Avenue Q

The Playhouse Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“I can make you feel special when it sucks to be you.”

Princeton leaves college with a useless degree and struggles with life in the real world, luckily the neighbours in Avenue Q befriend him as they all have similar problems.

Brilliant in its simplicity, Avenue Q takes the format from children’s shows like Sesame Street and uses it to teach twenty something’s important life lessons, like how to come out of the closet or tell if a guy likes you. For a generation who learned their ABC’s from puppets, the parody is particularly fitting and piques the interest of people who don’t usually attend musical theatre. You’ll have heard me complain about shows that are made specifically to bring in non-musical fans (such as Fame) but that’s only because they tend to favour flashy exploits over content. Avenue Q doesn’t rely on the audience’s love of puppets for its humour or heart, the characters are hilarious and touching in all the right places.

As someone who is still trying to figure out what to do with my B.A, the show’s opening is very relatable. Princeton is fresh from college, looking for a purpose in life and trying to scrape by on little funds while still having fun with his friends. Who hasn’t been there? The songs are quite informative on how one should get by during this time in one’s life. We should all remember that doing things for others makes you feel better and when it sucks to be you, at least you’re not Gary Coleman. The only lesson I disagree on is ‘The Internet is for Porn.’ I know the internet is bursting with porn but there are other uses for it, a musical theatre website for example.

Older generations may find the humour incredibly crude but there was fair warning on advertisements that the show would contain full puppet nudity so if that’s not your thing: don’t see it. While people may have giggled the first couple of times a puppet swore, the humour never relies upon the fact that they are puppets being rude. When Kate monster says “normal people don’t just sit at home looking up porn on the internet.” there is a long pause and slow hand to face in disbelief before the reply, “you have no idea.” The actors know how to get laughs from theatre audiences and never fight for attention over the puppets.

Each production of Avenue Q has its own little changes to better suit the time and place. The 2003 Broadway version said not to get depressed because George Bush was “only for now” and this production promised the same of Tony Abbot, which I will hold them to. There are also little additions the actors threw in, ‘If You Were Gay’ the line “what does it matter to be what you do in bed with guys?” comes complete with crude hand gestures to specify what he may do in bed with guys.

Even though I am a big Wicked fan, it’s easy to see why this unique little show scooped up the main awards at The Tony’s that year. Even if musical theatre isn’t your thing, you’ll enjoy this show and as small scale productions are popping up across the globe so you have no excuses not to see it.

Advertisements

Love Never Dies

The Regent Theatre Melbourne

“Coney Isle. Miracle on miracle. Speed and Sound all around.”

10 years after The Phantom of the Opera, Christine is asked to sing at the fantastical Coney Island with her husband Raoul and son Gustave. She soon finds this glittering world belongs to the Phantom who has brought her here in a final bid to win back her love.

Everyone has surely read that the ‘retooled’ production of Love Never Dies in Melbourne is a triumph for Australian Musical Theatre and that Andrew Lloyd Webber is quoted many times in saying “this is one of the finest productions I’ve seen of my work, anywhere.” Promotional items also showed off regarding the 300 costumes and 5,000 light bulbs that would dazzle the audience. Yet I remained unconvinced that the show would be something great. I had over a year ago – with excited frenzy ­­— purchased the Love Never Dies album and my disappointment then was not something I was willing to go through again. The show in London had not been saved by spectacles on-stage because it was teamed up with a lamentable mess of a book.

When Promotional items say this version has been ‘retooled’ they are being polite. They thankfully took an axe to that first act saving us from giving it the nickname ‘Paint Never Dries’ as it received in London. The show is far closer to the original Phantom then I could have hoped. The London production opened with Meg desperately in love with The Phantom and Raoul as an abusive drunk which was very distancing for fans. This show eases the audience into the situation by explaining how they occurred first. Instead of dumping the audience with changed setting, style of music and characters, this show begins with The Phantom singing ‘Till I Hear You Sing’ which acts as a perfect continuation from ‘The Music of the Night’. The only songs that deter from the original style are now the vaudevillian performances by Meg to the crowd at Coney Island. The book has also perfected weaving together the original with the sequel as old lines are echoed in new scenarios — once again “Things have changed, Raoul”.

Coney Island looks entirely the creation of The Phantom: a magician and architect with a flair for the strange and grand. His presence is always felt with masks and skulls in the costumes and scenery, not to mention the return of the symbol playing monkey. You can read the facts about how many costumes and light bulbs there are but the effect of them on-stage are mind blowing, especially when as a fan you can spot the various nods to the original. The sets work well within the chorus numbers but are easily played down for the more dramatic moments.

