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This wrap of shows around Melbourne includes The Chicks at Rod Laver Arena, Punjabi star Diljit Dosanjh also at Rod Laver Arena, saxophonist Troy Roberts illuminating the Jazzlab, Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s poignant and timely Eumeralla: A War Requiem For Peace at Hamer Hall, the world premiere of Elvis: A Musical Revolution, and the return of Mamma Mia! The Musical.
The Chicks ★★★★
Rod Laver Arena, October 16
Sometimes country music is, yes, all about beer and trucks (no complaints). But in some of its finest moments it is three supremely talented women with no trucks left to give.
The Chicks at Rod Laver Arena: songs that bite your heart.Credit: Rick Clifford
The Chicks opened their show at Rod Laver Arena on Monday with Gaslighter – the title track from their 2020 album that draws from singer Natalie Maines’ divorce.
A burst of a cappella blend, it jumpstarted the first set with the kind of number they excel at: three-part harmonies so sweet they belie the song underneath that’s biting your heart, or pricking your conscience.
The bluegrass chops of founding Chicks, Emily Strayer on banjo and her sister Martie Maguire on fiddle showed next in their 1999 hit Sin Wagon. This is how the night went, a back and forth between The Chicks’ roots, contemporary country and their newer sound shaped in part by producer Jack Antonoff (think Taylor Swift, Lorde).
Back-catalogue hits and singalongs they delivered in spades, Travelin’ Soldier lit up the crowd. Newer tracks from Gaslighter added depth.
Lead singer Natalie Maines: back-catalogue hits and singalongs.Credit: Rick Clifford
Their cover of Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton’s Rainbowland, banned in Wisconsin in March, made sense as a statement. But as a song it’s not as strong as their own catalogue; as a cover, it’s no Landslide; and with a cartoon unicorn bouncing across the lyrics on screen, it felt more naff than defiant.
The last time the Chicks were here, in 2017, they still had the Dixie – and its slavery connotations – in their name. After the death of George Floyd in 2020 they removed it.
The backlash they faced in 2003 for criticising the United States’ invasion of Iraq inspired Not Ready to Make Nice which remains one of their absolute best and they brought all their raw power to it.
Giant screens were at times a distraction (for example, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin riding across an ocean during the splendid country break-up song Tights on My Boat). But were powerful during protest anthem March March.
The Chicks had nothing to prove, but that didn’t stop them proving it.Credit: Rick Clifford
The Chicks didn’t relent, moving into For Her before pivoting back to satire, fiddle and banjo picking in a rousing version of White Trash Wedding. They ended the night with the murderous banger Goodbye Earl. Too edgy for some stations in 2000, but there was no doubt from the Melbourne audience: Earl had to die.
This show didn’t offer their best version of their softer songs, the sound never dipped far enough. A set change brought the band to a circle with the audience where Maines introduced her adult son, Slade, on guitar. As a touring kid, however, he’d been usurped by the support act: Lucky, aged two, the son of Elle King. King belted out her blend of alternative country and retro-blues around Lucky’s requests to play the drums. She’s well worth checking out.
The Chicks had nothing to prove, but that didn’t stop them proving it. They are music royalty and their fearlessness is as necessary as ever. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
Reviewed by Kate Lahey
Diljit Dosanjh ★★★★★
Rod Laver Arena, October 13
Diljit Dosanjh emerges from beneath a smoke-filled stage to a packed-to-the-brim stadium of South Asian diaspora at fever pitch. Multi-generational fans couldn’t contain their excitement as they stood and danced on their seats and spilled into the aisles to witness the Punjabi superstar.
Diljit Dosanjh at Rod Laver Arena: the singer and actor has had an incredible year.Credit: Rick Clifford
Hailing from the Jalandhar district in Punjab, India, Dosanjh’s profile has increased significantly since his debut album, Ishq Da Uda Ada, was released in 2004. The singer and actor has had an incredible year: performing at Coachella and now being the first Indian artist to sell out Rod Laver Arena.
Alongside Australia, the sensation has garnered a large international following across the United States, UK and Canada. It’s his first trip back in 10 years, with his management revealing that local demand played a big part in his return to the region.
Dosanjh performed for about two hours with an intermission, a customary format for most Indian shows. The singer started almost 45 minutes late because of delays from crowds milling around in the foyer, which is to be expected from a community-driven event such as this.
Diljit Dosanjh is the first Indian artist to sell out Rod Laver Arena.Credit: Rick Clifford
Dressed in a white kurta and tehmat with Nike sneakers, the performer opened with an explosive rendition of the title track from his 11th studio album, G.O.A.T., as smoke and flames shot up from the stage. He opted for edgier, all-black street-style fashion for the second half, performing rap hits including Peaches.
No expense was spared on the production. The audio-visual, lighting and pyrotechnic effects, along with sporadic bursts of confetti and streamers, elevated the fervour of an excitable crowd. The screens behind and side-of-stage mirrored the action while also displaying music video-style footage, such as a romance between an astronaut couple and a full moon sitting above the clouds.
