TALES OF THE VALLEY: Home is where Jaz’s heart is

Gil Tipping

I first knew Jaz Flowers in 2004 when I was singing in a choir and later playing with Traralgon City Band, about four or five years in all, at Carols by Candlelight in Traralgon.

She would be one of the many young artists taking the chance to perform live in front of a large audience, and as I remember, she would always sing the same song, as many of them did.

For Jaz it was the Mariah Carey song, All I Want for Christmas Is You.

She had clear diction, a big voice which grew more powerful each year and natural stage presence.

I remember remarking to my fellow tuba player, “This kid could go on the stage right now”.

Of course I could not know how prescient this comment was, and I heard nothing more about Jaz until about a year ago when, while speaking to my friend Steph, it emerged that she was Jaz’s cousin.

Steph told me Jaz had indeed gone on stage, and started to reel off some of her achievements.

I listened with growing interest, but when she threw in “Lead lady in the Australian production of Hairspray“, I nearly dropped my beer!

And there was more, lots more. Jaz had made it to the very top on Australia’s stage musical scene, and I didn’t even know! … and it saddened me.

I reflected that although Jaz had become well-known locally for her prodigious talent, there were probably very few who knew what she had gone on to achieve beyond the Valley.

The story of Jaz Flowers is uplifting and would gladden the heart of anyone, but especially someone who, like me, feels they belong to the Valley, so this is what I bring you today.

To prepare I contacted and met Jaz, who was pleased to help and provided me with all the background I needed.

I must admit when we first met, I felt acutely aware I was meeting a real celebrity and was a little star struck, which I admitted to Jaz.

She seemed bemused by this and looked at me as though I was a bit strange.

She was born into a musical/show biz family; her mother Vikki had her own Dance Studio in Morwell and was also a singer.

Vikki’s mother had been an opera singer.

Jaz showed much early promise, first hitting the stage in the Traralgon Eisteddfod 1991 at just four.

Dressed in an apricot tutu, she performed a dance piece to thunderous applause at the Traralgon Eisteddfod.

Seven years later, in 1998, for the first time she entered the singing section as well as the dancing one.

The audience reaction was just the same – those who had witnessed her first performance were on their feet -here was a serious talent!

She continued doing Eisteddfods (winning most), and singing at local events, like Carols by Candlelight, right through until she was 21.

Her first role in a stage show was in 2000, playing the part of Tessie in the Latrobe Theatre Company production of Annie.

This was a step up from one off appearances in an Eisteddfod, now she had to immerse herself in a whole show, with lines to learn, a character to play, and to repeat her performance perfectly time after time.

She was in many more shows with LTC, including The King and I, West Side Story (supporting lead-Anita), and Cabaret (KitKat girl/chorus).

All the while, Jaz was gaining insight into the workings of showbiz – how hard it was to get parts, how determined you needed to be. You looked around the others in the room at an audition and knew a simple truth; you just had to be the best.

Jaz discovered she had a hardy temperament well suited to this challenge, and was able to produce her best under extreme pressure.

This seemingly inborn capability was to stand her in good stead in the years ahead.

However the stories of precociously gifted children are many, and only a few continue and deliver on their talent in adulthood.

There are so many hurdles to clear as life intervenes and so much depends on who is around in their younger years, to mentor and encourage them. In this young Jaz was also blessed.

Family life revolved around singing, dancing and the stage, and Jaz’s needs as a performer – learning lines, dance steps and music – were understood and encouraged.

If she was unsure about anything, expert advice was at hand.

It was also no place for a prima donna.

Her beloved family supported her to the hilt, travelling long distances to watch almost all her performances, even the auditions, but they also kept her grounded and suggested she acquire a full education.

This she did, attending Morwell Park Primary School, then Kurnai College to Year 10, Maryvale High School for Years 11 and 12, before leaving home for the first time, to complete a Bachelor of Arts in Musical Theatre at Federation University in Ballarat.

Whilst at uni, she performed in many shows, including Anything Goes, Baby, Cabaret, Once Upon a Mattress, and Jane Eyre.

As her stage work continued, she became known among the wider performing arts community as a high quality young artist of great promise.

It was therefore no surprise when in 2008, at just 21, she made her first professional appearance, in Shane Warne: The Musical as Dance Captain/ensemble at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne.

The show was well-received, a milestone in its originality of concept, and perhaps changing accepted wisdom of what was possible for a stage show.

For Jaz Flowers however, it changed everything.

All she had worked and yearned for had become real!

She was considered good enough at professional level, and she began to wonder where it might take her.

She didn’t have long to wait, and it was another step up. In 2010, she was cast as a supporting lead (Mabel) in Fame, a stage show of enduring popularity based on the 1980 movie of the same name. The show was a success and toured several major theatres of Australia.

Jaz put in a brilliant performance, with strong audience reaction, and she received a Helpman Award nomination for Best Supporting Female Actor.

