Cross-cultural comedy-drama

Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

July 12 – August 4

dad.jpg

Amongst the vibrancy of contemporary Australian theatrical works, “Good Muslim Boy” stands tall as one of merit. The Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre stage adaptation of the 2015 prize-winning memoir (and 2016 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards winner) of the same name by Iraqi-Australian actor, comedian and writer Osamah Sami is not set in Australia, however, but rather a wintery Iran where Osamah’s father has taken him on pilgrimage. The trip is Osamah’s father’s attempt to recharge and reconnect his son with his roots, in response to his failing arranged marriage and hedonistic Western lifestyle as judged by the suburban mosque community at which his father is imam.

The holy land holds little appeal for Osamah who, despite being born in Iran, speaks Arabic, but not fluent Persian. So while his cleric father is moved at The Imam Reza holy shrine in Mashad, Osamah is more interested in taking selfies and trying to catch up on sporting scores from back home in Australia. When tragedy strikes during the trip, there’s no time for emotion as Osamah attempts to work around the bureaucratic nightmare of pilgrim season Iran to return home to Australia without overstaying his visa.

paperwork.jpg

The life-changing and life-defining story is recounted by performer, cowriter and co-creator Osamah Sami himself, on stage, (along with Rodney Afif and Nicole Nabout, in a multitude of character roles). And what an extraordinary and absolutely absorbing story it is. Its 85-minute duration is one of sustained tension that remains wisely unbroken by an intermission, but is effectively juxtaposed by humour, frequently through the range of often comic characters identifiable to anyone who has travelled in the chaotic Middle East.

taxi.jpg

The three-handed comedy-drama is realised in its energetic and compelling performances. As a young man torn between his obligation to be a good Muslim boy and his passion for the arts and the escape of storytelling evoked by his father’s tales, Sami makes audiences feel (rather than just feel for) his frustration as he is transformed into a stronger man. Aend his presence on stage leading us through his journey both creates a direct connection of shared moments and makes the show all that more special.

woman.jpg

Naout and Afif are clearly versatile performers in their swift switches in and out of countless both male and female characters (some who not even have any dialogue) that come into Osamaha’s story, presenting sharp delineation between characters, occasionally assisted by minimal, simple props. Although Nabout shows enormous range in shift, for example, from Osamaha’s eight-year-old daughter in Australia to a slow-moving octogenarian in Iran, Afif is particularly memorable as Osamah’s principled father. His measured performance makes his mix of dad jokes and wise words of regard for others most endearing, especially in his awareness and attempted support of his wayward son.

The solitary set belies its inventive staging as a perspex bus/tram stop shelter of moveable parts is changed at lightning speed into all sorts of locations. This not only allows the episodic story to pace along through its many short scenes, but it shows how the performer’s characterisation is primarily what drives the narrative. Ben Hughes’ lighting helps audiences along the emotional journey, warming into focus flashbacks in reminder of earlier situations, such as when Osamah’s father recalls life as an Iraqi living in Iran during the armed conflict between the two nations. Lighting also works well with Phil Slade’s composition and sound design to develop location and atmosphere such as in creation of a beautiful moment when Osamah awakes to a sunrise call to morning prayer.

airport.jpg

“Good Muslim Boy” is a big story full of small moments around its themes of family and relationship with faith. Indeed, there is a touching humanity to its minor moments, including share of an incident and explanation of how charity can destroy a poorer man’s pride. The autobiographical piece maintains the great heart that is the essence of the memoir that is itself dedicated to Osamah’s ‘father, confidant, friend and absolute hero’.

This is a little play that leaves a big impact, at once gripping and fascinating in its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ reality. Crafted by Janice Muller’s direction, the heavy subject matter is handled well and enhanced by a skilful comic touch of also light and lively scenes to sit alongside heavier ones in tell of a refugee experience, making for a dramatic and touching theatre event that will not only rivet for its duration but resonate long afterwards in memory of its insight into universal themes beyond the specifics of faith.

