Mystery Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 24 at 2pm

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

It’s a measure of the respect Squabbalogic now commands that it can sell out two performances at the Reginald Theatre without audiences having a clue what it is they are going to see.

Tickets to Squabbalogic’s first Mystery Musical were snapped up fast, raising $10,000 for the company, as the company’s artistic director Jay James-Moody told us in his welcome speech before the start of the show. He also revealed that the independent company has applied for funding for the first time.

Anyway, everyone was clearly delighted to be contributing to the cause and was fascinated to see what musical the Squabb team had chosen for the company’s first blind-date show.

With the promised theatre program not being handed out until interval, it wasn’t until the first chords sounded and the cast burst into song that we discovered it was…..(drum roll) Bye Bye Birdie. It was a surprise choice in some ways, as Squabbalogic tends to produce recent musicals we would otherwise be unlikely to see. (Though in another unusual move they are producing Man of La Mancha next month).

The 1960 show with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams is pure musical comedy. I have never seen it on stage. In fact, I didn’t really know the show beyond some of the more famous songs like Put On a Happy Face and A Lot Of Livin’ To Do. So the chance to see it at all was great, and then to see it done so well – with just three days rehearsal – was the cream on the cake. I have to say it was a delightful way to spend an afternoon and everyone in the audience seemed to leave with a big smile on their face.

James-Moody starred, directed and “sort of choreographed” as he put it in the program – though in his welcoming remarks he did acknowledge the help of the cast and Nancye Hayes with the choreography.

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

He had assembled a terrific group of performers – Johanna Allen, Blake Erickson, Mikey Hart, Nancye Hayes, Jessica James-Moody, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Rob Johnson, Josie Lane, Michele Lansdown, Adele Parkinson, Garry Scale and Rowan Witt – and cast the show exceptionally well.

Their ranks were bolstered by an ensemble of 15 enthusiastic, talented graduates and students from the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) as the show’s teenagers.

Bye Bye Birdie is an affectionate satire, inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the army in 1957. It has plenty of catchy songs, a strong book full of big laughs (which plugs into the growing generation gap between teenagers and their parents), and an old-fashioned, feel-good exuberance about it.

Adele Parkinson as Kim. Photo: Amelia Burns

Adele Parkinson as Kim with Jessica James-Moody and Romy Watson. Photo: Amelia Burns

In a nutshell, the show is set in 1958. Agent/songwriter Albert Peterson, who is already in debt, hears that rock and roll star Conrad Birdie has been drafted.

Albert’s secretary and long-suffering sweetheart Rose Alvarez, comes up with a publicity stunt to bring in some bucks. Albert will write a new song called “One Last Kiss” for Conrad, who will sing it and kiss one of his thousands of fans (picked at random) as he departs. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Then, says Rosie, Albert will be able to wind up his business, marry her and become an English teacher (as he has been promising for yonks).

Throw in Albert’s domineering, interfering mother, who does all she can to prevent him marrying Rosie, Kim’s disapproving family and jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody, along with hordes of screaming, swooning fans, and things naturally go pear-shaped.

It’s a hoot that the happy ending has Albert agreeing to walk away from New York and showbiz and head instead for the tiny town of Pumpkin Falls, Iowa to teach English and Domestic Science, with Rose as his wife. Hard to make that outcome fly as a happy ending these days!

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

As with Neglected Musicals’ rehearsed readings, the cast performed with book in hand. But the standard of performance was remarkable given such little rehearsal time. James-Moody as Albert, Josie Lane as Rosie, Adèle Parkinson as Kim and Nancye Hayes as Albert’s mother were all sensational, performing with just the right, light comic touch. But kudos to the entire cast, each of whom did a fantastic job. Praise too to musical director Hayden Barltrop on keys.

Even without being fully staged, Bye Bye Birdie was a delightful, thoroughly satisfying performance that gave audiences a welcome chance to experience a classic musical comedy. I look forward to the next Mystery Musical with great anticipation.

As for Squabbalogic, which just this week won four 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards for its glorious production of The Drowsy Chaperone, the company just seems to go from strength to strength. Let’s hope funding follows.

Puncture

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 23 at 2pm

A scene from Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

A scene from Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

Given a brief season as part of the 2015 Sydney Festival, Puncture is such a lovely show that it begs to be brought back and seen more widely.

