The juke box musical, taking existing rock and pop standards and wrapping them around a theatrical narrative, is a template which is growing stronger by the minute.
Current shows playing on Broadway in New York City like Beautiful (featuring the folk music of Carole King) and On Your Feet (about the rise of Gloria Estefan and The Miami Sound Machine) are proving popular with audiences and critics alike. Not only are long – time fans able to experience their favourite tunes rebuilt for the professional stage, further generations are discovering these rich musical catalogues for themselves first hand.
Australia also entered the fray with The Boy from Oz, a spectacular biographical tribute to the late performer and song – writer, Peter Allen. (In 2004, our own Hugh Jackman won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for his gripping portrayal of Allen.)
In a year where exciting new Australian musicals such as Ladies in Black and Crossroads are quickly winning over viewers, Billy Thorpe and Leigh is the latest offering to enter the mix.
The sixties in Australia was a hot bed of political unrest, anti – war protest rallies, teenage rebellion, and drug – taking. Rock music became both the ultimate outlet for frustrated self – expression and the perfect storm, squarely dividing our nation in two. At the middle of it all, Billy Thorpe was the biggest wild child of the national music scene.
Originally from England, Thorpe and his parents moved to Australia in 1955. As a self – declared ‘Ten Pound Pom’, he achieved success first as a child star on Queensland television, before moving to Sydney to make his mark as a musician.
Forming a group called Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, the band re-imagined popular tunes with covers including ‘Over The Rainbow’ and ‘Stand by Me’. First playing pubs and clubs before working their way up to larger venues, they eventually gained a reputation as our loudest ever musical ensemble.
In 1972 a pair of back to back gigs, the Sunbury Pop Festival in regional Victoria and a concert at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl (with a crowd estimated at more than 200,000 people) proved pivotal for Thorpe and his group. Not only did these bookings develop wider interest in his music, Thorpe debuted the song for which he is forever identified. ‘Most People I Know’ (Think That I’m Crazy) instantly became a national anthem for the anti – hero, and the rest they say, is history.
In a timely lead – up to next month’s Melbourne Cabaret Festival, the Alex Theatre in St Kilda presents Billy Thorpe & Leigh.
Directed by Tim Paige, writing credits are shared by Neil Cole and Leigh Farnell. A chance meeting between Billy Thorpe, and an impressionable young man called Leigh, is the kick-starter for this sixty – minute presentation (based on Farnell’s own life).
The show’s structure is simple yet highly effective.
What makes this set – up especially fascinating is that we see Billy Thorpe, or ‘Thorpie’ as he likes being called by friends, entirely through Leigh’s eyes. Very much a personal story, it shares the same emotional qualities as The Boy from Oz or Elise McCann’s acclaimed Everybody Loves Lucy (about Lucille Ball’s rocky marriage to Desi Arnaz, and a housewife who devoutly follows their hit show).
Further, Billy Thorpe & Leigh is about the positive impact our idols make on the lives of ordinary people.
Early in the show, a family tragedy sends a thunderbolt through our protagonist. When Leigh’s father is diagnosed with the degenerative muscular disorder, Myotonic Dystrophy, Leigh is determined to make every valuable second count.
After their initial encounter, Thorpe reappears to offer advice at key moments in Leigh’s life. The indication being, that Thorpe is now acting the role of Leigh’s muse, and is perhaps a projection of his inner thought process, too.
The show is made up of snapshot episodes, expanded through music.
Key scenes involve Leigh learning about his father’s illness, Leigh leaving home for university, and Leigh establishing himself as a motivational speaker.
Between them, the cast of three share an impressive list of professional credits.
As Leigh, Andrew Doyle (West Side Story, Spring Awakening, In The Heights) is quite the pocket rocket. His performance is both high – energy and dramatically nuanced when needed.
Frank Kerr (I Will Survive, Channel 10) plays the dual roles of Billy Thorpe, and Leigh’s best friend, Curls.
Switching from one character to the other through the use of small props such as a guitar or a beret, Kerr’s interpretation of Thorpe shows a deeper and introspective side to the rock star. We also learn some facts about Thorpe’s childhood growing up, bullied at school for being different, and what the true meaning being the song, ‘Poison Ivy’ really is!
Harlene Hercules (Centrelink: The Musical, Who Killed JFK?) plays Leigh’s mother, Shirl, gently standing by as his rock and cheerleader.
Billy Thorpe & Leigh features some of Thorpe’s biggest hits including ‘Be Bop a Lula’, ‘Poison Ivy’, ‘Stand by Me’, ‘Over The Rainbow’ and of course, ‘Most People I Know’. (Be prepared for some hand – clapping audience participation.)
This touching chamber musical is both for viewers who like a good story and fans of Thorpe’s music, with a solid handful of his most – known songs played unplugged.
Billy Thorpe & Leigh is currently playing at The Alex Theatre, St Kilda