Advertisements

Merry Widow magnificence

The Merry Widow (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

June 22 – 20

Decore.jpg

From the raise of its curtain, it is clear that Opera Queensland’s production of Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s popular musical “The Merry Widow” is a lavish one. The dramatic set is of an opulent French Art Nuevo period as Act One takes audiences to a Paris embassy ball, where gold glamours in the bold geometry of the decor’s decadent act-deco detail, but also the epaulettes et al of the military costumes of Pontevedrian diplomats and the gorgeous gown of the titular Hanna Glavari (Natalie Christie Peluso)

The beautiful widow Hanna is from the tiny Balkan state of Pontevedro (a stand-in for Montenegro) and her homeland is approaching bankruptcy. The story follows the efforts of Pontevedrin officials at the embassy, primarily the ambassador, Baron Zeta (Jason Barry-Smith), to compel her to marry one of her fellow citizens rather than an enamoured Parisian. And despite his now self-distructive life swimming in pink champagne with the grisettes of Chez Maxime’s supper club, the idealistic Count Danilo (David Hobson) is deemed to be the most fitting suitor. But Hanna and Danilo have a history that sees the story of love in its many guises take some twists and turns (including an expected wedding of the Parisian sort, but not to whom you may expect) along their road to falling in love again.

Couple.jpg

Like an Astaire/Rogers Hollywood movie, the narrative is filled with feisty exchanges, mistaken identities and misunderstandings as much as love scenes, with the comedy of confusion cresendoing in Act Two. It’s like a comedy of Noel Coward type manners with operatic melodies… light-hearted and a little bit naughty in its risqué innuendo.

Very Parisian.jpg

Justin Flemings adaptation of the libretto is wickedly witty in both its sentiment and creative Cole-Porter type rhymes. And its pithy one-liners are deliciously realised in Hugh Parker measured delivery as Embassy Secretary, Njegus, who mocks the French before becoming ‘Quite Parisian’ himself. Hobson is a humorous drunk when the audience is introduced to the hot-tempered diplomat Danilo and Sam Hartley and Andrew Collins add vaudevillian laughs as Huey and Duey duo, embassy attachés Bogdanovitsch and Pritsch. Then, when a male septet performs ‘Women’ (wonderfully also later reprised by the full ensemble), it is a highly entertaining Monty Python meets MGM musical moment.

Science of Women.jpg

Peluso is captivating as Hanna, easily conveying both her elegance and cheeky spirit. Her crisp soprano sounds soar through the Lyric Theatre, yet she is also affecting in the sentimental love song ‘Vilja, o Vilja’. Opera veteran Hobson is a dashing and suave Danilo, bringing a solid but sweet lyric tenor to his numbers. Together they work well, both theatrically and in vocal duet, most memorably in ‘I Love You So’, the famous Merry Widow Waltz. Also of note is James Rodgers as Camille, French attaché to the embassy and romancer of Barones Valencienne (Katie Stensel). His smooth vocal sounds are richly romantic in capture the character’s blindly-devoted love.

Musically, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra achieves a delightful bright and dynamic Viennese sound, particularly in its strings. The operetta is, however, more than its famous waltz and the orchestra also more than rise to the occasion of its rich and colourful European folk tunes.

Dance.jpg

The almost three-hour show, includes two 20 minute intervals, which may seem indulgent, but only until the distinct aesthetic of each act is revealed (Set Designer, Michael Scott-Mitchell). Act Two in Pontevedro is stunningly set against the impressive impressionist backdrop of a Monet waterlily painting with the women dressed in florals and soft colours. Then there is Act Three’s mirrored, metallic-silver shine of Maxine’s where Hanna is hosting a party.

Can Can.jpg

Not only does the shorter final act feature Hanna’s stunning cabaret-esque entrance, but it opens with an exhilarating, energetic dance number which see dancing waiters with champagne-laden trays can-caning and the club’s girls funning about in frou-frou pink peekaboo tutus. The chorus line numbers not only showcase the dancers’ excellent execution but also the work’s impressive choreography (Graeme Murphy Shane Placentino). Indeed, it is a show of interesting routines that, although eclectic in range from elegant waltzes and folk-inspired routines to sultry Cabaret teases and a Fosse-like while glove showcase circle around Hanna, are all outstanding.