Directed by Patrick Nolan with choreography by Kathryn Puie and musical direction by Elizabeth Scott, it is the result of a fruitful collaboration between Legs on the Wall, Form Dance Projects (which fosters dance culture in Western Sydney) and Vox, a vocal ensemble from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

For the Festival, it was performed on the stage of Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre with the fire curtain down, a bank of seating at one end and percussionist Bree Van Reyk and pianist Luke Byrne at the other.

The show starts almost subliminally. Faint, shadowy images of dancing figures appear on the two sidewalls of the space (video design by Mic Gruchy). A young woman (Kristina Chan) wanders onto the stage, joined not long after by a young man (Joshua Thomson). Their eyes meet, he moves over to her, then another young man intervenes and drags her away.

The space fills up with young people while choral voices singing the word “Hello” fill the air. Couples form and reform, attractions, arguments and passions flare, as the performers move through various dance forms: courtly, folksy, line dancing, the waltz and the tango, leading eventually to a mosh pit-like frenzy.

There is also aerial work with performers flying through the air, and asoprano (Charlotte Campbell) sings while sitting on an aerial hoop. Not only does she look as relaxed as all get-out, but she then throws in a few confident ‘hoop moves’ on her descent.

The gorgeous choral music by composer Stefan Gregory is seductively eclectic ranging from the baroque to a version of Madonna’s Like a Virgin and is beautifully sung by the choir who are mostly positioned near the musicians but now and again move through the dancers and interact with them.

Chan and Thomson – both acclaimed contemporary dancers – are compelling as the young lovers at the heart of the piece. They lead a strong company that also includes Jay Bailey, Cloé Fournier, Anna Healey, Kei Iishi, Billy Keohavong, Rob McCredie, Hayley Raw, Michael Smith, Stephen Williams and Jessica Wong.

All of them perform with enormous energy and an exciting, high-octane physicality, the sweat literally dripping from them, while managing to project individual personalities at the same time.

Praise too to Mel Page for her colourful costuming and Damien Cooper for his lighting.

The piece (which runs for 60 minutes) ends with the choir singing “I love you” as the dancers move towards the audience, inviting some of them up to dance. I, like many, am terrified of the thought of getting up on stage, and I can’t dance, but I was one of the ones invited and have to say it was a lovely moment (thanks Billy!) and a heart-warming, uplifting conclusion.

Puncture is described as embracing “the risk and ritual of intimacy on a dance floor”. It is a beautiful, moving work about human connection and all the emotions that swirl around that. Let’s hope it returns.

Puncture has its final performance at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta at 2pm today.

A Simple Space

The Aurora, Festival Village, Hyde Park North, January 13

Flying high in A Simple Space. Photo: Prudence Upton

Flying high in A Simple Space. Photo: Prudence Upton

The Sydney Festival has once again created a lively hub at Hyde Park North with its Festival Village set-up, which has been expanded this year to accommodate the crowds.

There are two Spiegeltents in place, with The Aurora home to two circus shows – A Simple Space and LIMBO – running through the Festival.

LIMBO is back after a sellout season at last year’s Festival. It didn’t feel quite so tightly paced on opening night as it did in 2014 but it’s still a terrific, seductive show (see my review from last year).

A Simple Space by Adelaide-based company Gravity & Other Myths is a much more raw but thoroughly charming show. It features a company of seven acrobats – five men (Triton Tunis-Mitchell, Lachlan Binns, Martin Schreiber, Jacob Randell, Daniel Liddiard) and two women (Jascha Boyce and Rhiannon Cave-Walker) – along with a musician (Elliot Zoerner) who provides a driving percussion score and, at one point, steps into the limelight to become a human drum machine.

In terms of aesthetic, A Simple Space is certainly true to its title. It’s circus at the other end of the spectrum from the slick, mega-produced spectacle of Cirque du Soleil. There’s no set, minimal props and basic costuming (lads in jeans and T-shirts, ladies in white shorts and black tops). It’s a decidedly glitz-free zone.

Sitting at such close quarters, we see the sweat and straining muscles, we hear the hard breathing, which all adds to the enjoyable homespun feel.

The vibe is rough-and-ready playful; the performers seem to be having as much fun as we are. They begin with a line-up along the back of the stage – to which they revert at the end of each act.

