Theatre Review: Snow White Winter Family Musical

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 8th July 2014.

Many years ago, whilst living in the UK, I had the pleasure of performing in a pantomime. Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood featured all of the hallmarks of this classic theatrical format: a “dame” (a man in drag); cheesy pop songs; a spooky forest (he’s behind you!); sweets being thrown to the audience; a moustache twirling villain; and audience participation (booing and hissing). It was great fun and the audience lapped it up.

Unfortunately, pantomime is not a theatrical staple in Australia. We’re trained to sit in our seats and behave. Luckily for Sydney audiences, this hasn’t stopped Bonnie Lythgoe (UK based producer and director, and former judge on So You Think You Can Dance Australia) from bringing Snow White Winter Family Musical to the State Theatre, just in time for the school holidays.

Pantomimes classically feature a celebrity cast hamming it up and Lythgoe has managed to snag one of the big guns of Australian stage and screen comedy in Magda Szubanski, as the dastardly Queen Grismelda. Also starring are Jimmy Rees (TV’s Giggle and Hoot), Peter Everett (Ready Steady Cook), Andrew Cutcliffe (Underbelly: RAZOR) and US based Aussie musical theatre star Josh Adamson.

For the titular role, Lythgoe ran a country wide talent search in a non-specific shopping centre chain and unearthed Erin Clare, a blue eyed brunette whose looks just scream Snow White. Oh, she can sing and dance too.

Lythgoe has also somehow managed to convince Sir Cliff Richard (the ultimate real life Peter Pan) and radio shock jock Kyle Sandilands to prerecord their parts as the split personalities of the magic mirror.

Rounding out the cast are two troupes of way too talented kiddies who alternate performances as the dancing ensemble and then don some rather creepy heads to portray the seven dwarves.

I was accompanied by two friends who were reasonably unfamiliar with panto, but egged on by Rees’ court jester Muddles, it didn’t take long for them (and the whole audience) to adapt to the concept of audience participation. We hissed the villain. We cheered for the handsome prince. We groaned at the opening chords of the obligatory One Direction songs. I booed at Kyle Sandilands (his onscreen cameo is further proof to my theory that he isn’t actually human).

The cast is uniformly fantastic with Rees particularly amusing (minus his owl) and Szubanski able to make a fluffed line into a memorable opportunity for hilarity. Everett was appropriately camp and new discovery Erin Clare is as beautiful as she is talented (but should stay away from poisoned apples to avoid typecasting and endless slumber).

Despite a rather clunky script, some underwritten characters and a flat second act, I had a great time. Worth the entry price alone is the best onstage flying illusion I have every seen, and I’ve seen a lot. Forget Mary Poppins, this is the real thing.

Let’s hope Snow White Winter Family Musical is a hit so Lythgow can make her panto an annual highlight on the rather ho-hum Sydney theatrical calendar. Next time, I’m going to take the kids.

4DX: Not the future of cinema

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 26th February 2013.

4dx logo

As the resident cinephile for the CWD, the question I’m most often asked is, “What’s your name again?” The second most often asked question is, “Is 3D the future of cinema?” My answer to that is a resounding no. 3D cinema is a gimmick. A pointless, headache inducing gimmick if utilised badly. Take Clash of the Titans, Wrath of the Titans or Thor, for example. An impressive gimmick if used correctly in films such as Life of Pi, Hugo and Avatar, but a gimmick nonetheless.

A question that I wished someone would ask me is, “What’s not the future of cinema?” I actually have an answer to that one. It’s definitely not 4DX.

4dx cinema

At the moment, there are only a few 4DX equipped cinemas in the world, and the closest one to Australia is located at the Paragon Cineplex inside the gigantic Siam Paragon shopping centre in Bangkok. On a recent visit to Thailand, I had the opportunity to try out 4DX, and the bad news is that it’s more of a theme park attraction than an immersive cinema experience.

The 4DX cinema consists of hydraulic motion chairs with 3 degrees of freedom. They pitch, roll and heave along with the action on the screen. Built into the seats are air jets that simulate bullets whizzing above and beside your face. There are also jets that replicate splashes by spraying water in your face. Back and leg ticklers kneed you from inside the seat. A bass shaker vibrates your backside. Speakers placed in the headrest scream into your ears. But wait, there’s more.

4DX

There are fans installed in the roof to hit you with gusts of wind. Foggers fill the cinema with smoke. Fragrances are released to enhance the emotions and moods portrayed on the screen. There are bubbles for no particular reason at all. And did I mention that the films are in 3D too?

