Tony Awards 2011: a glimpse of shows coming our way, perhaps

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The Tony Awards were handed out last week and from the quality of the ceremony performances, the next few years will be exciting for theatre lovers as the best of Broadway trickles onto our shores.

With Mary Poppins already sliding up the banister at the Capitol Theatre and Hairspray opening officially at Star City this week, Sydneysiders are currently spoilt for choice. Add Jersey Boys to the mix, and the competition for your hard earned theatre dollars is fierce. Interestingly enough, there weren’t any tickets available last week for Mary Poppins but plenty for the Hairspray perviews. Jersey Boys continues to be popular but a new promotion with discounted tickets is a good sign that the pressure is on.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, is playing in Melbourne and will surely travel north eventually. With the poorly received London production about to close, the revamped Australian version will soon be the sole production in the world. From Oz, it will head to Broadway.

The eighties hair band jukebox musical, Rock of Ages, is also likely to come our way once it has closed in Melbourne. Unfortunately, Xanadu, the intentionally cheesy musical based on the roller skating Olivia Newton John movie and the music of Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne tanked badly there and closed early.

Our new Premier, um, you know, that guy, has also seemingly made securing musicals for Sydney his first priority and has recently announced that The Addams Family musical and a stage adaption of Strictly Ballroom (There are no new steps!) will premiere in NSW.

Rumours abound of the Legally Blonde musical coming to Australia in the near future as well as a remount of Annie. The stage mothers of Oz must be wetting themselves in anticipation.

As for the Tony Award nominees, Daniel Radcliffe surprisingly impressed with some fancy dancing and singing in the 50th anniversary revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. This very American musical is unlikely to transfer to Australia. Also with poor odds of coming our way is The Scottsboro Boys, an all black musical performed in a minstrel style, which was nominated for twelve awards despite the fact that it had closed after a disastrous 49 performances. It won none.

I managed to catch Sister Act on the West End last year, which has since transferred to Broadway. The all singing, all dancing nun chorus line in the finale is a must see but the musical itself is so-so. Think The Sound of Music in sequins. I give it fair odds of playing here.

Speaking of movie adaptations, a stylish musical version of Catch Me If You Can was nominated for four Tonys and looks very promising.

The most exciting show of the Broadway year has to be The Book of Mormon, a musical comedy from the makers of South Park. Following the adventures of two Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda and encounter a local warlord, this satire has become the must-have ticket on The Great White Way. I suggest you start writing to the Premier to bring this brilliant show to Sydney.

The future looks bright for musical theatre lovers. Let’s just hope we don’t get flooded with shows all at once because Sydney can only sustain one or two mega-musicals at the one time. I know my wallet feels the same way.


Les Miserables: 25 years of revolution

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 19th October 2010.

One of the world’s most successful musicals celebrates its twenty fifth anniversary this year and plans are already underway to mark the occasion.

Les Misérables is based on the classic 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. It was originally written as a French language production in 1980 by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. Produced by theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh, the English adaption opened in October 1985 at the Barbican Centre in London. Initially receiving largely negative reviews, the production was warmly embraced by theatre goers and the show was a major box office success.

Twenty six years later, that original London production is still running at the Queen’s Theatre, where it celebrated its ten thousandth performance on January 5 this year. Hundreds of musicians and performers have passed through the London production. Only one musician, the drummer from the original London cast album, Peter Boita, remains with the production.

Of course, the show soon spread worldwide. On Broadway it ran for 6680 performances over sixteen years. In Australia, the original production, which starred Normie Rowe, Debra Byrne, Anthony Warlow and Philip Quast, ran between 1987 and 1989. In the early nineties, the production was made available to amateur companies and Orange Theatre Company was one of the first to produce the show in 1994, and again in 2002.

On October 3 this year, Les Misérables set another record, with an amazing three productions being performed at different venues in London. Besides the standard West End production, a UK touring 25th Anniversary Tour production was also playing at the original home of the London show, the Barbican Centre. At the immense O2 Arena (formally the Millennium Dome), which seats 23000 people, a 25th Anniversary Concert was also being staged.

