Becoming Bill’s best

Becoming Bill (Old Fashioned Production Company)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

August 14 – 25

“Becoming Bill” is a new musical from first time writer/composer Bradley McCaw. The story centres around the life of struggling 25-year-old actor Bill (McCaw) who can’t seem to get his life together. His years-long relationship with Kimberley (Stephanie Long) is clearly strained, including by Bill’s dedication to his mother Jane (Rachael Beck) and defence of his lay-about younger brother James (Oliver Sampson) whose spends his life gaming on the couch.

When Bill is asked to write a musical, he follows the advice of writing what you know, basing the work on himself and those around him. Although this creates upset of his family and relationship dynamic as his ‘ordinary’ but slightly off-beat family faces the ghosts of their past, it is confrontation without much insight. Indeed, there are some noticeable gaps in backstory and motivation that stand out amongst an otherwise seamless experience. Thankfully, writing what you know isn’t about events so much as emotions and in this regard the show works well. Its soundtrack especially is effortless in its emotional observations, enhanced by the live band’s inclusion of strings to soar the sentiments of McCaw’s orchestrations in numbers like mother Jane’s revealing reminiscence ‘When We Were Younger’.

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The titular ‘Becoming Bill’ is paced, shaped and melodied to linger long after the show’s end. Its placement as the opening number is not just appropriate by its contextual establishment, but allows the show’s writer/composer to take the spotlight at the front-of-stage. Unfortunately, it also separates him from the initial action with arrival of his mother, however, once he joins the others, things settle. Similarly, early meta-theatre mentions make for some funny moments, but are perhaps unnecessary given that they only top and tail the work rather than serve as an integral component.

National musical theatre treasure Rachel Beck is perfect as mother Jane, presenting her as realistic blend of quirky, emotional, oblivious and, in musical numbers like ‘Are You Happy’, honestly heartfelt. McCaw is a charming Bill, relatable so that we share his frustration with his not-necessarily likable brother’s lack of application. His vocals have a smooth, comforting quality and his keyboard skills are first-rate. The most outstanding vocals, however, come from Long. ‘Let’s Not Have This Fight’ serves not only as showcase of her effortless vocal range, but is an early highlight. In fact, in all instances Trevor Jones’ vocal arrangements create some wonderful harmonies in full company numbers like ‘What Do I Want?’

There is a lot to like about “Becoming Bill”; the thing I liked best was that it is not dominated by a typical romantic focus, but rather a story about a finding your feet and writing your best life, for the promising new Australian work is quite heart-warming in the everydayness but also thoughtfulness of its themes. Seeing new theatre is often a privilege, especially so when it is as quality as this, because “Becoming Bill” is a strong work whose music never disappoints, well on its way to being its own best self.

Belle of the ball

This Girl (Rachael Beck)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 28 – 29

When Rachael Beck tells story of having to kiss Hugh Jackman on stage each night for a year when playing Belle in “Beauty and Beast”, it would be easy to dismiss her as unapproachable… apart from the fact that everything about the Australian leading lady is so endearing. This is just one of the many anecdotes that tie together “This Girl”, Beck’s autobiographical cabaret show of song, stories and laughs, that shares the same name as her first solo album

Beginning with question about if we know who she is, Beck is charming as she journeys audiences through all range of musical genres as she dissects her career and life thus far, accompanied on piano by one of Australia’s leading musical directors and composers Max Lambert. Musical numbers make appearance of course in reminder of her major career roles and the show features standards from “Chicago” and “Wicked” alongside lesser-known works from “Next to Normal” and “Songs For A New World’, with Beck bringing fresh life to every one thanks to her sublime vocals.

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In balance to the pep of the musical numbers, highlights include the poignant ‘I Honestly Love You’ and ‘Send in the Clowns’, a song that not only shows her appreciation of the magic of the relationship between words and music, but comes with story of its influence on her intent to pursue a career in the arts. This early show recollection of her days on the thriving Lismore Eisteddfod scene before, at just 15, she took on the role of Rumpleteazer in “Cats” for its Melbourne premiere, also features, a wonderful recreation of her competition number as Sesame Street’s The Count, complete with cape for effect.

“This Girl” not only reflects Beck’s diverse tastes and musical experiences, but showcases her versatility as a performer, featuring as it does, songs from Bob Dylan to Kate Bush and even a bit of opera as tribute to her “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” co-start David Hobson. Always, her vocals soar beautifully and her ability to hold note in the concluding ‘Cabaret’ and encore “Halleluiah” is quite astonishing.

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“This Girl” is perfectly curated to take audiences on a tour of Rachael Beck’s life and career, weaved together by personal anecdotes, musical memories and a lot of laughs, largely courtesy of a performance as dancing partner to a leading man from the audience.

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And it seems like she is having a ball too, such is her genuine demeanour and interaction with the audience. As Beck states at its conclusion, the intimacy of the Cremorne Theatre venue makes it feel like the audience is in her lounge room. And it feel like that for audience members too with its 70 minutes simply flying by in awe of her outstanding talent.

Photos c/o – Darren Thomas

Once upon a twisted fairytale time

Into the Woods (Harvest Rain)

QPAC, Concert Hall

October 1 – 4

Since its premiere on Broadway 30 years ago, “Into the Woods” has endured in many stage productions and, recently, a cinematic release, meaning that, although this Harvest Rain Theatre Company incantation is the first to have been produced professionally in Queensland, it is a story well known to many audience members.

Typically fairytale-like the story tells of how once upon a time, in a small village at the edge of the woods in a far off kingdom a collection of childhood fairy tale characters’ lives were interwoven together. It’s an ultimately complex and twisted tale that begins simply enough with The Baker (Eddie Perfect) and his wife (Rachael Beck) embarking on a journey into the woods when they discover they are cursed in being forever childless by a vengeful Witch (Rhonda Burchmore).

