Sunday, 24 August 2014

Three Musicals and a Blockbuster (21-23 August 2014)

There was a memorable photo a few weeks ago. The combined casts (in costume) and crews of the four big musicals playing in Melbourne at the time – Wicked, Les Miserables, The King and I, and The Rocky Horror Show – had gathered on the steps of State Parliament House to celebrate what was being coined the East End theatre district. It sowed the seed of an idea, one that came to fruition over the last few days.

I organised time off work, booked flights and a hotel in the heart of the city, and purchased tickets to three of those musicals, Rocky Horror having finished its run.  I decided if I was going to do this that I would get good tickets. I didn’t want to travel to the other side of the country to sit forty rows back. That proved a little expensive but so be it. The other key component of the trip was to see a football game at the famed MCG, a venue I had never been to. Fortuitously, a blockbuster was on the cards, Geelong versus Hawthorn. It was to be a lightning trip – three shows and a football game in three days.

First up was Wicked, a show that was all kinds of spectacular. The production was just around the corner in the lovely Regent Theatre in Collins Street. I had a third row seat that was deliciously close to the action, only spoiled somewhat by the six foot tall dude who sat in front of me [insert expletive deleted here]. This really was an impressive show. Lucy Durack was excellent as the comic foil, playing Glinda, and gave a really perky performance with a healthy dose of physical comedy. But it was Jemma Rix as Elphaba who was truly outstanding. Steve Danielson was an immensely likeable Fiyero, Anne Wood had a little Hunger Games going on as Madame Morrible, and Emily Cascarino quietly shone as Nessarose. The rest of the supporting cast, including the venerable Reg Livermore as The Wizard, were terrific.
The set was elaborately constructed and moved like clockwork, no surprise given that clock faces and gears were a recurring motif. The lighting was superb and this was a glorious production to look at. The Wizard’s “giant head” prop was something to be seen (and heard) but curiously the mechanical dragon that loomed above it all was used only in the Overture never to be revisited. The costuming was colourful and inventive, particularly the flying monkeys and the whole thing was slickly produced, sounded great, and was firing on all cylinders. I particularly liked how clever the writing was, incorporating familiar elements from The Wizard of Oz but shining them through the prism of a classic storytelling ‘what if?’ What if Glinda the Good and The Wicked Witch of the West had once been friends? Memo to George Lucas – THIS is how you do a prequel about a person’s descent to the dark side! 

Wicked has maybe the best end to an Act One ever, certainly that I’ve seen. The staging, lighting, singing and special effects work on Defying Gravity was outstanding and left the audience gasping in appreciation as they broke for Intermission. What a way to kick off my musicals junket!

Speaking of Act One closes, the next production has a pretty decent one as well! Yes, One Day More sung by the massed company from Les Miserables with the orchestra in top form is stirring and memorable. This was a monumental almost three hour show that featured 16 WAAPA graduates including Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean who gave a fine performance in such a demanding role. His Bring Him Home was a highlight but there were so many here. The orchestra was superb (Musical Director & Conductor, Geoffrey Castles) and the iconic score sounded wonderful in Her Majesty’s Theatre. The stage somehow didn’t seem as big as the Regent’s so this felt quite intimate even seven rows back. And yes, for the second night in a row a tall dude sat right in front of me [insert more expletives deleted]. 

The set was quite simple for the first third featuring mainly backdrops until the wings unfolded when we get to Paris and all sorts of trickery comes into play that was really quite impressive. There was extensive use of smoke and dry ice throughout to diffuse the light but also a lot of shadow and silhouette with characters entering from and receding into darkness that was visually compelling in key dramatic moments. Unfortunately, a side effect of so much smoke was the amount of coughing from the audience that was vaguely preposterous and increasingly annoying in the quieter moments. The use of projections was inventive with a particularly memorable sequence recreating the sewers under Paris. I’m still trying to work out how they did Javert’s death which was utterly filmic in its execution.  

