Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Still so rightly wrong

The Book of Mormon (Anne Garefino, Scott Rudin, Important Musicals and John Frost)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 16 – May 31


The New York Times calls it “the best musical of this century” and Entertainment Weekly says it is “the funniest musical of all time.” Understandably the arrival in Brisbane of the outrageous nine-time Tony Award-winning “The Book of Mormon” has been much hyped, in part due to its clever marketing campaign of reduced-price ticket lotteries and alike, but also due to good old fashioned word-of-mouth. Since seeing it in London five years ago, before “Hamilton” took to the top of the hottest show list and it was still one of the most elusive (and most expensive) tickets around, I have been one of its many ravers, equally abuzz with anticipation as the uninitiated audience members at the gala Brisbane opening night. And while it shows its age a little now, as satire so often does, it is still easy to appreciate how it stands as one of the most successful musicals of all time.

“The Book of Mormon” is the odd couple story of two mismatched young missionaries, Elder Price (Blake Bowden) and Elder Cunningham (Nyk Bielak) who are sent to Africa for the most important time in their Mormon lives … their mission. Naively eager to spread the divine word and help heal the world in a different place they are ill-prepared for the remote Ugandan village that they encounter, with its famine, poverty, disease and dangerous militia.


Initially the villagers aren’t particularly interested in hearing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, until Elder Cunningham starts ‘Making Things Up Again’ to keep them from getting bored by his bible stories, reconceptualising the little he knows of the doctrine with his favourite pieces of science fiction and fantasy. Just as the missionaries begin to feel connected with the people of Uganda, the mission president comes to visit and the truth is revealed in full-throttle hilarity.

The highly offensive musical is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone – the creators of the American adult animated sitcom “South Park”. And in keeping with this, the show is utterly audacious in its gratuitous ridicule, pushing the boundaries between satire and stereotype in that “South Park” heyday way. It’s blasphemous, profane and very, very funny in dialogue and musical numbers alike as it makes light of various Mormon beliefs and practices, while ultimately endorsing the positive power of the church’s service. Despite its veneer of crudeness, the uncensored comedy is quite clever, often in its simplicity, down to the details of costumes and choreography, continuing even into the program. Indeed, it is a testament to the truly funny from start-to-finish experience that different versions of the same joke just seem to get funnier, such as each time that Elder Cunningham awkwardly messes up the name of his desired love interest Nabulungi (Tigist Strode).

“The Book of Mormon” is about more than just its shock value. Since its Broadway opening in 2011, it has received not just popular praise but critical acclaim for its plot and score. It is a highly-polished musical of international standard and its first 30 minutes are particularly tight, full of huge energetic numbers, starting with its catchy, upbeat opening sequence number ‘Hello’ in which doorbells chime as young missionaries in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints army practicing their spiels on mock doorsteps outside the church’s training centre in Salt Lake City, which sets a light-hearted tone.


The show features a kaleidoscope of memorable musical numbers, often in lampoon of contemporary Broadway styles, such are the layers to its clever story craftedness. “The Lion King” is parodied and referenced, in ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ is the first truly vulgar song in the show which ends with members of the Ugandan community giving the finger to and screaming four-letter words at God. And ‘All American Prophet’ in which Elder Price testifies in a very abridged tribute as to how Joseph Smith came across the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon, has a “Jesus Christ Superstar” feel to its orchestration.

Across soaring power-ballads, tribal singalongs and rock anthems, extravagant sets and choreography contribute to the world class production. Perhaps the musical’s biggest showstopper, ‘Turn It Off’, in which the young missionaries share advice on how to deal with dark thoughts (“Don’t feel those feelings, hold them in instead”) comes completed with a razzle dazzle elaborate tap dance number. And when things seemingly can’t go much further, the surreal ‘Mormon Hell Dream’ sees a super spooky-wooky Satan and his minions of Genghis Khan, Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran welcoming a worrying Elder Price to his perceived consequences for leaving his missionary companion all alone.

Direction is always sharp and the performances are all first-class. Bielak is masterful as the childishly exuberant Elder Cunningham, contributing much to the show’s high energy. The very versatile Blake Bowden is every part perfect, plucky Mormon poster boy Elder Price, conveying a presence even in his stature. He carries the show solo in the inspirational ‘I Believe’ proud announcement, when, after re-affirming his faith, he confronts the show’s violent warlord villain General with determination to convert him, belting out the key track with crisp, show-stopping vocals. Also of vocal note is Strode as Nabulungi, especially in her innuendo-filled soft-rock duet with Bielak, ‘Baptise Me’ and also Act Two’s ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ repreise and purely joyous evangelical company number ‘Tomorrow Is a Latter Day’.

