Kicking off their 2018 season with a blast of 80’s nostalgia, Phoenix Ensemble brings their production of Xanadu screaming full tilt into the Tin Shed. It is ablaze with glitter, eyeshadow, technicolor, and roller skates and in so many ways eclipses the Olivia Newton John movie that inspired it.
Heading up the creative team, first time director Justin Tubb-Hearne brings a keen creative oversight to the production. This shows in how cohesive the production elements are, as Tubb-Hearne embraces the small shed, and uses every inch of the space with the same artistic brushstroke. From the gorgeous, and fun filled set design (a delightful balance balance of urban 80’s Los Angeles, and the Grecian pantheon), the costuming and make up designs by Kirsten McLean, even down to the opening night cocktail, and the programme design by Benjamin Tubb-Hearne, this show felt like it had a single vision driving it.
As director, Tubb-Hearne made some very clever choices throughout this production, including adding a Greek Chorus (Robyn Holland, Serena Mak, Tammy Richards, and Georgia Waters) to aid with singing, dancing, and onstage set management. This kept the show moving at a clip, and at a very tight 100 minutes, Xanadu felt as though it never stopped punching. This is the kind of theatre that the crew at Phoenix Ensemble do so very well. It is flashy, it is funny, it constantly winks at the audience that it knows we’re all watching a musical, and they always get the cast that can marry the glib with the pathos easily. Transforming cheap pantomime into a rich theatrical experience is no easy feat, but Tubb-Hearne managed it with style, grace, and clear enjoyment.
The choreography by Amy-Rose Swindells, and the Musical Direction by Trenton Dunstan matched up with this vision beautifully, offering a fun and upbeat interpretation of the hit score. Swindells’ choreography was well thought out, full of punchy energy, and matched to fit restrictions of the space. It was obviously well drilled, and despite some opening night nerves, the cast attacked it wonderfully. Similarly, Dunstan led the small band, and the ensemble through the score, eliciting some beautiful harmony work, especially during ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’.
Bonnie Fawcett gives a powerhouse performance as Kira/Clio/Kitty. Spinning through characters, accents, and costume changes at a clip. Fawcett gives a lovely honest portrayal of the character with enough nods to the Olivia Newton John portrayal to give the audience what they’re expecting, but leaves no doubt that the role is hers and hers alone. With a gorgeous vocal tone, and a bright, easy presence on stage, Fawcett owns the show from start to finish and is definitely one to watch in the future.
As frustrated artist Sonny Malone, Anthony Jacobsen gave a wonderful turn. Jacobsen has a sharp comedic timing and laconic delivery that rarely sees a joke not land. He skates easily, and has perhaps the most magical moment of the entire show (I won’t spoil it, go see it, it blew my mind). With his puppy dog sweetness playing off of Fawcett’s charming performance, they make for a very sweet couple. Jacobsen’s vocal work is a touch hit and miss, having some pitch and strength problems in his upper register, but this could just have been opening night nerves, and overall he matched quite well with the rest of the ensemble. In particular his duet work ‘Suddenly’ was quite lovely.
Ian Moore as Danny Maguire brought a wonderfully commanding energy to the stage as Danny Maguire, and was even more commanding in his uncredited second role later in the show (he was impressively oiled up). His powerful baritone brought some much needed depth to the group vocals and Moore clearly enjoyed hamming up the role as the show progressed and Danny transitions from ruthless businessman to a softer, slightly less cutthroat, businessman.
Much of the shows comedy is brought to us by the dynamic evil duo of Shelley Scott as Melpomene and Laura Baker as Calliope. They are everything you could want from, essentially, pantomime villains. They are camp, over the top, and wonderfully, cacklingly, crass. They are a delight when they haunt the backgrounds of scenes, watching on in a delightfully malevolent way. ‘Evil Woman’ is an Act 1 favourite, and their “audience manipulation” was wonderful to watch.
Ably filling out the cast, playing the rest of the muses as well as many other characters Molly Campbell, Bethany Warnes-Jones, Beau Wharton, and Michael McNish clearly have as much fun as you are allowed to have onstage, offering a very up close and personal look into the lives of the Olympians. Of special note is McNish’s glitter beard, which deserves its own programme credit.
Xanadu is the type of fun, tongue in cheek theatre that the crew at Phoenix do so very well. It is a hyper coloured, laugh out loud funny, all singing, all dancing, in your face treat. Xanadu plays until the 24th of February. Get out to Beenleigh to check it out! You won’t be disappointed.