Fosse (2).jpg

“The Merry Widow” is a feast for the senses thanks to its considered approach to every aspect of the glamourous production. When, for example, nightclub scene action freezes behind front-of-stage interaction, it creates a sumptuous tableau. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are also richly realised as part of a bigger aesthetic. Ladies sweep about Act One’s ballroom in fishtail evening gowns on the arms of dapper gentlemen, without any restriction to their moment.

There is a reason why “The Merry Widow” is not only a staple of most opera companies, but the fastest-selling Opera Queensland production in over a decade. The work is extravagant to hyperbolic degrees, yet also highly accessible in its narrative, including a twist in the tale of the widow’s millions, and as it is both sung in and has subtitles in English. Under Graeme Murphy’s direction, it represents collaboration of the very best sort. Indeed, with a cast of around 50 singers and dancers, the opulent operetta is certainly magnificent, both is in its vibrant realisation and playful, irreverent tone. It is lively and entertaining down to smallest detail, so serves both as an ideal introduction to the artform, and confirmation of its beauty, especially in its breathtaking full ensemble numbers.

4Seasons display

4Seasons (Expressions Dance Company, City Contemporary Dance Company Hong Kong and QPAC)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 14 – 22

all in together.jpg

“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” the old saying goes. With some tweaking, this pretty much describes my approach to Dance… “I don’t necessarily know what exactly they are always doing, but I do know what I find interesting”. And fortunately, there is a lot of interesting things happening in the tapestry that is Expressions Dance Company’s triple act collaboration with Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), “4Seasons”’

muted costumes.jpg

It starts from audience entry into the Playhouse Theatre space, which is bathed in the blare of ‘Summer’. Under a stark sun-like light, 13 performers in muted costumes, move against an increasingly menacing musical score as the ‘sun’ fades. After an early technical fault is fixed, we see order emerge from that chaos as subtle, but uniform transitions signpost to a motif of heads turned to the top in recognition of the sun’s subjugation.

looking up motif.jpg

A feeling of oppression features throughout the piece, created by Kristina Chan by CCDC, in its foreboding for a global warming future, not just through the routines themselves, but also lighting and staging, which sees fabric dramatically canopied from the ceiling (the cause of opening night’s false start) not only increasingly rippling, but slowly unfurling as burden upon the dancers. This is a dystopian future and in its extreme atmospheric conditions, suffering bodies cluster together and connect through the swell of canon moves, including on the ground, as they move languidly, as if in slow motion.

fabric collapsing.jpg

In contrast, the night’s second piece, Dominic Wong’s ‘Day After Day’, sees side-of-stage lighting replaced by panels, in transform of the aesthetic. Dancers erupt in a frenzy of acrobatic energy and strength, which sees, for example, see a dancer impressively walking over the top of others and then down another’s chest.

walking down body.jpg

With a fast-paced soundtrack and modern, translucent white costumes, the feel is a lot cooler, especially when Bruce Wong, breathes his way around the set in the slowest of motions, walking to eventually embrace a block of ice before the piece concludes with the sound of falling rain.

walking around stage.jpg

Although, like the first work, it drags on a little too long to maintain absolute audience engagement, its repeated movements, intertwined asymmetrical clustering and then explosions punctuate its course with some memorable moments.

white costumes.jpg

Comparatively, Natalie Weir’s ‘4Seasons’ (danced to Max Richter’s recomposed version of Vivaldi’s best known composition) appears to begin traditionally, with dancers appearing hued together (thanks to beautiful, coloured costumes) on stage like something from the Barn Raising Scene of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. What follows is a lot more sophisticated than the Pontipee brothers’ attempt to woo women with their newfound manners, but no less athletic in its physicality. Indeed, its blend of the classic and contemporary creates an exciting aesthetic, especially as movement waves across the ensemble with a progressive series of lifts, jumps and kicks in canon.

