Category: Musical Theatre

Review: Lazarus

An artful masterpiece, exquisitely executed 

By Narelle Wood

The Production Company presents Lazarus, David Bowie’s last project, written in collaboration with Enda Walsh. In true Bowie style it is both an incredible spectacle and a little hard to accurately describe.

Loosely based on The man who fell to earth, Newton (Chris Ryan) struggles with his existence on earth, the absence of his wife and his inability to return to his home planet. While Newton attempts to grapple with his life through alcohol and twinkies, a potentially imaginary girl (Emily Milledge) appears whose intention seems to be to help Newton in his quest to escape the earth. Meanwhile mass murderer Valentine (iOTA) is on the prowl for his next victim. And Elly (Phoebe Panarentos) and Zach (Mat Verevis) try to keep their relationship together despite the challenge of Elly’s new job as Newton’s assistant and her infatuation for him. The stories of the other characters – Maemi (Kaori Maeda-Judge), Michael (Mike McLeish), Ben (Josh Gates), supported by Jessie Monk, Baylie Carson and Jessica Vellucci – weave throughout, adding further complexity to the ethereal storyline.

Josh Gates, Kaori Maeda-Judge, Phoebe Panaretos and company. Photograph: Jeff Busby

And then there, of course, are David Bowie’s songs which connect the various plots and characters together. Each of the songs seems as if it was specifically written for the show, rather than the other way around. If someone were to describe everything happening on stage throughout the production, and sometimes all at once, it would risk sounding as if it were an awkward performance piece. There are LED screens with photographic projections, balloons, glitter, eccentric costuming, colourful wigs, dancers and a dance number evocative of a burlesque performance. But each detail works to create a Bowie-esque experience, an artful masterpiece that is exquisitely executed.  This is not only a testament to Bowie and Walsh’s vision but also to the team at The Production Company who have brought this production to life, including Michael Kantor (director) Jethro Woodward (Musical director), Stephanie Lake (choreographer), Natasha Pincus (film director) and Nick Roux (projection designer).

I’m not entirely sure whether this is a show everyone will walk away from loving in terms of its storyline, but that doesn’t seem to be its purpose. Lazarus is an experience and a masterful one at that.

Lazarus runs at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 9 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photographs: Jeff Busby


Review: West Side Story

Slick spectacle with astonishing dance numbers

By Leeor Adar

1950s ‘Murica. Nothing quite says New York, New York, like West Side Story. It’s the kind of American dreaming particular to the imaginings of Jerome Robbins, the original director and choreographer of the beloved and memorable work. Instead of a Miller-esque fatal flaw, our characters operate in a world that has marginalised them, and they exist between missing the past and wanting a future. Migrants, lovers, hooligans, West Side Story is a warm embrace for musical theatre lovers everywhere.

I’m as surprised as the next person to see Opera Australia take on the collaborative work of heavyweights Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. It’s pure musical sugar, with numbers that are hyper and tantalising in a way that opera often turns away from. I am of course intrigued, as Opera Australia wades into the commercial realm to reach out to a broader audience perhaps. I want grit from West Side Story and Bernstein’s score, but instead we are treated to something lightweight, which does not do justice to the grandeur of Opera Australia, and certainly not the yearning power of this excellent and nuanced musical.

Director and choreographer Joey McKneely’s production has some astonishing dance numbers which render the music almost secondary. The central issues in the work concern its casting (and not in this instance the whitewashing that the Sydney production was accused of). The clash of an operatic coloratura soprano Maria (Sophie Salvesani) with a pure musical theatre voice for Tony (Todd Jacobsson) is hard to move beyond. Jacobsson is more a sweet romantic than former Jet, struck by the lightning bolt of infatuation. Despite this, I had chills during Jacobsson’s “Maria”, which is essentially to music theatre what La Bohème’s “Che gelida manina” is to opera. Even so, Salvesani has a rich and enveloping voice, that is ill-matched to her co-star.

The band of Jets, led by a charismatic Noah Mullins as Riff, overall look more like young awkward schoolboys than a gang of hardened street rats, and they are outmatched as they move between voluptuous and highly sexualised women. In contrast, the Sharks, led by a convincing Lyndon Watts as Bernardo, are muscular, intense and commanding on stage. Wonderfully, the Puerto Rican women are an absolute force on stage. Outshining all other characters in this production, Chloé Zuel as Anita is breathtaking in a memorable and electric performance. “America” is the pinnacle of perfection and quality I wanted out of West Side Story, and unfortunately it is one of the few moments I was nodding my head in joy. The Jets redeem themselves in a playful “Gee, Officer Krupke”, which joyfully washes over the salty reality of their poverty and troubled homes, but I was very much drawn less to the music than the physicality of the show.

