Over and over 100 out

With Covid still causing disruptions, I was surprised to ultimately make it along to over 100 shows again this year. Here are my highlights from the 2022 Brisbane theatre year.

1. The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

The Queensland premiere production of Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical “The Normal Heart” was absolutely absorbing and inspirational in its unflinching look at the horrific time in our history that was the start of the AIDS epidemic.

2. A Girls Guide to World War (Musical Theatre Australia)

Inspirational, also, was Musical Theatre Australia’s tell of the true story of some amazing women forgotten by our history. The February show, which was my favourite then for most of the year, was richly rewarding in both its entertainment and education about the courageous and compassionate real life humanitarian adventurers at the core of its story.

3. Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall)

My 2022 Brisbane Festival highlight, the grand Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall co-production was an exquisite world-class design-led theatre experience, as much a celebration of the craft of storytelling as a retell of one of the Western canon’s oldest narratives

4. The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical was a historical work of a particular time, but also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love.

5. 42nd Street (Queensland Conservatorium)

There was much to also love about Queensland Conservatorium’s massive musical production of “42nd Street” as its assured performances, quality orchestrations and show-stopping ensemble production numbers captured the spirit of the show’s era and also the grand musical genre.

6. Oliver! (Savoyards)

Savoyards excellent musical revival was full of highlights and everything needed to entertain its audience around the troublesome aspects of “Oliver!” to a resonance of resilience and hope.

7. The Last Five Years (La Boite Theatre Company) 

La Boite’s two-hander share (in two different directions) of the ill-fated five-year relationship of aspiring artists was certainly clever in its alternate musical narration, however, was also slick in its use of space and tight in its telling thanks to the moving performances of its charismatic performers and musical stylings of its varied, bitter-sweet score.

8. Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

The Disney spectacle that came to life on the Lyric Theatre stage was a celebration of imagination, and, thus, an unforgettable production that could easily be seen again and again, making for a “Mary Poppins” anew for the whole modern family.

9. Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner (La Boite Theatre, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre)

Just before the floods came, there was this fierce and furious coproduction, sharp in its satire of cancel culture and appropriation in a viral world, but also wickedly humorous.

10. First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The hard-hitting storytelling of Queensland Theatre’s landmark blockbuster season closer was elevated by an epic soundscape and dynamic lighting to take us into a world not previously seen on stage…. the last days of Australian troop involvement in Afghanistan.

And of particular note….

Best Drama – The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

Also the most moving and thought provoking production of 2022, Ad Astra’s “The Normal Heart” allowed us to bear witness to each stage of the play’s centrepiece romance as it played out in unfiltered vulnerability, raw anger, complex beauty and undeniable love, against the backdrop of a community living in fear of AIDS.

Best Comedy – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

The one act “Hidden in this Picture” (from the pen of Emmy Award-winning playwright Aaron Sorkin), which appeared as part of Villanova Players’ intermezzo series, was full of over and over again laugh-out-loud moments emerging from the increasing hyperbole in share of what was essentially a duologue inset with simple interjections.  

Best Cabaret – Women in Voice

The 2022 outing of this Brisbane institution was the best yet in its curated program of different musical styles from its empowered female performers.

Best Dramatic Performance – Vivien Whittle – Gaslight (Growl Theatre)

Whittle was simply wonderful as the vulnerable, tormented and humiliated Bella, whether bustling about in fleeting, naive belief that all is well or blubbering in flustered confusion after being raged at by her psychologically-torturous husband Jack.

Best Comic Performance – Troy Bullock – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

Meanwhile, Bella’s gaslighting husband Troy Bullock gave the funniest performance as a first-time director Robert, intent on obtaining an Oscar-winning shot in for his movie’s final scene, until three cows make appearance along with the hundreds of extras.

Best Musical Performance – Priyah Shah – Oliver! (Savoyards)

Shah’s show of strength but also vulnerability ensured that her Nancy was not just a kindly, but a complex character and her strong vocals left the “Oliver!” audience equally impressed in rollicking tavern sing-a-long and torch song numbers alike.

