Sunday, 27 December 2015

Well I liked it 2015

A bit later than I normally do this kinda wrap-up, but then again I saw my last shows of the year a little bit later than I normally do.

Anyway. As usual, there's a lot that I didn't see, and undoubtedly there are things that I loved that other people hated and things other people loved that I didn't care for. So ... it's a blog, it has personal taste in it,

In local musicals the two big shows for me were "High Fidelity" and "Company". Both have thematic similarities (men in contemporary relationship dramas with high comedic elements), and both had significant cast overlap in supporting roles (Amy Dunham, Max Gambale and Will Huang). And both are shows I'm proud to see local companies attempting - neither overly-familiar, both well directed by directors who were either first-timers (Fidelity) or were having their first attempt at a musical (Company).

In local plays, the highlights were "The Crucible" and "Casanova". Here there were strong contrasts - Crucible was intense drama, with a puritanical design and a crushing heart, while Casanova was wild comedy, rich, beautiful and ornate. But both featured great casting both in the central and ensemble roles, both had direction with intense focus on details and were theatrically rich meals.

Interstate, the musical that stands out is "Man of La Mancha". The combination of a true star performance from Tony Sheldon and a clever intimate staging made for a heartfelt production that combined fantasy and reality and made a old warhorse something relevant and new.

As for plays interstate, it was a mixed year but Belvoir came home strong with the one-two punch of "Ivanov" and "Mortido". Whether it be a comic-drama about an intellectual going to seed in the Russian countryside, or an intense thriller about the cocaine trade that spread worldwide, Belvoir delivered gripping theatre that kept me engaged, thrilled and eager to come back for more.

There's a lot to look forward to in 2016, and hopefully I may actually get back to submitting reviews sometime near the time that I actually saw shows. May there be much of excellence!

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Violet, Blue Saint Productions, Hayes Theatre

Jeanine Tesori may not be the most well known of composers, but she's one of the most successful. Her shows vary between the intensely personal drama of "Fun Home" and "Caroline or Change", and the wildly commercially driven likes of "Shrek: The Musical" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie". Yet she's rarely kept a lyricist for more than one project (Tony Kushner is the only exception to the rule), and her melodic style varies very widely. Her first show, "Violet", leans more towards the personal-drama end of the scale, in a way that is perfectly designed for the small-stage Hayes, as a young girl in the 1960's south rides a bus to a faith-healer in hope of a miracle. If the eventual destination is not really very much in doubt, the journey is never the less pleasurable with good country-and-gospel sounds, a romance or two and some emotional breakthroughs before the end of the night.

Sam Dodemaide has been handed a gift of a part in "Violet" - she's rarely offstage and she gets to play a wide range of emotion, from hopefullness to devastation, from fear to anger to  joy, from guardedly witty to joyfully embracing possiblities. And she absolutely nails the role, keeping Violets journey clear and at the forefront of all the action. She's a performer to keep an eye out for in whatever roles she may take on.

In support, Barry Conrad as Flick sings attractively although his acting is a little stiff - a little looseness in his performance would help. Steve Danielsen's Monty is more succesfully playful. Damien Bermingham's Father has a gentle lovingness and guarded care that reflects well in his scenes with Dodemaide. Luisa Scrofani doesn't quite work as young Violet - it may be that I picked a bad night and she was both slightly off-key and over-miked in her opening lyrics, but it was difficult to warm to her (although in pieces like "Luck of the Draw" where she's playing off her older self in a scene that jumps across time-and-place it works well). Genevieve Lemon also has to be singled out in both her key cameos (her romping through as "Alice, A Lady of the Night" during some of the later scnees is, in a strict sense, brutal scene stealing but when something is this hilarious, who cares?)

Mitchel Butel as director and Amy Campbell as chroeographer use the small space well - in a cleverly adaptable design by Simon Greer that gets us from place to place and has several good points of focus for performers to work in. Jeremy Silver's sound design is a little too hefty for a small theatre - a show and theatre this size does not need to overpower the audience quite as much as this sound occasionally does.

In short, this is a good tight little musical with a powerhouse lead performance.

King Lear, Sydney Theatre company, Ros Packer theatre

Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfeild are an unbeatable combination. They've triumphed in plays like "Small Poppies", "The Alchemist", "Diary of a Madman" and "Exit the King" (the last one also conquering Broadway). Now they've thrown themselves against Shakespeare's most challenging tragedy,

And there are some very good performances wrapped up in this, not least of whom is Rush. I confess I feared he was miscast - my platonic ideal of Lear is a milataristic, dictatorial man who is brought shabbily undone by his age and carelessness (the only Lear I've really enjoyed seeing was Julian Glover at Shakespeare's Globe in london about 14 years ago), not the more intellectual type that Rush normally plays. But Rush does have madness in him, as well as all the requisite emotional resources that go with being one of our finest actors - he can excerise ruthless authority and gentle whimsy in very quick succession.

Elsewhere, a lot of the acting honours are on the evil side of the coin. Helen Thompson is a fashonista Regan, and Colin Moody is at his sneering, impulsive best as her husband, Cornwall. Helen Buday's Goneril twists and turns wonderfully. And chief among the mischief makers is Meyne Wyatt's Edmund, who plays every side off against each other with ruthless glee.

Elsewhere, things aren't as clear. Robyn Nevin's fool has a number of good ideas attached, and she plays them well, but ... well, bluntly Shakespeare's handle on the character is pretty uneven, and the production doesn't make his disappearance any more feasible. Eryn Jean Norvill is a very flat Cordelia - again, Shakespeare doesn't really offer her much beyond "idealised figure of goodness" but we don't really even get that. Max Cullen's Glouchester is adquate but he's a little lost in the crowd rather than being the second-lead that the character can be.And Mark Leonard Winter's Edgar feels (and, again, I blame Shakespeare) like two or three separate characters - the ineffectual dupe of the first few scenes, Mad Tom for the majority, and the avenging hero in the final sequence - all are played strongly, but they don't really cohere into one person.

Robert Cousin's set design is impressive but it's impressive in a very Sydney-House-style way - it has its biggest effects at the beginning of act two, where a combination of light and space and fog means the characters appear to be wandering in a void. This is a design style I've seen used before by both Benedict Andrews and Simon Stone, and it works better with their slightly colder style than with Armfields' usual warmth. In general, this is a weird case of Armfield seeming to follow other director's design and production trends, rather than creating something that feels like nothing you've seen before (a la "Secret River" or "Cloudstreet", which felt very much from the heart, rather than from the last ten other shows you've seen).

In short - there is good work here, but it's also got a fair bit of derivitiveness and flatness. Plus I'm never quite able to take Lear to my heart, and this didn't change that.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

If/Then, Hollywood Pantages, Los Angeles

It's rare for there to be old-fashioned Broadway Star-vehicles. Hell, it's rare for there to be old-fashioned Broadway Stars (the industry doesn't work like that any more - long-running shows like "Phantom", "Les Mis", "The Lion King", "Wicked" require highly talented performers, but highly talented performers that can be swapped out and who are never bigger brands than the show itself).

The massive ovation as Idina Menzel appears in a spotlight with the words "Hi, it's me" suggest she's an exception. And indeed, this is a show that is very much built on one lead peformer, exploiting her particular skills of a big belting voice and a determined yet slightly neurotic manner. The show built on those foundations isn't a bad one either - a modern tale of a woman returning to New York after a failed marriage, looking for what her next step is. If the simple divide of choosing career or romance seems a tad schematic (and the playing out of both possible scenarios is the rest of the show, as Menzel switches instantaneously between glasses-wearing-romantic Liz and non-glasses-wearing professional Beth), it never the less gives rise to a wide range of interesting scenarios, staged sharply and smoothly under Michael Grief's tight direction. If some of the plot developments wander a little close to melodrama (and one or two feel like they happen overly fast - Liz acquires a second child that the script kinda requires the audience to intuit backwards from events that happen after the birth, rather than actually establishing it clearly at the time it happens), it's never the less an eventful evening.

Composer Tom Kitt and Lyricist/scriptwriter Brian Yorkey's previous show is "Next to Normal", reviewed in the Hayes Theatre production at the beginning of the year. And while "Next to Normal" is undoubtedly the more "important" work (looking at mental illness and how we handle it), while "If/Then" is a lighter work that could easily be seen as about self-indulgent fourtysomethings, I have to be honest that "If/Then" plays as more relateable to my life - no, it isn't as big and dramatic, but you get a broad sense of a person working through real-life dilemmas. It does very slightly feel like a follow-up to "Rent" (partially the combination of Menzel and Anthony Rapp, with Rapp playing a friend who still is attached to Menzel (same as Rent) living in New York (same as Rent) involved in political protests (same as Rent) and who hasn't quite shed his immaturity (same as Rent). That, of course, isn't a particular challenge to me as I am of the generation for whom Rent was our show, about our generation ... and "If/Then" is just as much about my generation as we grow older, face more adult challenges, and live with the consequences of what our previous choices have left us with.

LaChanze, as Menzel's more impulsive friend, brings great energy to her role and is funny and heartfelt, while James Snyder as her lover in one of the alternative timelines is sweetly devotional and also sings like a powerhouse.

