Heathers the Musical

Hayes Theatre Co, July 20

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Based on the cult 1988 film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers the Musical, which premiered off-Broadway last year, is a black comedy with a catchy, upbeat pop-rock score: think Grease meets Mean Girls with a decidedly dark twist.

Westerburg High is ruled by a triumverate of beautiful but cruel girls all called Heather. Cross them and you’ll find yourself in the social equivalent of Siberia, or worse. But when the Heathers enlist former misfit Veronica Sawyer for her forgery skills, they take on more than they’d bargained for with Veronica’s avenging boyfriend Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean prepared to go to deadly extremes.

Written by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy, the musical sticks closely to the screenplay though it isn’t quite so dark. The show’s gear changes between satire, camp comedy, blithe sentimentality and dark themes (teenage suicide, school massacres, bullying, homophobia) crunch a bit at times ­– or would do if the production were not so good. But here, first-time director Trevor Ashley negotiates them with assurance, flair and a sure-fire sense of comedy.

Ashley’s high-energy production leaps off the stage at you. With the cast all turning in full-bore performances, it does a great job of walking the fine line between being knowing, tongue-in-cheek and just serious enough. The musical could do with a little tightening at times but Ashley never allows it to flag. It’s a very impressive directorial debut from a man who is also playing Thenardier in Les Misérables at the same time.

Jaz Flowers is sensational as Veronica, giving a winning, emotionally believable performance that brings surprising depth to the role. She also sings the hell out of her songs. Lucy Maunder is hilariously funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler, showing what fine comic chops she has. Her raised eyebrows are eloquent as anything, her death stare is scary, while her singing is gorgeous.

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Among the rest of the terrific cast, Lauren McKenna shines in the double role of the bullied Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock and loopy New Age teacher Ms Fleming. Stephen Madsen brings a brooding charisma and cool detachment to the Baudelaire-quoting, psychopathic J.D. and has a lovely voice. Vincent Hooper and Jakob Ambrose are very funny as dim-witted jocks Ram and Kurt, while Erin Clare and Libby Asciak give broadly comic but well-defined performances as Heather Chandler’s side-kicks.

Emma Vine’s compact, clever set design, consisting primarily of school lockers, is well used by Ashley, who keeps the action pumping with sharply choreographed scene changes. Angela White has fun with the 1980s costuming and Cameron Mitchell’s superb, witty choreography is also bang on target.

The night I saw it the sound was somewhat out of whack with the band (led by musical director Bev Kennedy) so loud that the cast struggled to compete at times, though I gather that has now been sorted. Aside from that, it’s a first-rate production and extremely entertaining.

Heathers the Musical plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until August 9. It is sold out though I’m told they may try to add a couple of performances. Check the website http://www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 26

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Ben Mingay

Slide Cabaret, May 23

Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Ben Mingay puts the bloke into cabaret in his new show, presented as part of the Slide Cabaret Festival. Making an unorthodox entry, he spends the night in work boots, boardies and ratty T-shirt, with a tinnie close to hand. (The supplied picture above is so not his look here!)

The show has an interval so I imagined that he would return in the second act in something more like the promo shot but, no, he merely traded one T-shirt for another.

The contrast between his downbeat look and the camp glamour of Slide is all part of the fun, of course, and Mingay – who did start out in construction – has such a laid-back, laddish charm that he pulls it off with aplomb. (Having got the joke in the first act, though, I reckon a costume change for the second could be good, adding another dimension). He tells his stories with a rough, throwaway charm and endearing honesty that feels absolutely authentic – and he knows how to spin a good yarn.

His rich, rumbling baritone works a treat across genres (rock, country, musical theatre and opera) as he traces his journey from construction worker for his Dad in Newcastle to a pub rock band to classical voice studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to roles in musicals including Hair, South Pacific, Dirty Dancing in the US and Jersey Boys. (An Officer and a Gentleman doesn’t get a mention). There’s also a passing reference to his role in Channel Ten’s Wonderland.

Backed by a four-piece band led by Bev Kennedy on piano, Mingay opens the show with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma! From there his song list takes in everything from “Working Class Man” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific and Leporello’s catalogue song from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (complete with a make-shift prop on the back of a beer carton).

At the Slide gig, he invited David Harris on stage to sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables with him (both made it to the final auditions for the production about to open in Melbourne), while his partner, musical theatre performer Kirby Burgess, joined him for rousing versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Time of my Life” from Dirty Dancing.

