Razzle dazzle drag

Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical (Michael Cassel Group and Nullabor Productions in Association with MGM on Stage)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

September 26 – November 4

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Finally, after playing 135 cities in 29 different countries around the world, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical” has sashayed itself to Brisvegas for the show’s Queensland premiere season. Based on the now-iconic 1994 Oscar-winning Australian film, the musical is the story of three friends who hop aboard a battered old bus in Sydney bound for Alice Springs to put on the show of a lifetime. As audience, we join them for the journey in the broken down old bus they christen as Priscilla, as they ‘Go West’ to the back of woop woop and beyond, with along-the-way social interactions, mechanical setbacks and some surprisingly amusing roadkill.

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The reason for the journey is for Sydney-based drag queen Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose (David Harris) to visit his estranged wife, Marion (Adele Parkinson), the mother of his young son, Benji, by bringing his act to her casino, which will give Benji the opportunity to finally meet his father. Tick invites former Les Girls showgirl, transgender woman Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), whose husband has just died and also asks fellow performer Felicia (Euan Doidge) along for the ride, much to Bernadette’s chagrin. The unlikely friends may have been thrown together by circumstance, but it soon becomes apparent that their similarities are more than just skin-deep as all are desperate to escape the Harbour city’s club scene in some way.

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Like its big-screen source material, the show is filled with anthemic disco-era classic songs like ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘I Love the Nightlife’ and ‘Finally’, but also, comparatively a lot of narratively-unnecessary musical filler, starting with Miss Understanding’s (Blake Appelqvist) over-the-top drag take of ‘What’s Love Got To Do with I’. Even ‘A Fine Romance’ now seems like an unnecessary interruption to give dialogue-mentioned backstory as to Broken Hill based mechanic Bob’s (everyone’s favourite flamin’ galah, Ray Meagher of “Home and Away” infamy) nostalgia towards a years-ago Les Girls visit.

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Other additions, like a poignant ‘True Colours’ and rousing ‘We Belong’ realisation of the importance of family in all of its forms, are more effective, especially in ebbing and flowing audience emotions and cementing the tale as a first-and-foremost story about mateship, self-discovery and acceptance. Angelique Cassimatis, Samm Hagen and Clé Morgan add much to the show’s songbook as the three divas who descend from on-high to lead chorus numbers with their powerful vocals, to which the drag performers lip-sync.

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All the music, however, is secondary to the spectacle of costumes on show. Indeed, this is a musical of much colour and movement, featuring an array of more than 500 costumes and 200 headdresses, often (as with dialogue) in nod to its on-screen origin and Australiana-with-a-twist theme.

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The costumes are across-the-board exceptional in their avante guarde over-the-top detail and little surprises and although, at times, it seems like Act One has a ‘going through the motions’ type feel, the way that a final tour stop show sometimes does, its ‘I Will Survive’ pre-interval number is a real highlight courtesy of its visual spectacle.

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Tony Sheldon returns to reprise the role of sassy and acid-tongued, but still classy desert queen Bernadette, one which has earned him both Tony and Olivier nominations amongst his 1800 times playing the role. Along with David Harris as Tick, he anchors the show with a poise that serves as effective contrast to Euan Doidge’s exuberant and energetic Kylie-come-lately Felicia. And together they banter believably like the family that they become.

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Along with the scathing wit of its dialogue, which is very funny, humour comes from the colourful characters encountered along the way en route to Alice Springs as light-hearted contrast to the attitudes and actions of homophobic locals. In particular, notable scenes come courtesy of Emma Powell as butch bogan Black Stump barmaid Shirley and Lena Cruz as Bob’s out-of-place wife Cynthia, complete with a popping ping pong number that even those already familiar with the film will find hugely entertaining.