My 4DX movie was Upside Down, starring Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man) and Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe), which is yet to receive a release date in Australia. This fantasy romance is set on twin planets which share the same atmosphere, resulting in two worlds with opposing gravities. Sturgess’s Adam falls in love with Dunst’s Eden. The only problem is that she lives in the world above him, and it’s upside down. Chaos (and some woeful physics) occurs.

Featured films are not generally rendered into 4DX by the filmmakers or film studios. The seat movements and other effects are programmed by the South Korean company which developed the technology. This results in a bizarre experience where the in-house special effects are more about showing off the capabilities of the format than enhancing the storyline.

4dx

My seat moved around at times with no regard to what was happening on the screen. During a scene set high on a mountain, the foggers filled the room with smoke. This certainly enhanced the cloudy atmosphere portrayed on the silver screen. Unfortunately, all I could see was smoke and no screen.

Upside Down featured lots of outdoor scenes. For some reason, the 4DX programmers decided that it was windy every time the action ventured outdoors. With the wind effect fans working overtime, I was cold for most of the film. I didn’t mind the air shots which synched with gunfire although I’m not sure why I deserved a kidney punch from the chair during a fight scene. With the 4DX system supposedly capable of reproducing 1000 different scents, I only noticed one during my screening. I will forever associate Kirsten Dunst with urinal cakes.

4DX cinema experience

At a premium ticket price of 400 baht ($13), compared to a standard screening ticket of 230 baht ($7.50), a 4DX screening in Bangkok is hardly going to break the bank for most Australian tourists. My advice would be to give it a go but leave within the 30 minute refund window, get your money back and enjoy the film in a nice, comfortable, non-moving seat, then spend the difference on a funny t-shirt at the markets.

Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 12:01  Leave a Comment  
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Avenue TV Commercial

Here is my TV Commercial Directorial Debut!

Orange Theatre Company presents

Avenue Q

5 -7 July 2012

Orange Civic Theatre

Book at the Box Office ph 02 6393 8111 or http://www.ticketek.com.au

Published in: on June 6, 2012 at 07:39  Leave a Comment  
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Encore Encore

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 27th September 2011.

I was fortunate enough this weekend to catch the sold out Tom Burlinson show, Now We’re Swingin’ at the Civic Theatre. Accompanied by a tight eight piece band, Burlinson was in fine voice and proved why he was chosen to provide the voice of Frank Sinatra for the Australian film The Night We Called It a Day.

After two acts of smooth swing standards, Burlinson took his final bow to a rapturous audience, walked off the stage and then immediately returned for an encore. Although well deserved, it was a little disappointing to not get the opportunity to clap, roar and make some noise to at least feel as if we demanded the encore.

Traditionally, the encore was an unplanned event. In olden times, the appreciative audience at an opera, Shakespearean play or hanging would holler and scream until the performer returned to give them some more.

Nowadays, modern audiences expect an encore and it is most certainly planned as part of the set list. Have you ever wondered if it is really possible that your favourite artist has forgotten to play their most popular song, said goodnight and wandered off to their tour bus for an early night in? And then the concert venue staff have neglected to turn the house lights back on?

I’m pretty sure that an encore is part of the contract for most rock and pop live performances. If it is inevitable, why bother with the charade?

I once left a school dance early to check out 90’s indie rockers Ratcat at Patrick’s Nightclub in Pennant Hills. I was already eighteen by this time, but none of my friends were, so when my mate Clive was turned away at the door by security, I ventured in to the club on my own. Towards the end of the set, lead singer, Simon Day, announced that they were obliged to do an encore but, with the audience’s permission, would just play a few extra songs. Nobody objected.

Apparently Elvis never played encores. The cliché, “Elvis has left the building” was the announcement made in concert halls to let audiences know that The King was not coming back. I guess that extra song or two would be a waste of good eating time, especially when fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches are involved.

The not-so-spontaneous encore is not limited to pop and rock acts. During the most recent Australian tour of The Boy From Oz, Todd McKenney would emerge following the curtain call in his dressing gown and not much else to sing a Peter Allen tune as himself, not Peter Allen. With a mostly grey haired demographic in the audience, it obviously went down extremely well. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house.

The modern encore is an outdated performance tool which has grown stale. I guess that says a lot about live music nowadays. With mega light and sound shows controlled via computers, there is not much room for spontaneity. Would you like to read more? Too bad, I’ve left the building.

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.