Here we go again

Mamma Mia! (Michael Coppel, Louise Withers and Linda Bewick)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

December 26 2017 – February 4 2018

“Mamma Mia” opening night means a wash of blue hues … from transformation of the usually red carpet of media wall arrivals to Linda Pewick’s on-stage setting of a postcard perfect Greek tavern. It’s a far from melancholy feel though; the light-hearted musical comedy is as fabulously fun as ever in its celebration of love, laughter and friendship.

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‘Buildings are like children; you always recognise your own’ architect Sam Carmichael (Ian Stenlake) coincidentally comments when he arrives to the tavern on the idyllic Mediterranean island of Kalokairi. Along with Harry Bright (Phillip Lowe) and Bill Austen (Josef Ber), he has been invited to the wedding of free-spirited Sophie Sheridan (Brisbane’s own Sarah Morrison) and her fiancé Sky (Stephen Mahy) by the bride-to-be, who wants her father to walk her down the aisle. The problem is, even after reading her mother’s diary, she has no idea which of the three men he might be. Writer Catherine Johnson’s storyline is simple enough, but of course things don’t go exactly to plan as the men are reunited with Sophie’s single-mother Donna (Natalie O’Donnell), two decades after last visiting the island.

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“Mamma Mia!” is not just one of the first jukebox musicals, but a global phenomenon thanks to its soundtrack of ABBA hits. Dialogue segues naturally into the songs and only minor lyric changes are needed to integrate them into the narrative. (Although the stylised Act Two opening ‘Under Attack’, which sees Sophie having a nightmare, involving her three possible fathers all fighting for the right to walk her down the aisle, although excellent, jars with the feel of the rest of the show).

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A brilliant band under musical director Michael Azzopardi brings vitality to the ABBA tunes. Although slower songs like Donna and Harry’s nostalgic ‘Our Last Summer’ reminiscence about their long-ago fling are beautiful, it is the upbeat numbers that serve as crowd favourites, with audience members clapping along as Donna’s carefree friend Rosie (Alicia Gardiner) cheekily implores Bill to ‘Take a Chance on Me’ and bopping in-seat during a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’, during which Donna’s other visiting best friend, the thrice divorced and now affluent Tanya rebuffs the advances of  the much younger tavern worker Pepper (Sam Hooper). And Act One’s closing disco-esque dance number ‘Voulez Vous’ is a sensational showcase of the ensemble’s energy. Under Gary Young’s smooth direction, new and fun choreography ensures that that even those who have seen the show in its previous manifestations, will be satisfied with its fresh and joyful energy.

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What is particularly wonderful is the manner in which the show celebrates the talent of its trio of older actresses, Natalie O’Donnell, Alicia Gardiner and Jayde Westaby. The former Donna and the Dynamos girl group of long-term best friends enliven every scene in which they appear together. Tanya and Rosie’s ‘Chiquitita’ ask of what’s wrong and attempt to cheer up a crying Donna is absolutely hilarious, with Gardiner (best known to Australian audiences for her role as nurse Kim Akerholt in the award-winning series “Offspring”) bringing plenty of personality to the sassy role. And when they try and convince Donna that she can still be the girl she once was in ‘Dancing Queen’ the result is absolutely delightful.

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O’Donnell, who herself played the role of Sophie in the first Australian touring production in 2001, brings some bitterness but also hearty determination to the stoic single mother Donna. Her ‘The Winner Takes It All’ is outstanding, not just vocally but in the emotion that is brought to its narrative significance of her admission to Sam that he broke her heart. Morrison is marvellous as the young, optimistic Sophie, sharing a convincing chemistry with on-stage mother O’Donnell, as evidenced particularly in their affection during ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ where Donna sings to Sophie about her regret at how quickly her daughter is growing up, as she dresses Sophie for her wedding. And as the unsuspecting fathers, Carmichael, Lowe and Ber are all also superb.

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“Mamma Mia!” shows that not everything has to be of “Wicked” scale to be wonderful. Indeed, what this show is most about is its music and what makes this production so successful is its celebration of not just this, but all things ABBA in a performance that warns of its ‘strobe lighting, theatrical haze, spandex and loud music’. The result is a fabulous night out for audiences of all ages. And when ‘Super Trouper’ costumes are revisited in the curtain call with full company renditions of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’, and you get the chance to jump up, it will not just be in ovation but in the mood for dance and celebration of having the time of your life.

LBD ladies live on

Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

January 28 – February 19

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The critically acclaimed “Ladies in Black” features over 20 original songs written by legendary singer songwriter Tim Finn, so it is of little surprise perhaps that 14 months after its debut season, its soundtrack is memorable even just in anticipation of its encore season as part of a national tour.

The story, adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, “The Women in Black” and brought to life by Australian screenwriter Carolyn Burns tells of an innocent and bookish but ambitious (against her father’s wishes) school-leaver, Lisa, who lands a coveted job on the sales team at one of Sydney’s most stylish department stores, Goodes, for the Christmas holiday period. It is the late 1950s and with the city contemplating cosmopolitanism, Lisa’s world is expanded as she befriends the unlucky-in-love Fay, the frustratedly childless Patty and particularly exotic European refugee, Magda of model gowns.

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The department story setting gives the show some stunning visuals. The costumes, which include a range of some 30 custom-designed and created dresses and suits, all created at Queensland Theatre, are spectacular, which is entirely appropriate for a store in which the dresses are not just beautiful but have their own names and personalities.

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Opulent drapery, glass and mirrored pillars evoke the glitz of a high-end department store shop floor. The use of revolving platforms allows for seamless scene transitions and David Walters’ lush lighting illuminates proceedings. Every aspect of the production is electrified with lively energy, and dynamic musical numbers, such as Act Two’s ‘Pandemonium’ illustration of the January sales onslaught on the shop floor, are enhanced by clever choreography.

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Every musical number is on-point in its combination of melody and lyrics, despite the soundtrack’s varied sensibilities. From the incidental music of background Christmas carols to the laid-back languish of ‘On a Summer Afternoon’ the live band is excellent in every instance and it is wonderful to see them at-times showcased on stage, behind a scrim screen. And the strings, in particular add enormous emotion to wistful numbers such as ‘The Fountain’. However, the most memorable of musical numbers are so because of their witty lyrics. ‘The Bastard Song’ shared tongue-in-cheek chastise of how all men as bastards is met with exuberant response, even when only in reprise. And Fay’s frank reflection ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’ is an Act Two highlight in its catchy melody and humour as much as its still-relevant social commentary about Australian xenophobia.

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While there have been some cast changes since its first Brisbane outing, Sarah Morrison remains as ingénue Lisa, innocently wide-eyed but with a soaring soprano sound. Musical star Bobby Fox, who wowed audiences playing Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” also returns to nearly steal the show as Rudi (the ‘continental with whom Fay is sharing kisses) along with the award-winning Carita Farrer Spencer who plays Lisa’s torn-between mother.

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New to the cast for the 2017 Australian tour is Natalie Gamsu as ‘crazy continental’ Magda, who dominates the stage in her ever presence. Also joining the show are Madeleine Jones as Patty and Ellen Simpson as Fay. Jones, in particular, is of excellence voice, from start to finish, as evidenced in her ‘Try Again’ tell of attempt to start a family. And all characters bring believability to their roles, capturing the Aussie vernacular and accents of the time and bringing witty delivery to the script’s many dry-humour moments.

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“Ladies in Black” is an utterly charming show that represents the renaissance of the Australian musical and it is easy to appreciate its win of the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work. More than just a stylish frock fest, its experience is lots of fun with some inspiring underling messages about female empowerment. And audiences should be flocking to it either in remind of its greatness or as introduction to this wonderful Australian work.

LBD ladies

Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 14 – December 6

It’s nearing Christmas sometime in late 1950’s Sydney. Leslie Miles is the tops – top of multiple subjects in completion of her leaving certificate. The literature-loving bookworm is now looking for a new chapter in her young life so, having studied the staff etiquette guidelines, is ready to begin work as a lady in (sensible and chic) black in the cocktail dress section at the prestigious Goodes Department Store.

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(Whatever you want you will get it at Goodes, audience members are told in the show’s opening number.) While Lisa (Sarah Morrison), as Leslie prefers to be known, appreciates it as a magical place, she doesn’t want to work there for keeps; the budding poet hopes to go to university, which creates conflict with her traditional parents (Greg Stone and Carita Farrer Spencer) who don’t believe women need higher education when a secretarial course could suffice.

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Fortified by an opt-reprised musical anthem of the words of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, Lisa embraces the new friendships and experiences that come with the employment, mostly courtesy of the co-workers who let her into their lives. Patty (Lucy Maunder) finds herself drifting away from husband Frank (Andrew Broadbent) after a decade of trying to fall pregnant. Fay (Naomi Price) is sick of enduring disastrous dates with sometimes married men so contemplates a relationship with the sweet Hungarian Rudi (Bobby Fox), friend of European refugee Magda (Christen O’Leary) who hosts the store’s salon for special customers in search of new fashion and extraordinary gowns.

Magda takes Lisa under her wing, introducing her to an exotic lifestyle of salami and scarves, leading to clichéd ugly-duckling-into-swan scene when the protagonist loses her bookish glasses and sophisticates her style, just in time for the end of Act One. This also allows for touch on the text’s feminist themes when Magda’s husband Stefan (Greg Stone) shares with Lisa with a copy of “Middlemarch”, with explanation that although Mary Ann Evans had to write under the pseudonym of George Elliot in order to be taken seriously, such things are no longer necessary.

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O’Learly barely misses a beat as the vibrant and stylish Magda, a credit surely to dialect coach Melissa Agnew, even if her energetic Act Two monologue narration of New Year’s Eve party guest arrivals and interplay does drag a little. Newcomer Morrison is appropriately innocently wide-eyed as the bookish Lisa, showcasing a standout soaring soprano, and Price brings a wink and smile to Carol Burns’s often deliberately blunt Australian dialogue, culminating in the catchy Act Two number ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’. But the ultimate star of the show is Tim Finn’s lyrics and music and it i appropriate perhaps the band should receive the evening’s most rapturous applause.

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Songs are plentiful, in full form or fragment (a set-list would have made for a welcomed program addition) and are filled with clever lyrics and catchy rhythms. Some of the best come from the secondary Patty storyline. After an argument, Patty’s mum and two sisters sing the memorable “The Bastard Song” and when the couple meet up again and sing of their feelings, the lyrics are full of everyday vernacular, Australian humour and lines like ‘Frank, you’re an idiot!’. Even when Frank sings of wanting to be a proper family man, there is a rich bluesy tone to his lavatory lament.

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The music is performed by a live six piece band, led by Musical Director Isaac Hawyard. Appropriately positioned behind sheer curtains at the rear of the stage, they are ever-present, not just physically but through their contemporary sounds, ranging from banging bass to ballads of lighter touch such as Act One’s Irish-toned ‘Glorious Day’.

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Gabriela Tylesova’s design is visually impressive without being at the expense of functionality. Lush drapery, glass and mirrored pillars evoke the glitz of a department store shop floor. And the use of revolving platforms not only allows for in-scene changes but seamless choreography, reminiscent of ‘The Girl on the Magazine Cover’ number from Irving Berlin’s 1948 movie musical “Easter Parade”. Because then there are also the costumes and display dresses … fabulous frocks that garner gasps of their own when they make appearance on stage.

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As a story of fashion, friendship and 1950s Australia (“a moment in Australia’s adolescence” as described by Burns in the program’s Playwright’s Note), “Ladies in Black” is a triumph that capitalises on the wave of nostalgia which has led to so many recent musical revivals, yet does so though presentation of a new and fresh Australian story. Although the coming of age tale based on Madeleine St John’s novel “The Women in Black” is weighted by feminist discourses and themes surrounding national identity and xenophobia, it remains playful in its touches, which befits its musical genre.

The show is QTC’s first original musical in 16 years and well it might be said that it has been worth the wait for a homemade musical (with QPAC funding the first development, it has been a totally Brisbane show from the very start) of such calibre. Not only is its humble, heart-warning story brought to delightful life by an accomplished cast, but its creatives have given it an enduring appeal beyond just evocation of its era. For some singing, a bit of dancing and a dash of sentiment, make sure you book an appointment with the LBD ladies of Goodes.