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At times, it is easy to recognise this as a 10th anniversary celebration tour. Although the show is visually dynamic and full of fun, its colour and movement cannot compensate for the passing of time that has made its content more homogenised. While it may not be as spectacularly camp as when it first appeared on stage in southern states (and where I first experienced it at Sydney’s Star City Casino), this “Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical” is still a spectacle and a trip that many will want to jump on-board for, because what is not to love about a show that celebrates dancers dressed as pink paintbrushes and candled cupcakes amongst other razzle-dazzle displays.

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En Massse excellence

En Masse (Circa)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 19 – 22

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The adverb en masse means all together. It is therefore, not only an artsty, but an appropriate title for the latest work of world renowned Brisbane-based contemporary circus company Circa. The new work, in world premiere at the Brisbane Festival features not only Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz’s trademark masse of humans intertwined throughout part of the piece, but a collective of artforms curated together to become its advertised wild, tender and savage ride. The contradictory aspects come courtesy of its ambitious presentation of two visions of humanity at its extremes through circus settings of Schubert’s “Winter’s Journey” and selections from his collection “Swan Song”, as well as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. And the contrast between the works is clearly evident, making “En Masse” a show that is well a truly one of two halves.

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Act One sees Schubert’s exquisitely dark songs of loss and love shared by leading English tenor Rob Murray as acrobats from Circa’s legendary ensemble bend between anarchic energy and exquisite loss. There is a sense of disconnection as performers lie strewn across the front of the stage, contorting as they are drawn back behind the barely-raised scrim. When it is lifted, the atmosphere is still bleak as we see initially 10 and then just one performer in a translucent plastic cube, trying to the shape and control its claustrophobic containment of him, before realisation of the futility of resistance.

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The grim, apocalyptic feel is evident in every aspect of the stylishly minimal design aesthetic, including Murray’s dishevelled appearance as a vagrant watching the action. But it is also all about contrasts as violently aggressive, almost epileptic, angular movements follow frenetically from the fluidity of lyric and tender moments and the operatic calm. And the ebb and flow of the solo, duo, trio and group pieces continues in accent of the music, allowing it to shape key moments but also play more of a support role where necessary.

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Things brighten in Act Two which sees the stage erupt with the energy of Stravinsky’s controversial ballet “Rite of Spring”, which is played live in a piano duet by acclaimed pianists Tamara-Anna Cislowska and Michael Kieran Harvey while acrobats are pitted in a life-and-death struggle between group and victim. The first-ever circus setting of the orchestral work makes an impact from its opening moments, as the focus is moved from the intimate to the more expansive as the illusion of the cube containment is amplified to encasement of the large Playhouse stage. Within it, performers still pyramid atop each other, jump into and over each other and are dragged about, but there is a definitely sense of divergence as they explore the familiar, but still astounding work’s depiction of a wild pagan spring ritual, rising and falling impressively in canon and dominoing in unison.

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As with any Circa show, it is easy to appreciate the company’s high regard. Not only are all members of the group of 10 hugely talented acrobats remarkably skilful in every aspect of their delivery of the physically demanding show, but their intense and sustained focus throughout is astounding, and also intriguing. And it is impressive to see the interchangeable strength of male and female performers in catching and carrying each other around.

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Clearly Brisbane audiences love joining to rejoice in the successes of our own ‘little circus company that could’ and its domination of the artform; I do not think I have ever seen the Playhouse foyer so abuzz with busyness before a show and forget trying to get hands upon a highly-sought-after program. It seems the audience know that even if you have seen Circa before and so you think you might know what to anticipate, their shows will not only be gripping but also still amaze with something new and exciting. In this instance it may be when a performer walks across the front of the stage with bent-over feet to become their own pointe shoe, or when a tower of three men topple forward into a roll, or maybe when a woman does a one-handed handstand while balanced on top of a two-man tower. (Given the number of audible reactions from the audience during the show, the list could definitely go on.)