In all, this is an impressive, modern show that has a powerhouse performance at the centre and a real energetic swing and vibe to it that make it irresistable to me.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Hollywood Nights, Teatro Zinzanni, Seattle

Teatro Zinzanni is variety at its finest. A long-running Seattle institution, it occupies a spiegeltent in the middle of Seattle's theatre district with a distinct combo of cabaret, cirque, comedy (plus a five course meal into the bargain). "Hollywood Nights" is their current season, which puts a movie-overlay on the various acts (everything from acrobatics to tap routines to opera to jazz standards). Sitting right in the middle of the action (with cast members occasionally fainting into my lap) made everything from the time you enter the space a wildly entertianing production.

Performers include Francine Reed (a regular backing singer for Lyle Lovett), Australian Tim Tyler (who performs the same ping-pong-ball-juggling routine he performed 20 years ago on The Big Gig - his combination of innocent shock at how anyone could possibly misconstrue his behaviour and his glee at showing off his skills is simply irresistable), the delightfully innocently clownish Andrea Conway Doba and her somewhat more cynical husband Wayne Doba, Ron Campbell as MC and general spirit of mischief, the oustanding operatic voice of Juliana Rambaldi, the juggling skills of Gamal David Garcia plus the acrobatic talents of Ben Wendel,Terry Crane, Domitil Aillot and Elena Gatinova. All are top level performers in a wild, funny and fast moving show that does what good variety should do - frame various performers in acts that show off their abilities as well as possible, and gives the audience a surfiet of wild entertainment. Loved it.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Mortido, Belvoir

I have a rule against reviewing previews - it's unfair to a show to give it full critical attention when the show is still prepping, and is in that phase where it's allowed to make mistakes (I've broken that rule one other time on this site, and regret over that not-entirely-favourable review of a show that wasn't quite ready is the reason the rule now applies). And I did see this in a preview. But dammit, I really really liked this (and it has had a pre-run in Adelaide) so it's getting a review anyway.

A tale of cocaine dealing that spreads across Bolivia, Germany and Sydney, "Mortido" literally translates as "the death wish" (as the opposite side of "libido"). Angela Betzien's script reflects this as the characters chase wealth and power through the cocaine trade. Central to the play is Jimmy (Tom Conroy), a young ex-con whose brother in law Monte (Renato Musolino) brings him into the centre of an ongoing international drug war between rival kingpins. It moves from high-to-low in an instant with Leticia Caceres' snap-tight direction. Leading the cast is Colin Friels who convinces in multiple roles as various significant figrues - a Sydney cop and a German kingpin key among them - all his roles benefit from his charisma and star power which enahances rather than diverts away from the rest of the action.

While there's a significant percentage of fantasy combined with brutal realities, and at least one plot device feels a little far-fetched, in the moment it's a tense dramatic ride as the characters get more and more entwined in inescapable cycles of vengeance. It's one of the best new plays I've seen staged at Belvoir in a while - it doesn't feel gimmicky, it doesn't feel retro, it feels contemporary and engaging and thrilling and all the good things.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Anything Goes, Australian Opera, Sydney Opera House

It's a weird choice for the Australian Opera to do this particularly jazzy 1930s musical - this is a very silly light show with very little use for the kind of voices the Australian Opera usually uses (only soprano ingenue Hope Harcort (played by Claire Lyon) requires legit voice). But if they're going to do it, they're going to do it with a lot of pizzaz and style.

Most of this works in Dean Bryant's production. The action, largely taking place on a cruise ship between New York and London, is largely comedic shenanigans as multiple identites, misdirected love triangles, billionaires, criminals and revivalist singers all collide repeatedly, and is basically an excuse to get through a truly stunning set of Cole Porter songs. There is a slightly mismatch between the tone of the script and some of the performances - the songs in particular are sophisticated wit, while the performances do include a few "punch in the crotch" jokes that seem awfully unnencessary - I know the title is "Anything Goes" but you don't need to throw in everything and the kitchen sink.

Leading the cast is Caroline O'Connor, who is in good voice but whose acting occasionally feels over-indicated - while singing, there's an awkward tendency for her to over-illustrate the lyrics, which works okay in the comic material, but has issues in the more sentimental (in particular, her opening "I get a Kick Out of you" sets things off on a bad footing - it's not a song that needs to be mugged for comedy, although it is strangely placed in the script - it's a charming love ditty delivered to a guy who shows no interest whatsoever in her and who spents the rest of the show chasing someone else). She does lift the roof off the joint for the two big production numbers, the title song at the end of act one and the practically blasphemous revival meeting for "Blow Gabriel Blow", which is what's required.

As the romantic lead, Alex Rathberger has a pleasantly winning air, even when indulging in multiple impersonations to win the girl, and also a charming tenor. He has that 1930's "full of pep, energy and wit" attitude that sets the period right. Wayne Scott-Kermond has most of the low comedy of the show as the goofy crook Moonface Martin and lands it right down the middle of the theatre in broad, wildly appealing strokes.

Claire Lyon has the weakest role of the principals but a nice soprano voice - it's not her fault that Hope's "why I can't get the guy" excuses are so very underwritten. Todd McKenny has over-inflated billing but is amusingly foppish in his silly-british-lord role (though the "improvised" shenanigans in his big scene do go on a bit and are very probably not improvised). Debra Krizak's Erma is largely a loud broad at the edges of the plot but she's a knockout in her one big number, "Buddy Beware", as a closing number. In the minor roles I'll put a particular shout out to Nicholas Kong who drew attention in the STC's ill-fated "Spring Awakening" a few years ago and is still just as "why hasn't this guy played a major principal role" 5 years later.

As big-broadway-musicals go, this is worth it for the big production numbers, which are staged big and broad and are blockbustingly good (Andrew Hallsworth's choreography uses props and a skilled dance ensemble with apomb), though it is ultimately a very silly evening (with not all of the comedy landing as firmly as it might). Still, the positives do outweigh the negatives just enough to give this a recommend.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Rabbit for Kim Jong Il, Griffin Theatre, The Stables

This is a sweet little play that ultimately kinda doesn't work. Partially because ... in the end, it's about North Korea. Well, it's not about North Korea. It's the age old story about an innocent who goes abroad and ends up out of their depth. Except that the abroad is North Korea. And it kinda doesn't work to be sweet and innocent and little about North Korea. North Korea isn't a country where sweet and innocent things happen. It's a place where there's a brutal dictatorship that has been going on for quite some time. And a play that takes place against that backdrop without really engaging in it tends to feel kinda feeble.

Kit Brookman's script is taken from an anecdote about a German rabbit farmer whose specially bred giant rabbits were traded to the North Koreans, allegedly as part of a potential breeding program to break a famine. There's significant expansion of this (sending the German rabbit farmer after his rabbit, letting the rabbit have a voice, enlisting the surprising assistance of a friendly pet shop owner, and letting the two Koreans have their own contrasting agendas), but none of this really serves to widen the appeal of the original anecdote.

Steve Rodgers as the farmer is at the centre of the story is firmly sympathetic throughout. Kate Box has a messier time of it (her character twists are never entirely convincing) but she plays whatever her characcter is meant to be in the moment with conviction. Kaeng Chan's Chun is underdeveloped as a functionary who appears to have bigger plans - there's a nice sense that he's uncertain how his plans will play out and just as bewhildered as everybody else, but his character doesn't quite get that third dimension for full buy-in. Meme Thorne's Park Chun-Hei is a firmer martinet with some of her own oddities, but again, she isn't really fully dimensionalised as anything other than a threat. Brookman plays the rabbit with sweet naivete but appears a tad out of his depth when asked to play anything beyond happy hopefulness (when worries start applying, they don't appear to fully land in his performance - and in any case, I'm not entirely sure that the choice to give the rabbit more of a personality than the Koreans was a wise one).

Lee Lewis' production doesn't avoid the sentimental and too-damn nice pitfalls of the script, though it does move reasonably through the international action. It feels almost like it's trying to be a parable, but parables do need simplicity to work, and this doesn't quite get a firm sense of why it's telling the story it's telling. So unfortunately I can't quite recommend this.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Company, Everyman Theatre, The Q

"Company" is a rich theatrical meal - looking at love, friendship and life through a distinctly New York lens, it revolves around one single man on his 35th birthday as he reflects on his friendships with five different married couples and three significant romantic relationships. The songs are teeming with witty observations ("It's the little things you do together"), reflective ambivalence ("Sorry-Grateful") and sometimes just plain flat out insanity ("Getting Married Today")

Everyman's production features a ridiculously talented ensemble cast under some spectacular, tight direction from Jordan Best. Leading the way is Jarrad West, who is the perfect sardonic observer - somewhere between engaged and amused by his friends and terrified as their various insanities manifest. His quest to understand relationships and himself is the thread that ties the show together, and he is a great audiences-eye-view character, as well as opening up in great voice for the yearning "Someone is Waiting", the cavalcade-of-bullshit-false-epiphany "Marry Me a Little" and the climactic, emotive "Being Alive".

