Category: Musical Theatre

Review: Fugitive Songs

Fugitives, runaways and a sublime musical score

By Owen James

Sonder Theatre Company have produced an extraordinary production of this rarely performed musical. Both this company and this director, Dirk Hoult, are clearly ones to watch in the Melbourne theatre scene.

Fugitive Songs rotates characters and settings around the theme of running away – although not in the same sense as other “fugitive musicals” such as Bonnie and Clyde or Thrill Me. These are regular people pushed to their limits, they are victims of circumstance, avoiding or escaping their past or future. Each song gives us a new moment, a new perspective or intrinsic human value such as fear, resilience or recovery to consider.

Composers Nathan Tysen (music) and Chris Miller (lyrics) (a team also known for musicals Tuck Everlasting and The Burnt Part Boys) have shaped these unique stories with a folky score reminiscent of early works of Pasek & Paul or of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, packed with humour and warmth. Musical Director Caleb Garfinkel has brought this difficult score to life with love, precision, and a team of electrifying voices and musicians – proving Garfinkel’s consistently impressive musical direction.

Director Dirk Hoult has done an extraordinary job physicalising this score, creating ensemble movement that elevates every lyric without ever becoming distracting. He has ensured that in this intimate world of diatribes and confessions each song has a distinctly unique flavour. I’d rush out to see any productions Hoult has a part in.

Every member of this six-person ensemble brings their all to this fugitive world and by portraying their numerous characters with realistic humour and pain, they keep us engaged in every new chapter. This show is the perfect vehicle for each of them, giving every performer a chance to shine. Though, special mentions are due to Bailey Dunnage and Luisa Scrofani who both have a magical stage presence that induces laughter and heartache at every new turn.

Lighting by Jason Crick is sharp and precise, embracing each song and character with a personalised glow. His work is sublime, transforming this small black box theatre into dozens of locations both large and small.

Fugitive Songs likely won’t be seen in Melbourne again for a long time. It is a credit to this emerging company that they have chosen this rarely-presented piece and pulled it off close to perfection. I can’t wait to see what comes next for Sonder.

Fugitive Songs was performed at Chapel Off Chapel 27 August – 2 September. See here for more information about Sonder Theatre Company.

Photograph: Lissa & Laz Photography


Review: Mamma Mia! The Musical

Musical extravaganza will have you dancing in the aisles to ABBA’s greatest hits

By Owen James

It’s the classic party music we all know and love realised onstage in this musical extravaganza that makes it a great night out for all ages.

When 21-year old Sophie secretly invites three of her mother Donna’s past lovers to her wedding on the fictional Greek island Kalokairi, chaos and confusion ensue. Throw in twenty two of ABBA’s best songs alongside this simple but effective plot, and Mamma Mia quickly becomes a joyous musical extravaganza.

This is the third professional incarnation of Mamma Mia The Musical in Melbourne, and its pure, unbridled joy is infectious and irresistible for everyone in the Princess Theatre. If you’re not grooving in your seat during this show, you’re either deaf or soulless. The energy of the performers is palpable, and every person onstage gives their all to this electric, joyous atmosphere.

Gary Young has directed this polished production, ensuring that it parties harder and bigger than any other jukebox musical. The second act moves a little slower than the first, but familiar peppy ABBA tunes accompany a very colourful disco-style finale that makes dancing in the aisles genuinely irresistible.

The choreography by Tom Hodgson is jaw-droppingly spectacular. Huge kudos to the entire ensemble for their slick, sharp execution, and to Hodgson for a truly fantastic grasp of effective ensemble movement.

Featuring Natalie O’Donnell. Photo credit: James Morgan.

Sarah Morrison as Sophie brings a beautiful warm energy to the stage in every scene she’s in. Her infectious smile and sublime vocals ride the deceptively complex ABBA melodies with ease, and she’s an utter joy to watch in every moment.

Natalie O’Donnell’s Donna is heart-warming and heart-breaking, and she belts every iconic ballad and party classic with divine passion. ‘Money, Money, Money’ is one of the show’s best moments thanks to O’Donnell’s energetic and jovial performance. Jayde Westaby contributes a cheeky and feisty Tanya, and Alicia Gardiner is glowing as hilarious Rosie – her gleeful physical comedy is a highlight of many of the trio’s group numbers.

Phillip Lowe as Harry Bright, Josef Ber as Bill Austin, and Ian Stenlake as Sam Carmichael are each a perfect fit for their three beautifully distinct characters. Their comedic confusion is enchanting as they bounce off one another with ease, and moments of fond reflection throughout the show of their time on this island twenty years prior are heartfelt and warm.