Best duo – Marcus Corowa and Irena Lysiuk – The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

The chemistry between Corowa and Lysiuk was not only evident in their protagonists’ duets, but warmed the audience into investment into the blossom of their childhood friendship in to more after his post-WW2 return to Brisbane.  

Honourable mention to Christopher Morphett-Wheatley and Darcy Rhodes – Into The Woods (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Morphett-Wheatley and Rhodes were audience favourites as they dynamically pranced about in pantomime-esque play off each other’s bravado energy as two-dimensional princes attempting to one-up each other in argument.

Best EnsembleHeathers: The Musical (Millennial Productions) 

Millennial Productions’ debut musical was a highly professional independent production, in part due to its strong performances, with nobody holding back even in edgier scenes. There were no vocal weak links as each performer was given an opportunity to shine and there was a clear level of focus in all performances, resulting in no missed beats within the show’s tight rhythm. 

Best Independent Production – Boy, Lost (Belloo Creative)

The years-in-the-making tell of the true story of one family’s loss and redemption was also an ensemble production with its actors playing multiple characters (including themselves at moments), jumping in and out of different roles with simple prop or costume enhancements, yet, as an audience, we always knew what was happening as we moved through its tightly-woven emotional journey.

Most fun – All Fired Up (Box Jelly Theatre Company)

The show so nice, I ended up seeing it twice to contemplate if a trip to the ‘80’s and a chat with your 15-year-old self really can solve a mid-life crisis? With a live band perfectly capturing the nostalgic energy of the era it was all incredibly feel good, fun and funny.

Best Staging – Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall) 

The mythical magic of “Holding Achilles” may have been multi-layered, but this was built upon a performance space reminiscent of classical Greek amphitheatres with staging exposed to the audience, in contrast to the modern technology used to sometimes literally soar the story along with aerial artistry.

Best Sound and Lighting Design – First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The sound and lighting design elements of “First Casualty” were likely worth the price of admission alone. Paul Jackson’s lighting design transformed the space and its surfaces to tell the show’s many multifaceted narratives, while sound design by Brady Watkins and THE SWEATS added to the onstage action, whether dynamic or subtle in tone.

Best Choreography – Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

Matthew Bourne’s and Stephen Mear’s “Mary Poppins” choreography (recreated for the Australian production by Richard Jones) filled the Lyric Theatre stage with a burst of moving bodies, brooms and brushes in spectacular, precise, fast-paced numbers like ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Step in Time’.

Here we go again… again

Mamma Mia! (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

24 September – 8 October

Especially since in recent years it became available for amateur licensing, I’ve now seen “Mamma Mia!” many times. This makes it a difficult musical to review, but never to watch. As Savoyards’ production shows, the audience favourite is full of familiar songs and infectious sing-along energy to get everyone’s toes tapping.

The story-telling magic of ABBA’s timeless songs is crafted into a now well-known tale of love, laughter and friendship centred around a young woman’s search for her birth father. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie (Stephanie Lee-Steere) tells the audience how she has set upon a quest to discover the identity of her father by inviting three men from her free-spirited single-mother Donna’s (Vanessa Wainwright) past back to the Greek island paradise they last visited 20 years ago… on the eve of Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Matthew Bennett). Sophie assumes that she will feel an immediate connection to Sam (Andrew Dark), Bill (Andrew McCarthur) or Harry (Steven Norris) so that whichever of them is her father can then walk her down the aisle, however, things don’t go exactly to plan, especially as the men are reunited with Donna. The result is a light-hearted musical comedy celebration of love, laughter and friendship that is pure entertainment in its every element. 

Wainwright is splendid as ‘feminist icon’ Donna, the former lead singer of the 1970s pop group Donna and the Dynamos, with best friends Tanya (Natalie Lennox ) and Rosie (Jacqueline Atherton), conveying an assurance of self-sufficiency that is belied by her bumbling body language around her confident and composed past love Sam. Vocally, she takes us on quite the journey too. Her vibrato sounds give us a gutsy ‘Mamma Mia’ in response to seeing her ex-lovers, she makes ‘Slipping Though My Fingers’ a beautiful insight into Donna’s emotions at dressing Sophie for her wedding and her ‘Winner Takes It All’ spit back at Sam is heartbreaking. She is supported by a large ensemble of varying energy levels, with notable standouts coming from the support players of Carly Wilson as Sophie’s bubbly best friend Ali, along with Lisa (Kayleigh Bancroft) who have travelled to the island for the wedding and an underused Michael Chazikantis as Sky’s friend Eddie, deliverer of many well-timed comic one-liners.