Through the various couples, we get Jordan Best and Will Huang as a strangely functional-dysfunctional couple, showing off all kinds of worrying tics, from the constantly correcting one another, to the mutual addictions, to some hysterical physical comedy as the battle gets hands on. Max Gambale and Helen McFarlane are the domestic types, taking a mild walk on the wild side with a little reefer - McFarlane's stoned gabbling is hysterical, and Gambale plays both the wild fun with McFarlane, and the more sober side as they lean back towards being responsible parents. Phillipa Murphy and Tim Sekuless are the swinger-inner-city couple who wildly celebrate their divorce, but are happy to stay living together (with maybe the occasional play-around on the side) - both have an enthusiastic, open friendly nature, and both also do great stuff in the ensemble, Murphy as the lead chorister in "Getting Married Today", and Sekuless with great physical work during "Have I got a Girl for You". Riley Bell and Laura Dawson are the preppie types whose disastrous wedding morning we sit in on (as Dawson delivers the flat-out-best-version of "Getting Married Today" I've ever seen - capturing every bit of rambling psychosis with crystal clarity to hysterical effect, and with Bell providing stable, emotive, everloving support - there's a great sense that here is a sensible, loving guy that Dawson could not be without). Jerry Hearn and Karen Vickery are the older friends with money - aware they're slightly over the hill but still out in the nightclubs -  Hearn has some great silly-duffer dancing and a few moments of barely suppressed emotional pain at his not-quite-right relationship, while Vickery epitomises blousy, sophisticated, bitter self-hatred with a cocktail and a sneer.

As the three girlfriends, Amy Dunham is sweetly naive and also brings her A-game in wild insanity. I don't think I've previously seen her play a dumb blonde, but this one is dumb like a fox - fascinating, eccentric, bewildered but somehow getting where she's going anyway. Vanessa DeJaeger gives Marta some downtown cool - her "Another Hundred People" manages to be both bitter and yearning, and in her scene with Bobby, she has that great ability to make you feel like you don't know where her character's going to go next, but make you always delighted when you get there. Michelle Norris is practical, sweet, kind yet determined in her scene and her dancer's body unleashes wildly unconventional erotic moves during "Tick-Tock".

Jordan Best's direction is tight as a drum, keeping every emotional moment on track and swerving the scenes into each other in glorious mixes that can switch from laughter to drama in seconds. Tim Hansen's musical direction gives us a band that nails a tricky, complicatedly rhythmic score. James Batchelor's choreography has a great range of movements that feel both characterful and true. Michael Spark's set takes one lyric ("All those pictures up on the wall") and makes it glorious reality with a series of frames and squares, while keeping an open, adaptable space that can, and does, go anywhere within Manhattan's limits. Lighting by Kelly McGannon is spot-on, whether it's the small picture-frame moments or the green-zombie glow during "What would we do without you", and Steve Allsop's sound design works perfectly on opening night, barring one bumped microphone (that should be a standard, but ... honestly, with musicals, I've seen so many messily spotty sound cues as actors are picked up three bars into a song that it's almost turned me off seeing shows in their first week).

In short - this is a show I love. Done by a company I love. Full of actors I love. Directed by a director that I love. Is there any surprise that, yes, I love the everloving hell out of this show. Go see it.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Ivanov, Belvoir

Anton Checkov's other rarely-performed piece bears a few similarities to the first one (recently reviewed as "The Present"). Both centre around a married man of low income and uncertain future who engages in casual love-making with the neighborhood rich people, both feature an out-of-control party in their second acts, and both end broadly similarly. "Ivanov" does have the distinction that it was performed during Chechov's lifetime, though, and extensively revised a number of times. And that level of testing means that it's a tighter piece, more focussed. And in Eamon Flack's adaptation, it manages to be both heartbreaking and wildly funny, often within seconds of one another.

There's a rich array of characters, though everything centres on Ewan Leslie's Ivanov, a man who is aware of his personal failures and inabilities yet struggles to do something vaguely decent with himself while surrounded with absurdity and grasping need. Leslie shows a remarkable range and depth of emotion - from detached observer to romantic, even loving husband, to tormented thinker. Even when he's drawn into making a mistake all over again, you can't help but emphathise.

Elsewhere there's strong support - whether it's Zahra Newman who's a delightfully sunny presence as his wife up until the point at which she's not sunny any more, Blazey Best being the most nouveau of the nouveu riche, John Bell giving great Curmudgeonly Uncle work, John Howard as a man bored and exhausted but somehow continuing to go on, Mel Dyer giving deathstares as the maid, Fazzal Bazi a lord of misrule as Ivanov's cousin, Airlie Dodds innocently deluded as a pure force of passion, Helen Thompson luxuriating in wealthy crapulence and Yalin Ozucilek, magnificnetly offended that nobody realises how badly everybody is behaving.

Flack directs to perfection - it's a play that's both personal and yet wildly political - the inner angst is just as much driven by money and class and who has power as it is about who's lust is leading them where. Michael Hankin's set modulates beautifully and entirely suits the belvoir space (and the set changes are highlights), while Mel Page's costumes are led by and reflect their characters down to the ground.

A lot of Belovir this year has felt strangely tenative - not fully going into the works presented, at a slight remove. But this is the full meal-  rich, whole hearted, great theatre. Absolutely worth the watch.

Of thee I sing, Squabbalogic/Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

The biggest musical of 1932, "Of Thee I sing" has slightly slipped into being a trivia answer since ("the first musical to win the Putlizer Prize"). With a script by Morrie Ryskind and George Kaufman, who, among other things, co-wrote a number of early Marx Brothers hits, it's inevitably wildly silly, and while the Gershwins wrote the score, it isn't a score that produced any standards that have had a big life outside the score (unlike, say, the other big musical of the 1930s currently playing in the Opera Theatre, "Anything Goes" - which oddly enough, shared two of its original leads with "Of thee I sing").

A spoof of American Presidential politics, "Of Thee I sing" tells of the adventures of John P. Wintergreen - "everybody loves him, and they'll vote for him whether they want to or not". The party machine decide they need a cause, and after consulting a grouchy chambermaid, they decide their cause will be Love - their candidate will find true love on the campaign trail with the assistance of a national beauty pageant. It sounds like it should work wonderfully, until, of course, Wintergreen finds affection instead with a campaign worker, Mary, who just makes great corn muffins. But the deposed beauty queen, Diana Devereux, isn't going to take this lying down, and she has some surprising connections...

In all honesty, Kaufman and Ryskind's book is the kinda script that could use a little creative editing around the edges. It does have a reasonable mount of wit to it, but there are some longeurs that coulda been trimmed (in particular, Mary has a conversation about White House catering that goes nowhere, and in a show that lasts two hours fourty-five minutes, perhaps a parody of Senate tedium is not what you want to introduce at the two hours twenty mark). The Gershwin's score is bouncy though reprise heavy, with plenty of opportunities for big choral work which the couple of hundred members of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs launch into with gusto (although some sections needed tighter diction as witty lyrics disappeared in a vocal muddle). If the score does feel a little like they're imitating Gilbert and Sullivan without bringing a lot new to the table, it does at least have a reasonable pep to it.

Squabbalogic's casting is, as usual, impeccable. David Berry's Wintergreen has that all important combination of smarm and charm - you know he's a shifty bastard but you like him anyway. Courtney Glass' Mary is loving without being a complete doormat, Jaimie Leigh Johnson's Diana gives good quality indignant rage, and James Jay Moody's Throttlebottom is dweebishly ridiculous. Sharing fourteen of the other roles between them, Blake Erikson, Nathon Farrow and Rob Johnson morph gracefully between whatever is required of them, often in mid-scene.

If it's not the greatest musical ever written, "Of Thee I Sing" is never the less an entertaining artefact of 1930s Americana that pleasantly diverts

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Much Ado about Nothing, Canberra Rep

Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" has a classic rom-com premise at its centre - a bickering man and woman keep on bickering until it's obvious that the only thing to do is for them to fall in love. But the play around it has some interesting angles - in particular, there's real darkness in the subplot as the sweet-young-things, Hero and Claudio, are torn apart by a vicious trick, with Claudio's reaction making the earlier light fluffy giggles turn nasty. What started out as light jesting suddenly turns deadly serious - these jokes hurt.

At the centre of this production are Jim Adamik and Lainie Hart as Benedick and Beatrice, the squabbers who will, inevitably, find themselves together. There's rich performances from both - Adamik has always been a delightful clown (and is again here, particularly in his broad physical manouvres round a trellis during the "overhearing" scene), but there's also a serious, gutsy actor who shows his mettle when the games are over and the jokes aren't funny any any more. Lainie Hart manages to achieve great comic effects from the most minor of movements - there's a moment when she manages to get a laugh as she breaks her stride and her collar suddenly stops bouncing - as well as immaculate vocal work tossing quips hither and yon.

In the secondary romantic roles, Vivek Sharma has a sweet dopey romanticism, is quite delighfully comic in his fooling of Claudio, is suitably despairing and cruel in his rejection, and moves into dejected sorrow as he realises what he has lost. Marni Mount's Hero is pretty but ... this is one of those "is it the part or is it the actor" things - I can't remember a really good Hero from any other production, and I get the feeling there is not much more to do than stand there and look pretty. Which she does very well.

