Thursday, 8 November 2018

Godspell, Queanbeyan Players, The Q

"Godspell" is a very early-seventies kinda musical - a look at Jesus with mostly the parables through a mix of improv-style comedy and a folky-style of music with lyrics drawn from traditional hymns, finishing with Christ's passion and execution. There are obvious parallels with that other big Jesus musical that seems to hit the stage fairly regularly, but this also has significant differences - there's far more emphasis on spiritual teaching, the score is far more shared around the ensemble, and there's less howling for power-notes all the time. It's a very sincere show that allows a lot of opportunities for a production to choose its own way into it (the parables and songs allow for a range of different presentation - in a weird way, this is a very Brechtian kinda religions show).  Best remembered, perhaps, is the original Toronto production that launched the careers of comedians like Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas (four would go on to create the legendary Canadian sketch comedy series "SCTV" - Radner would go on to be one of the original stars of "Saturday Night Live", taking with her both the show's musical director (Paul Shaeffer) and its saxaphone player (Howard Shore)).

Queanbeyan Players takes this and runs with it, experimenting with the show in a lot of different ways. Not all the experiments pay off completely, but more do than don't. A game-for-anything cast of ten with a carefully deployed backup choir that only emerges in a couple of big moments give the parables a warm sense of humour and gentleness. Alexander Gorring and Anthony Swadling are the only ones directly playing familiar biblical figures (Gorring as Jesus, Swadling playing a role that morphs from John the Baptist to Judas over the course of the evening), and both have great moments (in particular the double-edged "All for the Best", shared between the two), but so does everybody else (Emily Ridge giving a heartfelt and beautifully sung version of the show's biggest hit, "Day by Day", Kirsten Haussmann a sultry and hilarious "Turn Back Oh Man", Lauren Granger is heartbreaking in my personal favourite song of the score  "By My Side", Aaron Sims gives a bouncy "We Beseech Thee", Joe Moores a powerful "All Good Gifts", Sarah Hull a slammingly good "Bless the Lord", Michael Jordan a rocking "Light of the World" and Alyce King a sweet "Learn your lessons well". The company combines beautifully on the touching moments just before the finale with "On the Willows", and the finale version of "Beautiful City" (added for the movie and then incorporated formally for 2011 revisions) is a gorgeous way to wrap the show up.

There are a couple of hiccups - the opening moment in the foyer is one of those things where if it could have been blended through to get the audience into the theatre it woulda completely paid off (and in actual perforamnce and presentation, it's impressive, but the fact it's followed by a few minutes of practically getting the audience into the theatre means it feels separated from the show in a way that it probably shouldn't be) - and Alexander Gorring's Jesus was showing a couple of moments of vocal strain. But I felt the warmth and the tightness of a company of actors engaged with pure storytelling in an emotionally direct way, the foremost quality that defines a good Godspell. It's a very sincere and heartfelt show, and if you're looking for glossy polished surfaces, this is not the show for you. It's a show that reaches across the footlights and holds you in its heart with strength and compassion. And this production meets that challenge head on.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

An Enemy of the People, Belvoir

For me, this is a near-miss. A combination of a couple of creative decisions means that a promising update of Ibsen's classic drama of standing alone against popular opinion ends up feeling just that little bit flatter than it should.

First, the good. Kate Mulvany is a powerhouse performer and casting her as Ibsen's protagonist gives the play so much additional power. And when the rubber hits the road in the second act (particularly in the public meeting at the top of the second act), Ibsen's play feels utterly current in its look at whistleblowing, how an individual can be demolished by the society around them and how a conspiracy of silence actually works. There's also strong imagery in the basic design.by Mel Page (both in the last scene of the first act and the second scene of the second act - though the design in the last scene of the first act both looks visibly impressive and doesnt' entirely make sense in the situation of the play - why is Dr STockman walking through a steam room when the steam is made up of toxic water? Is the toxicity removed simply by boiling it? In which case why isn't she just suggesting boiling it first?)

Still, that same design also weakens the production. The glass-boxed patio, while useful for a couple of stage images, means that too much of the action is played at a slight cut-off from the audience (miked inside the box, with voices amplified outside), and it means much of the second scene of act one and the second scene of act two just don't feel quite as immediate and engaging. Like all stage devices, these need to be used carefully and this just feels like a recycle.

And the gender change feels like it hasn't gone far enough. Peter Carroll, Leon Ford and Steve LeMarquand in particular are fine and well regarded actors (and Charles Wu and Kenneth Moraleda are equally as strong, if less well known), but the play would only gain if one or more of these roles had been cast female - as it stands, this presentation of the play simplifies things to "good women versus bad men", and that's surely too simplistic a way of telling the story. There's interesting complex roles going begging for women here, and it'd give us a wider sense of the world if women were allowed to play both sides of the debate rather than just being stuck on one.