“The Book of Mormon” is a difficult show to review because when it comes to praise it has all pretty much been said before. The ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical will not be to everyone’s tastes; it’s a very adult show and if you don’t like bad language it isn’t one for you. But if you are ready to forget your troubles for an evening and laugh until your face is sore, it’s a book that will change your life (#believethehype).

And so this was…

As John Lennon asks in his now Christmas standard, “so, this is Christmas and what have you done?” Reflection becomes par-for-the-course at the tail end of the holiday period, including of shows seen during the year passed and in what has become typical, my favourites are a little off-kilter from the perhaps usual list of big-budget showcases.

Local shows aside for a moment and 2015 allowed me opportunity to see the London productions of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “The Book of Mormon”. I am yet to hear of anyone who has seen the Dog in the Night-Time on stage and not raved about the experience. And justifiably so; it is the best dramatic production I have ever seen, anywhere. And as for “The Book of Mormon”…. is there any feeling better than being able to tick from an in-mind list of shows you want to see. For me, this musical had been at the top of my to-see list for a number of years, replaced now by “Something Rotten” and while the show is shocking in its satire, it’s quite brilliant and definitely up there as one of my favourites.


But that is not say that Brisbane has not seen its share of great shows of all sorts, from which my favourites would be:

  1. All My Love (HIT Productions) – the story of Australia’s best-known poet and writer Henry Lawson and his relationship with fellow poet Mary Gilmore.
  2. The Confidence Man (Side Pony Productions) – a choose-your-own-adventure of the theatrical kind as audience members use smartphone to flick between the characters’ stories, tuning in on their innermost thoughts as the action unfolds.
  3. The Importance of Being Earnest (W!ld Rice) – a witty all-male telling of Oscar Wilde’s immortal play, as part of the Brisbane Festival.
  4. Candide (Opera Q) – opera at its most accessible, merging music and comedy in a colourful and energetic search for Eden.
  5. Tiptoe (Pentimento Productions) – Two timeframes unfold simultaneously on stage in this Australian psychological thriller with a twist from acclaimed playwright Sven Swenson.

With appreciation of the notion that theatre-going begets theatre-going, I am also confident, however, that 2016 will bring with it a range of shows and potential new favourites. So, as Lennon also says…. “Let’s hope it’s a good one”.

Book of brilliance!

The Book of Mormon

Prince of Wales Theatre, London

From February 25, 2013

“The Book of Mormon” is a show almost transcended by reputation; since opening in 2011, the unstoppable Tony winning juggernaut has garnered overwhelming positive critical response and set records in ticket sales, with Broadway producers charging almost $500 US for the best seats for high demand performances. While I didn’t pay quite that much to see the show in London’s West End, it was probably the most expensive theatre I’ve ever seen. And yet I would readily have paid the same again to attend a repeat performance the next day …. it is that good.


For the uninitiated, “The Book of Mormon” is a religious satire musical from the creators of the animated comedy South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in collaboration with Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez. It tells the story of two young and naïve Mormons, Elders Price and Cunningham (Billy Harrigan Tighe and A.J. Holmes) who are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda for their mission. Here they find a brutal warlord threatening the local population. The two optimistic missionaries, try to share the Book of Mormon, one of their scriptures, however, they experience some difficulties connecting with the locals who, worried about war, famine, poverty and AIDS, constantly blaspheme to cheer themselves up.


Some theatergoers are sure to find the show puerile. As the dialogue itself notes, “The Book of Mormon” is not like the “The Lion King” (despite its hilarious spoof of ‘Hakuna Matata’); the show is incredibly offensive and politically incorrect with dark (but clever) lyrics about Aids, baby-rape and female genital mutilation. Yet it has all the ingredients of a perfect show and, as such, represents all that is wonderful about musical theatre.

While deeper themes regarding religion run through the production, the show’s innate sense of fun makes for a highly engaging piece of musical theatre. Price tries desperately to be a nice, considerate Mormon, but his ultimate sense of entitlement has him yearning for an easy life. Cunningham, meanwhile, has no problem lying in order to make the Book of Mormon (which he confesses he’s never read) appealing to the Ugandan villagers. Together they combine to take us on a hilarious ride. Indeed, your face will ache from smiling, you may end up crying with laughter and you will probably be singing its songs all the way home. (The opening number, ‘Hello’, which introduces the Mormons, as they pop up around stage to ring doorbells is one of the best intro numbers around.)

on own

It is difficult not to have high expectations for this show. However, whereas often in instances like this, anticipation is not always fulfilled, in this case, it is, from the outset. The ravers, it seems, are right! And I have never seen such a rapturous applause bestowed at the end of a show. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a ticket to the most hyped show in theatre history, get ready for an energetic and irreverent ride.