St Bernard’s College (Western Arts Theatre)
Until 30 September
On Thursday night I attended the opening night of Western Arts Theatre’s production of The Wedding Singer. When it comes to reviewing, nothing is more difficult than trying not to compare productions you’re watching to those you’ve been a part of previously and this time around was one of my most difficult review tasks to date for this reason because The Wedding Singer is a show I hold close to my heart as I got to play one of my all time dream roles in another production of it earlier this year with Lumina Theatre Company. Of course, we can’t expect every element of the show to be the same as the one we took part in so each adaptation has to have some sense of originality, whether it’s regarding production elements, character portrayals, etcetera and its safe to say that after witnessing Western Arts’ mind blowing display, the company succeeded with 80s ease for the ultimate night of nostalgia that will stay with you long after the final curtain falls.
Captaining the ship in the director’s chair was none other than Scott Bradley, a creative legend in the western amateur scene, who’s creative vision for this production had to be one of the freshest in recent memory for not only The Wedding Singer but all musicals around Melbourne’s amateur theatre circuit. After jumping straight from his previous directorial gig in Theatrical’s acclaimed production of American Idiot*, Bradley performed a full 180 by presenting the crowd with a light-hearted, feel good musical that was screaming colour in a format reminiscent of family sitcoms that we welcomed into our home during the 1980s to fit the spectacle’s setting with quirky characters and quotable catchphrases galore. Some of the background projections may have been a bit modern for 1985 but they were constant and consistent when setting the scene and with revolutionary and riveting directorial feats like these, the WAT produced spectacle’s applause sign was unnecessary as we the audience couldn’t help but clap and cheer after every number, in awe of the cheese, glamour and familial relationships and atmosphere that Bradley and assistant director Jesse Boyle allowed his cast to deliver to the theatrical masses. The job of musical director was split into two because we had one take the wheel in the instrumental department and one being the driving force in the vocal department, providing us with a magnificent and magnetic motor for the show behind the baton. First we had band director Patrick Edwards and his trusted band literally insert themselves into the narrative by appearing onstage with the performers instead of hiding in the pit and orchestrating a score that was the perfect balance of theatrical and contemporary stylings; both of which I truly believe was, well, instrumental in making the production connect with the crowd on a more up close and personal level and taking their rightful place among the vocalists as a key aspect in any stage musical. Meanwhile, vocal director Rachel Pinto allowed each cast member to find their inner rockstar by forming each voice no matter how experienced into starstruck vocal performances that honoured the recording stars of the era, breaking down the barrier between concert and show as each performer showcased strengths that some didn’t even realise they had before production began and awakened the spirits of those who came before them to deliver unforgettable prowess under Pinto’s spell. Where do I even start with the production’s prestigious and pioneering choreography? With their dancing shoes fitting flawlessly like Cinderella’s glass slippers, James Kaiser (in his choreographic debut) and Tess Hudson brought their A-game in order to create what is arguably the best choreography Western Arts has seen in its eight year history. Dance heavy numbers like It’s Your Wedding Day, Saturday Night In The City and All About The Green were almost at professional level but were just some of the highlights in Kaiser and Hudson’s dance display with elements of contemporary pop, rock, jazz, hip hop, callisthenics and on some occasions exotic dance stylings incorporated into each routine, resulting in the definitive dance masterclass that could raise all dancers, skilled or novice, up to the highest of heights and influence and inspire choreographers in our community for generations to come.
Every individual who formed the cast of Western Arts’ The Wedding Singer had the potential to be elevated to star status in the amateur theatre world with powerhouse performances like the ones they gave us with characteristics of 80s celebrities infused into their portrayals along with their own original and meticulous spin on their respective roles. As is custom now, I would first like to highlight the stellar work of the company ensemble and featured roles who were all essential in making the production a memorable one; whether they were playing wedding guests, brides and grooms, Angie Sullivan, celebrity impersonators, bartenders, bums, etcetera, all of them defined what it means to be motherf***ing fabulous by taking turns stepping into the giant spotlight to show the audience what they’re made of, often stealing the show and demanding attention in the best ways possible to give their various characters the personality they need to shine and to leave their mark on the beloved story, which is detrimental for any ensemble today and the show would not have been the same without their input. On to the leads, we begin with the stars of the show and, ah, the lovers, Robbie Hart and Julia Sullivan (not Guglia) themselves, who were brought to life by Trent Cliffe and Yasmin Hanane respectively. In just his second musical production in our circuit, Cliffe was determined to transform himself into the titular wedding singer in a fashion similar to the music and screen idols that teens used to flock around during the time period the show was set in and succeeded in getting the audience to fall in love with him just as much as Julia does, especially with his youthful charm, a glam rock vocal belt that could become his signature in our circuit and an overall vibrant and victorious portrayal. Vastly different to any role she’s played before, Hanane rose to the challenge when it came to performing one of her all time dream roles with an airy yet soulful vocal performance fit for pop radio à la Diana Ross and Roberta Flack that suited Julia’s character so well and an acting portrayal that highlighted Julia’s more secure side instead of her self-conscious side to take the role to a whole new level, impressing those in the stands with a performance that was overall loveable and liberating.
