In their latest exhibition Western Arts Theatre once again exemplifies the vitality and strength of community theatre. On My Way is a song cycle dedicated to the various modes of transport throughout history told through musical theatre standards, pop songs and original compositions. This production is a vehicle for five band members, thirty six cast members, thirty six musical numbers and a core group of committed individuals working behind the scenes. Writer, director and choreographer Heather Wright led this highly impressive production with verve, talent and gumption. She has created a beautifully old fashioned evening of entertainment, the likes of which we seldom see anymore. She is to be applauded for the singularity of her vision and how she and her team have achieved it with charm and wit.
What is to be cherished about WAT is the opportunities it provides for both seasoned and emerging (some are surely in the single digits) performers to work side by side and each members of the large and diverse ensemble’s talents are seamlessly utilised and embraced. In the spirit of this gargantuan achievement, I am going to attempt to credit every featured creative with the praise they deserve. What is so special about this production is that every performer on stage is letting their own personality shine through and are showing laudable commitment to their vocals (led by Caroline Hawke) and movement. Every performer is giving as much as the next whether they’re featured soloists, providing harmonies or just lending their voices for a couple of numbers (I did see the front of house staff pop in for the finale). Fasten your seatbelts, dear readers we’re diving straight in.
Thirty-six musical numbers is no mean feat and the band was electrifying for the whole two and a half hour run time. Led by the highly experienced Dave Barclay who also plays the keyboard, Genevieve Bernstein, Hiro Chan, Amy Cumming and Cara Taber cover a range of styles that compliment both the compositions and their interpreters on stage. Equally as magnificent are the technical team. The four-pointed, tiered stage is situated in the centre of Essendon Masonic Hall ballroom and I can only imagine the effort and commitment that has gone into designing a unique aesthetic for so many numbers in addition to the cues that this production demands. On opening night; Chris Anderson, Hayden McClure, Andrew Price, Ben Anderson and Sarah Charles made it look effortless.
It is a credit to the vitality of the cast that they made a two and a half hour run time fly by, especially holding the attention of even the youngest audience members. Acts 1 and 3 feature many solos (more on them below) whilst Act 2 is packed with ensemble numbers many of which are heavy on dance. They each handle the demands of the evening with grace and professionalism. With so many performers I would be remiss if I didn’t express my deep respect and admiration for how efficiently the numbers were staged, the space was utilised exceptionally well.
Filling in MC duties for the evening is local stalwart Tim Haughton who lends his narration splendid charisma and comic timing. I was pleased that his spectacular voice didn’t go unutilised and was used to its full potential in a glorious Act 2 solo, ‘Driving Song’.
Given the cabaret nature of the performance it’s essential that the first few acts build up the energy of the crowd, blessedly Lucas Iopplo is more than up to the task with his infectious enthusiasm in ‘500 Miles’.
We were then treated to an adorable number from the youngest members of this vast ensemble. Arielle Szust, Jada Cheah, Joyce Vuong, Naomi Chan, Hannah Greenfield, Hannah Hickey and Zoe Nozacek warmed the hearts of the entire audience in several numbers but particularly in a very funny and well staged ‘Ants go Marching’.
Karthy Desmond lends skilled characterisation and lilting vocals to ‘Fine White Horse’ from The Secret Garden.
Amelia Rope, a statuesque diva brought the house down with her strong vocals and commanding stage presence in ‘Following the Sun’ and ‘Defying Gravity’.
Callum Gault bought unique and well-thought out characterisations with his every appearance but his smooth crooning of ‘Surry with a Fringe on Top’ was an understated highlight. Following in the theme of the carriage we’re treated to a little Calamity Jane interpreted by an earthy, down to earth Amy Thompson.
My theatre companion quipped to me that the female ensemble seemed to be made up of Disney princess contenders and it could not have been more apparent in Elise Kurvanick’s passionate and nuanced rendition of ‘The Call’.
This romanticism was matched by Dave Barclay’s exquisite, yearning performance of ‘(I’d rather be) Sailing with lovely support from Matthew Sheahan who lends his divine tenor to Act one finale ‘Sit down you’re rocking the boat’.
Act 2 is an embarrassment of ensemble riches. Theatre queen that I am, I can never resists a good tap number and the opening routine was an incredibly effective device introduction to railway transportation. It would be almost sacrilege not to include a number from Starlight express and it is commendably represented by delightful quartet; Kirsten Taafe, Mollie Brandjes, Taylor Rosen and Ellissa HasenKam. Act 2 also features an irresistible turn from Tim Barsby as ‘Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat’. Carla Romeo kills in a powerhouse ode to the motorcycle in ‘Cool Rider’ from the underrated Grease 2.
One thing I have noticed of late and is particularly seamless in this production that it’s barely noticeable is the integration of same sex pairs in the more romantic numbers. It’s simple but incredibly profound. Alex Karastoudis performs ‘Fly, Fly Away’ with heart rendering vulnerability to a female partner, made all the more powerful for it’s lack of a statement.
Given the linear nature of this review, now seems like the perfect opportunity to reflect on the song choices. For the most part, they’re an absolute delight, every travel pun you can think of has made it into the repertoire and they can easily be taken out of context. There is
However there was one egregious exception and I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t believe it does a profound disservice to the tone of the show. Act 2 ends with the Fall of Saigon, the song depicts American GI’s being evacuated from Saigon during the Vietnam War and dozens of Vietnamese citizens desperately trying to escape. The helicopter is the centrepiece of Miss Saigon so I can understand the urge to include it in a section about air travel. The cast, like everything else they do, perform the song with passion and fantastic vocals. Unlike the other numbers this song cannot be taken out of context. What we are left with is a cast of mostly Anglo-Saxon performers playing canonically Vietnamese characters including the actress who is singing the role of Kim. Given what we have seen before and after its inclusion not only feels tonally inconsistent but misrepresents and undermines the very real narrative that this song portrays. There are a multitude of songs that could have received the desired effect, in my opinion it is a misguided decision in an otherwise exceptional set list.
Act 3 is a delight. Many performers who provided invaluable backing vocals throughout the evening get the opportunity to strut their stuff as the leads. Taylor Rosen is coolness personified in a mash-up of ‘Final Countdown’ and ‘Space Oddity’. Sarah Charles is assuredly world weary in folk ballad ‘Buses and Trains’. Maria Roitman’s crystalline soprano is used to exquisite effect in ‘You’ll never walk alone’. Liam McWhinney and Cassidee Mordaunt share a mature and sweet chemistry in ‘A Whole New World’ that made me feel like I was experiencing the song for the very first time. Mia Fine brings great confidence and comic timing not to mention some impressive circus skills in Barnum’s ‘Join the circus’. Oliver Mordaunt leads a profoundly heart felt mash-up of ‘I believe I can fly’ with the children’s chorus delivering a sweet ‘You Can Fly’ from Peter Pan.
The evening was singularly joyful. It’s essential that we come together as a community to celebrate expression, inclusiveness and opportunity. Theatre is one of the last remaining places where we can do that. I think I speak for a majority of tonight’s audience when I say that I didn’t stop smiling for the entire evening. I left the theatre feeling elated and deeply proud that I was able to share this experience with both the performers and my fellow audience members. WAT understands and celebrates the need for theatre not just to entertain (it certainly did that) but to bring us together as a collective. If I took away anything from tonight’s journey through the means of travel is that as a society we can do nothing but progress. And that is a pretty inspiring thing to take away on a Thursday evening.