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

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Grease review

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Grease premiered in 1971, it was a show with attitude that took a rough, raunchy look back at 1950s teenagers and celebrated the music of the era. Over the years, particularly with the advent of the much-loved film, the edges have been knocked off it and it’s become much less gritty.

This latest incarnation, which originated in the UK with direction by David Gilmore and choreography by Arlene Phillips, could do with a bit more of that original grunt.

Restaged by Jason Capewell and Charlotte Bull, the production feels a tad too slick for its own good and somewhat heartless. It needs to trust the moments more and find the truth in them to connect you better with the characters. As it is, you don’t really care about them.

Lucy Maunder’s Rizzo is a notable exception. She really owns the role of the snarky, cynical leader of the Pink Ladies and her moving rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is an emotional and musical highlight.

The production begins, somewhat strangely, with a sing-along of We Go Together led by Miss Lynch (Val Lehman) while the students of Rydell High enter via the auditorium. In my experience, sing-alongs are never terribly popular with audiences at the best of times – let alone at the top of a musical. Here it is forced and awkward.

After that slow start, much of Act I feels a bit flat. Though the cast performs energetically and the show rocks along (almost too frenetically at times) it all feels a bit hollow and the songs don’t really get things pumping the way you’re willing them to.

The production picks up with Greased Lightin’ led by Stephen Mahy as Kenickie but it’s not until Todd McKenney’s appearance as Teen Angel that the show hits its groove. Resplendent in a gleaming white suit studded with rhinestones, a silver waistcoat, silver boots and white blonde wig that makes him look like a cross between Liberace and a cheesy Elvis, it’s a literally glittering turn. It may be unashamedly over-the-top but McKenney exudes the charisma, star power and fun that the show needs at that point to really lift: definitely another production highlight.

Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett are both likeable as Danny and Sandy. Mills’ voice has grown in recent years and he brings his winning, cheeky charm to the character, while Scarlett has a lovely voice, which soars with crystal clarity in Hopelessly Devoted to You. However, there’s little chemistry between them.

Other characters among the Rydell High students are less well delineated and get somewhat lost in the mix, particularly the boys, with a couple of songs getting hardly any response from the opening night audience.

Bert Newton may be a much-loved Australian celebrity and cast for that reason but he is far too old to play DJ Vince Fontaine – something that becomes wince-makingly obvious when he is called on to flirt with Marty (Karla Tonkich) – and his accent comes and goes. As Johnny Casino, Anthony Callea puts a contemporary pop spin on Born to Hand Jive instead of the original 1950s rhythm and blues rockabilly style – and something is lost.

The set is relatively modest though it does the job and the colourful costumes work well but the choreography could do with a sharper 1950s vibe and edge.

The story itself is so simple it doesn’t bear much analysis. The teenagers’ problems come and go very quickly, while the ending has always sent a somewhat mixed message with Sandy transforming herself into a bad girl to get her guy. But it’s always been that way and when everything is hitting the mark it doesn’t matter. Here, it is somewhat exposed.

Nonetheless, the songs are great and so familiar that the audience laps them up. (They certainly did in Brisbane where the show sold out before coming to Sydney). Promoted as “the number one party musical”, this production of Grease is fun but it’s hardly electrifyin’.

Grease plays at the Lyric Theatre until December 8 then at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, January 2 – February 9.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 20