Take A Chance on Mamma Mia The Musical – it’s guaranteed to leave you with a grin, and possibly some sore calves from boogying in the aisles. Lay All Your Love on this Super Trouper playing at the Princess Theatre until September 30th.

Mamma Mia! The Musical is being performed at the Princess Theatre until 30 September.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 111 011.

Photographs: James Morgan

Review: Bring It On

Vibrant and uplifting, Stage Masters’ high school classic soars

By Owen James

Bring It On is Stage Masters’ first foray into professional theatre after producing youth productions for a number of years, and they have really stepped up to the plate. I remember seeing their youth production of Bring It On in 2015, and I’m blown away by how far this company has come.

Loosely based on the film of the same name, Bring It On follows the journey of high school cheerleader Campbell as she navigates the highs, lows and backstage drama of the high school cheer world. After being transferred to a new school, Campbell must make new friends and form a new cheer squad to compete in the National Championships.

The book by Jeff Whitty is both tight and clumsy at different times, but Alister Smith’s direction ensures the pace rocks along as fast as some of Lin-Manuel Miranda and Amanda Green’s rap-filled lyrics. It’s undoubtedly one of the most combined physically and vocally demanding shows I’ve seen, and this cast nail it.

The first act is admittedly much stronger than the second both in music and writing, but there are energetic crowd-pleasers throughout. Michael Ralph’s choreography is some of the most vibrant and jaw-dropping I’ve seen in theatre and matches perfectly with the score by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ensemble numbers like ‘What I Was Born To Do’, ‘Friday Night Jackson’ and both teams’ final performances at Nationals are where the choreography really shines – with some cast members almost touching the Athenaeum ceiling as they soar into the air. Musical Director Daniele Buatti executes this funky, synthy score flawlessly, and Greg Ginger’s sound design rocks the theatre with every electronic pulse.

Nadia Komazec is exemplary as Campbell, onstage for almost every scene but never missing a beat. Audition favourite One Perfect Moment is executed with vocal perfection, and throughout the show she develops a truly beautiful connection with the audience. Mean Girls The Musical needs to be rushed to Australia immediately with Komazec as Regina George.

Nicola Bowman almost steals the show as hilarious Bridget. She is an utter delight to watch in every moment with impeccable comic timing and undoubtedly has a very successful future ahead of her. Elandrah Feo is perfectly cast as sassy Danielle. She is compellingly energetic in every move and note and despite the ferocity of her character, brings a beautifully watchable and warm energy to the stage.

Karla Tonkich as ambitious antagonist Eva, lights up the stage with every assertive quip and evil riff. Second act song ‘Killer Instinct’ is performed with hilarious intensity from Tonkich and quickly becomes a show highlight. Special mentions to Marty Alix as La Cienega who we can’t help but love, and to Tarik Frimpong as Twig whose stage presence is utterly sensational.

Bring It On has already extended its Melbourne Season – it’s wonderful to see this production getting the attention it deserves. We need more short professional runs like Bring It On in Melbourne, so that shows that might not pull audiences for months on end in the Regent still have their chance for creatives and audiences alike. Congratulations to producers David Venn and Stage Masters for presenting this gem – I highly recommend everyone gets along to this passionate and uplifting night at the theatre.

Bring It On is being performed at Athenaeum Theatre until 23 June.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 13 28 49.

MICF presents Tinder Tales

Dating, devices and love at first swipe

By Amy Planner

From Australian writing duo Mattie Mcleod and Thomas Bradford comes this brand new totally Aussie musical about dating in the new tech-savvy swiping world of Tinder.

Abby is a little unlucky in love and has had a rather unsuccessful dating life. While trying to navigate the swipe-crazy world of online dating, Abby has to struggle through her dating life with the voices of her Doubt, Insecurity and Mother forcefully tagging along for the ride. When she lucks upon the profile of Evan she is struck with what she thinks is love at first swipe and so the singing and dancing tale begins.

This show was a non-stop ride of awkward sex scenes, brutally honest truths, terrifying realities and damn catchy musical numbers. The small cast of six were nothing short of fantastic: Eadie Testro-Girasole (Abby), Mel O’Brien (Insecurity), Aubrey Flood (Doubt), Yashith Fernando (Evan), Callum Warrender (Ensemble) and Tash Jenkins (Ensemble). Each had their own uniqueness and flare, which created a truly rich performance. Their offstage bond was evident in their onstage trust of each other and their willingness to go the whole nine yards.

The use of minimal set, costume and lighting elements had a significant impact at the right times. The intimate space meant that there was no need for a flashy set, sparkly costumes or bright lights, it called for talent to shine and story to triumph, and they truly did.

