Xanadu The Musical

Hayes Theatre Co, May 17

Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham in XANADU (c) Frank Farrugia

Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham as Kira and Sonny. Photo: Frank Farrugia

The 1980 film Xanadu starring a roller-skating Olivia Newton-John was a famous flop, so outrageously bad that it became a cult classic.

Gleefully spoofing the movie, Xanadu the Musical proved to be a ditzy delight when it premiered on Broadway in 2007. Unfortunately, this heavy-handed production directed and choreographed by Nathan M. Wright for Matthew Management in association with the Hayes Theatre Co steamrollers the heart and much of the comedy out of the sweetly silly show.

Set in 1980, Sonny is a depressed, creatively blocked street artist with more muscles than brain. Clio, a beautiful Greek muse and daughter of Zeus, descends from Mount Olympus to Venice Beach to save him. Donning leg-warmers, roller skates and an Australian accent, she calls herself Kira and inspires him to reach for the stars – or at least open a roller disco.

Meanwhile, two of Clio’s jealous sisters try to trick her, hoping she will incur Zeus’s wrath by falling in (forbidden) love with a mortal.

Writer Douglas Carter Beane has laced his wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, knowing script with jokes about 1980s culture and musicals. At one point, for example, Zeus observes that 1980 will be a cultural turning point: “Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theatre? They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalogue, throw it onstage and call it a show.”

The score, featuring music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne from ELO and John Farrar, is just as much fun, full as it is of chart-topping hits such as Magic, Evil Woman, All Over the World, Suddenly and Xanadu.

Designers Nathan Weyers (set), James Browne (costumes) and Simon Johnson (lighting) have created just the right kind of camp, cheesy 80s look for the show with lashings of colour, glitz and humour from hilarious sirens sporting sparkly mermaid tails, who glide onto stage on wheelie boards, to a cute bicycle Pegasus.

Dion Bilios, James Maxfield, Jaime Hadwen, Ainsley Melham, Catty Hamilton, Kat Hoyos in XANADU (c) Frank Farrugia

Dion Biolos, James Maxfield, Jaime Hadwen, Ainsley Melham, Catty Hamilton and Kat Hoyos. Photo: Frank Farrugia

Wright’s lively, 80s-inspired choreography is also amusing, particularly the sequinned formations on skates at the end. His direction, however, lacks a lightness of touch. Everything is hammered out at the same relentless pace and volume, with the scenery-chewing cast dialling their performances up to 11. Some of the one-liners are thrown away, lost in motor-mouthed shouting. At other times, the humour is laboured. Either way, much of the comedy falls flat. The sound doesn’t help, with the volume on Andrew Bevis’s four-piece band cranked high.

As Kira and Sonny, Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham both sing well but there’s little chemistry between them. In his first musical since leaving Hi-5, Melham’s comic timing is awry. Mugging in cartoony fashion, his blunt reading of the role diminishes the character’s goofy charm. Hadwen has a sweet presence though her strident Aussie accent dominates her portrayal.

The biggest laughs of the night come from Francine Cain and Jayde Westaby, both wonderful as Kira’s scheming sisters Calliope and and Melpomene.

Pitched right, Xanadu can be ridiculously funny. This production (which runs 90 minutes without interval) has its moments and sections of the audience clearly loved it, but I felt it pushes too hard and as a result never quite gets its skates on.

Xanadu the Musical plays at Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until June 12. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

A version of this review ran online for Daily Telegraph Arts

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The Gentleman Magician

The Royal Automobile Club of Australia, Sydney, May 20

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Bruce Glen, The Gentleman Magician. Photo: supplied

Walking through the front doors of The Royal Automobile Club of Australia, situated in Macquarie Street not far from the Sydney Opera House, it feels as if you are stepping into another era. The faded glamour of the beautiful historical building whisks you back decades as if time has stood still here.

