A Melange of Glamour, Tragedy, and Timeless Resonance!

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard Rating

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The Princess Theatre was packed to the brim for the grand opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard Musical. After nearly three decades, this reimagined production, presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment made a triumphant return to Australia.

The musical premiered in 1993 at London’s West End and later that year in Los Angeles, receiving solid ticket sales. The Musical won an astounding 7 Tony awards in 1995 including best book, music, and lyrics awarded to Don Black, Christopher Hampton, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Sunset Boulevard is a captivating exploration of the darker side of dreams and the consequences of chasing them in the brutality and glamour of Hollywood. Taking the essence from the original 1950s Billy Wilder film and under the astute direction of Paul Warwick Griffin, this classic Noir musical weaves together satire, melodrama, and comedy into a mesmerising visual and auditory feast.

Narrated posthumously by the main protagonist, Joe Gillis, we are immersed in his sardonic flashback on the price he pays for a lavish lifestyle and fame. Through his eyes, we witness the tragic demise of a man drawn into the twisted delusions of Norma Desmond, a once-glamorous silent film star whose obsession with youth, stardom, and unrequited love leads her down a path of insanity.

The stage design in Sunset Boulevard captures both the allure and the shadows of this story. The incorporation of technology is truly ingenious, like at the start of Act 1 when the stage is completely engulfed by a lifeless body floating in a pool. The set centers around a magnificent gothic Hollywood mansion, featuring rich, dark embellishments illuminated by flickering candles, creating an atmosphere of opulence, drama, and tension.

The messages and themes in the musical are beautifully supported by the well-thought-out dramatic lighting that intentionally guides the audience’s attention. The standout closing scene, when Norma plays out Salome’s wild dance and finally receives the desperately-desired attention on “stage” is made powerful with the use of projections and handheld cameras as she stares directly into the the lens.

Likewise, the contrast in costume design between the vibrant, aspiring Hollywood stars and the lavish, nostalgic outfits worn by Norma beautifully reinforced the underlying message of Sunset Boulevard. It symbolized the industry’s tendency to discard old stars while embracing the new.

Returning to the theatre for the first time in 30 years, Sarah Brightman stars as the larger-than-life diva role of Norma Desmond. As she graces the stage, the audience seems enthralled by her almost regal aura. Brightman has an impressive history in theatre and is famously remembered for her portrayal of Christine Daaé, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”, a score that was originally written for Brightman. However, whilst she looks the part of Norma, her delivery feels somewhat subdued, and her articulation, at times, unclear.

Joining Sarah is Australian actor Tim Draxl who plays Joe Gillis. He has an engaging presence and a voice that effectively communicates his character’s emotional journey. He morphs from an ambitious and frustrated screenwriter to a man with conflicted feelings towards Norma, a man in love with Betty Schaefer, and then an observing narrator. Norma’s loyal butler and former husband, Max Von Mayerling, is portrayed by Robert Grubb, a well-known name in Australian theatre. His stage presence gives a sense of authority, sophistication, and loyalty, mirroring his years of service and mysterious relationship with Norma. The young ambitious screenwriter who became Joe’s love interest, Betty Schaefer, is played by Asheligh Rubenach. She is delightful in the role, effervescent and sweet, demonstrating a fine contrast to the fading star, Norma. The overall theatrical experience is richly enhanced by the combination of Lloyd Webber’s brilliant score and a live orchestra under the masterful direction of Paul Christ.

The cast of Sunset Boulevard is rich with an abundance of talent. Theatrical performer Jarrod Draper playes the role of Artie Green, Betty’s fiancée. Paul Hanlon and Troy Sussman respectively play Cecil B DeMille and Sheldrake. The brilliant ensemble cast also includes Regan Barber, Amy Berrisford, Billy Bourchier, Campbell Braithwaite, Benjamin Colley, Grace Driscoll, Madison Green, Peter Ho, Leah Lim, Mary McCorry, Charlotte Page, Morgan Palmer, Caity Plummer, Taylor Scanlan, Tom Sharah, Lisa Sontag, Riley Sutton and Dean Vince. Set and Costume Design by Morgan Large. Choreography by Ashley Wallen and Musical Supervision by Kristen Blodgette.

Sunset Boulevard remains relevant today where people are obsessed with celebrity culture, the pursuit of success, the price of living in a world driven by illusion, and the desire for validation. Other themes include aging, loneliness, and the loss of relevance, they each speak universally to the human experience.