Melissa Reeves adaptation also sometimes feels a bit under-thought through  - she introduces a thread of class-consciousness into the play, but it feels imposed rather than part of the material (it doesn't have a parallel in Ibsen and while it's not the worst idea in the world, it's too marginal to matter), and there are occasions when some of the dialogue fails to sit comfortably on the actors.

Still, there's Mulvaney and the rest of the cast delivering strong performances in what is, in its bones, a strong play (even if there are occasional hiccups). This is a "almost gets there" show.

Book of Mormon, Lyric Theatre sydney

Yeah, I'm late to this one - it's about to close in Sydney and it's a good year and a half since the Australian production first opened in Melbourne - but I had an afternoon off, it's about to leave Sydney and it was time I got around to it. I was already very familiar with the US cast recording (and have even bought a copy of the script), but it was time to see how this held up on stage, and is it worth the somewhat exorbitant prices? The answer is "pretty well" and ... "possibly".

There is a reason why this is an international hit - it's tuneful and wickedly funny, and the combination of Parker and Stone from "South Park" and Bobby Lopez from "Avenue Q" and "Frozen" turns out to be a great trio. Parker and Stone's fascination with Mormon theology (which has popped up both in their film "Orgazmo" and during "South Park") gets explored in a way that both points out the ludicrousness of the beliefs and the otherwise-good-intentions of the people involved in spreading them, and the songs and script give the most sensible attitude to the Africans that the Mormons are meant to be enlightening. If, yes, it's also full of fairly brutal honesty about the nature of both modern African culture and the nonsense of theology, it's remarkably willing to let pretty much everybody have a redemptive ending. Casey Nicolaw's production keeps things visually distinctive with bouncy choreography and fast flowing effective design which knows how to emphasise every gag and cut to the chase as quickly as possible.

If there's a problem, it's a problem common to a lot of long-running professional shows -this does feel just that little bit too glossy - there's no sense that there's anything really "live" in this show any more, that most of the cast is pretty much going through exactly the same motions they will be going through for months ahead. And I don't really get a sense of anything individual from any of the performers - everybody seems very stuck in a track which was set down by another performer years ago. And that makes this slightly less fun for me  -even as I'm aware it's the nature of the beast that this can't be varied that much, it does kill the "live"ness of a show just that little bit.

But as what this is, yes, it's indeed a very finely polished fun machine.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Heathers, The Musical, Gunghalin College Theatre

30 years ago, "Heathers" was probably the coolest teenage rebellion film of the year. Combing a just-emerging Winona Ryder with a never-better Christian Slater as two teenagers who find themselves up against the most hostile high school of the 80s outside of actual slasher flicks, ruled over by the ultrabitchy and ultraglam Heathers. Daniel Waters script is incredibly quotable, the film is razor sharp and it entranced a generation of disenchanted teens (and anybody else who remembered teen angst).

Hitting off-broadway 4 years ago, the musical has had a pretty good launch worldwide (with productions in London and Sydney). And there's a good solid tunestack from composer Laurence O'Keefe and lyricist Kevin Murphy, although there's also a couple of cases of "this is a song because people remember that bit of the movie" and perhaps a little too much softening of the nastier edges of the original  - also the addition of material outside the perspective of the lead character, Veronica, while probably inevitable in any adaption that isn't going to produce a show that utterly overwhelms its lead, means we lose her personal snarky sarcastic tone (and some of the new material, being placed in the mouths of characters originally written as somewhat shallow peripheral figures, tends towards being pretty crude rather than clever or witty).