It’s the perfect setting for Bruce Glen’s show The Gentleman Magician, a magical soirée in which he aims to re-create the ambience of a 19th century European salon. The ticket includes a glass of bubbly and canapés on arrival and then as we settle into seats facing the small raised platform where he will perform, he suddenly appears among us, a welcoming, genial presence.

The Gentleman Magician has none of the razzle-dazzle and flashy stage-craft of shows like The Illusionists recently seen in Sydney. Instead it’s an intimate evening for an audience of around 70 in which Glen – who is a member of The Magic Circle – combines consummate story-telling with magic tricks. An ambient soundtrack plays quietly in the background to create a slightly mysterious atmosphere, while an assistant unobtrusively sets up various acts.

Glen has researched the area and tells tales of local showmen from times past, as well as international stars like Houdini, not to mention the ghost who apparently haunts the building. He has given each of his tricks a name such as All Ropes Are Not Created Equal, Another Con Job, The Imaginary Psychic and Wonderland – the latter, a card trick performed with a member of the audience in which he draws on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.

Presenting himself as a professional “liar” and avowed skeptic, he performs mind-reading illusions, using the trickery that charlatans have employed to pose as psychics. In one of his signature pieces, Percy Pitch, he brings his own twist to the “one cup and one ball” trick by performing it while narrating a poem that he wrote in the style of Banjo Patterson.

I reckon I could see how a couple of tricks were done but most were satisfyingly baffling. All in all, it’s a thoroughly entertaining evening (running around 70 minutes) performed by the genteel Glen with stylish, old-fashioned charm.

Bruce Glen performs The Gentleman Magician at The Royal Automobile Club of Australia, 89 Macquarie Street, Sydney every Friday night. Bookings are essential: www.gentlemanmagician.com.au or 1300 033 599

Alex Jennings Steps Back into Professor Higgins’ Tweeds

AJ photo 2015

Alex Jennings. Photo: supplied

There is nothing like a Dame as British actor Alex Jennings knows, having performed opposite some of acting’s greatest. He co-starred with Maggie Smith in the recent film The Lady in the Van and in 2006 played Prince Charles to Helen Mirren’s monarch in The Queen.

Still, he admits he was nervous when he met Dame Julie Andrews to discuss her 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady for Opera Australia/John Frost in which he will play Professor Henry Higgins – a role he first played in the West End in 2002.

“We met in London. I had a very lovely hour with her over drinks and we chatted about the piece and about her experience in it and my experience in it. I was quite nervous and completely delighted by meeting her,” he says.

A classical actor with three Olivier Awards to his name, including one for My Fair Lady, Jennings has worked extensively at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre.

Though born in Essex, he frequently plays “posh” characters. In something of a royal flush, having previously portrayed Prince Charles, he now plays Prince Edward in Netflix’s new drama The Crown and is currently in Yorkshire filming a British television series about Queen Victoria in which he plays Leopold I, King of Belgium, uncle to both Victoria and Albert.

“Where would we be without our royal family?” he quips in his silky, sonorous voice.

Jennings is coming to Sydney in August to co-star in My Fair Lady with rising star Anna O’Byrne as Eliza Doolittle – the cockney flower-seller Higgins bets he can pass off as an aristocrat by teaching her to speak “proper”. The top-drawer Australian cast also includes Reg Livermore, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Robyn Nevin.

Jennings was at the National working with Trevor Nunn on Vanbrugh’s Restoration comedy The Relapse in 2001 when Nunn asked if he’d like to take over from Jonathan Pryce as Higgins in his production of My Fair Lady, which was transferring to the West End.

“I’d never done a musical before and it was an extraordinary experience. I absolutely loved it,” says Jennings, who played the part for 11 months.

In 2014, he took over the role of Willie Wonka in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical directed by Sam Mendes and again relished the experience. Offered the chance to revisit Higgins in Australia, Jennings leapt at the chance.