Paul Gallis’ set design is in itself a character in this production, with looming grey photographs of Manhattan and a shanty-town of wooden pilings to show the decay of this part of the iconic city. The gloom of the set powerfully contrasts with the gorgeous costuming of Renate Schmitzer whose smashing array of decadent hues, which are complimented by the rich lighting design of Peter Halbsgut, set alight the already blazing dance numbers.

In contrast, one strikingly dark place this production took the audience to was the terrifying assault of Anita by the Jets, witnessed by Jets-wannabe tomboy Anybodys (Molly Bugeja). After the violence the stage is quiet and Anybodys runs away screaming, suddenly voicing another cruel reality of the streets.

West Side Story remains as topical as ever, with gun violence, sexual violence and racism rampant in our world, it remains an ode to the oppressed and cyclical entrapment of those living a life of poverty and crime. Despite this, its musical message of hope for a better future and greater opportunity remains just as strong.

I’d like to see a future production of West Side Story by Opera Australia where it will hold its own and wrestle away from the slick spectacle of commercial musical theatre and find something to contribute of its own. Even so, West Side Story makes for an entertaining night with some memorable performances and staging.


West Side Story will be performed at Arts Centre Melbourne until 28 April before touring to Sydney, Wellington, Canberra and Adelaide. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 889 278.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

Review: Muriel’s Wedding

Explosive Australiana in musical wonderland

By Owen James

Sometimes classic films should remain untouched and untainted by a musical adaptation – but luckily this is not the case for Muriel’s Wedding, which places the timeless story on the mainstage in colourful glory. When outcast Muriel impulsively departs Queensland hometown Porpoise Spit in search of a brighter future, she discovers her true self and her place in the world.

Original film writer PJ Hogan has modernised Muriel’s story for 2019, ensuring her flight and plight is relatable for its contemporary audience – social media plays a big part in both her initial belittling and later success. Much of the sarcastic subtlety of the film has been replaced with larger-than-life characters, displaying Hogan’s adept adaptability as a writer across formats and decades. There are big lines from big characters at every turn which ensure these colourful personalities bounce off the back walls of Her Majesty’s Theatre in every scene.

Music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have both strong and weak points, but always boosts Hogan’s exaggerated Australia with punchy energy and vibrance. Miller-Heidke and Nuttall combine a contemporary musical theatre sound with moments of synth-filled pop that wouldn’t be out of place on the radio (such as ‘A True Friend’). Their detailed score also features cleverly reworked ABBA hits that offer many a catchy melody with standout songs including ‘Strangely Perfect Stranger’, ‘Here Comes The Bride’, and ‘Never Stick Your Neck Out’.

Ensemble numbers such as ‘Sydney’ and ‘Progress’ are staged with spectacle through Andrew Hallsworth’s engaging and dynamic choreography. Tight movement in songs like ‘Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked’ is jaw-dropping in its precise execution and numbers like ‘Here Comes The Bride’ demonstrate Hallsworth’s capability and love for large-scale chorey.

Director Simon Phillips has staged a heartwarming extravaganza in Muriel’s Wedding, which delves beneath initially superficial character tropes to find the diamonds waiting inside. It’s a simple and safe production with a lot of heart and colour. Set and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova transports us seamlessly between locations and embellishes the bright, larger-than-life tone set by Phillips.

Natalie Abbott absolutely shines as attention-starved underdog Muriel, never missing a beat in her mainstage debut. This is the perfect role to showcase Abbott’s varied talents, she captivates every audience member with quirky and sincere moments throughout.

Feisty friend Rhonda has been cast perfectly with Stefanie Jones. I could watch her for hours. Hilarious and heartbreaking, Jones is a talent sure to excel in many future productions.

With costumes brighter than Priscilla, more Australian humour than Strictly Ballroom, the sass of Kinky Boots and almost as much ABBA as Mamma Mia, Muriel’s Wedding is a new Australian musical very successful in its mission to entertain. It both celebrates and mocks our admittedly highly mockable culture with stereotypes you absolutely will find on a Queensland beach or a Sydney street.

Big bogans, big bitches and big budgie smugglers galore. Walk down the aisle to Muriel’s Wedding for a colourful and entertaining Australiana parodic, patriotic paradise.

Muriel’s Wedding plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until 16 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 13 28 49.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

Review: Evita

Tina Arena’s lead receives a standing ovation

By Samuel Barson 

There is something undeniably refreshing about the story of Eva Perón. First and foremost, she was very much a woman in the centre of her own story. And while her husband was the President of Argentina, she too had a great deal of power as a celebrated actress and tireless advocate of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage. The truthfulness of her humble beginnings and subsequent life story also provide audiences with a break from the clichéd romanticism of many biopic stage adaptations. In this Australian tour of Evita, director Harold Prince has curated a strong cast and has created the most powerful, raw and heartfelt of musical productions.

