29 June to 8 July
Went out to Caroline Springs after work on Thursday to attend the opening night of Western Arts Theatre’s annual youth production and this year, it was an adaptation of Rock Of Ages: Teen Edition. When one is familiar with every aspect of any open production, we tend to roll the dice on what lines of dialogue have been altered, what scenes and songs have been shortened or even cut entirely to be more appealing and appropriate to the younger demographic of theatre performers and audiences everywhere. Many musicals prove to be very popular in the juniour or youth circuit with some adaptations being just as good as the open versions. Personally, I don’t believe that Rock Of Ages is one of the shows that translates to a youth cast edition that effectively due to its revolutionarily raw and risqué subject material, but in the hands of the right company, the Teen or High School edition of it can be just as thrilling in its own right when they can continue to make magic happen with the sources they’re given. I believe Western Arts is one of those companies, especially after delivering a wild and warriorlike take on one of my favourite jukebox musicals like no other, even with many alterations.
The magic of Rock Of Ages wouldn’t have come to fruition in the teen edition without an incredible creative crew and the company began this show’s journey hitting the ground running with a talented all female production team that had what it took to make it happen. In the director’s chair for the first time was a young woman who got her start on stage in the amateur theatre circuit with Western Arts, recently finished a successful run as Veronica in Out Of The Wings’ Heathers a few months back and is soon completing her university studies at the VCA, the one and only Samira Reason. Diving head first into the role of director, Reason utilised all the lessons she learned from day one in our community along with her natural born performing talents to inform her formidable and foolproof work behind the scenes and ensure that all of her performers had nothing but a good time while working hard to bring the 1980s setting of the world famous Sunset Strip to life. With assistance from co-director Imogen Rawlings (who also held the title of assistant choreographer), no performer’s characterisations fell flat at any time thanks to Reason’s dedication to her beloved cast and her craft as a whole and she was able to bring out the best in each performer in order for them to find who their role was and discover some talents that were buried deep in the core of their soul. Another first timer in the production team was Madi Peake, who held one half of the baton as musical director with a regular musical director for the company, the legendarily lovely Minna Ikonen holding the other half. Together, both Peake and Ikonen molded the cast’s vocals comfortably and conveniently to suit the range of each specific performer no matter how skilled of a singer they were and for those who were beginners in the vocal field, the pair were literally instrumental in coming up with key techniques for them to shape it with stellar character traits like twang and edge. Returning to the Bourbon Room after previously performing in SLAMS’ open production of Rock Of Ages last year, Jennifer Roussos felt right at home as she showcased her phenomenal dance skills this time as choreographer and helped introduce the Tony nominated spectacle to a younger generation in a more age appropriate manner. Taking some inspiration from routines learned previously, Roussos’ mature and mesmerising choreography found the perfect middleground that bridged the gap between junior and adult dance displays with a side of sass while keeping it true to the form of the original and true to herself and her own unique choreographical style in such a realistic yet robust fashion.
Outside of the creative team, every teen edition of Rock Of Ages needs a strong cast to hold it together throughout the show’s run time and we found that with every one present on the stage. Being a youth production, I like to make sure that no cast member is left out so I’ll try my best to highlight as many people as possible so first, my hat goes off to the featured roles and ensemble like Ja’Keith Gill, Joey Primo, the Mayor, Arsenal, Constance Stack, the Waitresses and the Venus dancers who are usually tasked with figuratively carrying the musical on their shoulders through their vocal harmonies and dance routines. All of whom added extra Hollywood flare to each number and certain scenes on occasion, rising to the challenge so effortlessly and effervescently, it’s as if they were seasoned professionals who have been in the game for years. Now we come to the leads and heading them all was Angus Fitzpatrick with his portrayal of the evening’s host Lonny Barnett, who achieved his character’s prime goal in revving up the crowd with his rock and roll demeanour while inserting himself into the narrative in a performance that was dutiful and delectable. Alexander Pennuto’s take on the star of the story Drew Boley may have been incredibly different to his previous work but it was constant and conscientious and it allowed the crowd to go wild for him even more, especially during solo numbers like Oh Sherrie and duets like High Enough and The Search Is Over. Maddi Hastings’ portrayal of Sherrie Christian managed to capture the borderline innocent nature of the average 80s young adult who comes to Hollywood with a dream in a way that was polished and poetic as she discovered the harsh world Sherrie walked through on her journey and found herself a stronger dream of true love in the process.
