversations that typify festival time, when an entire city can become focussed on creativity. Rather than engendering a generic franchised feel, this year’s works have been daring and then some, making it a September not to be forgotten.

11223486_10153390713651147_6344630361931622458_n

The welcome of wonderland

Velvet (Organised Pandemonium)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

September 16 – 26

ending

One wonders if there is anything more ‘70s than the purple sequinned hoodie that bellboy Mirko Köckenberger wears as he kicks off some of the circus performances that punctuate the musical numbers of “Velvet”. Then the statuesque, iconic diva Maria Hines emerges in a sequined jumpsuit…. Welcome to the funky boogie wonderland of 1970s disco, Brisfest style.

While Hines’ classic ‘You’ evokes much joy in nostalgia of a Countdown childhood, you don’t have to be of any particular vintage to reveal in this show’s glittery abandon as there is an assured sound to every song, with number after number, leading to applause of endorsement by audiences in recognition of its opening bars alone. And it isn’t all soaring, synthesized ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Le Freak’ disco sounds, with a highlight coming from an intense, unplugged version of the Bee Gee’s anthem ‘Staying Alive’, to add some mix to the froth and bubble of the vocal acts and live DJ, Mix-Master Joe Accaria.

dj

Some salacious and hedonistic burlesque numbers (most notably from New Orleans Burlesque Queen Perle Noire) also add to the variety, always good fun and in keeping with the show’s eclecticism.  And there is an unexpected appearance from the talented human slinky/kaleidoscope, La Soiree’s Craig Reid which is just funny beyond words.

hula

As the headliner, ARIA Hall of Famer Hines is a consummate performer, commanding the stage in every instance. Her interaction with the audience is such that it seems as if lines are sung directly to you, which is warmly embraced by the crowd. And when she belts out ‘It’s Raining Men’, the result is entirely infectious.

marcia

And from the moment he appears in almost Elder Price type, to his revelation of flamboyant Priscilla-esque costume, it is clear that Brendan Maclean has a tremendous stage presence. In every instance his performance is full of energy and while his voice is a marvellous complement with Hines’ in duets such as ‘You to Me are Everything’, his early-show solo of ‘If you could read my mind’ is a testament to his calibre of his talent.

elder

The circus performances from Stephen Williams and Emma Goh are skilled, particularly in astonishing aerial work, however, of particular note is acrobat Köckenberger, who gives a quite unique sense of actual presence, and the show is warmer for it. His cheeky charm is clear, his eyes alive with enthusiasm and his smile infectious, even when performing balancing acts on suitcase stacks.

bellboy

And this is also what stands “Velvet” apart from others, with its thrust stage allowing audience members a more up-close-and-personal experience befitting a show that is all about the party, complete with the requisite glitterball glamour, bright, pulsing lights and pounding beats.

While it might be deemed the decade that style forgot, a ‘70s cabaret show is a marvellous idea and “Velvet” is a dizzy delight of a party experience to which everyone is welcome, in keeping with its Studio 54 inspiration. With a wink and a twirl, it takes audiences on a whirlwind tour through its music and mood, proving that while it may burn, baby, burn in inferno, disco most definitely is not dead.