Super Trouper treat

Mamma Mia! (Matt Ward Entertainment)

The Star Gold Coast, The Theatre

June 19 – July 11

Forget the red; it was a blue carpet opening for Matt Ward Entertainment’s production of the smash hit musical “Mamma Mia!”, appropriate given the colours of the Greek taverna set at The Star Gold Coast’ The Theatre. The fictional island of Kalokairi setting is where we find Sophie (Madeline Grice) dreaming of a perfect wedding, which includes her father giving her away… if only she knew who he was. Her mother Donna (Jayde Westaby), the former lead singer of the 1970s pop group Donna and the Dynamos, refuses to speak about the past, so Sophie sneaks a peek in Donna’s old diaries to discover three possible fathers: Sam (Sean Mulligan), Bill (Sandro Colarelli) and Harry (James Shaw), all of whom she secretly invites to her wedding. When the three men return to the island two decades after their last visit, they are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna and the heart-warming tale unfolds …. to a soundtrack of ABBA songs.

The show is one of theatre’s biggest success stories and its experience makes it easy to appreciate why. As one of the first in a surge of jukebox musical popularity, it uses of the songs of the Swedish pop group phenomenon to create a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship. The musical numbers provide exposition and character insight, with dialogue segueing naturally into the songs. Indeed, only minor lyric changes are needed to integrate them into the narrative. And the band’s contagiously catchy big hits are well placed to hook the audience, for example when, having just learned that Sophie’s three possible fathers have arrived on the island, Donna distresses away in her bedroom with friends Tanya (Emily Jade O’Keeffe) and Rosie (Leah Howard) who rally her to finally join in with the euphoric and blissfully youthful disco-balled ‘Dancing Queen’.

A brilliant band under the musical direction of Kuki Tipoki brings vitality to the ABBA tunes and it is wonderful to get glimpses of the musicians in action at the rear of the stage, especially when the set is opened up for Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Lakota Johnson). While differing vocal talents are showcased, there is no faulting Westaby as the free spirited mother of the bride-to-be. In a flawless performance she not only gives Donna the usual stoicism, but also panicked nervousness and tender vulnerability in reconnection with her former flames. And the accomplishment of her vocals is incredible. The command of her delivery of the melancholic power ballad ‘The Winner Takes It All’ after a bitter confrontation with Sam, in which she tells of how he broke her heart, is an absolute goosebumpy highlight, adding emotional depth to what could easily have been just a production line of bubble-gum pop numbers.

The magic is also evident in Westaby’s ‘SOS’ duet with Muligan, in which they both of them wish they could go back to the start. Westaby is a fine performer himself, as seen in Sam’s attempt to give Sophie some fatherly advice by describing his failed marriage in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’. And as the good and proper but fastidious Harry, Shaw, bring a nice intimacy to Donna and Harry’s nostalgic ‘One Last Summer’ reminiscence of their long-ago fling. Meanwhile, at the more upbeat end, a sassy, flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, during which the thrice divorced and now affluent Tanya rebuffs the advances of the much younger tavern worker Pepper (DonAlex Vilitama) and Act One’s closing disco-esque dance number ‘Voulez Vous’ are infectiously high in energy.

Joseph Simons’s impressive choreography takes advantage of the large stage space to enliven every number. When the girl group trio catch up about their lives in ‘Money, Money, Money’ casino themes and motifs and evident in movement as much as props and the similar ensemble number ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ in which Sky tells Sophie he will be the only man she ever needs, flips the fun up a notch (#literally) with a crowd-favourite routine. And while after interval’s ‘Under Attack’ still jars with the feel of the rest of the show, its use of blocked shadowy en masse dancer movement to represent Sophie’s nightmare of all three of her possible fathers fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, creates a considered contrast with the numbers that follow.

Given that this “Mamma Mia!” was originally scheduled for July 2020, the production comes with much expectation and it certainly proves itself worthy of the wait. The super trouper musical is tremendously energetic, but also emotionally moving and full of fun, meaning that when its curtain calls of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’, ensue, audience members are jumping to their feet, not just be in ovation but in pure joy at its treat.

Flying high

Wicked (Matt Ward Entertainment)

Home of the Arts

June 25 – July 6


Late in the story of “Wicked”, in his attempt to convince Elphaba to work with him, the Wizard comments on both the nature of truth and the best way to bring people together and make them happy. It’s a seemingly incidental scene amongst the musical’s procession of big moments, but it’s one that symbolises much of what makes Matt Ward Entertainment’s production of the untold story of the witches of Oz so compelling.


