Category: Musical Theatre

Review: Jack Frost: The Musical

A timely fairy-esque tale

By Bradley Storer

Despite the industry wide instability currently decimating the Australian theatre scene, opening night of new Australian musical Jack Frost luckily proceeded. A fairy-esque tale that follows the journey of a young girl travelling both backwards into her past and headfirst into her future, the tale feels eerily appropriate for the current global situation. A small town facing environmental chaos, a political struggle between a conservative past and the pull of progress, and the rise of a charismatic but underhanded leader.

The absolute crowning glory of the piece is composer/writer Joseph May-Dessmann’s score, a lush and inviting affair under the musical direction of Jayla McLennan. While no specific number stands massively above the rest (with the possible exception of Frost’s solo number ‘Take Care’) the songs of Jack Frost are truly a wonder, lifting the cast and audience towards musical theatre magic.

The script and book need some further work, with some character motivations and plot points still a little unclear textually. A little more exploration and explanation of the world in which the characters inhabit may also solve some tonal and linguistic shifts from scene to scene that felt slightly jarring. Despite this, director Lauren McKenna has done a wonderful job of crafting the dramatic journey and stage imagery to a polished gleam.

Tayla Muir as Stella Forte, the heroine of the story, is the guiding light of the production. With an exquisite voice and a lovely stage presence, Muir is absolutely captivating – when the stage lights go down to focus on only her face and voice, it is almost impossible to turn away. As her best friend Michael, Ben Hallam is adorably campy, and stage veteran Samm Hagen rounds out the central trio as mayoress Violet Flowers. Hagen commands the stage from her very first moment, wielding her massive voice with finesse and lifting the performances of everyone around her with her presence alone.

As the ostensible antagonist Leo, Joseph Spanti offers both incredible singing and a refreshingly natural and truthful performance of the agonized character, flowing with ease into the charismatic showmanship of the second act. Callum Andreas, in a very grounded and gentle performance, has only one song as the mystical Jack Frost but easily turns it into the highlight of the show with his stunning voice. Ambrose Steinmetz and Penny Larkins, as Stella’s mother and grandmother respectively, radiate warmth and love, lifting the mood in the second act with their charming comedic duet.

While the rest of the season has been cancelled in light of recent developments, with as amazing a cast and an sublime a score as this Jack Frost definitely deserves a wider audience and further development and we can only hope it will return.

Venue: St Martin’s Youth Theatre, 28 St Martins Lane, South Yarra

Bookings: No longer available

Preview: The Secret Garden

A favourite musical returns to Melbourne

By Samuel Barson

The Phantom. Daddy Warbucks. Doctor Zhivago. The list goes on for national treasure Anthony Warlow and the endless list of memorable musical theatre characters he has played. None however, in his own words, will ever reach Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden. 

And in November 2020, after 25 years since he first played the role, Warlow’s Craven will be reintroduced to Australian audiences, alongside an exciting and fresh Australian cast for a national tour of The Secret Garden.

The cast were announced yesterday by John Frost OAM and Opera Australia. They include Georgina Hopson (Ragtime, West Side Story), Rob McDougal (Assassins, Les Misérables) and Gold Logie winner Rowena Wallace (Sons & Daughters, Neighbours).

The musical originally premiered on Broadway in 1991, with an Australian tour following in 1995. It tells the story of Mary Lennox, an orphaned 10 year old girl who is sent to live with relatives who she has never met. She learns about herself and her family as she tends a neglected garden that has, yes you guessed it, secrets.

The 2020 25th anniversary will see the production at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from 2nd August before moving to Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on 13th November.

Tickets for the Melbourne season are on sale from February 28th via secretgardenmusical.com.au or by calling 1300 795 267.

Photography by Samuel Barson

Review: Billy Elliot

A celebration of communal desires and the importance of relationships

By Joanne O’Mara

Billy Elliot: The Musical is a stunning piece of musical theatre that lifts us out of our everyday lives and takes us beyond ourselves.

When the curtain opens we are immediately plunged into the darkest depths of the 1984/85 coal miner’s strike in Durham, England. We are placed in a time when the miners’ collective unionism and shared sacrifices are threatened by Margaret Thatcher’s push to weaken the union system. Immersed in an empathic narrative that leads us to understand both the politics and lived experience of the miners— we meet Billy Elliot (played in Melbourne by Omar Abiad, River Mardesic, Wade Neilsen, and Jamie Rogers)—a boy who falls in love with ballet when he is meant to be boxing. Like many heroes, the odds are stacked against him—poverty, a toxic masculine culture and lack of social capital. We are inspired, moved and exalted as we travel the inspirational journey with him as he negotiates all of this to transcend his life and circumstances through his engagement with the arts.

