Meeting memories

Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club (Western Standard Productions)

Judith Wright Arts Centre 

June 10 – 18

Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club is having its very first meeting in the Judith Wright clubhouse and all ‘80s era fans are welcome. After pledging our allegiance, the show’s audience is moved through agenda items and commendations for watermelon carrying et al, to learn that Fran Grey (Melissa Western) is joining the executive committee. To serve, she needs to have her ‘80s movie climax initiation fast-tracked and we get to watch!

Blessed by the spirit of Swayze, this footloose foursome of girls just want to have fun and performers Helen Cassidy, Lizzie Moore, Neridah Waters and Melissa Western throw themselves into the show’s celebration of living our best lives. Western, in particular, is charming as shy spreadsheet enthusiast Fran, hesitant especially amongst the big personalities of her now fellow board members.

As Act One continues we learn of the fictional club’s foundation in a random, prolonged flashback to DFFCC’s founder and president, the right honourable Tracey Bacon’s (Neridah Waters) time working at the supermarket deli. It’s all a bit loose, but in the funnest clowning-about kind of way, including with audience involvement in a Hey Hey It’s A Knockout ‘80s movie quiz.

Things move more quickly in Act Two with its amped up audience participation courtesy of an en masse ‘Take On Me’ dance routine, testimonials and a audience club member raffle draw, punctuated by many memorable moments. Most notable of these, from an audience reaction perspective, is probably a difficult-to-describe “Labyrinth” dream fantasy sequence of Merchandise Coordinator Molly Estevez (Helen Cassidy), with a big helping hand (and then some) from Lizzie Moore as David Bowie’s Jareth the Goblin King.

Inspired by the spirit of the ‘80s, this cabaret-style comedy quasi-musical is, of course full of nostalgic nods to the era. Its iconic music hits are hinted at in dialogue and included in snippets, with a few featuring as longer numbers, such as an inventively choreographed ‘Maniac’. Recognisable pop culture props make appearance too, from “Flashdance” welding to tease of its water scene.

No ‘80s show, however, would be complete without a “Dirty Dancing” reference or two and “Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club” manages to achieve this with its own twist. Club Vice President Sam Sheedy (Lizzy Moore) gives us a sensual self-care ‘Hungry Eyes’ tribute to what every busy woman really wants and, at Western’s hilariously-animated lead, the talent-show-ending ‘Kellerman’s Anthem’ becomes a shared singalong of joined ‘hands and hearts and voices – voices, hearts and hands’. Indeed, each time the starting strains of a familiar ‘80s song fill the air, they are accompanied by the joyful sounds of nostalgic recognition from within the audience.

“Dirty Fame Flash Candles Club” may be a show inspired by Coles Radio electro synth escapism, but its nostalgia-inducing sentiments serve as proof that the ‘80s are ‘gonna live forever’ (and fly high) in all of the era’s scrunchied, crimped-hair, shoulderpadded and neon et al glory. Attendance represents an opportunity for those of a certain vintage to get their brat pack together, and potentially dress the part to take part in an infectiously-fun night of nostalgia-induced ridiculousness. Like Fran, you just might end up having the time of your life, to be send home to dance right through your life in revisit of the era’s great movie soundtracks.

Bursting Bare

Bare (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 24 – June 3

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Understudy Production’s “Bare” is one of those much-buzzed-about shows whose run has been pretty-much sold out since before its opening night, and so its packed audience is filled with anticipation. Thankfully, it is an expectation that is realised in a slick production bursting with talent.

Since the pop-opera debuted in Los Angeles in 2000, before its 2004 off-Broadway production, it has become a contemporary cult classic. Its shades of “Holding The Man” story is of star-crossed lovers Peter (Shaun Kohlman), who is preparing to come out to his mother (Jenny Woodward), and resident golden boy Jason (Jason Bentley), who desperately wants to keep their attraction secret. The boys are among Catholic boarding school students rehearsing for a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, while struggling with their own ideas around religion, sexuality and identity. So emotions are running high when the boys’ romance gradually comes to light (finding echoes in the drama club’s production) not just for the boys themselves but those around them, including Jason’s sharp-tonged and self-deprecating sister Nadia (Sarah Whalen) and the popular Ivy (Jordan Malone) who has been cast as Juliet to Jason’s Romeo in the play, but whose feelings transcend the stage.

