Tag Archives: Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical @ Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts review

showstopper the improvised musical hong kong

If you like laughing and you like musicals (in which case, hey, we should be friends!), then you need to go see Showstopper! The Improvised Musical stat.

Much like a round of Catchphrase, it’s pretty much say what you see regarding the show’s premise – a whole new musical improvised every night based on suggestions from the audience, encompassing everything from the setting, title and plot to musical theatre genres and song styles. Think Whose Line Is It Anyway meets one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber reality TV competitions and you’re almost there… except even funnier.

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Tap Dogs @ Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts review

tap dogs hong kong

Call it a childhood spent watching far too many MGM musicals, but the sound of tap dancing does something strange to me inside. No, not that kind of strange (get your minds out the gutter, people!), but there’s just something somehow stirring about the pitter-patter of tap shoes that I just can’t get enough of.

Well, there are pitter-patters in abundance at Tap Dogs, the award-winning show by Australian choreographer Dein Perry, which has been going strong for 20 years and has now arrived at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. Except forget “pitter-patters” and think more “bloody massive stomps”, because this is tap dancing with the testosterone factor.

tap dogs hk

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Starlight Express @ Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts review

starlight express hong kong

Sick of pedestrian productions ruling the roost in Hong Kong? Well, how about a musical where the entire 30-strong cast spends the whole duration of the show on roller skates?

Yes, Starlight Express has sped its way into the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts – and if you’ve never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most innovative musical before, you’re in for one hell of a ride.

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Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap @ HKAPA review

It has been a long-time dream of mine to go see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, the longest running play in the world ever, in the West End. Given I have now upped sticks and moved to Hong Kong, this ambition was seeming ever more unlikely… but luckily for me, a production decided to come over here to the HKAPA instead!

I say ‘luckily’ but actually I’m now not too sure. This 60 Year Diamond Anniversary touring show by Lunchbox Productions (the chief stagers of global productions in Hong Kong, including Grease and Chicago) turned out to be rather average with precious little West End sparkle – and now I know ‘whodunit’, if I should ever make it back to the British original in St Martin’s Theatre, it just wouldn’t be quite the same as seeing it for the first time.

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Grease @ HKAPA review

Hong Kong might not be the most rock n’ roll of cities but that hasn’t stopped a good old-fashioned slice of the stuff – complete with liberal helpings of hip swivels, slick quiffs and guitar riffs – going down a storm at the Academy of Performing Arts. Yes, Grease (otherwise known as the best musical of all-time by ummm… me) is in town and has its meter firmly set to ‘party’. In other words, it’s a complete joy.

Admittedly, I am biased. I probably knew the entire script and lyrics of Grease before I’d learned proper sentences, nurtured a life-long crush on John Travolta before I realised that he didn’t actually look like Danny Zuko anymore and this marks the fourth time I’ve seen the stage show (which, fact fans, came before the film and debuted in the West End with some unknown actor called Richard Gere as the lead). Each time, the law of declining averages has reared its ugly head with less fresh casts, crews and a sense of ennui creeping in as the show wound its weary way round the country for the nth time. So it’s with delight that I can declare that Lunchbox Productions have reinvigorated Grease with boundless enthusiasm, buckets of energy and enough hair gel to keep the cosmetics market buoyant for a good few years.

Jonathan Roxmouth’s Travolta pastiche is all-out hilarious. Never mind half of Rydell High having the hots for him, he practically has the APA audience eating out of his hand at the first trademark Travolta chuckle. The stage lights up every time he’s on it. Over the years, I’ve seen various Sandys ply their trade but Bethany Dickson is the best yet. She has beautiful vocals, strong but vulnerable, and doesn’t go in for the Celine Dion showboating that has come to mar many versions of Hopelessly Devoted To You. What’s more, she more than holds her own against Roxmouth, an achievement in itself. She’s the sweet to Roxmouth’s swagger and they’re the perfect pairing, palpably the shining stars of the show.