Elsewhere, there's a mixed bag of performances. Tony Turner doesn't appear to be pushing himself very hard - even in the despair of the rejection scene, we get more "gestures towards emotion" than actual emotion. It's a pity after his strong performance in "Casanova". Riley Bell's Dogberry is probably going to split audiences - for mine, there's some great physical comedy in there (in particular one very dramatic pratfall) but it does come at the expense of sacrificing some of the great spoonerisms in the script, which kinda get buried under all the physical business. There is, however, a great comedy-team-up look between him and Liz Bradley (as Verges) - when he's next to her, with his rubbery face and her stone face, his height and her .. not-height ... it definitely provokes grins.  Fraser Findlay steals scenes effortlessly with a strong singing voice, witty gestures and a strong solid presence. David Kavanaugh gets in some high-quality brooding as Don John, Ben Russell is impishly pleasurable as Don John, Joshua Bell's Borachio and Bradley J. McDowell do great slimy-creep work as Don John's toadies.

The 1920s settting means costume design is rich and gorgeous throughout - the set design does feel a little bit static and Cynthia Jolley-Rogers lighting is a little samey (though the foggy mourning scene does induce a great lighting moment). There is also a slightly weird placement of the interval - it doesn't quite feel like the right moment in the action (maybe a scene earlier?) to be taking a break.

This is not a perfect production, but there's great work in the centre of it between Adamik and Hart, and it is certainly worth the catching.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Storytime 2015, Civic Pub

Okay, this isn't really theatre, but it's never the less one of the events that happened round town that I went to that I think kinda deserves a review anyway. It's not really standup (though it's hosted by one of Canberra's best standups, Jay Sullivan), and it's not really a music show (though it had a damn good music act in the middle). It's sorta a chat show, live and in person, with a simple format - Jay has four guests, who he interviews then invites to tell a story about their lives. The guests are wide and varied but all have a story to tell of some type or another. After the second guest's story, there's a musical act, who plays us to interval, and plays again just after interval. And after the final guest, it's done.

This time, the four guests were Emma Markezic (a sex columnist for Cosmopolitan), Tony Brennan (Deputy high Comissioner for the UK), Matt Nightingale (a bass player for a ridiculous number of local bands) and "Andrew" from the band "Glitoris (an all female band that plays punk songs while bare to the waist and covered in glitter). All had wild and wooly stories to tell about their lives and adventures, both capably interviewed by Sullivan, and solo. It's a remarkably human evening - these are regular people with their own interests and they share them beautifully and generously. Midshow act "The Here and Now" sounded absolutely bloody gorgeous, too.

The nature of the event, of course, means that it's as good as its guests, but if the curated selection of human beings is as good as this again on October 20th when the second Storytime happens, it'll be awesome indeed.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Into the Woods, Dramatic Productions, Gunghalin Theatre

James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's musical is the most obviously commercially appealing of their three shows - a plot consisting of fairy stories jammed together is always going to have much wider audience than a french painter or an italian stalker - but it still has traps for performers, including a varying tone (with some scenes playing as broad spoof, and others as deeply emotional explorations of loss and pain), Sondheim's trademark "how many words can we squeeze into three minutes" phrasing and odd rhythmic patterns, and an ending that doesn't entirely hold up to scrutiny (the second act spends extensive time criticising the characters for having behaved dubiously without thinking the consequences, only to turn around and let them behave dubiously without thinking of the consequences again to resolve everything).

Dramatic Productions unevenly satisfies these requirements. There's some particularly strong performances, as well as a few lacklustre ones, but a strong sense of pace keeps the action rolling along reasonably nicely. In act two, in particular, the show develops a sense of desolation as misfortune after misfortune pile up on the characters, and there's some nice character work there. But there's also a couple of places where performers are only working on a purely surface level - playing for the laugh at the expense of playing for the truth. THere's also some wandernig accents around the cast - some play regional british, some are definately singing in an American accent (although here it might be that the songs rhyme properly in american but not in british). 

Vocally and individuallly, Grant Pegg as the Baker and Veronica Thwaites-Brown as the Baker's wife are dramatically interesting and sound wonderful - although there is a slight lack of chemistry throughout that means they seem more like buddies than a married couple. Sian Harrington's Red Riding Hood switches effortlessly between the sweet ingenue and the brattish, knife-weilding, bun-stealing child in a delightful perfomrance. Kelly Roberts' Witch has cackling, fast-moving evil in her crone form and smooth elegance in her beautiful form (although she's having problems with the sleeves of her costume, which appear a little tangled - the costumes generally are a slight hinderance-  with several of them borrowed from the Victorian Opera's performance of last year, not all of them seem to have been re-tailored to fit the new actors - there's also a slightly alarming phallus on one of the knobs on the set which I'm going to assume was Victorian Opera's attempt at pointing to the freudian undercurrents, though it remains unacknowledged by the rest of the production, and I'm not sure if I'm just seeing willies on the set in places I shouldn't). 

Elsewhere in the cast, Miriam Miley-Read has little to do as Cindarella's Stepmother but does it with wit, charm and a good evil-cackle, Brian Kavanaugh's Steward is similarly not doing very much but being delightfully supercillious whenever he is doing it. Alexander Clubb is pushing too hard in both of his roles - his growls as the wolf tend to over-ride comprehensibility and musicality, and he's overplaying for laughs as Cindarella's prince - his material is naturally funny and it needs light, airy playing, not the elbow-in-the-chest he's delivering.

Damien Slingsby's musical direction is smart, focussed and sounds good - Kathryn Jones' choreography feels kinda like unnecessary trotting about a lot of the time, but never the less if you're going to have choreography in this show, this is certainly choreography. 

All in all, this is a production that's enjoyable to watch in several places but feels a little skimped in others - it works better than the movie simply because the movie trimmed in a few too many places that started to damage sensible plotting - but there's still a sense that there's a better version of this production with a few key recastings and a little bit more focus on the undercurrents here and there.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Seventeen, Belvoir

Getting actors who are 70-odd to play 17 year olds is, undoubtedly, a gimmick. But getting very very good actors who happen to be in their seventies to play these roles is far more than a gimmick  - it's about letting us see theatre legends with their hair down, playing roles far removed from their usual work, looking at that point on the verge of adulthood where life seems to offer huge changes in the smallest gesture.

A simple story of a bunch of teens out for a party after the last night of school, Matthew Whittet's script could very easily be boiled down to the simplest stereotypes. Mike's the alphamale, tough and in charge, Tom is his bookish friend who's about to move to Melbourne, Sue is Mike's attractive and compassionate girlfriend, Edwina's Sue's nerdy best friend, Ronny the weirdo that they all try to avoid and Lizzy is the annoying little sister. Gathered in a park with some tunes, some beers and a few vodka shots for one last night out, the addition of a game of truth or dare starts getting a few more truths out there than normal.

As you can spot, there's a few devices here that feel a little stock (in particular, the truth-or-dare game and the "he's moving to Melbourne" ticking clock). But more importantly, there's the acting. Playing a seventeen year old country kid seems to have knocked off some of John Gaden's patrician airs - he's convincing as a guy who is slightly off-putting in his determination to be in control, but ultimately is subject to a helpless passion. Maggie Dence as Sue is truly embraceably real, that strange mixture of a carefree air and a slight worry that her life doesn't necessarily have an easy map to it. Anna Volska's Edwina projects a great sense of superiority that is increasingly wobbled as she gets drunker. And Genevieve Lemon's Lizzy has that great "Can I play too" attitude, but also is heartbreaking in her moment of compassion for her big brother when he starts to break. I do think Peter Carrol's Tom is slgightly under-characterised (he's sorta the default protagonist, but either Carrol hasn't found much to play in him, or there isn't much to hold onto in the role that's interesting) - and Otto's Ronny is a little familiar from other performances Otto has given in the past - it's a case where stereotyping slightly weakens the effect.

Anna Louise-Sark directs with mostly a firm hand (although her silent patch in the first five minutes is kinda offputting - Belvoir's had a couple of shows in the last twelve months which have slowed the action to a crawl, and I've tended to find the slowness has not been rewarded with depth). This is a piece with heart and soul rather than necessarily a deep think-piece about what seventeen means - but it manages to get over the slightly stock situation with some skilled focused acting and a gentle script that doesn't hit the message button too hard.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Present, Sydney Theatre Company

It took me a while to warm to Anton Chekhov. His plays can feel like nothing very interesting is happening - people are just gathering, talking, and then wandering away, moping about their wishes and dreams but never apparently doing very much to achieve those things.

And then I got older, and the songs of failed experiences started to resonate a bit more, and suddenly I got it. It possibly also helped that I started reading translations and seeing productions that made the ennui urgent and pressing, rather than vague and ephemeral. It probably also helped that I acted in one of the plays in a really minor role so I got to watch one of his plays repeatedly and got to see the subtle ironies and structural power of his plays at work (my acting career is a long series of shows where I've spent more time getting into my costume than I have on stage - trust me, I don't write this stuff because I think I can do better than the actors involved).