“I’m really thrilled because it’s such a great musical and it’s such a great acting role as well as being a musical theatre role. It’s like playing Hamlet in a way, it’s inexhaustible really. So I’m thrilled to be having another go and slightly overwhelmed at the thought of working with Julie,” he says.

“And I’ve never been to Australia before so it’s a big treat,” he adds, saying that his wife, landscape gardener Lesley Moors, will come with him while their two children, now in their 20s, and his “dear, old Dad” will also visit.

Andrews is recreating the 1956 Broadway production in which she starred as Eliza opposite Rex Harrison.

“Even though the framework is going to be the same with the Cecil Beaton and Oliver Smith designs, there’s new choreography (by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli) and I think there’s room for manoeuvring and putting one’s stamp on it,” says Jennings.

“And, listen, they were great designs. I’ve been told that tweed fabrics are being rewoven as we speak. I’m happy to be in Rex Harrison’s old suits.”

Jennings describes the curmudgeonly, misogynistic Higgins as “volatile” but says: “he’s doing something quite radical I think. He wants to turn things on their head and give people lower down the social ladder – specifically Eliza in this case – opportunities to shift in society.

“He wants to mess with the English class system, which is a good thing. He’s passionate, he has borderline behavioural problems, living on his own. His heart and head have never been messed with in the way they are when Eliza comes to the house.”

Now 59, Jennings thinks there will be differences in his portrayal to when he last played the role.

“Since I last did it my singing has grown. When I was doing Willie Wonka I worked with a brilliant singing teacher called Mary King and she has given me confidence and brought on my singing,” he says.

“And I’m older – though I’m not as old as Rex Harrison was when he finished doing it. But there is going to be a bigger age difference between me and Eliza than there was when I last did it so any sense of romance would perhaps be less appropriate.”

My Fair Lady plays at the Sydney Opera House from August 30 – November 5. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 22

Black Jesus

Kings Cross Theatre, May 11

BLACK JESUS Elijah Williams as Black Jesus IMG_8679- by Nick McKinlay

Elijah Williams as Gabriel Chibamu or Black Jesus. Photo: Nick McKinlay

In presenting the Australian premiere of Black Jesus by UK playwright, bAKEHOUSE Theatre company gives us a glimpse into a world that few of us know about a great deal about and one that is rarely portrayed on our stages.

Black Jesus is set in Zimbabwe in 2015. Robert Mugabe’s government has fallen and a new Truth and Justice Commission has been established to investigate the horrific crimes committed during his regime.

A young woman called Eunice Ncube (Belinda Jombwe-Cotterill) is called up to question a prisoner called Gabriel Chibamu (Elijah Williams) about atrocities he is alleged to have committed as one of the most notorious members of Mugabe’s youth militia, the Green Bombers.

Gabriel is known as the Black Jesus because, as he says: “I decided who would be saved and who would be condemned. I took that responsibility for others and I now I take it for myself. I am Black Jesus. I do not crawl.”

The new Zimbabwe government is keeping an eye on Eunice’s investigation through Endurance Moyo (Dorian Nkono), a smooth-talking political operator who has known her since she was a child. Then there’s Rob Palmer (Jarrod Crellin) a white lawyer working with Eunice and with whom she has had a brief affair. He wants to support her but as soon as the threats start, he is quickly out of there.

Black Jesus evokes a dark world of violence, corruption and buried secrets where nothing is clear cut; everyone shares some form of guilt and is a victim at the same time.

Produced by John Harrison, co-artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Theatre, Suzanne Millar directs a taut, powerful production. With a simple but striking set – an African tree painted on the wall with branches overhead (set design by Millar and Harrison) – Millar uses the slightly awkward space (two banks of seating on either side of a flat stage) extremely well. The use of a drummer (Alex Jalloh) helps build atmosphere and tension.

Millar has assembled an impressive cast. As Eunice, Jombwe-Cotterill looks small and fragile but allies that with a quiet steeliness. She is frequently extremely still, which gives her an understated strength and resonant presence, and meets Gabriel’s ferocious energy with a cool, hard stare. As Gabriel, Williams exudes an intimidating, explosive rage that feels genuinely threatening. Together, the game of cat-and-mouse they play keeps you tense.