The show is a celebration of communal desires and the importance of relationships. Billy is supported on his journey by three women—Mrs Wilkinson, a local B-grade ballet teacher (played by Lisa Sontag); Grandma (played by Vivien Davies) and Dead Mum, his mother, who has died several years before (played by Danielle Everett). All three of these women uplift him to enable him to rise above the toxic masculinity.

Billy’s Grandma describes her complex, oppressive, violent 33-year marriage to his alcoholic grandfather in a song describing how “your life ended when you had a ring around your finger” and the brief reprieve she and her husband both felt from the industrialised environment and their noxious lives when they went dancing. In another moving scene Billy recites and Mrs Wilkinson reads Dead Mum’s letter to Billy, where she pleas, “You must promise me this, Billy, in everything you do, always be yourself, Billy, and you always will be true”.

Through all of this, it is the male chorus, that set up the scenes so effectively as the strike and clashes between police and miners are ever-present in every moment of the play, most notably when the dance classes is so surrounded by the circumstances that the young girls and Billy merge with the strikers.

The most delightful rendering of the “Be yourself” theme is when Billy and his friend Michael dress in Michael’s mother’s clothes and sing a song about expressing themselves, asking “Cos what the hell is wrong with expressing yourself/ For wanting to be me?”. This celebratory number joyfully concludes, “The world’s grey enough without making it worse: What we need is individuality”.

The recently renovated Regent Theatre was sparkling and the lighting and sound in the play were incredible as a team of gifted designers worked effectively with some of the constraints of this beautiful venue, which was purpose-built as a movie theatre. I was most moved in the scene where Billy dances with his future self (played by Aaron Smyth). In this scene the scale of the boy dancing with a much larger male dancer and the use of effective lighting transports us into his imagination and dreams of his future self.

The heart of Billy Elliot: The Musical is about personal freedom—to choose your own path and live your own life. It is also about struggle and loss, and, while set in 1984, is incredibly contemporary, speaking to the circumstances that led to Brexit, to current conversations about male violence and redefinitions of what positive masculinity looks like. It is a stunning, inspirational, emancipatory piece of musical theatre.

Billie Elliot is playing at the Regent Theatre until the 19th April. The running time is 2 hours and 55 minutes with a 20-minute interval.

Show times and tickets at https://billyelliotthemusical.com.au/

Photography by James D. Morgan

 

Review: Shrek

A warm and lovely treat

By Bradley Storer

Based on the beloved film with a score by modern Broadway legend Jeanine Tesori, Shrek opened last night at Her Majesty’s Theatre to rousing response and standing ovation. Despite some minor technical issues and a slightly overpowering sound balance from the band pit, it is easy to see why this production has been charming audiences around Australia.

As the titular character, Ben Mingay offers a refreshingly truthful performance that helps to ground the cartoonish surroundings in emotional reality. Tapping into the loneliness and awkwardness that lies beneath the character’s abrasiveness, Mingay showcases a beautiful vulnerability alongside his gargantuan voice and stage presence. Nat Jobe has a harder time as Donkey, dealing with a role whose humour doesn’t translate as well from screen to stage but manages with good-natured cheek and bombastic energy.

In contrast to her earlier work as high energy fairytale ‘princess’-esque characters, Lucy Durack plays the stereotype-shattering Princess Fiona in a slightly more laid back and chilled manner than one would expect. This characterization can leave one wanting more in certain moments but pays off handsomely in her comic and romantic chemistry with Mingay, and she still sells her big Act Two opening – ‘Morning Person’ – with charm and cheer.

Todd McKenney as the walking visual gag Lord Farquaad steals every scene he is in, proving the very definition of a ‘star’ by milking what is essentially a one joke character to maximum effect. The ensemble are an absolute joy, shifting through various roles throughout but truly providing the heart and soul of the show as a ragtag bunch of displaced fairytale characters – watching them let loose during the ridiculous and empowering ‘Freak Flag’ is quite possibly the best moment of the entire performance. (Special mention to Denise Devlin, stepping in for Marcia Hines on opening night in the role of the Dragon, and unleashing some truly astonishing vocals during the finale)

A warm and lovely treat for children and parents alike, it would be hard to leave this show without a smile on your face!

