Courageous capabilities

Humans (Circa)

QPAC, The PlayHouse

December 6 – 9

Given the way they are heralded around the world as an exciting and innovative physical theatre company, Circa is surely one of Queensland’s great cultural exports. And it is always wonderful to have them perform to a home-town crowd, as they will now be doing as part of a multi-year partnership with QPAC, beginning with share of their show “Humans”, an ensemble journey of celebration of what it means to be human.

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The work sees 10 acrobats exploring the human form in expression of the essence of the human body’s extraordinary possibilities. As such, it is one of the company’s stripped-back and more organic pieces, which even in the Playhouse Theatre still feels like a more intimate experience than some of the company’s previous works. Mostly the show is floor work but there are still some beautiful aerial displays of trapeze, rope routines and straps segments. This is a wise decision as the limited use of apparatus allows concentration on the performers and the amazing things they can do with their bodies

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It begins with a woman twisting out of her clothes, before the entire ensemble join her, spread out around the stage, each in their own space. It’s an engaging introduction that has audience members spoiled for choice in where to look as performers transition from individual movements to working collaboratively in tumble atop and under each other, layering the scene with highly-skilled gymnastic movements. Clearly, this is a work of substance more than showmanship and it is all the better because of it. Even the muted costume tones contribute, adding to the aesthetic without detracting from appreciation of the skills on show. And as its soundtrack transitions from evocative violin to feisty fiddle numbers, this only escalates as bodies are thrown around in tumble, twirl, slide and smash into the floor, in an energetic display to contrast the blank performer faces.

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The high energy scenes are dynamic, but there is vulnerability too and many instances where gasps and applause are equally audible from the audience, in response to the innovative choreography as much as the feats of balance and strength themselves. We see a human jump rope, a performer walking and then rolling across a row of the others’ heads and a three-performer-high human pyramid on which a woman balances one-handed. And when the pyramid is inverted, it sees one man, supporting the weight of five people…. astounding stuff. There is laid-bare and beautifully poetic vulnerability too when a man moves around a female performer as if she’s a limp doll needing to be bent into position.

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The inventiveness extends also to the soundtrack, which features an eclectic mix of world sounds such as jaunty gypsy stylings, upbeat electronica, sultry jazz and a folksy Joanna Newsom’s ‘Does Not Suffice’ to finish things off. And ‘The Impossible Dream (The Quest)’ is the perfect accompaniment for a revelry routine in which performers all try, through different contortionism, to lick their elbows. Not only are moves cued to music but the use of tempo works well to draw focus. And so, when speech is used, just once, it seems holistically out of place.

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What matters here is just the human body on display and it is a spectacle easily appreciated, particularly as performers freeze in place in the show’s later moments. There are no characters or discernible narrative here, which makes it easy to become lost in the experience of each routine. The show runs for only 70 minutes but it sometimes feels much longer (#inagoodway), given how much is packed into its experience.

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“Humans” is an astonishing show that reconfirms Circa’s acclamation as one of the world’s top contemporary circus troupes. Indeed, its experience will have you at once amazed and honoured in acknowledgement of its home-grown success. The playful and powerful physical strength, grace and flexibility of its top-of-their-game performers is as mesmeric as it is breathtaking. In Circa’s hands we can truly see the incredible physical feats of which humans are courageously capable.

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Behind the scenes satisfaction

Scenes from a Marriage (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 11 – December 3

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Marianne (Marta Dusseldorp) and Johan (Ben Winspear) are cosy in the comfort of their overly-scheduled, boring bourgeois lives … well that’s what they tell a magazine interviewer when being asked about their union. But what lies behind their façade and how long will it be before their imperfect love begins to dissolve? These are the initial questions at the core of “Scenes from a Marriage”, and the answers, as they unravel, are far from comforting.

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Originally a 1970s Swedish television series by accomplished and influential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “Scenes from a Marriage” is a beast of a play. The stage adaptation by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith takes audiences behind the scenes into the intimacy of a marriage as it tries to survive secrets and suffering in the shadow of a single event and over-time, innate animosity. With a focus on domestic relationships, it has all the emotional and cognitive ingredients for audience engagement. Yet despite being a polished and visually stunning production with a first-rate cast, its resonance is more satisfaction in a neutrally-beige type way, than standout amongst a sensational season of shows.