This production largely works well with the material it's got - it's well paced, it knows how to individualise and explore it's ensemble, and despite being written, co-directed, musical directed and choreographed by men, there's a refreshing lack of female objectification (there is a reasonable amount of male objectification with three of the male leads appearing in tighty whities, but the only problem I have with that is that I've known Pippin Carroll since he was around 13 and therefore it feels creepy looking at him all buffed up in a tight pair of jocks, but that's my own personal baggage). There's a major problem with the lighting, though, as significant scenes tend to be either under-lit or not lit at all, and this suggests either an overly rushed or not very well planned lighting-and-plotting process during tech (either cast don't know where their light is or the lighting team don't know where the cast is meant to be). Belle Nicol as Veronica has the snarky tone and a strong singing voice, although there are a couple of moments in the upper end of her register where she was straining a little and notes got approximate. Will Huang hosts his usual powerhouse voice and a truly alarmingly cool hairstyle with the twistedly troubled JD, although .. well, Will gets cast a fair bit in things and I usually like seeing him, but ... may the theatre gods forgive me, I do feel like I've seen bits of this performance before, meaning it, perhaps, very slightly lacked freshness. The three titular Heathers are great both as a unit and individually - their introductory trio "Candy Store" is a highlight of character, singing and choreography coming together to lock in this trio as menacing, fascinating and enthralling. Charlotte Gearside as head Heather (Chandler) has every merciless put-down right, moves like a goddess, sings like a demon and dances with precision and intent.  Mikayla Brady as the dopiest Heather (McNamara) has a great sense of blithe adorability up until the point when everything gets too much for her. Maddy Betts as second-in-command-Heather (Duke) seethes wonderfully until her time to take control arrives, at which point she's got all the terrifying authority of someone who just grabbed power for the first time. Pippin Carroll and Pierce Jackson as school bullies Kurt and Ram are a perfect pair of meatheads, embodying the characters brutally moronic presence.

As the previous may make clear, for me this production was a mixed bag - the material's got weaknesses that the production wasn't able to work around, and there were a couple of production hiccups that I couldn't quite get round. I think it's a fair attempt, but I do wish it was all-round stronger.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Feather in the Web, Griffin, Stables Theatre

This is a fun look at a slightly surreal anti-romantic comedy, as the distinctly unconventional Kimberley (Claire Lovering) finds filling in as a caterer at the engagement party of Miles (Gareth Davies) and Lily (Michelle Lim Davidson) - and instantly falls in love with Miles. Ingratiating herself into the lives of Miles and Lily in an attempt to win Miles for herself, she rips apart the world around them, full of karaoke, improv classes and high-powered business. Nick Coyle's script does feel a little like a series of sketches rather than a sustained narrative (in particular, the first three or four scenes, before Kimberley meets Miles, are entertaining but feel slightly like padding in retrospect - theoretically they serve to establish her, but she comes pretty fully formed from the moment she comes on stage, and none of this background material is particularly relevant). But the show's consistently funny and, in Ben Winspear's production, keeps constantly moving as Davies, Davidson and the show's fourth actor, the luminous Tina Bursill, switch roles constantly throughout the show (I must admit, I'd considered Davies a fine actor who tended towards one or two stage personas, but he showed a lot more versatility than I was expecting  - but Bursill is the highlight whatever role she's switched into, whether it be Miles' snobby mother, a harried improv teacher or a randomly drunk karaoke participant). It even manages, somehow, to come through with a poignant ending as we get a sense that Kimberley's doomed pursuit may be better than the conventional happy ending Miles and Lily are headed for. Provocative, clever and constantly surprising.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Shrek the Musical, Free Rain Theatre Company, The Q

It's been a while since I've reviewed a local musical on this blog - well, excluding Dogfight, which I did about a month and a half ago. It's partially that I've felt a lot of the material is over-familiar to me, partially that ... well, have you seen the film blog? I've been reviewing a LOT of films lately, and that's taken a bit of priority over theatre.

But anyway, theatre is my first love, and it's good to see a "not previously given a production in Canberra" show. I have seen "Shrek: The Musical" before (on Broadway, a bit under a decade ago), and as material goes it's good but has a coupla flaws. This production goes along with that - there's some highlights, but also some clunky bits.

For a start, this does have a teensy bit of a running time issue. Excluding intermission, this is a good 40 minutes longer than the movie, pushing out to a slightly young-kid-challenging 2 and a half hours (there were definite whinges from the boys sitting behind me near the end). And while the movie was pretty good about playing tight and irreverent, the musical occasionally finds itself a little bogged down. David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) are highly qualified people (Tesori's done one of my favorite scores of recent years, "Fun Home", and Lindsay-Abaire did the clever book for "High Fidelity" and has a great backlog of plays from the sassily sexy "THe Little Dog Laughed" to the thinkily political "Good People") but this does suffer slightly from clunkiness. In particular, the titular Shrek slightly suffers from having a dearth of solos in act one and a overload of introspective solos in act two (both of them within the space of about ten minutes) - we don't really get a chance to just be with him before he's invaded by all the other fairy tale characters and off doing plot things, and by the time he's given space to just be him, he's at his lowest ebb and we get two songs with pretty similar purposes (both good songs, just ... there's one too many). In general, there's a little too much time spent in the denoument (not only do we get both of Shrek's solos, we also get a group number for the fairy tale characters who haven't been seen for about two hours by the time they come back, and it's kinda difficult to care about them or think of their number as anything but padding at a time when the show desperately needs to be finding its way to the ending).