The show opens with something akin to a drama trust exercise in which they all move around the stage, yelling “falling” as one of them drops and is caught just before crashing – with a comic moment to cap it off.

There are all kinds of impressive balancing acts along with a very funny strip-skipping routine, balloon-moulding, a strong-woman act in which the two ladies each lift a man from the audience to see who can hold them up the longest, and a breath-holding contest.

One of the men solves a Rubik’s Cube while standing on his head. (Someone should get him to duet with Hilary Cole, who solves a Rubik’s Cube while singing in her cabaret show O.C. Diva).

The climax is a routine where the men toss the two women around, throwing them skywards while holding their hands and feet as if airing a blanket, and using them like human skipping ropes.

Overall, it does feel as if  A Simple Space has one or two balancing acts too many (skillful though they are) but even so it’s a really engaging show.

A Simple Space plays in The Aurora as part of Sydney Festival until January 25

Next to Normal

Hayes Theatre Co, January 14

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

A musical about manic depression? The brave choice of subject matter was part of Next to Normal’s cachet when it debuted Off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway in 2009, winning three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

For all the kudos, the musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) is a flawed piece – though it is movingly performed in this production from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts.

The story centres on Diana (Natalie O’Donnell), a grief-stricken, suburban mother with bipolar disorder, and the impact this has on her husband Dan (Anthony Harkin), daughter Natalie (Kiane O’Farrell) and son Gabe (Brent Trotter).

It’s a dark show, and could do with a little more light among the shade – though the uplifting ending feels pat and unconvincing given all that has gone before. The way revelations are staggered during the piece, however, is cleverly done, adding punch to the drama.

The lyrics tend too often towards the platitudinous and the way grief is conflated with bipolar disorder feels a bit hazy, the explanation from one of the psychiatrists being that the condition can be triggered by a trauma.

The music ranges from rock to gentle ballads. Some of it works powerfully but at other times it feels somewhat relentless. The show is essentially sung-through and you can’t help feeling that some dialogue scenes would make for tighter, deeper storytelling and give the show more room to breathe.

So, not the greatest musical ever written. However, Darylin Ramondo directs a tight production that moved me more than the previous one I saw.

Her design (conceived with Jolyon James) has a suggestion of the film Dogville about it. Taking its cue from a comment Diana makes about her world being black, white and grey, the set is black with a few boxes and a table, onto which the performers draw their environment and vent their emotions with white chalk: an effective device.

Ramondo has also cast the production well. O’Donnell – who spent time with a lady suffering with bipolar as part of her research – is heartbreaking as Diana, portraying her pain and confusion as well as her defiant strength. With her petite frame she looks so slight and vulnerable at times, and then suddenly seems to blaze. She brings warmth and humanity to the role and her beautiful rendition of I Miss the Mountains – in which Diana sings of missing the highs and lows of her condition, which are evened out by her meds – is a highlight.

Harkin is also impressive as the stalwart, devoted but conflicted Dan, who is struggling more than he lets on. Clay Roberts brings an endearing playfulness to Henry, the loyal, stoner boyfriend of Natalie, sympathetically played by O’Farrell. Trotter brings powerful vocals to the role of Gabe, though his dark portrayal would benefit from a little more nuance. Alex Rathgeber is also in fine voice as the two doctors.

This is the first production of Next to Normal seen in Sydney (a production planned for the Capitol Theatre in 2012 didn’t happen) and therefore much anticipated. The show itself may not live up to expectations but the production itself makes it well worth a look.

Next to Normal plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until February 1

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 18

Sweet Charity remount

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 16

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

In February last year, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene with a thrilling production of Sweet Charity directed by Dean Bryant and starring Verity Hunt-Ballard.

The ingeniously staged, dirtied-up, gritty take on the 1966 musical had audiences and critics raving (you will find my review on this blog) and three days after opening you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money.

The show went on to win three Helpmanns for Bryant, Hunt-Ballard and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and has nine nominations at the 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards to be presented tomorrow (January 19).

The announcement of a remount at the Sydney Opera House’s 400-seat Playhouse Theatre and then a tour to Canberra, Melbourne and Wollongong generated much excitement. But how would the production – created for the intimacy of the 110- seat Hayes Theatre – fare in a bigger venue?

