Soldier stories and songs

Yank! (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

July 4 – 14

Yank is the name of a weekly magazine that was published by the United States military for and by its servicemen from 1942 – 1945. It’s the magazine where an awkward young man called Stu (Andy Johnston) partners with photographer Artie (Eli Cooper), who is also ‘light in the loafers’, to report stories.

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After Stu’s call-up, before he goes off to join his squad in basic training, his mother (Naomi Price) gives him a journal to record his time in the service. It is this journal that a modern San Francisco man finds at the outset of “Yank”, a World War II Love Story (Music by Joseph Zellnik, Book and Lyrics by David Zellnik). The journal’s discoverer doesn’t know much beyond Stu’s entry into the military with feel that he doesn’t fit in. And so we are transported back to young protagonist Stu’s story and his acceptance of being a gay man at a time where being gay was a crime, which initially comes through his relationship with all-American Mitch (Alex Gibson-Giorgio). Unfortunately, however, the two are separated by Stu’s secondment to Yank, where he flourishes under unapologetically flamboyant Artie’s life mentorship.

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The ensuing love story explores what it means to fall in love and struggle to survive, in a time and place where the odds are stacked against you. And under Director Ian Good’s stewardship, it is a moving account. There are some truly tender moments between the raw recruit and closed-off Mitch, dubbed by all as ‘Hollywood’ due to his essential likeability.

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Gibson-Giorgio is mesmerising as Mitch, even when a broken man or struggling with his demons, and his rich vocals make the beautiful ‘A Couple of Guys’ a resonating expression of the men’s dream of life in a ‘house of perfect size for a couple of regular guys’, even if only in their imaginations. Johnston takes audiences on an authentic emotional journey from coy almost-19-year-old around the older and more assured Mitch, to self-secure survivor. And like Gibson-Giorgio, his voice is glorious.

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There is no weak link in the cast. Distinct characters within the squad are brought to vivid life but not overplayed to caricature territory. And their lively ‘Your Squad is Your Squad’ (like peas in a pod) is a memorable punch of vigor, full of playful personality. Naomi Price is memorable, not just as the only female of the cast, but through her musical transport of audience members to the 1940s, in catchy love songs like the jumping boogie-woogish ‘Saddest Gal What Am’ and gorgeous ballad ‘Remembering You’. Indeed, she not only looks that part thanks to Elizabeth Ball’s on-point costume design, but her voice is era evocative in each distinct number.

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The lavish swinging score features of-era song stylings of all sorts, and mention must be made of the show’s band (under the musical direction of Trevor Jones), which is spot-on in provision of perfect 1940s sounds to accompany the bright harmonies. The show’s lively early titular number about the service man’s journal is a standout, gripping the audience from the outset and setting high expectations that are fully realised. But the varied score also allows for a well-curated ebb and flow of energy; a crooning ‘Betty’ about the boys’ fascination with pin-up girls like Betty Grable (whose bathing suit image made her the number-one pin-up girl of World War II) slows things down ahead of the spirited ‘Click’ tap duet, where photojournalist Artie educates Stu in how to recognise and hook up with other gay soldiers, which is an explosion of wonderful skill and physical charisma.

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Simple but versatile staging sees a collection of wooden crates used to create a range of settings from bunk beds in the barracks to their shower stalls and the bar in which Stu first meets Artie. And choreography impressively makes the most of the intimate Visy theatre setting, especially in ‘light on their feet’ dance numbers like ‘Credit to the Uniform’.

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By Act Two the soldiers are being sent to the front line, but that is not the tale’s only trauma as the story takes a more serious look at the consequences of the characters’ actions and the harsh realities of being outed as being gay in the army at that time (inspired by Allan Bérubé’s book of oral histories “Coming Out Under Fire”, the musical is based on the true hidden history of gay soldiers during World War II).

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As things travel towards the story’s moving conclusion, we are both touched and inspired by its commentary about the legacy of brave acts of survival, knowing that Understudy Productions has certainly done justice to the Australian premiere of the work with a credible but not cliché realisation. “Yank” is a compelling story, emotional in and of itself, without need to be overtly positioned as a political commentary and in this regard particularly, the company should be commended. This “Yank” is a human story, but still an important one that needs to be told to avoid reoccurrence, and this audience-self-realisation is integral to its success.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

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.

