Frank Barnes

Just before Xmas, I decided it was time to catch up with Disney’s Aladdin. I enjoyed it slightly more than Kinky Boots and lots more than Wicked. In other words, I really didn’t enjoy it at all.

While it had great sets and costumes and an extraordinary illusion with the flying carpet (this follows the trend set by Phantom of The Opera and Miss Saigon where you must have a set piece of stage magic — the falling chandelier and the helicopter). But sets, costumes and illusions are not enough and the show must have a story and songs that hold attention.

These days it is very unlikely that we will have any performances that are not excellent and in this production all the leads do their jobs brilliantly, The Genie in particular being great fun. But I found the songs somewhat boring, and being already aware of the story from the film it takes a lot for a production to grab me; this one didn’t.

At the same time I suspect I am not the target audience for most of these shows, which is a great pity as I have been a fan of musicals since first seeing My Fair Lady at the old Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Now I need something of the calibre of Matilda or Hamilton (which I am yet to see) or the “best musical ever”, The Book of Mormon, which I saw when on my annual week of seeing tennis and cabaret and shows at the Midsumma Festival in Melbourne.

Gateau De Chocolat and Jimmy Woo are two International drag queens who gave us A Night at the Musicals where we experienced such magic as Jimmy doing Les Mis by himself and allowing us the fun of a singalong to the songs from Grease. It was fun for nearly 90 minutes and we loved it.

Glory Box: Lucky 13 is a different sort of cabaret, with the company delivering its 13th show of women challenging lots of issues, including size. Some of it was challenging while some was sheer silly fun. We were discussing it for days after, which shows how good it was.

As The Book of Mormon was playing previews and as I was able to get a very rare ticket, and as I love the show and wanted to see the Aussie production, off I went. As in London, the audience is made up mainly of people who don’t regularly go to the theatre, and the feeling in the foyer prior to the show is one of excited expectation. The excitement rises during the opening number and increases from then as the laughs come thick and fast through the show.

As I have said before, this is a show that is wonderfully sacrilegious and has great songs and lots of heart. It is the fastest-selling show ever and will run for a long time in Melbourne before heading to Sydney. The buzz in the foyer after the show was even louder than before and the Australian cast nailed it.

Richard Katz in The Encounter

Before heading to Melbourne I was able to catch some of the shows that were part of The Sydney Festival. The only one from overseas was The Encounter, from Britain’s Complicite and directed by Simon McBurney, an amazing show with only one actor on stage who, using sound, tells a story of the journey of Romanian writer and director Petru Popescu into the jungle in the Amazon and his encounter with one of the surviving tribes.

While taking us on this journey the actor, Richard Katz, continually reminds us that we are listening to his story by taking us to his home when they are developing the show, and including the audience in his discussions with his daughter. This is all done with the most up-to-date sound system and is delivered to the audience through headsets — making for an expensive production. Without festivals, which have budgets to accommodate performances like this, we would not have the opportunity to experience shows like this.

Meanwhile in the Spiegeltent in The Festival Village we saw Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin, written by Elly Baxter, Libby Wood and Maeve Marsden, with the latter two performing with musical director Jeremy Brennan. This 60-minute show is a “tonic” for anyone feeling the holiday blues. Marsden and Wood, from Lady Sings it Better, tell stories of the history of gin and how it affected women in England and Australia.

The choice of songs is great and they also give the audience a chance to sing along to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and “Oom Pah Pah” from Oliver. This show is not only fun, it is history and feminist politics all wrapped into a joyous hour of fun.

Meanwhile at Belvoir Theatre I caught three performances over two days. Tom Ballard’s standup show Boundless Plains To Share starts with the audience standing (not me) to sing the second verse of the anthem.

This is his entry into a wonderful funny but serious riff on how we treat our refugees and asylum-seekers. It should be compulsory for all those haters and all our politicians. I have a new respect for this gay man. I say that as he does not hide his sexuality.

Downstairs, a new play by Katie Beckett adds to the list of very good Indigenous plays presented at Belvoir. It’s a simple “going home” story of a father (Tony Briggs) and daughter (Beckett) where we learn about how he has taught and protected his daughter.

Finally also Upstairs was the brilliant Prize Fighter from Brisbane’s LaBoite Theatre. The play is set in a gym with a ring in the centre and an actual fight as the centrepiece. It is a story of a refugee from The Congo and his backstory of the deaths and murder of his family, his discovery of boxing and his fight to return so he can come to terms with his past and present.

So, some musicals, cabaret, standup and unusual plays — what a joyous holiday I had!

Frank Barnes is retired and also saw Cabaret at the Hayes Theatre and The Testament of Mary at The Wharf. Both were brilliant so he’ll say more about them next time