Rabbit Hole hope

Rabbit Hole (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

March 24 – April 9

While children’s books and puzzles feature among the everyday items of the New York State home of Becca and Howie Corbett, when we drop in on their story, it is to see Becca (Janelle Bailey) packing up children’s clothes. As her sassy sister Izzy (Vanessa Moltzen) retells the story of a recent night out, we learn just as much about Becca as we do the storyteller. As the pair bounce off each in easy conveyance of their sibling dynamic, it is clear that Becca is probably the older more responsible, sensible and settled of the pair. What also is soon apparent, is that this is a family that has nearly been ripped apart due to a months-earlier tragedy.

Becca and her husband Howie (Stephen Hirst) are grieving their four-year-old son Danny, who was run over by a car outside their home while chasing after the family dog. The story follows the couple’s navigation of the initial phases of life without their son, searching for what is still possible in an everyday existence after such unimaginable pain. Both are in different places with their anger and sadness, making it difficult for them to connect. And while Becca busies herself with baking and trying not to concentrate on the recollections all around her, due to the distress the comes with the familiar, Howie finds comfort in trying to maintain the memories by watching home videos. Cracks of responsibility and recrimination soon begin to appear in the relationship as Howie bonds with a member of a grief therapy group and Becca reaches out to the teenage boy responsible for the tragedy (Fraser Anderson).

At almost 2.5 hours (including interval) “Rabbit Hole” is long, but it is good… very good. The study of grief written by David Lindsay-Abaire was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007. Lindsay-Abaire’s cohesive script is well-written, full of naturalistic dialogue and dramatic intensity. And Mikayla Hosking’s restrained direction builds upon this with an approach that is characterised by quiet moments to add to character introspection and emotional tension, which ultimately makes its experience more moving than depressing.  

While character accents may be initially jarring, things soon settle into realisation that there are no weak links in this production. Moltzen quickly moves Izzy on from what could have been an abrasive caricature, while Bailey and Hirst each give powerful performances, particularly when an accidental loss of memories leads to an honest discussion of their different ways of dealing with grief. And in his brief appearances, Anderson gives an equally moving performance, enlivening Becca’s read aloud of his initial apology letter with meaningful use of pace, pause and emotive emphasis, which aides in laying bare the story’s moving brutality. Given the complexity surrounding the tragic emotions being explored, there are also appreciated moments of respite, including through the humour of Becca’s mother, Nat’s (Julia Johnson) obsession with the Kennedy curse during birthday party conversation.

Staging, sound and lighting are simplistic almost to the point of being subdued, which grounds the story and compliments its realism roots. After interval, when the kitchen calendar has moved from March to May, stage dressing disappears as the couple attempts to move on. Diligent direction from Hosking shows how little details do matter, as characters eat the food that is prepared and the pages of a Becca recipe shared with her sister indeed include instruction as to how to make the lemon slice in question.

“Rabbit Hole” is compelling, well-performed drama. The play represents a powerful portrait of a family experiencing the most heartbreaking of griefs and through this, an exploration of what it is to be human, with an intensity heightened by Ad Astra’s intimate traverse staging. While some momentum is lost in Act Two, its concluding moments bring things to a satisfactory finish. Indeed, the honesty of Hirst’s final ‘where to now’ monologue leaves a lasting legacy, punctuating the play with an offer of hope.

Thrice the naughty > nice

A Very Naughty Christmas (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 4 – 15

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“Get ready to have your stocking stuffed … Santa’s pulled a brand-new show out of his sack, and you’ll find something you love, whether you’ve been naughty or nice” …. so the advertising for the third year of “A Very Naughty Christmas” promises. Carols by candlelight it isn’t; this is low brow humour at it most improper (though it does include a punctuation joke). The sensibility is the same as its previous incantations, although there is no real narrative this time. Rather, the show is more cabaret style escapism featuring a range of musical styles and even a tap number, all with its trademark sense of cheeky fun.

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Aurélie Roque is every bit the bitter vixen in her share of a filthy and fabulous ‘Jingle Bells’ and Stephen Hirst makes for an exciting sexy and suggestive Santa, even in an almost disturbingly dark ‘Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town’. Naughtiness is all through the Visy Theatre house, not just through bauble shaking, but also in the show’s clever changes to the lyrics of popular Christmas songs to make them more mischievous (Standouts include a highly-suggestive and absolutely hilarious ‘Santa Baby’).

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Andrew Sisters with a twist take us from an upbeat ‘Let it Snow’ to a bouncy ‘Six White Boomers’ number. And it is particularly pleasing to see the return of a choreographically-perfect “Mean Girls” ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ routine, a clear audience favourite. There is even a Christmas story as cue for audience participation, with ‘volunteers’ making its nativity scene among the most memorable you will ever see.

