Privates on Parade

New Theatre, Newtown, February 15

James Lee and Peter Eyers. Photo: Bob Seary

James Lee and Peter Eyers. Photo: Bob Seary

Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade is a fruity, somewhat dated affair, old love – but beneath the camp humour it has serious things to say about sexual politics, racism and colonialism, which still strike a chord.

The 1977 play with music was based on Nichols’ own personal experience of doing National Service in Calcutta and then Singapore as part of the Combined Services Entertainment alongside the likes of Kenneth Williams and Stanley Baxter.

Set in Malaya in 1948, it follows the naïve Private Steven Flowers (David Hooley) who is sent to investigate corrupt goings-on at the Song and Dance Unit South East Asia, a rag-tag bunch of misfits (both straight and gay) whose job it is to entertain the British troops fighting Communist Insurgents.

There, Flowers meets Acting Captain Terri Dennis (James Lee), a flamboyant drag queen who directs and stars in the unit’s shows, and becomes romantically involved with a local Welsh-Indian beauty called Sylvia Morgan (Diana Perini) who longs to leave for London.

Staged by the New Theatre as part of Mardi Gras, Alice Livingstone directs an exuberant production that gives full vent to the show’s camp humour and production numbers, including a ballet, a tap routine and some truly terrible jokes. Trent Kidd’s choreography suits the piece perfectly and has some nice humour built into it. There’s also a tastefully handled shower scene in which some of the privates’ privates are briefly on parade.

But alongside the frivolity there are darker elements including the arrogant ordering around of the Asian servants, Flowers’ cavalier treatment of Sylvia, the behaviour of the abusive, corrupt, homophobic Sergeant Major Reg Dummond (Matt Butcher) and the sudden eruption of war-time violence.

Lee drives the show as the camper-than-Chloe Terri, all jutting cheekbones and arching eyebrows as he relishes each and every double entendre. His impersonations of Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda are played to the hilt, but he then reins in his Noel Coward number beautifully.

As well as Terri’s flamboyance, Lee captures his loneliness, loyalty and generous spirit, particularly in his care of Sylvia. It’s a lovely performance.

Hooley is very good as the essentially decent Flowers, Peter Eyres is commanding as Major Flack, an unbending military man with a Christian fervour, and Perini is affecting as Sylvia, proving herself a genuine triple threat.

They are generally well supported by the rest of the cast: Morgan Junor-Larwood, Henry Moss, Jamie Collette, David Ouch and Gerwin Widjaja.

If the production is a bit rough around the edges at times, somehow it seems to suit the piece with its knockabout energy.

Livingstone’s decision to have Moss, Ouch and Widjaja as The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys in satin cheongsams singing in the foyer and then on stage before the show is a nice touch. Not only does it set the mood but it allows Ouch and Widjaja to strut their stuff, since they get to say nothing in the play as servants.

All in all, an enjoyable evening.

Privates on Parade plays at the New Theatre, Newtown until March 8. Bookings: http://www.newtheatre.org.au

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Hot Shoe Shuffle review

David Atkins Enterprises, Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 4

Before The Boy From Oz and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical, there was Hot Shoe Shuffle: the little musical that could.

It was the first Australian musical to play in London’s West End, where it won an Olivier Award for best choreography, and subsequently toured the UK, Japan, Canada and the US, as well as returning for two Australian tours.

Now, 21 years since it premiered and 11 years since it was last seen here, Hot Shoe Shuffle is back ­– and feeling fresh as a daisy in an exuberant production that had the Brisbane opening night audience on its feet cheering.

The paper-thin story is pretty silly. The seven Tap Brothers discover that they stand to inherit over $2 million from their father – but only if they can recreate his famous tap-dancing act, the Hot Shoe Shuffle. What’s more they must include April, the sister they didn’t know they had, who has two left feet.

Tap Brothers

The Tap Brothers: Morgan Junor-Larwood, Mason Schaube, Rob Mallett, Bobby Fox, Mitchell Hicks, Max Patterson, Alexander Kermond.

Though the plot has been rewritten slightly, with April telling the boys right near the top of the show that she isn’t actually their sister but the daughter of their father’s leading lady, it’s still just an excuse on which to hang some standards from the 1940s big band era (I Get Along Without You Very Well, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Shall We Dance and Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive among others) and some spectacular tap dancing.

However, the song and dance numbers are good enough, and the show warm-hearted enough, for the flimsiness of the plot not to really matter.

Hot Shoe Shuffle was co-choreographed by David Atkins and Dein Perry (who went on to create Tap Dogs). Atkins also directed and played Spring, the eldest of the Tap brothers and leader of the pack.

Playing opposite him as April was Rhonda Burchmore (Jackie Love and Debra Byrne took on the role in later seasons). In the original incarnation Spring and April were twins and the huge height difference between Atkins and Burchmore was a running gag in the show.

Atkins now plays the senior role of Dexter Tap and his various alter-egos, while Bobby Fox steps into the role of Spring and Jaz Flowers plays April.

Bobby_Jaz park

Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox.

Fox and Flowers both bring their own personalities to the roles and make them their own. The height difference is no longer there but the chemistry between them sparkles.

Sporting a red wig, Flowers looks fabulous in the 1940s-style cotton frock and gorgeous gowns. Her April is a little less goofy and klutzy, and more of a feisty girl who longs to perform but lacks confidence. Flowers is in fine voice, singing the numbers with power but subtlety, and she holds her own as a dancer.

Fox brings his twinkling charisma to the role of Spring. Less hard-boiled than Atkins’ Spring, he is more of an eye-rolling cynic and perfectionist, who keeps his distance while his brothers flock to April like moths to a flame. His dancing has a lovely ease (with a cheeky nod to his Irish dancing background) and he sings well, proving himself a genuine leading man.

Atkins is a great anchor as the older Dexter, while the six other Tap Brothers – played by Morgan Junor-Larwood, Rob Mallett, Mitchell Hicks, Alexander Kermond, Max Patterson and Mason Schaube – all emerge as distinctive personalities.

The choreography, which was created as a tribute to the tap dancing legends who inspired Atkins, combines the elegant style of the 1930s and 40s with an exciting, contemporary energy and sense of fun. Overall, the dancing does it justice, while Patterson makes the most of a solo, which he nails.

How Lucky - Jaz

Jaz Flowers.

The cartoony-looking production, with set by Eamon D’Arcy and costumes by Janet Hine, feels brighter than ever. Hine’s costumes, though similar to the originals, have been redesigned with even more vibrant colours for the boys and some stunning new outfits for April, while LED lights add extra razzle-dazzle to the final tap routine.

The 11-piece band, meanwhile, under musical director David Stratton performs with panache.

Hot Shoe Shuffle is an unashamedly old-fashioned, feel-good show. This 21st anniversary production is as impressive as any that have gone before and a fun, uplifting night of theatre.

QPAC until May 25; Lyric Theatre, Sydney, July 5 – 21; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, August 9 – 25.