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.

Annie appeal

Annie (Queensland Musical Theatre)

Schonell Cinema and Live Theatre

June 5 – 9

Little Orphan Annie has been a part of American pop culture since first appearing as a 1924 comic strip. Although the story became a hit Broadway musical, “Annie” in 1977, it is probably its 1982 film version that is its most widely known and recognised realisation, whether that be because of the titular Annie’s iconic red party dress, her loveable mutt Sandy or the inspired casing of Carol Burnett as orphanage matron Miss Hannigan. And from the moment that Queensland Musical Theatre’s production of “Annie” opens in overture, we are reminded not only of this, but of its enduring soundtrack thanks to the 14-piece orchestra’s brilliant realisation (Conductor Trenton Dunstan). The show is packed full of musical highlights from the early ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ and anthemic ‘Tomorrow” to ‘NYC’ and ‘I think I’m Gonna Like It Here’ and their orchestral arrangements are a wonderful reminder of why the musical won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

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The excellence continues into the show’s opening orphanage scenes where we meet the energetic Annie (Jade Kelly). Although living in the orphanage under the care of the happiness-hating Miss Hanigan (Lisa Mellor), Annie refuses to accept that she is an orphan, believing that one day she will be re-united with her parents. Kelly’s flawless voice and beautiful high range are showcased in the plucky ‘Tomorrow’, sung in comfort to ‘her’ friendly stray dog Sandy. She also embodies the kind-hearted protagonist when offered the chance to spend Christmas with billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Nathaniel Currie), softening the sophisticated entrepreneur, as well as US President FDR towards his optimistic new deal.

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The youth cast of orphans is outstanding. In addition to Annie, of particular note is Tia Godbold as the littlest orphan, Molly, who loves making her friends (and the audience) laugh. Not only is she gorgeously precocious and full of personality, but she shows impressive professionalism to cope with a mid-scene dis-attached microphone dilemma.

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Meanwhile, Currie embodies the role of the charismatic Warbucks and he sings like a dream; his Act Two ‘Something Was Missing’ where he shares his realisation that he’s spent his whole life building up his empire without allowing time for love in any way, is simply beautiful.

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Annie’s stay at the billionaire’s mansion, however, is not all gifts and good times with Warbucks and his faithful secretary Grace (Abby Page), as she is left vulnerable to fraudsters, including the rough and tumble brother to Miss Hannigan, Rooster (Darcy Rhodes) and his egotistical gold digger girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Ellen Axford), who pose as Annie’s parents in attempt to get their hands on Warbuck’s advertised reward. As convict Rooster, Rhodes is the show’s absolute standout. His razzle dazzle performance is expressively larger-than-life as he exploits all of its comic possibilities, making it impossible to divert your eyes in his every on-stage appearance. He also helps to make the jazzy ‘Easy Street’ another Act One high point, full of energy and showcase of on-point harmonies.

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There are many performance highlights in this professional production. The large cast means that there are busy ensemble numbers featuring over two dozen performers on stage, such as when, in escape from the orphanage, Annie comes across New York’s Hooverille, where people made homeless by the Great Depression have come together a community. Projected backdrops establish the era, with suffering all around.  Costumes are well-chosen, however, some props not of the era, even if added for joke value, detract from the otherwise careful attention to detail. And sound lapses in microphone cues cause some minor distraction, as does an annoyingly very wobbly set door. Still, it is easy to understand why the Schonell Theatre is at audience capacity, for this not only a musical with wide appeal, but a production of immense worth, obviously enjoyed by all, given its rapturous curtain call applause.

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Although it is set at the ‘hard knock life’ time of the Great Depression, “Annie” is far from downbeat. Instead, its affirmation of the unyielding hope of tomorrow makes it a buoyant family friendly favourite. While the story has cute and cheeky orphans to appeal to youngsters and the guaranteed awe of appearance of a dog onstage, there is adult attraction too, through dialogue humour around the politics and personalities of the time. In many regards, this is a triumphant production of the classic rags-to-riches story that will have you leaving with smile on your face, warmth in your heart and its catalogue of catchy tunes in competition in your head.