Australia’s Leading Ladies Take Centre Stage

It’s been a long time between major New York style Musical Theatre events in Melbourne. To sustain the drive of the �Broadway� musical there are frequent occasions available for New York audiences to hear the musical theatre stars of Broadway sing shows tunes live. In Melbourne and the other capital cities of Australia this is too rare an event.

The opening event of the 2004 Brisbane Festival was such an event. Tony Gould (outgoing artistic director for 2004) brought together some of Australia’s top female musical theatre performers to create a show entitled �AUSTRALIA’S LEADING LADIES�.

The show has transferred to Her Majesty’s Theatre – Melbourne for an all too brief visit of 4 performances from February 11 – 13,2005. Getting seven of Australia’s top theatrical performers together at the same time is a scheduling nightmare, but Mark Collier-Vickers has managed to achieve the impossible, transferring the show virtually intact. The cast is a who’s who of female Australian musical theatre talent: Rhonda Burchmore (Sugar Babies, Hot Shoe Shuffle, Mamma Mia!) , Judi Connelli (Chicago, Sweeney Todd, Cabaret) , Sharon Millerchip (The Phantom of the Opera, Chicago), Marina Prior (The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, The Pirates of Penzance) , Geraldine Turner (Anything Goes, The Witches of Eastwick, Sweeney Todd), Anne Wood (Crazy For You, The Sound of Music, Mamma Mia!) . The only change in the line-up is Nancy Hayes doing double duty as compere in addition to directing and the absence of Rachael Beck (Beauty and the Beast, Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret) who was not available. The 35 piece Australian Musicals Orchestra was conducted by Julia de Plater.

Australian musical theatre performers are �up there� in the talent stakes, with their cinematic colleagues. The only difference is that unless they appear on the international stage (Broadway, London, Las Vegas, Los Angeles), their talent remains relatively unknown outside of Australia. Truth-be-told, their reputations remain relatively unknown within Australia as well!   Unfortunately this seems to be the case for most stars of the theatre today around the world. Where once every major stage performer became a matinee idol and household name, that role has passed on to television, movie and rock stars. I remember Jerry Orbach for his performances in The Threepenny Opera, The Fantasticks, Carnival, Promises, Promises, Chicago and 42 nd Street not television’s Law and Order . If it weren’t for all the films that Hugh Jackman made prior to taking Broadway by storm the world would have missed his dynamic Broadway debut as The Boy From Oz and host of the nationally televised �Tony � Awards�. Hugh starred in the Australian productions of Beauty and the Beast and Sunset Boulevard prior to taking Hollywood and Broadway by storm.

But back to our AUSTRALIAN LEADING LADIES . Highlights of the evening were Rhonda Burchmore tapping away (in shoes given to her by Ann Miller) while singing �Shakin’ the Blues Away� form Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 , a knock-out performance by Judi Connelli of �Some People� from Gypsy , Connelli and Geraldine Turner recreating their roles in the 1981 Australian production of Chicago singing �Class�, Sharon Millerchip’s perky Sweet Charity with �If My Friend’s Could See Me Now�, Marina Prior’s revisit to Phantom of the Opera with �The Music of The Night�, Anne Wood’s �The Winner Takes It All� from Mamma Mia and Nancye Hayes singing �Nowadays� from Chicago (accidentally credited in the printed program to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart).

The entire evening was a delight. For this particular program I would have preferred minor changes in the sequence of songs to make the pace and continuity of the show tighter. The black backdrop, a predominance of black dresses and dark lighting gave the second half of the program a heavier feeling then I would have liked for such an exciting event.

For the next one, and there certainly should be a follow-up to this show, I would like to hear a mix of the old with so much of the new that never gets heard on the legit stage in Melbourne. Songs from Ragtime Dreamgirls , Judi Connelli’s stunning rendition of �Surabaya Santa� from Songs For A New World , songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa, Jason Robert Brown, Maltby and Shire, William Finn and Maury Yeston are just some suggestions.

Australia’s Leading Ladies: February 11 – 13, 2005, Her Majesty’s Theatre – Melbourne

Produced by Mark Collier-Vickers; director and compere, Nancye Hayes; conductor, Julia de Plater.

WITH: Rhonda Burchmore, Judi Connelli, Sharon Millerchip, Marina Prior, Geraldine Turner, Anne Wood

Henry Sachwald 2005

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