As the musical’s full name implies, its focus is the story behind the classic 1939 MGM musical fantasy film, “The Wizard of Oz”, the best-known and most commercially successful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s 1900 children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Itself based on the best-selling novel by Gregory Maguire, “Wicked” charts the journey of the witches of Oz, Elphaba (Samantha Dodemaide) and Glinda (Emily Monsma), from their early days as sorcery students at Shiz University in the land of Oz to them being declared to be Wicked and Good. It’s an unlikely but sincere friendship that provides the emotional heart to what is actually a much bigger and more important story.


The musical unfolds as a flashback to before Dorothy has headed down the yellow brick road. Misjudged green girl Elphaba has arrived at Shiz with her tragically-beautiful wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose (Antonia Marr). When Headmistress Madame Morrible (Kaye Tuckerman) decides to take Nessarose into her protection, Elphaba is reluctantly left to room with the beautiful, popular and adorably-awkward almost Mean Girl Glinda. Tenions between the two are heighted when Fiyero (Trent Owers) arrives at school, given that both girls soon have a crush on the handsome Winkie Prince. Turns out that pink goes good with green though and the unlikely duo form a firm friendship… until they are forced apart as Elphaba’s politicisation and magical powers take her all the way to Oz to meet the Emerald City’s ‘wonderful’ Wizard (James Shaw).


Dodemaide and Monsma are simply wonderful as Elphaba and Glinda, united together until freedom fighter Elphaba is forced to choose between following the possibilities of her magical powers and accepting the status quo. And when the two women forgive each other and acknowledge their respective mistakes in ‘For Good’, it makes for a moving musical moment.


However, there is more to “Wicked” than big ballads and a heartfelt story of true friendship and this production’s subtle emphasis on the political underpinnings of the storyline of talking animals facing an oppressive regime easily inspires audience appreciation from a 2019 perspective. Prejudice is everywhere in the world on stage, starting with Elphaba’s rejection by others at the university due to the colour of her skin, meaning that the show works on many levels, as political allegories do. And its resonating commentary on the nature of truth (“The truth isn’t in a thing of fact, or reason. It’s simply what everyone agrees on,” the Wizard warns us) makes it easy to watch even in fifth experience of a production of the show, with afresh eyes to notice the little details that make its excellence so thorough. Indeed, this is an incredibly crafted piece of theatre, especially in its original story nods of the flying monkeys, ruby slippers and cowardly lion et al sort. And the invented malapropisms that pepper the dialogue of Glinda in particular are an ongoing delight to the audience.


Still, “Wicked” is a musical that is defined by its soundtrack and with help from the live orchestra (Musical Director and Conductor Craig Renshaw) William David Brohn’s orchestrations are brought to wonderfully harmonious life in reminder of what makes this one of the best musical scores around. At the centre of the taxing score is the mammoth role of the passionate and intelligent Elphaba, which Dodemaide absolutely owns. She is a vocal giant, able to hold a note like no-one’s business (seen in Act Two’s ‘No Good Deed’) who shows compelling control over time signatures and changes, all the while conveying her character’s changing emotions of disappointment, frustration, betrayal and resignation. Her earnest ‘Wizard and I’ is an early standout, delivered flawlessly in play to all sections of the audience. And then there is the crown jewel of the score, “Defying Gravity’ which is as good any I’ve seen in Australia or overseas. As the score builds upon its earlier leitimotifs to its grand realisation, so too does the emotion of her epic vocals, meaning that when Elphaba finds power through her own outsider status and takes broomstick flight, the only appropriate response can be thunderous applause in understanding of why it is one of the greatest Act One finales in musical theatre history.


Monsma plays the spoiled and sweetly stuck-up Glinda in animated and deliberately over-the-top detail down to every nuanced facial expression and awkward reaction, especially when she decides to give Elphaba a makeover in the peppy ‘Popular’. In addition to her comedic talent, the role also offers showcase of her accomplished vocals, whether operatic or in powerful belt.


The dashing Fiyero is marvellously played by Owers, like Gaston of “Beauty and the Beast” without the arrogant swagger. And Shaw has some memorable moments as the Wizard; his Act Two ‘Wonderful’ is a whimsical, vaudevillian-esque detail to Elphaba about how he got to Oz in the first place and became The Wonderful Wizard that his subjects know.