Having said that, there's great stuff in here. First there's Max Gambale - who I'm sure I've raved enough about previously. This is the first time he's basically carried most of a show and ... while the material doesn't always serve him as well as it might, he sings it strong and mighty and hits both the cantankerousness and the soulfulness with aplomb. Laura Murphy plays Princess Fiona in a style somewhat consistent with her loony Leonora in "Cry Baby" and it actually works wonderfully (it helps she has lyrical assistance - one of her songs describes her as "a bit bipolar" and she takes that and runs with it in an adorably nutty way. Joel Hutchings finds his calling in the loose and goofy comedy of Donkey (he may look like a leading man but being a goofball suits him so very much), and Martin Searles is a hilariously diabolical and vain Farquaad. Tegan Braithwaite as Dragon has a great voice and soulful presence that gives a character with not-very-much-stage-time a genuine power and, eventually, pathos (her song's the one major improvement over Broadway, where the dragon proved to be one of those things the show hadn't quite worked out how to handle yet).

There's very impressive sets and costumes too - Martin Searles' double duty doesn't mean he's scrimped on some fairly elaborate sets (hooray, no projections!) that move the setting nicely with minimal fuss (The Q is not the easiest place to do this kinda thing either - being a fairly big stage with no flytower), and Fiona Leach covers the ridiculously hefty costume demands with skill and glamour.

Yalaria Rodger's direction is a mixed success - she gets a lot of the simpler scenes between small groups of characters very well, and is able to frame strong stage pictures (including using bits of the Q I haven't seen in use before!). But the ensemble scenes between the fairy tale characters are a bit of a mess - both of their songs lack clear focus on who's singing a particular line at any one time, meaning it becomes a bit of an exercise in searching down who's actually got this line (killing a lot of good jokes). Musical direction from Katrina Tang and Ian McLean is consistently strong, and Michelle Heine's choreography  is witty and silly and spectacular whenever required to be.

All in all, this is a mixed bag - a production with significant strengths and a couple of significant weaknesses. It's worth it for the cast and a lot of the production, even if I have a few issues with elements.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Calamity Jane, ONe Eyed Man productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co, Belvoir Theatre

This one's been doing the rounds a while (originally hitting the stage at the Hayes last year, it toured to Canberra in August before playing its Sydney season at Belvoir, but due to different timings of season announcements, I'd booked for the Belvoir season before I realised there was a Canberra season, so ... here's this one). But it comes fresh and easy, an entertainingly loose version of the 1953 movie musical and its slightly lesser known 1961 stage adaptation that brings out the goofy fun in the material. Playing very much to the audience - both the one onstage, and also reaching out into the one in the auditorium, it captures a pure sense of fun.

The main issues are with the material, which, well, is 55 years old. Inspired/borrowed/ripping-off the recently-successful "Annie Get Your Gun", this is another look at a gun-toting Western woman who bustles up against a male lead who's somewhat jealous, and sees her involved in showbusiness. This is somewhat better about maintaining the female lead's dignity (although it still gets a bit messy in act two), and gives Calamity a full community to be part of and beloved by, rather than the slight sideshow oddity that Annie Oakley tends to stay. Even if the song stack isn't quite as strong as Irving Berlin's masterpiece, this holds true as pretty good material, and Virginia Gay makes the uncouth and ungainly Calamity a wonderfuly endearing heroine, singing bold and brassily and otherwise goofing and playing around as the plot demands. Laura Bunting as the more feminine Katie Brown is gently appealing and not too goody-goody, and Sheridan Harbridge as the inelegant ingenue Susan and the brassily bitchy Adelaide Adams is equally apealling. There's a little bit of stiffness to the two male romantic leads - Anthony Gooley's Wild Bill Hickock comes across a bit vaguely in act one and when he becomes more important in act two, it somwehat feels as if he's being bundled in just so we can get to a hapy ending - and Matthew Pearce's Lt DAnny Gilmartin never really is more than a nice set of abs and a charming tenor. In the comedy roles, Rob Johnson as the hapless Francis Fryer and Tony Taylor as pushy proprietor Henry Miller hit every laugh they're going for and then some with alomb.

Look, this is mostly a delight, and my act two quibbles are, in the bigger scheme of things, pretty marginal - in a season at Belvoir that has been deeply uneven, this has given the most straightforward pleasure I've had in that venue. And Virgina Gay's Calamity is a thing to treasure. But dammit, I wish I loved it all the way through rather than feeeling a bit "oh, yeah, this is the plot we had to have" in act two.