Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Spiral, Denise Scott & Judith Lucy, Canberra Theatre

It's under a year since Judith Lucy and Denise Scott both played the Canberra Theatre with separate standup shows. So why come back again this soon? Have they really come up with another essential hour worth us ponying up the cash to watch?

The answer is ... of course they have. The Spiral is a little bit of an oddity - it isn't quite a standup show, it isn't quite a book-tour-event, but it's definitely entertaining. The evening kicks off with Judith and Denise basically completely bypassing  the stage and going straight into the audience for a few minutes of audience interaction, harassing, teasing and general amusement (plus the inevitable mocking of latecomers - if you've got tickets to a standup show, surely you'd know by now that the performer is probably going to mock you. Unless all latecomers are secretly masochists who just want to be told off for their temerity in coming late...) It's followed by conversation, jokes, one highly startling dance routine, a little bit of Q and A (and woe betide you if you decide to just make a statement rather than a question), and a little bit of book reading.

Both are highly skilled (well, they'd want to be, as Judith said to a twenty-three year old, "I've been doing this longer than you've been alive"), and both have a fairly different style and viewpoint - Judith the over-it-all fortyish one, Denise the fiftyish mother of multiple children - that makes this a highly polished evening that rolls along quite cleverly. There isn't anything particularly deep here, this isn't a show that's going to change your life, but it could change at least some elements of your wardrobe. And probably inspire you to buy (or at least hit the library up for) their books. A packed-out Canberra Theatre clearly loved it, and I loved it along with them.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Jazz Garters 4, Canberra Rep

In 2009, in the face of declining audiences and increasing costs for Old Time Music Hall, Rep threw the switch to a newer type of variety. And Jazz Garters 1 felt like a breakthrough. Tightly performed and produced, with a genuinely wide variety of acts (everything from a STOMP-inspired dance number to an improvised song to the old chesnut "Who's On First"), it felt like a revelation.

The subsequent Jazz Garters weren't quite as good - still fairly slick, but often a tad formulaic (Kander and Ebb's "Chicago" score tended to get raided repeatedly, plus there were moments of self-indulgence that dragged). There were also a few moments that just plain were overambitious or wrong-headed (for example, Jazz Garters 3's "Circle of Life" opening got the wrong kind of giggles from the audience with its costumes, which obviously had a lot of effort put into them, and still unfortunately looked like a primary school play). And it tended to slip more and more into the familiar, rather than really innovating.

So, after a year away, and with a new director and musical director, has Jazz Garters managed to get its groove back?

Mostly, alas, no. If anything, this is a more backwards-looking show than any of the previous incarnations - there's a LOT of Music Hall style numbers, plus reprises of four pieces that have been in previous Jazz Garters. There are a couple of moments that really shine and suggest a fresher approach (early in act two, the Casey Bennetto-written song "Liveable" and the Jarrad West-written monologue "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup" are modern, clever and presented very well), but elsewhere, it's very familiar material, and there isn't much in the production that freshens it up particularly.

The familiar Jazz Garters set is spiced up a little with a logo in the middle of the proscenium, which is quite stylish, and the use of projections, which ... again, lacks polish - several of the projections get recycled - nobody in the production team apparently thinking it was worth the effort to keep it fresh. There's a couple of songs with re-arranged lyrics, but even then, the changed words aren't particularly funny so much as just ... different from the usual.

Of the performances - there are a couple of reasonable ones in there. Lachlan Ruffy's had his regular praise here before, and he's good again, but ... sticking him in a dress once is funny. Sticking him in a dress twice is just repeating the joke to diminishing returns (although his second-act dress is slinkier). Ian Croker kicks his material out of the park well, but there's not a lot of it and it doesn't really let him use the edgier darker sides of his talent. Kate Rampe is a performer new to me - she gets to show off a strong singing voice in her duet and some good comic timing in her monologue. Brian Kavanaugh is a genuinely charming performer who's running gag could probably profitably run a little bit longer.

I don't want to unnecessarily disparage the production team, all of these people have done good work previously, and undoubtedly will again - but never the less, this is a very backwards-looking show that is only sporadically engaging - going through the motions, and not going through them particularly stylishly. It's a very clunky, flat evening that only rarely gets to do what a variety show is supposed to do - to showcase the performers and to entertain the audience. I don't know whether the production team were timid about messing with a formula that works, or whether they were discouraged from doing so, however what's resulted is a flabby, mediocre show.

EDITED TO ADD: I realise now I missed mentioning Bronte Forrester's performance of Sondheim's tongue-twisting "Getting Married Today", which was also a highlight. Sorry Bronte!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Angels in America - Belvoir Street Theatre

In the early 90s, Tony Kushner wrote a play set in the mid 80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, concerning reactions to the disease, the mixed loyalties, the politics and the heartbreaks that ensued. It's big, epic theatre, and like all good epics, it concentrates on a small group of people surrounded by outsized events that they can't control. It's a love story, a religious story, a political story, full of grand emotion, humour, and some mindbogglingly moments of theatrical magic. 

This is the second staging of "Angels" I've seen, following Papermoon's January 2008 production. The comparison between the two is surprisingly close, with both having different strengths. But either way, the audience wins. For this production, the design is simple yet cunning - a tiled area that can be cleaned, and into which the various characters can move through and meet and combine. The production respects Kushner's intent that the mechanisms of the magic should be visible and at the same time, the magic should astound - and in the finale of Part I, a combination of sound, lighting and stage effects comes together for something spectacularly brilliant that ... well, you just have to see it to believe it. On a pure spectacle level, it's the grandest thing I've ever seen on the Belvoir stage. Just thinking of the terrifying sound of the wings ... goosebumps. And the simple effect of having the characters throw glitter to show appearances and disappearances from visions is brilliantly delployed, every time showing something about the character - whether spectacular, business-like, or befuddled.

Fortunately, the performances are also incredibly impressive. Amber McMahon's Harper is a combination of great line readings, wide eyes and pure, soulful confusion as the world becomes increasingly incomprehensible. Marcus Graham's Roy Cohn is spectacularly evil, the best I've ever seen him, slithery, demanding, and raging against his inevitable death. Robin Nevin manages to create five different characters each with their own personalities - the quietly confused rabbi, the stern doctor, the adaptable-to-circumstances mother, the matter-of-fact ghost and the ancient Bolshevik. DeObia Oparei is compassionate, funny and brings the rage as the nurse Belize. Luke Mulliins as the hero of the evening is so heartbreakingly vulnerable, angry, passionate, broken, yet ultimately the strongest person on stage. Paula Arundell's gorgeous voice brings forth the Angel in all her glory. Mitchell Butel brings neurosis, an ability to spew forth Kushner's longest and most tangled political polemics, a buttload of guilt and some smooth and stylish dance moves to the incredibly frustrating Louis. Ashley Zuckerman brings Joe's white-bread-all-american-boy charm,  increasing wide eyed as he realises where his inner desires will lead him.

Seven hours worth of theatre may feel like a long stretch but this is plentifully positioned with intervals (only the first act of part II feels a little elongated) and is constantly compelling. Much praise to director Eamon Flack and his production team, this is truly epic theatre done epicly.