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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Cirque du Soleil’s LUZIA

Cirque du Soleil's LUZIA

Last week, Cirque du Soleil opened their magnificent show LUZIA in the heart of the Flemington Racecourse.

The sight of the big top triggered memories of Cirque du Soleil’s previous visit to Australia during the pandemic. I vividly recall attending the opening night of KURIOS, only to discover its abrupt closure the following day. The global impact on Cirque du Soleil’s existence was undeniable. It is truly exhilarating to witness their triumphant return after such adversity.

Stepping into the world of LUZIA under the big top is like entering a whole new dimension of wonder and amazement. As the show begins, time seems to stand still with the interplay of light and rain, awakening a profound sense of spirituality. This ability to reproduce reality through a dream-like surrealism is a quality that Cirque du Soleil have mastered in numerous productions worldwide.

LUZIA combines elements of the rich Mexican culture, mythology, and nature with its vibrant colours and beautiful imagery. The main character is the Traveller who falls from the sky and gently comes down with the help of a little umbrella into a land of blooming marigolds, and majestic birds. When he turns a giant metal key, he opens a world where we travel through his imagination.

Along the way, we encounter a running woman who spreads her beautifully pigmented butterfly wings, representing the migratory journey of the monarch butterfly from southern Canada to central Mexico. Then, we meet a group of agile hummingbird acrobats, that leap through hoops. The traveller steps through a smoky dance hall, a tribute to the golden age of Mexican cinema, where three porters manoeuvre a female acrobat into a human skipping rope.

Each act in LUZIA is like its own separate show all wrapped up into one unforgettable experience. We travel through the Agave plants with dream like women dancing within giant hula hoops. Then, we watch the superior artistry of players manipulating a football, a passionate sport for the Mexican people. In a separate scene, the Peyote, known for its hallucinatory properties and grown in Mexico, is honoured in a bizarre pole dance of strange creatures.

Luzia is a show that defies expectations at every turn. One moment, you witness a demigod of rain gracefully leaping and soaring through the air, emerging from a circular pool with breathtaking aerial acrobatics. The water splashes around him as he reaches great heights, leaving an indelible impression on the audience. Then, a juggler takes the stage, skilfully manipulating numerous pins with incredible speed. The pins seem to blur into a metallic mass, creating a mesmerising visual spectacle.

Following this, a performer on a colossal swing captivates the audience by propelling himself to unimaginable heights. The swing eventually tips over, leaving the spectators in awe of the daring feat. But the surprises don’t end there. Acrobats astound with their free-falls from swing to swing, executing complex manoeuvres with apparent ease. Their agility and grace make it seem as if they are weightless. We see a contortionist, whose movements resemble that of a hypnotic snake. With seemingly impossible flexibility, his body contorts in unimaginable ways.

LUZIA’s magic is made possible through complex technical stage designs and the incredible creativity behind them. For instance, since rain is a major theme in the show, they’ve set up a water system with a rain curtain and a pool on the stage. This allows water to be used in various ways throughout the performance. The team can create the illusion of rain, and even form intricate water shapes and symbols using 178 individually controlled valves. Water is also incorporated in a funny scene where the thirsty traveller tries to catch the unpredictable rain.

Other unforgettable props include a massive disk that represents the sun, moon, and the Aztec calendar. It is suspended at the heart of the stage, weighing 2,000kg with the ability to rotate 360 degrees. Another elaborate prop is the Papel Picado, or punched paper, a cylindrical curtain that looks like an oversized lantern with cut-out characters like horses, flowers, and hummingbirds.

Speed is an important theme of LUZIA, like the Tarahumaras, a north-western native tribe known for their superior strength and agility. For superior speed, some acts are supported by giant wireless treadmills that can move in different directions and are used as launch pads to allow for swift tumbling and leaping by the acrobats.

Animals hold a special place in Mexican culture, art, and spiritual beliefs. They are featured through most of the acts whether through costumes where the acrobats morph into animals or through life-size puppets, such as the jaguar that interacts with the artist on stage.

Costumes are designed thoughtfully keeping specific colours and textures carefully crafted for each scene. Some consist of bright colours, and some are designed to represent part animal and part human like the man with the head of an armadillo, or a woman wrapped in an iguana shawl with one arm the head and the other a tail.

