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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Rent

Hayes Theatre Co, October 13

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The production of Rent currently playing at the Hayes Theatre Co sold out before opening. As announced last night at the Hayes’ Coming Soon launch for the first half of 2016, the show will have a three-week return season from March 29.

The rock musical with music, book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson – who died on the eve of its 1996 off-Broadway opening – quickly gained a cult following. It won a Pulitzer Prize, moved to Broadway and then onto the world, including Sydney where a production played at the Theatre Royal in 1998.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La boheme, Rent is set in Manhattan in the early 1990s and centres on a group of impoverished young artists and misfits who are struggling to survive as gentrification makes rents unaffordable and AIDS takes its devastating toll.

The musical is an explosion of passion, anger, sorrow, frustration and defiant joy.

Produced here by Highway Run Productions (Toby Francis and Lauren Peters) in association with the Hayes, helmed by first-time director Shaun Rennie and performed by a strong cast of 14, the production certainly pulses with youthful energy but it often feels over-busy, particularly in the first act.

That’s partly to do with the musical itself, which has a rather loose, disparate structure, following a number of different characters through several interconnecting story lines.

Central to the group are Mark (Stephen Madsen), a middle-class, would-be filmmaker, his roommate Roger (Linden Furnell), a songwriter with HIV and writer’s block whose girlfriend committed suicide, and Mimi (Loren Hunter), a drug addicted club dancer, who also has HIV.

There’s also the cross-dressing, joyously queer, gently caring Angel (Christopher Scalzo) and Collins (Nana Matapule), a gay anarchist professor, who fall for each other, Mark’s former girlfriend Maureen (Laura Bunting) and her new partner Joanne (Casey Donovan), and Benny (Matthew Pearce), a former friend of Mark and Roger who is now their tough landlord.

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

With an ensemble that also includes Denise Devlin, Josh Gardiner, Jack O’Riley, Kirsty Sturgess, Monique Sallé and Chloe Elisabeth Wilson playing various other characters, there’s a lot going on, with important pieces of information often conveyed very briefly in a line or two of song.

Depending on where you sit in the theatre, there are sound issues, with the cast belting it out of the park to be heard over the band, and lyrics often hard to decipher. Rennie doesn’t manage to control the focus completely in the first act and it all feels as if it is coming at you at a million miles an hour, while the actors struggle to create strong, clearly defined characters as they sing full-bore.

Scalzo as Angel and Matapule as Collins, are the most successful at creating truthful characters we care about and their relationship is very much the heart and soul of the first act.

The second act is much more successful across the board. For a start, the musical itself quietens a little and the storylines are given more room to breathe. Furnell really finds his groove as Roger and his relationship with Mimi gains genuine traction. Hunter gives an intense, almost aggressive Mimi but conveys little of her vulnerability until late in the piece, when the production finally becomes moving.

Even in the second act there are times when the production feels unnecessarily busy, as when Collins carries the dying Angel from one table to another during Mimi and Roger’s song Without You, for seemingly little reason, which just proves distracting.

Then there’s the sign language, which Rennie and choreographer Andy Dexterity use periodically during the production. Many people have loved this element but I couldn’t help feeling it looks like an exercise used in the rehearsal room to explore the characters’ emotions, and probably should have stayed there. For me, it feels imposed rather than organic – though others clearly experienced it differently.

However, there is also much to enjoy. Rennie starts the second act in an unexpected way – a delightful, clever touch – and there’s lots of powerful singing.

Donovan and Bunting raised the roof on opening night with Take Me or Leave Me and Matapule delivers a lovely version of I’ll Cover You but all the performers all have their moment vocally.

Lauren Peters’ sparse, stripped back set – essentially a bare room with exposed bricks, a few props, and a metal mesh gate in front of the small band (led by musical director Andrew Worboys) – creates the right kind of grungy space, while Georgia Hopkins’ costumes work well.

It’s good to see young producers and a young, first-time director being given the chance to produce work like this and you can’t fault the energy and commitment of the cast. With a little more tightening, honing and focusing the production could really hit home so it’s great that the creative team will have the chance to revisit it early next year.

Rent, Hayes Theatre Co until November 1. Sold out. Return season March 29 – April 17. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337