The book has been carefully crafted and provides an emotional pull equal to the spectacle. Much more explicit in this show is the effect that Christine’s decision will have on her career as a singer, she is choosing between her husband and the man that inspires her voice after all. The pacing does slow in the second act which is entirely built upon the tension of who Christine will choose. If you don’t care for the characters, then this just won’t have the same effect on you as it does a fan.

I would have seen the show in London (had it played long enough) because of the magnificent talents of Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess who have thankfully had their talents recorded and filmed in the 25th anniversary production of  The Phantom of the Opera. Ben Lewis who plays The Phantom in this production does a good job. Just good. It is a difficult role to pull off. Many greats have played the Phantom in various ways, from Warlow’s grand serene Phantom to Crawford’s more fatherly and Karimloo’s hellbent, but this show doesn’t display the emotional complexities of the character that took up so much of the first. Lewis is bound to playing a generic Phantom. He has a powerful yet expressive voice though I was just as pleased with his physicality in the role. The one fault I would give is that Madame Giry couldn’t sing even with the key changed for her but thankfully she didn’t have to sing much.

The production really is a testament to the talents of Australian Musical Theatre and while there is a filmed version on DVD, such a show has a far greater effect seen live at a beautiful theatre.

The 4 Redeeming Features of The Phantom of the Opera Movie

The Phantom of the Opera continues to be a phenomenon on-stage but the film version is generally considered an embarrassment for failing to even touch upon any kind of achievement. There are a number of obvious reasons for this; watching a chandelier fall on-screen and is far less impressive than seeing it fall to the stage from above your head, Joel Schumacher (the man responsible for bat nipples) was directing. Also they shoe-horned fake breasts into 18th century costumes.

Meg

To be fair, the show was a bit lacking in breasts

I put up with the film for a long time because it was the only way I could get my Phantom kicks. During these many viewings I managed to get past the initial terribleness of it all and appreciate the things they managed to get right or even insightful ways they tried to add to the stage production. Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t touched my DVD since the 25th anniversary concert screened and I could still produce a long winded rant about the film at the drop of a hat, but credit is where credit’s due and the movie deserves respect for the following…

4. A good looking Phantom

This is not me being shallow. This is all audiences being shallow and Hollywood being monetarily motivated to thus put pretty people in films. Casting Gerard Butler opens the forum to a whole heap of abuse but the man is atheistically pleasing.

Gerad

At least he was then.

Look at Michael Crawford as The Phantom and compare the two.

Gerad MaskMichael Mask

See how tiny Gerard’s mask is? And the visible parts of his face show no signs that the covered area will be any different from the rest of his face. Then boom! It’s all the more shocking on the reveal and all the more tragic that he was so close to being loved and appreciated as a handsome man. And of course the stage version can’t do this because it needs a big obvious disfigurement that can be seen from the back row.

3. Madame Giry

In the show Madame Giry has knowledge of the opera house and an authority over its occupants that is only matched by The Phantom himself. There appears to be some understanding between the two characters as she delivers his messages, warns people not to speak of him and knows his secret hideaway but it’s not entirely clear why she does this. No one could ever convince me that the flashback to young Madame Giry visiting the circus and setting free the young Phantom was a good idea but they used this backstory to develop her character in some interesting ways.

Madame Giry

That is one of many shots of her gazing wistfully at The Phantom with Christine. Using close ups like this and the brilliant subtlety of actress Miranda Richardson, you can see that she is actually in love with the Phantom. This explains why she does his bidding and doesn’t immediately tell people the whereabouts of his lair after the first murder. It also adds to the complexity of The Phantom’s hamartia. The Phantom is so convinced that his face is responsible for his unrequited love and pretty much everything else bad that’s happened to him. Yet here is a woman who has seen his face, knows him as he truly is and loves him. He doesn’t even notice her affections because he couldn’t conceive of a woman loving him after seeing his face.

2. The Ending

The constant flash backs to the black white future are pretty high on the list of complaints I have against this film (just under Raoul’s wig), but I will admit that the added ending is particularly good. The show has the same opening as the film, older Raoul buying an organ monkey, but apart from the reappearance of the organ monkey, this opening is never referenced again. At the end of the show the audience is usually far too blown away by the finale and The Phantom’s exit to really give much thought to the opening. Few people stop and wonder “why did Raoul buy the monkey organ decades later? For all the great memories?”  Well for the people who wondered that, the film has answered. After the Phantom’s less than impressive disappearance on-screen, the magic of editing allows Old Raoul in the future to gently place the Monkey on Christine’s grave. And there on the grave is also a rose from The Phantom. A little scene that adds tragedy and mystery to the story of the Phantom.