With such strong central casting, the rest of the 20-strong South African ensemble barely get a look-in, other than providing sterling support throughout. I enjoyed Kirsten Murphy’s brassy Marty and David Schlachter’s blatant scene-stealing nerd Eugene, but felt Genna Galloway’s Rizzo was a little one-dimensional in her hardness, there was not enough physical differentiation between the T-Birds and the cast sometimes swiftly skimmed over the funniest lines. But these are minor quibbles in a musical that relishes and revels in being spectacular – whether that means a light-up guitar, a blinged-up car or immaculately-executed jaw-droppingly lengthy musical numbers.

Arlene Phillips’ routines (yes, her who got fired off Strictly) were and still are my absolute favourite thing about the show. I never fail to get goosebumps every time I hear those stirringly electrifying chords of Grease that open the show, together with her brilliantly intense choreography that allows each and every member of the cast to shine. The big set numbers – the leaping dizzying spins of the male ensemble in Greased Lightning, the goofy gratuitous nudity of Those Magic Changes and the snappy innovative hand-play of We Go Together – are as irresistible as ever.

However, one element I really disagreed with was the doubling-up of Thembeka Mnguni as Principal Ms Lynch and Teen Angel. The Busby Berkley parodying Beauty School Dropout is one of my standout numbers and usually performed with such high campery by an actor doubling as DJ Vince Fontaine that it acts as catnip to a rapturous audience, who only allow him to leave after about three encores. Although the set design and costumes here are as gloriously glitteringly flamboyant as ever, this production instead makes Teen Angel a hefty soul diva who descends into an ocean of arm-waggling and voice-warbling which renders most of the (very witty) lyrics incomprehensible. Mnguni is also instantly physically recognisable as the school’s principal, which just seems rather weird, and it’s an interpretation of the role that is out of time with the 50s setting. She did, however, still get the biggest cheers of the night, so what do I know.

Elsewhere, the sets are slick, the costumes colourful and the orchestra a riot. Decked out in pink shirts and quiffs visible even from the back row, they seem to be having almost as much fun as the audience! Perhaps a little too much fun as they occasionally veer towards too loud and fast (since when did drive-in torchsong Sandy become midtempo?!) but they make rocking out seem a joy rather a job.

By the time the exhilarating final Megamix has high-kicked its way onto stage, resistance is futile. When Danny Zucko actually starts speaking Cantonese and gets the whole audience on their feet, it’s obvious that this cast have such passion and joy for their profession that it can’t fail to be infectious. I was thrilled that the Hong Kong audience lapped it up with such obvious humour and enjoyment, which bodes well for future world-class musicals doing the rounds in our fair city.

It’s a rollicking ride of a show that you can’t help but be swept up – how many other musicals boast a light-up car to their name?! So come armed with your dancing shoes, get practising your hand jive and long may Grease continue to be the word.

Lunchbox Productions’ Grease runs at Hong Kong Academy of Performing Art’s Lyric Theatre, 7 October-7 November 2010. Tickets cost $350-$895, available from HK Ticketing, 3128 8288 or online. No shows on Monday, evening performances 8pm (Sunday 7pm), weekend matinees at 2pm.

Note: Some of the photos show how HKAPA has been decked out in Grease regalia. I love the effort that has gone into it, emblematic of the scale of the show itself.

High School Musical: Live On Stage @ HK APA review

Is there any point to High School Musical if there isn’t Zac Efron to drool over? With the arrival of High School Musical: Live On Stage to Hong Kong’s Academy of Performing Arts, it was my chance to find out!

Lack of Efron aside, I had also worried how the soundtrack, largely made up of rather slight pop songs, would translate to the more complex arrangements of musical theatre. Luckily, the majority have been substantially and successfully beefed-up – Start Of Something New is transformed from treacly to terrific, making for a rousing multi-layered opener, whilst When There Was Me And You morphs from weak Vanessa Hudgens solo to deluxe power-ballad duet.