Well, it has sashayed seamlessly into the Playhouse where it received a rapturous response at Friday’s opening night.

Inevitably you lose some of the intimacy but there are compensations. Hallsworth’s fabulous choreography (with nods to Fosse) has more room to sharpen and breathe for starters. And if anything, the performances seem more detailed than ever as most of the original performers revisit their roles.

The grungy staging is essentially the same: an inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors, a few chairs, a costume rack and a red neon sign at the back saying, “Girls, Girls, Girls” (set design by Owen Phillips).

Tim Chappel has revamped some of the costumes adding extra colour and sparkle to various outfits including the witty, surreal costumes for The Frug, which gives the production a little more visual zing in the larger space.

Hunt-Ballard, who gave a sensational performance last time around as Charity Hope Valentine – the dance hall hostess with a heart of gold who keeps looking for love (and at one point an office job) as a passport to a better life – is more stunning than ever.

She radiates such warmth, such sweet, kooky naivety and such sunny optimism that her Charity is irresistibly endearing. Her comic timing is a knockout but always there is the knowledge that Charity uses ditzy humour to deal with her hurt and pain, as a way to bounce back, until that final, terrible let-down.

Hunt-Ballard inhabits the role completely. She sings superbly, dances well and her acting is sublime. But never do we feel that she is busting out a big song-and-dance number. Always the songs emerge organically from the character and the situation whether it’s the exuberant, show-stopping If My Friends Could See Me Now or Where Am I Going? which she delivers in heartbreaking fashion.

She is beyond divine in the role; it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Charity better.

Bryant brings this kind of truth to every aspect of the production. Character and emotion colour every song. Hey Big Spender erupts with the crowd-pleasing blast you expect but the girls look blank, emotionally shutdown, as they display their wares in the meat-market line-up.

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Hunt-Ballard, Debora Krizak as Nickie and Kate Cole as Helene (two of the other girls from the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works) sing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This it feels as exuberant as ever but tinged with palpable sadness: three feisty women, perilously close to being over the hill, knowing they will probably never escape this life.

Cole is new to the production and she is a great addition to the cast, bringing a real weight to the role of Helene.

Martin Crewes reprises the roles of Charlie, Vittorio Vidal and Oscar and again creates wonderfully delineated characters. His suave Vittorio is particularly strong and he sings Too Many Tomorrows with a lovely, classic Italianate tenor sound, then slides effortlessly into a nerdy, Jerry Lewis-tinged Oscar. In fact, his performance sits better in the larger space than in the tiny Hayes where it felt a tad outsized.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Krizak is once again a delight as the hard-boiled Nickie, nailing her fierce one-liners, and also as Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend.

As at the Hayes, the band – led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keys – sits along the back of the stage but it’s great to see them given more space and visibility. Worboys’ fantastic, funky, electronic orchestrations of the songs are again a winning, driving element of the production.

Bryant integrates the musicians into the production with Kuki Tipoki playing guitar as well as Big Daddy along with several ensemble roles, while Worboys plays Fandango owner Herman.

Original producers Luckiest Productions (Lisa Campbell, David Campbell and Richard Carroll) and Neil Gooding Productions are joined for the tour by Tinderbox Productions (Liza McLean). They should have a huge hit on their hands.

This is one of the most exciting musical theatre productions I’ve seen in a long time: a show given fresh life and raw, gritty currency by a superb creative team and cast. It has made the leap to the larger space in style. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Sydney Opera House until February 8; The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, February 11 – 21; Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, February 25 – March 8; Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, March 11 – 15

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 13 at 12 noon

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is a gorgeous little stage production for children aged one to seven that captivates with its clear storytelling, its fresh, bright design and its simple but inventive staging.

Based on four pictures books by Eric Carle, including his iconic bestseller The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the show has been three years in the making.

Australian Jonathan Worsley, who is the creator and co-producer, approached Carle “several years ago, several times”, visiting the American author and illustrator at his Massachusetts studio with a series of sketches to convince him that he would put a faithful version of Carle’s books on stage.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the popular hook for audiences but it is too short to stage without expanding it so Worsley instead suggested using three of Carle’s other books as well: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse and The Very Lonely Firefly. Having won Carle’s approval, Worsley approached New York’s Puppet Kitchen to bring the sketches to three-dimensional life.