I am usually quite cynical of big names being cast in big Australian productions. In an age of repeated casting, it’s become quite easy for certain showbiz personalities to be cast simply because of who they are. Tina Arena is a significant exception. Her grace, beauty and talent shine tenfold in her portrayal of the titular character. Her voice is reliably flawless, and she pleasantly surprises with her acting skill. Despite the numerous scenes and range of notes she perfects, the most memorable moment of the night was the curtain call. The tears Tina shed as she looked out into the large sea of a standing ovation perfectly reflected a humility and grace rarely seen on stage.

Supporting her were two equally impressive men. Tony Award winner Paulo Szot did the required work as Eva’s stoic husband, Juan Perón, to allow Arena’s Eva to take charge. Kurt Kansley was particularly impressive as Che, guiding the audience along with utmost energy, humour and aggressive charm in his role as narrator.

Rounding out the support cast were the charismatic and flashy Michael Falzon as Magaldi and recent high-school leaver Alexis van Maanen in a wonderful yet brief turn as the Mistress.

The ensemble cast were tight and provided the leads with an intricate and brilliant support network. Larry Fuller’s choreography put the cast to good use as they filled the stage and evoked the emotions of the Argentinian people.

Timothy O’Brien and Richard Winkler’s respective set and lighting design managed to be epic yet not too overdone. In collaboration with Duncan McLean’s clever video and projection design, they transported audiences into the essence of 1940’s Argentina and left room for our imaginations to fill the gaps. Mick Potter’s sound design complimented David Cullen’s exquisite orchestration, and Guy Simpson did a beautiful job in conducting their work.

Evita is a delightful production, with arguably the strongest leading musical cast to be seen in Melbourne. Tina Arena proves herself to be one of Australia’s most dynamic and versatile performers, and she is supported by a cast that I hope to see more often on Australia’s mainstages. Tickets to this production could be the perfect Christmas present for those who enjoy an entertaining night out.

Evita is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre until 17 February 2019. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.  

Photograph: Jeff Busby

Review: Rent

A strong production of much loved rock musical 

By Bradley Storer

RENT – Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical of poverty-stricken bohemian artists on the streets of ’90s New York comes to Chapel Off Chapel in a new staging by James Terry Productions, and anyone who attends will certainly be able to see why the show continues to connect with audiences today.

Across the board all the performances are solid, although my personal favourites were those who managed to put their own twist on these well-loved characters. Evan Lever brings a gawky and geeky boyishness to Mark along with his powerful vocals. Connor Morel’s Roger tends more towards callow youthfulness rather than embittered intensity which is refreshing to watch. Kala Gare commits so thoroughly to Maureen’s ridiculousness and spins her narcissistic self-absorption in such unexpected ways that it becomes incredibly charming instead of potentially annoying. Angel, the emotional centre of the ensemble, is a great opportunity for the right performer and Marty Alix is wonderful in the role – channelling elements of ball culture and vogueing rather than Broadway razzle dazzle to winning effect, Alix’s soft and gentle stage presence is a beautiful match to the character.

Under Katie Weston’s assured and capable musical direction, the score thrums along and clearly communicates the vital pulse of this work even today. The bleak scaffolding set is combined with menacing wire fences to cleverly transition scenes and separate spaces as well as a gorgeous luminescent love heart deployed at appropriate moments.

Director Mark Taylor has made deliberate choices that step away from previous productions, which one can appreciate with a musical as well known and regularly staged as this one. The presence of an onstage piano which allows the homeless characters to express themselves creates poignancy, and the transformation by choreographer Freya List of a subway ride into a physical movement piece for Santa Fe was certainly charming. The reimagination of Maureen’s (intentionally) pretentious performance art piece allows for some hilarious contributions from Willow Sizer and Nathan Fernandez as backing dancers. The reconfiguration of Contact as a feverish nightmare is a unique interpretation, although in applying a more literal framework it felt as though it lost some of the emotional wallop that usually accompanies this moment.

The Will I? sequence was incredibly moving, buoyed by Jye Cannon’s heartbreaking solo and the continuing reality of people living with HIV/AIDS reveals how relevant the show’s themes remain – costume designer Kim Bishop’s inclusion of actual shirts from the ACT UP movement is a nice touch that drives this point home.

A strong production of a modern classic rock musical, sure to delight any die-hard fans and thrill any new comers!

RENT is being performed at Chapel Off Chapel 29 November – 9 December. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photograph: James Terry


Huckleberry: A Musical Adventure

Timeless classic receives musical treatment

By Amy Planner

Taking on a timeless classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a big job, though this production set its sights and heads for something unique.

Huck, a boy who escapes a life ruined by his drunken father and Jim, a runaway slave, set on down the Mississippi River looking for a new life away from the confinement of what they know. Along the way they teach each other about the ways of the world and become the best of friends. Huckleberry: A Musical Adventure takes this literary classic and adds an interesting musical element.