Aside from some minor issues in ensemble volume level towards the beginning and a couple of unnecessary costume changes that could be improved by simplified garments, this show deserves an absolutely tremendous round of applause.

Perhaps the loudest applause should go to the creators of this show. With book and lyrics by Mattie Mcleod and music by Thomas Bradford, Tinder Tales is a stroke of musical comedy brilliance. In an image-obsessed world where true love is a mere swipe away, this production tells us to follow our hearts and trust our instincts despite the voices in our heads. If you can get a ticket to this show – do it, swipe right because it’s a match. Tinder Tales is a real must-see!

Tinder Tales is being performed at The MC Showroom until 22 April.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9245 3788.

StageArt Presents Garfield: A Musical With Catitude

Garfield roars, or rather sarcastically purrs, onto the Chapel stage to delight children and adults alike.

By Owen James

Garfield: A Musical With Catitude sees the titular feline leave his safe surroundings at home with owner Jon and go exploring for his “fantastic birthday” in alleys and daydreams. Accompanied by animal friends Odie, Arlene and Nermel, together they contemplate life as pets, and avoid animal control in the scary outside world. Garfield is StageArt’s first school holiday show produced for children and does not disappoint.

Director Luigi Lucente has milked the child-friendly book by Michael J. Bobbitt and Jim Davis for all it’s worth, creating a colourful palate of lively characters that make children squeal and adults smile. You can’t help but grin and giggle in this delightful world.

Musical Director Caleb Garfinkel has made the most of the zany music by John L. Cornelius II. With beautifully executed harmonies peppered throughout, this ensemble of five brought this simple but charming score to theatrical life.

Madison Lee’s choreography is highly energetic and rarely leaves characters a moment to breathe. Children will delight in enthusiastic and playful movement that keeps the imagination of young audience members active.

With his sour attitude leaping out of the comic strip and onto stage, Lachlan Graham’s Garfield has ten times the energy of any cat I’ve ever met. Graham’s expert grasp on physical comedy induced frequent laughter, and his genuine enthusiasm for the role and for theatre for youth shines in his performance.

Garfield’s friends Arlene (Grace Browne), Nermel (Laura Greenhalgh) and Odie (Callum Warrender) deliver highly polished performances with beautifully clear caricatures that engage even the youngest attendee. Never once dropping gusto or focus, these characters dance and sing their way through Garfield’s pessimism, reminding us to look for the silver lining in every situation. Warrender as Odie was a special fan favourite, with his lines including “woof” and “bark” inducing many squeals and smiles.

Garfield is a treat. Adults will love the scattered pop culture references, kids’ faces will light up at the animated onstage antics, and “I Hate Mondays” will stay in your head for the rest of the day. With a running time of only 60 minutes and ticket prices as low as a movie ticket and small popcorn, Garfield makes purrfect school holiday entertainment.

Garfield: A Musical With Catitude plays at Chapel Off Chapel until 13 April.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

MICF presents Romeo is Not the Only Fruit

A refreshing Shakespeare mash-up that obliterates all lesbian stereotypes

By Lois Maskiell

Another reimagined Shakespeare might not have everyone leaping from their couches to purchase tickets, but Romeo is Not the Only Fruit definitely should convince otherwise. Jean Tong’s latest offering revolutionises the tale of star-crossed lovers, by creating a highly original romantic comedy. Written and Directed by Tong and featuring a cast of queer women of colour, this sharply satirical and heart-warming musical is easily the most refreshing mash-up of Shakespeare I have seen.

Revolving around the “bury your gays” trope, whereby queer characters are often killed off in various media, Juliet (Margot Tanjutco) and Darcy (Louisa Wall) fall in love despite their odds. The couple’s trajectory is witnessed by the dead lesbian chorus (Sasha Chong, Nisha Joseph and Pallavi Waghmode) who are both onlookers and meddling family members. At times they cheer the lovers on, while at others they coerce Juliet towards a heteronormative route. Though, like in all good rom-coms true love prevails as Juliet and her white girl lover overcome the obstacles of conservative parents, interracial romance and of course “dead lesbian syndrome”.

Photographs: Jules Tahan

Tanjutco plays a charming and determined Juliet whose journey in love is mirrored by an arcade game of Mortal Combat. Fantastic sound effects tally Juliet and Darcy’s points as their romance develops. The chorus becomes increasingly involved in the outcome of their relationship, enjoying their clumsy triumphs as well as their spicier moments.