Diljit Dosanjh at Rod Laver Arena: fans couldn’t contain their excitement.Credit: Rick Clifford
The sound quality and clarity was incredible, enabling the singer and full live band to be heard above the loud cheers and clapping. A crew of Bhangra dancers armed with props, including saaps and khundas, often accompanied Dosanjh as he danced on stage — a global sensation who set the stage alight.
Reviewed by Vyshnavee Wijekumar
Troy Roberts Quartet ★★★★
The Jazzlab, October 15
It’s Sunday evening at the Jazzlab. The Melbourne International Jazz Festival is still five days away, but the festival vibe seems to have arrived at the club early this year. On a cold and rainy night, the venue is packed to the rafters and the audience is buzzing with anticipation.
Perth-born, New York-based Troy Roberts: his Melbourne appearances are all too rare.Credit: Philip Avello
We’re here to see Troy Roberts – a Perth-born, New York-based saxophonist whose appearances in Melbourne are all too rare. In the US, he’s been working with plenty of big names (Jeff “Tain” Watts; Kurt Elling; the late Joey DeFrancesco) and leading several successful bands of his own.
But it’s clear that Roberts is just as passionate about reconnecting with musicians back in Australia. For this gig, he’s assembled a quartet featuring a first-time combination of old friends: two from his Perth days (bassist Sam Anning and drummer Andrew Fisenden) and one from the US (the brilliant pianist Brett Williams, now based in Melbourne).
They’ve only had one brief rehearsal with Roberts, who’s flown in from LA on the morning of the gig. The saxophonist’s compositions are carefully structured and rhythmically precise, requiring sharp reflexes and collective cohesion. Yet the quartet sounds like a well-honed unit, nailing every unexpected turn and stop-start phrase while still radiating an air of relaxed conviviality.
Roberts is a tornado of energy, shrugging off jet-lag with powerful solos that combine muscular vigour with astonishing dexterity. Between phrases, he grins with pleasure at the fiery crescendos, propulsive riffs and laid-back grooves being created by his highly responsive rhythm section.
The leader’s original tunes are interspersed with a handful of irresistible covers: a Jim Hall calypso that fizzes with vitality; a Joshua Redman blues that blends gospel-tinged fervour with a strutting insouciance.
After two generous sets, the band members hug one other as the audience whoops and cheers, reluctant to let this exhilarating, festival-worthy gig come to an end.
Reviewed by Jessica Nicholas
Eumeralla: A War Requiem For Peace ★★★★★
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, October 14
It is hard to imagine a more poignant intersection between art and national life than a performance of Eumeralla: a war requiem for peace on the day Australians voted down a proposed constitutional change recognising First Nations people. Planned well before the referendum date was announced, this account of Deborah Cheetham Fraillon’s vast and powerful response to the Eumeralla wars between settlers and traditional owners in south-west Victoria more than 170 years ago, took on even greater emotional weight as the music called a country not only to face its past but its future.
MSO conductor Benjamin Northey applauds composer and soloist Deborah Cheetham Fraillon at Hamer Hall.Credit: Laura Manariti
Deriving its text from the traditional Latin Requiem mass, the work’s 19 movements are sung in the dialects of the Gunditjmara people, on whose lands the horrific struggle for Country took place, resulting in the decimation of the Indigenous community of about 9000 people over 23 years.
With masterful control, conductor Benjamin Northey brought to the fore all the heroism and hope in Cheetham Fraillon’s kaleidoscopic score, drawing both admirable stamina and subtlety from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the large choral forces comprising the MSO Chorus, The Consort of Melbourne, Dhungala Children’s Choir and members of the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir.
A well-matched trio of soloists – mezzo-soprano Linda Barcan, baritone Jud Arthur and the composer singing soprano – underscored the intensity of the music at key points.
A well-matched trio of soloists – including the composer singing soprano – underscored the intensity of the music.Credit: Laura Manariti
Striking artwork by Gunditjmara artist Tom Day, projected above the performers, added a further layer of sensory involvement, but it was a pity that translations of sung texts were not added into the visual presentation.
Addressing a capacity audience, Cheetham Fraillon spoke of the resilience of First Nations peoples. While Eumeralla might for a time be a requiem for a lost vision, its greater, enduring value will be its confronting but generous appeal for peace and reconciliation.
Reviewed by Tony Way
Elvis: A Musical Revolution ★★★★
Athenaeum Theatre, from October 6
Elvis didn’t die. He was abducted by aliens, or so the conspiracy theory went. Clearly that fantasy represented the denial stage of collective grief, though you could be forgiven for a sneaking suspicion – between Baz Luhrmann’s glossy, overstuffed biopic, and the world premiere of this slick jukebox musical in Melbourne – that the King is indeed living on Mars and has taken to beaming messages directly into the brains of Australian artists.
Rob Mallett takes us beyond Elvis impersonation in Elvis: A Musical Revolution..Credit: Daniel Boud
You can be glad the creatives left their tin-foil hats off this time.
Elvis: A Musical Revolution is, like Luhrmann’s film, a rock ’n’ roll fever dream, but it doesn’t cram so much into the frame and it’s also the most classic form of jukebox musical. Fusing biography and discography from the era of actual jukeboxes, its closest relative is probably Jersey Boys, the international smash hit based on the career of Frankie Valli.