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Rather than rely on laughs alone, the show also stands on its musical merits through the showcase of wonderful harmonies. Indeed, all numbers display the abundance of vocal talent within its cast and the live band (Chris Evans on drums, Elliott Parker on bass and Musical Director Jake Bristow on keys) is excellent in filling familiar songs with energy and interest.

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Elliot Baker showcases his incredible vocals in an alternative take on the traditional song ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, with bombshell babe Emily Kristopher, and his Mr Bean-ish lead of the band in a jazzy ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, is a late-show highlight. And, as he has in its every outing, Stephen Hirst again slays it as the show’s deviant Santa (#punintended)

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This is Christmas as you’ve never seen before, unless you were lucky enough to experience the show in 2017 and/or 2018. Its only shame is that Santa only comes once a year…

Photos – c/o Joel Devereux

Sweet dreams are made of this

Sweet Charity (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

January 24 – February 10

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With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon and choreography from Bob Fosse, “Sweet Charity” is, understandably one of the greatest of Broadway musicals. Yet, far from being a big, razzmatazz affair, it is essentially a simple and tender story, which makes it an ideal fit for Brisbane Powerhouse’s intimate Visy Theatre. Actually, perfection is also a far-from-hyperbolic descriptor of the show by Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.

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Charity Hope Valentine (Naomi Price) is a girl who dreams of being loved, despite the continuous misfortune of relationships handed to her by ‘the fickle finger of fate’. One day after work as a dance hall hostess at New York’s Fandango club, she, by chance, meets the film star idol Vittoria Vidal (Andy Cook) and is bewitched by his charm and riches, until his lover Ursula (Lizzie Moore) returns into his world. With hope that her life is changing for the better, Charity seeks out some cultural enlightenment, however, gets stuck in a broken elevator with shy, claustrophobic tax accountant Oscar Lindquist (Stephen Hirst). Romance is sparked, despite her worry that he will not approve of her career choices and she lives… hopefully … ever after.

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Often I find myself judging a show by how long in it is before I find myself glancing at the time. With “Sweet Charity”, however, I found myself so caught up in its all-round entertainment that the only distraction of which I was aware was the face-ache caused by the smile and laughter that it induced. Unlike many perhaps, I knew little of the musical beyond recognition of its big-ticket number ‘Big Spender’. Rather than being performed by Charity herself, however, this is a sensual ensemble number by her fellow hostess dancers in proposition of the audience. Instead, her turn with a familiar tune comes courtesy of the energetic ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’, in which she reflects on her marvellous luck as she spends time with Vittorio. The scene that finds her hidden away in a closet of his luxury apartment while he reconciles with his glamorous girlfriend is a hilarious showcase of Price’s impeccable comic timing, exact exaggerated facial expressions and spot-on awkward movement.

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The role of Charity Hope Valentine appears as if was written for Price and in conjunction with its comedy, she easily conveys the character’s enduring innocence and irrepressible optimism with a warmth that makes her immediately endearing to the audience. She also plays the poignancy of its final, vulnerable scenes with emotional sincerity. Price is vocally versatile too and always on-point, whether in the introspective reflection of ‘Where Am I Going?’ or the lively elation of ‘I’m a Brass Band’. And by the standing ovations offered, it appears that I am not alone in thinking so.

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Opening Night was a sold out show and I imagine the season will shortly follow suit. Things are busy on stage also, thanks to the production’s large cast, however, the stage never feels overcrowded, even in the ensemble numbers, in which movement generally appears effortless. Clever choreography (Dan Venz) provides an added element to the entertainment with nod to its era and also the precise and provocative Fosse style of snaps, swivels, thrusts and glamourous gestures, but also a modern touch. The brilliant ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ dance routine is a Fosse and Fellini (the musical is based on the Italian director’s film “Nights of Cabiria”) infused imagining that is worth the price of admission alone. It also highlights the vibrant musical arrangements (Musical Director Shanon D Whitelock) that characterise the production’s slick realisation of the musical’s jazzy score and swing from song to song. And it is difficult not to be enticed when the ensemble moves into the audience such as in Act Two’s knockout gospel-like number, ‘Rhythm of Life’, in which Charity and Oscar spend a date at a church run by a group of hippies. Although the number doesn’t have any real connection to the central story, its comprehensive scale and slick execution mean that this hardly matters.

