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

 

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Mystery Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 24 at 2pm

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

It’s a measure of the respect Squabbalogic now commands that it can sell out two performances at the Reginald Theatre without audiences having a clue what it is they are going to see.

Tickets to Squabbalogic’s first Mystery Musical were snapped up fast, raising $10,000 for the company, as the company’s artistic director Jay James-Moody told us in his welcome speech before the start of the show. He also revealed that the independent company has applied for funding for the first time.

Anyway, everyone was clearly delighted to be contributing to the cause and was fascinated to see what musical the Squabb team had chosen for the company’s first blind-date show.

With the promised theatre program not being handed out until interval, it wasn’t until the first chords sounded and the cast burst into song that we discovered it was…..(drum roll) Bye Bye Birdie. It was a surprise choice in some ways, as Squabbalogic tends to produce recent musicals we would otherwise be unlikely to see. (Though in another unusual move they are producing Man of La Mancha next month).

The 1960 show with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams is pure musical comedy. I have never seen it on stage. In fact, I didn’t really know the show beyond some of the more famous songs like Put On a Happy Face and A Lot Of Livin’ To Do. So the chance to see it at all was great, and then to see it done so well – with just three days rehearsal – was the cream on the cake. I have to say it was a delightful way to spend an afternoon and everyone in the audience seemed to leave with a big smile on their face.

James-Moody starred, directed and “sort of choreographed” as he put it in the program – though in his welcoming remarks he did acknowledge the help of the cast and Nancye Hayes with the choreography.

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

He had assembled a terrific group of performers – Johanna Allen, Blake Erickson, Mikey Hart, Nancye Hayes, Jessica James-Moody, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Rob Johnson, Josie Lane, Michele Lansdown, Adele Parkinson, Garry Scale and Rowan Witt – and cast the show exceptionally well.

Their ranks were bolstered by an ensemble of 15 enthusiastic, talented graduates and students from the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) as the show’s teenagers.

Bye Bye Birdie is an affectionate satire, inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the army in 1957. It has plenty of catchy songs, a strong book full of big laughs (which plugs into the growing generation gap between teenagers and their parents), and an old-fashioned, feel-good exuberance about it.

Adele Parkinson as Kim. Photo: Amelia Burns

Adele Parkinson as Kim with Jessica James-Moody and Romy Watson. Photo: Amelia Burns

In a nutshell, the show is set in 1958. Agent/songwriter Albert Peterson, who is already in debt, hears that rock and roll star Conrad Birdie has been drafted.

Albert’s secretary and long-suffering sweetheart Rose Alvarez, comes up with a publicity stunt to bring in some bucks. Albert will write a new song called “One Last Kiss” for Conrad, who will sing it and kiss one of his thousands of fans (picked at random) as he departs. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Then, says Rosie, Albert will be able to wind up his business, marry her and become an English teacher (as he has been promising for yonks).

Throw in Albert’s domineering, interfering mother, who does all she can to prevent him marrying Rosie, Kim’s disapproving family and jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody, along with hordes of screaming, swooning fans, and things naturally go pear-shaped.

It’s a hoot that the happy ending has Albert agreeing to walk away from New York and showbiz and head instead for the tiny town of Pumpkin Falls, Iowa to teach English and Domestic Science, with Rose as his wife. Hard to make that outcome fly as a happy ending these days!

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

As with Neglected Musicals’ rehearsed readings, the cast performed with book in hand. But the standard of performance was remarkable given such little rehearsal time. James-Moody as Albert, Josie Lane as Rosie, Adèle Parkinson as Kim and Nancye Hayes as Albert’s mother were all sensational, performing with just the right, light comic touch. But kudos to the entire cast, each of whom did a fantastic job. Praise too to musical director Hayden Barltrop on keys.

Even without being fully staged, Bye Bye Birdie was a delightful, thoroughly satisfying performance that gave audiences a welcome chance to experience a classic musical comedy. I look forward to the next Mystery Musical with great anticipation.

As for Squabbalogic, which just this week won four 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards for its glorious production of The Drowsy Chaperone, the company just seems to go from strength to strength. Let’s hope funding follows.