Even though he may be relatively new to our circuit outside of school, Alexander Falieros’ portrayal of the Bourbon Room’s owner, Dennis Dupree was filled with the wisdom required for the role in a knowledgeable and knee-deep performance that was made ever more powerful with his impressive lower register. One of the biggest standouts of the night was Maggie Lynch in the role of Anita Bath (the artist formerly known as Regina Kuntz), as the strength and stamina she brought to her character proved to be an extremely stimulating simulation of a woman willing to fight for her cause and her people in a take that empowers women everywhere. Andrea Polines may have stood up to the plate as Justice Charlier, the owner of the Venus-A-Go-Go, later on in the rehearsal period but her light yet lifting vocals reminiscent of artists like Diana Ross and Stacie Orrico was a lavish and luscious addition to Justice’s overall character that was heightened by her inspirational backstory and her nurturing personality. Coming from a person who’s previously portrayed Franz Klinemann in an open production, young Nathaniel Calleja made the role of the reluctant development partner and candy enthusiast his very own with talents way beyond his years in an adorable and admirable portrayal that was an unquestionable highlight for the overall production in one of his biggest and most tailor made roles to date.
Perhaps some of the greatest performance achievements of the night came from the king and queen of the production and they were Dean Di Fazio in the role of Stacee Jaxx and Emma Burns in the role of Hilda Klinemann, who were both on opposite ends of the characterisation scale but still showcased their commitment to the craft in a villainous virtuoso format. Di Fazio’s portrayal of the scumbag rockstar recently gone solo was elevated to new heights with pipes that featured stylings similar to legendary rock frontmen like Jon Bon Jovi and Bret Michaels as he embodied his role body and soul in a performance that was so anti-heroic yet human, it was emotionally impossible to hate the star despite his many flaws. As for Burns, her portrayal of the domineering mother and developer who threatens to destroy the rock and roll culture in Los Angeles took centre stage in all of her scenes with powerhouse vocal chops that blew the house down like the big bad wolf and acting skills that avoided a lot of the German generalisations associated with the role in favour of constructing Hilda as her very own in a commanding, commendable and later on, compassionate performance that could stand the test of time and influence all the Hildas and even Hertzs to come.
In conclusion, Western Arts Theatre have demonstrated once again that their youth productions can raise up all the performers in our circuit under the age of 21 that instructs them to reach for the stars in the amateur theatre community. As previously mentioned, any youth production of Rock Of Ages is not an easy task to convincingly portray but for the entire company, whether they were cast, crew, prod team, producers, mentors, stage managers, etcetera, they all had what it took to make it happen and it drew the audience in relatively quickly and won us all over. With the possibilities showcased in this spectacle, we can only eagerly wait for what feats are to come from this beloved company out west. Special shoutout to Alex Falieros, Nathaniel Calleja, Eden Comito, Aiden Saracino, Cedar Breen-Sciulli and Button Rooney for their performances in the production, to Samira Reason, Madi Peake, Minna Ikonen, Jennifer Roussos, Imogen Rawlings, Meg Warren, Sarah Daly and Issy Comegna for their work behind the scenes and the entire company as a whole for a rocking opening night. If you haven’t gotten your tickets to see the show yet, make sure you do while they’re still up for grabs, support the company, support the young performers of tomorrow and support local theatre. Congratulations Western Arts on kick-starting a fantastic season, keep hitting them with your best shot, keep feeling the noise and don’t stop believing.
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