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The success of Understudy Productions’ “Sweet Charity” is that it simultaneously works on every level and in every way, however, it could not succeed without a strong personality in the lead role which demands someone who can act, sing and dance in equal measure. And in this regard, the company could hardly have made a better choice than Naomi Price. While she sparkles, however, it is not at expense of the strong supporting cast. The main players, especially, all convey a strong stage presence. Andy Cook is deliciously over-the-top as lothario movie star Vittorio, especially when his mannerisms are even more heightened in interaction with demanding girlfriend Ursula (an appropriately melodramatic Lizzie Moore, who also impresses as Charity’s frank and streetwise colleague and friend Nickie). In a contrast to his recent roles, Stephen Hirst plays Oscar with warmth and sweetness that makes you genuinely want things to work out for them, right from their beautifully played first meeting. And Elliot Baker is magnetic as the mysterious Daddy Brubeck, cool and funky guru leader of the Rhythm for Life Church.

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Like the character of Charity herself (I’m not sure if I want to be her or be friends with her), this production is utterly charming. By focusing on Charity’s optimistic and hopeful nature, co-directors Kris Stewart and Maureen Bowra have crafted an appealing story of a confident, quirky and determined young woman. Like her, the show doesn’t take itself too seriously which is the essence of its joy, with both hilarious situations and little unexpected comic touches that only make its experience more endearing. Indeed, the effervescent production bursts onto the stage with a vitality and contemporary energy and perspective that means that the now dated pre-feminist text can still entertain as escapism.

Bad Santa salaciousness

A Very Naughty Christmas The Second Coming (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

December 6 – 16

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, especially for new-to-the-workplace Joseph (Elliot Baker) who is keen to embrace the spirit of the season, especially with Holly (Sophie Christofis). And that isn’t the only of the shy little elf’s problems, as he struggles to keep his real identity secret. So begins Understudy Productions’ “A Very Naughty Christmas The Second Coming”, which rather than telling the story of Santa’s raunchy reindeers as it did in the show’s initial 2017 outing, gives us insight into the sex and drug-fuelled world of his elves, who despite stereotypes to the contrary are not super jolly all of the time.

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Although its cast is smaller, the adult only tone of the show remains the same; the 80-minute experience is full of political incorrectness, dirty language and a whole lot of skin. And sure enough Santa’s pants are off within the first five minutes. Indeed, this is a Christmas as you may have never seen before, even though it has all the hallmarks of a seasonal television special: The Night Before Christmas story re-enactment courtesy of audience ‘volunteers’ in reindeer et al roles, song dance breaks and even a tap dance number. Its more in-your-face than innuendo style of Santa-mental celebration is still shocking and very funny, but some jokes fall a little flat and overall the show lacks a little of its previous on-point, a little rough-around-the-edges salacious appeal. Still, the audience seems to love its every inappropriate moment.

Highlights include Aurelie Roque’s dry delivery of a tell-it-as-it-is song about the roasty-toasty weather the comes along with Christmas in Australia. And No-el’s (Austin Cornish) reappropriated ‘Winter Wonderland’ revelation of what is beneath his surface. Indeed, Cornish gives a dynamic performance physically and though his versatile vocals, seen for example in the show’s take on Saturday Night Live’s ‘My Dick in a Box’.

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Stephen Hirst has a charming appeal as the cheeky Nick, loving the attention of dirty girl Carol (Emily Kristopher) and in fact everyone who wants to ride on his sleigh. He is also once-again perfect in his nudge-and-a-wink nods to the audience, although you will never look at Santa the same way again. Indeed, if the movie “Bad Santa” was a musical, it would probably be something like this. There are no real morals to these stories, just lots of frivolity and indelicate amusement.

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Director Dan Venz’s choreography is full of colour and movement, and the live band (Chris Evans, Ellito Parker and Music Director Tnee Dyer) is excellent in filling familiar songs like ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ with energy and interest, meaning that whether you’re naughty or nice, you will likely enjoy this mischievous celebration of all things Christmas because just as last year’s smash success showed, the comedy cabaret’s unadulterated, frisky fun is undeniable.

Pulp-theatre Tarantinoness

Two Man Tarantino (Christopher Wayne in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 29 – December 2

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“Two Man Tarantino” is pretty metatheatre. Its tagline absolutely sums up the show as “Two people. One video store. Every cult classic”. The framing narrative of the pulp-theatre experience is very loose but appropriate for a homage to former video-store clerk Quentin Tarantino.

It’s a video store on the last night of video stores, when a staff member (Stephen Hirst) and a customer (Emily Kristopher) have a conversation about movies, leading to realisation that they are both hard-core Tarantino fans. Their resulting Tarantino-off to decide who is the bigger enthusiast doesn’t ever develop beyond mere parody, but is still very funny in its creative and increasingly intense re-enactments. (It’s Tarantino; it’s going to be violent and it’s going to bloody).