Though Eunice’s relationship with Rob is not particularly well developed, Crellin is very convincing in the role, while Nkono conveys the danger lurking just beneath Moyo’s ebullient joviality.

Running an intense 75-minutes, Black Jesus raises questions about societies trying to recover after brutal regimes and sends you home, intrigued to find out more about the complexity of life in Zimbabwe. Well worth a look.

Black Jesus plays at the Kings Cross Theatre, Kings Cross Hotel until May 21. Bookings: www.kingsxtheatre.com

Wonderful Town

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, May 8

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Virginia Gay and Georgina Walker who played sisters Ruth and Eileen in Wonderful Town. Photo: supplied

I didn’t see the semi-staged concert version of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing at the Sydney Opera House in November – the first collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre – but I heard good things.

I was, however, lucky enough to catch the second of two performances of Wonderful Town, their second collaboration– and what a complete delight it was.

Wonderful Town is an effervescent, light-hearted musical comedy featuring a joyous, melodic score by Leonard Bernstein. Written in six weeks in 1953 (nine years after Bernstein’s first musical On the Town), it mixes classical, popular and jazz musical styles, including the electric, syncopated Wrong Note Jazz, which foreshadowed West Side Story three years later.

The show had its roots in a series of short stories written by author/journalist Ruth McKenney published in the New Yorker magazine about her experiences and the colourful characters she and her sister Eileen met when they lived in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. These evolved into a book in 1938 called My Sister Eileen, which was made into a film starring Rosalind Russell.

The musical, Wonderful Town, features a well-structured book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and neat, witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It opened on Broadway in 1953, also starring Rosalind Russell, and won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. A good, old-fashioned musical comedy, it has such charm that it’s surprising it’s so little known.

Set in the 1930s, it focuses on two sisters who leave a backwater in Ohio for the bright lights and broader horizons of New York. Ruth, who is hoping to become a writer, is smart, strong and protective of her younger sister Eileen yet awkward when it comes to men. Eileen, who has men falling at her feet, dreams of being a performer.

Jason Langley directs with great clarity on a minimal set (a few flats, the odd table and chair). Designer Brendan Hay has added plenty of colour and period style with his costuming including elegant frocks for the ladies and some natty, patterned trousers for the men.

Dean Vince has done a great job with the choreography which ranges from a hilarious Irish jig (complete with a wash of green lighting) to a conga and some snazzy jazz moves.

Virginia Gay is an absolute star as Ruth. She has such a perfect feel for this style of musical comedy, caressing the tunes with lovely, smooth vocals and landing all the humour with immaculate timing . She brings the house down with Ruth’s comic song 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man, a very funny but pointed number that you can imagine others picking up to perform in cabaret. Acting wise she captures Ruth’s intelligence, independent spirit and sardonic sense of humour as well as her lack of confidence with men

Newcomer Georgina Walker, who recently graduated from WAAPA, has a nice bright soprano and a perky presence as Eileen. Making her professional mainstage debut in Wonderful Town, she shows great promise.

Scott Irwin shows his versatility in several roles including Bob Barker, the assistant editor who falls for Ruth without realising it at first, and their landlord Mr Appopulous, a self-regarding, pompous artist. A fine singer and actor, Irwin is the perfect foil to Gay as the decent Bob and sings numbers such as “It’s Love” and “Quiet Girl” with an effortless charm.

Aside from Gay and Walker, all the cast – which also includes Scott Morris, Dean Vince, Nicholas Starte, Megan Wilding and Beth Daly – play several parts There is one hilarious moment where Irwin walks off stage as one character and comes straight back on as another to the delight of the audience. Conductor Brett Weymark even plays a cameo role as nightclub owner Speedy Valenti from the podium.