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, 219 Exhibition St, Melbourne

Dates: February 19th – April 12th

Times: 7:30pm Wednesday/Friday/Saturday, 6pm Sunday, 1pm Wednesday/Thursday/Sunday, 2pm Saturday

Bookings: ticketek.com.au

Photography by Brian Geach

Review: Chicago

Full of razzle dazzle

By Rebecca Waese

The sizzling Jazz-age musical, Chicago, opened at the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne last night, satirizing the idea of the celebrity criminal, the corrupt justice system and the media that glamourizes American criminals, and especially, gorgeous female murderesses. Based on a 1926-play written by crime reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins on historical female murderesses who used their feminine wiles to get away with murder, this revival of the 1975 American musical is eerily resonant today in the age of ‘fake news’ where phoney celebrities dominate the headlines and Insta feeds. It was sultry, and full of ‘razzle dazzle’ with some fine moments of comedic timing and satire, and extraordinary talent.

Alinta Chidzey as Velma Kelly brought her outstanding talents in dance and voice to the stage, with vertical leg extensions and a vocal range and power that took my breath away. Having toured alongside Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz and winning an impressive collection of awards for Musical Theatre, Chidzey is one to watch. The casting of Casey Donovan as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton was bang-on. The former Australian Idol winner was a powerhouse to behold, owning the space with intensity and adding a sexy physical confidence to the role which was fabulous to see. Natalie Bassingthwaighte brought engaging comedic timing and physicality to the role of Roxie Hart, particularly in the press conference scene where the lawyer, Billy Flynn, played by Jason Donovan, uses her as his ventriloquized dummy to construct a new narrative and re-frame her as innocent. Donovan was slick, charming and humane in his dramatic portrayal of the celebrity lawyer and connected well to the Melbourne audience who welcomed him warmly. The vocals of Jason Donovan and Bassingthwaighte, however, were just not on the same level as Chidzey and Casey Donovan, whose voices filled the vast theatre and were in a league of their own.

Highlights of the show included the onstage orchestra (directed by Daniel Edmonds) who stole a few celebrity moments after interval with some upstanding jazz solos that got the crowd roaring. Understated cuckold Amos Hart, played by Rodney Dobson, had the best jazz hands in the show in his compelling, ‘Mr. Cellophane’ and the ensemble was extraordinarily strong with salivating sexy moves from Fred Casely, played by Andrew Cook and Fosse-inspired choreography by Ann Reinking and Gary Chryst that popped and pulsed with impressive synchronicity.

Opening on the historic night of Donald Trump’s impeachment, this Chicago production voices a timely and ironic message on the decline of justice and truth in America. Velma comments, “You know, a lot of people have lost faith in America and what America stands for’ and Billy Flynn’s response is to ‘Razzle Dazzle them… How can they see with sequins in their eyes?” A self-aware musical production such as this exposes our collective desire for both glamour and truth. With home-grown stars and a formidable ensemble, you will be entertained on a number of levels by this Australian production of Chicago.

Until 23rd February, tickets at http://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/musicals/chicago

Photography by Jeff Busby

 

Preview: People Suck

Who sucks more?

By Sebastian Purcell

People Suck, a musical comedy, explores the many ways in which people are just the worst. The creative, passionate, vibrant, energetic and enthusiastic cast works seamlessly together to show you all the ways the world has gone downhill lately. Comparing who sucks more (Voldemort vs Marilyn Manson), or who in the office is more annoying, or who you just don’t like for no good reason; this witty musical provides a not-so-gentle reminder to be ever vigilant on the trek to becoming a better human being.

Written by award-winning Canadian team Megan Phillips and Peter Cavell, airs common grievances through their clever and topical lyrics. The cast is beautifully and dutifully supported on the piano by Geoffrey Scarlett, but I can’t help wondering what the show would feel like with a band or small orchestra for added oomph.

The cast works really well as an ensemble feeding off each other’s energy and is wonderfully directed by Sarahlouise Younger; particularly in the opening number, “Todays Lesson”, where early primary school students work out that the world is a little messed up. There are moments where the harmonies are a little off throughout the show, but to be able to pitch and harmonise against a single piano is no easy feat.