A brilliant band under the musical direction of Nicky Griffith brings vitality to the ABBA tunes. It is just unfortunate that some opening night moments are affected by sound concerns, with microphone issues detracting from numbers like ‘Does Your Mother Know’, which sees Sky’s flirty friend Pepper (Joshua Brandon) attempts to woo the much-older, thrice divorced Tanya in a fun and flirty ‘Does Your Mother Know’. Similarly, Act One’s highlight ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’ is shaky in its start before evolving into its usual flipper fun.

Desney Toia-Sinapati’s choreography features as one of the show’s standout aspects throughout. Donna and the Dynamos’ hen party performance of ‘Super Trouper’ is a triumph of shapely simplicity in its in-unison sways and outstretched points, while big ensemble numbers like ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ explode with well-timed focal point entrances and exits to allow each of Sophie’s dads to take centre-stage for their in-turn realisations about their potential parentage.  

A lot of the show’s comedy comes from its small moments, such as the reactions of Father Alexandrios (James Riley), the minister officiating Sophie’s wedding, as things start to go awry. This attention to detail features from the beginning when its title track features pop-up appearance of a Greek chorus of sorts in ensemble emphasis of its iconic chorus. Even the 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, emerges with its own surprises. Comedy comes also from the cheeky free-spirited flirtation of Atherton’s warmly endearing Rosie, which cresendos into overt wedding day proposition of Bill in ‘Take a Chance on Me’’.

“Mamma Mia!” is everything you expect it to be and in Savoyards’ hands, its trip down the aisle…. again is one that is full of upbeat fun. And with three weeks of shows, there is still time to join the group in Greece to experience to its joy first-hand, though tickets are selling fast!

Photo c/o – Sharyn Hall

Highlights of hope

Oliver! (Savoyards)

Iona Performing Arts Centre

18 June – 2 July 

A lot of Savoyard’s production of the musical “Oliver!” happens in the shadows; the dark and dramatic visit to Victorian London’s murky underworld begins with its cast of downtrodden workhouse orphans marching from the stalls onto the stage in want of food, glorious food and it does not shy away from the story’s gritty violence. Yet the reimagining ultimately shines a light on just how timeless the musical is, particularly in terms of its brilliant score, which is full of favourite numbers.

Based on the Charles Dickens’ classic novel, “Oliver Twist”, the musical is a story about holding onto hope in the darkest of times in its tell of the story of the young orphan, Oliver, and his struggles against the, often cruel world within which he lives. After daring to ask for more food at the workhouse where he is lodged, he is sold into apprenticeship with an undertaker before escaping to London where he finds himself accepted by a bunch of thieves and pickpockets, led by the elderly Fagin. Unsuited to a life of crime Oliver soon discovers that leaving Fagin’s gang and starting anew won’t be so easy.

With a multi-generational cast of over 50 performers, the show features an abundance of talent. Jeremiah Rees is wonderful as opening night’s eponymous hero, ethereally good-natured in juxtaposition to the squalor of his environment, but also plucky with moral determination. His pure, angelic voice epitomises his innocence, as evidenced in his main ballad, ‘Where is Love’ in which he longs for love and the mother he never knew.