In competition for fan points the duo tries to outdo each other with both obvious and obscure Tarantino movie references and recreation of key scenes from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Hateful Eight” and everything in between, including even “Jackie Brown”, because only a true fan would quote from the audacious caper film. And audiences really need familiarity with the films, otherwise without much narrative, the show is just an hour of actors simulating violence, swearing and placing strange fetishised emphasis on women’s feet.

With simultaneous re-enactment of “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” as its conclusion, the show heads towards a brilliantly-choreographed bloodbath ending for which the front row splash zone warning and plastic cover sheet barely seems sufficient. Indeed, “Two Man Tarantino is a very physical, fast-paced show full of energetic and inspired fight scenes such as a Hattori Hanzo sword fighting scene, but not with a sword. The tight choreography is particularly impressive in “Kill Bill” (Volumes 1 and 2) attempt by the Bride to avenge the deadly viper assassination squad who ruined her wedding, including O-Ren Ishii and her Crazy 88 army.

Also notable are some of the performers’ impressions. Stephen Hirst is perfectly squinty-eyed John Travolta in conversation about a royale with cheese and Emily Kristopher is brilliant, as Christopher Walken and Samuel mother-f’n Jackson. And they join together nicely in iconic Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance scene snippet.

“Two Man Tarantino” is a must sen for any fan of the director’s catalogue of films, however, there is still enough in it for casual, interested viewers and visitors to the Tarantinoverse. Its hilarious chaos, complete even with an interpretive dance, is of the sort that only the manic director’s work can conjure and revisit to the commotion will probably result in you wanting to return to the genius film-maker’s works, if not at least their connoisseur soundtracks.

Sondheim songs and secrets

Boys of Sondheim (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 2 – 4

Stephen Sondheim is not only one of the most significant gay artists of the 20th century but one of the greatest musical theatre composer and lyricists in history. To celebrate the works of the award-winning composer in cabaret-concert is, on its own, a champion idea. To do with a talented cast that includes Kurt Phelan (“Dirty Dancing” Australian tour as Johnny Castle), Sean Andrews (“Phantom of The Opera” the International Asian tour), Tim Carroll (“Grease The Arena Experience” with Harvest Rain), Alexander Woodward (“Grease The Arena Experience” with Harvest Rain), and Stephen Hirst (“Into The Woods”), makes “Boys of Sondheim” more than just a salute to Sondheim’s songs.

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From its jazzy opening sounds, there is a clear intimate, tongue-in-cheek elegance to its share of Sondheim songs that are mostly sung by women, reappropriated and cleverly curated together to guide the audience along an emotional journey of relationships for gay men, from the anxiety of Hirst’s introductory ‘Everyone’s Got the Right to Love’ from “Assassins” to Phelan’s ‘I Feel Pretty’ insecurity (from “West Side Story”). With monologues capturing the essence of what it is to be a gay man in modern Australia, it is a concept that works well without any change of original lyrics, resulting in many tender moments, including Phelan and Woodward’s sumptuous take on the ballad ‘Unworthy of Your Love’, also from “Assassins” and share of the melodious pain of ‘Send in the Clowns’ From “A Little Night Music” by Andrews in duet with Hirst.

In preparation for the pathos, there is a lot of early humour courtesy of witty dialogue and animated delivery, including an upbeat ‘Buddies Blues’ from “Follies” by Caroll and a naughty take of ‘I Know Things Now’ from “Into the Woods’ by Phelan. All the performers have an engaging stage presence, however, Phelan is a versatile standout as he shows off his ‘hot young thing’ dance moves in a gorgeous ‘Sooner or Later’ from “Dick Tracey”.

The secret joy of Sondheim’s music is the songs are often ones you don’t realise you know, which adds to joy of re-discovery of the show’s mix, including songs from “Company”, ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ and “Getting Married Today’, which features Hirst’s rapid fire lyrics juxtaposed with Phelan’s top falsetto, to wonderful comic effect. And thanks to the musical direction of Dominic Woodhead (also on piano), and Michael Thrum on sax and clarinet, and Kirsten Baade on bass, every number is musically on-point in its poignancy and intricate melody.

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Drawing from ten musicals, five performers, a three piece band and one composer, Director Kris Stewart has created a sensational work of celebration, with a twist. Not only does it take audiences on a journey though Sondheim’s songs, but, “Boys of Sondheim” presents a honest and heartfelt exploration of males trying to find place in the world, perfect for inclusion in Brisbane Powerhouse’s Melt Festival celebration of queer arts and culture.