Review: War Horse

 

 

Playing at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne until February 8

The Lyric Theatre, Sydney from February 15-March 15

The Crown Theatre, Perth from March 24-April 12

https://warhorseonstage.com.au/

There’s certainly one thing audiences will remember above all else from this incredible production – the incredible horse puppets which are simply astounding. But even though the horses are the undisputed stars of the show, the emotional core of this wartime story is still strong and this is an incredibly emotional production that that most people will shed a tear to while viewing.

Based on a beloved children’s book published in 1982 by Michael Morpungo, it was first adapted for the stage in 2007 by Nick Stafford. A film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg followed in 2011, but it seems that it is on the stage where audiences has responded best to this tale of friendship between a young man and his ever-faithful horse Joey.

Set between 1912 and 1918, both before and during World War I, War Horse is the story of British farm boy named Albert (Scott Miller) whose father purchases a young foal on a whim and before long, the horse, who Albert names Joey, becomes the boy’s closest friend. But financial hardship forces Albert’s father to sell Joey to the British army to serve the armed forces in France as the conflict heats up. Distraught at losing his loyal steed and worried Joey might never make it back from the battlefields, Albert enlists himself and is quickly thrust into the conflict zone of France to hopefully one day have a reunion with his beloved thoroughbred.

The technical aspects of War Horse are what really sets it apart and makes it such a spectacular experience. The lighting design is especially brilliant, depicting battle scenes with all of the fire and fury they can depict on stage. One scene involving an advancing tank is particularly impressive in its use of a video screen above the stage which also acts as a signpost of the year and location we are currently in throughout the show. Overall, the stagecraft really does an incredible job of transporting us to another place and time, beautifully depicting wartime England and France.

The first act, with it’s laconic tone and numerous scenes of Albert and Joey bonding, is quite different to the events of the second act, where things get quite intense and some more sensitive audience members might be shaken by some of the more intense scenes of war depicted. The show is not recommend for children under the age of 10 and that is understandable given the amount of gunfire and loud sound effects used to depict the horrors of World War I.

Also helping to transport us back to over 100 years in the past is the beautiful singing of Ben Murray, who also appeared in this production on London’s West End. Murray appears throughout the production to sing a selection of English folk songs from the era, and this works remarkably well in evoking the early 20th-century setting.

The acting is impressive across the board, from Miller as the ever-optimistic Albert, to Colin Connor and Jo Castleton who bring an authenticity to their roles as Albert’s kind-hearted parents. Christoper Naylor also has some fantastic moments as a sympathetic German captain who shows kindness to Joey and Topthorn, another horse employed by the British army. But at the end of the day, this show is not really an actor’s showcase, and the real stars of the show are the remarkable team of puppeteers who bring Joey and the other animals to live on stage, including a scene-stealing goose that is a perennial crowd favourite.

Overall, War Horse tells both an epic story of wartime heroism, but also an intimate one of Albert and Joey’s close bond. The staging is exceptional and the story hits all of the emotional beats you would expect. War Horse will be playing in Melbourne for another three weeks, before moving to Sydney and then Perth, so race along as soon as you can to see War Horse before it gallops away.

Review: The Choir Of Man

Playing at The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until January 12

Tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2020/contemporary-music/the-choir-of-man

Tour dates and more info: https://choirofman.com/

It’s not often you attend a show and before you can take your seat, you’re invited up to the stage to join the cast in a friendly pint from an actual working bar on the stage floor. But that’s what happens to attendees of The Choir of Man, a rollicking 90-minute singing session with a troupe of likeable British lads who instantly win over the crowd with their warm and friendly demeanour, and have the audience on side even before they start singing, even without the free beer.

The brainchild of theatrical producers Nic Doodson and Andrew Kay, The Choir of Man is refreshingly unpretentious, and boasts an exceptional set, a pub called The Jungle, which authentically mimics a quaint old English pub, complete with gaudy wallpaper and artwork. Propelled by wonderful narration from one of the choir members, we’re invited into the lads’ local and find out this place is a sanctuary for them, a place where nobody is judged, everyone can be themselves and they can sing their hearts out night in, night out.

The great thing about this show is how it makes you forget you’re in a grand old theatre and instantly transports you to the show’s setting, and by the end of the show you’ve been in that pub the entire time. That intangible quality is really what sets this show apart from other theatrical experiences, and their eclectic repertoire of song choices really does mean there is something for everyone here. The chosen songs form a kind of loose narrative and while every tune doesn’t necessarily tie into the characters’ stories or themes of the show, that really matters little when the song performances are so enjoyable.

Opening appropriately enough with Guns N Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle, The Choir also belts out numbers by Paul Simon (50 Ways To Leave Your Lover), Avicii (Wake Me Up), Adele (Hello), Katy Perry (Teenage Dream) and Queen (Somebody to Love), there is also a great deal of audience participation incorporated into the show. From the aforementioned invite before the show to bringing up random audience members to serenade or play a game of beer coaster stacking with them. Often audience members shudder at being dragged up on stage but in a show like this people would be clamouring to join them.

One of the best things about this show is the sheer variety of entertainment the crew deliver. One song (Sia’s Chandelier) is performed a Capella, and during 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, we have one of the gang do a show-stopping bar-top tap dance routine. And every one of the crew get their moment to shine, even the resident bartender, who does a rollicking version of Rupert Holmes’ Escape (The Pina Colada Song), culminating in some amazing gymnastics on stage.