"The Present" isn't entirely typical Chekhov - yes, it's set in Russia (although in this case the translation has made a vague update to the 1990s) and it is largely about frustration and lack of success - but it's adapted from a script that was never performed during Chekhov's lifetime, never had a title, and would take 5 hours to perform in its entirety. Previously adapted under titles like "Platanov", "Don Juan in the Russian Manner" and "Wild Honey", any version has to pick what to concentrate on, but all versions do centre around Platanov, a schoolmaster who holds a strange but irresistible fascination to the entire female cast (in this production, he's played by Richard Roxburgh, who largely convinces partially by more resignedly accepting their attentions rather than wildly skirt-chasing). Andrew Upton's adaptation is on its strongest ground when the action remains focussed on Platanov. Elsewhere, it can be a little diffuse - the opening ten-fifteen minutes, in particular, feel a tad aimless (despite beginning with a bang, literally, as Cate Blanchett shoots a pistol into the auditorium to bring the houselights down). Blanchett's Ana Petrovna, the owner of the estate on which all the action takes place and around who's birthday the events are timed, has some bravura sequences - in particular, some wild business with a detonator, some sexy dancing and a chance to show off some damn shapely legs, all in act two, but much of the business relating to her two older suitors and her desire to hold the estate together is rather unfocussed, while her scenes opposite Roxburgh burn with intensity and passion.

Elsewhere there is some unevenness. Chris Ryan does a great line in peevish betrayal, and Toby Schmitz is at his best in Act Four when he's been shattered (his early act one material does feel a little like Schmitz's greatest hits, as there's a lot of the familiar sarcastic ease that's been in a number of his performances - he's good at it, but it's familiar stuff). Jaqueline McKenzie doesn't seem to get a chance to transition properly onstage from aloof coldness to passionate engagement - it's like a switch was flipped backstage - which does mean she's only given half a character to work with, it's watching the transitions that is interesting. Marshall Napier is great fun to watch but does seem to have recieved the direction "play it like Brian Blessed" and siezed it with gusto. Eamon Farren's disreputable Kirill is wonderfully sleezy but seems to have wandered in from another play when he abruptly shows up in act two, and wanders out before the climax of the action.

In short, this was a production that had a lot of good actors doing good work, but in a show that wasn't always as focussed as it might be. The high point in act three (where in an exploded void, Platanov is confronted by lovers and betrayed friends in regular succession) is where the writing is most focussed on the, basically, high-class-sex farce which Chekov actually wrote (though his ending, which is one of those "the quickest way to resolve this is to shoot someone", doesn't quite ring with the best of his endings, where the worst punishment you can impose on these characters is to let them keep living with themselves. So this is sorta a case of a fine sympony orchestra playing a composer's lower-order works - you can spot echoes of the good stuff but it isn't all the best tunes.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Les Miserables, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

"Les Mis" was not the first Mega-musical I saw as a young person. That would be "Cats". But it's the first one that I can still respect as an adult, and it's probably the mega-musical I've seen the most.

Which is not to say I don't know the flaws, just that I love them as part of what makes up a grand mix of epic storytelling, iconic singing, romance, pursuit, revolution and pathos. So when a friend suggested I catch the new production playing in Sydney, it didn't take a long time to say yes.

And even up in the cheap seats near the top of the balcony, it impresses with a fair bit of big-ness. This is a different staging to the classic Trevor Nunn-directed, John Napier-designed production, but the new direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell and new set design by Matt Kinley makes interesting new choices - it's minus the revolve and the one large setpiece of the slums-of-paris-that-transformed-into-the-barricades, but with some clever spectacle added instead (From the opening moment, where the familiar chain-gang instead becomes a galley ship with the various prisoners as rowers). It's not exactly done subtly, but then again Les Mis is not the most subtle show. Up in the cheap seats I did end up alongside a ten year old seeing it, presumably, for the first time, who was a tad distractable but obviously paying enough attention to ask important questions like "who's General LaMarque" (the answer, of course, being "it barely matters, it's only important he's dead because ... plot").

The performances are a mixed bag. Simon Gleeson feels awfully young to be playing Valjean and is never really all that convincingly aged up, but he does sing well and has a nice solid presence in the monologues. Hayden Tee's Javert has the intensity but is very much a black villian rather than someone tortured by his own concept of punishment and redemption. Patrice Tipoki's Fantine is suitably touching and tortured in her twenty-minute slide into doom. Lara Mulchay's Mme. Thenardier largely steals whatever bits of the show are around when she's on-stage - she's consistently hilarous (her usual counterpart Trevor Ashley was out the night we saw it - his understudy sang well but did not quite match her in grotesqueness). Kerrie-Anne Greenland is a touchingly misguided Eponine - although Euan Doidge's Marius is so extrordinarly drippy and soppy that he does make her look a bit idiotic for being infatuated with him. Emily Langridge is the poor victim stuck with boring Cosette, and fails to do anything interesting with her, largely because I suspect there is nothing you can do with her beyond sit there and look and sing prettily (Marina Prior wasn't able to do a lot with Cosette either back in 1987, so my suspicion is it's a bloody awful role).

Elsewhere in the ensemble there's a few moments of over-enthusiastic acting (particularly among the solo lines in the opening - just because you have only one line in a show, shoving your most over-the-top-acting into it isn't going to make that one line more important). Still, the combination of score, spectacle and story holds up pretty strongly with a fair chunk of touching moments, rousing ballads and big sings.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Casanova, Canberra Rep

Just your usual advance notice - this is a rave, so go do the booking thing because I'm going to like this a lot and insist you go. And, bluntly, Canberra audiences are getting a shitty reputation for not supporting newer shows and going to see the same old stuff recycled every four or five years, and if you want to change that, you need to support the good stuff with your dollars.

Anyway. Why is this the good stuff? Well, it starts with the script. You don't often see a wild rollicking adventure on stage, but that's what this is - one man, armed with little more than his wit and his charm, out to make his fortune and find his way through Renaisasance Europe. There's comedy, dance, a duel, and rather a lot of lust along the way - plus a sweet love story and some gentle pathos as the older Casanova looks back on his youth both with enjoyment of what happened and regret for what might have been. Mark Kilmurray has lightly trimmed the 2005 TV mini-series by Doctor Who scribe Russell T. Davies (which aired in the UK a fortnight before the first episode of the Who revival) into a flowing theatrical romp.

Jarrad West's production takes that script and gives it vivid life. Playful, vigorous and ever-flowing, the production draws you in with charming energy, providing great opportunities for the leads and a large ensemble to play out these wild adventures. West also designed the detailed-yet-generous stage design - plenty of decoration but with large open playing spaces for the actors to spread across.

First among the cast are the two men playing old-and-young Casanova. I've not seen Tony Turner give a better performance in about a decade of watching him. He's playful, cynical yet able to turn on dime into a pure expression of the heart, and he's heartbreaking later in the play as regret for the darker sides of his reputation start to overwhelm him. Ben Russell as the younger Casanova (the lack of resemblance between the two actors is a delicious gag) has effortless charm, displaying a keen mind  and enthusiastic wit in true leading-man style.

As the key women in their lives, Steph Roberts and Amy Dunham bring the emotion. Roberts is practically Turner's partner-in-crime in the telling of the story - eager to hear the stories but at the same time not entirely taken in either by some of the more over-the-top details or entirely sure she approves of some of Casanova's bad behaviour (she plays a vital role here, allowing the show to not be just a celebration of Casanova's libertine ways, but to also critique the dangers of not caring for consequences) . Dunham is in more restrained style than I've previously seen her (she has a wild engaging style that's appealed in shows like "Hairspray" and "High Fidelity" which isn't seen here) but she's gorgeous, classy, with still just that touch of mischief that makes her a perfect playmate for Casanova, and makes it heartbreaking when they're unable to be together.

Riley Bell as the young Casanova's servant, Rocco, is a stealthy scene-stealer - somewhat grotty, as impulsive as his master, similarly quick-witted (I'm not entirely sure all his lines are in the script) and simultaneously supportive to his master and trying in vain to recapture him back to some vague level of rationality. Bojana Kos plays two very different phases of Bellino - both as the early arrival to Venice, proper, restrained and falling towards Casanova, and the later phase where excess has taken over and started to rot, and plays them both with aplomb. Chris Zuber as Casanova's snobbish nemesis Grimani is suitably stern, staunch and dangerous, perhaps even more so when Casanova finally unlocks his secret pain.

The ensemble is a mix of familiar and unfamiliar performers, all of whom seize great spotlight moments. Kate Blackhurst and Liz Bradley particularly score as two very-friendly-sisters in a variety of different poses, Geoffrey Borny has both his usual charming gentleness as a patron and friend to Casanova, and produces some alarmingly seedy noises during the later part of the evening (it's unlocked a whole other dimension to Borny, I would love to see him be evil for an evening). Sam Hannan-Morrow shows up all over the place as various threatening, ingratiating, seedy and delightful types (including, at one point, as a nun). Bradley McDowell is delightfully foppish, Kayla Ciceran hits the heart with an emotional speech near the end of the evening, and there's also fine moments from Alice Ferguson, Emily Ridge and Tieg Saldana.

All are costumed by Anne Kay in a clever, gorgeous, beautiful array of outfits - some beautifully in period, some delightfully not-so-much (in particular the pearly-king-and-queen outfits for the London sequence). Lighting by Kelly McGannon is precise, emotive and helps the show's verve and energy immeasurably.