like 7 brides.jpg

Inspired by the seasons of life, it stunningly shows fours couples at different stages of their lives, love and relationships. It could be one couple or different pairings, but the distinction does not matter. What is significant is the humanity of the emotions of the experience being shared. It begins with the pure blush and intimacy of a new relationship between Alana Sargent and Ivan Chan. Things become more urgent then as they move from the eternal youth of spring to the energy and storm clouds of summer. Richard Causer and Bobo Lai convey a torn reluctance as he focuses intensely and possessively on her. With Elise May and Yve Yu, love becomes more consuming in the crimson shades of autumn as impressive lifts give way to domination. Finally, there is the mutual love of Jake McLarnon and Qiao Yang moving together in unison, but not losing their individuality.

blush of first love.jpg

Amid these, there are bursts of performers running across the stage, grabbing others as they go and it is nice to see male duos and masculine energy being showcased during this, from a cast of men and women. Along with its crescendoed urgency in its conclusion, this display represents a real highlight, that leaves you lamenting that Act Two feels like it is over far too soon.

males.jpg

As a celebration of the power and splendour of all things contemporary dance, “4Seasons” represents a wonderful experience for dance knowers and lay-audience members alike. And as if the beauty and grace on stage is not enough, Max Richter vibrant melodies liberate Vivaldi’s signature work from elevator musicality to a bold and virtuosic aural experience.

couples.jpg

Impressive attention to detail features across all pieces. Indeed, there is a connectedness both within and through all three works, which are also remarkably distinct. Sightline issues are always disappointing, but these are compensated by the fascinating fluidity of the contemporary dance on show, especially in its titular piece. With such a big aesthetic on display there is much to take from the show’s experience, which should be celebrated for its bring of the best of international dance to Brisbane.

A show about a dog… and more

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 12 – 24

train.jpg

“I’m here to see a show about a dog,” an audience member obviously unfamiliar with Mark Haddon’s much-loved novel was overheard saying pre-show at opening night of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. Dogs do bookend the show’s narrative, but the National Theatre of Great Britain’s acclaimed production is about so much more than this, or even the unusual event of its title.

detective.jpg

The story is of Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins), a 15-year-old boy from Swindon, England with autism spectrum disorder and a passion for mathematics, who finds his neighbours’ dog Wellington, dead on their front lawn, impaled by a garden fork. This kick-starts a series of events as Christopher makes it his mission to solve the crime of Wellington’s murder. While detectiving, he notes his findings in a journal that his teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) has encouraged him to write. When his frustrated father Ed (Stuart Laing) confiscates the diary, a determined Christopher not only recovers his writing, but letters that reveal previously-unknown information about his dead mother.

staging.jpg

Rather than tell the story in first-person narrative, like the original novel, the segmented story is largely recalled by his teacher in share of Christopher’s writing, inset with moments in illustration and explanation of his unique world view, presenting like a play-within-a-play. This bring much humour as Christopher explains his dislike of metaphors and need for truth and predictability, and pathos too as he matter-of-factly describes how he hates being touched as much as the hates the colour yellow.

overwhelming.jpg

Just like its literary source material, the play provides an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition. In its original, award-winning London production in West End’s Gielgud Theare, the show had an essential intimacy that suited the story of the socially–challenged young man finding his place in the world. However, even within QPAC’s Concert Hall, its subtle soundtrack allows for moments of audience absorption, such as when Christopher’s dad tells his story.

station.jpg

In many ways, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a small story, conveyed in a big show and, accordingly, Act Two is much louder… deliberately so in contrast to the comfort of Christopher’s familiar life as his internal experience of catching a train to London with his Pet Rat is captured in an aesthetic offensive thanks to remarkable Lighting (Paule Constable), Sound (Ian Dickinson) and Video (Finn Ross) Design that has not decreased in its impact in the six years of the show’s life.

train set.jpg

Trains feature as an ongoing motif. In Act One, while talking to his teacher and us as an audience, Christopher progressively constructs an impressive train set around the stage, despite the quick scene transitions that occur throughout the show. Mathematics as a way of understanding and describing the world also features throughout the production. It not only serves as one of Christopher’s strengths but also becomes a perfect metaphor for his quest to make order and make meaning out of a confusing world.

