Circus, comedy, magic and live music and come together in this family-friendly spectacle from the producers of The Illusionists and Circus 1903
According to its rather modest slogan, the Sydney Opera House’s big annual summer show is “the Greatest Variety Show on Earth”.
It’s a claim that the many and eclectic acts in the evocatively titled The Unbelievables are seeking to prove over the course of this two-hour extravaganza of magic, circus, comedy and live music. Directed by Neil Dorward and produced by Simon Painter – who are both behind several of these Vegas-style shows, including the internationally successful The Illusionists series – this is a show that sets out to do absolutely nothing but entertain. It has a pretty reliable hit-rate in that respect.
The acts are mostly traditional – ventriloquism, card tricks, knife-throwing, sword-swallowing, and anything else that you worry might’ve fallen out of favour when the heyday of vaudeville ended in the late 1930s. But most of these old-school entertainments prove to be just as awe-inspiring and entertaining as they’ve ever been in this glossy and gloriously shallow piece of razzle dazzle.
Taking its visual cues from the Art Deco period, the show is driven by a booming soundtrack featuring blasts of big band classics performed by a hot live band (with pre-recorded brass for extra pizzazz). Between acts, three ballroom dancing couples twirl around the stage.
Leading the charge for the show is New York-based emcee and comedian Harrison Greenbaum, who you’ll probably either find endearing or infuriating. He’s got some decent material in his act – he takes the piss out of the VIP audience members in a wonderfully democratic way – but some gags are pretty groan-worthy.
Although not as groan-worthy as those employed by Jay Johnson, a veteran Tony Award-winning ventriloquist. He’s a prodigiously talented ventriloquist, but his two sets are both too long and the entire act feels like it’s come to us cryogenically frozen from the 1980s.
But these are the only acts that test the audience’s patience; the rest are thrilling or at least brief enough as to not overstay their welcome.
There’s quick change artists Sos and Victoria Petrosyan (I wonder what they put on a visa application under “occupation”) who have won a Guinness World Record for 16 costumes changes in two minutes, and hand balance acrobats Alan Pagnota and Rafael Ferreira, who has limited use of his legs and uses a wheelchair.
Roberto Carlos pulls out some pretty exciting juggling skills and singer Emi Secrest delivers a scorching rendition of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
Julia Kurkina performs a sand art routine to Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World, quickly arranging and re-arranging mounds of sand upon a lightbox into gorgeous tableau, projected onto a large screen above the audience’s heads. It’s surprisingly moving.
The apparently sexy knife throwing routine by married couple Alfredo and Anna Silva is pretty thrilling but also totally ridiculous. Call me crazy, but it’s never a great idea to get your kicks by throwing knives at your wife.
Magician Shin Lim does some extraordinary sleight-of-hand card tricks, relayed to the 5000-seat Concert Hall on a big screen, and ‘pole artist’ Artem Lyubanevych doesn’t do a great deal, but certainly hangs a long way above the stage with no net.
The standout is sword-swallower Brett Loudermilk, whose wry and innuendo-laden act is genuinely very funny. The opening night audience adored his set.
It’s true that variety shows like this one have largely gone out of favour and there’s probably not as much competition as their might’ve been at the start of the 20th century. But is The Unbelievables the greatest variety show on earth? Probably not.
Is it a pretty darn good one? Yes. It might be full of a kind of kitschy Vegas showmanship that’s not to everybody’s taste, but you’ll probably have fun if you go into the theatre with either a few children or a few drinks.