When wrong becomes two right

The Producers (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

October 21 – 30

A show featuring a musical within a musical called “Springtime for Hitler” may seem like a bold choice as follow up from Queensland Musical Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music”. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic may appear to have little in common with the madcappery of “The Producers”, apart from their shared appearance of swastika banners, yet both are hugely entertaining and serve to showcase the versatility as well as the talent the company has on hand.

The tongue-in-cheek journey into satire and comedy that is Mel Brooks’ musical “The Producers” is totally inappropriate, even more so as the years go on since its 2001 Broadway debut set the standard for modern, outrageous, in-your-face humour, yet it is still as much of a laugh-out-loud spectacle as ever. The story of scheming down-on-his-luck producer Max Bialystock (Tony Campbell) who, along with his mild-mannered accountant Leo Bloom (Ray Gillmore) aims to produce the biggest flop in Broadway history, thereby bilking his little old ladies backers out of millions of dollars is so wrong, but also so right, thanks largely to their chosen vehicle…. a musical that promises ‘A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva’. And as if that is not enough, the humour of its realisation draws also upon ridiculous accents, stereotypical caricatures and in jokes about theatre and show business.

Original Broadway and later 2005 movie stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick make for some big shoes to fill and as a duo, Campbell and Gillmore do it well, feeding off each other in their complementary performance styles. Campbell is adept at delivering the quick-witted verbal banter that characterises the ruthless and unprincipled Max, making him a likeable even if ruthless rogue despite his ego, which is essential to investing the audience in his ultimate success or otherwise. Gillmore, meanwhile, effectively balances Leo’s neurosis with emergence of his inner confidence as he follows his dream of leaving the unhappiness of accounting to become a producer.

The comedy of “The Producers” arises from archetypal characters in extreme situations in which they react in heightened ways and Queensland Musical Theatre has certainly leaned into this, with hilarious results. Patricia Rhodes is excellent in a committed comic performance as sex-crazed little old lady Hold-me-touch-me, whom Max manipulates into investing in his next play and Jo Burnett is a crowd favourite as Carmen Ghia,the dramatic, flamboyant and possessive common law assistant to worst director in New Your Roger De Bris (Steve Beck) who is recruited to direct the love letter to Hitler to sure fire flopdom…. or so Max and Leo suspect. However, in testament to the outlandishness of the whole shebang, it is the hot-tempered Nazi fanatic playwright Franz Liebkind’s (Byron Philp) pet pigeon that gets the show’s biggest laugh.

In amongst all the eccentricities, there are also some strong vocal talents showcased. As jiggly dancer and ‘secretary-slash-receptionist’ at the newly amalgamated Bialystock and Bloom, Ula, Kate Retzki displays impressive vocals especially in her enticing ‘When You Got It, Flaunt It’ impromptu office audition, eliciting some wonderfully animated reactions from the appreciative Max and Leo. There is also a perhaps underused Matthew Butler, who plays variety support roles, including as Set Designer Bryan, a member of Roger’s creative team, who displays some crisp, standout vocals.

Energy abounds under Nathaniel Currie’s direction, which is reflected also in Julianne Burke’s choreography of ensemble numbers like the show-within-a-show’s big titular opening number and also Act One’s closer, the best ‘Along Came Bialy’ I have seen, in which Max sets about raising the necessarily two million dollars to produce “Springtime for Hitler” by calling upon all the little old ladies of New York, who appear in wonderful animation, walking frames and all, courtesy of the committed comedy of the ensemble.

Although there are some pesky microphone issues, scenes changes are all very swift so as to rarely take the audience out of the story. Tom Dodds’ lighting design adds interest to the potentially drab ‘unhappy’ chant introduction to Leo’s daydream of ‘I Wanna Be a Producer’ and works well to assist in Max’s Act Two jail cell recap of the story’s plot thus far in ‘Betrayed’, also bridging us from the insanely funny adventure that represents the bulk of the story, to more poignant emotional coda of the Max and Leo’s friendship. The score is filled with dazzling numbers that hint to all range of musical stylings and under Benjamin Tubb-Hearne’s musical direction, the live orchestra complements them all, but especially the big production ones in which the chorus is used in classical manner of a ‘traditional’ Broadway musical comedy of the Golden Age.

The record 12 Tony Award winning musical (one of the few to win in every category for which it was nominated) is filled with clever satire within its outlandish plot, meaning that it continues to entertain audience members, regardless of if they have seen the musical one or multiple times before, or even if you know nothing of it at all. The self-aware and hugely popular musical is pure entertainment, providing laugh-out-louds a-plenty when done right, as Queensland Musical Theatre’s production shows.