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The show is, indeed, an emotional one of much light and shade. Act One explores the characters and the cast connect well with each other, however, Act Two is the standout as it takes a heartbreaking turn thanks to the consummate performances of the cast’s principle players. Kohlman brings depth and emotional range to the vulnerable Peter. He not only has tears running down his cheeks at times, but evokes them in audience member eyes also in response to the show’s tragic final moments. And Bentley has a strong stage presence as the popular athlete Jason who fears losing his family and status. His charisma effectively conveys not only Jason’s natural charm, but his complexity, making him difficult to dislike despite his poor decisions and treatment of the tender Peter. Malone gives a strong but tender performance as the troubled Ivy, who has her sights set on Jason, at her best in ballads such as ‘All Grown Up, which vocally capture her heartbreak.

Also of note is Sarah Whalen whose perfect comic timing makes Jason’s outspoken sister Nadia’s biting wit, hilarious in its tell-it-as-it-is put-downs of Ivy for her pursuit of her brother. And Melissa Western is superb as the school’s sassy, no-nonsense drama teacher, Sister Chantelle, who also appears to an intoxicated Peter as a vision of the Virgin Mary, complete with backup Angels, to sing a funky gospel number about how he needs to come out to his mother (‘911 Emergency’).

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There are no weak links among ensemble performances either. Fresh from his run as Collins in “Rent”, James Shaw is committed in his performance of the Priest’s Old Testament judgment and makes his Act Two song ‘Cross’, during which, at confession, he advises Jason to deny his natural feelings, vocally very strong. And Maddison McDonald and Trent Owers are delightfully authentic in their moments on stage as the frisky teens with attitude.

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The show’s sung-through score features a variety of melodies, from rock numbers to soaring ballads and even a rap about rave drugs (‘Wonderland’), and, accordingly, it is easy to appreciate its sometimes-description as the artistic child of “Rent”. The band is excellent throughout. In Act One, in particular, Musical Director Luke Volker creates a solid rock sound, while when souls are bared in Act Two, with Jason struggling through his problems with Ivy (‘Touch My Soul’) and Peter deciding to come out to his mother (‘See Me’), musical moments are softened with some exquisite string sounds courtesy of cellist Kate Robinson.

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The musical pace, is, however, relentless. With 36 numbers in total, it becomes difficult to recall standouts beyond sassy Sister Chantelle’s belting ‘God Don’t Make No Trash’ during which she shows intuitive sensitivity and New Testament compassion to calm Peter’s fears of losing his great love. Aside from the final number ‘No Voice’ which represents a beautiful combine of ensemble voices, it is the solo numbers in this production that are most affecting, beginning with duet between Peter and his mother which features as a turning point in the show’s tone, given its raw emotion.

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The complex conversations set to music in many of the show’s numbers give their words an appealing honesty and the integration of Shakespearean prose as lyrics adds another, wonderful layer to an already impressive aesthetic. Versatile use is made of the Visy Theatre space, with a stained glass backdrop and benches shaped together as a cross, not only achieving an intimacy in spite of its large cast, but reminding that religion is always present. And the choreography is excellent, making the relatively small stage seem anything but, yet never impinging of the enthusiastic energy of ensemble rock numbers. Only some missed microphone cues clunk up an otherwise perfectly polished, professional production.

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“Bare” is no breezy musical experience. Its weighty subject matter of turmoil and moral hypocrisy amidst the breakdown of institutions like religion, education and the family make for an emotionally charged, tension-filled story. The pop-rock chronicle of ill-fated gay love at a co-ed Roman Catholic boarding school may be an ambitious undertaking, but it is an aspiration resolutely realised.

As an important piece in its portrayal of those still struggling to be heard even in today’s yes-vote world, it is perfect for inclusion in the Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture. The honest and real story of teenage love and loss confirms Understudy Productions not just as a rising star, but a company with a prominent place in the Brisbane theatre scene, and, as such, should not be missed.

Sinatra satisfaction

Seven on Sinatra

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

June 2

With a stellar cast of some of Brisbane’s greatest songstresses in celebration of the Leader of the Pack, “Seven on Sinatra” is a real night to remember as Liz Buchanan, Jo Doyle, Jacqui Devereux, Bethan Ellsmore, Rebecca Grennan, Claire Walters and Melissa Western do it their way with a swing band of the Sands Hotel Copa Room sort.

With a catalogue of 200 career chart songs, Sinatra leaves the ladies copious crooner choices and the show’s selection of swinging tunes and suave sounds allows every performer their chance to shine, from the melodically charming ‘It Had to Be You’, now of “When Harry Met Sally” association to the ultimate love song to love, ‘Moon River’. And the result is a show of many highlights with some stunning vocal ranges giving the songs new life and depth, including Ellsmore’s beautifully ethereal take on the swinging ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, Devereux’s ‘You Can’t Take that Away from Me’, at once tough and tender in its mix of joy and sadness, and a declarative ‘That’s Life’ that Western makes all her own in belt to the back of the room. In every instance the power and pure emotion behind each number is clear, with the overall mix of ballad and uptempo numbers working well.