The Puppet Kitchen has done a sensational job in creating 75 puppets, using similar materials and techniques to Carle so that they really do look like his distinctive, hand-painted collage illustrations, and move well on stage.

On top of that, children can see the puppeteers and how the puppets are manipulated, which adds to the joyous sense of creativity that the show engenders.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show had its world premiere at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta as part of the Sydney Festival and from here tours to Melbourne, Brisbane, Penrith, Queanbeyan and Newcastle.

Director Naomi Edwards builds the show beautifully, creating an arc that leads organically to the highly anticipated caterpillar. James Browne has designed a white set that looks as if it is made up of several giant, blank books on which the various stories can be “written”. It’s the perfect backdrop for the stories to burst into colourful life via the puppets and their manipulators, with the help of a few simple projections, a couple of props and one or two little pieces of scenery.

Costume designer Andrea Espinoza has the four puppeteers (Gavin Clarke, Dannielle Jackson, Justine Warner and Drew Wilson) in white dungarees and tee shirts to throw the focus on the puppets, while The Artist wears an outfit to match the book. The puppets, meanwhile, are a pure delight, with lovely work from movement director Samantha Chester in choreographing their manipulation. The music by Nate Edmondson and Stephen Baker, and Nicholas Rayment’s lighting are also pitch-perfect.

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

Each of the four stories makes clever use of simple repetition. The show begins with The Artist who ”paints” several colourful animals including a blue horse, a yellow cow, an orange elephant and a poker-dotted donkey. A white canvas on a white easel is quickly spun around and the painting appears as if by magic.

“How did they do that?” asked the little boy next to me, mouth open. After watching intently as The Artist did a similar thing several times, he shouted: “that’s how they did it” and proceeded to explain excitedly to his mother. Bless.

We then go underwater for Mister Seahorse in which a rainbow-coloured, sparkly seahorse takes care of his wife’s eggs, until they hatch, meeting other male fish along the way who do the same – a sweet tale about role and responsibility.

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

From there we head into the dark of the night for the story of The Very Lonely Firefly who mistakes various lights for fellow fireflies until he finally finds his tribe (a tale of belonging). This leads naturally to the appearance of the moon and the story of the caterpillar, who eats and eats and eats before making a cocoon from which he emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

Children in the audience were clearly waiting for the caterpillar but it’s testament to the show that it kept their attention in the lead-up to his appearance.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

It was an inspired idea to adapt the book, given its massive popularity around the world, and Worsley’s production does it justice. The show will doubtless tour here, there and everywhere for many years to come.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show plays in Parramatta until January 18 then tours to Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel, March 23 – April 2; Brisbane’s Round House Theatre, July 13 – 19; The Q Theatre, Penrith, September 24 – 26; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 30 – October 4; Newcastle’s Civic Theatre, October 9 – 10.

Full details: www.hungrycaterpillarshow.com

The Sound of Musicals in Australia in 2015

At the 2014 Helpmann Awards, a David and Goliath contest in the musical theatre categories generated the biggest buzz of the night, with observers genuinely intrigued to see how the votes had landed.

For there, alongside the large commercial shows like The King and I, The Rocky Horror Show and Strictly Ballroom, was Sweet Charity: the inaugural production from the newly formed Hayes Theatre Co, which had turned a 110-seat theatre in the Sydney suburb of Potts Point into a dedicated venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret.

Sweet Charity, which sold out within three days after rapturous reviews, received eight Helpmann nominations and won three for its director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and leading lady Verity Hunt-Ballard.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar in Sweet Charity. Photo: supplied

The production returns this week, opening at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse Theatre on Friday for a three-week season then touring to Canberra, Wollongong and Melbourne.

“I am thrilled that this tiny little show is getting a bigger life,” says Bryant. “It was a magical time for all of us, and we never could have seen that it would have the impact and get the response that it did. I’m very keen for people to see what we did, and especially to see Verity’s brilliant performance.”

Bryant says that the 2015 revival will have “the same spirit as the original but be refitted and possibly redesigned into the larger venues that it will play. It’s not about replicating it, but remembering what the engine of the original production was and finding out how to do that in a new venue.”

Bryant is one of Australia’s busiest young musical theatre directors. He is the worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and has directed The Producers, Anything Goes and, late last year, La Cage Aux Folles for The Production Company in Melbourne.

