2012 in review: the year’s top musicals, Sydney

AussieTheatre’s Cassie Tongue saw 90 live performances in 2012. Of these, 17 were musicals.

Here is her list of the six best shows (five was the goal; six deserve the attention) in a year that, while light for musical theatre in Sydney, was dotted with gems — some buried, and some out in the open for all to see.

6. Pirates of Penzance, Sasha Regan, presented by Sydney Theatre Company (Original review)

Neal Moors (Major General) and cast in Sasha Regan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Image by Lisa Tomasetti 2012
Neal Moors (Major General) and cast in Sasha Regan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Image by Lisa Tomasetti 2012

This re-staging of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic was a revival with a twist. Eschewing an orchestra in favour of a lone pianist, the show used simple stagecraft to prevent any obstructions with the story. It also featured an all-male cast (singing in the original female vocal register!) which managed to create a platform to explore the show in fresh new ways. That it managed to retain its sincerity and integrity speaks volumes for Regan’s direction; while male actors are in drag, women are never the butt of the joke. This production found its heart and soul in the love story between Mabel (Alan Richardson) and Frederick (Matthew Gent), and the devotion to the characterisation of Mabel’s sisters and the rough and tumble pirates resulted in something truly hilarious and truly heartwarming — at the same time. It was a real triumph.

5. Legally Blonde, Howard Panter for the Ambassador Theatre Group and John Frost (Original review)

Lucy Durack as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.
Lucy Durack as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Image by Jeff Busby

This show shocked a lot of people when it opened in Sydney in October, because a lot of people didn’t expect to fall in love with a little bit — and many people did. Pink and fluffy on the surface, it packs a strong punch as Elle Woods, like many a musical theatre ingenue before her, embarks on a personal journey to discover her own sense of self. Not just the silly love triangle it can seem to be from the outside, Legally Blonde is a wink-and-a-nod to romantic comedy convention, self-aware and perfectly timed to make it as funny as possible. The ensemble cast is strong, both vocally and as actors in their own right, and Ali Calder as Vivienne and model Erika Heynatz as Brooke are breakout stars of the show with powerhouse performances. This show is so much fun, mostly because it knows it shouldn’t take itself seriously, and it will fight to win you over with relentless brightness until you give in and enjoy the ride — and you really do enjoy the ride.

4. Ordinary Days, Squabbalogic in partnership with Darlinghurst Theatre Company (Original review)

Ordinary Days Company
Ordinary Days Company. Image by Scott Clare

Boutique, black-box musicals are often the shows that can more effectively reach out and touch the audience. There’s a stronger authenticity to be found in their characters’  vulnerability, because the intimate settings and simpler design trappings create a more personal, visceral theatre-going experience. Adam Gwon’s Ordinary Days is all about hidden vulnerabilities, about loneliness and connection, set in the ultimate of big cities — New York. Funny, well-balanced, and achingly tender, this four-hander examined the human condition and rewarded our pain with a lovely, lilting sense of hope in the face of despair. The cast (Rachael Beck, Michael Falzon, Jay James-Moody, and Erika Lovell) were uniformly exceptional, with strong harmonies and emotionally honest performances. This was a tiny gem of a show that will be remembered fondly by audiences who were lucky enough to see it.

3. Midsummer, a play with songs, Merrigong Theatre Co, Richard Jordan Productions, Traverse Theatre Company, and Sydney Theatre Company (Original review)

Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon in Midsummer
Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon in Midsummer (a play with songs). Image by Lisa Tomasetti 2012

Tehnically, this is a play with songs, structured differently to a musical, but music is an integral part of its storytelling and its success deserves recognition. A Scottish import to the 2012 Australian season in February, Sydney sorely needed Midsummer’s injection of originality and humour. The rougher, more painfully realistic side of the dysfunctional lives and relationship between Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) is handled gently, but never shies away from that realism. This allows the show to still be quietly joyous, and a touch cathartic, but still feels believable, current, and relatable. It’s a story of a weekend-long bender, but it’s somehow still such a beautiful story, overflowing with quips and profanity and how broken we are — but also suggests, in a way, that we can sort through all the muck and find at least a minute or two underneath to appreciate those intangible, often frustrating things: life and love. This was an absolute pleasure to watch.

2. A Chorus Line, Tim Lawson, by special arrangement with John Breglio (Original review)

A Chorus Line
The Australian Cast of A Chorus Line, 2012

Baayork Lee, a member of the show’s original Broadway cast and participant in the famed recorded talk-sessions about the industry by a handful of chorus dancers that shaped the play, directed this Broadway replica production that stayed true to its essential ethos: This show is not about stars. It’s about working artists and their struggles. It’s about doing what you do for love; it’s about dedication, frustration, disparate people who are flung together and must become something greater than the sum of their parts. It was sensational. This production embodied the feeling of ensemble performance with a real sense of both grit and grace, which is not easy to do, and the opening number with breath-taking dancing and all the Hamlisch bombast caused the opening night audience to erupt into applause after every dance combination. This show is still relevant, and demonstrated for Australian audiences exactly why it deserved its Pulitzer Prize for drama. This was exceptional contemporary music theatre, executed very well.

1. South Pacific, Opera Australia  presents the Lincoln Center Theater Production (Original review)

Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes with the children onstage during the Sydney Opera House season.
Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes with the children onstage during the Sydney Opera House season of South Pacific. Image by Jeff Busby

This production is sublime — and it’s currently in Brisbane, with a return Sydney season planned, so please consider seeing it. Opening at the Opera House in the style of Bartlett Sher’s 2008  Broadway revival, which nabbed 7 Tony Awards, South Pacific is also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, like our number two entry on this list. An indictment of systemic societal racism wrapped in a love story, it’s the kind of pioneering social commentary that made Rodgers and Hammerstein the kings of musical theatre with substance, paving the way for composers like Stephen Sondheim. This staging here in Australia doesn’t put a foot wrong. The sumptuous orchestra is a dream. The set design is stunning without being overwhelming, the movement and choreography is lively and character-driven, and the entire show, particularly the leading players, are very well cast. Lisa McCune is the driving force on stage with her energy, innocence, and dexterity of performance, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes sings ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ with a lovely mixture of longing and gravitas. This production is detailed, elegant, intelligent, colourful. It’s delightful, and a shining example of musical theatre as a transformative artform and legitimate theatrical experience.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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