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This is what Circa does and it is what they with excellence. While giving physical language to these classical scores is an interesting exploration, the performance’s theatrical aspects and addition of a narrative of sorts both adds to and, at times, detracts for this core business, but this see-saw reaction is probably appropriate given the contrasts so integral to the essence of the work. Even to those unfamiliar with the Schubert and Stravinsky and especially to those unacquainted with Circa, this is a show or rich reward that, like so many others, we are lucky to have as part of this year’s festival.

House party provocations

Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 12 – 15

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I thought I knew what I was in for with “Home” from its blurb…. “On an empty stage, a house is conjured from nothing. You watch it fill room by room as generations of inhabitants go about making the house their home.” I also knew that the Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects’ work contains virtually no dialogue, which had me concerned, given how easily my mind can sometimes wander from the on-stage action without words to keep it in-check. This was, however, far from the case, given the intrigue of the execution of its unique premise.

The dynamic show has an intimate introduction as a man (Geoff Sobelle) begins to build a house out of wooden frames on the bare Playhouse stage. Before long we are wowed by the appearance as if out of thin air (Illusion Designer Steve Cuiffo) of the beginnings of a bedroom, fragmented in memory. Then, magically, an open-fronted, two-story house is built on stage using an actual house frame (Set Designer Steven Dufala) and furnished for its everyday use and transformation into a home. Props appear and characters change almost instantaneously meaning that it takes some time to even fully realise how many performers are involved in its inexplicable construction. It’s an ambitious concept, especially when executed without words, but with it comes remarkable reward, as under the skilful direction of Lee Sunday Evans, the company creates a spectacle unlike any other you are likely to see on stage.

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The Illusion is, in part, achieved through the show’s sustained, astounding choreography (David Neumann). With French farce frenzy, performers are simultaneous in their timed entrances and in unison in action as they all duck and weave, for example, around each other in morning bathroom routine, as the multiple characters who have lived in the house at different times. As the sun rises and sets on new days, we see all of the house’s residents at once, going about their daily putting-out-the-rubbish type routines and suffering through the discomfort of summer heat and rainy weather alike. And the sentiment of the piece is clear as the home’s inhabitants celebrate, suffer and live, making the place their own with addition of photos on the stairway wall, adding their own design to the study and even just in going through their own unique morning routines. So while it is the story of a house, it is also about bigger thematic concerns about the stuff of life as we are provoked to considered what it means to create a home…. All without words. It is quite a powerful experience.

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Along with the everydayness of occupants’ routines come momentous events as a dinner party becomes a surprise birthday celebration and then a graduation, wedding, fancy dress do and finally a funeral. And as an audience we are invited along with mass audience participation of all sorts, not just in rig of the party lights over the Playhouse stalls, but on stage as partygoers and performers. And how appropriate, for me to have a QPAC stage debut featuring a scene under the covers in bed, given my preference for #septemberisnosleep as a Brisfest hashtag.

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Although it is without interval, “Home” is really a show of two halves. While it is initially thoughtful in its themes, around the question of what makes a house a home, it is also full of fun, appropriate billed as a ‘magical house party’. This is true, particularly in its latter section, because how can you not have a good time when there’s a Viking in the kitchen, Santa in the study and a penguin in the dining room, all to the accompaniment of a roving brass band. Its Australian premiere is certainly another coup for the Brisbane Festival, but its season is a short one, so get along quickly to challenge your ideas about what theatre looks like (#inagoodway), whether you make it onto the stage or not.

Centenary celebrations

Bernstein at 100 (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

QPAC, Concert Hall

August 25

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Leonard Bernstein is a towering figure in the musical world. Among the first conductors born and educated in the US to receive worldwide acclaim, he is remembered for his accomplishments in both classical and popular music and his colourful conducting style. And as 2018 marks his centenary year, commemoration is certainly called for, all across the world, including by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in its special event “Bernstein at 100”. The long-time musical director of the New York Philharmonic was prodigiously talented across many fields, so capturing the different aspects of his compositional character within a tribute event was never going to be an easy feat.