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Even to those unfamiliar with the nuance of its Swedish creator, the production is noticeably Bergman. Staging screams Scandinavian in its simplicity, functionality and minimalism, opening as it does to a clinically white and sparely-furnished room. Even when, late in Act One, things open up to the reveal the reality of the couple’s conjoined life in a scene in the their holiday home, it is one of timbre tones affront a tree-lined lake backdrop. The aesthetics are quite stunning, enhanced by lighting that adds a theatricality to the sometimes shocking action on-stage.

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The authentic anatomy of a marital breakdown also comes courtesy of well-crafted dialogue that takes audience members from the light relief of predictable jokes through the devastating dynamics of divorce (and what comes next) and contemplation of if whether dislike is better than indifference.

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Real-life husband and wife Ben Winspear and Marta Dusseldorp are excellent in their respective roles, presenting the couple as two individual and complexly layered individuals. Their chemistry is clear… unsettlingly so in a physical fight sequence in one of the play’s uncomfortable scenes. Winspear’s glib Johan, shallowly self-assured and overconfidently narcissistic, allows Dusseldorp’s intense and ultimately vulnerable performance to take centre stage. And they are both well-supported by superb performances from Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary as the couple’s mutually, mercilessly bitter, married friends.

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For most of the story, Marianne and Johan are unlikeable people curiously drawn to the mutual misery of their marriage, yet there are also sometimes glimpses of them as ordinary, suffering humans who love each other in their own way…. necessary for audience empathy and investment in their story. Like so often in life, there is no happy ending to “Scenes from a Marriage”, but its experience brings a satisfaction of sorts from the confrontation of its truth.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

Wonderful wizardry

The Wizard of Oz (John Frost and Suzanne Jones by arrangement with The Production Company)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 4 – December 3

dorothy.jpgAs exciting as modern jukebox type musicals may be, there is something comforting about seeing traditional stories being retold on stage. In its Australian premiere, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of “The Wizard of Oz” combines the best of these two takes, giving audiences an exciting spectacle that enhances previous experience of the perennially popular film and/or American fairytale story by Frank Baum.

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The same but better story tells of Dorothy Gale who lives on a farm in Kansas until a tornado arrives and picks her, her house, and her dog up and deposits them in the strange land of Oz. Dorothy who just wants to get back home, follows the instruction of the Good Witch of the North to head towards the Emerald City to meet the Wizard. En route she meets a Scarecrow in need of a brain, a Tin Man missing a heart and a Lion who longs for courage and discovers that no matter how yellow its bricks, the road is not always smooth travelling.

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The London Palladium Production offers a new and fresh take on a story that is still full of the songs audiences know and love. Dorothy’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ ballad muse to little dog Toto that there must be a place where there isn’t any trouble is initially rushed but still absolutely beautiful in its magical fusion of music, lyric, situation and singer. The Munchkinland Sequence of ‘Come Out, Come Out’, ‘Ding! Dong! The Witch is Dead’ and ‘We Welcome You to  Munchkinland’ with Glinda, Dorothy and the Munchkins is simply joyous and you will find ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ and ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard” in your head for days (#inagoodway).

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There are five new songs too, with additional music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and additional lyrics by Tim Rice, which like the originals, advance the story and allow the witches to have voice in song through ‘Already Home’ sung to Dorothy by Glinda with beautiful message about having everything she needs already at home and ‘Red Shoe Blues’ in which the Wicked Witch plots “she’s pretty and clueless and I want her shoeless” as she sends her flying monkeys to capture Dorothy and Toto and bring them to her castle. Of course, the musical extravaganza would be nowhere without the orchestration, which is superb.

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Performances are appropriately pantomimic to a point, but full of heart. Remarkable and talented favourites Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix rejoin to weave their magic together on stage again, having previously portrayed Glinda and Elphaba respectively in the Australian production of “Wicked”. In an enlarged blue-rinsed good witch Glinda role, Durack is shrill in cutting comments, delivered with perfect comic timing. And Rix is nothing short of a deliciously evil green Wicked Witch of the West, cackling her threats and demands to have Dorothy’s magic ruby slippers.

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Anthony Warlow, makes for a wonderful, Wizard of Oz, revealing humanity behind the pretenced narcissism of the venerated ruler behind the curtain, but is best as Professor Marvel who woos runaway Dorothy with a new patter song, ‘Wonders of the World’ (and in cameo as the Oz doorman). Last seen on stage in Brisbane in 2012’s “Annie”, he is an absolute hoot in the charismatic character role.