1. It wasn’t camp

Now I’ve discussed a couple of things they did right but here’s something they managed to not do wrong. Why should I reward a film points for this? Look at any other adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera and notice how tacky it looks.

Or the original music video.

This is what we call camp and it can be a good thing but when you’re trying to present a more serious musical, accidental camp can be death. The man responsible for bat nipples somehow managed to make the Phantom look kinda badass instead of hilariously gay. I think that deserves a mention.

The Great Gatsby

The Roaring Twenties are in full swing in this latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. Mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws extravagant parties in the hope that his lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) will come back and help him repeat the past.

The movie is narrated by Gatsby’s neighbor and friend Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he recalls the story to his doctor; apparently story-telling is very therapeutic. This framing device may have worked for Moulin Rouge! but Carraway is a boring character played by an actor with no personality and these additional scenes only add to the bloated 142 minutes running time. When we do get round to meeting Gatsby, he makes such an entrance and continues to steal each scene so that you could very well forget the first 30 minutes.

DiCaprio gives an impressive performance conveying the depths of Gatsby from the outwardly nouveau riche playboy to the tragically devoted romantic within. In his first meeting with Daisy, audience’s hearts collectively melt at the sight of him nervous and rain soaked. Though the novel is famous as a critique of America, here the love story takes centre stage creating a romance as good as any great costume drama. Mulligan’s youth gives Daisy a girlish charm and partly excuses the character’s capriciousness. Seriously, Daisy is more fickle than The Australian Labour Party when it comes to choosing between her philandering husband and a rich Leonardo DiCaprio.

The movie is surprisingly faithful to the book; even striking images such as the white curtains blowing when we first meet Daisy are taken from Fitzgerald. The visually stylised film is at its element during the decadent party scenes but even the speakeasy and Times Square are extravagant and highly detailed. While bold visuals may work in some scenes, others could use more subtlety. Cars don’t just speed: they drag race, swerving through traffic and cutting off other motorist, as if the world needed a vintage version of The Fast and the Furious. Every driving scene is a whirl of scenery, a roar of engines and angry horns and a churn of audience stomachs. These characters are not so much careless drivers as suicidal maniacs. Even Gatsby isn’t spared from Baz’s unsubtle direction, saying his unique term of endearment “Old Sport” a whopping 51 times till it is nothing more than an annoying catch phrase.

The hip hop soundtrack was a necessary evil for the sake of commercial audiences and album sales. Though it manages not to clash with the Twenties setting, it doesn’t add anything to it either. The ladies costumes aren’t the iconic fashion inspiring outfits that pre-release buzz promised but would you ever take style tips from a movie that dresses its leading man in a pink suit? Even though the soundtrack and costumes didn’t live up to the promotional hype, the movie definitely succeeded in its promise of a box office smash. This doesn’t speak so much to the quality of the film than to the amount of people who love the novel. Or want to see a film version as an alternate to actually reading the 120 pages or so novel. Baz hasn’t silenced the critics with a masterpiece, but it’s no Australia either.

Songs You Didn’t Realise Are Actually Musical Numbers

Given you’re reading this, you probably have a decent knowledge of musicals and know these songs in their original showtune form, but you’re the exception. The average non-musical fan will not hesitate to complain about jukebox musicals creating terrible covers of their much loved pop/rock/ABBA songs and even Glee can anger tweens by not living up to the high standards of the Justin Bieber/Rebecca Black/Nicki Minaj song they’re covering. But we can complain too! And I’m not just talking about those crappy pop remixes (yes Gwen Stefani turning ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ into that). Songs specifically created for use in a musical have become popular after being covered by another popular artist. People recognise and even like the song without knowing they are in fact listening to a show tune.

One Night in Bangkok

From the musical: Chess

The act 2 opener for a musical about Chess world champions became a dance anthem when covered by Murray Head in 1984 which you might hear play at your local discothèque. More widely known today is the version covered by Mike Tyson in The Hangover 2 which was set in Bangkok.

Hey Big Spender

From the musical: Sweet Charity

Well known as a classic Shirley Bassey song but also covered by Peggy Lee and parodied by Homer Simpson encouraging people at a yard sale to “Spend some dough on table three.”

