Looking back: The best of Australian musicals this year > #theatre2017 #YearInReview

In Australia, Features, International, Musicals, Opinion, Reviews by Simon ParrisLeave a Comment

The boutique musical boom went off the boil in 2017, while on the professional scene, Melbourne’s East End was dominated by one man: Casey Nicholaw. Featuring the Midas touch of director/choreographer Nicholaw, Broadway hits The Book of Mormon and Aladdin opened in early 2017 and it seems that Melbourne audience cannot get enough, with both shows set to play into 2018.

While these pristine productions both began with a couple of imported cast members, Melbourne actor Gareth Jacobs has assumed the role of Genie in Aladdin, and Man in Chair was lucky enough to return to see deserving star Blake Bowden as Elder Price in The Book of Mormon.

Three new Australian musicals benefitted from State Theatre Company support. Ladies in Black undertook a limited Australian tour, and although the new casting held up well, the unchanged production was somewhat lost in Melbourne’s cavernous Regent Theatre. The shining light for the year was Muriel’s Wedding (below), which is currently enjoying a smash hit season at Sydney Theatre Company; an Australian tour is highly anticipated, as is the cast recording. Melbourne Theatre Company ended the year with new Eddie Perfect musical Vivid White, which featured performances that were ultimately more entertaining than the content.

My Fair Lady filled the Regent space more impressively, although its more intimate scenes suffered somewhat. Young Melbourne-born actress Anna O’Byrne gave another splendid hometown performance as Eliza, with new leading man Charles Edwards proving a wonderfully dashing replacement for 2016 Sydney star Alex Jennings.

2017’s best fit at the Regent was the guilty pleasure The Bodyguard, which used the fabulous Whitney Houston pop catalogue to great effect. Having settled into the role, Paulini impressed as Rachel Marron, especially in regard to her soaring vocals.

Melbourne talent Esther Hannaford anchored the Australian premiere of Beautiful (below) with a nuanced, immersive performance as beloved hit-writer and singer Carole King. Melbourne’s proliferation of Tapestry owners eagerly anticipate the musical’s local debut in February 2018.

Evergreen musical Cabaret was blighted this year with an ill-advised production marred by a poor choice of version (1987) and the imposition of a new director on an existing production. Opening night was further blemished by an awkward commotion over microphone failure at the climactic moment of the title song.

While Melbourne’s independent musical scene was notable for the absence of some key players this year, stalwart outfit StageArt still managed a full output. While the audience was perhaps not crying out for The Full Monty, the company gave it a lively season at the capacious National Theatre. Returning to Chapel off Chapel in May, Spring Awakening was, finally, Melbourne’s first boutique-scale musical of the year. Alongside The Book of Mormon, StageArt’s terrific season of Memphis (below) gave us another Australian premiere of a 2010s Best Musical Tony Award winner (note: all four Best Musicals from 2014-2017 are yet to be scheduled in Australia!). In a show of support for local content, StageArt opened their theatre on Mondays during Memphis to showcase original new works Beautiful Things and Lay Down Sally.

About to enter their 20th year, prolific Melbourne institution The Production Company presented three well-known titles in 2017. Leading lady Marina Prior displayed her penchant for comedy in Hello, Dolly!. Although theatre availability can be beyond control, the beloved musical really deserved a larger scale production in the usual venue, the State Theatre. Bold staging filled the State for Jesus Christ Superstar, which featured some exciting performances; the production was undermined, however, by the absence of meaning in director Gale Edwards’s randomly updated version. Saving the best until last, Brigadoon (below) was an absolute charmer, with new director Jason Langley capably demonstrating the benefits of careful preparation and a balance of creativity and reverence for original material.

Flexible new Melbourne venue MC Showroom hosted boutique productions of rarely seen musical comedy They’re Playing Our Song (by newly formed Company Eleven) and ever-popular two hander The Last Five Years (produced by a group of friends who are devoted to theatre).

Sondheim-centric company Watch This returned cult favourite Merrily We Roll Along to the stage. Pursued by Bear presented a fascinating double bill: 21 Chump Street (by none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda) and exquisite Adam Gwon chamber musical Ordinary Days.

In a one-off special event, Music Theatre Melbourne presented a spectacular concert production of the late Jon English’s 1990 rock opera Paris (below). The stunning music, confident staging and fantastic cast saw Man in Chair buy a ticket to return the next day for a second viewing. This project is very much deserving of a life beyond three magical days in Melbourne.

On the Melbourne amateur scene, Man in Chair enjoyed the excellent singing in CLOC Musical Theatre’s revival of Les Misérables, and admired the 1970s aesthetic of their revival of A Chorus Line. Meanwhile, OSMaD brought out the full musical beauty of Chess.

Sydney’s independent musical scene was dominated by Hayes Theatre, which hosted and/or produced over a dozen events this year, including a revival of Australian musical Only Heaven Knows, the premiere of new Australian musical Melba, Broadway musical Big Fish and an absolutely brilliant season of Assassins (below), in which Dean Bryant’s insightful direction brought out terrific performances from the starry cast.

A highlight of Man in Chair’s annual London trip actually came on the continent when an afternoon’s sojourn to Paris saw an extraordinary production of 42nd Street (helmed by director/choreographer Stephen Mear) at Théâtre du Châtelet.

Back in London, the clear highlight was the world premiere season of Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes (below).

Other new works included a rewritten revival of charming, distinctly British musical Half A Sixpence (below), which introduced lanky livewire Charlie Stemp to the world. Not being sufficiently familiar with legend David Bowie’s catalogue, high concept musical Lazarus left Man in Chair rather stumped. Andrew Lloyd Webber hit School of Rock is crying out for an Australian season. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not just magically mesmerising, but its sturdy storyline is also bolstered by a proper cast of English stage actors.

