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.

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!

Annie

The Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“Not only don’t we have the chicken, we don’t have the pot”

Little orphan Annie is taken care of over Christmas by crusty billionaire Warbucks. He almost immediately wants to adopt her and but she’s never given up hope of her real parents coming back for her. While Warbucks attempts to find them for Annie, a plan is formed to pose as her parents and claim the reward.

I’ve always has a secret love of the songs in Annie. They’re catchy and fun. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this because Annie is a very popular musical with multiple film versions, several references/parodies in popular culture and ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’ was used in some sort of gansta mash up in one of the Austin Powers sequels. So despite the fact I don’t like children in the theatre on or off stage, I went to see Annie.

Of course I would have seen it anyway because Anthony Warlow was in it. I would see Anthony Warlow play in Rocky: The Musical (that’s a real thing). I have previously said that his involvement in a show acts as an assurance of the quality of that show. Oh Anthony, why must you turn my website into a house of lies? His talents in Annie are about as wasted as they would be in Rocky: The Musical (seriously, it’s a thing). Daddy Warbucks has two good songs and isn’t in the show for the first 30 minutes. Of course Warlow masters the role, using his physicality to show how uncomfortable he is with Annie at first and then how he warms up to her. Without Warlow’s talents, Warbucks inexplicably goes from crusty old man who doesn’t like children to wanting to adopt Annie in one song. And of course his ‘Something Was Missing’ is a soft tug at the heart but the man is capable of heart wrenching levels of emotion. I’m glad he’s been chosen to play the role on Broadway but I hope it isn’t long before they find something more worthy of his talents.

The songs and most of the characters were still there but the structure of Annie was just messy. The plot doesn’t flow neatly, especially in the first act. Film versions were right to omit the song ‘We’d Like to Thank You Hebert Hoover’ which drags out the start and completely contrasts with the tone of the other songs. Usually it’s sung sarcastically by people living in slums during the depression (which is depressing enough) but this production decided to make it more dramatic, frankly they turned it into something out of Les Miserables. Maybe they thought that with the economy right now people would relate better, but if you’re paying $100 for theatre tickets then you’re not feeling it. Highlighting the fact that millions are bitterly living in slums brings down the feel good end of orphans being adopted.

Carole Burnett is a comedian and she took the role of Miss Hannigan in that direction for the famous film version. The character is now more associated with being comically woeful which doesn’t mean it can’t be played differently but Nancy Hayes still makes the character too sinister, a woman that is completely indifferent to a plan that involves killing little Annie. Her only funny moment was calling Lily St. Regis (named after the hotel) a “dumb ho….tel.”

There were some good qualities to this production. Roosters dancing was fantastic, the background singers in ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile’ had their own little personalities that kept the song amusing and the end of ‘I Don’t Need Anything But You’ sounded great sung in the round. It just wasn’t enough to redeem a messy book.

Mamma Mia

The Lyric Theatre, QPAC in Brisbane

“Mamma Mia! Here we go again”

Sophie is getting married but she doesn’t know who her real father is so she invited all 3 possible candidates, one of which her mother still loves. This inexplicably was the best plot they could think of to integrate some ABBA songs into.

Does anyone actually care about the plot or characters? Aren’t we all just here for some ABBA tunes? Honestly I’m looking through the program to refresh up on characters’ names and there isn’t even a synopsis in here. This is my hatred of the jukebox musical. Songs grow organically from the character and situation. You cannot try and force a script around specific songs, maybe in Moulin Rouge it works but you can’t restrict the list of songs to the greatest hits of one band. Certainly you cannot sing ‘Honey Honey‘ when reading your mothers diary. Knowing that your mum slept with three men at the same time and calls one a ‘love machine’ would be creepy enough but singing a song about it…

Again this is a show for people who don’t go to the theatre much. It is pre-sold on people liking ABBA songs. Audience members sang along and children tried to dance in the aisles (before being told to stop) which indicates they enjoyed it but I’ve seen people do that in English Pantomime shows – it’s not necessarily a sign of excellence on-stage.

Not that the cast weren’t talented singers or actors but the emotion was forced into songs that just didn’t have that level of emotion in them and the jokes were tired and predicable (though the actress playing Rosie seemed to be a crowd pleaser). The women’s costumes are all garish nods to the time while the men’s lack of costuming was a highlight. Is that why it is set on some Greek Island? So men could take off their shirts? Did they need to resort to well-oiled topless men for appeal? Apparently so. I shouldn’t judge harshly on what is meant only to be a bit of fun but I’ve seen other shows like Rock of Ages that offer fun, laughs and songs that have been adapted for the characters and scenario to add depth.

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.