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Surprisingly to many, the superstar composer and conductor created just one movie score, the Oscar nominated ‘Symphonic Suite’ from the searing Marlon Brando drama “On The Waterfront”, later adapted to be a stand-alone orchestral work. The unique integrated single-moment work, is, therefore an excellent choice to begin the night’s celebration.

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It is a nice selection too in its showcase beyond just the orchestra’s strings, starting with brassy horn sounds before exciting with energetic percussion drums. Soloists are showcased on saxophone and flute and then there is unite of the full scale orchestra and the visual spectacle of seeing the vista of string instrument bows moving in unison; it is a stunning start to the evening.

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Strings are on show in the second Act One number also, the more playful ‘Chichester Psalms’ for Chorus and Orchestra, which significantly features the harp. The always-handy listening guide within the show’s program tells audiences of how the work was commissioned by the Very Reverend Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, and is a setting of select verses from Bible psalms.

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The liturgical meaning of the passage is certainly clear in its three movements as Brisbane Chorale, Voices of Birralee and Canticum Chamber Choir voices, join towards a second movement feature of a boy in serene solo, Boy Soprano Riley Petersen.

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Timpani drums are moved to the front of the Concert Hall stage after interval, but Act Two’s opening number, begins with clarinets in conversation at a bar. The is ‘The Age of Anxiety,’ Benestein’s second of three symphonies, based on W. H. Auden’s Pulitzer-prize-winning poem about the problematic search for faith, but now more well-known than its source material.

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The work’s series of variations are clear in their exploration of a range of moods and textures as the initial lonely couple’s conversation is enlivened by the arrival of other protagonists in bar patronage and then the existential lament on their taxi ride home to prolong the party. As fragmented music unifies, a swaysome celebration is shared through jazzy sounds on way to its triumphant ending.

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Certainly, the complex work serves as a colourful highlight, particularly in witness of Andrea’s Haefliger’s dynamic pianism representing the work’s protagonist, which is almost at match with Conductor and Musical Director Alondara de la Parra’s infectious energy.

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Still, it is the tremendously popular and critically successful “West Side Story” that features more prominently in popular perception of Bernstein’s legacy and it is appropriate, therefore to end with his swinging ‘Symphonic Dances’. Complete with finger clicking musicians, the numbers are as eclectic and they are energetic and the passion of their trombonist and percussionist’s introduction become the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the night’s rejoice.

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To celebrate one of the major figures in orchestral conducting in the second half of the 20th century on the actual day of what would have been his 100th birthday is a wonderful treat in itself, however, in the QSO’s hands, the joy becomes infectious in share, from its opening “On the Waterfront” moments to its encore overture from “Candide”. Indeed, the virtuosic journey of “Bernstein at 100” shows that it is not only the legend that we should be celebrating, but the musicianship of the state’s accomplished orchestra as well.

Proms panache

(Not) the Last Night of the Proms (Queensland Symphony Orchestra)

QPAC, Concert Hall

August 9

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Musically, Proms (short for promenade concerts), is a term now synonymous with The Proms season of orchestral classical musical concerts held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in London. Its annual televised September Last Night, very different from the other concerts, is a light-hearted show of popular classics followed by a second half of British patriotic pieces. It is quite appropriate, therefore, that The Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s special tribute event is entitled “(Not) The Last Night of the Proms”… The reason is that this is the Proms defined in a here and now context with a colourful collection of works offering something for everyone in its packed audience.

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From the world premiere of Joseph Twist’s ‘Peace at the Last’, melodically lyrical and beautifully tranquil with Brisbane Chorale’ symphonic chorus accompaniment, to Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, the finale from “Candide”, including its accompanying, increasingly-tempoed audience stomp along by young and old alike, “(Not) The Last Night of The Proms” certainly delivers on its promise of uplifting and rousing evening.