The choir, sitting in the choir stalls and boxes on either side of the stage, are all dressed in their own outfits of red, black and white. Langley involves them in the action by having them do some bopping, arm-waving choreography from their seats. He also has a few of them come on stage in crowd scenes which is a bit messy but it does generate a lovely sense of community involvement.

The orchestra plays with exuberant gusto under Weymark, serving up an exciting big band sound, and there are plenty of ear-worms in the score most notably the gorgeous, lilting It’s Love – in fact, half the audience seemed to be singing It’s Love as they left the theatre, big smiles on their faces.

This kind of collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic is a great initiative, giving us the opportunity to see a rarely performed musical in a semi-staged production with an orchestra, a large choir and a top cast (performing off book).

Together with Neglected Musicals – who are already doing a great job of presenting small-scale rehearsed readings of rarely seen musicals, performed book in hand at the intimate Hayes Theatre Co – it’s a very welcome addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Pennsylvania Avenue

The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, April 30

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Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo: supplied

Bernadette Robinson is well known for her uncanny ability to impersonate singers across a range of styles and genres. Keen to extend this beyond cabaret into a theatre show, she approached director Simon Phillips who commissioned Joanna Murray-Smith to write a play to showcase Robinson’s extraordinary gift.

The result was Songs for Nobodies, which premiered in 2010, in which Robinson performed monologues by five “nobodies” each of whom had had an encounter with a famous singer: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. Naturally, Robinson gave voice to the divas too.

Songs for Nobodies was an inspired and inspiring piece of theatre and proved a huge success. Following up on it, Murray-Smith has written a new piece for Robinson called Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also directed by Phillips. Once again, Robinson leaves you marvelling at her talent but the show itself is not as engaging as its predecessor.

Pennsylvania Avenue, which premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company, is set in the White House. Robinson plays Harper Clements, a girl from the south who gets a big break as an underling at the White House where she works her way up to become a trusted aide responsible for co-ordinating entertainment events. We meet her on her final day. After 40 years of hard work, her services are no longer required and she is packing up and leaving, reminiscing as she goes.

Murray-Smith uses the fictitious Clements as a clever way to interweave historical facts and anecdotal stories about various American presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with their First Ladies and the many entertainers who performed for them.  (I imagine it would go down a treat in the US). In narrating the piece, Robinson voices umpteen characters, male and female.

It begins with Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday for JFK in 1962 and takes in singers as diverse as Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand, Maria Callas, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee, Tammy Wynette and even an amazingly convincing, raspy Bob Dylan singing Eve of Destruction.

Her Sarah Vaughan is arguably the least successful but overall it’s extraordinary the way Robinson conveys such different vocalists, and she had the audience bopping in their seats for Aretha Franklin’s Respect.

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Bernadette Robinson. Photo: supplied

Harper is a no-nonsense, resourceful character who is seen dispensing advice to everyone from Marilyn Monroe on knicker lines to Ronald Reagan on his famous Berlin Wall speech. However, her personal story is less interesting and the final revelation doesn’t have the emotional impact it is clearly supposed to.

The set by Shaun Gurton is a plush, upholstered room called The Blue Room with six large framed portrait of early presidents on the wall, which prove to be screens on which historical photographs are shown. Blue drapes at the back occasionally become transparent under the lighting to show the three-piece band sitting behind them. It looks suitably stylish but Robinson rattles around it a bit, shifting from chair to chair, moving her box of things or pouring a drink to keep her busy.

Often it looks as if she is moving for the sake of doing something. Nonetheless, she is a fine actor as well as an exceptional singer and she holds the stage in commanding fashion as she moves with quicksilver ease between numerous characters.

Running 90 minutes without interval, Pennsylvania Avenue feels a touch long but it keeps you entertained and is a lively showcase for a unique performer.

