Category: Musical Theatre

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

Review: Tinder Tales

New Australian musical impresses and woos 

By Samuel Barson

“Dick is dick” in Tinder Tales is the equivalent of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”. It is equally as memorable, but perhaps slightly raunchier and a little more gratifying than Shakespeare’s work (in this circumstance at least). This line represents modern romance in all its paradoxical nature – symbolising the love lives of today’s youth as so much simpler than before, yet horrifyingly more complex.

Tinder Tales shows audiences this paradox through the eyes of Abby (played beautifully by Eadie Testro-Girasole), as she navigates the use of Tinder, the modern dating app we have all come to know so well. She is after the perfect match. Who she finds soon enough, in Evan (played ever so charismatically by Tom New). But not soon after Abby and Evan’s first date we (and they) realise that they are perhaps not so perfect for each other after all. Abby quickly finds herself struggling with her own self-worth, as well as holding on to the idea of ‘the perfect match’ she has worked so tirelessly to find.

The entire cast present the highs, lows, laughs and tears of modern romance with gorgeous energy and humour. Anna Wilshire and Callum Warrender were particularly entertaining, both bringing a unique stage presence that made it hard to keep your eyes off them, even when they weren’t centre stage.

The music was sharp and succinct, with clever and relatable lyrics (props to writer Mattie Mcleod and composer and musical director Thomas Bradford). Perhaps so much so that scenes were at times disappointing when the cast weren’t singing and dancing. Rachael McLean’s design was homely and familiar, which worked terrifically well considering how familiar the characters inhabiting the space were themselves.

Tinder Tales is an impressive new Australian musical, with a myriad of characters and situations you will undoubtedly recognise, regardless of your dating app use or relationship status.

Tinder Tales is being performed 24 – 28 October at Chapel Off Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photograph: supplied

NINE – The Musical

Romance and writer’s block: musical adaptation of Guido Contini’s life

By Owen James


StageArt present yet another rarely performed musical masterpiece with Nine: The Musical which explores the dozens of exhausted mental catacombs belonging to the arrogant, tortured and “genius” filmmaker Guido Contini. As he endures a mid-life crisis approaching his fortieth birthday, his emotional and sexual frustrations obstruct his usual creative liberty.

At first, it is difficult to understand what relevancy Nine has in 2018 – it is a show revolving around a man worshipped by women and who in turn often objectifies and mistreats them. Lines such as “there are only two kinds of women in the world – wives and whores” could easily be taken with offence in today’s socio-political climate, which must be considered when re-mounting any piece of art from the past. But despite Guido’s ego, it is ultimately his mental health that is explored in Nine, making a welcome contribution to the all-too silent public conversation surrounding this. And any production that can display the talents of sixteen women as strong as those in Nine must be welcomed to the stage.

And if there are two elements to surely praise in this production, one is unquestionably the talented female cast and the second is the music of Maury Yeston. In the opening song, Guido is literally swallowed by a sea of long hair and elegant cocktail dresses: jaw-dropping for the sheer number of powerful women who command both our and Guido’s attention. It’s a hypnotic effect, and their constant presence throughout the rest of the show builds to an overwhelmingly beautiful cacophony in key moments.

Clear standouts from this incredibly strong ensemble are Rachel Bronca as seductress Carla, the phenomenal Bronte Florian as Saraghina (who truly shines in her scene with young Guido and in Be Italian), and Stephanie John as fast-talking, intimidating Stephanie. All three deliver sensational, captivating performances.

Anthony Scundi delivers a strong performance as Guido Contini, but noticeably struggles with his vocals – perhaps reflecting a strained voice following weeks of intensive rehearsals. Scundi’s stage presence successfully delivers Guido’s delusion as he dips between fantasy and the real world and his increasing madness in indecision – creatively, emotionally and sexually.

Director and choreographer Michael Ralph ensures this madness manifests at every opportunity. He has created a world where the lines between fantasy and reality are skilfully blurred, exacerbating Guido’s confusion and descent into mania. Ralph’s choreography is sublime, ranging from angelic obsession in Overture Delle Donne, to disrupted delicacy in The Grand Canal, and to dirty, sharp, cathartic movement in showstopper Be Italian. The open, transformable set by Ralph and Tom Willis accompanied by gorgeous lighting from Willis breed an inviting atmosphere where anything is possible, and indeed at any point we could be inside Guido’s daydream, nightmare, or real-life torment. Dazzling costuming from Meredith Cooney complete this unbridled visual nirvana of dreams and possibility.

