Producers polish

The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

March 4 – 13

Opening Night of Altitude Theatre’s production of “The Producers” sees The Brisbane Powerhouse foyer filled with a red carpet entrance, media wall and much excitement in anticipation of failure… such is the story of fading Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Matt Young) who stumbles upon a seemingly failsafe scheme to profit from a flop. In partnership with timid accountant Leo Bloom (Mark Hill) and with the help of some farcical yet unaware characters, he sets upon a scam to produce what they hope will be the biggest failure in the history of commercial theatre (whose shares they can oversell), the offensive “Springtime for Hitler” gay romp about Adolf and Eva aka the worst musical ever written.

The record 12 Tony Award winning musical comes from the comic genius Mel Brooks’s stage adaptation of his own cult movie from 1968. Mel Brooks, of course, means an abundance of irreverence and over-the-top characters and every role is perfectly cast to accommodate this. Original Broadway and later 2005 movie stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick make for some big shoes to fill, but Young and Hill do so with aplomb. Young makes his energetic performance appear effortless and Hill’s anxious, awkward Leo immediately engenders audience affection. Much humour comes from the duo’s timing and together they perfect this, easily bouncing off each other’s energy and character nuances. And Rachael Ward is sublime as jiggly dancer and receptionist at the newly amalgamated Bialystock and Bloom, especially in her enticing ‘When You Got It, Flaunt It’ impromptu office audition.

Director and Choreographer Joseph Simons’s vision is polished, allowing the cast to push their eccentric performances to their full potential. Particular mention should go to Patrick Conolly, playing wonderfully camp and eccentric ex-Nazi show writer Franz Liebkind dressed in lederhosen and a German Army helmet, and James Lee, playing flamboyant and critically panned theatre director Roger De Bris chosen by Bialystock in an attempt to ensure that “Springtime for Hitler” will flop. And when we hear from him as to why shows should be more pretty and witty in Act One’s ‘Keep it Gay’, his production team of staff, including common-law assistant Carmen Ghia (Alex Watson) give us many laughs, including from ensemble member Maddison Coleman as the lighting designer who gives animated face throughout.

The often politically-incorrect humour of “The Producers” draws on overblown accents, caricatures and theatre/showbiz jokes. Indeed, there are lots of stereotypes crescendoing together in the musical within a musical’s high-energy titular Busby-Berkeley-style number, which also sees the ensemble merge into from-almost-out-of-nowhere tank formation akin to the Shimbleshanks number in “Cats”. Josh McIntosh’s art deco design elements flavour the aesthetic and swift set transitions help to hold momentum as set pieces are choreographed into place. Jack Scandrett’s sound design is crisp and Ryan McDonald’s lighting works well, especially in emphasis of Max’s fast-paced Act Two jail cell recap of the plot thus far.

Even in repeat viewings, “The Producers’ provides abundant opportunities to see things anew. Under Jacqui Devereux’s musical direction, each song’s distinctive musical character is highlighted from the “Fiddler on the Roof” sounds of ‘The King of Broadway’ introduction to Max’s previous heights and the militaristically anthemic ‘We Can Do It’ in which he encourages Leo to think about the scheme, to an “On the Town” type of song start and the Fred and Gingerness of ‘That Face’, where left-alone Leo and Ulla start to fall in love. With strong vocals in every instance, each song could be considered a highlight until the next one comes along. ‘I Want to be a Producer”, for example, in which Leo sings of his secret desire to leave the drudgery of accounting is met with a huge audience response.

Musical numbers provide laugh-out-louds a-plenty from the silliness of Max and Leo’s Nazi hoedown with the tasteless show’s writer to the snippet of ‘dancing Hitler’ audition numbers and the show’s dance off between Hitler and world leaders of the Stalin sort, with the farce often amplified by quick, clever lyrics with over-the-top alliteration. Its endurance as an audience favourite is not only due to its humour, however, but its sentiment too, in acknowledgement of friendship between the two producers at core of story

“The reviews come out a lot faster when the critics leave at intermission,” Max reflects after opening and also closing night of “Funny Boy”, a musical version of “Hamlet”, early in the show. Thankfully, this is far from the case in this instance. Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production is an absolute triumph, deserving of its standing ovation audience affirmation. Indeed, the self-aware and hugely entertaining production, if it had live orchestra accompaniment, could easily take its place on QPAC’s Lyric Theatre stage as a reminder of how good and how funny the record-breaking Broadway musical is.

Spanish satisfaction

Smiley

BackDock Arts

November 19 -29

In emoji terms a ‘smiley’ face with a broad, closed smile is used to express genuine happiness and warm, positive feelings. In its namesake 2013 play written by Guillem Clua, it how chiselled Latin bartender Alex (Sergio Ulloa Torres) communicates his feelings to his lover the morning after, in hope that he feels the same … before a week of being ghosted, which is what leads to the unintended, upset phone messages to older architect Bruno (Matt Young), that set the Spanish gay romantic comedy in motion.