Photos – c/o Creative Street

Alive and welcomed

The Sound of Music (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

June 3 – 12

Perhaps best known for the film adaptation starring Julie Andrews, “The Sound of Music” is a perennially-popular musical standard. The last musical Rodgers and Hammersten created (Oscar Hammerstein passed away nine months after it opened on Broadway in 1959) is a long one, but one with lots of story and many musical reprises and, as Queensland Musical Theatre shows, it is still as entertaining as ever.

Based on the real-life tale of the von Trapp family and their escape from Austria on the eve of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the country in 1938, the story is of Maria (Lara Boyle), a woman who during her convent training is dispatched to be a governess for the strict Captain Von Trapp (Nathaniel Currie) and his seven children Liesl (Holly Komorowski), Friedrich (Josh Cochrane), Louisa (Freyer Griggs), Kurt (Beau Bruback), Brigitta (Darci Allen), Marta (Alessia Lily Monteverde) and Gretl (Harriet Straus). Her genuine nature means that Maria brings music and love back into the home, discovering herself how it can bloom even in the most unexpected places as she endears herself to the children and eventually their father, despite his courtship of Baroness Schraeder (Kate Retzki).

Things get political in Act Two as Nazism and the eventual occupation of Austria by Germany casts a more immediate shadow over all their lives with the fiercely patriotic Captain unable to agree with his music agent and producer friend Max (Kris Brennan) about acquiescence to the inevitable German takeover. Even amongst the seriousness of the von Trapps’ predicament, however, experience of the musical is filled with the songs we all know, which, in itself, presents a challenge. Still, this production shows how even a well-known and beloved musical such as this can be given a new life through fresh takes. In particular, Isabel Byrne’s choreography gives us a dynamic demonstration in numbers such as ‘Do-Re-Mi’, in which Maria teaches the children the basics of music, as well as her ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ attempt to distract their fears during a thunderstorm. Also enjoyable is the much-loved ‘So Long Farewell’ routine when the children say goodnight to party guests with a song, later reprised at a tense Nazi talent show. And Deian Ping’s costume design of hued colours also adds to the visual treats on stage.

The singing is sensational throughout, spoiled only by some on-occasion minor microphone issues. The opening number in the abbey with the nuns’ austere singing, powerfully led by Kathryn Bradbury as Mother Abbess, sets the tone. With a rich operatic, perfectly-controlled voice, the building melody of her inspirational solo ‘Climb Every Mountain’ becomes a glorious goosebumpy triumph into interval. And her contribution to the playfulness of the nuns’ complaints about Maria’s absentminded whimsy in ‘Maria’ shows her versatility. When the Mother Abbess joins Maria in song for ‘My Favourite Things’, it is, therefore a particular treat given Boyle’s own delightful vocals.

Both vocally and in performance, Boyle captures the lovable free-spiritedness of the failed-nun Maria. From the opening swell of its titular song as Maria frolics in the Austrian alps, she brings an effervescent energy to the iconic role. Her voice is crisp with joyful optimism, reassuring us from this early Act One number, that the cherised musical is indeed in safe hands. And while we celebrate her journey from the beginning, over time, Currie also endears the initially-uptight Captain to us, softening him in Act Two with undertones of vulnerability in an expertly-controlled performance.

Also worthy of particular mention is Quinn Chambers as Rolf, the first love of eldest daughter Liesl. His smooth voice is very easy to listen to, providing moments of lightness in ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’, our first glimpse at the pair’s courtship. Kristie Rabbitt makes for a wonderful Srn Margaretta, kindly excusing Maria’s flibbertijibbertry singing in abbey et al. The children, meanwhile are pure delight in bringing their respective personalities to life, especially Bruback who dances about with joyous enthusiasm, responding gushingly to Maria’s now-presence in their lives.

From its rapturous curtain call applause, it is clear that “The Sound of Music” still stands as a welcomed crowd favourite. Under conductor Julia Whiting’s musical direction, the orchestra effectively supports the performers with a nice sound balance, allowing us to be enthralled by the familiar melodies as much as the vocal performances. Indeed, when the already-abuzz packed audience collectively sings along out loud to the overture lead in to act two, our hearts are alive with the joy of its music.  

Photos c/o – Creative Street

How can we resist you?

Mamma Mia! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Twelfth Night Theatre

November 5 – 14

Since opening in London in 1999, the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” has become a global phenomenon, with good reason. The ultimate feel-good show is the type that can be returned to again and again, such is the combined appeal of its score of ABBA hits and celebratory sentiment. Still, it is interesting to see how different companies but their own stamps on the show’s formula, and in this regard Queensland Musical Theatre’s production stands tall.