The choreography and chemistry is simply astounding. There’s lots of stage movement going on at all times and with nine members (as well as a few audience members) on stage at any given time things can get hectic, but everything is executed to perfection. There is even some unexpected poignancy, as our narrator talks about how the traditional British pub is sadly disappearing from the world, in favour of trendy new venues, and how the camaraderie and mate ship forged within the walls of these places is an important thing to hold onto. It’s sweet without ever being too sentimental and really well incorporated into the show overall.

The choirs’ vocal range is also incredible, going from gruff and guttural when the song requires it to sounding nothing less than angelic during other numbers. While the show is a true crowd-pleaser in every sense of the term, the team have a treat for local audiences later in their set that will ensure they go home happy, as they belt out their version of a true Aussie classic.

But even without that little nod to local audiences, The Choir of Man delivers extraordinary entertainment from first song to last. The choir is in Melbourne until January 12 but will be touring the country for a further four months after that so there’s thankfully plenty of opportunity to catch them while they are visiting our shores.

With energetic performers, an unexpected collection of tunes and a determination to put a smile on the face of every audience member, The Choir of Man is a toe-tapping triumph.

REVIEW: Chicago The Musical

What:Chicago The Musical
Where: The State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Performances run until February 23, 2020
For more information, please visit
https://chicagothemusical.com.au/

A truly iconic musical, Chicago has graced the stages of Melbourne many times in the past, but this current revival, just having opened in Melbourne after sell-out runs in both Sydney and Brisbane, will surely rank amongst the very best of them.

A darkly comic tale conceived by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Ebb and Bob Fosse (book) in 1975, Chicago was a hit when first staged but only really attained its iconic status upon a 1996 revival on Broadway, a run that is active to this day, 23 years later.

Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Roxie Hart

A monster hit film adaptation, winning the 2002 Oscar for Best Film, followed, and it is now known as truly one of the most famous and popular musicals of all time.

Set in the 1920s, Chicago is the tale of the sweet and not-so-innocent Roxie Hart (Natalie Bassingthwaighte), who longs for a career in showbiz just like the extravagant Velma Kelly (Alinta Chidzey), but finds herself in the clink after shooting her lover and to her surprise learns that her notoriety is an ideal path to stardom. Enter Billy Flynn (Jason Donovan), a crusading lawyer just as fame hungry as Hart is, who pounces on her case as a way to get his own name in the papers as he turns Roxie’s trial into a three-ring circus.

From the show-stopping opener All That Jazz to the rousing finale, this production is a delight for the senses. The staging is quite unique, with the 15-piece orchestra on-stage throughout, housed in a framed structure and frequently interacting with the cast, a device that adds some clever moments of humour, particularly when Roxie wanders over to proudly show the musical team the newspaper headlines about her.

Chicago has no shortage of scene-stealers, and both Casey Donovan, as the kindly prison warden Mama Morton, and Rodney Dobson, as Roxie’s sad-sack husband Amos, shine in two smaller but no less memorable roles, with both actors knocking it out of the park.

Alinta Chidzey as Velma Kelly

Casey Donovan was a fan favourite on opening night, and received the most rapturous applause of any cast member. Dobson also effortlessly won over the crowd, turning what could have been a one-note character into one with surprising pathos, and his rendition of the sad but sweet Mr Cellophane was a highlight.

Bassingthwaighte, brimming with experience as an actor and singer, is wonderful as Roxie, conveying the perfect mix of vulnerability and brashness that the character demands. Jason Donovan (in a role played by his father Terence back in 1981) is perhaps a bit overshadowed by the rest of the cast, perhaps not as strong vocally as his fellow castmates and coming off as slightly flat in the role.

To be fair though, Tom Burlinson played the part in both the Sydney and Brisbane productions, and Jason is a newcomer to the cast for the Melbourne run, so it’s possible he just needs a bit of time to gel with his castmates and will surely grow into the role as the show’s run progresses.

Jason Donovan as Billy Flynn

My personal favourite number has always been Cell Block Tango, in which Kelly and a group of fellow prisoners explain the violent circumstances that put them in the joint, is done exceptionally well here, with the cast really playing up the darkly comedic tone of the brilliant (and brilliantly catchy) lyrics. Anyone who has seen this will no doubt have “Pop. Six. Squish. Uh-uh. Cicero. Lipschitz” appear in their head at least once after seeing this. A close runner-up is another gem in which Chidzey really shines, a so-called “act of desperation” entitled I Can’t Do It Alone, which is a tour-de-force of choreography and stage presence.

For a show like this, the choreography should wow the audience and this doesn’t disappoint, with all of the principals and the supporting cast absolutely mesmerising with their skill in this department. The energy never flags over the course of 2 1/2 hours, and all of the cast deserve high praise for keeping this a suitably lively experience from start to finish.

If you’ve never seen Chicago before or are an ardent fan, this new production simply demands to be seen. From the dazzling production values to the spirited performances of the entire cast, Chicago is two hours of pure razzle dazzle.

Chicago is now playing at the Arts Centre’s State Theatre until February 23.

Helpmann Award Nominations Announced

On Tuesday June 11th, Melbourne’s iconic Princess Theatre, currently housing the local production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I and II, pulled double duty by also playing host to the Helpmann Awards Nomination ceremony, ahead of the Awards ceremony itself, to be held at Melbourne’s Arts Centre on July 14th and 15th.

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