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Under the baton of Maestro Alondra de la Parra, the audience is journeyed though Australia and the U.S. to the Land of Hope and Glory in a musical kaleidoscope. Six Australian composers feature in Act One. Memorably, acclaimed Australian aboriginal didgeridoo player William Barton blends the world’s oldest culture with Europe’s rich musical legacy in impassioned appeal to attune to the land through Peter Sculthorpe’s harrowing ‘Earth City’, emerging from the stalls in introduction to the number’s lingering sounds. Languid in its evocation of a vast landscape soundtrack, its sounds are sensational, especially in ending, during which string and brass sections sing in unison.

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And Michael Hurst’s ‘Swagman’s Promenade’ boisterous medley of four traditional, unmistakably-Australian folk tunes is a rich and emotionally satisfying Act One ending, with its grand trumpets, additional organ sounds from tower above the stage and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ singalong.

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The concert’s personality is evident from its playful opening number, Nigel Westlakes ‘Cudmirrah Fanfare’, featuring a full orchestration, in particular percussionists and brass players, in share of a soaring starting spirit ahead of its final flourish of trumpets and horns. And then there is the brief burst of The Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ which plays out of a speaker in snippet into the The Australian Voices’ Gordon Hamilton’s ‘482 Variations on a Very Short Theme’, commissioned for The QSO. The feel-good work sees the orchestra latch onto three of the notes (“in a yellow”) and spins them as motif out to 482 micro variations and it is absolutely delightful in its interest and feature of strings’ snap pizzicato and playing with the wood on the bow, before a blast of brass and even some Mexican sound swaggers of trumpet and percussion in tribute to the conductor’s heritage.

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The pomp and circumstance comes in Act Two, literally, with Edward Elgar’s March No. 1 in D popular graduation processional tune. But first there is some American panache courtesy of George Gershwin’s multilayered masterpiece ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (possibly the most famous piece of American classical music) played by extraordinary Mexican concert pianist Jorge Viladoms in his Australian debut. Its varied tempos of feverish hustle and bustle highs and mellow jazzy clarinet solo lows create a highly entertaining initial Act Two highlight. Indeed, the timeless portrayal of America in the 1920’s is something truly magical in Vildom’s hands and worthy of the price of admission alone. In both exuberant crescendos and softer moments alike, his ability to capture the audience’s ear and eye is remarkable. And the supporting orchestra is similar outstanding in its grandeur.

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Staying in New York, Leonard Bernstein’s three snappy dance episodes from “On The Town” show what a dynamic force of spellbinding energy acclaimed conductor Alondra de la Parra has brought as to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra as Music Director (the first ever Music Director of an Australian orchestra). Her performance is vibrant in its power and passion, but also beguiling, making it a commanding attraction in itself as she guides the orchestra’s musicians in shape of each number’s sound. In short, she is a must-see conductor.

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An almost three-hour show is a big audience ask for a weeknight, but rarely does it feel like it with bombastic numbers like Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule Britannia’, which sees Union Jacks awave throughout the venue and like “Scotland the Brave” a streamered end appropriate to it sense of shared celebration.

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Although, this is not quite the end as rather than finish on an anthem of imperialist conquest, didgeridoo and classic string sounds again combine in reminder of the reconciliation intent signposted in the show’s opening welcome to country.

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The Queensland Symphony Orchestra seems to be doing everything right, right now and there is certainly no denying the merits of this show. Many of its numbers feel cinematic in sound, which serves as reminder of their performances of live scores along with film screenings, such as last month’s “Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert” and the program offers a glimpse of its upcoming “Bernstein at 100” special event in celebration of the life and works of the remarkable musical powerhouse.

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There is also the added touch, in this instance, of seeing musicians from Brisbane Girls Grammar School joining with the orchestra on stage for the final three numbers, in culmination of the QSO’s Prossima Program which provides students with the opportunity to be mentored by and perform with some of Australia’s finest musicians, meaning that when it comes to “(Not) The Last Night of the Proms”, there really isn’t much not to love.