The concert was certainly an all-star affair with a cast that included Filipino singing sensation Lea Salonga as Fantine, Nick Jonas of Jonas Brothers fame as Marius, current Phantom in Love Never Dies Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras and Little Britain’s Matt Lucas as Thénardier. With a cast of over three hundred performers and musicians, the concert also featured appearances from the original 1985 cast, the 25th Anniversary Tour cast and the current West End production cast.

Australian Les Misérables fans will also be able to participate in the celebrations with the 25th Anniversary Concert being shown on the big screen in cinemas this Thursday, October 21. Shot in high definition, the concert version should be spectacular, in particular the second encore which features four Jean Valjeans leading the ensemble in One Day More. If sitting in the cinema for three hours is not appealing, the concert is also scheduled for release on DVD and blu-ray disc in the UK in November with a subsequent Australian release also very likely.

Whilst Les Misérables may not be my favourite show, it was recently voted the UK’s favourite musical, receiving forty percent of the vote. There certainly is something embedded in the show which is very powerful thematically and musically. It has a strange way of rousing the human spirit in an audience. The longest running musical in history shows no sign of ending.

Published in: on October 19, 2010 at 11:03  Leave a Comment  
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Unlikely Musicals

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 20th July.

In November this year, the most expensive musical in history might hit Broadway. “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark” has a reported budget of US$52 million. With music and lyrics by U2’s Bono and The Edge, and under the direction of Julie Taylor, the mastermind behind The Lion King stage show and the musical film, Across the Universe, Spidey on stage promises to be a spectacular production, with plans for the webslinger to soar across the New York skyline. How we can see his lips move when singing is yet to be determined.

With so much at stake, the production has been troubled to say the least. Marvel, owner of the Spider-Man character, has already renewed the licence for the show five times. Veteran theatre and film producer, Tony Adams, who initiated the project, suffered a stroke and died in October 2005 just days after signing The Edge. Two of the advertised stars, Evan Rachel Wood (Mary Jane Watson) and Alan Cumming (Green Goblin), have pulled out due to frustrations with the lengthy developmental period. In August 2009, all work on the show, including set building and preparation of the Hilton Theatre, was suspended when the ledger showed that the budget was US$25 million in the red.

If, and that’s a big if, Spider-Man’s curtain rises this year, the show will have to be a mega-success to avoid it being an expensive flop. My spider sense is only mildly tingling.

Spider-Man may seem like a strange choice for a musical, however, there are several productions out there based on unlikely characters and subjects.

American Idiot, based on the album of the same name by Green Day, opened on Broadway in April this year. Essentially the whole album, with a few extra songs from the 21st Century Breakdown record, the one act show centres on a group of disaffected youths struggling to find meaning in their suburban, middle-class lives. Opening to mixed reviews, the first few months of the production have generated strong box office takings. The measure of success on Broadway is longevity so the jury is still out on American Idiot.

The Toxic Avenger was a trashy, B grade film from Troma Entertainment in 1984. Following the adventures of a bullied janitor who is exposed to toxic waste and becomes a superhero, the film became a cult favourite and spawned two sequels and a cartoon series. In 2009, the rock musical opened off-Broadway (this means that the theatre is located in Broadway but has less than 500 seats) with positive reviews and ran for 300 performances.

Evil Dead: The Musical, is based on the 1981 comedy horror film which starred popular B movie star Bruce Campbell and was directed by Sam Raimi, who would go on to helm two more Evil Dead movies, The Gift, A Simple Plan, Drag Me to Hell and all three (non-musical) Spider-Man films. Following the movie’s premise of four college students trapped in an isolated cabin in the woods whilst an evil power possesses them one by one, the musical is reportedly a great laugh and features what is known as the “splash zone”. The audience in the first four rows is encouraged to wear old clothing as the stage blood from the comedic violence tends to fly into the stalls. Evil Dead opened off-Broadway in 2006 and ran for a year. It continues to dismember its cast to the delight of audiences in local productions across the US, Canada and Korea.

A musical based on a man with super spider abilities may seem ridiculous, but I suppose it is no weirder than roller skating trains (Starlight Express), copulating puppets (Avenue Q) or actors (such as myself a few years ago) prancing around in body stockings (Cats).