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It’s not all solos though; the magic begins with a ‘That Old Black Magic” duet and ends with an encore of a shared ‘The Lady is a Tramp’. The range of songs from the canon of the most important and influential American standards not only allows the songstresses to showcase the memorable melodies, but gives the live band opportunity to shine. And shine they do, in numbers like, ‘Night and Day’, for example, where the jazz musicians breakaway with multi-layered, seductive soundscapes, worthy of mid-song recognition applause. And amidst the smooth sounds are fun moments too like an interesting take on ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and surprises such as when Doyle emerges from the crowd to croon a syrupy ‘Strangers in the Night’.

Frank Sinatra is one of the most influential popular singers of the 20th century, not just because of the longevity of his success, but his cement of many of the songs that occupy the American Songbook. This show not only includes the most essential Sinatra songs, all impeccably arranged, but showcases the strong technique of some talented vocalists. Indeed, with seven styles of singing, “Seven on Sinatra” offers satisfaction for everyone, be they a Frank fan or not, sure to satisfy in its mellifluous melodies and show of how Sinatra is Sinatra and why we love him still.

Chanteuse celebration

Oh Lady Be Good (Melissa Western)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

June 14

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From the moment that Melissa Western begins her cabaret show “Oh Lady Be Good”, emerging from within a blanket of darkness to seduce audiences with a sultry rendition of Nina Simone’s “In the Dark”, the depth and quality of her voice are clear. And over the course of the show it is certainly easy to succumb to the seductive power of her smooth and soulful sound. Perhaps, she was, as she later claims, born in the wrong era.

Moving from smoky jazz and playful ditties to sassy solos and ballsy blues, Western takes audiences through the signature styles of Marilyn Monroe, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland and the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin (amongst others), including the titular tune ‘Oh Lady Be Good’ by Ella Fitzgerald. This gives the show a jukebox feel (#inagoodway) as she dips into the catalogues of these musical icons. Ediaf Piaf’s ‘La Vie En Rose’ is a goosebump-inducing highlight and when Western hits the high notes of Fitzgerald’s ‘Love for Sale’ it is easy to see why the show was sold out so far in advance. Western certainly has a very good voice, and the passionate warmth of her performance of these timeless classics is a joy to watch.

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The jazz band is wonderful, given ample opportunity to show their talents within the numbers. Dialogue is filled with fascinating anecdotes and interesting information (like explanation of how instrumental Monroe was in Fitzgerald’s blossoming career), intertwined with personal reflections. Humour features too, in animated delivery of Carmen Miranda’s ‘I like you very much’ and the song choice of ‘I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl’ by the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith.

Cabaret is soul food; there’s nothing like it and in “Oh Lady Be Good”, Melissa Western offers up a feast of charming celebration of the chanteuses of the 20th century. It’s what she is about, a mashup of Ella’s emotion and Marilyn’s va va voom. And even those non-jazz aficionados in the audience can only be grateful, for time shared with this lady is good time, well spent.

Love between the musical lines

Subtext: Love Between The Lines

May 8 – 10

Just as a rose by another name would smell as sweet, a couple’s emotional argument, while witty of word, is still confronting when set to song. This is one of many realisations that lie at the heart of “Subtext: Love Between The Lines”, a completely unique and absolutely wonderful intimate musical theatre experience.

The show is a promenade performance and, in this instance, the audience travels around a picturesque garden and veranda of a lovingly lit private house setting. The action doesn’t stop between song sets as the performers (singers Craig Atkinson and Melissa Western) take audiences on the journey of their initial meeting, courtship banter, marriage and search for self. It is a simple enough story of ordinary people, Him and Her, yet every encounter is revealing of something about life, thanks to the range of songs have been carefully selected to depict the intimate moments and challenges of the couple’s relationship over a period of years.

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There is a clear Stephen Sondheim sound and sensibility to the show (#inagoodway). Like Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little”, whose title song actually features, “Subtext: Love Between The Lines”, has a dialogue-free plot. The songs, although often of more obscure musical origin, are perfectly chosen to weave together to become the tapestry of this creatively staged and utterly credible suburban narrative. And pianist Sue Porter provides perfect accompaniment to the singers.