This year, he helms his biggest production to date: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which he believes has “a perfectly conceived script and a brilliant score”.

Opera Australia is co-producing the show with John Frost, following their successful collaborations on South Pacific and The King and I.

It was Todd McKenney who initiated the production, telling Frost he’d love to reprise the role of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, which he played for The Production Company.

“I thought, ‘good idea, it’s time for a revival’ and I thought Dean had done such a great job of it. I asked if he’d like to do it, though I said, ‘I don’t want it to be a copy of what The Production Company did,’” says Frost.

The production stars Caroline O’Connor as Reno Sweeney alongside McKenney, Alex Rathgeber, Debora Krizak, Wayne Scott Kermond, Claire Lyon, Carmen Duncan and (controversially) Alan Jones in the small role of the ship’s captain.

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O'Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O’Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The basic structure of the set has been imported from a New Zealand production but designer Dale Ferguson is refurbishing it, making significant change and changes to create a new look. Ferguson will also design the costumes.

Hallsworth will do the choreography as he did for The Production Company version but the production will be new.

“We have a mostly new principal cast, it will be a fresh ensemble, there are new designers on board and we’re in different venues,” says Bryant. “As far as I’m concerned we’ll build it as if we’ve never done the show before, but we happen to have the knowledge of the previous production stored in our memory banks.

“There was one delicious part of Andrew’s choreography in the title number that HAS to make its way back into the show, but otherwise we’ll build the ship from scratch.”

Matilda the Musical with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australia’s own Tim Minchin is one of the year’s most keenly anticipated shows.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Described by the New York Times as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain”, Matilda was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company who premiered it at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010. In 2011, it transferred to the West End winning rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards. A Broadway production opened in 2013 to ecstatic reviews and won four Tony Awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, it tells the story of Matilda Wormwood, a precocious, book-loving child with a ghastly family and a brutally evil headmistress, who stands up to injustice and prevails against the odds, with a little help from her telekinetic powers.

The RSC will present the show in Australia with several producers including Australian-based Louise Withers whose other credits include Billy Elliot the Musical.

The cast will be announced in April. “We are auditioning between November and February. When you are dealing with this many children you can’t audition too early as they grow up too fast,” says Withers.

There are a total of 29 children across three casts. “We had 52 children in Billy Elliot so 29 is OK,” she adds sanguinely.

Withers emphasises that the show is not just for children. “It ticks the box for every age group from six to 76. A lot of adults today were Roald Dahl devotees growing up. They are now parents reading the books to their children. It jumps generations in the same way as The Lion King.”

Some believe that Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, where the production opens in August, is too large for the show.

“Obviously it’s a different size to the London theatre. Theatres in London and New York tend to be smaller. But the design will be developed to help bring the eye in, and the show is full of life and energy so I’m sure it will fill the space,” says Withers.

Sydney will also host the Australian premiere of Here Lies Love, which will be presented as a centerpiece of the Vivid Sydney festival. An immersive disco musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, the show had its first outing at the 2006 Adelaide Festival where it was presented in a concert version. The fully-fledged show premiered in New York in 2013 and recently had a sell-out London season produced by the National Theatre.

The inventive staging has the actors performing on platforms and moving catwalks, creating a club-like environment in which the audience is forced to keep moving, while video projections mix historical footage with live simulcasts.

The Australian production will be staged in The Millennium, a purpose-built, pop-up venue in Barangaroo.

From London’s West End comes Thriller Live, which celebrates the music and career of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. The national tour began in Perth in December. The show opens in Brisbane this week then tours to Melbourne and Sydney with short seasons in each. (There is an interview with the show’s creator Adrian Grant on this blog).

In September, The Lion King became the top-selling musical, indeed entertainment, of all time taking $6.2 billion worldwide since it opened on Broadway in 1997. After doing roaring business in Sydney this year, the production opens in Melbourne in February.

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical also moves to Melbourne where it plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre from this Saturday after premiering to mixed reviews in Sydney.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

“As with any brand new production we’re taking the opportunity of trimming and tightening the show,” says Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures and producer of the musical. “Since opening we have shortened the running time, restaged Time After Time, added a new opening number and given greater clarity to the story telling and staging.”