Theatre Review: Love Never Dies

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 1st June 2010.

“Love Never Dies”

Adelphi Theatre, London

Fans of the seminal 1986 musical, The Phantom of the Opera, were sent into a frenzy in 2007 with the announcement that Andrew Lloyd-Webber was planning a sequel. Reaction amongst fans was extremely divided. Many were of the opinion that a follow-up would tarnish the original’s place in theatre history, whilst others couldn’t wait to see what happens to the Phantom, Christine and Raoul after the rather inconclusive finale of the first musical (and later movie).

On 9th March this year, Love Never Dies opened in London. Featuring a new score by Lloyd-Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Lloyd-Webber, Slater and Ben Elton (who has a chequered past with musicals, having written the script for hit We Will Rock You, and the failures Tonight’s The Night and The Beautiful Game), this production is the first ever musical sequel to be performed in the West End.

 Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to secure tickets to see the original cast at the Adelphi Theatre.

Without spoiling the story, Love Never Dies picks up ten years after the events of The Phantom of the Opera. Madame Giry and her daughter Meg have assisted the Phantom to relocate to Coney Island in New York where he runs the theatrical attraction known as Phantasma, under the alias of Mr Y. Still enchanted by his muse, Christine Daaé, the Phantom lures her to America along with her husband, Raoul, now bankrupt and an alcoholic, and their son, Gustave.

What is most striking about this new production is how far stage technology and special effects have evolved since the original show. The impressive (at the time) tricks of the 1986 musical have been replaced by spectacular projections onto fog, moving silhouettes of roller coasters, chandeliers made of animatronic heads and a horse and coach in which sideshow freaks appear out of thin air. The clever casting of a contortionist in the show also allowed a table to move across the stage, seemingly propelled only by two human legs.

The score itself features less memorable tunes than its predecessor, however the title track and the Phantom’s solos Til I Hear You Sing and The Beauty Underneath are standouts. The transition from the operatic style of Paris to vaudeville numbers at Coney Island may also grate with some.

Being a Tuesday night performance, I did not get to see original Christine Daaé, Sierra Boggess in action. Fortunately, the rest of the original cast was onstage that night and Ramin Karimloo (Phantom) was in very fine voice. Having played the Phantom for two years on the West End, Karimloo certainly has developed the perfect combination of gravitas and fragility to portray him again in Love Never Dies. Also impressive were Summer Strallen as Meg Giry and Liz Robertson as Madame Giry.

The Phantom of the Opera was a worldwide phenomenon, drawing crowds into theatres, many of whom had never seen a musical before. For musical theatre lovers and Phantom fans, Love Never Dies is worth the price of admission for its sumptuous staging, impressive special effects and remarkable performances. The mildly disappointing storyline and score are secondary.

Despite an impressive box office advance and sell out performances, Love Never Dies has received mixed reviews from the UK theatre critics. It should have a long and successful run as “Phans” clamour to get tickets. A show with such widespread brand awareness is virtually critic proof, however, I doubt it will ever be regarded as an equal to the original.

Love Never Dies is scheduled to arrive in Australia in 2011.

Review: Spring Awakening

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 9th February 2010.

Spring Awakening is the latest Broadway musical to make its way to our shores. With its Australian premiere this week, this new production has controversial origins which stretch way back to the 1890’s. I was lucky enough to catch a preview performance this past weekend.

Spring Awakening was German Frank Wedekind’s first ever play. Its storyline focuses on German teenagers in the late 19th century exploring their newfound sexuality and adolescence. Completed in 1891but not performed until 1906 in Berlin, his production attracted much criticism and was eventually banned from performance and publication for about 21 years due to its portrayal of abortion, suicide, sex and masturbation.

In 2001, the play was adapted into a musical by wordsmith Steven Sater and 90’s popster Duncan Sheik. Following numerous rewrites and workshops, the show finally premiered in 2006 on Broadway. Starring Glee actress Lea Michele, who originated the lead female role of Wendla from the very first workshops at the age of 14, the musical went on to run for 888 performances and won 8 Tony awards including best musical, book, director and score.