However, the biggest problem lies in the script, which was hardly a masterpiece in its TV movie origins and hasn’t got much better with stage treatment. I doubt the writers unduly taxed themselves when they sat down to make the easiest buck of their life by adapting the film for theatre – some parts are lifted almost wholesale from the movie (including a cringeworthy section about wanting to be best friends at kindergarten), other parts heavily rely on Grease for “inspiration”, there are cultural references that would barely translate to Hicksville parts of America, let alone to an international audience and the actual dialogue itself is simple, workmanlike and generally not as funny as it could have been. Whilst this isn’t really a problem when you’re pitching yourself at an audience that already knows the plot, characters and songs inside-out (and I think you can guess at the complexity of these elements given the number of five year olds experts on HSM), it’s up to the cast to sell the production – and that they must definitely do.

This energetic, enthusiastic 30-strong ensemble makes the hyperactive kids on Supernanny look like slackers. All-singing, all-dancing, all-smiling – I could barely keep up with them and I was only watching! The dancing in particular is full-on throughout and always exciting given the sheer number of performers executing one slick move after another, whilst chucking some break-dancing into the mix was a nice touch.

hsm hk 5 troy gabriella

As for the main characters, Max Milner, as basketball-wielding dreamboat Troy Bolton, manages to out-Efron Efron and makes the part his own. He has a sweet acting-style, turning in a charismatic, naturalistic performance that makes him the kind of boy that all mothers would delight in their daughters bringing home. Brainiac Gabriella Montez was irritatingly drippy in the film – and not just because I’m jealous that Vanessa Hudgens gets to bang Efron in real life – but Talia Kodesh turns on the charm and has an endearing twinkle in her eye throughout. Their strong vocals carry the show (Where There Was Me And You is fantastic) and Milner especially has a gorgeous tone. Kyle Grant will probably need testosterone injections for the rest of his life to combat damage done by the tight pink shorts he dons as Ryan and I was impressed with Tsephi Mash as Taylor McKissie, the weakest link in the movie since the actress who played her (Monique Coleman) could neither sing, dance nor act particularly well. Despite this underdeveloped role, Mash is a bubbly vibrant presence on-stage and turns almost all her lines into winners.

I wish I could say the same for Sharpay. Ashley Tisdale’s scene-stealing diva turn in the film was the knowing wink at the heart of the franchise, stopping it from becoming a molten crème brulee of saccharine tweendom, and should be a gift of a part. However, Raquel Munn seems to have taken her performance cues from a line about her character being named after a dog and raised her pitch to being audible to canines alone. She’s nasal, screechy and annoying – which is certainly one way to play Sharpay (but I would say, not the best one) – with zero warmth, a total lack of funny lines (the script’s fault) and makes her songs a pain to sit through.

Moreover, there is only room for one ham in this show and Robyn Sara Scott as histrionic drama teacher Miss Darbus has it covered. Once this production rolls into China, it won’t just be the Great Wall you can see from space – Scott’s performance will be right up there too. This is an acting style that makes Brian Blessed look restrained. Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it and I doubt Hong Kong has – or ever will again! Entertaining and terrifying in equal measure, I can only hope this was the performance of Scott’s life as the possibility that anyone doesn’t have to act their socks, shoes and blisters off to produce such an unhinged creature is too horrifying to comprehend.

It’s perhaps fitting that High School Musical: Live On Stage truly takes off at the ‘soaring flying’ show climax of Breaking Free. Finally, the writers get their heads in the game, sending the cast swarming into the audience to cheer us into submission, creating a truly immersive invigorating experience. The action is meant to be taking place in a theatre and suddenly, we’re a part of it and it becomes the pure joyous stuff that live musical theatre thrives on. The party atmosphere really kicks in with the high-octane ten-minute closing Megamix, which almost has as much oomph as the rest of the show put together. To resist is impossible, so don’t even try to deny it.

