Friday, May 9, 2014

WINGING MY WAY TO THE TOP



Book, Music, Lyrics: Karen Strahan and Jill Walsh
Producers: Karen Strahan and Jill Walsh
Director: Gordon Nicholson
Musical Director/Arranger: John Black

Choreographer:  Michelle Heine

Set Design: Wayne Shepherd

Costume Design: Christine Pawlicki
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan 8 – 17 May 2014


Gordon Nicholson-Jill Walsh - Lisa McClelland-Karen Strahan - John Kelly
Gaye Reid - Angela Lount
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Though original Australian musicals are not rare, those which manage to successfully capture the Australian psyche certainly are. “Winging My Way to the Top” is on the verge of being such a musical, which, after a rather bumpy gestation period, finally received its world premiere at the Q in Queanbeyan on Thursday night.
It would be easy to go on about what’s wrong with this show, especially the opening night performance, but let's concentrate on what’s right about it.

Jill Walsh and Karen Strahan
Karen Strahan and Jill Walsh have managed to come up with an exuberant show in the best Australian vaudeville tradition. The characters live. The gags are funny, often wildly so. The songs are tuneful and catchy and the story has the potential to be really engaging as it follow the travails of three middle-aged sisters, who, 20 years earlier, almost made it big as The Diamond Sisters, with a minor hit song “My Chocolate Heart Has Melted”.  

An on-stage incident during the Tamworth Music Festival abruptly ended their careers and although Beryl (Jill Walsh) and Ruby (Karen Strahan) have married and gotten on with their lives, the youngest sister Pearl (Lisa McClelland) has never given up on her childhood dream of becoming a singing star.

Gordon Nicholson, who took over the role of director at short notice, also plays Charlie Cheapside, a struggling furniture salesman and the husband of the eldest sister, Pearl. Nicholson is a brilliant comic, very much in the long line of such renowned Australian vaudeville baggy pants comedians as Joe Lawman, George Wallace Snr, Bobby Le Brun and Lucky Grills.

Gordon Nicholson and Jill Walsh
(Charlie and Beryl Cheapside)
Rude, crude and irresistibly funny, Nicholson dominates the stage in all his scenes. He gets stiff competition from Jill Walsh who is quite marvellous as his garrulous and gutsy wife Pearl. The innate Australianness of their combative, rough and affectionate relationship is deliciously captured and very funny to watch. Unfortunately the strain of the dual roles of actor and director took its toll on Nicholson who dried on several occasions. Although his experience allowed him to cover the dries with aplomb, his fellow actors were not quite so skilful and their confusion was often painfully evident

John Kelly, as the successful but definitely dodgy investment broker and husband of Ruby Diamond, Godfrey Goldsmith, teamed well with Nicholson for two amusing songs “Remote Control” and “The Bronding Song”.

The rest of the principals are members of successful Canberra professional singing ensembles, so it is no surprise that their excellent singing, rather than their acting,  is one of the strengths of this production, especially when they’re backed by John Black’s terrific seven piece band and classy musical arrangements.

Jill Walsh (Beryl Cheapside) Gaye Reid ( Phyllis Jones) Lisa McClelland (Pearl Diamond), Karen Strahan
(Ruby Goldsmith)
 Gaye Reid was delightfully unconvincing as the former Solid Gold Dancer, Phyllis Jones, especially in the production number “Solid Nugget Blues” when she hilariously loses the plot during the frenetic dance routine. Karen Strahan shines in the title number “Winging My Way to the Top”, and Lisa McClellan has her best moment with the silly-enough-to-be-a hit-song “Beep Beep”.

Angela Lount, adds to the fun as the Goldsmith’s voluptuous French maid and domestic E.A., Vivyen, and has her own solo “My Name is Vivyen”, but it is when she joins Strahan, McClellan, Walsh and Reid for possibly the best song in the show, a beautiful ballad, “All I Have Is Me” that her warm contralto really thrills.

A troupe of dancers add razzle dazzle to several numbers and double as barbecue party friends. However their presence also highlights the lack of dance skills among the principals who look uncomfortable and ill-at-ease in the song and dance numbers.
Wayne Shepherd’s double-roomed setting is attractive, but the actors often appeared cramped in the first act, and there were clumsy set-changes in the second act.

Nicholson’s direction style is very much rooted in his theatre restaurant background, and though he and his production team have achieved a great deal in the short rehearsal period, the show often has a rough and ready vaudeville look, instead of a music theatre polish, and on opening night appeared under-rehearsed. As well, the pace was erratic and there are unsolved dramaturgical issues.  Pace and polish will no doubt improve with further performances, and hopefully the dramaturgical issues will also be sorted.

None of this seemed to worry the first-night audience however, who gave every sign of being greatly entertained, screamed with laughter throughout, and at the final curtain, rewarded the show with a standing ovation.

 This review also appears on the Australian Arts Review website www.artsreview.com.au
 

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