Hayden Tee was a worthy adversary as Javert with Kerrie Anne Greenland excellent as Eponine. Emily Langridge and Euan Dodge worked well together as Cosette and Marius while Lara Mulcahy and Trevor Ashley gave an hilarious comic performance as the Thenardier’s with Master of the House a highlight. The Ensemble was also terrific and this is a show where they get their own moments to shine such as Lovely Ladies and, of course, the work on the Barricades which was nicely designed and executed (pardon the pun). Patrice Tipoki gave a heart-wrenching performance as Fantine with, as ever, I Dreamed A Dream an early highlight. 

Special mentions to the young boy who played Gravoche who was amusingly cocky; and the young girl who gave a lovely rendition of Castle on a Cloud. All in all a rousing production that sounded superb vocally and musically.

The final production of the trip was the newly minted Helpmann Award winning Best Musical for 2014, The King and I. What immediately strikes you is this – Lisa McCune is a star. She gives a commanding performance (pun fully intended) and, I must say, looked stunning in an assortment of costumes befitting the period. McCune sings beautifully, shows a deft touch with the younger cast members, and had good chemistry with Lou Diamond Phillips especially in the more comic sequences. Phillips, while perhaps not that strong a vocalist, gives a charismatic performance and is clearly enjoying himself in the role of the King of Siam. He delighted the audience at final bows, hamming it up a little as the curtains closed. 

The costumes are sumptuous and there is an array of gorgeous drapes that provide backdrops throughout. The set itself is very simple especially when compared to the intricacies involved with Wicked and Les Miserables. I also found it a quite static production which is perhaps as much to do with its construction (it is, after all, 63 years old) rather than the staging – long dialogue passages with many of the set piece songs essentially a featured performer or duets only. It’s not until The Small House of Uncle Thomas in the Second Act that there’s real movement and, of course, Shall We Dance? that soon follows. 

The child cast are charming and each has a featured moment during the introduction to the King’s children. Adrian Li Donni (as Lun Tha) and Vivien Emsworth (who played Tuptim for this performance) had a couple of lovely duets as the illicit lovers in We Kiss In A Shadow and I Have Dreamed while Marty Rhone was suitable stern and officious as The Kralahome. The orchestra was strong and there are well-known tunes and standards here that were done very well with McCune at the forefront (I Whistle A Happy Tune, Getting To Know You, and Shall We Dance?). It was certainly interesting to compare the distinct stylistic differences with its more modern brethren and it’s perhaps appropriate that the show was staged in that grand old dame of a theatre, The Princess.

To round out the trip I changed gears and went to the jewel of the Australian sporting landscape where theatre of a very different kind is played. That place is the MCG and what a stadium it is! It truly is world class and even from the fourth level in the Olympic Stand the view was tremendous. It was a big game too – over 72,000 to see Hawthorn play Geelong in a blockbuster towards the end of the AFL home and away season. Only about 30,000 more people than I’ve ever seen at a football game before! I was sitting in a predominantly Geelong section though my friend is a mad Hawks supporter who found her voice in the second half after Hawthorn stormed back from a 5 goal deficit at half-time to win convincingly.

What did surprise me though was that the atmosphere wasn’t quite as electric as I’d hoped – maybe it’s because I was a neutral observer (my team was playing back in Perth) or the fact that the game itself was actually a little lacklustre. But as a sporting venue it is quite exceptional. I also liked the fact that we walked back into the city with a mass of people and it was all so good-natured on a lovely Saturday evening. In fact, I was lucky with the weather throughout this trip.

Finally, I was fortunate enough to talk with WAAPA graduate Ben Hall (ensemble, Marius understudy) after Les Miserables, and Tim Cunniffe (assistant Musical Director and keyboards) after The King and I who were both generous with their time providing interesting insights into their respective shows. It was inspiring to see so many WAAPA graduates in all three musicals, with headliners coming from the acclaimed academy – Lucy Durack (Wicked), Simon Gleeson (Les Miserables), and Lisa McCune (The King and I). 

As I prepare to watch the next round of WAAPA acting and musical theatre productions in the coming week it is a timely reminder of the sheer amount of talent being trained right in our own backyard to be the next generation of Australian theatre stars.

It proved to be a wonderful trip and an inspired decision to go.   


  1. What a wonderful set of reviews - this is certainly your calling Richard! Well done!

    1. Thank you, Sue. You're too kind. It was a great trip and I'm thinking I might do the same early next year when the next set of big musicals move into those theatres.