Hold on to that rock feelin’

Rock of Ages (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

November 26 – December 11

“Rock of Ages” is a jukebox musical built around classic rock songs of the 1980s (in particular those of the decade’s glam metal bands), curated together to fit its narrative about young people coming to LA to achieve their dreams. It’s an era and thus a show of big bands with big hair, playing big guitar solos. And so Beenleigh Theatre Group plays the story out to the classic rock anthems of Twisted Sister, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Whitesnake, Foreigner and alike.

It is 1987 in the city build on rock and roll. Along Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Strip, a fictional seedy bar, celebrates rock ‘n’ roll debauchery as the lifestyle of dreamers. Busboy and aspiring rock star from South Detroit, Drew (Dylan Hodge) just wants to rock, but every musical needs a love story so enter innocent, straight off the bus from small-town Kansas Sherrie (Jaime O’Donoghue). Of course Drew has been waiting for a girl like her, but before a budding romance can begin, immediately smitten, she engages in a bathroom tryst with rock god Stacee Jaxx (Clay English).

When Act Two opens, it is the final countdown for the bar and its washed-up rocker owner Dennis (Nathan Skaines), with two villainous German developers, Herz (Jim Price) and his son Franz (Sam Piaggio), scheming to tear down the bar, meaning that it’s up to spirited city planner Regina (Madi Jennings) to stop them. Jennings makes for a fierce Regina, tough and passionate in her bohemian activism, however, it is Will Boyd as charismatic narrator and assistant manager of the Bourbon Room, Lonny who steals the show, clearly having a great time with the demanding role that rarely sees him off stage. His delivery of the script’s many raunchy jokes and sight gags is well timed for maximum comic effect as he recounts the history of the club and narrates events on stage with meta-theatrical fourth wall breaks. And English smoulders as lead singer of the band Arsenal, the egomaniac Stacee Jazz, slinking through his solo, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ with vocals as large as his character’s overblown ego.

Hodge and O’Donoghue share nice vocal chemistry as aspiring rock singer Drew and aspiring actress Sherrie; the epilogue of Journey’s iconic ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ is particularly harmonious in their hands. Individually, they each have some powerful vocal moments too, such as in Sherrie’s ‘Harden My Heart’ and Drew’s ‘Oh Sherrie’, which highlights Hodge’s vocal power and impressive ability to hold a note.

Despite the show’s upbeat performances, some shorter sections lag a little and occasional microphone lapses sometimes take the audience out of its moments. Holly Leeson’s energetic choreography takes the audience back to the excesses of glam metal music videos and far-from-subtle costumes effectively capture the era’s idiosyncrasies. “Rock of Ages” is, however, all about the music and the on-stage band (musical director Julie Whiting) brings the range of its soundtrack of well-known songs to life, from a synthy-sounding ‘Final Countdown’ to an initially stripped-back and ultimately revealing ‘Hit Me with Your Best Shot’. In each and every song of its 20+ long setlist, the band brings it, pumping out tunes with attitude, even if initially it is at a volume that sits atop rather than in support of the singing voices in the opening number.

Comedy comes from rock ‘n’ roll antics, fourth wall breaks, overt innuendo and deliberately over-the-top, campy characterisation, all of which are appreciated by a buoyant Saturday night crowd. While in its take back to a sexier, sexualised time, the story relies of stereotypes, there is a clear sense of not taking itself too seriously. Indeed, there is an infectious, spirited energy from all members of the large on-stage cast that ensure that audience members walk away holding on to the feeling of its satisfaction.  

Bohemian Brilliance

Rent (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

February 26 – March 12

Jonathan Larson’s ‘90s musical “Rent” is a modern classic of the type that has people returning to see its original Broadway run more than once (or maybe that was just me). So to see its bohemian brilliance on show, as is the case with Beenleigh Theatre Group’s compelling take, is always a pleasure.

“Rent” is a glorious work, or rather rework of Puccini’s popular opera “La Boheme”, set in the Lower East Side of New York. Its celebratory portrayal of a group of poor artists and addicts living hungry and frozen under constant shadow of AIDS was ground-breaking in contrast to the then traditionally conservative nature of most musicals. But times have changed and although the work is still full of vitality and poignancy, its effect is far less hard-hitting. What remains, despite the tyranny of time, is the appeal of its musical score, full of refrains of its memorable numbers.

Accordingly, the lengthy show is full of musical highlights including lovers’ duet ‘Take Me or Leave Me’ between Maureen (Allison Nipperess) and Joanne (Morgan Garrity) and Joanne’s duet with Maureen’s former lover Mark (William Boyd), ‘Tango: Maureen’, featuring not just some powerhouse voices, but a showcase of the performers’ comic timing. The ultimate, however, is the fabulous ensemble delivery of ‘La Vie Boheme’ which is choreographed to perfection to provide a vibrant visual tableaux in support of the two-part celebration of bohemianism and its ideas, trends and symbols.

RENT pic.jpg

Performers showcase varying vocal ability but are all energetic in performance. Boyd anchors the show as its pseudo-narrator, struggling documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen. Not wanting to sell out to the mainstream film industry her prefers to view the world through a lens than engage in it, conveying an everyman sense of awkwardness. As his roommate Roger, a struggling musician who is HIV positive, Travis Holmes is first-rate. His musical hope to write one meaningful song to leave behind, ‘One Song Glory’ is outstanding and, unfortunately, his duets with Emily Corkeron as his love interest Mimi, suffer because of his comparative excellence. Indeed, her voice, while capable, does not seem to have the sustained power required to belt out her attempt to go ‘Out Tonight’ and seduce Roger, meaning that the potentially show-stopping number falls flat amidst an array of Act One highlights.

As the sweet and generous young drag queen and street percussionist Angel Dumott Schunard, Alex Watson takes the audience on an emotional journey from joy to sorrow and although his ‘Today 4 U’ musical boast is breathy in its energy, the chemistry between him and Matthew Dunne as his love interest, computer genius, professor and vagabond anarchist Tom Collins, is endearing, particularly in their lovely number ‘I’ll Cover You’. As sassy performance artist Maureen Johnson, Allison Nipperess is not only of strong voice but expressive to delicious comic effect, particularly in delivery of the performance piece ‘Over the Moon’.

Set design serves the space well, using scaffolding and platforms to recreate the gritty look of New York City’s East Village in the thriving days of Bohemian Alphabet City, including transforming a section of the auditorium floor to become a New York subway. Especially considering the size of its ensemble cast of over two dozen performers, choreography is impressive in its seamlessness, particularly in its many ‘big’ numbers. Poignant parts are handled well too, allowing for the tragic ramifications of its narratives to be sensitively realised in Act Two.

Although somewhat sanitised, Beenleigh Theatre Group’s “Rent” is a wonderful example of ensemble theatre at its best, with all elements combining in performance as passionate as the story’s characters. The company should be congratulated on their bravery of musical choice and dynamic application to all aspects of the production.