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Samantha Dodemaide is similarly charming as the plucky Dorothy. And her beautiful voice is showcased in the iconic principal song, one of the most enduring standards of the 20th Century (#nopressure), soaring audiences along in melancholic memory of why only bluebirds fly over the rainbow.

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Dorothy’s improbable yellow brick road travelling companions are delightful too in share of much of the show’s punny humour. As the gelatinous scarecrow, Eli Cooper is nuanced in his every action, reaction and inflection. The cheeky cowardly lion, John Xintavelonis is an audience favourite and Alex Rathgeber gives a memorable tap number as the Tin Man.

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The same creative team from the Palladium original repeat their work and, accordingly, staging is quite spectacular, starting with a sepia-washed Kansas (like the movie’s initial scenes) in contrast to later under a rainbow reveal of vibrant technicolour. And, in Act Two when the narrative darkens, lighting creates a richly-red gothic aesthetic within the shadowy lair of the Wicked Witch and her winged monkeys. The most spectacular set, however, is that of an Art Deco Emerald City, reaching to the rafters.

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Computer generated graphics transition scenes, including showing the twister that transports Dorothy from Kansas to the Land of Oz to begin her colourful journey home. And the visual styling of the inhabitants of the Emerald City is magnificently detailed, evident especially in Glinda’s sparkling gown.

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Clearly, this “The Wizard of Oz” is much anticipated for a reason. It is an energetic, glittering wonder, full of humour and marvel alike to enthral all ages, in show of why the classic story is so universally loved. Those who cherish the film should expect faithful adaptation and more. Those unfamiliar with the source material (if there is anyone), will want to embrace the world’s favourite musical all the same.

Photos – c/o Jeff Busby

 

Caledonian celebrations

Scotland the Brave (Andrew McKinnon)

QPAC, Concert Hall

October 21

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“Scotland the Brave” starts with surprise, with a lone piper playing an eerily-beautiful lament from the heights of QPAC’s Concert Hall organ. It is a fitting beginning in its tribute to the traditional last act of the annual Edinburgh Military Tattoo, when the lights are extinguished on the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade and a spotlight picks out a piper high up in the castle battlements.

It is a sound steeped in the ideals of Scottish history and cultural pride, derived from the Scottish soldier’s traditional call to the end of the day, in this case marking the start of the international smash hit “Scotland the Brave” from world champion bagpipe player Andrew Fuller, the Pipe Major and founding member of the City of Adelaide Pipe Band. From there, things proceed with massed pipes, drums and even highland dancers filling the stage area afront the Queensland Pops Orchestra and QPAC choir in a celebration of the all things Scottish.

There’s a fiddler too as mischievous Marcus Holden shares his contemporary violin skill in a full-of-character solo number, the Irish ballad ‘Boolavogue’, commemorating the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Everyone is given a chance to shine as the show pipes and prances through all range of traditional and more-contemporary Celtic fair, including joyful surprises like a ‘Scottish Piano Rhapsody’ inset with ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in a nod to the unofficial Australian anthem’s origin in the Scottish song ‘Thou Bonnie Wood Of Craigielea’. Although interesting in itself, this highlights the show’s wanting for further information about the songs and their place in either Scottish musical heritage or history, if only all allow audiences to appreciate their curation together, as worked so well in Paul Kelly and Camille O’Sullivan’s, journey through Irish poetry, “Ancient Rain” earlier this year.

Led by charismatic conductor Sean Boyle, The Queensland Pops Orchestra expresses the simple and swelling strings of the hymn-like Scottish folk turn ‘O Waly Waly’ (The Water is Wide), making it a beautiful Act One highlight. The ‘Angel of Australia’ Mirusia, featured soprano solist with André Rieu, similarly showcases exquisiteness in the stunningly evocative ‘My Love is Like a Red Red Rose’, Robert Burns’ 1794 song, and also in duet with Tenor Gregory Moore in ‘Sailboat’. And the QPAC Choir provides much meolodic accompaniment in ‘Kirkconnel Lea’, soaring the Scottish ballad to choral heights.