Later in the same year, she was cast in the lead role of Tracy Turnblad in the smash hit dance/musical Hairspray, directed and produced by the legendary Australian David Atkins.

Again Jaz received rave reviews, collecting a Sydney Theatre Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical, and another Helpman Award nomination for Best Female Actor in a Musical.

Jaz had announced herself in the public mind as a rising star on the Australian stage musicals scene, and in 2011, she was honoured to sing the National Anthem at the third game decider of the State of Origin, and before the final of the Australian Tennis Open in Melbourne in 2012.

There is a special place in the heart of Australians for such people … people like Marina Prior, Kate Ceberano and Anthony Warlow come immediately to mind.

Hairspray was a big hit, especially for younger audiences, and it toured the main venues of Australia to sell-out crowds for about 18 months.

In 2012, Jaz was invited by Keith Urban to appear on his team on the TV show The Voice. This she did, singing Big White Room, a song by Jessie J.

I don’t know much about the show, but I watched Jaz’s powerful performance on YouTube.

As soon as she started to sing the audience began screaming uncontrollably, and not long after, all the “judges” spun their chairs around, at which they screamed even louder.

In 2013, her ascending status in Australian musical theatre was further enhanced when she was cast in the lead role of April in the 21st anniversary of the classic all Australian show, Hot Shoe Shuffle.

First performed in 1992, it was the brainchild of David Atkins, and featured lots of tap dancing to music from the 1920s to the 1940s. It was big hit, with the sole (but crucial) female part of April played by Rhonda Burchmore.

By 2013, Rhonda had considerably reduced her public appearances.

A new “April” was needed, and Jaz was selected, hand-picked by David Atkins himself.

The show was a roaring success and was sold out in all the major theatres round Australia for almost 12 months.

In 2014, Jaz decided to pursue her career overseas, and moved to London with a friend. She quickly found work, singing with Broadway musical theatre writer Scott Allen on London’s West End. She also turned down several roles so she could travel widely round the many beautiful parts of the UK.

Later that year, she scored a role in the BBC Proms production of Kiss Me, Kate at the Royal Albert Hall, which was televised on Christmas Day 2014.

Things in London looked promising, but there was one problem, Jaz hated the place. It was crowded, grimy, cold, and everything seemed miniaturised.

She began to feel melancholy, until one day in the car, Peter Allen’s I Still Call Australia Home came on, and within a week she was back home in Morwell.

Early in 2015, she landed the lead role of Veronica in the first Australian production of Broadway hit Heathers.

It’s a high energy show set in an American high school and deals with heavy teen issues, like bullying, teen sexuality, and suicide.

Jaz says it is her favourite show, but also the most difficult, because of the complex demands of her character.

She must have done OK because audiences flocked to it and Jaz scored another Sydney Theatre Company nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

For the whole of her professional career apart from her year off in UK, Jaz always had work. Whatever show she was in, there would always be another one coming along which could fit neatly into her schedule.

This continued when in 2016 she was cast in the supporting lead role of Oz in the rock musical We Will Rock You.

Using the music of Queen, it is a bleak tale of a heavily controlled future world which can only be saved by a band of rebellious rock musicians. Co-written by Ben Elton and Queen, it opened in the UK in 2002, and has played to packed audiences all over the world.

The 2016 version was the first to use an all Australian cast and crew, and was well received, touring all the major Australian theatres.

For Jaz though, things were changing.

It was not her favourite show, and she was starting to wonder how much longer she wanted to keep doing eight shows a week with one day off, week after week, then on to another town, another hotel, another show, hardly ever seeing her beloved family.

At the first opportunity, she spoke to them. As it turned out, her mum Vikki was ready to start scaling down her business, and had been thinking Jaz could take it over if this would work.

Quite quickly, Jaz’s mind was made up.

At just 28, she would finish We Will Rock You and bow out!

These days she’s firmly at the helm of Jaz Flowers Performing Arts in Morwell, helping to teach, prepare and guide a large number of young hopefuls toward their dreams. How inspirational it must be for them to be taught by her?

I ask if she has regrets – does she miss any of it?

I will always remember her reply;

“When you’re the leading lady in a big show, you’re always given the courtesy of being the last to take your final bow. When you come out, and you hear them roar, there’s nothing else like it”.

In the end though, the cost of performing was too great. Jaz says that if she could just do four shows a week she’d be there like a shot, but it doesn’t work that way.

She’s been able to buy a house, find a loving partner, be around her family, run her business, and is as contented with life as she has ever been.

After all her extraordinary achievements in the spotlight, she has found her dream as a quiet achiever. Her favourite thing is to go fishing with her dad at McLoughlins Beach.

Even though I have had zero influence on her life, as a dedicated Valley man I feel proud of her, and will boast about her at every opportunity.

I offer her my silent applause, and although it doesn’t have the electric charge of the live theatre, many will join me, and it will last long after the theatre lights have gone out.