Chris Wallace, the creator of this original twist also plays the narrator, Mark Twain. Wallace evidently has a fascination with Twain, not to mention an uncanny likeness to the man himself. Wallace’s hillbilly musical theme carried throughout the show but did unfortunately become a little repetitive. The songs were quite short and rather sporadic at times with the difficult timing tricking the performers in certain songs. But they found their place, carried on, and did so with fervour.

Despite the passion of the performers, the writing let them down a little with transitions between songs being a little disjointed and the music not adding much to the story. It must be said that Huck’s song in which he describes his escape from the cabin was quick and catchy and used in a great comedic way.

Monty Burgess, Sami Weleda’abzgi, Tess Branchflower, Chris Wallace, Tess Walsh

Tess Branchflower (Huckleberry Finn) and Tess Walsh (Tom Sawyer) were fantastic casting choices. As explained, their physical size and higher vocal register lent themselves to portraying these young male characters perfectly. They were energetic, enthused and did these famous characters such due justice. The accents and characterisation of these two ladies and of Sami ‘Obama’ Weleda’abzgi (Jim) were outstanding.

The minimalistic set design by Adrienne Chisholm was really quite effective. A central raft-like structure, although a little small to accommodate the performers at times, was used with great imagination to go from scene to scene.  Smaller more detailed props helped create the runaway drama that Huckleberry Finn is built on.

The costuming, also by Chisholm, was fantastic. It was well thought through and not overly simplified like some shows set in this era can be. There were layers and a lot of effective weathering which really gave the characters something to work with and draw inspiration from.

This show definitely has a unique quality about it and has some undeniable talent involved in the cast and crew. However, some refinement in the writing style and musical elements would certainly give this production the little boost it needs.

Huckleberry: A Musical Adventure is being performed until 9 December at Chapel Off Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8920 7000. 


Review: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Diabolically funny

By Kim Edwards

2014 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is – pleasingly – both a love letter to traditional musical comedy, and a satirical assassination of much that the genre holds dear. Evoking operetta and music hall delights in its lively and sometimes lovely score by Steven Lutvak, Robert L. Freedman’s book and lyrics are then cheerfully ruthless and viciously hilarious, and this Melbourne season presented by the ever-admirable Production Company brings down full justice on all counts.

As this modern musical carves out its place in theatre history, the titular gentleman Montague Navarro (Chris Ryan) is also seeking fame and fortune by doing gleeful violence upon a formidable lineage. Upon discovering he is ninth in succession to the Earldom of the D’Ysquith family, Monty decides to bump off a few relatives standing between him and his ambition, and the musical follows his comic successes and downfalls as he targets eight unsuspecting D’Ysquith heirs. Ryan brings great charm, an appealing voice, and some sleek comic timing to the role, forming a sound counterpoint to the manic hilarity and exuberant character work of Mitchell Butel – who plays ALL eight of the potential victims. I particularly enjoyed Butel’s surprising sincerity and beautiful vocals as the noble Lord Asquith, though the opening night audience made real favourites of his affected Asquith Jr, camp Henry, and irrepressible Lady Hyacinth.

Alinta Chidzey and Genevieve Kingsford were both dazzling as Monty’s lover Sibella and fiancée Phoebe respectively – their joint performances made “I’ve Decided to Marry You” and “That Horrible Woman” the show’s musical highlights for me, only rivalled by the wonderful ensemble in “A Warning to the Audience” and “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying”. The superb harmony and orchestral work (how I love having onstage musicians) is under the taut musical direction of Kellie Dickerson, and I adored how often Dana Jolly’s inventive choreography was actually the source of the comedy (the ice-skating scene is genius). Theatre royalty Nancye Hayes makes a satisfying appearance as Miss Shingle, and just wait for Johanna Allen’s simply stunning turn as Lady Eugenia in Act 2 – I could have watched her all night.

Nonetheless Roger Hodgman’s witty direction, Christina Smith’s quaint Victorian cardboard theatre set, Trent Whitmore’s marvelous wigs, and Isaac Lummis’ divine costuming are the ultimate showstoppers of A Gentleman’s Guide – especially the latter two with Butel’s extraordinary fast-changes between D’Ysquiths, and the former when impeccably-timed projections and special effects delivered some of the biggest belly laughs of the night.

Admittedly, I felt the show’s satire falls rather short for a modern audience at times (while acknowledging historical setting and style homage, it is disappointing key laughs in a 2014 musical should still be hung on old scaffolds of gender and race without more self-critique), but this is a concern with the show itself rather than this impressive production. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder barrels along at a cutthroat pace, features a highly talented lineup of The Production Company’s usual suspects, has designs and effects to die for, and is often just criminally funny. The  verdict? – it would be hard not to fall prey to its merrily murderous charms.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne 27 October – 18 November. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: supplied