Sydney Theatre Company’s production is the first English language version to not be a replica of the original. Featuring a cast of 15 young performers aged between 17 and 24, all attended open auditions and beat out 1200 other hopefuls for their roles. The experience of the young cast ranges from seasoned actors to those still in training (two of the cast have been temporarily released from their studies at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts) to those making their stage debuts (one performer auditioned in her school uniform).

Very much an ensemble piece, Spring Awakening’s Australian cast are all exceptionally strong singers and actors individually, but as a collective they bring a youthful energy and zest to the stage that sweeps all of the audience along in its wake. In particular, the show’s finale, The Song of Purple Summer, raises the hairs on the back of your neck with the whole cast in powerful vocal form.

The set is quite remarkable. A simple two story wooden structure is the centrepiece of the stage. Pivoting from mid-stage, the versatile bridge-like set is swept around by the cast to represent everything from a wharf to a cemetery. Ladders allow the cast to move around the set. The stage is walled in with black material, with doorways in the side and back walls as entrances. The front third of the stage is at a steep incline meaning that the cast are often dancing precariously at an angle which looks like it may send them into the audience at any time.

The lighting effects are almost deserving of a starring credit of their own. Hundreds of incandescent light globes hang individually from the roof, giving the show at times an otherworldly nocturnal atmosphere. The cast often utilise handheld spotlights to illuminate their faces during some of the more dramatic moments.

Director Geordie Brookman has crafted a standout piece of musical theatre. Eliciting powerful performances from actors just starting out in their careers, I felt privileged to witness the stars of tomorrow in such a grounded but vibrant new production. My only gripe is the choice to use Australian accents. Amongst German names and a decidedly European atmosphere, the twang of the performer’s accents grated with me.

The thematic focus of Spring Awakening means that the swearing and brief nudity may turn off some. It is certainly not for pre-teens, or those who like their musicals to be all singing and dancing colour explosions.

As the hit musical Rent became the voice of youth in the 90’s extolling the virtues of living your life in the present, I predict Spring Awakening will also resonate with young audiences. However, unlike Rent, which has aged somewhat as attitudes towards AIDS change, the turmoil of adolescent sexuality is a universal and eternal theme which has ensured that Spring Awakening has remained relevant since 1891.

Spring Awakening opens tonight at the Sydney Theatre, runs until 7th March and is highly recommended.

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 06:57  Leave a Comment  
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The Upcoming Year in Musicals

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 29th December 2009.

Musical theatre fans have plenty to look forward to next year. With a few old favourites returning plus the Australian premiere of two exciting new productions, there is something for everyone, limited only by your budget.

For those who like to travel, there are many incentives to wander down south to Melbourne in 2010. Jersey Boys, the supremely entertaining jukebox musical based on the life and careers of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, continues to wow audiences at the Princess Theatre and most likely will not make the transfer to Sydney until 2011.

Mary Poppins, presented by musical theatre juggernaut, Cameron Mackintosh, and little known film production company, Disney, will make its Australian premiere in July at Her Majesty’s Theatre. With songs drawn from the 1964 Disney film, the storyline will follow the darker source material of P.L. Travers book. Starring Debra Byrne, Marina Prior, Philip Quast , Judi Connelli and So You Think You Can Dance judge Matt Lee as Bert (let’s hope his Cockney accent is better than Dick Van Dyke’s), the iconic titular role is yet to be cast. Trivia buffs will be interested to know that P.L. Travers, an Australian, hated the Disney film and stipulated in her will that only English born writers were to be involved in the creative process of adapting the movie for the stage.

Also making its Australian premiere in Melbourne will be The Drowsy Chaperone, winner of 5 Tony Awards in 2006, including Best Original Score and Best Book. Starring Geoffrey Rush and Rhonda Burchmore, it will have a limited engagement from January.

Sydney will also have its fair share of touring and long stay musicals next year. Wicked will continue its open ended run at the Capitol Theatre and the national tour of Mamma Mia will finish up at the Lyric Theatre in February.

