Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Fetch afresh

Mean Girls

August Wilson Theatre, New York City

From March 12, 2018

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Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre was particularly abuzz when I happened to see “Mean Girls” on October 3rd. If you don’t know why that is Mean Girls Day, this may not be the show for you. The screen-to-stage musical is based on the classic 2004 teen movie and is full of iconic lines of the ‘you go Glen Coco’ and ‘she doesn’t even go here’ sort, all enthusiastically received by the audience.

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We begin with our protagonist, the home-schooled Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) growing up a continent away from high school USA. Before long, set changes sweep us from a Lion King Africa to Chicago Illinois where Cady is set to enroll in a local North Shore High School. It’s a smooth transition for the audience thanks to some dynamic video design (Finn Ross and Adam Young) which additionally works to update the show from a social media perspective.

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With new friends Janice and Damien (Olivia Kaufmann and Grey Henson in bigger roles than in its source material), Cady is oriented as to the school’s cliques, especially The Plastics, mean girls under Regina George’s (Renee Rapp) tyrannous rule. Cady, however, not only allows herself be taken under bully Regina’s wing, but ends up dethroning her, while crushing on Regina’s ex-boyfriend Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig).

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Henningsen is a natural fit as Cady, when initially wholesome but also particularly in her transformation to new head Plastic. Similarly, Rapp is wonderful in her transformation of Regina from the intimidating Queen Bee of girl world to a track suit wearing out of shape shadow of her former self, no longer able to sit with them. And her vocals are impressive in numbers like ‘World Burn’ in which she seeks revenge by releasing the group’s Burn Book, revealing its insults to the school community.

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Krystina Alabado’s Getchen is a pocket rocket, full of energy and determination to make ‘fetch’ happen, while Kate Rockwell is a real treat as the clueless Karen; her song ‘Sexy’ about how, in high school, Halloween revolves around looking sexy is full of fun. And comedy also comes from Henson’s Damien and Jennifer Simard’s Mrs Norberry.

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The vibrant pop-driven soundtrack is jam-packed with quality numbers. The early ensemble piece ‘Where Do You Belong’ about finding a social group sets the mood while ‘Fearless’ is a fierce take into interval. Sassy Damien’s tap number ‘Stop’ is full of musical theatre mentions to relish. And the ensemble number ‘Who’s House is This?” about the party Cady has thrown (on advice from Gretchen and Karen, in attempt to have Aaron attend) mixes things up with its more urban feel.

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The school’s annual Christmas talent show (not contest) is as entertaining as always though it does offer some surprise with provision of a new incident to crescendo Regina’s fall from social power after the girls’ performance of ‘Rockin’ around the Pole’. Cleverly, the incident is not actually shown but instead is recounted via social media (with social media posts all written by Tina Fey who wrote the musical’s book), which works well. The social media update also allows for later emphasis on the empowerment epitomised in grungy, unapologetically-confident Janine’s final song ‘I’d Rather Be Me’. And the added content of Cady’s inner monologue quick-fire observations allows for additional comedy alongside some topical political jabs.

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Its 12 Tony Award nominations aside, “Mean Girls” is a really fun and fresh musical, full of infectious energy courtesy of its animated choreography. It caters for the nostalgia of the cult classic movie, but is aware of its own limitations and works around them with tongue firmly in cheek. It takes us more into power dynamics of female relationships than the movie in almost return to its original written inspiration “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman, for ultimately and upliftingly this “Mean Girls” is not as much about women and how they treat each other, but how we can be better than we are.