Maria-Rose Payne’s production design is stunning. Sound and lighting are generally excellent, although projection of the Wizard’s warning is difficult to decider. And Jess Bennett’s animated costume design is impressive, capturing the unbalanced asymmetry of the world and offering many standout scenes from an aesthetic perspective, such as the black and white patterned palette of the university orientation party where the two witches begin to see each other in a different light and the extravagant green gusto of the Wizard’s Emerald City.


“Wicked’ is an ambitious musical undertaking, in its required retelling of an iconic story, but also due to the fandom associated with the musical juggernaut, however, this production realises the spectacle in spectacular fashion. Under Tim Hill’s fine direction, its strong, energetic cast make it a soaring entertaining experience of this classic work (if classic can be assigned as a descriptor to a musical that only premiered on Broadway in 2003, to mixed reviews and then lost out to “Avenue Q” for the Tony Award for Best Musical).

Lighting up the sky like a flame

Fame The Musical (Hota and Matt Ward Entertainment)

Home of the Arts, Gold Coast

January 25 – 27


“Fame”, the 1980 movie, chronicles the lives and hardships of students attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts, to a soundtrack of songs like ‘Fame’, ‘Out Here on My Own’, ‘Hot Lunch Jam’, ‘Never Alone’ and ‘I Sing the Body Electric’. “Fame – The Musical” stories the experiences of hopeful Class of 1984 graduates attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts, to a soundtrack of songs like ‘Fame’ and others from a virtually entirely rewritten score. These differences aside, the stage musical does still loosely shadow the plot of the ‘80s film. Those unfamiliar with the original text won’t probably realise or care, given how well the musical stands alone, and those with reverence for the classic, are at least forewarned in its introduction.

Rather than beginning with auditions, the Musical Theatre Summer School Production opens to newly accepted Juniors being respectively told that their discipline is the hardest profession in the world, whether it be acting, music or dance. The song ‘Hard Work’ bursts forth in reflection of the enormous energy of the youthful cast. Act One then sets about introducing the students and their relationships, illustrating the talent with which the cast brims. Amongst others, confident and angry singer Carmen (Bianca Coxeter) is our Coco, determined to be a success but segued in her ambition by the industry’s dark side. Shy actress Serena (Chelsea Burton) laments her unrequited love for Nick (Liam Head) and Leroy, sorry Tyrone, (Devante Latorre), is a talented dancer whose attitude is a thin-veil to his learning difficulties.

Even if the early plot lacks variation, the production has an appealing aesthetic from its outset. The soundscape is inviting from even before the show’s start and a simple but effective scaffolded set alofts the live band above a lot of the action, in front of an underused projection screen. Tight choreography makes good use of the stage areas, especially in full ensemble numbers which see groups layered across the stage and seamless transitions in contrast to the occasional microphone and lighting cue lapses.

While Kate Wormald’s more modern choreography invigorates the 1980s story, the show’s soundtrack, however, suffers from its transformation. While the new songs go some way to updating the musical, they aren’t particularly memorable. Even its titular Irene Cara track is only hinted at in Act One, although it does take pride of place in the finale. Regardless, however, large-scale numbers are all delivered with enthusiasm and exuberance, allowing showcase of some notable stage presences among the ensemble members.


There are highlights, too, in the more low-key musical numbers. Burton gives a likeable performance as besotted acting student Serena, vocally holding the audience in the palm of her hands. And Cessalee Stovall is sensational as English and homeroom teacher Miss Sherman, especially in her powerful, but still soulful, rendition of ‘These are My Children’, which is a show highlight. And under Ben Murray’s Musical Direction, the soundtrack serves well in support rather than overwhelm of the performers, as is often the case.

Latorre is a smooth Tyrone, both is his silver-tongued attempts to subvert attention and in his fluidity of movement across dance genres, but particularly in ballet duets. And there is humour too. Nicola Barret makes a meal (#punintended) of the supporting role of the melodramatic dancer Mabel, cresendoing in her gospel-like Act Two epiphany that instead of becoming ‘the world’s fattest dancer’ (‘Mabel’s Prayer), she should instead consider Acting a major, while Jake Binns oozes exuberance as the personality-plus young acting student Joe.

Following a tight Act One, Act Two seems to drag a little by comparison, even though it brings more emotional drive as we delve a little into the lives of the students. Still, some plot threads appear to be left hanging and themes only touched upon, perhaps as expense for the ‘everyone gets a song’ approach. While the vocal talent is excellent, however, the consequential lack of emotional connection is notable due to absence of substantial insight into the students’ personal lives beyond just artist drive and/or motivation for fame.

