The Limelight team continues its look back on the year past with our musical theatre highlights of 2018.
Jo Litson – Editor
Johanna Allen, Genevieve Kingsford, Chris Ryan, Alinta Chidzey, Mitchell Butel and cast in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Photograph © Jeff Busby
How good is Mitchell Butel? In this giddily funny musical, he played eight members of the D’Ysquith family, male and female, who stood between the impoverished Monty D’Ysquith Navarro and the Earldom of Highhurst. It’s a tour de force role for a performer and Butel made theatrical hay with it, showcasing his remarkable versatility. Butel shared the stage with a fine cast, including Chris Ryan as Monty, who made it his mission to kill his way to the D’Ysquith top. Directed by Roger Hodgman, on a set resembling a cut-out theatre, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was a delicious dose of escapist, farcical fun.
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concert version of Funny Girl (covered below by Angus McPherson) was a real highlight of 2018. So too, the concert version of Bernstein’s Candide. Once again Mitchell Butel was at the helm – but this time as the director. Candide is a strange show, mixing musical genres as it does and combining them with a rambling, unlikely narrative. But Butel drew vibrant performances from the cast, which included Alexander Lewis as Candide, Caroline O’Connor as the sassy Old Lady, and a glittering Annie Aitken as Cunégonde. The orchestra and chorus, conducted by Brett Weymark, lent plenty of musical sass, and their exquisite rendering of Make Our Garden Grow was a heavenly ending.
It was great to see a new Australian musical, Evie May, at the Hayes Theatre Co, as well as the return of Darlinghurst Nights, but In the Heights was the dazzler of the year. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda before Hamilton, it is a beguiling musical showcasing Miranda’s winning way with rap lyrics and catchy melodies. Set in Washington Heights, in New York City, where gentrification is making it hard for the close-knit, Spanish-speaking community, we follow the hopes and dreams of a group of neighbours. Ryan Gonzalez was outstanding as Usnavi (originally played by Miranda) and Margi de Feranti has never been better as Abuela Claudia, the emotional anchor of the piece. Tickets sold out quick smart so the show is returning to the Sydney Opera House, January 16 – 20, with some cast replacements.
Angus McPherson – Deputy Editor
The cast of Assassins at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton
Dean Bryant’s taut, inventive production of Assassins for the Hayes Theatre thrived in the extra breathing room of the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse, the strong cast led by a menacing David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth. Sondheim’s musical about nine presidential assassins (only some of which were successful) plays out against a lurid set by Alicia Clements, the action taking place in a run-down fun park. With a great score and some fantastic choreography – the fairy-light skipping sequence in The Ballad of Guiteau is a highlight – this show was loads of fun shot through with an unsettling sense of imminent violence.
Inspired by a New York charity concert featuring 15 different performers in the title role, Mitchell Butel’s semi-staged Funny Girl with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra saw a who’s who of Australian musical theatre stars tread the boards as Fanny Brice. From Maggie McKenna through Michala Banas, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Casey Donovan, Virginia Gay, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Dami Im, Zahra Newman, Queenie van de Zandt to Megan Washington and even Trevor Ashley, this was a tag-team of talent, the clever staging playing to each singer’s strengths. Caroline O’Connor was the standout, however, bringing the house down with an electric performance of My Man.
The Australian premiere at Hayes Theatre Co of Cry-Baby was one of the surprises in this year’s season. The musical – based on the 1990 John Waters film – was dubbed “terminally flat” on Broadway but director Alexander Berlage, aided by a high-energy cast mugging on a candy-stripe set by Isabel Hudson, made it a wildly entertaining romp of a show where over the top was just the beginning. It might not be the most profound piece, but the pedal-to-the-metal performances made it a damn good time.
Clive Paget – Editor at Large, New York
The cast of Come From Away. Photo © Matthew Murphy, 2016
Set in the days immediately following the September 11 attacks, Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s big-hearted, passionate whirlwind of a show tells the little-known (until now) true story of the tiny town of Gander in remote Newfoundland and what happened when 38 US-bound planes were ordered to land unexpectedly at their airstrip. When American airspace was closed, their geographical location and historical capacity turned a sleepy community upside down as 7000 international passengers needed to be fed and accommodated. Headed for Melbourne in 2019, Australian audiences are in for a treat. With its finely-crafted script and approachable music, Come From Away achieves that rare feat of being broad enough to appeal even to people who don’t like musicals.
The Band’s Visit, The Ethel Barrymore Theatre
It won the Tony this year for best musical, and if for me it doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Come From Away, Tony Yazbek’s gentle take on a cult Israeli movie has a lot to offer, not least of which is a amiable score and a book with a great deal of heart. The show follows the eight men of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who through a miscommunication accidentally end up in the fictional town of Beit Hatikva, a fictional town in the middle of the Negev Desert and the Israeli version of nowhere. Wariness turns to respect while love almost but never quite blossoms in a show that gradually draws you into its bosom while sporting a host of nuanced performances.
Disney’s 2013 musical fantasy with its focus on two strong women has earned it cult status among females from 4 to 40 and is the highest-grossing animated movie of all time. With universal themes like head versus heart, safety versus risk, control versus spontaneity, Frozen has plenty to teach us, plus it’s a cracking good yarn. The stage show comes with snappy dialogue and a bag-full of chipper songs (the adrenalin-pumping Let It Go won the Oscar for Best Original Song). Michael Grandage’s staging ensures the show’s humanity shines through and good old-fashioned theatricality triumphs over any temptation to overdo the technology. It also comes with a pretty flawless cast, an endearing reindeer, an animated snowman and a sauna kick line that turns into a saucy fan dance – what more can you want?
Our Critics Around the Country
Geoff Kelso, Cameron Steens, Luke Hewitt, Brendan Hanson, Will O’Mahony, Caitlin Beresford-Ord in Black Swan State Theatre’s Assassins. Photo © Philip Gostelow
“Black Swan’s cast is hugely successful, staging a piece that is musically engaging, dramaturgically and politically complex, and a real joy to attend.” – Jonathan W. Marshall
“This is a show that radiates joy, hope and acceptance. Not to be missed, even by those who know the story well.” – Patricia Maunder
A number of other great musicals worth mentioning transferred or continued on tours around the country, having received rave reviews when they opened prior to 2018, including Calamity Jane, The Book of Mormon and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.