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.

Jason Robert Brown: Live and Intimate

 The QLD Conservatorium, Brisbane

“No matter what I try, I’m flying full speed ahead”

Up and coming composer Jason Robert Brown plays a couple of his show tunes with Rachael Beck singing along.

I was first sold on Jason Robert Brown after hearing his brilliant work The Last Five Years and could not believe the man himself would perform here. Hailed as the next Sondheim, this was an unmissable event, a fantastic opportunity that doesn’t come Brisbane’s way often. So the stage is set with singer Rachael Beck, a piano and Jason Robert Brown. Beck sings with heart but doesn’t quite have the strength in her voice for Cathy’s songs from The Last Five Years. Brown will admit himself that he is not a trained singer but does a passable job belting out those tunes. The real treat is in his piano playing. If you’ve ever tried to play a Jason Robert Brown song, you’ll know it’s really really hard. Listening to him play the instrumental to ‘Moving Too Fast’ was an energetic display of talent that the audience could not resist cheering before it was finished.

Most songs are given an introduction with a hilarious joke or trivia almost as clever as the lyrics themselves. Then there are previews of his new works. Brown is writing a musical version of the Nicholas Cage film Honeymoon in Vegas. Brown introduces a song saying that those familiar with his sombre work may think he is adapting the Nicholas Cage drama Leaving Las Vegas but no, he confirms he is adapting the fun film. The audience is then treated to a very tongue in cheek scene setting number ‘When You Say Vegas’ that does not disappoint. Also in the works is a musical adaptation of the book The Bridges of Madison County. Rachael Beck sings a small personal number that is quintessentially Jason Robert Brown. It is quite a thing to be able to say you’ve heard the latest works by Jason Robert Brown, heard him play and sing his songs and then got his autograph. He’s made this and other Brisbane musical fanatics very happy.

Doctor Zhivago: A New Musical

The Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“I sing you all day long; a melody so strong and sweet and real”

A doctor and a poet, Zhivago struggles to choose between his family and his love Laura as the Russian revolution tears his world apart. But Zhivago is only one of three men in love with Laura…

Anthony Warlow. That is really all I need say. Of course I’m going to say more but his name on the poster not only symbolises sheer talent but acts as quality assurance for the material itself. The man never makes a wrong move. Along with Love Never Dies, this show was a part of the flux of Australian musical theatre that hit in 2011. An Australian production of a show that had only been briefly performed as a draft version in L.A years before. Or as the posters put it: A New Australian Musical. No denying the use of Australian talent in the show however. Once again Warlow shines with every note; even his stage presence is unprecedented. If there is one man who can really make you feel the anguish of a character through song it’s Warlow and luckily Zhivago has a lot of anguish. (Fairly) new-comer Lucy Maunder plays a sweet Laura but if there is any challenge to Warlow it is Martin Crewes as Pasha/Streinikov. An amazing performance for an amazing character. He begins as sweet comedic Pasha with an outstanding number in the first act but develops into Streinikov with the most tension built number in the second act.

I was anxious about seeing this one as there was no movie version, clips on youtube or soundtrack (only 2 bonus tracks released with my copy of Stage Whispers Magazine) to prepare me. I knew the plot from the classic non-musical film (which they didn’t follow much anyway) but I was walking into the unknown as I stepped into the theatre. Being an epic involving love, war, revolution and a battle of conscious I was expecting something along the lines of Les Miserables and I wasn’t completely wrong. There is similar subject matter and thus inspirational anthems (complete with flag waving) but the emotional pull  is organic and less the assault on the tear ducts that Les Mis can be (it has three deathbed songs! Three!). Like Les Mis the effects of the revolution are seen in many characters but Zhivago is much more political and serious. We get a song that gives the women’s view of war but we also see satirical comments of both the reds and whites and people switching sides to take advantage of the situation. Safe to say that Doctor Zhivago does not have the budget of Les Mis so in crossing time and place for this epic, some sets are nothing more than two benches. But while Les Mis has the barracade, Zhivago also has its main spectacle: moving projections. Truthfully it doesn’t sound like much but the result is flawless and adds to both set, plot and commentary in different places. For example as Yuri sits down to write his poems, words rain down upon the stage. Other times when big musicals would have thought out another complicated spectacle, simple stage effects work just as well. Being chased by the reds, Yuri hides while the stage turns dark and men line up with torches pointing into the audience moving an inch closer with each note. There are gun shots, people being hung, flash lighting, sound effects of war and planes in surround sound… it has a lot of action. Doctor Zhivago is not a little musical but it is an Australian work competing with the megamusical spectacles and doing a damn fine job. The most outstanding comparisons between this and the megamusicals are in the songs; lots of them, big, poetic and emotionally stirring numbers that simply stay with you. It is an absolute crime the world is being deprived of the soundtrack for “legal reasons.”

Spring Awakening

Oscar Theatre Company at The Cremorne Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“Asking: what went wrong? Do they think we want this? Oh, who Knows!”

It’s the coming of age story of German students in the late 19th century as they struggle against their oppressive elders. This involves rock music, breasts and masturbation in what ironically is not a solo number.

I know lots of people who love Spring Awakening; people who don’t usually like musicals. Looking among the crowd at the theatre, I am warned by all the youth and punk hair that this is not the usual theatre crowd. The music played before the show must be hip as I recognise it from a coke advertisement on TV. In advance I knew that this would not be my kind of show. The staging was beautiful and the lighting was very effective, adding to the most powerful numbers like ‘Bitch of Living’, ‘Totally Fucked’ and ‘Don’t Do Sadness.’ Other stand out scenes include the reprise of ‘Word of your body,’ ‘My Junk’ and generally the Male Adult was spot on. Yet I just could not feel moved by it. As much as I would hate to blame the cast, most of the dialogue was stilted and the girl’s numbers didn’t have the same emotional pull that the boys did. The biggest barrier I found was the awful decision that the cast keep their Australian accents. I suppose this was to make them more relatable and it may have worked using just the teenagers, who already have microphones and rock music, but the two adults used a great German accent only when playing the evil school masters. Parents, cruel or otherwise, had Australian accents, a painfully exaggerated one in the case of Melchior’s Mother. It may be my good girl attitude, liberal parents and (I’ll say it politely) my lack of sexual frustration that prevent me from really getting into the spirit of the show, but it is rather difficult to feel involved when you have to struggle not to make eye contact with all the people on-stage touching themselves. In such a small theatre, these moments don’t seem the freeing acts they are on a Broadway stage with the luxury of distance. I can deal with seeing breasts, I do have a pair after all, but once they came out we knew that the couple were going to have sex. There was no need for them to keep acting out the foreplay. She is pregnant in the next scene; we can understand they have sex. There is no need to prove it. I’m sitting next to a complete stranger in a dark room practically watching these two have sex. All I want them to do is stop. And thus the last hour in praise of free love is undone.