While its characters and songs may be different from its namesake, “Fame – The Musical”, still has the trademark sentiment that has seen its franchise endure for so many decades. This Matt Ward Entertainment production is embodiment of the notion of theatrical triple threats, with adept acting, accomplished dancing and exceptional singing. Not only this, but it is full of energy and vigour, showing that, as it promises, “Fame” continues to light up the sky like a flame.

Rent rejoice

Rent (Matt Ward Entertainment)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 2 – 20

You might not be able to buy love, but you can Rent it. I discovered this 22 years ago when I saw Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock musical “Rent” on Broadway, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and received four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. As a self-confessed Renthead, I not only know the soundtrack by sing-a-long heart, but have now been fortunate enough to see over half a dozen different productions. And compatibility speaking, Matt Ward Entertainment’s 2018 realisation, is right up there with the best, which is particularly impressive given the theatre company’s emerging status.

The high energy take on the modern bohemian classic packs a musical punch. In fact, it is always about the music, which barely breaks during the show’s duration. The entire musical is brilliantly performed by a live band that is showcased from within the scaffolding that helps set the scene of Bohemian life in the East Village’s Alphabet City. With a song range that includes soul, techno, Latin and gospel, there is an eclectic mix of styles, yet the soundtrack sounds smooth and succeeds in evoking a range of emotions. When the entire cast communes on stage for the slower, signature Act Two opener, ‘Seasons of Love’ to ask what the proper way is to quantify the value of a year in human life, for example, one cannot help but both rejoice in their harmony but also reflect on Larson’s passing following the show’s off-Broadway final dress rehearsal.

Seasons of Love.jpg

Appropriately, the show begins musically too, with lone musician Roger (Luigi Lucente) sitting atop a table, playing his electric guitar. Even without conventional theatrical elements, the audience is immediately absorbed in the show’s whirlwind of raw emotion. It is not just Roger’s story, but one of a tight-knit group of complex characters, impoverished young artists living in New York City’s East Village in the late ‘80s, based on Puccini’s beloved opera “La Bohème”. From one Christmas to the next we follow their dreams, losses and loves as they struggle through life under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.


Roger is a grieving HIV-positive rocker. His roommate Mark (Tom Oliver) is a passionate filmmaker dedicated to intimately capturing the pivotal life moments of his closest friends. Together they live in a rundown, unattended warehouse loft owned by their former roommate Benny (Isaac Lindley), whose marriage into money has seen his become not only a budding entrepreneur but their rent collector. Their anarchist College instructor and computer genius friend Collins (James Shaw) is embarking on a new romance with Angel (Trent Owers), a big-hearted drag queen and street drummer who, like Collins, has AIDS.

Roger and Mimi.jpg

Roger fears falling in love with Mimi (Stephie Da Silva), a spirited exotic dance and drug addict, while Mark still has feelings for his kooky centre-of-attention artist ex Maureen (Ruby Clark) who stages a performance piece, ‘Over The Moon’, to protest Benny’s plans to evict the homeless camp in the empty lot next to the loft. Unfortunately for Mark though, Maureen has left him for Joanne (Kirrah Amosa), a crusading lawyer from a rich family.

Despite the multiple, intersecting storylines, all members of the key cast are given moments to shine and shine they do. Indeed, there are no weak links amongst the entire ensemble cast. Tom Oliver is an endearing Mark in a Johnny Galecki type way. Lucente is an ultimately-passionate Roger and his ‘One Song Glory’ solo rock ballad sing about his dying wish to leave his mark on the world is a sensitive and expressive early show highlight. While Owers is a little breathy in his physically-demanding solo ‘Today 4 U’, his gentleness projects Angel as the sweet soul of the show. And Shaw makes Collins’ Act Two ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise an absolutely heartfelt reminiscence, at-once emotional and commanding. There is phenomenal vocal prowess amongst the ladies too. Da Silva makes easy work of Mimi’s high-energy attempt to seduce Roger alone in his apartment, ‘Out Tonight’ and ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ is a powerful duet between Amosa and Clark during a dramatic breakup between the controlling Joanne and flirty Maureen.


It is the ensemble numbers, however, that ultimately shine brightest. The optimistic ‘Another Day’, is stirring in its rallying cry to embrace love and live in the moment according to the slogan ‘Forget regret — or life is yours to miss’. There is visual interest in every ensemble number too, with performers fully absorbed in their characters. Owers, for example, is especially nuanced in every glance and movement as Angel, even when as background to centre-stage action.

