West End to Broadway in the Reservoir: The Movie Musicals

Underground Opera. Image supplied.
Underground Opera. Image supplied.

West End to Broadway in the Reservoir: The Movie Musicals is well explained by its title. It’s a concert of musical theatre songs from well-known movies musicals and Underground Opera presents the show in the fabulous Springhill Reservoir.

The show began well- with ‘Broadway Melody’ from the first movie musical, Broadway Melody, which was sung with great energy by all five performers. The ensemble then followed up with a suite of songs from the golden age of musicals: Singin’ in the Rain, Top Hat, The Wizard of Oz, An American in Paris, Kiss Me Kate, Cabaret and Chicago.

Lionel Theunissen has a charming baritone, Opera Queensland singer Louise Dorsman was excellent and soprano Pia Frangiosa shone in her debut with Underground Opera. Former ballet dancer Dale Pengelly held his own (he gives good Broadway bravado), but did seem vocally stretched at times. It would have been nice to see more opportunity for his dancing talent to come through – the little choreography he did have a chance to execute was beautifully done.

The second act moved on to more modern musicals- Oklahoma!, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Last Five Years, Spamalot, Moulin Rouge, Evita and Annie.

Overall, the performances were vocally strong; it’s amazing how much talent there is (literally) underground around Brisbane.

Unfortunately, I found the show itself disappointing. As a thirty-something who has been around musical theatre her whole life (and intensely so for the past decade), I found the repertoire dull. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, ‘All that Jazz’ (Chicago), ‘I got Rhythm’ (An American in Paris) ‘Mister Cellophane’ (Chicago), ’A Whole New World’ (Aladdin)…we’ve heard them all a thousand times and this production didn’t bring any new context to them. It was nice to hear the rarer numbers ‘Still Hurting’ (The Last Five Years), and ‘Children Will Listen’ (Into the Woods), but the pleasure was undone with the songs that followed- ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina’ (Evita) and ‘Maybe’ and ‘Tomorrow’ both from Annie.

‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina’ is one of the most overdone songs in the musical theatre canon. It’s like ‘Memory’ from Cats– a great vocal vehicle, but so many performances of it are devoid of any nuance or true emotional depth. It can be painful. Now, Annie is my personal Trump. Play any of the music from it and I will run from a room (I worked a full season of it years back).  This time, as I was reviewing, I held myself in my seat and gritted my teeth through the terrible lyrics (sheer brilliance, rhyming maybe and baby. Genius.) and the incredibly whiny and unbearably repetitive ‘Tomorrow. Tomorrow. I love ya tomorrow’-actually, to be fair, this show replaced ‘ya’ with ’you’ which made it moderately less grating on the ears. Have I mentioned I hate Annie?  I was relieved that the show didn’t end on such a low note but with a beautiful, harmonic arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (which I realised was in a movie- Shrek).

The lighting, staging and direction of the show were decent. The venue means the show is done in the round (with audience members on all four sides of the stage), giving the concert a lovely, intimate feel. The concept of having screens strategically placed so everyone could see them was excellent. Mostly they provided an atmospheric backdrop to the performance, but there were occasions where they almost felt like a moving screen saver which was a little distracting. The lighting was used effectively and minimally to alter the mood to that of each song.

‘I Got Rhythm’ (An American in Paris) provided the most spectacular failure of audience participation I have ever experienced. The audience was divided into sections who were then pointed at when it was their turn to sing. Unfortunately, we had no idea what to sing. We were then berated more than once by two of the singers for our bad performance, which was very unfair as we were willing to oblige.

For the show to feel slicker and more cohesive, a different approach to emceeing may be of benefit. Bruce Edwards has put so much into Underground Opera (it’s his baby) and he is lovely, friendly, charismatic and he does sing well. His enthusiasm is clear but as emcee I do have some suggestions. Less time could be spent during the show on advertising- either the company, upcoming shows or (especially) past shows. We’re here, we’re supportive- you don’t need to sell to us so hard. Also- it’s a little irrelevant to the audience if Brisbane City Council only just managed to get the aircon working a few days ago and we particularly don’t want to hear some odd thank you to the Council that doubles as a jibe at the other times they haven’t helped. It took the professional edge off the night and given the company describes itself as professional, and charges $80-90 a ticket (!!) I think audiences deserve more.

For me, highlights were the possum who made several unscheduled appearances running through the audience (it was very cute), with the star being the venue itself. The Springhill Reservoir really is magnificent, with its beautiful stone archways and high ceilings. It feels like you’re in a castle. It’s an incredibly hip and trendy venue- the sort of place you can envisage a smoky jazz club, or the home of an indie theatre company. Perhaps the issue with the dated or standard programming choices is that I am simply not the target demographic Underground Opera wish to attract to their shows. West End to Broadway in the Reservoir: The Movie Musicals was a pleasant night out (except for Evita and Annie) but in answer to George Gershwin’s lyrics ‘I got rhythm, I got music….who could ask for anything more?’ I say ‘This girl.’

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