Back for four

A Very Naughty Christmas (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

December 3 – 13

It takes a lot to make audience participation in theatre successful, especially when performers are having to work hard in guide of ‘volunteer’ contributions, however, in what has become “A Very Naughty Christmas” tradition, deviant Santa Stephen Hirst and Stacey de Waard ensure that this section of Understudy Productions’ 2020 show is once again one of its highlights. Of course audience involvement looks a little different this year, without any on-stage participation, however, in the show’s fourth year, it is still as funny as ever as the audience is given “A Christmas Carol” unlike any other.

There is a familiarity to other sections of the adults-only Christmas comedy too and move along from a punctuation to grammar gag amongst its easy low-brow humour. Aurélie Roque gets into the holiday spirits to bitterly share of her bedroom issues with Saint Nick in a totally-inappropriate ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ and an Andrew Sisters with a twist number delivers an upbeat ‘Let it Snow’. There is return too of the perennially favourite “Mean Girls” ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ routine, masterfully mixed into the rum pump um pum of Justin Bieber and Busta Rhymes’ ‘Drummer Boy’ to amp up the energy. Comedy and musical numbers are appropriated updated with WAP and TikTok type pop culture references (most notably in Emily Kristopher’s naughty nod to the role technology can play in creating connection over the holidays) and even some political touches. And things still tie together nicely with a ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ closing snowfall of red and green confetti to affix an exclamation point to a night of shared celebration at having made it through this dumpster fire of a year.

Pre-show, those new to experience of the franchise are almost lured into expectations of tradition with share of ‘We Three Kings” et al Christmas classics and a lively ‘Feliz Navidad’, from Brisbane’s sexiest carolling tin soldiers, Melissa Russo, Steph Long and Santa’s little helper Shay Debney. What follows is a show of cabaret style escapism featuring a range of musical styles and wonderful harmonies. Indeed, all numbers display the abundance of vocal talent within the cast and the live band (Tom Collins on keys and guitar, Chris Evans on drums, Elliot Parker on bass and band leader Luke Volker on keys) is again excellent in filling familiar tunes with appealing vigour. And Wesley Bluff’s lighting design works a treat, expertly guiding the audience from, for example, a peppy duet about puberty to Elliot Baker’s nightmarish ‘White Christmas’ yearn for return from a Christmasless life

Again there is no narrative as such, but instead a collection of segments set to show us how naughty is the new nice. From burlesque shows of skin and a David Cuny stiptease to bawdy reappropriation of traditional lyrics and a new imagining of the iconic “Love Actually” doorstep notecards scene, there is something for everyone in “A Very Naughty Christmas”… apart from the easily offended. While the upgrade from the Visy to Powerhouse Theatre represents a loss of intimacy, it does reveal more friends in which to share revel in its naughtiness. And thankfully, while Christmas comes only once a year, “A Very Naughty Christmas” is making appearance twice most nights for those wanting to get their tinsel tickled and bells jingled. And while it is sure to get you in a holiday mood, be warned that you may never consider Mummy Kissing Santa Claus in quite the same way again.  

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.

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

Soldier stories and songs

Yank! (Understudy Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

July 4 – 14

Yank is the name of a weekly magazine that was published by the United States military for and by its servicemen from 1942 – 1945. It’s the magazine where an awkward young man called Stu (Andy Johnston) partners with photographer Artie (Eli Cooper), who is also ‘light in the loafers’, to report stories.

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After Stu’s call-up, before he goes off to join his squad in basic training, his mother (Naomi Price) gives him a journal to record his time in the service. It is this journal that a modern San Francisco man finds at the outset of “Yank”, a World War II Love Story (Music by Joseph Zellnik, Book and Lyrics by David Zellnik). The journal’s discoverer doesn’t know much beyond Stu’s entry into the military with feel that he doesn’t fit in. And so we are transported back to young protagonist Stu’s story and his acceptance of being a gay man at a time where being gay was a crime, which initially comes through his relationship with all-American Mitch (Alex Gibson-Giorgio). Unfortunately, however, the two are separated by Stu’s secondment to Yank, where he flourishes under unapologetically flamboyant Artie’s life mentorship.

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The ensuing love story explores what it means to fall in love and struggle to survive, in a time and place where the odds are stacked against you. And under Director Ian Good’s stewardship, it is a moving account. There are some truly tender moments between the raw recruit and closed-off Mitch, dubbed by all as ‘Hollywood’ due to his essential likeability.