If it teases you in with the promise of lust and sex, Casanova lets you go with a spirit of adventure and excitement. It's a fun, gorgeous production with surprisingly emotional moments combining with wild hilarity to let your eyes, ears and heart feast on an engrossing epic.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Mother Courage and Her Children, Belvoir

Brecht can be a tricky trap for professional theatre companies. His plays abound in parable-like simplicity, but require creative theatricality to really fly. In the case of Mother Courage, his epic about war and capitalism, they also require an ability to tell a long story covering multiple years while feeling tied together (Brecht only vaguely gestures in his script towards when and where the characters are, and there's very little information as to who's fighting who and why, just that the war is continuing throughout and that it's obviously a religious war).

Eamon Flack's production doesn't quite connect the dots as it might. There's good stuff in there (in particular, many of the performances, and some nice imagery), but this isn't something like his "Glass Menagerie" or "Angels in America" where he's found the beating heart of the play and got it moving. Michael Gow's new translation certainly feels playable and speakable, and Stefan Gregory provides some good tunes to to with the songs, but too often this stops and starts when it should be pulling the audience along with it through humour, tragedy and compelling struggle.

Part of it may be that the comedy early on doesn't land, meaning that the tragedy later can't either. The central idea of this production (making Mother Courage's cart a lightbulbed food-truck) seems clever and modern, and there is a through-line of Courage as a practical small-businesswoman whose compromises are still not enough to save her and her children from the harm of war, but elsewhere things are very vague. Neither Tom Conroy as Swiss Cheese or Richard Pyros as Elif, her two sons, make much of an impact in their scenes, therefore we don't really fell their loss when they are compromised and killed (although Conroy's post-mortem appearance in a bouncy, enthusiastic "Song of the Great capitulation" is one of the most effective moments in the evening - a great moment of darkness creeping into entertainment, which should have been a feature of more of the evening). Nevin has all the ruggedness and deviousness that a good Mother Courage should have, but too often she's not met at her own level. Paula Arundell as Yvette is suitably sultry and sings a great "Fraternization" song, but her appearances are too intermittent to really hold the night together. Similarly Arky Michael's cynical and lusty Cook has a great energy but is used too infrequently to really work. Anthony Phelan's Priest doesn't quite land - there's a certain amount of self-righteous weaselry in the role that isn't quite captured, so his scenes tend to go  a tad flat. Emele Ugavule is passionate and engaged but her death scene suffers from staging problems that mean it never quite lands as it should either.

I have had strong hopes for Flack as incoming Artistic director of Belvoir, but this isn't the best model of his talents. For whatever reason, this doesn't feel like a fully-committed full throated production the way it should, and thus it falls flat when it should grab you by the scruff and demand attention.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Jesus Christ Superstar, PeeWee Productions, AIS Arena

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the perrenials. It will be revived as long as people appreciate the hard-rocking score (possibly Lloyd Webber's best), the incisive lyrics (Tim Rice is still Lloyd Webber's strongest lyricist), and the interesting angle it takes on the last week of Jesus' life - by telling the story largely from Judas' point of view, and by omitting the resurrection, it leaves unresolved the key question of whether Jesus was human or deity, making it a show about Christ that isn't just for Christians (it's the perfect show for an agnostic, in fact, because it decides nothing).

This Arena Spectacular version has many strong things to recommend it. The vocals and orchestra under the direction of Ian McLean with vocal coaching by Sharon Tree are key among these - the entire cast is in good solid voice and the band really rocks when the show is required to rock and are delicate and sensitive when the score gets sensitive.

Dramatically, things aren't always as strong. Key in any production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is the dynamic between Jesus and Judas - a passionate, argumentative, engaged debate about what action they should be taking, a strong bond that falls apart in ways that leads them both to their deaths. Almost none of that lands here - Michael Falzon's Judas is vocally excellent, but too often his body-language and attitudes suggest a guy who's mildly perturbed rather than being ripped apart by his passions. Similarly, Luke Kennedy's Jesus sounds great but spends a lot of his time casually strolling around the set rather than being more and more desperate to seize his limited time to reach his followers. His fleeing from the lepers during "The Temple" is particularly dudded - there's no fear or sense that he's ever really overwhelmed. Both are strongest on their last substantial numbers - Falzon's title song has all the sarcastic, jumpy energy that is lacking everywhere else in the show, and Kennedy's "Gesthemene" (possibly because he's blocked to stand centre stage in strong lighting with no movements) lands great.

Because of the lack of tension between Jesus and Judas, there's a flow-on effect to Jenna Roberts' Mary Magdelene. Mary is meant to be the cooling, calming point between Jesus and Judas. If there's no tension, anything she does to try to produce calm between the two just feels weird and unmotivated - they're already pretty chilled out, why bother exhorting them to calm down?

Elsewhere, there's a lot of strength in the supports. Max Gambale has a great mix of imperial hauteur and an increasing sense of dread and frustration as Pilate. Gordon Nicholson is astounding as Herod - he's massively high camp, with an almost Frankenfurter vibe (Nicholson matches my imagination of what Reg Livermore did with Herod in the original Australian production).Zack Drury's Caiaphas is suitably imposing and menacing, Will Huang's Simon Zealotes gives a bounce and energy to the whole show (he's also the only soloist to join in on the choreography), and Nick Valois in the under-written role of Peter gives great energy to both his songs (although "Could We Start Again Please?" seems weirdly directed as a love song between him and Mary Magdelene, rather than two friends joining together to wonder what went wrong with the man they both love).

Phil Goodwin's lighting design is pretty goddamn spectacular - it's a bit keen on sending out the blinding-effects into the audience now and again, but there's a great sense of spectacle (in partular, the uber-gaudy title-song gives Judas' vegas-style hustling a good backrdrop, and the "tv static" crucifix during the crucifixion is a great image which it would have been great to see supported elsewhere in the production - I have a feeling this is borrowed from the recent Arena tour that used a lot more multimedia, where the static could have made a bit more of a statement rather than just be there as a nice image). Jordan Kelly's choreography is good in bigger crowd numbers like "Hosanna" and "Simon Zealotes", although I'm not in love with the Up-With-People-style modern-dress dancers in the title song - their moves seem a bit too clean-cut for what should be a bit more down-and-dirty.

All in all, this is a production with a lot of strengths but with a bit of a dramatic hole where the centre should be. There's some great work here that could have been stronger with better, tighter and more passionate direction.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Le Noir, the Dark Side of Cirque, Canberra Theatre

Acrobatics and erotica have a reasonable amount in common. They're both about showing off the body and what it can do in various ways, and generally benefit when the performers wear skimpy, form-fitting clothing. Le Noir combines elements of both into an intimate cabaret evening that grandly displays 11 separate acts showing off various types of acrobatic manouverings in a framework that plays up some of the erotic potential of these acts.

Divided into three sections, basically distinguishable by the cast's dress-code, "Blanc", "Rouge" and "Noir" (the transition between "Blanc" and "Rouge" is nicely sudden and grand, the transition between "Rouge" and "Noir" is over interval), the show uses a smallish stage in the middle of the Canberra theatre stage, surrounds it with an on-stage audience, and on a level of pure spectacle, it frequently astounds. It is, inevitably, still a variety show, so some acts are stronger than others (and some fit the theme better than others - in particular, the duo acts show various types of couplings entertainingly - the Trapeze, perhaps, plays this best by giving the coupling a teasing push-me-pull-you attitude - and there is something slightly problematic in that, in order to achieve the various acrobatic poses, performers inevitably wind up having to stomp on one another's crotches occasionally). The pairs are nearly all boy-girl, making this a fairly hetro-normative evening (the only pair that isn't boy-girl is the act-one-closer "strong-men" piece, which plays more as two men showing off their form for the audience than anything with a romantic-angle between the two performers).

A couple of the solo acts aren't really particularly eroticised - however the Cyr Wheel and Shape Spinning sections have performers showing pure joy at the delights of showing off what they can do with a simple piece of equipment, and the Rolla-bolla lets the performer adopt the persona of a muscular mechanic himbo being teased by the supporting dancers into performing more and more dangerous stunts to impress them.

The MC's sections, entirely in french, have very little to do with erotica at all and a lot to do with exploiting audience participation and breaking up the evening, which they do pretty effectively in a lightly fun way.

Lighting and sound are occasionally a little overwhelming (lights enjoying blinding the audience with lights in the eyes every so often, and sound amped up pretty loud, with an onstage DJ giving it full doof-doof quality), I also don't know how the fairly intimate performances look from up in the fairly distant seats of the back of the canberra theatre (I was seated relatively close up) and worry that the venue may be a little large for what is, ultimately, acrobatic cabaret.

I don't want to be too hard on this, it is frequently a very entertaining, stylish evening, with acrobatic performers doing spectacular things with precision, and with a nice overlay of production value. If it doesn't re-invent the form, it isn't necessarily trying to. I think there is room to expand, though, with a bit more thematic coherence and, perhaps, a wider range of erotic potential than is currently on display.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Crucible, Canberra Rep

It's been a while since I've unashamedly loved a show at Rep as much as I've loved this one. So the tradition applies - go buy your tickets now, then come back at your leisure and read this. This is a production that you will hate yourself for missing. So don't miss it. Book now.