Love songs reclaimed

Coupling

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

May 19

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The number 13 may have unlucky connotations for some, but for Camerata – Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, it offers only excellence as 13 of its musicians begin “Coupling” with string sounds of what is revealed to be ‘Believe’ from the messiah herself, Cher. The show/queer love mix tape which features at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture, is a musical collaboration of the most entertaining sort as it reclaims great love duets of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s for same sex couples.

Thanks to Trevor Jones’ impressive arrangements, the show offers exciting new takes on old favourites. With such an extensive repertoire from which to draw, the playlist covers a range of emotions and various stages of relationships, from Kylie and Jason’s much-loved number-one ‘Especially for You’ and Elton John and Kiki Dee’s Mowtownish ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ to Barbara Streisand and Neil Diamond’s ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers’ lament of heartbroken lovers who have drifted apart and Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s ‘Separate Lives’. Ultimately, however, there is a huge rejoice in love at the organising centre of both its songbook and life’s experience alike.

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Not all songs are the perhaps expected sweet ditties or yearning ballads. In amongst the smooth grooves and sexy beats, is a rousing ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, theme song to the greatest of guilty secret favourite films “Dirty Dancing”.  And special guest vocalists Sean Andrews, David Ouch, Luke Hodgson, Greg Moore, Monique Dawes, Emily Gilhome, Jessica Mahony and Ellen Reed all do much to make each number distinctive from its source material, beyond just their reappropriation as same sex couple duets. David Ouch makes ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves’ particularly provocative, and entertaining, and Greg Moore gives audiences an early highlight courtesy of a raunchy ‘Islands in the Stream’. There is comedy too, for example in an epic love duet sing off melody featuring, amongst others, a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ vs “Home and Away” theme battle.

As is always the case with Camerata, the music is both beautiful and flawless. Striking string sounds soar songs like ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and ‘Leather and Lace’. Indeed, one of the most marvellous things about Jones’ arrangements is the opportunity they provide for the Camerata musicians to display their skills, not just in complement to the vocalists, but in showcase instrumental sections. Vocal performances are strong from the start. Ellen Reed is a particular standout throughout, in songs from ‘Suddenly’ to ‘You’re the One that I Want’. And in unite, the eight vocalists work wonderfully together in reminder that love can withstand the struggles of a relationship and make it stronger ‘Up Where We Belong’.

“Coupling” is a celebration of so many things: songs, music, love and vocal talent. In its journey through showcase of all of these aspects, it may take audience members to some unexpected places, such as the “Family Ties” theme song, but this just makes for an all-the-more-fun ride. With clap and sing-along opportunities galore, there is certainly a mood of celebration, with smitten audiences clearly wanting for more at the end of its 70-minute duration. “Coupling” may be like a daggy mix tape, but it is compilation crafted with nothing but love, and it serves as a real highlight of this year’s Melt festival. By simultaneously celebrating music nostalgia and giving the associated sentimentality new scope, it speaks musically and lyrically to audience members of all persuasions and preferences, musical or otherwise, making everyone believe in life not only after, but before and during love.

English alien exposé

Resident Alien (Cameron Lukey)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

May 17 – 20

‘It takes a man to suffer ignorance a smile, 

Be yourself no matter what they say.’ ….

So go the words of Sting’s 1987 song ‘An Englishman in New York’. And the Englishman in question was 1970s gay icon, English writer, raconteur and actor Quentin Crisp. At the time, Crisp was a resident alien in America, which is where audiences join him (Paul Capsis) for the show of that name, “Resident Alien”, which is appearing at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture

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The one-man show’s setting is Crisp’s dust-filled, filthy New York boarding house room, where the opinionated writer lived the last years of his life and where he surrounds himself with books he never reads, being who he is rather than what society wants him to be.  his is his dressing room for the stage of the world outside and so we become privy to his routines as, knowing he is being watched, he potters about his hermitage watching Oprah on a portable television and preparing himself for a luncheon date with Mr Brown and Mr Black. The 70-minute monologue that follows moves naturally from reflection on the superficial nature of modern fame to personal anecdotes and explanation of the logic behind his shocking surroundings. There is a real conversational feel to the way his musings are shared, with an intimacy enhanced by the Visy Theatre’s cosy space.

