I'm a children's book author, radio presenter of 'By the Book' for Radio Northern Beaches, and freelance writer. Check out www.brydiewright.com for more about
A story about dreams, self-belief and a dancing kangaroo
In a theatrical landscape that is often precarious and always competitive, celebrating twenty-one years, is a major milestone for a theatre company. This honour belongs to Monkey Baa, Australia's widest-reaching touring company, specialising in performance for children.
Josephine Wants to Dance is based on the 2006 book by author Jackie French and illustrator Bruce Whatley (Bruce Whatley artwork image c/o- Monkey Baa Theatre Facebook)
With residency at Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, Monkey Baa draws on the talents of its founders, playwrights Eva Di Cesare, Sandra Eldridge and Tim McGarry. As with 2017's smash debut Diary of a Wombat, which returns to Darling Quarter in July, this trusty trio have taken another Jackie French and Bruce Whatley picture book classic, and adapted it to the stage, in a musical production for 4 to 9-year olds. The production is Josephine Wants to Dance.
This inspirational tale of a dancing kangaroo with big dreams takes the audience back to Shaggy Gully, the fictional country town that is also home to French and Whatley's loveable literary wombats and the ever-polite, Pete the Sheep. Australian audiences appreciate Australian stories and in a world of American-produced entertainment for kids, it is a welcome change to see a theatre production made by Australians and speaking directly to Australian children.
Amanda Laing and Hayden Rodgers ace the behaviours of a kangaroo mob (image credit Heidrun Lohr)
I have been fortunate enough to attend both the premiere performances of Diary of a Wombat and Josephine Wants to Dance, and though I thought Wombat was going to be a tough act to follow, I found that I enjoyed Josephine even more. It's the kind of show adults can enjoy just as much as the kids and if you've ever seen theatre for children, you'll know it's not easy to pitch a performance that successfully meets the needs of the different generations in the audience.
Youngsters will love the anthropomorphic characters - Josephine and Joey, the talking, singing, dancing (and rapping) kangaroos - and parents will love the inter-textual cultural references peppered throughout the lively song and dance numbers. Take for example, the lovely lyrebirds (played by theatre stars Chloe Dallimore and Amanda Laing), who catch Josephine's attention with their Vegas showgirl costumes and can can routine. Combine this with So Good, the most catchy and memorable refrain from the show, and you have the absolute highlight for me - a dazzling spectacle for children and an in-joke filled sequence of hilarity for the adults.
Chloe Dallimore and Hayden Rodgers as majestic dancing brolgas (image credit Heidrun Lohr)
If you don't know the story of Josephine, it tells of a kangaroo who doesn't quite feel one of the mob. Not content with grazing and hopping, she gravitates towards dancing and finds inspiration from graceful birdlife she observes moving in the wild. Though warned against the dangers of dancing and the townsfolk by her little brother Joey, Josephine is drawn to the bright lights of the visiting ballet company and its production of Swan Lake. When Josephine volunteers to take the lead role of Odette, as the star and her understudy are both injured, it is seemingly a massive gamble. Is her self-belief and reach-for-the-stars positivity, enough to save the day?
Big city ballet comes to small town Shaggy Gully (image credit Heidrun Lohr)
The messages in this delightful story are pitched beautifully for the pre- and primary- school audiences for which they are intended, but the production is humorous rather than preachy. It acknowledges some of the worst qualities (vanity), as well as the best (determination), in both animal and humankind.
Combined with the perfect story-telling vehicle, the Monkey Baa production team, cast and crew bring a level of professionalism, often only seen in musical theatre for adults. It is no surprise that the show will soon embark on a nation-wide tour, which will take the story of Josephine to over 50,000 people this year. So, if you are unable to catch a performance at Monkey Baa HQ these holidays, check local guides, or suggest a school excursion, as Josephine will no doubt be dancing to a theatre near you.
Rebecca Hetherington shines in the lead role of Jospehine
In such an immediate format as live theatre, a moment of lull or a foot put wrong, is often the only impetus needed for small children to lose concentration and start wriggling. The Monkey Baa team understand this, and at a 45-minute running time, with set changes incorporated into the action on stage, there is no time for anyone to get bored and every scene serves the purpose of furthering Josephine's journey.
Distinguished Director Jonathan Biggins, draws the best from his small but finely-tuned ensemble cast, with a captivatingly warm and sparkling performance from star-on-the-rise Rebecca Hetherington, as Josephine, and the versatile Hayden Rodgers, who exudes personality plus in his hip-hop routine as Joey, and comedic turns as the narcissistic male dancer and flamboyant designer, Philippe.
Hetherington and Rodgers are backed more than ably by scene stealers and theatre stars in their own right, Chloe Dallimore as Brolga, Lyrebird and the hilarious Madame Katerina Baroninski Gavrikova, and Amanda Laing as Lyre Bird, Prima Ballerina and the resolute country bumpkin Big Annie.
Stars on the rise Hetherington (left) and Rodgers (right) pose with young fans on opening night
My five year-old is still singing the chorus of So Good, twenty-four hours after the performance, and we remain on the feel-good high that a great musical gives you. Josephine's musical score by Phil Scott and choreography by Tim Harbour, are sure to become modern classics of children's theatre. I would highly recommend you take the opportunity to enjoy the production's premiere season before it leaves Sydney. A special Mother's Day weekend performance has just been added (Saturday 12th of May) and there is also a relaxed performance on Thursday 19th of April, for children with special needs.
Josephine Wants to Dance is truly fun for all the family and a beautiful tribute to the literary legacy of Australian greats Jackie French and Bruce Whatley.