And now that you've booked, let's talk about the show. Arthur Miller's play is, of course, a recognised classic and a regular school text, but it's also a living theatrical piece that needs skilled performers and tight direction. In this production, it gets it.

Michael Sparks' set covers the wide Theatre 3 stage with trees made of rope, indicating the puritan's fear of the natural world where, as the play begins, young girls have been cavorting in the woods, and also the tangled webs that have been weaved by old rivalries between the people of Salem. A central clearing is the main playing area, with all scenes represented by various arrangements of four white benches. This stark design focusses the play marvelously on the story and the acting - it takes a lotta work to look this simple. Kelly McGannon's lighting compliments this well - giving the woods a darkly shadowy presence while giving the downstage area the warmth of a home or the coldness of a courtroom.

Populating the scene is a cast of extraordinary depth. Leading the way is Duncan Ley. I've said previously he's one of Canberra's finest actors. And now that he's leaving Canberra (this is his farewell performance on the Canberra stage), he's leaving with a performance that will stick in the mind for quite a while. His Proctor starts cynical, smart-alecky, moody and blunt. But we start to see different sides to him - a man with passions, affection for his wife, longings for the sensual temptation of Abigail, and riven with guilt by his actions - and trying desperately to do the right thing in the face of horrendous circumstances. Lexi Sekuless matches him, showing a gentle, kind woman who's renegotiating second-by-second how far she can forgive her husband's transgressions and balance the love she has and the betrayal she feels. You never doubt, though, the love and affection that sits inside her. Zoe Priest's Abigail Williams is a bloody marvel. She's a ruthless force of nature - one of her early lines talks about seeing her parent's heads bashed in by Indians, and you get the feeling she's determined that next time, she'll be the one holding the hammer. Intense, driven, vengeful, mercurial and just plain dangerous, it's a performance that will long stick in the memory.

Elsewhere in the cast, Duncan Driver applies his formidable intellect to the role of the overly-arrogant Hale - as the scales fall from his eyes and he begins to see how deluded he has been, it is a marvel to watch. David Bennett's Giles Corey has some of the moments of humour of the show and makes them count, managing to be both genial and massively argumentative at the same time. Yanina Clifton's Mary Warren has a great mix of meek submission and bravery followed by complete mental disintegration. Mark Bunnett's Danforth is thoroughly, despicably devoted to his mistaken sense of duty, and to sticking to the bureaucratic technicalities of law rather than letting any slivers of humanity slide through. Adam Salter's Reverend Parris, too, delivers foolish pride and arrogance followed by desperation as he realises how wrong he has been and how hard the backlash to his actions will be. Elaine Noon's pitiless Ann Putnam is convincingly, painfully bitter from her losses, and Paul Jackson's Thomas Putnam has a wonderfully awful rich, entitled air as he takes advantage of the awful situation.

Jordan Best co-ordinates this all with precision - her blocking of the group of girls in particular makes them a solid, terrifying unit falling in lockstep behind Abigail - but there's great understanding of space, of where the connections between characters should register and where they will fail. She ensures that we're passionately engaged in this life and death struggle for characters to retain their integrity and honour in awful circumstances.

I cannot speak highly enough of this production. It's strong, impressive work that should be seen, contemplated and hailed.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Monkey: journey to the west. Theatre of Image, Canberra Theatre

Generation X grew up with Monkey, The Goodies and Doctor Who. The Goodies did a live tour a couple of years ago, and Doctor Who made a comeback about a decade ago ... and now it's the turn of Monkey.

Of course, it's not quite the same - given Monkey was based on a 16th century Chinese novel, it's out of copyright enough that it can be adapted without having to pay much heed to the 70's version  -and indeed, apart from publicity referencing "Monkey Magic" (which was never the name of the show ... and I know this is my hang up on accuracy, but it still annoys me). Still, the primary quartet of Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy and Sandy are all present and accounted for, dutifully engaged in a quest westwards to retrieve sacred scrolls from India.

There's some lovely attractive design here from Kim Carpenter (creator, co-director and designer), with puppetry small and large, projections and some rich costuming to present the various strange creatures encountered along the way. And the four lead performances are consistently strong - Aijin Abella is impish, active and loveable as Monkey, Darren Gilshenan's Pigsy is a perfectly grotesque disgusting slob, Justin Smith's Sandy has a blissed-out-Nimbin Hippy-vibe, and Aileen Huynh's Tripitaka is the perfect straight-man to them all. Scott Witt's movement makes the numerous fights entertainingly gymnastic, and the supporting cast perform various roles (and occasional scenery) with aplomb.

If it isn't perfect it's slightly that the plot is a tad repetetitve (basically, the four are threatened by a demon, they fight it off, they meet another one... then they get to india and the show wraps up rather suddenly). The background music is delightful, but the songs are slightly less so - they don't quite have the sense of fun of the rest of the show, and don't have the virtue otherwise of acting as a reflective thematic break in otherwise frantic action.  There isn't a lot of depth here, but as spectacle and as an entertainment, it hits several right buttons. The ticket price is also pretty darn reasonable for a touring pro production ($45 for adults). So worth watching with expectations suitably modified.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Elektra/Orestes, Belvoir

Belvoir's back in the Greeks, revisiting one of the major tragedies in a new adaptation. Unfortunately, this is a deeply middling production with a few problems. The central device, that we see the action twice, once from the perspective of the dining room, and once from the perspective of the kitchen, seems like it should help, but frequently we don't get any development from the new angle - in particular, there's a long sequence in the second half where Orestes is hiding in the cupboard where we just get to hear the same dialogue through the door. There's also a critical failure in staging - when your play is largely built upon two acts of killing, having the first one of those acts performed in front of a mirror that makes it blatantly obvious that Orestes' knife is not actually going anywhere near Aegisthus means that the audience engagement is broken.

There's also a general problem that this feels very surface level - it's rare that we get a deeper sense of any of the characters and why they're doing what they're doing. Katherine Tonkin's Elektra probably survives best - the character with the clearest sense of what they're doing and how they're feeling, she's sullen, contradictory, in some ways a spoiled brat, but, and this is the important point, understandable. She's the one character on stage with a clear line in what she wants, and an idea in how she's going to achieve it.

Hunter Page-Lochard as Orestes has one point where we get a sense of where an interesting story may have been - when he reminds us he was 11 when he was sent into exile- but all too often he's used simply as a brooding prescence rather than anything rounded or developed. There is vengeance to be had, he is the one who will deliver that vengeance.

Linda Cropper's Klytemenestra also has her moments as she attempts to reach out to both of her vengeful children, but it's never really allowed to get very far - we never get the sense that her reaching is anything other than futile, which means all she's doing is beating a dead horse.

Ben Winspear's Aegisthus is nicely sleazy but, again, there's not a lot for him to play so he's killing time until he gets stabgbed. Ursula Mills' Khyrosothemis plays almost the straight person here, and may, possibly, have been able to provide an intersting perspective on the action, if she ever had anything to do, but ... again, she really doesn't.

This is only an hour long, but, as mentioned ... there just isn't a lot to fill that hour. These are taleneted performers, and there's some moments that look like they'll work ... but eventually, this is just kinda empty.

Man of La Mancha, Squabblogic, Seymour Centre

First of all - yes, I'm aware two musicals opened in Canberra and I haven't reviewed them. And I probably won't - I didn't see "Evita" (I'm familiar enough with the show to know I don't need to see it again) and it's unlikely I'll see "Mary Poppins" (ticket prices and I'm a bit "ugh, children").

So why did I go to Sydney to see a 50 year old musical with one ubiquitous hit song ("The Impossible Dream")? Well, there's a few reasons. First of all, playing the lead is Tony Sheldon, who's recently had an overnight success on Broadway after some 40 odd years on Australian stages (getting a best supporting actor in a musical nomination for the Tony awards for "Priscilla Queen of the Desert"). Secondly, Squabblogic has gone from strength to strength since I saw their "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" last year,  including a highly successful run of "The Drowsy Chaperone". And thirdly ... this is a show my dad kinda loved and I'd never seen, though I'd heard the two-LP London version with Keith Michell and loved the Spanish-rhythmed title song.

It's an odd-duck of a show, with a couple of nesting loops of reality. We start in a prision in Inquisition-era Spain, where Cervantes and his servant are sent awaiting trial. As the various other prisoners fall on him to divide his meagre posessions, Cerventes defends himself by telling a story - the story of Don Quixote, which he proceeds to have the prisoners help him re-enact. And Don Quixote in turn is a deluded knight-errant who has a tendency to reassign people's identities at will - the local inkeeper becomes lord of a castle, and his tavern wench Aldonza becomes the fair maiden Dulcinea.  Navigating all of these and keeping the show flowing is done with aplomb - this is a musical that begins without music, and the eruption of the title song about ten minutes in, as Cervantes establishes his story and persuades the prisoners to beat out a rhythm that suddenly bursts out into grand heroic song, is irresistibly persuasive.