Whilst I’m not sure if High School Musical: Live On Stage has the ingredients to become a classic still doing the rounds decades from now, what is certain is that however long it lasts, it will have a hell of a lot of fun along the way. Go Wildcats!

(And yes, it just about works without Zac Efron.)

GWB Entertainment’s production of High School Musical: Live On Stage, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, 13-19 September 2010.

The Asian tour will stop off at Beijing, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Guangzhou and Chongqing in China and later, Taiwan.

All photos from HSM: Live on Stage in Hong Kong’s Facebook

Chicago: The Musical @ HKAPA review

Usually, touring productions are to their West End equivalent what Joey was to Friends, The New Class to Saved By The Bell, Joanie Loves Chaaci to Happy Days – diluted, cheaper, less-good versions of the original. So it’s with relief and joy that I can declare that Lunchbox Productions’ Chicago, playing at the HKAPA’s Lyric Theatre until June 20, is defiantly not a case of the above. This version of Chicago would more than happily stand on its own fishnet-clad legs on a London stage. With added jazz hands, of course.

As always with anything Bob Fosse touched, it’s the choreography that’s the star. The ensemble here are fabulous – sexy, sinuous, slinky and with the perfect Fosse hands. I’ve seen the All That Jazz routine countless times but this may just have been the best yet and they are darkly mesmerising throughout, occasionally to the detriment of the main characters and especially brilliant in the courtroom scenes and the eye-popping acrobatics of Razzle Dazzle. It’s a show in which the ensemble are more than just a chorus line; getting involved in the action with a multitude of bit-parts, they deliver practically as many laughs as the main characters.

In fact, my only criticism – and I really am nit-picking as a seasoned musical-goer – is that there were possibly a few too many laughs (even if poor comic timing means that the cast don’t milk nearly enough from usual standout number, Cell Block Tango). As a show about the cult of celebrity, notoriety and ambition, Kander & Ebb’s writing has much to offer a modern audience yet I felt that this production sometimes took the easy route towards the funny bone. Sharon Millerchip’s Roxie Hart has all the ingredients to be the star of the show – a natural wide-eyed charm, bright vocals and the ability to light up the stage whilst hoofing with the best of them (I particularly enjoyed her rendition of Me And My Baby whilst the ventriloquist’s dummy act in We Both Reached For The Gun never fails to delight) – but I’d have liked to see her rely less on her obvious gift for physical comedy in some of her solos.

Deone Zanotto’s Velma Kelly has a wonderfully brassy voice and brings a suitably brassy edge to her performance but I felt she had more to give on two renowned Fosse workouts, I Can’t Do It Alone and When Velma Takes The Stand. Meanwhile, Craig McLachlan’s (Henry Ramsay of the bad 80s perm on Neighbours) silver-tongued lawyer, Billy Flynn, gets lost to the brilliance of the dancers – a few more charisma classes required – and I didn’t feel all that safe with his vocals, either.

The live orchestra is on-stage throughout and cleverly worked into proceedings (conductor Ben Van Tieden is particularly good value for money) and they bring a real energy to proceedings, garnering some of the biggest cheers of the night – as do D C Harlock’s Mary Sunshine and the empathetically dopey Damien Birmingham, as Roxie’s husband Amos (hopefully not just because he was singing ‘that song off Glee’, Mr Cellophane).

Overall, it’s a tremendous night’s entertainment that barely puts a foot (or note) wrong. Chicago may lack the warmth of other big-event musicals, yet more than makes up for it with a grown-up cold-blooded wit and sense of its own theatricality that makes it unique. As one of the few big international productions to grace HK’s shores, I can think of no better cast to have introduced the pleasures of Fosse to our audience. It delivers that trademark razzle-dazzle in spades. With added jazz hands, of course.

8/10

Lunchbox Productions’ Chicago: The Musical is at the Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts until June 20. Tickets, priced $350-895, available from HK Ticketing, 3128 8288 or online.