Next, we come to Luke Costabile and Brian Dixon and their portrayals of Robbie’s best friends and band mates George and Sammy who although are never considered The Wedding Singer’s leading man, often prove to be the two favourite roles in the production. Costabile only made their musical debut this year as Prince Herbert in Diamond Valley Singers’ Spamalot but they followed up their remarkable, flamboyant performance in that production with another in this show and with the snap of their fingers, took our circuit by storm. From one George to another, I believe that Costabile was born to play this role and instantly defined everything that the androgynous keyboard queen is supposed to be in a funny, fantastical, free-spirited and funky portrayal filled with frills and thrills that stole the hearts of theatre lovers everywhere. To inform his portrayal of Sammy, Dixon ditched a lot of the character’s goofiest aspects but continued to keep his rock and roll spirit alive with it all working in his favour to create an all new representation of what Sammy can be; this to me was a testament of Dixon’s talents and his creative and charismatic portrayal broke the mold, opened up doors to performers the world over and instilled the importance of originality when it comes to character work. Two of the presentation’s biggest standouts came in the form of the supporting female characters Linda and Rosie, who were respectively portrayed by Ellen O’Brien in her first production with Western Arts in four years and the First Lady and Queen of Western Arts herself, Meg Warren. In her seductive and stimulating take on the bride who jilts Robbie at the altar, O’Brien was without a doubt a rock goddess in her grand return to the stage ready to melt our faces with her flame and flare so convincingly, I thought I was watching the legendary Joan Jett live in the flesh and even though the audience may not have been rooting for Linda, she still blew our minds and cheers and wagging tongues for her sexy numbers A Note From Linda and Let Me Come Home were practically guaranteed. Meanwhile, in her hip, hilarious and hearty portrayal of Robbie’s grandmother who stays true to herself no matter what age, Warren brought the house down once again and wore her Western Arts crown with pride as she channelled classic sitcom leading ladies like Edith Bunker, Blanche Devereaux and Marion Cunningham and shook the crowd all night long with her evergreen poise, never failing to make us laugh with her excellent comic timing and rap filled shenanigans so she could entertain every kind of spectator in our community in her trademark way.
Finally, we come to those I consider to be the king and queen of the production, both of whom couldn’t be more different from each other character wise as they were on opposite ends of the protagonist and antagonist scale but we couldn’t help but be mind blown by what they each brought to their respective roles and the show as a whole and they were Wes Kingsford in the role of Glen Guglia and Laura Harris-Rilen in the role of Holly. Although Robbie is the character considered to be one of his all time dream roles, Kingsford had the audience in the palm of his hands as he made the role of Wall Street mogul Glen all his own by transforming into him faster than the speed of sound and despite Glen’s egotistic, money hungry, scumbag tendencies, we couldn’t help but swoon at his daring, dedicated, and devious portrayal. Kingsford was oozing with confidence as he demonstrated to the western amateur theatre audience what the Mornington Peninsula native was capable of in what some will consider to be a comeback performance after a few years performing closer to home and like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he reminded the entire community that he is here to stay and will always come back better than ever, especially with such a strong portrayal of a somewhat villain that raises the bar high, sets the standard and stands the test of time. For her quality and quintessential take on Holly, sass was Harris-Rilen’s middle name and every moment she appeared on the stage, she commanded our attention with the touch of her fingertips by setting fire to the stage and our souls in a way that pyromaniacs could only dream of; like the Donna Summer song says “looking for some hot stuff” and I think we found it. As far as her vocal and dance performance was concerned, Harris-Rilen was up there with Madonna, carrying the whole scene by herself at times like a pro from her pop rock pipes to her wet and wild dance moves and acting that embodied everything that Holly stood for, which defined what it means to be a triple threat in our industry. Any trace of her previous Western Arts open production outing as Audrey in Little Shop Of Horrors was completely erased to make room for this portrayal, giving Harris-Rilen the liberty to spread her wings and fly higher than she’s ever been before in a characterisation that could down in the company’s history books.
Western Arts Theatre’s adaptation of The Wedding Singer has propelled the company to brand new heights with their latest open production where everyone got to display their colourful banners and be stars in their own right no matter how big or small or role in making the show what it was. With throwback vibes that could take some back to their childhood, others to their heyday and those who weren’t even born yet to a wonderful period in 20th century history, there is something gorgeous for everyone to enjoy in this latest feat and with this being the company’s final production this year, I’m dying to know what the company will have to deliver to our community when they return in 2024. Special shoutout to Scott, Paul, James, Burnie and David for their work behind the scenes and to Trent, Yasmin, Luke, Laura, Ellen, Wes, Meg, Elise, Louisa, Max (I’ll never forget your Cyndi Lauper, I’m telling you), Michelle and Sherryn for your unforgettable performances in the show. If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, don’t be casualties of love, make sure you grab them while their right in front of your eyes, support the company and support local theatre. Congratulations to the entire company on a brilliant opening night, chookas for the rest of your season and remember, it’s never too late to move that thang.
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