The two-hander, “Smiley” which is sponsored by Brisbane Pride in its Australian premiere, is a love story, pure and simple, but one that is authentically complicated by contradictions and insecurities. And Liam Burke’s adaptation and direction celebrates this, within the lens of connection courtesy of technology, without sacrificing momentum or comic opportunities or disrespecting the original text. Its central premise is based the red thread of destiny, a Japanese legend that states that when two people are destined to be together an invisible red thread connects them from the day they were born, no matter how different they may seem. Protagonists Alex and Bruno are perfect for illustration of the metaphor; they are very different, with little in common beyond both being gay men living in Barcelona. Yet, from the moment of that mistakenly dialed phone call, they are linked, despite an initial awkward (and very funny) first meeting and date. And the ensuing narrative serves as a wonderful tribute to some great romantic comedies.

Functional design facilitates a range of Barcelona locations, allowing the talented Torres and Young to give physically-demanding performances that maintain intensity around some well-timed comic moments. Torres is a magnetic performer whose sassy, energetic disposition works in balanced complement with Young’s relatable, seemingly more settled Bruno. A highlight of the versatility of Young’s skill comes in roles as Bruno, but instead as he transitions seamlessly through a string of Alex’s potential Grindr matches, each with their own unique and very distinct personalities.

The emotional truth at its core makes “Smiley” heart-warming and easy to watch. Rather than relying on clichéd comedy courtesy of Alex’s accented pronunciations, his funniest moments come from the ordinariness of his mini-rants about diet coke et al. But along with its humour comes a hopeful honesty that gives a reassurance as to the future, for romantics and pragmatists alike, ensuring that everyone leaves the intimate BackDock Arts theatre space with their own in-real-life smilies. Indeed, this is a play of universal themes of a time in which technologies have changed our lives. While it focuses on the experiences of the gay community, the longing of repeated voice message plays and desperate desire to discover digital clues and interpret the meaning of every emoji of even group message communications, make it a relevant as well as engaging work beyond this and, therefore, one that makes for a very satisfying visit.

Saying good-bye to Miss Monroe

Good-bye Miss Monroe (Dance Atlas)

Metro Arts, The Lumen Room

March 8 – 25

Hollywood musicals were fantasy trips for the audiences of their day and the people behind them were masterful. Choreographer Jack Cole is one such person and “Good-bye Miss Monroe” is his story, an account that has remained mostly untold, until now, for despite being a pioneer of dance on film, he is uncredited for much of his Hollywood work.

“Good-bye Miss Monroe”, opens with Cole (Matt Young) waking from a drunken stupor in his Hollywood home, days after Marilyn Monroe’s tragic 1962 suicide.  Cole was Monroe’s friend and confidant, with him having worked on six of her movies. He also choreographed the iconic ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’. As so he reminisces about his muse, his favourite (for she can do anything). And as he reflects on the great longing in her eyes, and her need to be acknowledged (‘not just liked, but loved’), she appears in the form of Anna Burgess, all blonde bobbed and breathy, walking ‘like she wants a man to follow her’ in glorification of bad behaviour.  As the story progresses, Cole also recalls his work with a slew of Hollywood starlets, including Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell, Betty Grable and Gwen Verdon (all played by Anna Burgess).

“Good-bye Miss Monroe” is more monologue than play, punctuated by appearances from Burges in marvellous mimicry. The honest, sentimental narrative is a balance of the childhood memories, adult regrets, happiness and woe of this unconventional artist (a writer of dance, which people didn’t understand until the word choreographer came about). And Matt Young is confident and commanding in the role, adopting a convincing American accent and a swing in his dancer/choreographer step.

Image

Monroe was such a unique star, whose essence is so impossible to replicate, that those who try to imitate her often pale in comparison. However, Anna Burgess does a creditable job. She is also infectiously joyous as she gloriously brings Cole’s other clients to individual life. Indeed, whether she is wide-eyed and overdramatic as assistance Gwen or slurring words and slurping martinis as an unraveling Rita, her attuned performance is not only versatile, but pure entertainment.

In reality, Cole used many ethnic and folk styles of dance as a source for movement, many of which are replicated in the show’s dance numbers, which are powerful, gorgeously realised and performed with impeccable virtuosity, such is the talent of its two stars. Indeed, “Good-bye Miss Monroe” is a wonderful tribute from Brisbane born writer/director Liam de Burca to the golden era of Hollywood. And what a pleasure it is to see a production that understands the importance of staying true to the era in which it was set, in a manner that is touching, without being overly sentimental in its nostalgia.

“Good-bye Miss Monroe” is an Australian play written by and starring Australians and it deserves to be seen, not just because of this, but because it is good. Although its appeal is immediate to dance enthusiasts, Cole’s story has interest beyond this. The project is the result of years of research, readings and workshops and the result is quite magnificent, because let’s face it, diamonds are still a girl’s best friend.