drawing.jpg

Like in the novel, Christopher uses drawings, diagrams and equations to explain himself. On stage this comes courtesy of Bunny Christie’s impressive design, which sees the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set transformed into mathematical graph paper, meaning that Christopher can draw all over the set through the power of video projections. In one of the most visually memorable moments, Christopher’s attempt to escape his isolation through the imagined experience of flying as an astronaut in space, is impressively brought to life through incredible lighting and projections.

in space.jpg

Inventive, imaginative staging later sees boxes within the boxed-in stage transform into train seats, luggage and alike. And the ensemble of performers not only often operate with stylised movement, but become props themselves, serving as everything from a door to an ATM.

physical.jpg

Each member of the touring cast is solid in their variety or roles. Debra Michaels endears Mrs Alexander, an elderly resident of Christopher’s street, with warm, grandmotherly tendencies and Julie Hale is wonderful as the teacher all teachers want to be, caring and compassionate in her response to Christopher’s unique needs.

teacher.jpg

Stuart Lang gives a measured performance as Christopher’s patient and protective, but emotionally-devastated single father and, as the boy’s mother Judy, Emma Beattie has us feeling at her inability to touch her own son. But “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is Christopher’s story and Joshua Jenkins gives a perfect performance down to the protagonist’s smallest nuance. He not only captures the part’s physicality and dialogue verbosity, but infuses it with honesty and great heart.

christopher.jpg

Sometimes what, over time, what one builds up in recollection as the best theatre show ever experienced, upon revisit, ultimately leads to comparative disappointment. Four years after seeing the show in London, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” remains the best theatre I have ever seen. The Australian touring production may not celebrate the prime number seats within its audience, but it still has a treat in its tail, worth staying for beyond the curtain call.

inventive.jpg

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” treats audiences with an unforgettable viewing experience. With props and pyrotechnics that, although impressive, do not overpower its story’s emotional core, it represents a perfect combination of theatrical ingredients in a page-to-stage retelling that is both true to its source material but also adds so much more. And it is easy to appreciate how it won both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Play, Director, Actor, Lighting and Set Designs. Although Christopher only understands what is immediate and what is the truth, experience of his show will certainly linger long for fortunate audience members.

Grand final theatre

The Longest Minute (Queensland Theatre with debase productions and JUTE Theatre Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 26 – June 23

ensemble.jpg

Given their shared drama, theatre and sport are not that different. Yet rarely do the rituals combine. And even more infrequently do they fuse together to produce a work as significant as “The Longest Minute”, Queensland Theatre’s co-production with debase productions and Cairns’ JUTE Theatre Company, which centres around the final golden-point minute of the conclusive and premiership-deciding 2015 all-Queensland NRL Grand Final.

joy.jpg

After years of defeat, the seemingly impossible occurs when the North Queensland Cowboys claim their first premiership title in their twentieth year of the competition. This is Townsville, where life runs at a different pace and rugby league is a religion that, in mixed-metaphor, is heralded by King of the North, Johnathan Thurston. Our protagonist Jessica Wright (Chenoa Deemal) is a footy fanatic who wants to be a fullback like Hopevale legend Matty Bowen and play football (not netball or touch football) for the Cowboys and Queensland. It’s all her parents fault; not only are white mum Margaret (Louise Brehmer) and Aboriginal father Frank (Mark Sheppard), unwavering fans, but she was born on the night of the NQ Cowboy’s first Winfield Cup game at the then Stockland Stadium in 1995.

jess.jpg

Football is in Jess’ blood; her father is the locally-famous former Foley Shield player Frank ‘The Black Flash’ Wright and her introverted brother Laurie (Jeremy Ambrum) is a talented Academy player, despite having a deep-seeded disinterest in playing professionally. And so Jess dreams of playing in the Jillaroos Australia women’s national rugby league team, even though the rules are that she can only play locally in the mixed team until she turns 13. And so “The Longest Minute” is the simultaneous story of (as its tagline proclaims) one football club, one family and one unforgettable NRL grand final. As such, it is a uniquely Queensland tale but also ultimately a wider one, with automatic appeal to not only sunshine-staters but all regional Australians who perhaps rarely see themselves accurately represented on stages.