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Gibson-Giorgio is mesmerising as Mitch, even when a broken man or struggling with his demons, and his rich vocals make the beautiful ‘A Couple of Guys’ a resonating expression of the men’s dream of life in a ‘house of perfect size for a couple of regular guys’, even if only in their imaginations. Johnston takes audiences on an authentic emotional journey from coy almost-19-year-old around the older and more assured Mitch, to self-secure survivor. And like Gibson-Giorgio, his voice is glorious.

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There is no weak link in the cast. Distinct characters within the squad are brought to vivid life but not overplayed to caricature territory. And their lively ‘Your Squad is Your Squad’ (like peas in a pod) is a memorable punch of vigor, full of playful personality. Naomi Price is memorable, not just as the only female of the cast, but through her musical transport of audience members to the 1940s, in catchy love songs like the jumping boogie-woogish ‘Saddest Gal What Am’ and gorgeous ballad ‘Remembering You’. Indeed, she not only looks that part thanks to Elizabeth Ball’s on-point costume design, but her voice is era evocative in each distinct number.

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The lavish swinging score features of-era song stylings of all sorts, and mention must be made of the show’s band (under the musical direction of Trevor Jones), which is spot-on in provision of perfect 1940s sounds to accompany the bright harmonies. The show’s lively early titular number about the service man’s journal is a standout, gripping the audience from the outset and setting high expectations that are fully realised. But the varied score also allows for a well-curated ebb and flow of energy; a crooning ‘Betty’ about the boys’ fascination with pin-up girls like Betty Grable (whose bathing suit image made her the number-one pin-up girl of World War II) slows things down ahead of the spirited ‘Click’ tap duet, where photojournalist Artie educates Stu in how to recognise and hook up with other gay soldiers, which is an explosion of wonderful skill and physical charisma.

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Simple but versatile staging sees a collection of wooden crates used to create a range of settings from bunk beds in the barracks to their shower stalls and the bar in which Stu first meets Artie. And choreography impressively makes the most of the intimate Visy theatre setting, especially in ‘light on their feet’ dance numbers like ‘Credit to the Uniform’.

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By Act Two the soldiers are being sent to the front line, but that is not the tale’s only trauma as the story takes a more serious look at the consequences of the characters’ actions and the harsh realities of being outed as being gay in the army at that time (inspired by Allan Bérubé’s book of oral histories “Coming Out Under Fire”, the musical is based on the true hidden history of gay soldiers during World War II).

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As things travel towards the story’s moving conclusion, we are both touched and inspired by its commentary about the legacy of brave acts of survival, knowing that Understudy Productions has certainly done justice to the Australian premiere of the work with a credible but not cliché realisation. “Yank” is a compelling story, emotional in and of itself, without need to be overtly positioned as a political commentary and in this regard particularly, the company should be commended. This “Yank” is a human story, but still an important one that needs to be told to avoid reoccurrence, and this audience-self-realisation is integral to its success.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

and that’s a 2018 wrap

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A quick pre-Christmas trip to Melbourne this week has not only give me my favourite theatre experience of the year in Calamity Jane, but provided a chance to reflect on a theatre year now done. Although still in the triple digits, I saw fewer shows in 2018 than in previous years, because…. Netflix. And, as usual, there have been many highlights, making it difficult to providing a definitive list of favourites. But reflective lists are what the end of a year is all about, so here is my eclectic top 10 of the memorable, the musical, the moving and the mirthful, and some honourable mentions.

  1. Calamity Jane – Encore Season (Arts Centre Melbourne in association with One Eyed Man Productions, Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co)
  2. Hamnet (Dead Centre) as part of Brisbane Festival
  3. Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)
  4. Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)
  5. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The National Theatre)
  7. The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)
  8. Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects) as part of Brisbane Festival
  9. At Last: The Etta James Story (Brisbane Powerhouse)
  10. The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

And mention also to the following highlights:

Best performance:

  • Virgina Gay as the titular feisty frontierswoman in Calamity Jane
  • Paul Capsis as 1970s gay icon, English writer, raconteur and actor Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture.

Best AV – A Christmas Carol (optikal bloc for shake & stir theatre co)

Most thought provoking –- Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

Best new work – The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Best musical

  • Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  • Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)
  • Bare (Understudy Productions)

Best cabaret:

Best music – The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)

Best dance – Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

Funniest – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Most joyous – I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

Cleverest – North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)

Most moving – Hamnet (Dead Centre)

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.