Tong’s lyrics teamed with James Gales’ composition and sound create a quality score with catchy, in-your-face lyrics. Diva powerhouse Pallavi Waghmode’s singing is something to witness in itself, her voice carries the songs with power. Sasha Chong as Juliet’s mother is quick-witted and captivating, and together with the naturally humorous Nisha Joseph, makes half of a strong comedic duo.

James Lew’s set and costumes give the show a kitsch aesthetic, the most innovative example being oversized cardboard drinks that Juliet and Darcy slurp on while watching performance art. All this, with Laura Frew’s pop choreography make this brilliant mash-up of Romeo and Juliet a pleasure to watch. Romeo is Not the Only Fruit challenges conventions and tropes with humour, and there’s no doubt many will leap from couches to see this production before it closes.

Romeo is Not the Only Fruit plays at Malthouse until 8 April.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111.


StageArt Presents Bare

StageArt lifts the musical Bare to soaring new heights
By Owen James 

StageArt’s latest offering of rarely produced theatre for Melbourne is bold and relevant. Bare explores sexuality and identity in an oppressive world, and while the almost twenty-year-old material is becoming a little dated, given the recent social and political climate both in Australia and worldwide, Bare comes as a timely and pertinent reminder to listen and accept.

There is no better venue for Bare than Chapel Off Chapel. Director Dean Drieberg’s set uses the glorious stained glass window of the church-turned-theatre as the permanent backdrop for the action. This, combined with a large, looming cross suspended above the stage, makes the characters seem microscopic against what’s above.

As Damon Intrabartolo and Jon Hartmere’s book puts turbulent teenage emotions in the pressure-cooker setting of a Catholic boarding school, Drieberg has ensured every moment of these characters’ lives is as realistic as possible. Kirra Sibel’s choreography melts seamlessly into Drieberg’s vision, adding clarity and fluidity to this depiction of teenage frustration. And right from the opening song, the cast proves they can keep up with every fast-paced move thrown at them. Special mention to the most inventive use of chairs I’ve ever seen onstage during ‘Wonderland’.

Photographs: Belinda Strodder

It is the choreography and the music of this show that gives the confused and raging hormones of these characters an outlet to scream at their oppressive and irrelevant world. Caleb Garfinkel (Musical Director) has ensured every harmony is brought to life with killer perfection, leading a band that rocks the Chapel through this pulsating, lively score.

Adam Di Martino delivers stunningly perfect vocals as Peter, with never a note out of place. He plays the innocence and vulnerability of Peter beautifully, but for me, fell slightly short of reaching a believable emotional climax towards the end of the second act. Thankfully, Martino’s passionate and soaring high notes are more than enough to provoke tears.

Finn Alexander makes us fall in love with him again and again as Jason. Adored by cast and audience alike, Alexander never puts a foot wrong in his vital role and his charm wins us over (as well as Peter and Ivy) from the opening scene.

Hannah McInerney delivers a moving performance in the very underwritten character of Ivy, and Hannah Grodin as the ignored and overlooked Nadia breaks both smiles and hearts. However, painting both Ivy and Nadia as unredeemed females relying on others for their happiness is problematic and shows the age of the material.

Ivy is yet another female character punished for impulsive actions. Emotionally ignored by characters absorbed in their own problems, she is left alone with burdens beyond her years. McInerney brings Ivy to life with a moving, emotional performance and delightfully smooth vocals. Grodin’s moments of wonderfully rude teenage jealousy are truly hilarious, and she belts out ‘Quiet Night At Home’ with ease.

We do get a strong female character from Vanessa Menjivar as the delightfully sassy Sister Chantelle. Her two numbers, ‘911 Emergency’ and ‘God Don’t Make No Trash’ are each filled with a stirring burst of energy. We want to see much more of Mandi Lodge as Claire, as her brief appearances are affecting and exceptional.

There is not a weak link to be found in this ensemble – as sarcastic, mindlessly doting and judgemental as real adolescents –  they collectively embrace the various stereotypes found in high school and make them unique and believable.

Lighting by Maddy Seach and Jason Bovaird, and sound by Marcello Lo Ricco are faultless, effortlessly transforming the small stage into an oppressive church, school hallway, claustrophobic dormitory and dingy rave.

Having seen Bare three times now, I have come to accept that the original material is at times clunky and melodramatic, briefly dipping into moments reminiscent of The Bold and the Beautiful. However, StageArt’s production lifts the material to soaring new heights, and is definitely worth the ticket. Bare is a must-see for fans of musicals like Spring Awakening, Dear Evan Hansen or RENT, and for any fans of Bare already – this is the best you will ever see this show performed.

Bare plays at Chapel Off Chapel until 15 April.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.