This is an exciting and passionate production of a ground-breaking work that shows why its rock soundtrack has been a pinnacle of musical theatre history for over two decades. While aspects of its storyline may have dated, many of its themes of homelessness, poverty and substance abuse are still sadly relevant. More importantly still, is its beautiful, overriding message of love enduring beyond all else, which, as this production shows, still stands as central to the narrative for both old and emerging Rentheads to rejoice.

Revised Rent

Rent (Matt Ward Entertainment)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

February 1 – 11

Following on from a triumphant 15th anniversary showcase of the songs from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” by Electric Moon, Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival is also featuring a 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s ground-breaking “Rent”, the “Hamilton” of its day. The Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical has certainly stood the test of time, due not only to its story (based loosely on Puccini’s “La Boheme”) of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in New York’s East Village under the shadow of HIV/AIDS, but its memorable music. And for those familiar with its soundtrack, this production provides a wonderful musical revisit. Those unfamiliar with the classic of musical theatre, however, would be better served by a more consistent treatment as introduction.

Typically, “Rent” is a big show, usually staged in spacious surrounds of scaffolding and platforms to represent the coarseness and noise of 1980s Alphabet City, Manhattan, like in last year’s acclaimed Beenleigh Theatre Group production, so it was surprising to see this version taking place in the Powerhouse’s Visy Theare. And when the cast comes into the crowd during both its storyline and songs, the effect is more claustrophobic than intimate. The problem too with the Visy Theatre is that with the audience seated on three sides of the stage, microphone fails mean that performer’s words are completely lost when their back is turned. And this happened a lot on opening night, from the first number, throughout all of Act One and even after intermission with microphone crackles of loss of sound significantly affecting the experience of many of the show’s iconic moments, such as its celebration of bohemianism and all its ideas, trends and symbols, ‘La Vie Bohème’.


With its contemporary rock score, “Rent” is a magnet to young performers who mostly deliver in this case. As drag queen percussionist Angel Dumott Schunard, Tom Davis’ strong, nuanced performance is a standout, especially in couple with Luke Hodgson as anarchist and part-time professor at New York University, Tom Collins. Their relationship is intimate from the beginning and their touching ‘I’ll Cover You’ proclamation of love is a show highlight, despite its shaky tech start. Jackson McGovern and Chris White anchor things as roommates, Jewish-American documentary filmmaker and narrator Mark Cohen and striving musician Roger Davis, however, others sometimes struggle in embodying more than just their character’s physicality.

As sexy club dancer and drug addict Mimi Marquez, Jacqui McLaren’s vocals fail to reach the usual heights of her self-destructive attempted seduction of Roger in ‘Out Tonight’ and humble the usually powerfully vulnerable song of love and loneliness, ‘Without You’. The band is excellent in its pumping orchestration, however, especially in the swelling sounds of the ‘Finale B’ compilation company number and it is good to see them showcased at back of stage.

With its story of life and living, and messages about forgetting regret, valuing the love in your life and keeping in mind that every day is a gift, as represented by the repeated lyric ‘no day but today’, “Rent” is a perfect work for inclusion in the Melt Festival celebration of queer arts and culture. This take doesn’t shy away from its sometimes confrontation sex and drugs subject matter, instead balancing it with pathos and the shared silence that follows Act Two’s ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise and reminiscence. But with a sold-out season, it will need to improve its tech significantly. With that, it has the potential to be both the combined celebration of themes and music that it should be.

Thankfully, Act Two is an improvement, allowing Ruby Clark as flirty performance artist Maureen and Aurelie Roque as her Ivy League-educated on-again off-again lawyer girlfriend Joanne, to showcase their talent in the feisty, accusatory ‘Take Me or Leave Me’, making the dramatic break-up number absolutely their own. And the seminal ‘Seasons of Love’ hits all the right notes. While it showcases the ensemble’s joyous energy, enthusiasm and commitment, however, it also reveals how underused some of the support players are, with Hannah Grondin, for example, sharing standout vocals.

By its mere nature, “Rent” is a great example of grass roots theatre, at-once heart-wrenching and life-affirming. It’s a big show in many ways and always a popular choice, if the rousing applause on opening night is any indication. 20 years after it first premiered off Broadway it clearly still has the capacity to rock an audience, given the right combination of on-point tech and talent.