One of Australia’s most beloved, gifted and prolific artists, Jon English (1949 – 2016) was a man of many hats. Originally from Great Britain, as a youngster in 1961, he relocated to Sydney, NSW, with his parents.
Working as a backing vocalist and rhythm guitarist for several years, his big career breakthrough came in 1972, when he was cast as Judas Iscariot in the first national touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar. (As fate would have it, The Production Company is mounting its own version of the musical at the end of July).
From there, the singer, songwriter, musician and actor worked in every conceivable entertainment medium, from stage to television, and especially the recording studio.
Notable resume highlights included playing The Pirate King in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance’, a starring role in the series, Against The Wind (for which he wrote the iconic, ‘Six Ribbons’), and as ex-rocker, Bobby Rivers, in the hit television comedy, All Together Now. English composed other top twenty singles, including ‘Hollywood Seven’, ‘Hot Town’, ‘Turn The Page’, and ‘Words Are Not Enough’.
From 1983 – 1985, English was named ‘Entertainer Of The Year’ three consecutive years running.
During the late eighties, English took significant time away from performing and touring. Instead, he dedicated himself to a personal project in the latter half of decade. The result, in 1990, was a double CD album. Spectacular, as it was ambitious, Paris: A Rock Odyssey, was co-created with David Mackay.
It is fascinating to note before being created for the professional stage, mega-musicals like Chess, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar also began their respective lives as concept recordings, too.
To summarise the story in brief, this brand new work detailed the illicit affair between its headstrong protagonist, Paris, and his married lover, Helen. Based on an ancient Greek fable, together, their relationship resulted in the fall of Troy.
In 2003, Stella Entertainment was formed with the specific purpose of bringing Paris to full-blooded life. The company’s two-fold aim was to not only premiere this world-class piece but to give young, up-and-coming talent a stepping stone into commercial theatre as well. Their inspired vision resulted in two sell-out seasons at The National Theatre in St. Kilda and the Frankston Arts Centre.
Formed two years ago, Music Theatre Melbourne (the successor to Stella Entertainment), worked in tandem with English, aiming to debut Paris at the professional level. With his untimely passing in 2016, the company made it their mission to see this project through. Both as a tribute to English, and for the general public to experience this extraordinary rock opera as he envisioned it, for themselves.
In the spirit of Cats, Chess, Hamilton, Evita, Notre-Dame de Paris, Rent and Titanic, Paris is also a sung-through drama. Further, its semi-staged concert presentation at the Melbourne Recital Centre is a popular format also used by other Melbourne-based organisations such as The Production Company, StageArt and Manilla Street.
For the production’s strictly-limited four show run, MTM’s hand-picked cast included some of Australia’s biggest rock and musical theatre icons, sharing centre stage with an exciting array of rising stars.
Featured performers were:
- John Waters (as Ulysses)
- Ben Mingay (as Achilles)
- Tim Freedman (as Agamemnon)
- Brian Mannix (as Sinon)
- Matthew Manahan (as Paris)
- Madeleine Featherby (as Helen)
- Scott Johnson (as Hector)
- Kerrie Anne Greenland (as Cassandra)
- John O’May (as Priam)
- Mark Dickinson (as Menelaus)
- Tod Strike (as Patroclus)
- Cameron MacDonald (as Ajax / Fisherman)
- Shirley Bowen (as Hecuba)
- Daniel Cosgrove (as Aeneus)
- Annie Aitken (as Handmaiden)
- Caitlin Quinn (as Athena)
- Jack O’Riley (as Diomede & Thersites)
- Jordon Mahar (as Herald & Talthybius)
Over two sixty-minute acts, the show communicated its gripping narrative with thirty original songs, as fresh now as the day they were written. Immediately accessible, these tunes consisted of sensitive ballads, thrilling set pieces, and soaring anthems. Each was a stand-alone exercise in character definition and expert storytelling.
Some of the show’s many highlights included:
- Manahan and Featherby’s delicious blending with the duet, ‘For Better Or Worse’
- Dickinson’s spellbinding rendition of ‘Thief In The Night’. At times, he appeared to channel English’s trademark bass-baritone as well
- Waters’ quiet intensity with ‘Ulysses Prayer’
- Greenland, performing with drama and passion, bookended the show with ‘Prologue’ and ‘Oh, Paris’, and
- Mannix, (supported by O’Riley and Mahar) brought one of the few moments of comic levity, with ‘Inside Outside’
Working as a focused and cohesive whole, the MTM creative team brought arena-sized fireworks to the relative intimacy of the Melbourne Recital Centre.
Stellar direction from Neil Gooding produced triumphant, event theatre from start to finish (Stuart Smith acted as assistant director).
A twelve-piece band was conducted with energy, precision and flair by Isaac Hayward (who also served as the musical director). Martine Wengrow provided associate musical direction.
The musicians and vocal leads were backed by a twenty-eight member choral ensemble. Combined, the entire company produced a sound that was lush and powerful, in simpatico with the majestic score.
My astute plus-one for the evening noted, like the Melbourne Theatre Company’s recent spin on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in a similar style, Paris re-imagined is a legendary tale for twenty-first-century audiences.
Theatrical costume design (by Jannette Raynes, Mark Raynes, Stuart Smith, Neil Gooding, and Jodie Welch) referenced a sophisticated mix of classical, religious and contemporary theming. Female cast members are dressed mostly in floor length togas. Meanwhile, their male counterparts are decked out to look like rebellious gang members, wore leather jackets, tunics or gowns.
Streamlined set and prop design (by Mark Raynes, Darren O’Shea, Michael Large, Sam Hornstein, and Geordie Worland) allowed for easy assemblage and dismantling, keeping transitions between scenes to a smooth minimum.
Scenes were marked using an oversized video screen at the rear of the stage, placed high above the action. Carrying a two-fold purpose, short bursts of animation and text (designed by Stuart Smith and Andrew Sampford), helped to drive the story as well as link together each song.
Marcello Lo Ricco/LSS Productions provided faultless sound design, with exciting and dynamic lighting created by Jason Bovaird/Moving Light Productions.
Stage management from Laura Cooney ensured that the action remained fluid at all times.
After a well-deserved standing ovation, of final note, Paris closed out opening night with a very moving tribute.
A photo of English was projected on the overhead screen. Meanwhile, his recording of ‘Love Has Power’, was accompanied on electric guitar by English’s son, Jonathan Sora-English. From there, the band, followed by the entire cast, returned to the stage and joined together in song for one last time.
This is the second time in a week I have had the good fortune to witness and review an Australian musical piece of this significance. Last week in seeing Vigil (at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio), the overwhelming response to that show proved there is a commercially viable and critically supportive market for outstanding local product. Such positive news is very promising for performers and creators alike both now and in the years to come.
Photo credit: Ben Fon