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With such a rich musical heritage as its subject matter, “Scotland the Brave” is, by default, a long show and initially, at least,  it feels like it, with contemporary Scottish standards appearing mostly in Act Two. This begins with the waltzy ‘Skye Boat Song’ tell of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the romanticised instigator of the failed Jacobite rebellion, and his escape to the Isle of Skye after the Battle of Culloden, memorable not just because of its role as “Outlander” theme song. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ makes a next-to-last appearance, pre-empted by streamer distribution at intermission in anticipation and there is even an entire company and audience sing-a-long to standards such as ‘The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond’, in “ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road” signal that the evening of revelry will soon be over. The highlight, however, comes courtesy of a moving ‘Amazing Grace’, which has become synonymous with the highland bagpipe, which rouses audience spirits and hearts with its varied instrumentation and haunting harmonies.

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When “Scotland the Brave” ends with its titular song, it represents a wonderful culmination of Caledonian celebration in all its tartan and bagpipe glory. At-once rousing and moving, the show is one sure to be enjoyed by tartaned and lay audience members alike. Like Eddi Reader’s “The Songs of Robert Burns”, “Scotland the Brave” represents a memorable experience to serve as soundtrack as you plan trip to Bonnie Scotland, in this case through its transport of audiences to the world of its Military Tattoo.

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The popular, patriotic and heart-felt song ‘Scotland the Brave’ is an unofficial Scottish national anthem that not only stirs the soul of Scots worldwide, but evokes transport to the world of its Edinburgh Military Tattoo where it features as a program highlight. It is more than appropriate therefore that it should also serve as the title of the celebration of the best of traditional Scottish music, song and dance, coming to QPAC’s Concert Hall for one night only on Saturday 21st October.

The production features not just brave rousing anthems, but hymns too, such as the melodic ‘Highland Cathedral’, the redemptive ‘Amazing Grace’ and, of course, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the Scots poem written by Robert Burns, now known more for its bid of farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight… so it promises something for everyone with a Celtic craving. Indeed, with a production featuring singers, dancers, and musicians, performing popular works, it sure to be spectacular, especially given its line-up of soloists includes the internationally acclaimed soprano Mirusia and popular tenor Gregory Moore.

There will be tartan, kilts, bagpipes and highland dancers … all wonderful icons of Scotland’s sprightly heritage, to set the heart a-dreaming, combining for a ceilidh-like experience of transformation to a world of all things Scottish in either memory of, or as motivation to attend Edinburgh Festival’s Military Tattoo.

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Tickets are available now.

Courting Terror

Terror (Lyric Hamersmith)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 19 – 23

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A hijacked Lufthansa Airbus is heading towards a packed Munich football stadium. Ignoring the orders of his superiors, a fighter pilot shoots the passenger aircraft down, killing the 164 people on board in order to save the 70,000 at the stadium for the Germany vs England football match. As he is put on trial and charged with murder, the fate of the pilot is in the audience’s hands. … Clearly, “Terror” is quite different from last year’s Brisfest hilarity from the UK’s Lyric Hammersmith in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Yet, in its Australian premiere, direct from London and exclusive to the Brisbane Festival, audience reaction is just as glowing for the compelling courtroom drama by the lawyer and writer Ferdinand von Schirach, which is unsurprising given its global acclaim since debut in Berlin two years ago.

The Playhouse stage has been transformed by the show’s grand, authentic courtroom design. German Army Eurofighter Lars Koch (Chris New) is in witness box; we can see him in profile as he steelily stares ahead. As lay judges, it is us to decide the consequences of his decision to deliberately end the lives of the 164 people on the plane, which breaks constitutional law. Guilty or not guilty, we decide.

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It’s is far from a straight-forward decision, especially given that lack of any revelation of conscience from the accused who stands steadfast in defence of his actions. It’s a heavy premise, with verbose speeches that require audience concentration as philosophical aspects are discussed and illustrated. Its engagement comes from the moral complexity of what is being presented for consideration. Can we sympathise with his dilemma and/or empathise with his decision, despite his apparent lack of humanity or remorse?

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Josephine Butler makes for a firm and authoritative presiding judge, pacing things along. New and his expert witness Sam Redford, are appropriately rigid in their military responses and Remmie Milner brings a soft humanity to her role as a grieving victim’s wife. But the stars are the state prosecutor (Sarah Malin) and defence lawyer (Aidan Kelly). Not only do they each passionately present convincing arguments about the sanctity of human dignity, the impact of probabilities, the notion of a greater good and the choice of a lesser evil, but they force us to consider the impact of their respective approaches as much as their legal rhetoric.