Appropriately given its subject matter, the script contains sharp and biting wit of the Oscar Wilde sort as Crisp offers a range of outspoken philosophies about societal institutions like education and marriage and in reflection of the differences between life in the US and UK. And much comedy comes from his not-entirely-eccentric, pithy observations and his unwavering belief in their wisdom. Relationships, politics … nothing is off limits from speaking his truth, not even Princess Diana. (“All she had to do was wave at the crowds.’’)

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Multi award winning actor Paul Capsis more than just looks the part, but embodies it in every way. He captures Crisp’s theatrical, androgynous style, especially when dressed in suit, scarf and tilted hat atop quaffed locks (his hair, in particular, is perfection), but he also captures that voice; his every inflection is precise in its inhabit of the elderly effeminate icon’s being in complement to his every nuanced gesture, movement and rubber-faced reaction. So mesmerising is his performance to observe, that the audience watches in absorbed and engaged silence even when he is just frying eggs on his portable stovetop. Indeed, the use of silence features effectively throughout the piece and helps to present a Crisp at odds with his public persona as he takes small steps around the room, using everything around him for balance.

“Resident Alien” represents theatre at its very best. Its staging and production values are exquisite and its script is authentically filled with actual Crisp quotes. Capsis’ portrayal of Crisp is absolutely compelling, in fact, it is one of the best performances you will see this year, well deserving of its full standing ovation on opening night. Though on the surface it shares a glimpse into Quentin Crisp’s fascinating life, it is so well crafted as to also expose the essential vulnerability beneath the flamboyant veneer of the fiercely individual celebrity, giving audience members much to consider in reflection about whether we should pity Crisp for his living conditions or praise him for the honesty with which he viewed the world.

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Like Mariah (Josh Daveta)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

May 17 – 19

Did you know that Mariah Carey fans are referred to as Lambs, collectively known as her Lambility? Attendees at Josh Daveta’s “Like Mariah” probably do, given that, at times, the show seems more like a support group for the songstress’ superfans. As such, there is a wonderful feel to the night as Daveta often relocates from the stage to move amongst the partly-cabaret-seated daahlings of the audience in celebration of everyone’s favourite diva Mariah Carey.

The show, which was first seen last year at the New Globe Theatre is playing in 2018 as part of the Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture. And it seems there may be no better place to pay homage to the ultimate angelic-voiced, gay-icon diva. In many ways, the more intimate setting of the Turbine Studio seems like a better fit too, especially in suit of inspirational and emotional ballads like ‘Thank God I Found You’.

Clearly Daveta is a Mimi fan, measuring his life by what Mariah song was a hit at the time, he tells us. Appropriately then perhaps, “Like Mariah” takes its audiences on a journey through many of Carey’s eras, from the expected classics like ‘Fantasy’ to the pop hit ‘Always Be My Baby and dancier numbers like ‘Make It Happen’. In all instances, Daveta’s stunning vocals glide between the elusive chanteuse’s classics in evocation of the full dreamy Mariah sound. He slays the vocals in ‘My All’, conveying both tenderness and power in tell of the loneliness of wanting just one more night with an estranged lover, and the polished melody of her iconic debut single ‘Vision of Love’ again make it a show highlight.

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Daveta is a generous performer, always reminding us of his backup singers’ (Frances Walters, Erika Naddei and Cassie George) own outstanding vocal skills and we spend a lot of the show’s time in repeated acknowledgment of their admittedly excellent vocals. Dare I say, like in Carey’s 2016/2017 New Year’s Eve lip-sync fail in Times Square, we see George deliver a fantastic, upbeat and lighthearted ‘Emotions’ for the syncing Daveta, while Erica Naddei helps us towards a lovely show ending with ‘I’ll Be There’ in nod to the incredible duets of Carey’s career. Even Peta Wilson on keys is given a chance to show her stuff through, for example, interlude in a bouncy ‘Touch My Body.