Under David Harrison’s artistic direction, the production is layered with vivid characterisations. Warryn James is well-cast as Fagin. His performance is compelling in its energy and humour as he plays games and jokes with his pickpocketing students, often through song. Priyah Shah is also a standout in the range she brings to the kindly character of Nancy, member of Fagin’s gang and sympathetic lover of the sinister antagonist Bill Sikes (Raymond Gillmore). Her lead of Act Two’s opener ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’, makes the rollicking old tavern song infectious to us as much as the boisterous low-life ruffian customers on stage in a “Les Miserables” ‘Master of the House’ type way. Her strong vocals are no better seen than in Nancy’s torch song, the powerfully despairing ‘As Long as He Needs Me’, in which she attempts to convince herself of Bill’s love, leaving the audience spellbound. Indeed, her shows of strength but also vulnerability ensure that Nancy is presented as a complex character to be considered beneath the veneer of her defence of brutal Bill’s abuse.

Oliver Dobrenov gives us a charismatic, cockney child-gang leader, Artful Dodger, confidently leading many ensemble numbers and Rod Jones and Phillipa Bowe are gloriously hyperbolic in their early show play off each other as the self-important beadle of the poorhouse where the orphaned Oliver is raised and the sharp-tongued widow Mrs Corney, especially in their saucy interplay into ‘I Shall Scream’.

The show is filled with harmonious chorus numbers. The communal ‘Consider Yourself’ when the ensemble assembles together, is a glorious highlight. Unfortunately, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’ when Oliver is introduced to Fagin and his boys falls comparatively short on Opening Night, courtesy only of significant microphone issues that plague things from Fagin’s entrance. James does well to not only work through the ongoing crackles and static, but persevere without amplification amongst a sea of other voices, which detracts from the animation of his triumphant recall of successfully executed crimes.  

Under Jacqueline Atherton’s considered musical direction, a lively orchestra advances the plot with songs and underscoring, utilising a range of melodies to represent the different characters, as well as reminding us of the virtues of the musical’s most-known tunes. Kim Heslewood and team’s costume design adds texture and movement alike, from the colourful toff pop of the Artful Dodger’s jacket to the petticoat ruffles of dancer dresses, while Lynne Swain’s makeup design contributes much to the gothic sensibility of early scenes, particularly those featuring the Tim Burtonesque funeral owners, Mr and Mrs Sowerberry (David Harrison and Hannah Davies). Carlie McEachern’s lively choreography includes its own detailed highlights, such as in the chimney sweep moves within an Act Two ensemble number and Sherryl-Lee Secomb’s set design makes good use of the space, allowing for locations to pop open from within its facades.

This is an excellent musical revival, full of highlights and everything needed to entertain its audience, including nod to the melodramatic imagery and rhetoric that characterised the Victorian stage of its setting. While finding the drama with the text means including its depictions of domestic violence and alike, this is handled well, making it still suitable for younger audience members, after some pre-emptive conversations. Social satire aside, however, what is most resonate about this “Oliver!” is its theme of resilience and hope that things will get better, which makes it at-once inherently British in its sensibility but also universal in its ultimate impact.

Photos c/o – Sharyn Hall

Feeding fine

Little Shop of Horrors (Savoyards)

Wynnum State High School, Star Theatre

March 5 – 12

The audience comfort of the Star Theatre is contrasted immediately from the start of Savoyard’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors’ which opens to the downtown urbanscape of a skid row as a trio of 1960s street urchins named Crystal (Rhea Basha), Ronette (Manuao Madar), and Chiffon (Storm Fraser) set the scene with ‘Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors’) and take us into the failing business that is Mushnik’s Flower Shop, run (and run down) by the cranky, no-nonsense Mr Mushnik (Kym Brown).

Desperate in desire to find a pathway out of Skid Row, downtrodden orphan botanist Seymour Krelborn (Chris Drummond) is working as an assistant in the flower shop and dreaming of a better life with his thus-far-unrequited love, beautiful co-worker Audrey (Amanda Harris), who is, instead, dating the abusive dentist Orin Scrivello (Jackson Wecker). When Seymour happens upon a weird strange and interesting unidentified plant (which he affectionately names Audrey II), his fortunes change from zero to hero, but at a cost, for an ambitious Audrey II is out for blood, literally, growing in stature, confidence, voice and demanding corruption of her gardener.  