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Luckily we are given intermission to discuss and decide on our vote… and what robust discussions ensure in dissection of testimony as audience members prepare to register their votes via an electronic pad beside each seat. On our night, the split is 61:39 towards not-guilty, which is in keeping with the consistent 60:40 split amongst the jurors at each performance, apart from China and Japan. Indeed, it is quite fascinating to look at the results’ trend, collated and documented on the show’s webpage, including note of how they fare in comparison to the timing of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.

“Terror” is a static work, which makes it an acquired taste. Still, anticipation of the verdict’s delivery makes for an interesting, interactive drama from the versatile theatre company, unlike usual theatre fair. The continuing debate amongst strangers as they depart stands as testament to both its undeniable relevance and unique engagement.

Get your tickets at www.brisbanefestival.com.au

Boots and all

Kinky Boots (Michael Cassel by special arrangement with Daryl Roth and Hal Luftig in association with Cameron Mackintosh)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

August 22 – October 22

“Kinky Boots” is a model of the modern major musical… spirited, triumphant and touching, with a stirring message regarding equal rights, identity and acceptance, that both advocates and stands as evidence of creativity as change agent. As such, the Tony Award winning musical brings Broadway to Brisbane boots and all with a superb cast and soaring score … and the result is simply sensational!

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The story, adapted from 2005 movie (itself based on a true story), takes places in a British working class setting not unlike that of “Billy Elliot”. To workers in the long-established Northampton, England shoe factory Price & Son, a shoe is (according to the show’s opening number) ‘The Most Beautiful Thing’. But business is failing when, as the fourth-generation ‘son’ in the business, Charlie Price (Toby Francis) finds himself recalled from a new life in London after his father’s death.

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As the factory’s now insecure owner, Charlie tries to live up to his father’s legacy, but is almost ready to accept defeat, until a chance meeting with drag queen Lola (Callum Francis), reveals a niche market that could save the factory… kinky boots for women who just happen to be men, beginning with a custom pair of red (not burgundy) ones for Lola herself because whatever Lola wants, Lola is likely to get. As Charlie and Lola work to bring the factory back from the brink of bankruptcy, the unlikely duo discover that they have more in common than they thought. As such, the show become more than just a formulaic story of underdog triumph, as it celebrates friendship, love and self-belief.

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Helping cement the sentiment at show’s heart is Cyndi Lauper’s award winning score, which moves the narrative along while also capturing the story’s emotional extremes. Tapestried together, the range of songs work wonderfully. Highlights include the electric disco anthem ‘Sex is in the Heel’, performed by drag club headliner Lola and her backup ‘angels’ troupe of drag dancers as they try to explain the importance of sex appeal to Charlie and his factory workers, and the touching ballad, ‘I’m Not My Father’s Son’. The emotionally, affecting duet sees Lola (with introduction of her birth name Simon) lament the torment of being his own man and Charlie reflect on his attempt to disassociate himself from his father’s legacy, highlighting the similarities of the characters’ complex feelings and also the chemistry between the two leads.

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Callum Francis is outstanding as the unashamedly outrageous, but also quietly vulnerable, Lola and it is easy to understand his win of the 2017 Helpman Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Not only does his dynamic performance engender an immediate rapport with the audience but his powerhouse vocals are absolutely on-point. Toby Francis, is charming as Charlie, the everyman alongside effervescent Lola. His vocals add lovely layers to ballads and upbeat numbers alike, making songs like Act Two’s ‘Soul of a Man’, in which he struggles with the weight of his father’s legacy, at-once heartfelt and powerful. There is plenty of comedy too, not just through Lola’s sassy comebacks but from Sophie Wright’s nuanced performance as feisty factory worker Lauren who longs for Charlie’s love. And her ‘The History of Wrong Guys’ number is perfect in its exploit of every comic opportunity.

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Every aspect of “Kinky Boots” is on-point. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design easily transforms the stage from industrial factory to the fabulous, flamboyant land of Lola, allowing for full appreciation of Jerry Mitchell’s inventive choreography. And John Shivers’ sound design ensure that its musical theatre and pop soundtrack blend seamlessly.

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As co-creator Harvey Fierstein has said, “Kinky Boots” is a joyous show, sure to leave you overwhelmed with happiness. Not only is there lots of colour and movement, but an overarching, uplifting message about how you can change the world if you change your mind, realised in the rousing full company finale, ‘Raise You Up/Just Be’ when the factory’s collection of boots hits the runway in Milan. Indeed, its drama, humour and pathos make it big-hearted entertainment of the highest calibre, making it a force of nature, not to be missed.

Photos c/o – Matthew Murphy