I Say a Little Prayer

From the musical: Promises, Promises

Dionne Warwick and Arethra Fraklin have both popularised this song but it’s probably known more by the young folk for its use in the movie My Best Friend’s Wedding. None of these versions touch on the latter scenes from the musical where the character is dumped and attempts suicide. Can’t imagine why.

Send In the Clowns

From the musical: A Little Night Music

Recorded by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, it is rarely recognised as the creation of musical theatre legend Stephen Sondheim. In fact Judy Collins won a Grammy for her cover of the song a year after the show had closed on Broadway. It has again been parodied by The Simpsons as Krusty sings alternate lyrics during his comeback special. The joke being that the song isn’t actually about clowns.

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again

From the musical: Promises, Promises

Very recognisable and covered many times but most notably by Bobbie Gentry, Dionne Warwick and Ella Fitzgerald. This song and all others from the musical were written by Burt Bacharach so fans of his (if they exist) will also know them.

The Impossible Dream (The Quest)

From the musical: Man of la Mancha

A moving song that is repeatedly used to inspire. Note its recent use at the end of Behind the Candelabra to add that uplifting ending, though it really was one of Liberace’s performance pieces. Also to sell Honda Cars.

In fact musical numbers have appeared in many advertisements…

Originally written for the musical Sweet Charity.

Originally written for the hippie musical Hair.

Originally written for the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

I Will Always Love You

From the Musical: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

People know this song as sung by Whitney Huston in The Bodyguard. The more knowledgeable may know it was originally Dolly Parton’s song. What they may not know is that Dolly Parton wrote it for her character to sing in the film musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The song isn’t in the original stage musical but it’s still sung by a brothel owner and former prostitute with Dolly Parton sized breasts.

No Matter What

From the Musical: Whistle Down the Wind

The world knows this song as a Boyzone classic but it is in fact the act 1 finale of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The song acts as a promise to love someone “no matter what” and the lyrics seem to be describing some sort of Romeo and Juliet love affair. You’d be way off if you thought that. The musical is about an escaped killer who hides in a barn in a small town. When small children find him and ask who he is, he replies with the expletive Jesus Christ. So the children think he is Jesus and sing this song promising to love the escaped killer “no matter what.”

Idina Menzel in Concert

 Concert Hall, QPAC in Brisbane

“I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game”

Broadway and TV Veteran Idina Menzel sings some of her favourite songs for delighted fans.

I have said I’m not the biggest Idina fan. Nothing personal, she seems nice enough and she has talent but I just never felt there was anything special about her. I’ve seen enough Elphaba’s to know that the way she sings Wicked in The original Broadway Cast Recording can be bettered. Though she kept appearing in shows I loved, she never seemed to play characters I particularly liked. Yet, despite the above comments, I clearly felt that seeing Idina was worth $100 and a Saturday night that could have been spent sitting at home writing reviews of other musicals.

I have to admit it was time and money well spent (except for the $6 transaction fee. That’s always money wasted, swindling bastards).

Idina made the brilliant decision of being accompanied by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra who made every song sound beautiful. Even Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. For the sake of Glee fans, Indiana probably had to sing something she sung on the show (and you can imagine how tough it was to choose which awful song) but Poker Face? Probably because it gave her the opportunity to comment on how inappropriately it was used in the show as a duet between mother and daughter. Well Glee, that’s what you get for casting her as mother of a 27 year old actress and giving her crappy songs to sing. At last Idnia had the good graces to apologise to the orchestra for making them play such a song.

Idina’s other song choices were just what fans would have wanted. She sang a few contemporary songs, an original song, a couple of extra show tunes and songs from her most notable shows. Except Wild Party, she skipped over ‘Life of the Party’ for unknown reasons. Stand out performances including a mash-up of The Polices’ ‘Roxanne’ and Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale’, a stunningly original rendition of ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’ and an exciting preview of something from her next show, If/Then (from the team behind Next to Normal!). Idina also paid a touching tribute to her late mentor Marvin Hamlisch by singing two beautiful songs from his brilliant A Chorus Line. These songs really proved to me that Idina could put emotional force in her voice, which I had begun to doubt as the first couple of songs (though sung perfectly) were lacking in emotion. Unfortunately ‘The Wizard and I’ was her first full song. Even though she riffed and belted so that it sounded better than the recorded version, there was no acting on her face. Luckily she’d warmed up enough by the time she sang ‘Defying Gravity.’ Had she messed that one up: there would have been no mercy.