Like a Greek/musical theatre chorus of sorts, the urchins feature throughout the sci-fi horror musical, functioning as participants in the action and as doo-wop chorus girls outside it. And their voices blend beautifully together in some delicious harmonies such as in Act Two’s ‘The Meek Shall Inherit’, in which Seymour grapples with his moral responsibility for the tragedies that have unfolded thus far. Together they effectively recreate the stylistic vocal quirks of female soul trios, with Basha, in particular, showcasing a standout voice. Their complement of each other also serves as perfect vehicle for the soundtrack’s melodies, which draw inspiration from its 1960s roots.

Alan Menken’s musical composition touches on rock and roll, doo-wop and even Motown and under Hayley Marsh’s musical direction, the orchestra rises to every challenge of its eclecticism, including showing splendid restraint in the often overly-earnest ballad ‘Suddenly Seymour’, which sees Audrey and Seymour admitting their feelings for one another. It is wonderful that the show’s light and shade pacing allows for this appreciation and, similarly, Harris’ lovely vocals in her vulnerable ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ covert of a suburban life.

Savoyards seasons are always filled with an interesting assortment of shows and 2022’s line-up continues in this tradition. “Little Shop of Horrors” is a delightful season opener, full of light-hearted fun with a spot of carnivorous violence softened by catchy songs. Howard Ashman’s book and lyric, provide lots of memorable lines, such as within Act One’s pun-packed ‘Dentist’. And Seymour and Audrey II’s ‘Feed Me (Git It)’ is a certainly a seduction song with a difference with attempted plant justification and protagonist give-in to base instincts.

Drummond brings an everyman sensibility to the initially reluctant hero Seymour, however, the real star of the show is Audrey II, voiced by Lonnie Toia. Increasingly sassy in his requests for food, beyond just the show’s iconic demand, he wise cracks through his villainy as his physical realisation is accomplished by a series of ever-bigger puppets (puppet design by Jess Ferguson). And his singing voice is vibrant, soulful and full of allure.

Despite its sinister subject matter, “Little Shop of Horrors” is a fine show filled with lots of fun humour. Indeed, the cult tale’s blend of dark comedy and great music make it one worth catching. While opening night sees the occasional missed lighting mark and microphone lapse, there are also many memorable moments from, in particular, within Ethan Houley’s lighting design, which takes us on a gorgeous journey from the close of a now-busy day’s trade into the morning after the Audrey II’s carnage has continued. The show’s playful vibe and concise 2 hours 15 minute run time (including one 20-minute interval) make it an attractive as well as unique, blend of murder and sincere romance, with a sneaky side lesson about the greed for celebrity.

Musical fandom fun

The Drowsy Chaperone (Savoyards)

Wynnum State High School, Star Theatre

September 25 – October 9

The lonely Man in Chair (Brad Ashwood) who addresses the awaiting audience from the downed houselights start of “The Drowsy Chaperone” hates the theatre, especially long shows whose momentum is disrupted by pesky intervals and fourth wall breaks. We know this from the very first tongue-in-cheek words that come out of his mouth. Our earnest narrator of sorts, however, loves musicals, considering it a treat to disappear into them when feeling blue. This is especially the case when it comes to the decadent fictitious 1928 show “The Drowsy Chaperone”; even though he’s never seen it on stage, its rare two record cast recording is one of his favourites. It is natural, therefore, that he wants to share its joys and so as its first record crackles into an overture we find ourselves watching the show within a show unfold in the living room of the man’s dreary, accompanied by his animated commentary about its actors and characters, plot credibility and musical numbers. It’s all very meta in a marvellously exuberant and entertaining way.

The quirky Tony award winning musical’s title comes from one of cast of characters gathered for a prohibition-era wedding, introduced in the initial, rollicking number ‘Fancy Dress’. The carefree friend, confidante and chaperone (Vanessa Rainwright), whose drowsiness comes from drinking champagne, is always eager to steal spotlight from pampered Broadway starlet, Janet Van De Graff (Carly Wilson), who wants to give up showbiz to marry oil tycoon Robert Martin (Rhys Rice) at the fabulous Long Island estate of the aging and absent-minded Mrs Tottendale (Jacqui Cuny). And here-in lies the extent of the flimsy central conflict… the challenge of keeping the fiancées apart on their wedding day.