Alana Tranter as loyal, dependable wife Luisa evokes our pity but warms our hearts in Be on Your Own, and a special mention must be given to Kershawn Theodore as Young Guido (alternated by Brierley Smith) who hits every move and note with sharp precision – he has a bright theatre career ahead of him.

The score by Maury Yeston is rich, sophisticated and powerful. In every song, the orchestra, led by musical director Nathan Firmin with AMD Peter Pham Nguyen, is utterly stellar, capturing every emotion from the original 26-piece orchestration with only eight staggeringly talented musicians – but you’d think it was many more from the full and textured sound they produce. Near perfection in sound design from Marcello Lo Ricco delivers crisp and clean vocals with a beautifully balanced band.

Based on Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 ½, Nine is best described as Company meets Follies meets Loving Repeating, with a dash of Passion and Cabaret – and notably won the Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Original Score for the original 1982 Broadway production. If you’ve seen the 2009 film adaptation, you absolutely haven’t seen the stage show – they are barely cousins let alone siblings (the stage show is far superior).

Nine delivers fast-paced, dark material with an extremely talented cast, addressing creative pressure and the power of female influence. As with all StageArt presentations, Nine is not a show you’re likely to see again anytime soon in Melbourne – and certainly not in such an intimate, intricate production.

NINE The Musical is being performed 12 October -13 November at Chapel Off Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photograph: supplied 

Review: Disenchanted

Has the damsel in distress had her day?

By Narelle Wood 

It’s a tale as old as time: pretty damsel finds herself in distress and is rescued by a handsome prince. Well woodland creatures, princes and enchanted rodents beware; these damsels are disenchanted with their lot and they’re not afraid to sing about it.

Disenchanted, directed by (Madison Thew-Keyworth) is a cabaret-style show lead by Snow White (Ellie Nunan), Cinderella (Courtney Underhill) and the occasionally conscious Sleeping Beauty (Tayla Johnston). To highlight the many issues with what the princesses term “the princess complex” the trio of merry maidens are joined on stage by some other famous females including Mulan, Pocahontas and Princess Badroulbadour – or as we now know her, Princess Jasmine –  (all played by Jennifer Trijo), Belle, Ariel, Rapunzel (all played by Demi Phillips) and Tiana (Asabi Goodman), the first African American Disney princess, who also happened to kiss a frog.

Together the princesses take a slightly more realistic, some may say a little cynical but much needed, look at their fairy-tale storylines, and in doing so raise a few questions around the types of messages these stories are sending and whether the idea of a damsel in distress has had its day.

There are songs about cultural appropriation, the Disney-fixation on making grim tales more palpable to children, and the capitalist venture that is princess entertainment. Cinderella’s anthem for an image-obsessed generation, All I Wanna Do is Eat, is just one of many songs that touch on body image issues, which are suggested to stem from the unrealistic proportions often used to portray the feminine physique. My favourite song though is Snow White’s truthful version of what she would like to be singing while she worked, and despite being an upbeat and perky number called A Happy Tune, Snow White drives home some pretty hard-hitting messages about household equality.

The show’s a hoot. The band – under the musical direction of Bradley McCaw – look like they’re having a blast. The cast has charm, wit and beauty, which is everything you could want in a prince, and is all wrapped up in a feisty fairy-tale princess package. Snow White is cool, calm and in control and Cinderella’s comic timing is perfect. Sleeping Beauty is, when she’s not asleep, a little over sexed – which is a good opportunity to point out that this show is not recommended for anyone under the age of 15. Best leave the little princesses at home.

Disenchanted was an Off-Broadway hit and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not the fairy-tale we know, but it is very much the modern take on these fairy-tale classics that we need to hear.

Disenchanted, presented by Mad About Theatre, is being performed at Athenaeum Theatre 6 – 8 September.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 13 28 49.

Photograph: Rick Monk

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