All in all a thoroughly entertaining show from a rough diamond with a wonderful voice. Developing a warm rapport with the audience, Mingay shares enough of himself that by the end of the night you feel that you really do know a fair bit about him. And didn’t the sell-out crowd love him.

David Harris, Time is a Traveller

Hayes Theatre Co, April 20

David Harris. Photo: supplied

David Harris. Photo: supplied

Musical theatre leading man David Harris is about to jet off to try his luck in New York City. By way of a farewell, he is performing his cabaret show Time is a Traveller at the Hayes Theatre Co.

In the intimate venue – elegantly decked out for the occasion with candles, white flowers and dark drapes – Harris is an understated but warm presence as he reflects on his journey to the stage and the highs and lows of his career.

Head boy at school but by no means the popular, sporty type, he had his first musical experience as Superman in a high school production of Man of Steel, then hit the talent quests before learning his craft on the job during a two-year run of The Boy From Oz. From there he moved on to lead roles in musicals Miss Saigon, Wicked and Legally Blonde.

He traces this journey in a low-key, engaging fashion, lacing his stories with a wry humour and self-deprecating honesty.

Accompanied by wonderful musical director Bev Kennedy on piano, Harris brings his silken voice, with its thrilling top register, to an interesting mix of well-known and less familiar songs among them “The Way You Look Tonight”, “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz and several songs by Peter Allen, an artist with whom he feels a special affinity.

Highlights include numbers from several musicals he’s been in such as Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Full Monty and Miss Saigon, to which he brings a great deal of emotional nuance, and a spine-tingling rendition of “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables.

Harris also displays a sure sense of comedy with a hilarious version of “This Is The Moment” from Jekyll and Hyde as you might experience it in an RSL club and springs a very funny surprise with a story about his teacher’s discovery of his gorgeous falsetto.

He also duets with a guest: Marika Aubrey on opening night, Suzie Mathers this week. All in all, Time is a Traveller is a charming, classy show.

Time is a Traveller plays at the Hayes Theatre Co on May 2, 3 and 4. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 27

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas

Hayes Theatre Co, February 16

Marika Aubrey in The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Photo: Alek Mak

Marika Aubrey in The Last of the Red Hot Mamas. Photo: Alek Mak

Sophie Tucker (or Sonya Kalish as she started life) was born on the side of the road in the Ukraine into a dirt-poor Jewish family, who eventually migrated to America.

Fedko Kryczko entered the world in a neighbouring village around the same time “in circumstances similarly shitty” as his great-granddaughter Marika Aubrey put it. As a young man, Fedko fled to Australia where Aubrey was later born.

In her new cabaret show The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Aubrey tells Tucker’s story in a fairly straightforward, linear fashion but weaves through it the story of Fedko and her own visit back to his Ukrainian village.

It brings a nice personal element to the show, giving it another dimension, though in the end it adds little to Tucker’s story and means there is less time to document her life in any depth.

We learn of Tucker’s tough beginnings, the discovery of her voice while singing for tips in her father’s kosher restaurant, the start of her career performing “coon” songs in blackface, and her metamorphosis into the renowned, outrageous star of 1920s vaudeville, known for her comic chops and risqué songs. Nicknamed The Last of the Red Hot Mamas, she was still performing into her late 70s.

Aubrey starts the night in a black and white satin dress with jewellery, headdress and long gloves then gradually removes articles until she is performing in vintage underwear.

Backed by a three-piece jazz band led by Bev Kennedy on piano, she sings a good, varied selection of songs associated with Tucker, among them “Life Upon the Wicked Stage”, “After You’ve Gone”, “The Man I Love”, “Hello My Baby”, “Some of These Days”, “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love” – in which she showcases her own comic facility.

Aubrey has a big, clear singing voice, which she uses well. It’s higher pitched than Tucker’s husky, powerhouse instrument – something she addresses upfront with a quick, light-hearted aside to Kennedy about the key she’ll sing in.

She also has a big personality and commands the small space at the Hayes Theatre Co with ease. Her patter between the numbers is lively and she develops a warm rapport with the audience.

Inevitably, Aubrey is only able to skim the surface of Tucker’s life. What she tells us is fascinating but we are left feeling we’d like to know more. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining show by an assured, engaging performer.

Produced by Aubrey and Neil Gooding Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, The Last of the Red Hot Lovers has been playing as the first of the Hayes’s Month of Sundays cabaret series. If you want to catch it, you’ll need to get cracking as there’s just one show left.

The Last of the Red Hot Mamas has its final performance at the Hayes Theatre Co, Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point on Sunday March 2 at 8.30pm. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au