Pop or Flop?

Max Penny (Vinnie), Kelly Morris (Ella), Alla Macdonald (Shannon), Conor Larkin (Mark), Riley Rupp (Shane) and Dante Calliste (Patrick) star in the joint school production of Popstars at Riverway Arts Centre. IMAGE: Nancy Nicholson

For the past week, I’ve been getting a lot of strange looks at traffic lights. Not because I’m driving any worse than I normally do; but I am guilty of blasting a whole lot more Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys than should be acceptable in 2018.

I’ve come down with Popstars fever.

Popstars, a jukebox musical paying tribute to the most iconic songs of the 90s, will be hammer timing at the Riverway Arts Centre from tonight until Saturday, performed by a collaboration of students from St Margaret Mary’s College, Ignatius Park College and St Patrick’s College – and is every bit as colourful and larger than life as you’d expect.

High school student Shannon (Alla Macdonald) dumps her boyfriend Mark (Conor Larkin) in order to focus on starting her own girl group and win an upcoming talent show, because boyfriends are ‘total career killers.’ In an act of revenge, Mark and his garage band friends start their own pop group to beat Shannon at the show with the help of new girl Ella (Kelly Morris).

Last night I was lucky enough to sneak in and mmm bop along to the final Popstars tech run, and don’t think a single denim-clad musician of the 90s was missed – it had everything from Britney to the Baha Men; Cher to TLC, and offered a promising insight into the future stars of the local musical theatre scene.

As soon as the lights faded up on Act One, the nostalgia kicked into overdrive thanks to the costume realisation of Pauline Buchanan: there was no doubt what decade we were about to be immersed in from the very first scene.

I must admit, the tech run nerves were evident with a shaky song or two to start with – when you’re in a space that sucks up your sound way more than the classroom you’ve been practicing in though, this isn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t long before the entire cast had found their voice and their groove.

School productions are always moving on up thanks to the number of cast members keen to get involved – there’s never a shortage of students willing to be an all star, and these crowds of students shone in chorus scenes thanks to some impressive choreography by Courtney Reddicliffe, Teneille Jorgensen and Chris Davis. Equally impressive is the student-choreographed number in the show: as Charlie (Jessica Scott) is delivering a heartfelt rendition of Mariah Carey’s Hero, she is joined on stage by a dance ensemble that perform a beautiful accompanying dance choreographed by Sophie Collins, Jemma Cusumano, Sophie Gunn, Courtney Starr and Tiana Williams. The dancing was beautiful, emotive, and flowed seamlessly with the movement throughout the rest of the show.

On the subject of choreography – U Can’t Touch This was something special. As soon as guest judge Simon Austin (Jack Bombardieri) walked onto stage in his sparkly parachute pants, older audience members would have a good inkling of what was to come. But when he is joined by a sea of equally sparkly parachute pant-wearing backup dancers breaking down with moves that would make MC Hammer jealous, it was really hard not to start shuffling my feet in the audience. Jack is definitely one to watch – with a memorable performance in last year’s production of Pirates together with one of the stand-out performances in Popstars, we can’t wait to see him continue to perform after high school.

Kelly Morris, taking on the role of talented waitress-slash-boy band choreographer Ella, drew focus whenever she was on stage. Her voice was powerful, on pitch, and lifted the show every time she sang. The same rings true for Jessica Scott, embodying bookworm-slash-genie Charlie. Even without the smoke and the backup dancers, she could have carried the performance of Hero with her voice alone. DJ Princess (Victoria Fowler) was equally as captivating whenever she was on stage, with more charisma than an achy breaky heart and more attitude than shaved-head Britney. Also earning his own share of laughs was boy band member Vinnie, played by Max Penny. Everything from his facial expressions to line delivery left us ready to crack up after almost every sentence, and kept the show flowing through dialogue-heavy scenes.

A note for the ensemble: in a venue like the Riverway Arts Centre, you’re more exposed than ever – your audience is almost above you. Even if you’re in the back row, you can be guaranteed that at least one person’s eyes will be on you. Everyone should have the same excitement and energy as the leads – because your excitement levels will be reflected in the audience! There’s a difference between copying the moves you’ve been rehearsing, and dancing and acting as if you’re an actual backup dancer – so look up from your feet, get your faces in character, and go for it! You know your moves and lyrics, now own them.

A note for the leads: assume that your mics are always live. Technology can fail us, and if it does, we wouldn’t want anything to distract from the action happening on stage. The audience aren’t much help if you misplace your hats backstage, but when they hear you talking about it, they know the characters already on stage are ad-libbing while they wait for you (well done to Alla Macdonald (Shannon) in particular for thinking on her feet and improvising until the rest of the ‘Candy Girls’ joined her and Jessica on stage!).

Townsville generally only has two seasons: summer and wet. But school musical season is always a personal favourite of mine – the talent of local high school students only seems to grow every year, and with the improving resources of local theatres, they’re given better and better platforms to shine on. Huge congratulations must go to Director Chris Davis, Production Manager Nancy Nicholson, Musical and Chorus Vocal Director Suzy Sheriff and Soloist Vocal Director Alice Beams. With three schools involved, we can only imagine the difficulty of arranging schedules and giving every cast member the direction they need – but you have achieved that, and produced a show that will make everyone wannabe back in the 90s.

Catch Popstars the 90s Musical at the Riverway Arts Centre from tonight until Saturday, with very limited seats left for tonight and Friday’s shows only. Book here.

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