Pennsylvania Avenue plays at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until May 22. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

We Will Rock You

Lyric Theatre, May 5

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Jaz Flowers, Thern Reynolds, Erin Clare and Gareth Keegan. Photo: Jeff Busby

With its pumping score of flamboyant, theatrical 1970s hit songs by Queen, audiences have always embraced We Will Rock You, ignoring savage reviews when it premiered in London in 2002 to keep it running there for 12 years. It has now played to over 16 million people in 28 countries (though it’s never made it to Broadway).

First staged in Australia in 2003, the comic jukebox musical is back in a newly revised version – and not only does the production rock its socks off but the lightweight plot, while as unashamedly silly as ever, has a fresh currency in this social media-addicted age.

Written by Ben Elton, We Will Rock You is set in a dystopian future where individuality, creativity and live music are banned. A group of Bohemians, who worship at the shrine of Freddie Mercury in the ruins of a Hard Rock Café, set out to find the legendary hidden axe that will rescue rock ‘n’ roll and save the world.

With the advent of downloadable music, smart phones, Twitter and Facebook, We Will Rock You has proved rather prescient. Elton (who also directs) has added new references to social media and the iPlanet (as the earth is now known) where everyone lives online – all of which resonates today and feels pretty ‘now’.

It doesn’t pay to think too hard about the plot though. If rock music is banned, how come Killer Queen (Casey Donovan), the evil CEO of the ruling Globalsoft Corporation, and her minions still belt out rock anthems, for starters? But if you abandon that kind of logic and just go with the flow the plot carries you along.

Elton has packed his book with zesty one-liners and a litany of cute pop references from Justin Bieber to The Wiggles, as well as a nod to King Arthur and Excalibur. The Bohemians have chosen names from rock legends but have frequently got the gender wrong – so Jaz Flowers is called Oz after Ozzy Osbourne and Thern Reynolds is Britney after Britney Spears. There is the mysterious vid-DAY-o tappy (video tape) and a statue of Mercury with laser eyes, all of which is corny fun, prompting plenty of laughter.

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Erin Clare and Gareth Keegan. Photo: Jeff Busby

But you still need a killer cast with dynamite vocals and the ability to pitch their performance with just the right knowing, tongue-in-cheek vibe to pull it off – and it gets it here.

As Galileo Figaro, The Dreamer who hears quotes from pop and rock lyrics in his head, Gareth Keegan has a nice, low-key charm and a good strong rock tenor voice that suits the songs. By the time he got to the vocally exposing Bohemian Rhapsody (included as the show’s encore) on opening night, his voice was tired but other than that he proved to be on the money.

Erin Clare is wonderfully sassy as the feisty Scaramouche, who is nobody’s “chick” but teams up with Galileo. Her comic timing has plenty of punch and she really nails her songs with gorgeous, soaring vocals.

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Casey Donvan as Killer Queen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Donovan is a vocal powerhouse and every inch the badass villain as Killer Queen, with a new confidence about her as an actor. A couple of the numbers begin a little low for her, notably Another One Bites the Dust, and the sound design could have done more to help, but as soon as she moves out of that lower register she is sensational.

Flowers and Reynolds, resplendent in ratty kilt with bulging guns, are both fierce as rather goofy Bohemians Oz and Brit, with Flowers owning a moving version of No-One But You (Only the Good Die Young). Brian Mannix brings plenty of cheeky dry humour to the unreconstructed old rocker Buddy Holly and the Crickets, while Simon Russell is suitably oily as Killer Queen’s henchman Khasoggi, played like a villain in an Austen Powers movie with a touch of Sasha Baron Cohen about him.

Arlene Phillips’ choreography is inventive and witty with 1970s moves and grooves, and is sharply danced by the ensemble. Tim Goodchild’s costumes are alive with umpteen pop and rock references, while the red hot band does a brilliant job under musical director David Skelton.

Yes, the plot is silly but the music is as glam-fab as ever and the cast deliver; if you go with the flow, the show will rock you.

We Will Rock You plays at the Lyric Theatre until June 26. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 8