In the B plot, desperate Follies theatre producer, Feldzieg (Nathaniel Young) plots to sabotage the wedding plans through the introduction of wacky Latin lover Aldolpho (Christopher Thomas). It’s quite the line-up of two-dimensional characters brought to exaggerated life by the talented cast. There’s even an aviatrix (Vivien Wood) and jovial vaudevillian-style saboteur gangsters (Aaron Anderson and Astin Hammermeister) who double as pastry chefs in aim to ensure the wedding doesn’t occur so Follies will happen with Janet and be a financial success. Clearly anything can happen in the nonsensical storytelling of the Cole Porter sort being parodied.

Of the most over-the-top character appearances amongst the madcappery, it is Thomas who commands our attention as Aldolpho storming on stage to tango ‘I Am Aldolpho’, clearly relishing his every hammy moment as the faded Latino lover. Rice is also particularly noteworthy in his perfectly-embellished performance as the fabulously debonair bridegroom Robert, a self-confessed ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’. And Katilyn Burton brings a lot of laughs to the archetypal ditzy blonde role of useless chorus girl Kitty, who hopes to take Janet’s place in Follies, especially in Kitty’s clueless mind reading act revelation to Feldzieg as to his feelings towards her.

It is Ashwood, however, who anchors the show as the gentle, but giddily-gleeful musical aficionado Man in Chair. Never-off-stage, his reactions as he sings and dances along with the stars, don’t distract us from the musical’s action yet maintain our attention all the same as he wryly comments on the music, story and actors. And while he is at his best when on stage in choreographic participation in Janet’s ‘Bride’s Lament’, he easily transitions to engendering our empathy in later more moving scenes that highlight the regret embedded within his nostalgia, giving the show an unexpected substance below the lively, irreverent silliness of its veneer.

The production is full of memorable vocal moments too. Wilson’s tremendous voice is particularly displayed in the big production number ‘Show Off’, in which her character feigns desire to step away from the spotlight, only to dazzle the audience with costume and key changes and other impressive on-stage feats. Wainwright, meanwhile, makes her response to Janet’s doubts as to whether Robert really loves her a self-aggrandising rousing anthem to alcoholism in ‘As We Stumble Along’.

The score features a range of musical styles, with Ben Tubb-Hearne’s musical direction and an on-point orchestra, capturing the 20’s jazz era character in numbers like ‘Cold Feet’. The elaborate tap dance routine from Martin and his bumbling best man, George (Andrew King) is a real showstopper, particularly when accented by Mrs Tottendale’s loyal manservant, Underling’s (Warryn James) delivery of two glasses of water mid-song. Jazz Age musicals are also tributed throughout in choreography (Natalie Lennox – Choreographer) with catchy rhythms and up-tempo dance numbers, including the Act One (not that the 90-minute show has an interval), big ensemble dance stunner ‘Tuledo Surprise’.

Appropriately for a musical-inside-a-comedy, the show’s comic timing is spot on, especially as ‘on-stage’ action is undermined by Man in Chair’s playback glitches and alike. It is a hilarious musical farce, full of accessible humour of all sorts to keep the audience entertained, from pastry puns to blindfolded roller skating and dancing monkeys, but no pirates. There are multiple moments of musical comedy parodies, including mistaken identities, dream sequences, spit takes and the titular character’s Grande Dame upstaging antics.

With book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is indeed a very clever gem of a show and, as the Man in Chair himself says, it does what a musical is supposed to do. Under Robbie Parkin’s direction, Savoyards’ production is full of humour and also considerable heart in its embodiment of the joy that can be found in art. And it is easy to appreciate why it is on so many people’s list of favourites. While it is certainly unique in its ode to lightweight 1920s musicals, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a masterful meta-musical for everyone who loves them, full of high-flying fun in its flirtation around all the tropes that characterise the genre.

Photos c/o – Sharyn Hall

Top tap talents

Hot Shoe Shuffle (Savoyards)

Wynnum State High School, Star Theatre

June 19 – July 3

If The Wiggles were tap dancers they might get confused with the cast of “Hot Shoe Shuffle” as the 1992 Australian jukebox musical begins with introduction to its feature of a few more Principal players, the seven Tap brothers, dressed in bold suits of block primary colours. It’s an introduction befitting the sensibility of the light-hearted crowd pleaser and one that fits with the staging of Savoyard’s production, which sees Wynnum State High School’s Star Theatre staged with animation style set pieces, with each corner and angle outlined by a thin black line to gift the effect of being in a cartoon.

The flimsy storyline tells of dancing brothers who are all named after tap moves: Spring (Reindert Toia), Slap (Andrew King), Buck (Clay English), Wing (Stewart Matthews), Tip (Simon Battersby), Tap (Michael Effenberger) and Slide (Chris Jordan), being told that they will obtain a significant inheritance from their late and long-absent father if they can reproduce his legendary act, “The Hot Shoe Shuffle”. Trouble arises when producer of sorts Max (Rob Emblen) reveals that they must also include their long-lost and quie outgoing sister, April (Natalie Lennox) in the act.

Light-weight as its story may be, however, David Atkins’ “Hot Shoe Shuffle” is an ambitious choice of show; the fast-paced musical requires a supremely talented cast and musical band, and in this regard, the production, presented in partnership with Bloch Australia, delivers in abundance, making for a toe-tapping good time for all. It really is all about the dancing, which includes incorporation of tricks with hats and canes, occasional slapstick and always-crisp footwork, from the after-overture opening number, Duke Ellington’s ‘The Rug Cutter’, in which the brothers tap in unison atop a large lawyer’s office table. It is not all big, bold numbers, however. Light and shade are afforded through Lennox’s ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ and her charming song and dance routine with Toia in ‘Shall We Dance’. And when they are joined by Emblen in ‘Name Up In Lights’, it is a joyful prelude to the showcase numbers that follow. Indeed, the nimble Emblen is a joy to behold whenever his feet fly across the stage. Not only is an accomplished dancer, but, along with Desney Toia-Sinapati, responsible for the show’s classic, high-energy choreography.

With no dedicated music score of its own, “Hot Shoe Shuffle” draws its setlist from a variety of sources all of which serve to showcase its dancing. Familiar big band songs from the ’20s to ’40s of the ‘In The Mood’ sort feature throughout and it is wonderful to see the band showcased on stage, especially during the show-within-the-show that occupies most of the second half. The highlight comes, however, as part of Act One’s ‘Fats Waller Medley’ in which ‘This Joint is Jumpin’ is enlivened with infectious brassy New Orleans jazz sounds to accompany the brothers’ mimed instrument playing.

The melodies of group numbers are often highlighted by beautifully-blended vocals, although occasionally, the combined sounds of all brothers tapping together wash over the top of vocals. Toia’s smooth voice is appropriately showcased in jaded eldest brother Spring’s soft shoe number ‘Song and Dance Man’ and while all performers have their moments, Chris Jordan, as the good humoured Slide is particularly impressive in a spinning Act Two solo.

There is a clear camaraderie amongst the cast, particularly the seven brothers, which accommodates the show’s easy humour of puns and lame pick-up lines, and also musical references of the ‘One The Town’ and Cole Porter sort. Similarly, Lennox’s embrace of the difficulty of April’s initial uncoordinated dance attempts is a key component, adding much to the show’s humour. And while the brothers are ‘Putting on the Ritz’ of their Act Two show in dapper suit and tails, Kim Heslewood’s versatile costume design allows Lennox to quick change without any compromise to the razzle dazzle of the showcase.

“Hot Shoe Shuffle” is a fan-tap-stic show and it is easy to appreciate its smash hit status across Australia and on London’s West End given its escapist whimsy and enormous energy (especially in latter numbers). The fact that it does not take itself too seriously, makes for an easy watch that you don’t have to think too much about, lest you might get caught up in its plot holes. If you like tap, even just a little bit, you must join in Savoyards 60th year celebrations and see this good old fashioned musical.

Photos c/o – Sharyn Hall