Meanwhile, the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables, with brand new staging, starts the year in Perth and then moves to Sydney in March, after a successful Melbourne season in 2014.

Other musicals, which continue touring into 2015 include Grease (which runs at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre until January 30), Wicked and The Rocky Horror Show, all produced in Australia by Frost.

Wicked closes in Sydney on January 30. Suzie Mathers takes over the role of Glinda from Lucy Durack (who is expecting her first baby) for the Brisbane season from February 12 and then Perth in May. Simon Gallaher takes on the role of the Wizard.

Craig McLachlan reprises the role of Frank N Furter in the Sydney season of The Rocky Horror Show, which begins its run on April 11, with Bert Newton stepping into the role of the Narrator. Other cast changes will be announced soon. The show then returns to Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in June.

Sadly, Once, which Frost produced with Melbourne Theatre Company, will not tour despite wonderful reviews. It plays in Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until February 8.

Though not strictly a musical in the way it uses (or fails to use) songs, Frost is also producing a 10th anniversary tour of Dirty Dancing, which began life in Australia in 2004 before spending five years in the West End. Starring Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phelan, it received mixed reviews when it opened in Sydney recently. The Sydney season winds up on February 22 then moves to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

There have been persistent rumours that Frost will also produce The Sound of Music in 2015 though nothing is yet confirmed. Stay tuned.

Though Frost candidly admits that he isn’t terribly keen on producing new musicals, he does have one in the pipeline: Dream Lover about Bobby Darin, which was to have opened late in the year but will now probably open in 2016.

“I don’t really enjoy doing new musicals, they’re too hard for me,” says Frost, whose productions of An Officer and A Gentleman and Doctor Zhivago struggled at the box office.

“Whilst I will do them and we are going to do (Dream Lover), I get more kicks out of doing these big, brassy entertainments like (Anything Goes). Musicals are so expensive and to raise the money for them (is hard). That is just the way this country is. If you haven’t got a Tony Award or an Olivier Award attached to a show (investors) look at you as if you’re a freak.”

Written by Michael-John Howson and Frank Howson, Dream Lover has had two workshops and a substantial amount of script development. Simon Phillips will direct the production once he and the right-sized theatre become available. “I didn’t really want to put it into a 2000-seat theatre,” says Frost.

Phillips will also direct a new musical for Queensland Theatre Company called Ladies in Black. Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Woman in Black, it has a book by Carolyn Burns and music and lyrics by Tim Finn.

Set in Sydney, during the 1950s and 60s, Ladies in Black centres on Lisa, a bright-eyed, bookish school leaver whose life is transformed when she joins the sales staff in the city’s most prestigious department store. The production stars Christen O’Leary.

Other subsidised companies to feature musicals in their seasons include Melbourne Theatre Company, which is staging a “boutique musical” called What Rhymes With Cars And Girls, by Aidan Fennessy, a contemporary love story with songs from Tim Rogers’ first solo album, and Victorian Opera, which is presenting Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role, following productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.

Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company will also stage its first musical for many years and its first American musical: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal about a suburban mother with bipolar disorder. Opening in November, it will star Rachael Beck and Brendan Hanson.

“It won three Tony Awards from 11 nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama so it was an obvious one for us to dip our toe into the water with,” says artistic director Kate Cherry.

Cherry says that she is “really hoping in the future to do one musical a year. I love the form but I tend to be interested in more off-beat musicals. I’m fascinated at how musicals can allow us to talk about really difficult subjects yet enjoy ourselves at the same time.”

Meanwhile, the Hayes Theatre Co is currently staging an acclaimed production of Next to Normal from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts with Natalie O’Donnell in the central role of Diana.

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts' Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts’ Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Other productions coming up at the Hayes include Blood Brothers in February and, in May, Dogfight based on the 1991 film of the same name about three young soldiers on a final bender before they leave for Vietnam.

These and other independent productions around the country by smaller companies such as Squabbalogic in Sydney (which presents Man of La Mancha with Tony Sheldon from February 25 and Triassic Parq in June), Magnormos in Melbourne and Harvest Rain in Brisbane will add immeasurably to the musical theatre ecology.

News that the Hayes has relaunched New Musicals Australia, an initiative dedicated to the development and production of original music theatre, is especially welcome for Australian musical theatre writers.

A version of this story appeared in The Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine