Even with two of its main theatres not available for musicals, Melbourne still enjoyed a healthy musical theatre scene in 2019.
After hosting the third Melbourne appearance of Jersey Boys, the Regent Theatre closed for the rest of the year for extensive renovations. Sweet-voiced Ryan Gonzales was a suave player as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. Meanwhile, the Princess Theatre hosted the immaculate Australian production of megahit play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child(below), which will most likely tie up the theatre for a considerable time to come. William McKenna was a standout in the crowd-pleasing role of Scorpius Malfoy.
Musical Theatre attention turned back to the Comedy Theatre, with a somewhat patchy, not quite fully realised production of Barnum followed by rousing international hit musical Come from Away, which patiently built up a loyal local following. Kirby Burgess stole the show in a breakout performance as the ringmaster in Barnum.
After a long wait, Melbourne finally saw Muriel’s Wedding (below), easily one of the best original Australian musicals seen to date. New young leads Natalie Abbott (Muriel), Stefanie Jones (Rhonda) and Jarrod Griffiths (Brice) capably proved their mettle, with local favourite Christie Whelan Browne in top form as bridezilla Tania Degano.
In a curious double act, Australian saw two versions of West Side Story this year, both presented by producers Opera Australia. The Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour West Side Story (below) was a thrilling production, traditional yet with a modern edge, ramping up the focus on the inherent issue of immigrants. Opening night was doused with rain, yet not one audience member moved from their seat, so riveted were they by the performances. Alexander Lewis played Tony as if the lines had never been spoken before, Julie Lea Goodwin was a truly lovely Maria, with Mark Hill a standout as Riff. Whereas previous Handa Operas had been filmed, license rights prevented West Side Story being recorded, which was a disappointment as the production deserved the widest possible audience.
Subsequently, the Australian tour of West Side Story (which also spent time overseas), a return of the 2010 international production, was not quite as impactful yet was bolstered by an exciting young cast, with Todd Jacobsson revealing a rich tenor voice, Chloe Zuel dazzling as Anita and Lyndon Watts an intense Bernardo.
Blue chip children’s book title Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came to Her Majesty’s in a somewhat improved production to that seen on Broadway; the only hummable tunes remain those from the original movie. The revival of Chicago closed the year, with the one and only Jason Donovan joining the cast for the Melbourne season. The opening of Chicago gave Melbourne the auspicious distinction of two Kander & Ebb musicals playing simultaneously.
Other companies added to the Melbourne musical calendar. Melbourne Theatre Company presented their first Broadway musical in eight years with Kiss of the Spider Woman (below). Aladdin star Ainsley Melham gave an extraordinary performance as sensitive prisoner Molina, with Caroline O’Connor in reliably showstopping form as exotic movie siren Aurora. Victorian Opera returned to Sondheim, hosting a starry cast in A Little Night Music.
After a slightly rocky 21st year, The Production Company revealed the sad news that they would be closing in 2020. Having grown from their initial three-show seasons to mighty ten-show seasons, the venerated institution has employed hundreds of artists and entertained thousands upon thousands of Melburnians. Their absence will be sorely felt after their final, yet-to-be-revealed show in May 2020. In a rare programming misstep, The Production Company started 2019 with a slick production of utterly nonsensical David Bowie musical Lazarus. Thoroughly Modern Millie (below) was a return to traditional Broadway fare, with a thrilling star turn from Annie Aitken in the title role and an unforgettable performance from Queenie van de Zandt in the featured role of Muzzy van Horn. While Marina Prior was ideally cast as Mrs Meers, woke folk took offence at the caricatured Asian disguise her character adopts. Apparently, the show is being revised in New York, so it was unlucky that The Production Company did not have access to that new version. After years of almost going there, The Production Company finally took the leap and staged epic Broadway musical Ragtime (top photo). The wait was rewarded with a top class cast and a lavish concert staging. Georgina Hopson gave a breakout performance as Mother, soaring into audience hearts with “Back to Before.”
Iconic stage star Anthony Warlow returned to the stage in two high profile events, both giving the great man the chance to shine in highly anticipated role debuts. In Sweeney Todd, Warlow was well-matched by Gina Riley as Mrs Lovett. In Jekyll and Hyde in Concert (below), Jemma Rix sung up a storm as Lucy.
2018 hit Bring it On returned in 2019, this time visiting other cities as well. Michael Ralph’s choreography, as performed by the sensational young cast, had to be seen to be believed. Ralph shone again in an independent production of Legally Blonde(below), again taking on the dual role of director and choreographer to great success.
Watch This took Sunday in the Park with George on tour, showcasing Sondheim’s music at its best. Manilla Street Productions presented the Australian professional premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dramatic soccer musical The Beautiful Game. A further Australian premiere came from Pursued by Bear, with their production of 2016 Broadway musical Bright Star (below) anchored by an extraordinary lead performance from Kala Gare.
Relatively new company Music Theatre Melbourne showed support for Australian work, presenting a development production of Drew Lane’s amusing musical Electric Dreams, based on the classic 1984 film. The history of Australian musicals was celebrated in lavish new coffee table book The Australian Musical.
Sydney remained very well served by Hayes Theatre. Man in Chair was fortunate enough to see Caroline, or Change but sadly missed American Psycho, Catch Me If You Can and the camp staging of H.M.S. Pinafore.