family.jpg

Opening night sees a real sense of comradery, community even amongst the audience (many of whom are wearing Cowboys or Broncos supporter gear) as ‘Eagle Rock’ soundtracks a volunteer’s footy skills on a single-set stage that has been transformed into a grassy league field, with scoreboard to signpost the passing of years and the location of scenes.

staging.jpg

The striking lighting (Lighting Designer Jason Glenwright) and soundscape (sound design/composition by Kim Busty Beatz Bowers) is used effectively throughout, such as in establishing the thrill of being on the hill in perfect spot to watch your team lose (design by Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesoreri). And when a ‘Queenslander’ chant commences before the siren signal of ‘game on’ for the start of the show proper, the palpable spirit and engery is unlike anything usually experienced in a theatre setting. Then the narrative begins with audio recording of that final minute, almost too tense to watch, which saw the Cowboys turn around 21 years of being a joke’s punchline.

hill.jpg

Even though the match in question is regarded as one of the greatest grand finals in rugby league history, it is the off-field drama that occupies the story’s attention. And like sport, the show is full of good times (and abundant hilarity) along with tension, and there is an uncertainty around the direction it takes to its ultimate outcome. Indeed, the craftedness of Rovert Kronk and Nadine McDonald-Dowd’s script is such that it takes audiences from riotous laughter in one moment to the shared silence of absolute shock in the next. These are real and complex characters for whom sorry is said through a stoic attitude as much as actual words of apology. As a North Queenlander, it made me feel so many things over its twists and turns… proud, sad and nostalgic for Phelan’s pies and follow of the quality players to come out of the Foley shield North Queensland league competition.

Jess 2.jpg

In its touches on sexism in sport, racism, disparate small town (despite being a city) life and cultural identity, the show offers many moments of light and shade thanks to Bridget Boyle’s considered direction and the affecting performances of all cast members in roller-coasting the audience through the agony and ecstasy of its story. Deemal is fantastic as the feisty Jess, showing equal parts warmth and passion as she journeys from school girl to determined adolescent. Sheppard is especially wonderful in early scenes where he is full of ‘Black Flash’ bravado and as his down-to-earth wife Margaret, Brehmer is initially hilarious and later emboldened as a mother trying to ease family tensions and the aftermath of tragedy.

mum.jpg

A largely underused Ambrum brings physical comedy to his initial scenes as a toddler, but this is ultimately not where he leaves his mark. Lafe Charlton is stoical as a laconic Uncle Gordon from Cloncurry and, along with David Terry, he pops into the action with some hilarious moments as a variety of characters in the ensemble.

Laurie.jpg

Like any epic league match, the show’s emotional roller coaster is over in an hour and a half, but it is 90 minutes during which so much happens. In offering a perspective on the world in which we live beyond just a sense of humour, it also holds a mirror to our society whose image we might not necessarily find comforting. Like Rugby League itself, however, “The Longest Minute” will not only break your heart, but fill it with soul (and side-splitting laughs). Most importantly though, it tells one of our stories and widens theatre’s cultural landscape, making it accessible to audiences beyond just traditional theatre fans to those sports-lovers who think theatre is not for them, and for that it must be applauded.

Oh what a riotous night

Twelfth Night (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 28 – May 19

“Twelfth Night” opens with one of Shakespeare’s most resonate quotes; ‘if music be the food of love play on’ Duke Orsino of Illyria commands. It is a festive sentiment so apt that it is appears more than once in what is Shakespeare’s most musical play. It is appropriate then for tunes be added to the Bard’s lyrics by music legend Tim Finn, as is the case with Queensland Theatre’s realisation of the Shakespearean comedy.

The melancholic nature of Shakespeare suits Finn’s style and with Sam Strong’s direction songs are seamlessly integrated, making it difficult to recall that numbers like ‘Falling in Love’ and ‘Autumn Comedy’ have not always bookended intermission. Although there is affection for music evident throughout, the numbers are not as memorable as those of Finn’s soundtrack to then QTC’s brilliant “Ladies in Black”. Even so, they still add another (mostly delicate) layer to the play, like the fairy lights that twinkle atop the intricate revolving stage centrepiece. Detailed staging also enhances the production in many ways. The revolving stage not only creates nooks and crannies of interest in which its multi-story action takes place, but it allows central showcase of the excellent band of musicians that bring Finn’s compositions to life.

Washed ashore on Illyria and separated from her presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian (Kevin Spink), the gutsy Viola (Jessica Tovey) must learn to survive alone in an exotic foreign country. This means disguising herself as a man and so, as Cesario, she gets a job with Duke Orsino (Jason Klarwein) who has decided he is love with Countess Olivia (Liz Buchanan). Unfortunately, Olivia is more interested in mourning recent family deaths than responding to suitors, so Orsino sends Cesario to mediate. The problem is that the Viola he knows as Cesario has fallen in love with the Duke. And all the while there is an ensemble entourage watching on in amusement, providing much of the play’s humour in their drinking, joking, singing and torment.

post bath.jpg

“Twelfth Night” is a story about the thrill of falling in love, but also of growing old and showing mortality. Indeed, there is some darkness in its focus of characters left behind and mistreated, through concentration in this realisation appears to be more on laughs and silliness. One of the maligned characters is Oliva’s vain and pompous steward, Malvolio, or in this case, a more comic than tragic, Malvolia, in cross-gendered play by the acclaimed Christen O’Leary. When several characters concoct a plan to make Malvolia believe Olivia returns her love, O’Leary is hilarious as she struts about with strange plastered smile (mistakenly believing that this is Olivia’s desire) and then even better in an Act Two reveal of her cross-gartered yellow stockings in ‘Lady Ho Ho’, the show’s musical and comic highlight.

malvolio.jpg

The play showcases much humour of the Shakespeare sort; “Twelfth Night” was the last true comedy that the bard wrote so it represents a refinement of the cross-dressing et al comic conventions that that personify his more light-hearted fare. There is mistaken identity, cross dressing caused awkwardness when Viola (as Cesario) is instructed to bathe Orsino, baudy jokes courtesy of the always-excellent Bryan Probets as Sir Toby Belch and eavesdropping whilst remaining hidden like in “Much Ado About Nothing”.

women.jpg

A clear energy all around makes for a show of much colour and movement. Jessica Tovey is a spirited but sincere Viola and Liz Buchanan infuses the wealthy countess Olivia’s mourning with lightness.  Perhaps the biggest standout, however, is Sandro Colarelli as Feste, Olivia’s jester servant. Although he is labelled as a fool in which Lady Olivia’s father took much delight, he is as much melancholy as comic as he uses his wisdom to awaken others. And vocally, he makes his musical numbers into sublime aural experiences.

The melan-comedy world of “Twelfth Night” has always been a merry, mixed-up realm of sex, love and gender games. It is a funny and melancholy place, but a complicated one thanks to its multi-storylines, which makes for a lengthy show duration. Still Queensland Theatre audience members do not seem to mind, rather having a ball with its musical interludes and riotous, farcical disorder.

Rent rejoice

Rent (Matt Ward Entertainment)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 2 – 20

You might not be able to buy love, but you can Rent it. I discovered this 22 years ago when I saw Jonathan Larson’s iconic rock musical “Rent” on Broadway, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and received four Tony Awards, including Best Musical. As a self-confessed Renthead, I not only know the soundtrack by sing-a-long heart, but have now been fortunate enough to see over half a dozen different productions. And compatibility speaking, Matt Ward Entertainment’s 2018 realisation, is right up there with the best, which is particularly impressive given the theatre company’s emerging status.

The high energy take on the modern bohemian classic packs a musical punch. In fact, it is always about the music, which barely breaks during the show’s duration. The entire musical is brilliantly performed by a live band that is showcased from within the scaffolding that helps set the scene of Bohemian life in the East Village’s Alphabet City. With a song range that includes soul, techno, Latin and gospel, there is an eclectic mix of styles, yet the soundtrack sounds smooth and succeeds in evoking a range of emotions. When the entire cast communes on stage for the slower, signature Act Two opener, ‘Seasons of Love’ to ask what the proper way is to quantify the value of a year in human life, for example, one cannot help but both rejoice in their harmony but also reflect on Larson’s passing following the show’s off-Broadway final dress rehearsal.

Seasons of Love.jpg

Appropriately, the show begins musically too, with lone musician Roger (Luigi Lucente) sitting atop a table, playing his electric guitar. Even without conventional theatrical elements, the audience is immediately absorbed in the show’s whirlwind of raw emotion. It is not just Roger’s story, but one of a tight-knit group of complex characters, impoverished young artists living in New York City’s East Village in the late ‘80s, based on Puccini’s beloved opera “La Bohème”. From one Christmas to the next we follow their dreams, losses and loves as they struggle through life under the shadow of HIV/AIDS.

Angel.jpg

Roger is a grieving HIV-positive rocker. His roommate Mark (Tom Oliver) is a passionate filmmaker dedicated to intimately capturing the pivotal life moments of his closest friends. Together they live in a rundown, unattended warehouse loft owned by their former roommate Benny (Isaac Lindley), whose marriage into money has seen his become not only a budding entrepreneur but their rent collector. Their anarchist College instructor and computer genius friend Collins (James Shaw) is embarking on a new romance with Angel (Trent Owers), a big-hearted drag queen and street drummer who, like Collins, has AIDS.

Roger and Mimi.jpg

Roger fears falling in love with Mimi (Stephie Da Silva), a spirited exotic dance and drug addict, while Mark still has feelings for his kooky centre-of-attention artist ex Maureen (Ruby Clark) who stages a performance piece, ‘Over The Moon’, to protest Benny’s plans to evict the homeless camp in the empty lot next to the loft. Unfortunately for Mark though, Maureen has left him for Joanne (Kirrah Amosa), a crusading lawyer from a rich family.

Despite the multiple, intersecting storylines, all members of the key cast are given moments to shine and shine they do. Indeed, there are no weak links amongst the entire ensemble cast. Tom Oliver is an endearing Mark in a Johnny Galecki type way. Lucente is an ultimately-passionate Roger and his ‘One Song Glory’ solo rock ballad sing about his dying wish to leave his mark on the world is a sensitive and expressive early show highlight. While Owers is a little breathy in his physically-demanding solo ‘Today 4 U’, his gentleness projects Angel as the sweet soul of the show. And Shaw makes Collins’ Act Two ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise an absolutely heartfelt reminiscence, at-once emotional and commanding. There is phenomenal vocal prowess amongst the ladies too. Da Silva makes easy work of Mimi’s high-energy attempt to seduce Roger alone in his apartment, ‘Out Tonight’ and ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ is a powerful duet between Amosa and Clark during a dramatic breakup between the controlling Joanne and flirty Maureen.

Joanne.jpg

It is the ensemble numbers, however, that ultimately shine brightest. The optimistic ‘Another Day’, is stirring in its rallying cry to embrace love and live in the moment according to the slogan ‘Forget regret — or life is yours to miss’. There is visual interest in every ensemble number too, with performers fully absorbed in their characters. Owers, for example, is especially nuanced in every glance and movement as Angel, even when as background to centre-stage action.

This is an exciting and passionate production of a ground-breaking work that shows why its rock soundtrack has been a pinnacle of musical theatre history for over two decades. While aspects of its storyline may have dated, many of its themes of homelessness, poverty and substance abuse are still sadly relevant. More importantly still, is its beautiful, overriding message of love enduring beyond all else, which, as this production shows, still stands as central to the narrative for both old and emerging Rentheads to rejoice.