Pinned to the legend’s 1968 Christmas special, it begins and ends with Elvis at a crossroads. Under immense stress, the spectre of his decline foreshadowed, Elvis encounters the memory of boyhood to remind him of his roots.
Elvis Presley is at a crossroads in his life in Elvis: A Musical Revolution.Credit: Ken Leanfore
What could’ve been a corny device works like a charm. Portraying Elvis as a kid proves a poignant touchstone, and the formative influence of what were then known as “race records” is soulfully explored.
A young Elvis gets introduced to gospel music and the blues by kindly black folks (Charly Williams, Joti Gore, Jo-Anne Jackson, Zuleika Khan), a crucial step in developing the sound that made him famous, though the show doesn’t shy from how the realities of the segregated South shaped his early career.
Rob Mallett takes us beyond Elvis impersonation.
The curled lip, trembling thigh and rockabilly quiff are all present and accounted for, but this charismatic incarnation stitches brilliant artist into flawed human being, unfurling from a mamma’s boy prone to stage fright into the overworked superstar whose music and image conquered the globe.
A fast-paced episodic structure fillets the biography, focusing on a close relationship with his mother, Gladys (Noni McCallum), a co-dependent one with manager Colonel Parker (Ian Stenlake), and the romance with Priscilla (Annie Chiswell).
A brilliant artist and flawed human being: Rob Mallett as Elvis and Annie Chiswell as Priscilla.Credit: Ken Leanfore
There’s too much good material to summarise. Highlights include a comic sequence mocking Elvis’ starring role in increasingly terrible Hollywood movies, a show-stopping rendition of Blue Suede Shoes during army service, and snapshots of camaraderie with and antagonism towards fellow musicians.
Despite a drift towards soap opera in the second act, there’s no dull moment. Director Alister Smith keeps it remarkably swift and tight, and the performers dial the energy up to 11.
With vibrant period choreography and costume, a pitch-perfect balance of conversation and action, and a huge playlist of songs, this new jukebox musical is primed to delight Elvis fans.
Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead
Mamma Mia! The Musical ★★★
Princess Theatre, until December 10
Dust off your sequined jumpsuit and knee-high boots and revisit those phenomenally successful ABBA hits that rocked the ’70s. Mamma Mia! The Musical is back, and the stars remain Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ songs.
Deone Zanotto, Elise McCann and Bianca Bruce in Mamma Mia! The Musical. Credit: David Hooley
Catherine Johnson’s narrative focuses on former wild-child Donna (Elise McCann), who now runs a taverna on a Greek island. Her daughter, Sophie (Sarah Krndija), is marrying Sky (Lewis Francis) at the ripe, old age of 20 – far too early according to her ’70s feminist single mother.
Wedding preparations take a dizzying turn when – unbeknown to her mother – Sophie invites three of mum’s past lovers to the wedding: Sam (Martin Crewes), Harry (Drew Livingston) and Bill (Tim Wright), in the belief that one is her dad.
In Mamma Mia!, wedding preparations take a dizzying turn when, unbeknown to her mother, Sophie invites three of mum’s past lovers.Credit: David Hooley
The lyrics of ABBA’s memorable, singable songs tell stories about love found, love lost and life’s other hiccups, all of which make them eminently suited to musical theatre. The tissue-thin narrative is contrived to incorporate a repertoire of 20-plus tunes and the lyrics effectively act as dialogue, illuminating characters, revealing their inner lives and relationships, and advancing the story. In contrast, much of the unsung dialogue is uninspired or trite and works best when threaded into songs or underscored by music.
McCann has fine vocal technique, a clear tone and impeccable control. Her Donna is the heart of this production, shifting from cheerful confidence to tremulous anxiety and confusion. Her emotional meltdown triggers a frantic, funny rendition of Mamma Mia, and her The Winner Takes It All is impassioned and moving.
Crewes’ voice has power and warmth; his duet of SOS with McCann is a show highlight, and he transforms Knowing Me, Knowing You into a poignant ballad about Sam’s divorce.
Donna and her pals, naughty Rosie (Bianca Bruce) and saucy Tanya (Deone Zanotto), revive their ’70s girl group, donning glittering blue, ABBA-lookalike jumpsuits for a super version of Super Trouper. As Sophie, Krndija is pert and effervescent with a sweet vocal tone, but her voice occasionally lacks control, while Zanotto’s audacious, sultry Does Your Mother Know is a thrilling showstopper.
Kadesa Honeyhill, Sarah Krndija and Nina Carmen.Credit: Getty Images
Gary Young’s production is exuberant, with a tight, sassy band and a spirited, boisterous chorus performing Tom Hodgson’s energetic choreography that pulsates with dance party rhythms.
ABBA’s hits keep coming, and, once the narrative is complete, the temperature rises for a rousing finale comprising Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and Waterloo that has the enthusiastic crowd dancing in their seats.
Let’s face it: ABBA’s melodies get the crowd singing, clapping and cheering, so despite its flaws, Mamma Mia! The Musical is failsafe.
Reviewed by Kate Herbert
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