Man in Chair’s annual jaunt to London began with the inventive new revival of Company (below). Having Bobby become Bobbie, played to perfection by Rosalie Craig, is just one of the show’s inventions. Australian Ben Lewis was lucky enough to partner grand diva Patti LuPone, with Joanne’s husband reimagined as something of a toyboy. Hopefully, an Australian tour will follow the upcoming Broadway season.
In a unique out of town tryout, Hadestown played London’s National Theatre, before shifting to Broadway and winning the 2019 Best Musical Tony Award. Jukebox bio-musical Tina: The Tina Turner Musical was quite the hit in London, enhanced by some terrific lead performances. Jukebox musical The Band used the music of Take That, yet the lads were relegated to characterless backups, with the focus on a group of middle-aged women who had been teen fans of a particular boy band.
Young Vic hit The Inheritance transferred to the West End and then to Broadway. The epic two-part play transposes E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End to 1990s gay Manhattan.
A theatrical visit to London should always stray beyond the West End. This year, Man in Chair enjoyed Violet at Charing Cross Theatre, Fiddler on the Roof at Menier Chocolate Factory and Aspects of Love at Southwark Playhouse. A first time visit to the Playhouse Theatre brought the chance to witness the incredible Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, or Change (below), a role she is taking to Broadway in 2020.
Dear Evan Hansen was a high profile opening in London later in the year, along with the welcome return of Mary Poppins.
Man in Chair was lucky enough to visit Broadway twice this year, much as ever escalating ticket prices (and online booking fees) brought about an increasing reliance on TKTS and Rush tickets.
Hilarious new musical The Prom (below) gave musical comedy an all too rare lesbian heroine. The Netflix movie adaptation was an exciting announcement but using the Broadway cast in their original roles would have been a more appealing concept than their starry replacements. Who needs Meryl Streep when you have Beth Leavel!
The Temptations musical Aint Too Proud was a deserving hit, whereas fellow jukebox musical The Cher Show was an overblown bore.
Beloved star Kelli O’Hara gave yet another gorgeous performance in the second Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate. Even with revivals very scarce this year, we still could have done without the ludicrously ill-conceived new production of Oklahoma!.
Melbourne’s own Eddie Perfect has a Broadway hit with infectious comedy Beetlejuice (below), which survived the brutal awards season to go on to be a bona fide crowd pleasing smash. Not so lucky was fellow screen to stage musical Tootsie, which won Santino Fontana the Best Actor Tony Award and yet is due to close in early January.
Movie adaptations continued with the utterly dazzling Moulin Rouge (below), featuring surely the greatest jukebox score ever assembled. Significantly edited since first seen in Melbourne, King Kong should have been a New York hit but failed to catch fire. Pretty Woman finished a respectable season on Broadway and is heading to London next year.
Off-Broadway, unique new Duncan Sheik musical The Secret Life of Bees seemed unlikely to repeat the success of Spring Awakening. Movie scribe Amy Heckerling adapted her hit movie alone, a mistake that made Clueless the Musical a tedious flop. Fiasco Theater gave Merrily We Roll Along their special treatment in a generally unremarkable revival.
Aaron Sorkin’s script for beloved classic To Kill a Mockingbird helped to make it a huge success. Already announced for London in 2020, hopes are high that an Australian season will follow. Man in Chair enjoyed two killer combinations in plays: Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and Keri Russell and Adam Driver in Burn This.
Emerging stars on the Australian musical theatre stage included performers who have already been building up impressive bodies of work. Alexander Lewis is a perfect example of this; having performed on the world stage, including Metropolitan Opera New York, Lewis remains a low-profile name in Australia. Terrific, strongly contrasting lead roles in West Side Story (below)and Ragtime this year served to display the depth of Lewis’ talent. His breakout role is surely not far away.
Chloe Zuel impressed in West Side Story (Anita) and Ragtime (Sarah), so it was wonderful to read of her casting in Six the Musical. Kirby Burgess shone in Barnum (Ringmaster, below) and dazzled again in Bring it On (Campbell); future engagements for this multi-talented actress are highly anticipated.
Annie Aitken broke out with a dazzling star turn in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Georgina Hopson showed herself as one to watch as Mother in Ragtime. Mark Hill gave a memorable, electric performance as Riff in West Side Story (Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, below).
VCA Music Theatre continues to deliver brightly polished performers. 2017 was a banner year, producing Kala Gare Bright Star (Alice), who will join Zuel in Six. Thomas McGuane was a terrific Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys, later returning to Bring it On (Randall) alongside fellow 2017 graduate Marty Alix (La Cienega). Willow Sizer crafted a quirky characterisation as Paulette in Legally Blonde.
Best Musicals 2019
Independent: Bright Star
Broadway: Moulin Rouge
Most Disappointing Musicals 2019
London: The Band
Heavenly Performances 2019
Independent: Anthony Warlow (Jekyll and Hyde in Concert); Samm Hagen (Legally Blonde)
Mainstage: Ainsley Melham (Kiss of the Spider Woman); Georgina Hopson (Ragtime)
Broadway: Santino Fontana (Tootsie); Beth Leavel (The Prom)
London: Jonathan Bailey (Company); Sharon D. Clarke (Caroline, or Change)
Photos: #1, #3, #5, #6 Jeff Busby; #2, #13, #14 Matthew Murphy; #4, #18 Prudence Upton; #7 Phoebe Warlow; #8 James Terry; #9 Ben Fon; #12 Deen van Meer; #15 Julieta Cervantes; #16 Kenneth Saunders; #17 Jim Lee