Sydney Theatre Company will produce the Australian Premiere of Spring Awakening in February. With music by 90’s pop star Duncan Sheik, the alternative rock musical is set in late-nineteenth century Germany and focuses on a group of teenagers coming to grips, so to speak, with their sexuality. Winning 8 Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score, this controversial production is certainly not family friendly. Glee fans will be interested to know that Lea Michele (who plays Rachel Berry) starred in the original Broadway production.

Perennial musical favourites Cats and West Side Story will tour Australia next year. The Sydney season of Cats will open in May. This international touring production will certainly be dwarfed inside the cavernous Lyric Theatre but is sure to delight audiences of all ages. Following numerous Australian runs, 18 years on Broadway, 21 years in the West End and a local production by Orange Theatre Co in 2007, Cats definitely has nine lives.

West Side Story hits the Lyric Theatre at Star City in July (let’s hope it doesn’t leave its kids in the car). This seminal American musical, featuring timeless music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, will be choreographed by Joey McKneeley, who was personally chosen by original choreographer Jerome Robbins to recreate his steps. Auditions are now underway for Australian performers to join the cast.

Locally, audiences will also have a feast of shows to enjoy with Dusty The Original Pop Diva, Rent and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee all scheduled to be performed at the Orange Civic Theatre as part of the 2010 Subscription Season.

 As a lover of musicals, and with a trip to the West End also planned, 2010 is going to be a busy, and expensive, year for me.

Published in: on January 3, 2010 at 01:28  Leave a Comment  
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Avenue Q: Hands Up A Great Musical

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 25th August 2009.

Have you ever wondered what an adult version of Sesame St would be like? One where all of the characters had real life problems such as unemployment, homelessness and relationship dysfunction? If so, then Avenue Q is the musical for you.

Avenue Q opened at the Theatre Royal is Sydney on 12th August. Directed by Jonathan Biggins of Three Men and a Baby Grand fame, the musical stars Michala Banas from McLeod’s Daughters and David James from The Hollowmen and Play School.

Broadly based on TV’s Sesame St, Avenue Q features humans, puppet humans and puppet monsters living together on one of New York’s most run-down streets. Similarly to the Lion King musical, the puppeteers dress simply in grey and stand on stage in full view of the audience. They sing, dance and manipulate their puppets, which are crafted from the waist up only, without attempting to hide, yet somehow the eye is drawn to the cute Muppets-like characters and the puppeteers soon fade from view.

New university graduate Princeton (a puppet human) can only afford to live on Avenue Q, which is managed by superintendent Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman). He falls in love with Kate Monster (a puppet monster), a teaching assistant who yearns to open up a school for monsters. Also living on the street are Christmas Eve, a therapist with no clients, and her fiancé, Brian, an unemployed wannabe stand-up comedian, as well as Nicky and Rod (both puppet humans),  best buddies who share a flat, just like Bert and Ernie. The elusive Trekkie Monster (a puppet) also lives on Avenue Q and spends most of his inside his room, addicted to internet adult websites.

The musical follows the highs and lows of these characters and more, all set to catchy Sesame St style songs, albeit with adult orientated titles such as What Do You Do With A BA In English, The Internet Is For Porn, It Sucks To Be Me and Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.

Conceived by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, Avenue Q originally opened on Broadway in 2003 and went on to beat Wicked for Best Musical at the 2004 Tony Awards. It is currently the 21st longest running show on Broadway. A production of Avenue Q is also underway on London’s West End, and a Las Vegas production ran for 9 months in 2006.

Sharp, clever and very funny, Avenue Q had the capacity audience in stitches. The New York street set was simple but effective, and the occasional use of video screens worked well. The puppeteer cast brilliantly managed multiple characters, sometimes simultaneously on stage. All performers sang strongly, with Michala Banas in particularly fine voice.

Despite the puppets and children’s TV style songs, Avenue Q is not a show for children, with frequent coarse language, adult themes and a now infamous bedroom scene between two puppets. For two hours of pure theatrical and comedy bliss, Avenue Q is highly recommended.

Published in: on December 10, 2009 at 07:55  Leave a Comment  
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