From the bouncy ‘Coffee in a Cardboard Cup’ from “70, Girls, 70” to the cheeky ‘Tennis Song’ from “City of Angels the Musical” there is much humour to the show’s earlier, predominantly courtship scenes, particularly during the aforementioned fight (with rhythm imaginatively created through the sound of knife in action on a chopping board), which the audience watches through open kitchen window.

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Atkinson and Western create characters that are multi-layered and intriguing, not just through their vocal inflection but emphasised also through the important little details of sideways looks and body language. Indeed, a lot of the laughs come not only from the lyrics themselves, but the duo’s delivery of them with use of pace, pause and emphasis for comic effect.

There are many people who have good voices but very few who are good singers. Atkinson and Western are both good singers and when harmonised together, their sound reaches out and grabs the audience with performances that strike a chord with our hearts. From their opening ponderment of ‘Where do you start?’ (asking how you separate the present from the past) to their final, familiar ‘Somewhere’ realisation that there is a place and time ‘for us’ living and forgiving, they have the audience entranced.

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Atkinson’s voice, in particular, sours to operatic heights (a testament to his ‘The Ten Tenors’ pedigree) in his solo numbers such as ‘Sorry Grateful’ from “Company”. As he contemplates the dilemma of everything being different despite nothing changing, his delivery is poignant, tender and moving. And his longing given time apart is made achingly apparent in ‘I’d give it all for you”.

Painted on the wall of the music room that serves as one of the show’s locations is the quote ‘Music is what feelings sound like.’ And there is perhaps no better way to sum up both the intent and effect of this show, emphasised by the fact that upon conclusion, everyone was talking not about what they thought, so much as how they felt. “Subtext: Love Between The Lines” is an incredible, beautiful spectacle of song. It is just a shame that its ATF season was so short.

You can also follow my Anywhere Theatre Festival reviews c/o the Festival website.

Photos c/o – Jan Hollingsworth

Sweet + sour + saucy = superb

Sweet, Sour and Saucy (Barbara and Barry)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

February 5 – 7

It is radio 21.11 EAD and experts on love Barry and Barbara (played by real life husband and wife duo Tnee Dyer and Melissa Western) are set to solve the world’s love woes through talkback radio and songs of a yesteryear. With a shortage of callers, the duo themselves assumes a variety of pretend over-the-top caller personas to which they can respond with either sweet or saucy songs, along with agony aunt-style advice.

Barry’s sometimes sexist suggestions provide much of the comic fodder, in reaction from his feisty co-star and audience members alike, and also allow the show to operate on a variety of levels. However, a feminist discourse is probably the furthest thing from the minds of the super-ocker sweeties. And ocker they are; the pair shows a detailed attention to the cadence and rhythm of speech and seem perfectly placed in the nostalgic stage surrounds of dial telephone and Renee and Renato record props. They are deliciously Australian, albeit of a bygone era, much like the opening strains of the Aeroplane Jelly and Mr Sheen radio ads that signpost its unique 1950s kitsch atmosphere. And that is why we love them.

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The quirky dating advice continues after intermission, but moves instead to the audience. What might otherwise be intimidating audience interaction is actually a quite lovely exploration of what makes relationships work, including a surprise recommitment ceremony. Indeed, despite the sometimes suggestive content, this is a show of good clean 1950s fun… literally: the obscure music making includes enthusiastic use of a washing board. Regardless of mode, however, the show is bursting with songs and while the musical repertoire of largely jazz and blues is sometimes obscure, it is still appealing, with songs like ‘Hard-hearted Hannah’ superbly showcasing Western’s vocal talent.

As impressive as the couple’s harmonious vocals are, cabaret is about more than just voices; it is about lyrics and, in particular, highlighting these to personal experience. As Barbara, Western brings songs to life, from the peppy ‘Lovin’ Spree’ to the sultry ‘In the Dark’. She is a multitalented, sharing an impressively physical performance that includes straight faced spoon playing and tempoed tap dancing. And although she is the soul of the show, Dyer’s contribution should not be discredited; his comic timing is spot on and the high quality of musicianship is certainly showcased in Act Two.

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When a show really soars, the feeling can be euphoric – everyone in the audience feels like they have just participated in something wonderful. And when “Sweet, Sour and Saucy” ends, the fact that so many people linger in shared conversation about their enjoyment, is affirmation of exactly this. This is a warm and witty show that rises from the sentimental shenanigans of its Act One wireless format to become so much more. For amusing characterisation, hilarious banter (both on-stage and with the audience) and sensational songs, “Sweet, Sour and Saucy” is an absolute delight.