The audience in Cirque du Soleil’s Luzia is taken on an incredible musical journey. It’s like the soul of the show. You can feel the rhythmic beats of cumbia and flamenco guitar, creating a pulsating energy. The percussion instruments are like a constant heartbeat. The tubas and trumpets add a vibrant, brassy sound that fills the air. There is a female singer whose voice is hauntingly beautiful, and even though I didn’t understand the words she was singing in Spanish, I could feel the Latin vibe and the raw emotions that transcends language.

Today I met with Terrance, he is one of the magical hummingbirds in the performance. I asked him what makes LUZIA and Cirque shows so different from any other circus. He said: “Everything about our show is extravagant, it is a very big production, with big make-up, loud costumes, and extreme physical agility”. He added: “It is like going to watch a live version of an animation movie and making the impossible possible right in front of you.” He added “For some people, it might even be life changing”.

Luzia is a true fairy-tale brought to life, where the extraordinary becomes the norm. Each act leaves an unforgettable mark.

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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Time Warp your way to the Rocky Horror Show

This iconic cult classic musical is a whirlwind of wild energy from the “Science Fiction” opening strains to the show-stopping finale of “Time Warp”. It promotes self-expression and encourages people to show up, drop their inhibitions, let loose, and have fun. The show opened in Melbourne’s Atheneum Theatre on Wednesday 24th of May to a jump-out-of-your-seat audience, in anticipation of a great night at the theatre.

Originally, like the Little Shop of Horrors, this horror-comedy musical was released to negative reviews. It required an unconventional audience and midnight movie screenings to be appreciated for its campy humour, outrageous characters, and catchy music. It was also ahead of its time with themes of sexual liberation and gender fluidity and … well … times have finally caught up!

The story, in a nutshell, is about Brad (Ethan Jones) and Janet (Deirdre Khoo) who just got engaged when their car broke down during a storm, and they looked for shelter at a nearby peculiar castle. These two conservative and innocent characters became the unintended guests to the owner of the castle, the mad scientist, Dr. Frank N. Furter (Jason Donovan), which was where most of the fun took place! It was a particularly important night because Frank was in the midst of creating the perfect muscle man for himself, named Rocky (Loredo Malcolm). 

And so, when Brad and Janet were invited in, they met the castle’s bizarre inhabitants and whilst they were shocked and wanted to escape, they were trapped and later, drawn into the surreal world of unconventional seduction and highly sexually charged behaviour. What happened on stage blurred the boundaries between reality and fantasy and in no time, the couple transformed from conservative, vulnerable, and innocent to curious, confident, and sexually adventurous.

The cast selection for this show was perfect, and the characters gave the audience just the right feeling. For example, Donovan captured Frank’s flamboyant and powerful persona on stage. He created a polarising Frank, attracting those around him with his charm and repulsing them with manipulative, abusive behaviour. Stellar Perry was a fabulous Magenta (Dr Frank N Furter’s maid), she was mysterious, seductive, and loyal but also Perry conjured qualities of darkness, strength, and sarcasm. Riff Raff (Henry Rollo), Frank’s right-hand man, predictably appeared unpredictable on stage, with a wild mop of hair, a pale white face, and a mysterious quirkiness around his character.

Malcolm had the perfect “look“ for the model muscleman with athletic and acrobatic movements as he effortlessly spun, jumped and flipped on stage, showing off his physique. Myf Warhurst was the delightful Narrator. She was just plain charming! Her engagement with the audience was natural and spontaneous. Columbia (Darcey Eagle) was bright and sparkly on stage, fitting her free-spirited character and unconventional self-expression. Ellis Dolan doubled as Eddie and Dr Scott, transforming from a fierce tough guy to a conservative, serious, and no-nonsense doctor. Jones and Khoo created a fabulous transformation from innocence to debauchery, shedding their inhibitions along the way.

Whilst the set design was appropriate, representing light and innocence with a cartoon-like car and church at the start of the performance to the dark lair of the castle, sometimes the stage felt too small and cramped. Perhaps the set design and lighting could be enhanced to create the illusion of space. However, the phantoms formed an important visual spectacle, creating movement on stage, adding a sense of chaos and devotion to their master. Likewise, the live band added an extra element of engagement, they gave a dynamic performance for the catchy melodies, an essential part of the Rocky Horror Show’s appeal.

This production of the Rocky Horror Show, under the direction of Christopher Luscombe, is worth seeing if you want to be part of a unique, immersive theatrical experience. This shows run in Melbourne through to the middle of August before touring through Perth, the Gold Coast and Canberra for the rest of 2023.

This review also appears in On The House

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