The wafer-thin plot is of a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Sophie Mason) tells the audience how her quest to discover the identity of her father has seen her invite three men from her free-spirited mother’s past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago…. on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to loyal and loving Sky (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to one of the men so that he can walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Carole Williams). The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship. 

What makes the musical so joyful is the brilliance of ABBA’s strong story-led lyrics which weaves the songs into the storyline. Even from the opening overture montage of instrumental versions of ABBA’s hits, there is a display of excellence. Under Julie Whiting’s musical direction, the score still unfolds with some interesting touches to make it the company’s own, such as a synthy sounding ‘Honey Honey’, in which Sophie discovers her mother’s old diary, complete with intimate description of her dates with the three men, and the Greek musical characteristics that appear woven within the instrumentation of Act Two’s closer, ‘I Have a Dream’.

Bec Swain’s choreography transitions the musical numbers along with effortless efficiency, such as when Donna’s best friends, and former Donna and the Dynamos girl group, Tanya (Lisa Alsop) and Rosie (Fiona Buchanan) move us from their attempt to cheer her up with ‘Chiquitita’ to effort to convince her that she can still be the ‘Dancing Queen’ she once was in a full-scale ensemble number. The title track is similarly, smoothly punctuated by pop-up appearances of a Greek chorus of sorts and the stylised, out-of-place Act Two opener ‘Under Attack’, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, is up there with its best realisations. Similarly, the flipper boys of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me, elicit the most amplified audience reaction, thanks mostly to Darcy Rhodes, whose elevated performance of Sky’s goofy bartender best man Pepper steals every scene. And when he attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, his acrobatic animation makes for a standout number.

As with previous Queensland Musical Theatre shows, “Mamma Mia” consists of a large ensemble, all of whom project an infectious energy throughout. The lead and supporting roles are perfectly cast, with some obvious standouts. Buchanan is simply wonderful as the wisecracking, clumsy and fun Rosie. She dominates in her comic role, especially during Rosie’s wedding day proposition of Bill (David McLaughlin) in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’. Together, Buchanan and McLaughlin represent another highlight, given their genuine chemistry, her physical comedy and his animated facial expressions, which tell us so much more than his dialogue alone ever could. 

Jordan Ross as Sam and Peter Bothams as ‘Headbanger’ Harry, McLaughlin delivers strong Act Two musical numbers in ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ and ‘Our Last Summer’ and Williams, Alsop and Buchanan harmonise together beautifully as Donna and Dynamos. Mason has a lovely singing voice that provides some touching moments to young and optimistic bride-to-be Sophie’s journey. And in the role made famous by Meryl Streep in the movie adaptation, Williams layers strong-willed single mother Donna with some fragility in her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ admission to Sam that he broke her heart. 

While opening night sees some microphone issues and a whole lot of unnecessary theatre haze, the vitality, entertainment and engagement of this “Mamma Mia!” is undeniable. Its celebration of ABBA’s 70’s music by a cast of talented performers, creates a joyously energetic experience, which is only amplified by its now-traditional finale medley of ABBA hits and accompanying audience rise to their feet to sing and dance having the time of their lives, ‘Dancing Queen’ style.

Photo c/o – CF Photography Families

2020 aplenty

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While I am well into planning what West End shows to see in 2020, I know that Brisbane theatre has plenty of its own highlights coming. This is what I am most looking forward to seeing (so far) in the year to come:

1. Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)

I just missed seeing the sci-fi teen musical on Broadway, so until the Phoenix Ensemble’s late 2020 production will have to live in anticipation of the Evan Hansen heir with last year’s elaborate Tony Awards homage to the show’s Michael in the Bathroom solo.

2. 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

I love this musical comedy and its oddball characters … fearless spellers at a fictional spelling bee who love scary words. It is a peppy frolic of colour, music and fun that I am sure Brisbane Arts Theatre will bring to vibrant life come late 2020.

3. Hello Dolly! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

There has been a great display of on-stage talent in recent Queensland Musical Theatre shows and I am yet to see the enduring musical theatre hit and appreciate how it has earned its exclamation point.

4. Emerald City (Queensland Theatre)

Nobody does drama better than Australia’s own David Williamson and given that the Melbourne Theatre Company co-pro revival of his 1987 classic opens in early February, we don’t have long to wait to consider the worth of sacrifice for success and fame.

5. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

… the theatre coup of the year, to which anyone what has read the smash-hit, triumphant Australian novel, loosely based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood, will attest. #theraversareright

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Jellicle joy

Cats (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

October 25 – November 3

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” is a show that polarises musical theatre fans; people either love it or hate it, but are rarely ambivalent, which alone makes it an ambitious choice for any production company, aside from it being so heavily grounded in dance. On the heels of their accomplished “Annie”, Queensland Musical Theatre are, however, more than up for the task, given its expandable cast of different age groups.