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Summer’s secrets exposed

Jasper Jones (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

July 29 – August 18

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Craig Silvey’s novel may be called “Jasper Jones”, but in the Queensland Theatre restaging of the Melbourne Theatre Company production of the same name, the titular antihero barely appears during Act One. Still, he is an omnipresent personality in the story. In the fictitious, apparently insignificant, Western Australian town of Corrigan, news travels by gossip, if not the wireless. But the bookish Charlie Bucktin (Nicholas Denton) is usually too busy with his books to notice… until the hot summer 1965 night that Jasper (Shaka Cook) appears at his louvred sleepout window to enlist Charlie’s help after having found his girlfriend dead in the bush because he considers Charlie to be smart and ‘different to the others’. As the town’s mix-cast outsider, Jasper assumes he will be blamed for Laura’s death so teams up with Charlie to try and solve the mystery by investigating their suspect, Mad Jack Lionel (Queensland’s Hayden Spencer).

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It’s easy to see why Silvey’s award-winning 2009 coming of age novel is a popular text choice for study in schools. Narrator and protagonist Charlie changes irrevocably over the story’s summer of secrets and lies. It is a tumultuous time of social upheaval and political drama with events unfolding against the backdrop of the time, including the Vietnam war, and closer to home too in Charlie’s fractured family; in her pastel twin set apparel, his cold and angry mother (Rachel Gordon) clearly does not belong in the town or probably with Charlie’s man of few words, but much wisdom, father (Ian Bliss).

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Denton makes for an excellent Charlie, bringing energy and nuance to a performance that captures the awkwardness of his 13-year-old character in nervous, angular moments as he argues with his tempestuous mother, discovers a first love with Laura’s sister Eliza (Matilda Ridgway) and mucks about with his cricket-mad Vietnamese immigrant best friend Jeffrey (Hoa Xuande), eating watermelon and talking about Doug Walter’s test debut.

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As a comparatively calm and courageous Jasper, capable of great love and loyalty in contrast to his terrible reputation as an unreliable thug, Cook leaves a lasting impression that has you longing to know what becomes of his character afterwards. And Duande is wonderful as Charlie’s loyal and very funny best friend, optimistic and determined despite having to deal with racism and discrimination from the townspeople, because his family is Vietnamese.

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Staging effectively takes us to all of the novel’s key scenes predominantly due to a revolve stage (although this does result in some sight issues for end of row audiences seated in the stalls). Lighting crafts some beautiful silhouettes as the sun shades into evening behind the town’s telephone poles and alights its houses with glorious New Year’s Eve firework colours, in contrast to the eeriness it evokes when the boys are faced with Laura’s body hanging from Jasper’s tree by the water of the dam. A soundscape of bush noises also consistently contributes to the ample aesthetic and costumes work well in evocation of the era of Brylcreemed comb-overs and men’s matching cotton pyjama pieces.

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The show’s biggest strength, however, is its story. “Jasper Jones” is a gripping yarn made all the more engaging through its use of first person narration to capture the voice of the novel. And while its story is dark and gritty, this is tempered by the entertaining interplay of Charlie and Jeffrey’s natural relationship. The interaction between the two in peppered insults and meaningless banter about, for example, if Batman is superior to Superman (like Seinfeld’s George and Jerry’s repeated routine without George’s psychological problems), helps to bring about a balance to the drama that follows after Act One’s week in which ‘everything and nothing’ happens, when Jasper’s reappearance brings backstory as to his mother’s death and his neglectful, alcoholic father.

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Whether in writing or on stage, audiences are drawn to Australian stories that reflect our experience of the world. As a modern Australian classic, “Jasper Jones” does this and more. Its exploration of social issues reveals a unique,  quintessentially Australian cultural character, while its chart of youthful rites of passage in a small country town brings about a universal appeal to a timeless tale that is only enhanced by every aspect of this stellar production.

