The highlight of “Some Kind of Wonderful”, an Opera Queensland Studio recital by Marcus Corowa, is its titular tune, appropriately given the Queensland, now-Sydney-based performer’s history. Before he was Frank Doyle in Queensland Theatre’s “The Sunshine Club” or a key member of little red company’s “Your Song” cabaret tribute to Elton John, Corowa entertained audiences as one of The Drifters in the national touring production of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and his crisp and commanding performance of the musical’s opening number reminds us of why.
Of course, the award-winning entertainer has accomplished much more than this in his career thus far and one of the best things about the recital is being able to hear the details of his journey, including how, as a First Nations artist, he is an advocate for greater diversity and inclusion within the creative industries. Corowa draws upon his Aboriginal and South Sea Islander heritage in the set list, which includes original works such as the moving ‘Where Is the Truth’, which has a particularly powerful emotional resonance when considered from the context of the week’s vigil’s for Noongar Yamatji boy Cassius Turvey after his alleged murder.
There is a nice balance between original and well-known numbers across the all-too-short program as Corowa takes us on a trip through songs that have inspired him throughout his career. There also allows for showcase of a considered range of musical styles. Whether it be blues, jazz or funk, Corowa is well supported by the always-versatile Michael Manikus on piano and keyboard, who is appropriately given some spotlight solos such as when he emboldens the simple melody of Bart Howard’s jazz classic ‘Fly Me To The Moon’.
Corowa himself is also a capable musician, providing his own decisive guitar accompaniment, such as in his strong original numbers ‘Everybody’ and ‘It’s Alright’, which serve as catchy rallies of hope, a theme that tapestries together the threads of the show’s program. ‘Freedom’, not only speaks to the idea of unity, but showcases his impressive vocal stamina and ability to sustain notes, and it is appropriate that it features just him on stage with his audience.
Corowa is a certainly a talented performer who has a charming stage presence. He has a unique, soulful voice that also silks us through popular standards such as ‘Just The Two of Us’. Indeed, his unique voice is rich and resounding, but also tender as desired, such as when his vibrato adds richly warm tones to Louis Armstrong’s contemplative ‘What a Wonderful World’, and when he and Manikus make their way down from the stage and into the audience for their gentle curtain call performance of Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, it makes for a fitting intimate finish to what is a very special musical experience that only leaves its lucky audience members ready for more.
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 acappella ‘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.
“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.
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.