Based on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, the anthology-style, fully sung-through musical takes place over the course of one night, telling the story in song and dance, of the annual junkyard gathering of Jellicle cats, during which one special cat is selected to ascent to the Heaviside layer. Most people probably know the musical, however, because of its operatta-ish ‘Memory’, one of the only songs that doesn’t come from a T.S. Eliot poem and one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous compositions, which represents the story’s climax as the character Grizabella, engages in a melancholic remembrance of her glamorous past as a plea for acceptance. And, appropriately, the numbers stands as one of this production’s standout moments as Alison McKenzie’s deeply rich and mellow take, moves the audience to goosebumps in its power and impressive key-change sounds during the number’s Act Two reprise.

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The show’s music is a significant part of its success. From the overture, the band, under Conductor Julie Whiting, is excellent in its execution of the eclectic score, even if, on opening night, things were a little loud at times, making it difficult to understand performer lyrics in the softer moments. Still, ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ is a magnificent introduction to the multi-faceted but melodic score, full of layered tones that take audiences from playful prance to poignant dignity and back again.

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Any good “Cats” has to create a visual spectacle, and with over 40 performers on stage at times, this is certainly the case with this production, starting with its cats’ purr-fect pre-show audience interactions as they sneak and strut throughout the stalls, making the memory of my first experience of the show on London’s West End live again. Schonell Theatre’s large stage allows for Jo Badenhorst’s dynamic choreography, which is strong and engaging but general enough to allow for all levels of participation. Still, numbers ebb and flow as each individual cat tells the audience their backstory.

This “Cats” is characterised by an impressive attention to detail. Costumes capture the individual characters of the cats, beyond just their different fur patterns, especially in the case of the befallen Grisabella, however, no costume (except maybe a cane prop addition) can make the wise patriah Old Deuteronomy appear appropriately elderly when he is moving so nimbly across the stage.

The complex set, which serves as the backdrop for the entire musical, is complex, with built-in entrances and exits, and also platforms and levels on which the performers can stand and move around. The oversized junkyard staging also contains many Easter-egg details like graffiti from the mystery cat Macavity (Christopher Morphett-Wheatley), a monster of depravity of which there is no like, and a book pile that includes ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and The Bible (the musical is full of religious symbolism beyond just the Moses-like leader of the cats, Old Deuteronomy’s share of name with the fifth book of The Bible). London mentions are effectively peppered through things, but the Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer’s number is oddly over-accented, meaning that the athletic and playful young cats’ antics as knockabout clowns and quick-change comedians are overshadowed by lost diction

As anyone familiar with the contentious show knows, its structure is quite unique, as an anthology rather than through-lined plot, with each cat getting opportunity to introduce themselves and share the story of their life, loosely tied together by narrator and second-in-command of the Jellicle tribe, Munkustrap (David McLaughlin). As the storytelling tomcat, McLaughlin is able to direct audience attention at will, thanks to his commanding voice and physicality, even when just in unmoving stance.

It is the leather-clad Darcy Rhodes as rebellious alpha loner ladies man and lime-light lover Rum Tum Tugger, however that gives the most engaging and memorable of performances, and not just in his song, ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ and his ‘Magical Mr. Mistoffelees’ number, which both radiate with infectious energy (and vocal talent). Even when he is not center stage, he absorbs audience attention in his unfaltering commitment to his flirtatious, swaggersome character, down to the littlest nuances of gesture, movement and stylised changes of position. And how wonderful it is to see him returned to rockstar status after the 2014’s revival’s reimagining of him as a ‘street cat’ rapper. Also noteworthy is the delightful, measured performance of Eric James as Asparagus, (Gus) the elder Theatrical Cat with shaking paws, reflecting with reverence upon his life on the stage.

It is so unfortunate that, on opening night at least, the cast was let down by the show’s lighting and especially sound, which, dropping in and out as it did, effectively ruined Act Two’s ‘Growltiger’s Last Stand’ music hall drama tribute as part of Gus’ reminiscence about his favourite role in the old-fashioned melodrama, as well as sections of other songs. For audiences unfamiliar with the musical, the lyrics lost due to microphone lapses in early numbers would assumedly make the story more difficult to access.

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There are still some standout numbers, however, such as Skimbleshanks The Railway Cat’s (Jonathan Taufatofua) tell of being unofficially in charge of the night train to Glasgow, during which a moving locomotive train is formed out of objects in the rubbish dump. The ensemble number is not only full of fun, but it represents the energy and spectacle that is at the core of this production, which is visually lavish and joyously dynamic in intent and realisation… mostly.