Even for those who aren’t fan enough to know Carey’s most recent studio album, “Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse”, the show still has something to offer. The hits everyone knows are all there and the atmosphere is infectiously fun. The show offers plenty of opportunity to sing and clap along to mid-tempo numbers like ‘Always Be My Baby’ and to marvel about Carey’s number one hits, five-octave vocal range and immense vocal power. There is also a lot of humour as well, through inclusion of a Mariah-style dance break, with requisite attitude of course, and as Daveta responds to audience involvement with the instant wit of an epic diva. But most of all “Like Mariah” is an astonishing display of some of the lushest vocals around. Indeed, in Daveta’s hands the spirit of the Songbird Supreme lives on long and strong.

Hedwigging out

Hedwig 15 (Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Queer Film Festival and Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

January 28

Sometimes it takes seeing a movie on big screen to truly appreciate its greatness. And “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a great movie, iconic in its incredible tell of an ‘internationally ignored’ rocker from communist East Berlin who sings about his manhood being cut off in a messy operation, hence the title of both the film and the  band of Eastern-bloc musicians with whom Hansel, now Hedwig, tours the pit stops of America. Its screening and concert performance, “Hedwig 15” (in gala celebration of its 15th anniversary) as part of Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival celebration of queer arts and culture is reminder not only of its hilarity, but its soundtrack of explosive glam/punk sensibility.

Regardless of the still-light-outside starting time, sisters, brothers, misfits and all the others unite in celebration of the immortal white trash style icon with some even dressing in homage to the genderqueer singer. Certainly this is a unique event, complete with packets of gummy bears (in nod to American sugar-daddy soldier Luther’s enticement) placed about the stalls, a bar within the theatre and encouragement for audience members to move about during the show.

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And then, before the film’s credits have even finished rolling, the concert section of the show belts into being with Bertie Page’s take on ‘Tear Me Down’, which opens the soundtrack and sets the scene for Hedwig’s journey, starting as a slip of a girlyboy behind the Berlin Wall. Sando Colarelli too, brings a brazen rock energy to the liberating anthem ‘Angry Inch’, recreating the song’s vocals and later capturing the film’s essence of rock excess in a soon-to-be-torn-off chrysalis-like costume of plastic sheeting.

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The soundtrack alternates rock ballads and reminiscences as Hedwig searches for completion and a fully realised sense of self on road to becoming an ‘internationally ignored song stylist’ and things slow down to the more melodic during ‘Wig in a Box’, arguably the film’s musical pinnacle, during which Josh Daveta sings of Hedwig’s comfort in the transforming power of wigs, make-up and rock music with masterful vocals. Lucinda Shaw, too, brings impressive vocal energy and emotional resonance to the fiercely determined ‘The Origin of Love’ and its deeply tender explanation of the desperate desire to become whole and connected with other humans. And her share of the soundtrack’s anthemic reconciliatory final song, ‘Midnight Radio’, is simply sublime in its toast to world’s enigmatic souls and the power of being our authentic selves.

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The show’s killer soundtrack is skilfully supported by an all-star band led by James Lees with Shiv Zimmermann, John Meyer, Kevin Haigh and Parmis Rose, which allows each performer to bring their own artistry and embodiment of Hedwig’s characteristics to their selections. James Halloran, for example, is emotionally vulnerable in ‘The Long Grift’, a song that didn’t make the movie cut in its entirety but is a worthy inclusion for its highlight of how, during Hedwig’s vendetta against former partner Tommy, she becomes blinded to the feelings of the loved ones around her.

In the hands of Electric Moon, it is easy to see why this soundtrack has gained such a cult-status since its humble beginnings as a stage musical before movie. With only a ten song setlist, the ‘In Concert’ section of the show is over way too soon, much like Electric Moon’s last, “Ziggy Stardust”, outing. Still, its essential, sincere themes linger past its punk sensibilities with message about the hope of turning misfortune into personal power and celebration of the unique.

“Hedwig 15” like its namesake inspiration is rich in imagination and daring. The songs are explosive in their exploration of the ideas of ideology, love and destiny and they are delivered with the raw power and emotion required to have audience members on their feet Hedwigging-out in dance and sway with abandon at just 8pm, in mutual celebration of fact that we all either are or can be Hedwig.