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.

Casey

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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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

The Phantom of the Opera

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, February 6

Erin Clare and Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Erin Clare and Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Approached by Riverside Theatres, Parramatta to produce quality productions of musicals for family audiences at affordable prices, Neil Gooding has found a winning formula with Packemin Productions.

Established in 2010, Packemin stages pro-am productions of major shows (Annie, Hairspray and Beauty and the Beast among others) for a fraction of the budget of the professional productions – and does a terrific job. In just five years, it has built quite a following and reputation.

Under Gooding’s canny leadership, Packemin’s productions feature a handful of professionals in leading roles, alongside a large cast of talented community performers. Staging-wise, the production values are pretty high given the tight budgets, while the tickets cost less than $50.

Packemin’s latest production is The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most phenomenally popular musicals of all time.

Obviously Packemin can’t match the lavish spectacle and superlative production values of the Really Useful/Cameron Macintosh production but they have a damn good shot at it.

A large chandelier does its stuff most effectively, the boat that takes the Phantom and Christine to his subterranean lair glides across the stage through swirling smoke, the rest of the sets are evocative, while the impressive costumes lend plenty of colour. All in all, it looks great.

The cast is led by Ben Mingay as the Phantom. As a bass baritone, the role doesn’t sit naturally in his vocal sweet spot and his voice doesn’t soar in the upper register as others before him have done, but he uses his rich baritone well. He also brings a dark, brooding charisma to the role.

Claudio Sgaramella as Piangi and Johanna Allen as Carlotta. Photo: supplied

Claudio Sgaramella as Piangi and Johanna Allen as Carlotta. Photo: supplied

Johanna Allen is glorious as the flouncing opera diva Carlotta, unleashing a torrent of crocodile tears, pouts and indignant demands. Her comic timing is impeccable and she nails the role vocally.

Erin Clare uses her soprano well as Christine, though could bring a little more innocence to the role initially, while Joshua Keane makes a dashing young Raoul. Christopher Hamilton and Gavin Brightwell are very funny as the opera managers, working together with a lovely ease and assurance, and Michele Lansdown is a suitably dour Madame Giry.

It’s great to see such a large ensemble (around 40) on stage, all of whom perform with great commitment and verve. Musical director Peter Hayward leads a solid 21-strong orchestra.

The opening night audience was enormously enthusiastic and the rest of the season is now sold out. Next up from Packemin, Mary Poppins in July.

Gooding is emphatic that Packemin doesn’t position itself as a rival to the large-scale professional productions, which have budgets a pro-am company like this can only dream of. But Packemin is another lively element in Sydney’s musical theatre scene, and a great success story.

The Phantom of the Opera runs at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta until February 21

 

Snow White – Winter Family Musical

State Theatre, July 4

Magda Szubanski and ensemble. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Magda Szubanski and ensemble. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

The Christmas pantomime is a popular British tradition. After success in the US, Bonnie Lythgoe hopes to introduce an annual panto here. If her first production, Snow White – Winter Family Musical, is anything to go by, she could be onto a winner.

Snow White takes the time-honoured panto formula and gives it a contemporary shake, adding pop songs by the likes of One Direction and Michael Jackson, and lacing the script with just enough local references and topical jokes for both adults and children.

The costumes and old-school painted backdrops hark back to classic panto, giving the show a nostalgic charm, and look great.

On opening night, the performers quickly involved the audience who entered into the spirit of it with gusto, booing the Wicked Queen, shouting to warn Snow White not to eat the apple, and shrieking during the famous ghost gag.

Lythgoe, who produces and directs, has cast the show cleverly with celebrities and actors who understand the performance style. Magda Szubanski, in particular, is fabulous as the wicked Queen Grismalda, interacting with the audience with quick-smart ease.

Josh Adamson, Peter Everett and Jimmy Rees. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Josh Adamson, Peter Everett and Jimmy Rees. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Jimmy Rees (aka Jimmy Giggle from the ABC TV show Giggle & Hoot) also nails it as the hapless jester Muddles, who is hopelessly devoted to Snow White. Both of them pitch their performances perfectly, mining every ounce of comedy without overdoing it.

Newcomer Erin Clare (who was discovered during a national search for an unknown performer to play the role) shines as Snow White, embodying just the kind of fairytale heroine that little children imagine. Peter Everett is endearing as Chambers, loyal courtier and friend to Snow White, Andrew Cutcliffe is suitably dashing as Prince Handsome, and Josh Adamson has the right swagger as Herman the Huntsman. Sir Cliff Richard and Kyle Sandilands lend strong support as the Queen’s (pre-recorded) two-faced mirror.

The seven dwarves are played by children in cartoony heads, straight out of a picture book or animated film, which works surprisingly well.

Erin Clare with the seven dwarves. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Erin Clare with the seven dwarves. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Running just over two hours including interval, Snow White does feel a little long at times, particularly the extended ghost gag. The odd nip and tuck wouldn’t hurt. However, the three little girls in front of us, who ranged in age from around three to six, clearly had a wonderful time and hardly a restless moment.

In Lythgoe’s care, Snow White is good old-fashioned entertainment and great fun for all the family. “Oh no it isn’t! Oh YES it is!”

Snow White – Winter Family Musical plays at Sydney’s State Theatre until July 13. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 6