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Photos c/o – David Kelly

Some kind of wonderful

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

July 13 – September 2

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“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, is as its title suggests, is a musical tribute to one of the greatest female singer-songwriters of all time. Everyone knows Carole King’s songs, maybe without even realising it, such is the extraordinary legacy of this ordinary woman’s immense talent. This means that the show has a wide appeal, allowing each audience member to bring their own memories to its experience. For me it is recall of Murphy Brown singing ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ to her newborn son and, from the guilty pleasure of “Dirty Dancing”, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, one of the first hits King wrote in partnership with her then-husband Gerry Goffin  for The Shirelles.

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The true story of Carole King’s extraordinary rise from behind-the-scenes songwriter to solo-act stardom opens with her first concert performance in front of an audience (at Carnegie Hall no less), following the multi-Grammy-award-winning success of her landmark second studio album “Tapestry”. The story then rewinds to her early days as a piano prodigy in Brooklyn, writing music after school before becoming a professional songwriter at 16. While studying at New York’s Queens College, King (Esther Hannaford) meets aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman). As their songwriting and romantic relationships soar, they produce a considerable number of the hits of the time for artists such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, The Monkees and more.

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The show is not just about King’s life and her ultimately tumultuous marriage however; especially in Act One, it explores the idea of song writing as a commodity through chronicling the competitive friendship between King and Goffin and song-writing peers Barry Mann (Mat Verevis) and Cynthia Weil (Lucy Maunder). The competition not only adds to the drama, but allows for a journey through the music of the ‘60s as the audience is also treated to Mann and Weil’s chart successes and iconic songs, distinctive in their sounds despite the era’s desire for formulaic homogeneity. The show’s period impersonations of the artists who sang the songs make for some memorable moments. Barry Conrad, Marcus Corowa, Nana Matapule and Joseph Naim make The Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’ a razzle dazzle high-point, while Jason Arrow and Andrew Cook soar ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ as The Righteous Brothers. And the live orchestration, led by Musical Director/Conductor Daniel Edmonds includes some entertaining arrangements, such a medley of sixties songs early in Act One.

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Direction is tight and the showcase of hit songs allows not only for quick scene transitions of Derek McLane’s slick design, but changes to hair and wardrobe to chronicle the passage of time through the decade of ‘60s sweet girl groups, boy bands, crooners, doo-wop and dance songs like ‘The Locomotion’. As the sensibilities of the time change, there is increasing instability in Goffin and King’s marriage and, after Goffin’s infidelity and mental break-down leaves King yearning into intermission with ‘One Fine Day, she finds her own voice in Act Two’s earnest description of the end of a loving relationship, ‘It’s Too Late’, in move towards “Tapestry” and her triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall performance.

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While there are no weak links in the cast, this is clearly Esther Hannaford’s show; she is tremendously talented and it is easy to appreciate her Best Female Actor in a Musical Helpmann Award win. She is effervescent as the self-confessed ‘square’, Jewish good-girl with an old-woman sensibility, conveying a perfect balance of humility and empowerment. Like her accent, her imitation of King’s singing style is uncanny, both in big numbers like the up-tempo Act Two closer, ‘Beautiful’ and the pure and emotionally-honest reassurance of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’.

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“A good song makes you feel like there is a friend in the room with you”, a 16-year-old Carole tells her mother in response to suggestion that women should teach, not write, music. Luckily for the world, she stayed true to her calling to define a career of hits as a songwriter and later singer. It is an inspiring story that makes for a must-see show that is as entertaining as it is empowering, with some wonderful comic moments too, most notably from Jason Arrow as a pop-out Neil Sedaka singing his hit ‘Oh! Carol’ (named after King after the pair dated in high school) and from the smart comebacks of straight-talking, sassy Cynthia.

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In the case of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, the ravers really are right; it is some kind of wonderful in every single way. Indeed, like a comfortable lazy Sunday afternoon movie that can be watched over and over again, it is a toe-tapping musical experience that immediately inspires a return visit for continued appreciation of its five 2018 Helpmann Awards, including the most coveted Best Musical.