By Nick Pilgrim
Christie Whelan-Browne is one of Australia’s leading musical theatre and live comedy icons. Making light of her reputation for playing comic blonde foils, a long and impressive list of scene-stealing credits includes:
- A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (as Philia);
- Anything Goes (as Erma);
- Born Yesterday (as Billie Dawn);
- Muriel’s Wedding (as Tania Degano);
- Nice Work If You Can Get It (as Eileen Evergreen);
- Singing In The Rain (as Lina Lamont);
- Sugar (as Sugar Kane);
- The Drowsy Chaperone (as Janet Van De Graaff);
- The Producers (as Ulla); and,
- Xanadu (as Kira).
Whelan-Browne has also featured on national television and the big screen. Regular guest spots on the ABC TV series, Shaun Micallef’s ‘Mad as Hell’, also highlight her innate knack for character roleplay.
Tapping into this extraordinary gift, Whelan-Browne has headlined a series of turns created especially for her.
A collaboration with Dean Bryant (writer/director) and Matthew Frank (musical director), ‘Brittney Spears – Live In Cabaret’ (2009) led to ‘Pure Blonde’ five years later. (It should be noted that a special encore performance of ‘Brittney Spears’ will be staged at Chapel off Chapel on Friday June 17 as well.)
Their latest offering together, ‘Show People’, may possibly be a career-defining moment and her best role yet. Between them Whelan-Browne, Bryant and Frank have crafted a highly personal journey which is delightful and fearless in equal measure. Designed for people who enjoy musical theatre as viewers, and in tribute to those on the inside track, this experience takes you everywhere. ‘Show People’ captures the heady highs, heart-breaking lows, and the professional day-to-day life in between.
With a running time of seventy-five minutes, the actress brings everything (and more) to a loving yet cautionary tale of what it means to be a musical theatre star. Playing a succession of male and female characters with knowing aplomb, these are the folk you’ll meet on Exhibition Street. Told through a series of conversational monologues, ‘Show People’ explores a solid handful of industry folk. Getting to the heart of what makes each individual tick, they include:
- The New Graduate;
- The Understudy;
- The Hot Chorus Boy;
- The Actor & The Agent;
- The Leading Man;
- The Fading Diva; and,
- The Retiring Legend.
That Whelan-Browne can alter her voice and body language to individualise and differentiate each portrayal using the bare minimum of props, is quite something to behold in person. Such is her ability to gain our attention and hold court.
Pushing the strict parameters of cabaret to its very limits, ‘Show People’ feels more like a chamber musical. At times I was reminded of local legends such as Caroline O’Connor in ‘Bombshells’, Bernadette Robinson in ‘Songs For Nobodies’, Sigrid Thornton in ‘Her Big Chance’, along with international stars like Carol Burnett, Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, and Tracy Ullman.
Composite characters (that may or may not be based on actual personalities), pepper Chapel off Chapel’s raised podium stage. Of this production’s many highlights, there are several absolute standouts.
As fangirl grad, Jessica, Whelan-Browne kicks off the evening with a musical mash-up which alone, is worthy of the admission price. Manic and hilarious, this sequence acts as wry tribute to her own musical theatre resume.
However, the most fascinating episode sits squarely in the middle of the show. (You would need to have been living under rock, not to know the psychological roller coaster Whelan-Browne has ridden over the past few years.)
Playing a rambunctious leading man who sees his value bigger than the theatre marquee advertising him, Whelan-Browne doesn’t hold back. Pushing the ‘he said/she said’ scenario to the limit, the sharp kernels of truth in this section are both shocking and confronting. How some personalities perceive themselves, and view others around them as mere props, makes ‘Show People’ extraordinary food for thought.
As I had anticipated, Whelan-Browne received a rapturous standing ovation from Wednesday’s opening night audience. This recognition was not only for her empowered return to the stage, but for the tremendous gift she, Bryant and Frank have given Australian audiences.
An equally brilliant and pertinent time capsule for the ages, ‘Show People’ is not to be missed.