Theatre review: Show People

A tour-de-force through the characters who inhabit musical theatre

Christie Whelan-Browne embodies eight different characters from across the spectrum of musical theatre in Show People, the title an homage to the grand old song of musical theatre, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. The characters trace the career trajectory of the musical theatre performer, from eager new graduate to driven understudy, from world-weary leading lady to tit-grabbing leading man, from the fading diva to the retiring legend. With each powerful monologue, Whelan-Browne expresses the angst, hopes, struggle and conflict that are usually hidden behind the scenes, or at least behind the curtain.

Show People comes to us from the team who developed the smash hit Britney Spears: The Cabaret – Christie Whelan-Browne, Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank. Written and directed by Bryant, the show starts with an energetic, chaotic mash-up of dozens of musical numbers sung by the ingénue Jessica. Although it starts with hilarity and inside jokes, this 75-minute show takes audiences on a journey to an ending filled with pathos and heart. Whelan-Browne’s powerful voice takes centre stage, including a throaty and hilarious rendition of Sia’s Chandelier, channelling Liza Minelli as she belts out the titular piece, and performing ‘Hot Chorus Boy’, a new song written by Mathew Frank for Show People.

Mathew Frank is outstanding on piano, playing a wide assortment of show tunes that match the mood, energy and storylines Whelan-Browne brings to life in front of our eyes. Together they chart the highs and lows of musical theatre, with Frank providing the occasional deadpan contrast to Whelan-Browne’s high-octane characters. The performances not only reveal the often-invisible pathos of musical theatre, but they also reveal Whelan-Browne’s range and talent; watching her transform herself through subtle shifts of posture and vocal tone is a treat in itself.

While there is great love for musical theatre and the people who inhabit the stage, there is also a darker underside, whether it’s the hard slog experienced by the new graduate, always looking for an opportunity and never getting anywhere; or the understudy, deluded in her self-importance yet fragile when faced with yet another knockback; or ‘the Actor’ struggling with the competing desires of a lifechanging role versus the desire for a balanced life; or the retiring legend who comes out publicly for the first time on the day he announces his retirement.

The darkest elements of show business are explored with devastating clarity in the character of Paddy, the Leading Man. This vignette deftly unpacks a situation that seems drawn from lived experience: a leading man accused of sexual harassment. As the story unfolds before our eyes, there’s an awful inevitability about the final denouement of this back-room conversation. Paddy manages to twist the situation and conversation around to match his own image of himself, and the outcome is startling yet utterly believable. This conversation – and the power imbalance at the heart of it – is a stark reminder of what still goes on behind closed doors.

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Whelan-Browne changes characters with simple props, but primarily through a shift of posture, a change in tone and vocal timbre, a quirk of an eyebrow, a finely tuned accent. At times the characters verge on the stereotypical, but thanks to Bryant’s powerful writing and Whelan-Browne’s sensitivity to the emotional lives of each character, they quickly transform into real people. It’s hard not to see her as a 90-something old man or the fading diva playing small shows at the Nhill Masonic Hall. There’s pathos, power and passion in every character. 

Show People is not to be missed, whether you’re a theatre darling, have a passion for musical theatre, or just love a show packed with nuance and emotion. There really are no people like show people – and Whelan-Browne, Bryant and Frank are three of the best. 

Show People
Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne
Writer and Director: Dean Bryant
Piano / Music Direction / Original Composition: Mathew Frank
Starring: Christie Whelan-Browne
Tickets: $59

Show People will be performed until 18 June 2022

Vicki Renner writes across genres and audiences, from YA historical fiction to social media posts in numerous part-time roles. When she's not writing she's fundraising for conservation projects.