Individually everyone receives their moment to shine. Belinda Jenkin portrays a wonderfully and hilariously frustrated woman who wishes her men (and women) sucked more in the bedroom. Tim Lancaster switches roles, mannerisms, and vocal styles throughout the show but stands out in his fast-paced lament of how often people seemingly manage to butcher the English language. Georgie Potter throws in a terrific Cardi B impression and brings to life every one’s worst nightmare of a stranger talking to you on a train. Ashley Weidner is the first to take the show to a deep and emotional level with his performance of Eleven, reflecting on a school bully’s impact 20 years on, a reminder of how our actions can haunt those years down the track.

However, it is Ashley Taylor who brings the cast together, firstly as Primary School Teacher trying to impart important life lessons on her challenging class, and then in her breath taking and tear-jerking performance of ‘I Don’t Know What to Say’. Vocally and emotionally she pours her heart out and you could feel the impact across the audience.

The stage is light on – chairs and tables to set scenes – yet in each moment you know exactly where you are going, which is a credit to the lightning, stage, costume and production design team.

The show uses course language, adult themes and questions the role of religion in today’s science orientated world. It had me grinning from ear to ear and left me reflective of what small changes we all could make to make the world suck a little less each day.

People Suck plays at Theatre Works- St Kilda from 20 – 30 November 2019.

Bookings: (03) 9534 3388 or online at www.theatreworks.org.au/program/people-suck/

Photography by Sarahlouise Younger and Ashley Taylor

Review: The Beautiful Game

Theatricalised slice of Irish Troubles

By Owen James

Amidst the madness of Fringe, independent company Manilla Street Productions are presenting a rarely-performed Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical about the lives of a football team wrestling with pride and confrontation during ‘The Troubles’. This is a high-quality production of material that I found at times unfulfilling and disjointed, but full kudos to Manilla Street Productions for choosing to tackle this little-known show.

Lloyd-Webber’s score is nothing groundbreaking, but suitably serves the emotional elements of the story. Though rife with generic and poorly-written lyrics that hinder potential character development, there are beautiful ballads and dynamic ensemble numbers peppered throughout. The book by respected veteran writer Ben Elton is at its best when tackling the darker themes stewing beneath these characters’ lives, crafting moments of emotion that are deeply affecting.

Director/producer Karen Jemison has brought the world of 1969 Belfast to life with evident understanding of the political and religious thunderstorm these conflicted young men are swallowed by. It is this ongoing conflict – both in their heads and on the streets – that is at the heart of The Beautiful Game, where you either take a side, or someone will choose one for you. Jemison has injected the production with a realistic sense of energy and danger that makes for compelling, engaging character work.

Choreography by Sue-Ellen Shook is seamlessly integrated into blocking, executed by an ensemble at the top of their game (no pun intended). A football match dissolves into a competitive, masculine dance sequence and out again in a West Side Story-esque blend of athleticism and choreographic metaphor. Daniele Buatti’s expert musical direction embraces the tender Irish melodies and rousing, chanted anthems of Lloyd-Webber’s score with vivacity and concentrated delicacy.

Stephen Mahy brings innocence and vulnerability to ambitious footballer John Kelly. This is a great vehicle for Mahy’s talents, his versatile voice gliding over difficult high melodies with ease – Mahy can sing anything. Stephanie Wall has crafted a detailed character in love interest Mary, and executes a perfect rendition of heartfelt, part-acapella ballad ‘If This Is What We’re Fighting For’.

David Meadows is a standout as Father O’Donnell, bringing gravitas and humour to this commanding but compassionate man, and finding depth in scenes both celebratory and devastating. Des Flanagan as bitter, turbulent Thomas carries the character’s complicated arc with building intensity in a delightfully intimidating and exceptional performance.

Sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco is superb, highlighting crisp and clean vocals and every note from the nine-piece band. Lighting designer Jason Bovaird has once again transformed the intimate Chapel into a colourful paradise, creating menacing alleyways, rowdy pubs, hotel rooms and bright football ovals, all with distant, twinkling Irish hues hanging over every desperate character’s decision.

The material is undoubtedly imbued with heart and passion, but does not always connect its serious and comedic elements in a believable manner, creating a sometimes confusing dichotomy of tone. The extremely strong cast and production team of Manilla Street have played to the show’s many strengths with a very faithful, polished presentation – audiences will undoubtedly relish the professional performances and quality of this production. I cannot wait to see what Manilla Street bring us next.

Running at Chapel Off Chapel until 29th September
Tickets: https://chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/the-beautiful-game/