There’s ramping things up a notch, and then there’s flying a helicopter across an indoor arena. And it’s when the chopper emerges that you start to get a true sense of how big an undertaking Australian Outback Spectacular is.
On the simplest level, Australian Outback Spectacular is a dinner show in Oxenford on the Gold Coast. That, however, is vastly understating things – this is no intimate cabaret.
Australian Outback Spectacular is Vegemite meets Vegas. It is resolutely true blue from the moment you walk in – everyone is handed a wide-brimmed hat as a country guitarist leads a Home Among The Gum Trees singalong. But this Gold Coast oddity is tackled with a scale and showmanship that feels more at home in Caesar’s Palace or the MGM Grand.
The arena is next to the Warner Bros Movie World theme park, and has a 1000-seat capacity. It is deliberately designed to evoke traditional shearing sheds, right down to the corrugated iron roof.
Guests line up in ascending wooden pews, all with ample room for dinner plates and drinks in front of them. The stage is an Olympic swimming pool-sized expanse of dirt and sand, although this is later turned into a dolphin-filled sea and an outback watering hole by some undeniably impressive projectionist trickery.
This gargantuan venue hosts Heartland, a play about an outback family struggling to keep the farm going in drought conditions. In theory, it’s a plot that could be scaled down to a small community theatre, but the plot really isn’t the lure here.
The story of Reggie and Marge having 60 days to repay a bank loan – or lose the farm – is a weak glue. It is there to hold together a series of stunts, set pieces and acrobatics, rather than engross.
Sure enough, it’s not long before horses are charging around the arena, their riders doing tricks in the saddle. Some hang off precariously, some flip as they dismount, others stand across two galloping steeds, one foot on each saddle.
There may be a 25-strong cast of humans, but the 80 horses on staff are the real stars of Heartland. They strut, they dance and they hold position impeccably in elaborate routines involving actors twirling with ribbons in harnesses from the roof.
The horses also help muster 20 head of cattle, alongside four dogs – one of which is such a determined scene-stealer, it manages to get the biggest laughs.
At every turn, the logistics are terrifying to comprehend. Looking after more than 100 animals backstage. Unobtrusively feeding three-course meals to 1000 people as utes and fire trucks hare around in circles. Finding sufficient cast members who can act, sing, stunt ride and do serious circus-style acrobatics. Even the biggest curmudgeon stubbornly refusing to enjoy the show can concede that it’s a phenomenal achievement on these grounds alone.
To go into Heartland in theatre critic mode is to entirely miss the point. There are plenty of holes to be picked – a lot of the jokes don’t land and the attempts to introduce an antagonist are pretty half-cocked, for starters. The wow factor makes such flaws very easy to overlook, however.
Stunts aside, though, the show is at its best when it plumps for heart rather than humour. Between the romantic subplot and larrikin joshing, there’s genuine respect for Australians who live off the land. The overriding message of paying tribute to the people who feed the nation shines through with cast-iron sincerity.
It’s also a key ingredient to Australian Outback Spectacular‘s longevity. It originally opened in 2006, and Heartland is the fifth show produced, having run since 2018. To pull in hundreds of people several times a week for that long takes more than horses dancing in formation while riders’ jackets light up. Although, admittedly, a helicopter cameo helps.
Tickets to Australian Outback Spectacular cost from A$109.99 (NZ$118), including dinner. There are between three and six performances per week. See Outbackspectacular.com.au
Solnamara Beachfront Apartments in Burleigh Heads offers slick beachfront apartments overlooking one of the Gold Coast’s best beaches. Two-bedroom apartments cost from A$315 (NZ$339) a night, room only. See Solnamara.com.au
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Australia and Tourism and Events Queensland.