Hot on the heels of the 2016 Broadway revival, Menier Chocolate Factory charmed with their own production of She Loves Me (below). Overdue London premieres included a smash hit production of Dreamgirls (by none other than Casey Nicholaw) and Maury Yeston’s Death Takes A Holiday.

London audiences also enjoyed Alfie Boe and Katherine Jenkins in a revival of Carousel by ENO at the London Coliseum. Man in Chair heads to London in a fortnight to enjoy the new season of shows.

Travelling to Broadway in April, Man in Chair began with Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. The spectacular concert staging had also originated with ENO at the London Coliseum. Filling a burning desire for glorious Golden Age revivals, Hello, Dolly! well and truly lived up to its hype, with Bette Midler in truly adorable form. Jake Gyllenhall proved he could really sing in Sunday in the Park with George (below), which was beautifully staged in Broadway’s lovingly renovated Henry Miller Theatre.

Best Musical winner Dear Evan Hansen, and its star Ben Platt, took Broadway by storm in a production that was barely changed from its 2016 off-Broadway season.

New Tim Minchin musical Groundhog Day rode in on great hype from its 2016 London season; it made a star of beleaguered leading man Andy Karl, but failed to survive at the box office. Originating in Canada, feel-good musical Come from Away is sure to be seen in Australia in the not too distant future. A unique production for Broadway, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 took a few pages of War and Peace and crafted an innovative, immersive new musical.

Boasting a score by Alan Menken, A Bronx Tale has been an ongoing success. Appealing to families, sweet new adaptation Anastasia (below) includes an absolutely delightful featured performance by Caroline O’Connor as Countess Lily.

Of the other new short run new Broadway musicals this year, energetic post-wartime musical Bandstand was a favourite of Man in Chair. Broadway’s first all a capella musical, In Transit featured incredible harmonies. Australian Tony Sheldon popped up in the brief run of Amélie. Legendary divas Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole were the chief attraction of War Paint (below), the twin stories of Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.

Already lamented by all discerning musical theatre goers who saw it in London, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was even worse on Broadway, arriving with criminally reduced sets that were an insult to those who paid the high ticket prices.

Recent Broadway openings vary from The Band’s Visit to Once On This Island to SpongeBob SquarePants.

Emerging stars on the Australian musical theatre stage are headed by Maggie McKenna, who is not only adored by everyone who sees Muriel’s Wedding, but was also showcased in the excellent documentary Making Muriel. Hilary Cole and Stephen Madsen, both mentioned as ones to watch in Man in Chair’s 2016 Music Theatre Year in Review, are also featured in Muriel’s Wedding, with Madsen in particular making a splash, so to speak, as Olympic swimmer Alexander Shkuratov.

Ordinary Days featured a gorgeous pair of performances from fresh graduates Nichola Bowman and Joel Granger (below). Granger later successfully played against his boy-next-door looks as the darkly troubled Harry Richie in Brigadoon. Lovely soprano Genevieve Kingsford continued to shine, this year playing Fiona in Brigadoon.

The male breakout performer of the year was 2016 WAAPA graduate Matthew Manahan. While Manahan’s cheeky nude scene in Cabaret gave the impression he may just be a blonde pretty boy, his legitimate tenor vocals and heroic performance in the title role of Paris instantly established him as a star in the making. A significant portion of the success of Brigadoon was due to Manahan’s infectious enthusiasm and energy in the role of Charlie (below).

A note to readers who have made it this far: please keep in mind that Aladdin, My Fair Lady and Dear Evan Hansen, (first seen in Sydney, Sydney and off-Broadway respectively) were covered in Man in Chair’s 2016 Music Theatre Year in Review.

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Best Musicals 2017

Independent: Assassins

Mainstage: Muriel’s Wedding

Broadway: Hello, Dolly!

London: Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes (ok, it’s not a musical, but it was the best show seen by Man in Chair in London this year)

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Most Disappointing Musicals 2017

Independent: Jesus Christ Superstar

Mainstage: Cabaret

Broadway: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

London: Lazarus

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Heavenly Performances 2017

Independent: Matthew Manahan (Paris); Elandrah Erahima-Feo (Memphis)

Mainstage: Blake Bowden (The Book of Mormon); Maggie McKenna (Muriel’s Wedding)

Broadway: Andy Karl (Groundhog Day); Bette Midler (Hello, Dolly!)

London: Charlie Stemp (Half A Sixpence); Scarlett Strallen (She Loves Me)

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Photos: #1 Deen van Meer; #2 Lisa Tomasetti; #3, #6, $16 Jeff Busby; #4, #13, #14 Joan Marcus; #5 Jayde Justin; #7, #15 Ben Fon; #8 Phil Erbacher; #9 Jonah Persson; #10 Mauel Harlan; #11 Tristam Kenton; #12 Matthew Murphy

 

Simon Parris
Simon is a Melbourne-based theatregoer and critic, who reviewed for many years for Theatre People and the Sunday Herald Sun. He has also acted, directed and choreographed, and has served on the boards of the Music Theatre Guild of Victoria Committee and The Opera Studio Melbourne. In addition to productions in Melbourne, on his extensive travels, Simon reviews shows in Sydney and on annual trips to Broadway and the West End. He now blogs independently at simonparrismaninchair.com.
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Simon Parris
Simon is a Melbourne-based theatregoer and critic, who reviewed for many years for Theatre People and the Sunday Herald Sun. He has also acted, directed and choreographed, and has served on the boards of the Music Theatre Guild of Victoria Committee and The Opera Studio Melbourne. In addition to productions in Melbourne, on his extensive travels, Simon reviews shows in Sydney and on annual trips to Broadway and the West End. He now blogs independently at simonparrismaninchair.com.