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To break the spell the couple must collect the ingredients needed to restore the Witch’s beauty: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, whereupon they come across Jack (of the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. This makes it sweeping ear-worm Prologue theme all the more memorable as it introduces the carefree characters and their wishes without hint of what is yet to come.

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In true Stephen Sondheim’s fashion, the show features a delicious orchestral score with some great songs including the pantomime-esque ‘Agony’ argument of two princes over who has it worst, and the soaringly-eerie witch’s’ anthem ‘Last Midnight’, focused more often on conversational lyrics rather than emotional belting. And the orchestra, silhouetted upstage as if in the woods, does an excellent job under conductor Jason Barry-Smith in bringing them to triumphant or lingering life.

“Into the Woods” is a show of contrasts beyond just its musical numbers. Act One is almost self-contained with characters seeing their wishes realised. However, sometimes desired achievement can be fraught with danger. And, in exploration of this, the second act is quite dark (and a little dragging). Sound and lighting capture this juxtaposition well, particularly in mark of the entrance of an angry giant to challenge the characters’ new-found fulfilment.

While the Concert Hall stage has been transformed into an effectively gnarled forest of delights and ultimate darkness, with such a large ensemble cast often on stage if not together than in relatively quick succession, the action often appears cramped, despite the precision of entrance and exit choreography. This also means that the show’s headliner stars don’t always have room to appropriately shine.

phonda glamRhonda Burchmore is powerfully diva-esque as she belts out ‘Last Midnight’ in a manner befitting a Bond theme, however, within withered witch mode she is faced with a linguistically challenging prologue introduction rap about greens that fails to do her voice justice. Rachel Beck is wholesome as ever as the Baker’s wife and Eddie Perfect’s performance is full of charm, and together their voices harmonise well. Tom Oliver is a spritely and engaging Jack, complete with his push-bike ‘cow’, while as his mother, Penny Farrow projects a solid stage presence and great diction.

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Some of the most noteworthy performances, however, come courtesy of the comic talents of Kimberley Hodgson and Steve Hirst. Hodgson is full of sass as the not-easily-frightened Red Riding Hood, complete with her own rape whistle, making the role her own with a lively and engaging take. Like in the original Broadway production, there is a doubling of parts, with Hirst playing the lewd wolf and lustful Cinderella’s prince, both unable to control their appetites, with equally sensational performances, appreciated by generous audience applause.

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Although its source material is one of the more family-friendly and audience-accessible works in the Sondheim library, this “Into the Woods” is no feel-good fairy tale for children, with acts of murder, mutilation, adultery and sexual harassment emerging as the initially innocent-enough story unfolds. Although it gets there is the end with its messages about accepting responsibility for one’s actions, Harvest Rain’s “Into the Woods” sometimes falls short of its potential. However, its humour is appealing and its sounds are strong, which is enough to keep most musical fans satisfied.

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Photos c/o – Nick Morrissey 

It’s not just a car; it’s magic

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Tim Lawson)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

November 28 – December 22

After taking flight in other capital cities, the “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” car has soared into QPAC’s Lyric Theatre with promise of fun for all the family. And, as a show featuring singing, dancing, children, dogs and a flying car, how could it not deliver?

Like the “Toot Sweet” sung of during Act One, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is a colourful, saccharine overload. The comparison to “Mary Poppins” is immediately apparent, from the catchy music to the stunning setting and costume design.

Operatic tenor David Hobson stars as Caractacus Potts, a widowed inventor who overhauls a dilapidated car into a fantasmagorical flying machine for his precociously peppy children. A childlike Baron (Shane Bourne) desires the car for his birthday so his child-hating, Cruella De Villesque Baroness (Jennifer Vuletic) charges two bumbling agents to England to steal it from the Potts clan, which also features Truly Scrumptious (Rachel Beck), daughter of a local confectionery magnate.

David Hobson is a charming Caractacus and his operatic skills allow his songs to truly shine. More than this, however, is his perfect English aplomb, in manner as much as voice, which brings a real likeability to his performance. And Rachael Beck is perfectly perky in her role, shining particularly in her duet with Hobson, “Doll On A Music Box”.

The star, however, is the car, transformed from a rundown junky rust-bucket into a shiny, floating and flying machine. Indeed, as the tag line promises, ‘it’s not just a car; it’s magic’. And it is truly magical to see Chitty and her passengers twisting through the starlit night sky. So much so, that, when a young girl near me stood clapping hands above her head with glee when Chitty appeared for a well-deserved bow, the child in me wanted to join her.

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For all of its colour and hyperactivity, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is very much a pantomime-like adventure, perfect for the festive season. Contributing to the vibrancy of its visual feast is a slew of cartoonish villains, particularly the Marilyn Mansonish child catcher. Tyler Coppin plays this fairy tale villain with such delight that the children cheering for Chitty are also booing during the childcatcher’s curtain call.

Shane Bourne and Jennifer Vuletic revel in the cartoonish parody of imperial Germany, evoking snorts of laughter from adults in some places. And George Kapiniaris and Todd Goddard bring vaudevillian style humour to their espionage, with their clumsy antics. In all instances, however, performances are enhanced by a striking technical design that brings the story to life through imaginative sets and costumes, particularly in the Tim Burton-like vision of Vulgaria.

For all of its energy and wonder, dramatically, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is very much a Christmas pantomime style of production. Act Two, in particular, drags along with songs such as “The Bombie Samba” contributing little to the narrative. Still, the show is filled with memorable tunes, including its catchy title song, which captures the essence of the fun that is “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and reminds us why we love our fine four fendered friend.