While I remained critical, the rest of the audience seemed to worship Idina’s every move. She would tell a little joke, make a cute comment or even say a swear and the audience would spend a whole minute applauding that small thing. I later found out that this audience would applaud just about anything. Of course Idina picked audience members to sing a duet with her and of course only one of them was a decent singer. Why do people volunteer for that? Yes I would love to sing with Idina Menzel but in an “I’m so talented I’ve sang with Idina Menzel!” way and not in an “I was randomly chosen” way. I would also not want to stand up and sing in front of hundreds of people who just heard someone as talented as Idina. Why don’t people have any shame? Those people will now never have shame because the audience was dumb enough to applaud them after each performance. Not just a polite applause, an actual applause.

That’s not even the worst part. There was a girl who put up her hand to sing, came down to the stage and then said that she didn’t know the words to that particular song — it was ‘Take Me of Leave Me’! What kind of Idina fan doesn’t know that song?. The girl then said she wanted to sing ‘I Dreamed a Dream.’ This girl told Idnia, in the middle of her concert, that Idina should sing another song specifically for the purpose of dueting with her. Idina was nice enough to only appear mildly stunned at this girl’s impudence, explaining that that song wasn’t part of the concert (the orchestra didn’t have the sheet music for it) and that they were in the middle of a different song right now. Idina then had to go back to the girl later to offer to duet an acapella version and you know what that girl did? She sat up on the stage and snatched the microphone right out of Idina’s hand. I still haven’t quite got over the sheer audacity of that girl. People had paid money to see Idina and you’re so desperate for attention that you would literally stop her concert to sing your choice of song? And to top it all off, she was (of course) not a good singer.

I’m going to blame Idina for her this, not only because she turned part of her concert into amateur karaoke night but because she doesn’t make herself intimidating enough. She wanders around the stage barefoot, chews a lolly as she tells a story, adjusts her ill-fitting dress, swears, chats with people in the front row and generally acts unprofessional. This whole “just being myself” attitude is exactly why the audience found you so damn approachable!

Cabaret

Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Performance Company at The Cremorne Theatre, QPAC Brisbane

“It couldn’t please me more”

In early 1930s Berlin, writer Clifford begins an affair with Kit Kat Klub cabaret singer Sally. Their room is let by an old woman who has recently developed a romance with an old Jewish man. Germany in the thirties: you know things are going to get tense.

Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre is not a musical theatre company. While highly respected (rumour has it they are scarily strict), I was not sure what to expect from a company with such little musical background. Their decision to perform Cabaret speaks to the depth of the material; though I’m a little insulted they feel the need to defend their choice to perform a musical at all. Cabaret is a strange mix of musical theatre, Breactian political commentary and drama. I felt the latter would take precedence with this company but there was an equal balance. The show is full of energy, tension and emotion in all the right places.

The actors were impeccable, each creating a unique performance in both the songs and drama. The Emcee was neither Joel Grey’s showman nor Alan Cumming’s S&M creation, instead channelling a gaudy Marlene Dietrich. I had read that the Sally Bowles character of the show was not the same as the Liza Minnelli Oscar-winning creation I was used to, which was for the best as no actress could hope to recreate it on-stage. All of Sally’s songs had an approach that differed from Minnelli’s, particularly ‘Mein Heir’ in which she held each deep “bye” and paused to completely change the pace. I was honestly astonished to discover that the actress had never actually performed in musical theatre before. All the actors moved seamlessly from fully developed characters to Kit Kat Klub entertainers like seasoned veterans.

The show itself deals with people facing persecution, a subject that will sadly always be relevant. The touching romance between Fräulein Schneider and Herr Schultz made the knowledge that things would only become worse for Jews like Schultz all the more heart-breaking. Yet Schneider’s defence for breaking up the relationship in ‘What Would You Do?’ makes us all wonder the same thing. It’s far more effective than the film’s secondary love story in which two Jews marry with untold consequences. There are many thought provoking moments that are all staged for maximum emotional effect. At the end of act 1, a likeable character reveals a swastika armband under his coat and begins the Nazi Party anthem ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me.’ Supported by other members of the party, the song becomes louder and as the last lines are repeated, they slowly raise their arms in salute to Hitler. The first act ends on that harrowing moment which is only an indication of the ending of the show itself.

With an amazing book and fantastic actors, there is no need for any flashy sets or costumes. The small theatre is closer to the setting of The Kit Kat Klub and allows greater intimacy than a large scale production. There is nothing a big budget or famous name could add to this — it is the best independent musical theatre production I’ve ever seen. After wowing audiences and winning The Matilda Award for Best Musical, hopefully Zen Zen Zo will change their minds and perform more of the great works musical theatre has to offer.