I have just had one of the most enjoyable nights at the theatre in years. A wonderful glittering night of big Broadway block-buster musical numbers performed by a large, talented cast and fabulous live orchestra. What sets this production apart is that as well as wonderful dancing and singing, there’s also calisthenics!
When some people think of calisthenics, they think of sit ups, burpees and push-ups. But here in Australia, we have a unique form of calisthenics. Australian Calisthenics is different to any other form in the world. Here it has been turned into a highly competitive art form. Since the 1950s, this entirely Australian creation has recruited countless girls and young women to its cause. That cause is to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement. It is different to other traditional forms of calisthenics with its focus on competition and choreographed theatrical performance instead of simple synchronised exercise.
Director/producer Karen Jemison has taken the cream of our calisthenics talent, many national, state and Royal South Street title-holders and put them together with some top Australian music theatre performers. The result is unique and truly wonderful entertainment. Jemison has taken out the competition element and dialled up the theatricality. With its New York 1930s theme, it looks fantastic and works seamlessly. The costumes, designed by Ms Jemison, evoke the era perfectly. Costuming dancers is an art on its own, allowing the performer’s body to move freely. But designing for someone who is walking on their hands and performing contortions is something else. Many of the forty performers have,dance and calisthenics backgrounds, most starting by at least three years of age. Others are purely song and dance performers and some are primarily singers.
The cast is lead by Nigel Huckle, a handsome tenor with a glorious voice and commanding stage presence. A member of the famous Ten Tenors, his rendition of “Autumn Leaves” with a ballet of dancers draped in autumn toned chiffon gowns was pure old style Broadway. The chief performers really worked hard as the scenes opened and closed one after another. A new set takes the place of the previous, another chorus line of beautiful young women floats on in even more fabulous costumes. There are outstanding vocal performances by Emily Langridge, Thomas McGuane, Alexis Van Maanen and Stephanie Wall. There were also exciting song and dance performances from Beau Woodbridge, Rachel Bronca and Robbie Breugelmans. It was wonderful to see so much talent on one stage.
In fact there are 20 full scale numbers staged in this show, and they’re all good. Jemison has cherry-picked the best numbers from the Broadway stage, past and present. Hits from the classics like “Sweet Charity”, “West Side Story”, “Hello, Dolly!”, “Carousel”, “The Pyjama Game” and “Gypsy”.
These were mixed with newer pieces from “The Waitress”, “Bombshell”, “Anastasia” and “Something Rotten”. The latter piece called “A Musical” closed the first half in thrilling style.
This show started rehearsals back in April 2019, and all that preparation and dedication shows. It took three choreographers to create the amazing precision for the massive show-stopping numbers, as well as the lower key, more balletic numbers. I found that the gymnastic elements such as club twirling really added to the 1930s theme, evoking a Busby Berkeley atmosphere. There is so much to like in this production and now I wish I’d seen them premiere their original show “Amazing Grace” in 2018. Apparently, it was the world’s first calisthenics show. The lighting, designed by Jason Bovaird, was really first rate and the sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco was just about the best stage sound in a musical I’ve ever heard. Manilla Street has put their budget where it counts. It shows in the brilliant onstage orchestra lead by musical director Jack Earle. It shows in the costumes, sound, lighting and orchestrations.
The only downside to this production is that there were only three performances. Of course longer seasons of these large cast shows aren’t practical, but it was great to see such a quality production and see how well different art forms can blend so effectively.
Jon Jackson attended opening night of Amazing Grace’s “New York, New York” on Saturday, February 1, 2020, at the National Theatre in St. Kilda. Production photo supplied.