It's also an odd duck in that it's a presentation of romantic fantasy with a clear eye of the perils of having those fantasies. Sheldon is key to this, his performance(s) split nicely between a brisk, spry Cervantes as narrator and a doddering, foolish but heartfelt Don Quixote. His Quixote is endearing and his delivery of "The Impossible Dream" seems to emphasise the word "Impossible" while also capturing the powerful yearning and the heroism that lies in having desires far beyond what realism would tell you is acheivable.

Marika Aubrey plays opposite him as Aldonza, the aforementioned tavern wench. Her rough-as-guts introduction song, "It's all the same" introduces her as bitter, angry and posessed with a killer voice that ranges from low guttral resentments to glorious soprano. And her softening to Quixote is gradual and hardwon - we are with her all the way as she is drawn in. Ross Chisari's Sancho is possibly one of the weaker aspects - he's a little too clowny (although in his "outside" role as Cervantes servant, he's nicely subdued), although part of this may be the nature of his material - his biggest song, "I Like Him" doesn't really have anything to give us after the title, and therefore goofing around the set may be the best bet to fill the time.

There is some clever cross-gender casting going on (Joanna Weinberg playing Doctor Carasco/The Duke with cynicism and delightful snobbery, while Stephen Anderson as the housekeeper sopranos well in "I'm Only Thinking of Him" - a sequence that stands out as being particularly strong, formal staging after the rough-and-tumble, more organic staging of the rest of the show.

In short, this is a delight to catch, strong performers in a classic that captures the eye, ear and heart.

Friday, 20 February 2015

The Importance of being Earnest, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Wilde's purest comedy is a marvel of a play, with jokes that sound just as fresh the twentieth time you hear them and a plot that keeps momentum all the way to the final curtain. Canberra Rep's production is quite a creditable effort - no, it isn't perfect, but there's some great stuff in here that's worth watching.

Let's start with Miles Thompson's Algernon, as he kicks off the action. Thoroughly charming, devious, rakish, impish and, eventually, when all else fails, sincerely romantic, he hits his bon-mots perfectly into the audience with a playful charm. John Brennan's Jack starts with the sincerity, and plays a largely straight-bat (with one delightful moment in Act three where he breaks his cool hilariously) - if he's a little stiff, that's largely the character at work - Jack has a bit of a stick up his butt, and Brennan makes sure it's not too irritating. Karen Vickery's Lady Bracknell gives the snobbish gorgon full reign and dominates whenever she's on-stage to delightful effect. Kayleih Brewster's Gwendolen has a nicely blase charm to her, with a slight sense that Gwendolen is intensely appreciative of her own good looks. Jordan Best's Miss Prism is hysterically funny, full of censorious worry and only-very-slightly-concealed-desperate passions. Jessica Symonds' Cecily has a bouncy youthful charm and confidence that brings great dividends as she leads Algernon through her diary. Mark Bunnett's Chasuble has the proper clerical bearing and is delightfully ridiculous. And Michael Miller's eyebrows do a lot of very fine work as Merriman as he is increasingly astonished by the odd behaviours around him.

Michael Sparks' set design has a nicely classical style, although some of the decorations are not necessarily applied as well as they might be (in particular, there's a mishung painting in act three), and the scene change between act two and act three is mishandled (it's a combination of a longish delay before the lights come up at the end of act one, a rather dull Gilbert and Sullivan ballad being used to manage the transition (there are much brighter songs used elsewhere in the pre-show and intermission, and they may work better to cover the gap) as well as the design itself) - framing the piece with an old-style curtain and footlights. Heather Spong's costumes capture a nice sense of period and add to the delighfully excessive artificiality of the proceedings.

This isn't a perfect production - there are one or two points where the pace meanders a little - but it's still a delightful parfait of an evening and a good launch into 2015 for Rep.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Sweet Charity, Canberra Theatre

It's been promo-ed to death all over town, and it's received Helpmann awards up the wazoo. So the question is - what's the actual show like?

Well, it's still "Sweet Charity" - which means that it's a bit of an odd show, from that period in the sixties where the counter-culture was knocking at the door and Broadway was simultaneously gazing longingly in its direction as somewhere where the cultural heat and passion was going, and dismissing it all as silly kids stuff. So there's some strange tonal stuff where it's not quite clear how seriously we're meant to take all this - Charity is simultaneously a figure of fun and a figure of pathos, her workplace at the Fandango Ballroom is both a place of horror (her declaration "this is not a nice place" is particularly heartrending in this version) and a sweet fun place where everyone can have a glorious singalong to "I Love to Cry At Weddings". It isn't quite a show that works for me in a modern context - it's too keen to slap down Charity's hopes and dreams repeatedly to really be the fun frolic that the show frequently thinks it is.

I should mention I was up in the back of the stalls on this, so there may have been greater empathy from being closer to the action. But up in the far distance, it felt distinctly unpleasant to see this poor girl go through repeated pain. Cy Coleman's music is a great mix of jazz and ballady tunes, with Dorothy Fields providing caustic, sharp, consice lyrics, and Neil Simon's one-liners are freuqently witty, but there's a big hole at the heart of this that means I can't really call this an exercise I enjoyed.

There are moments in the staging that work very well, of course - In particular, the modern-art-inspired "Rich Man's Frug", and the decision to play the final scene on a stripped-bare stage (with even the on-stage band exiting) - and it's a skilled cast and ensemble (although the two cases where the band members sing are awkward - both have diction problems meaning that quality lyrics are lost). But I think stripping this to a simpler staging may have exposed some of the flaws in the show more than a more elaborate staging may have got away with - playing it for reals means that the places where the material is blatantly fraudulent stick out more.

I'm also not in love with the new orchestrations - the highly keyboardy-sounding version of the score doesn't entirely suit particularly well - while the band plays them well, it's not a sound I like particularly. So all in all, this is a well-executed example of something I just don't like very much.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

High Fidelity, Phoenix Players, ANU Arts Centre

"High Fidelity" is my favourite amateur production of a musical I've seen since Everyman's production of "Rent" in 2012. Now, I haven't seen every musical presented in Canberra since then, so maybe there was something better out there and I missed it, but never the less, this is a high-energy, hilarious, fun, modern engaging story of love-gone-wrong, young men with misguided passions, broken hearts and rock and roll. You should book a ticket immediately, because I'm probably going to write quite a lot of words in this one, and you don't want to forget the important bit, which is to book.

So why's it so good? Well, let's start with the show itself. There are pretty reasonable credentials on board - both composer Tom Kitt and book-writer David Lindsay-Abaire have won Putlizer prizes for their works elsewhere (Kitt with "Next to Normal", Lindsay-Abaire on "Rabbit Hole"), While, no, this isn't necessarily their absolutely top draw material, Kitt produces a clever pop-and-rock inspired score that can, when it needs to, seriously groove, Lindsay-Abaire's book is full of quality jokes, and is a reasonably tight adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel (and the John Cusack film). And Amanda Green's lyrics are sharp, singable, scan well and also quite capable of producing out-loud-laughs.

It's a rare musical that's told entirely through one, somewhat unreliable, narrator. Rob (Zach Raffan) . Raffan wasn't in the best singing voice when I saw him, but he has a lot of charm and swagger and is suitably vulnerable when called upon to do so. He's a solid centre for the rest of the show to revolve around. Similarly solid, and occasionally more so, is Josie Dunham as Laura, his very-recently-ex-girlfriend (she's moving out of his apartment as the show begins). The lionshare of her material is moody and reflective, but when she's given a chance to rock the house down Joan Jett style with "Number Five with a Bullet", she grabs that chance and rips the roof off. 

Playing solid support is a ridiculously strong ensemble cast. First of all, there's Max Gambale and Will Huang. I've never seen Gambale play such an opinionated, self-centred doucenozzle before, but he manages to make Barry's larger-than-life persona enjoyable and engaging. Similarly, Will Huang is pure puppy-dog adorability as the dweebish Dick, generating a private theory that his characters get nicer the longer his hair is (between this and his shaved-skull in "The Burning"). Amy Dunham is a mini-Aretha as Rob and Laura's go-between friend Liz - it's slightly a crime she only really gets one song to cut loose, but she's a welcome presence whether singing or cutting forth with a one-liner (and also some damn good death-stares). David Cannell is delightfully ridiculous as Laura's ill-advised-rebound-guy Ian, busting forth with new-age nonsense with a whimsical flair. Miriam Miley-Read is smooth, southern, rockstar glam and hilarious when she launches into her ballad, "Ready to Settle".

And Tim Stiles ... well, he gets to have Amy Dunham rub his belly every performance, he doesn't need a good review too. 

Jenny Tabor and the band deliver one of the tightest, rockingest teams I've heard in quite some time - they're worth listening through all the way through to the exit cues. Jordan Kelly's choreography summarises about three decades of videoclips into sharp, witty, grooving moves. Anita Davenport and Steve Galinec's set design is sharp, with just the right amount of detail and allows for fairly rapid switches of location. 

All credit is due to Phoenix players and for directors Nathan Patrech and Sarah Hull for getting a funny, groovy, incredibly enjoyable show onto Canberra stages. I left with a grin in my heart and several great songs too. Huge congratulations and may we see more shows with a modern edge and great staging soon.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Mother and Son, Canberra Theatre

The TV show turned into theatre has a shortish and not entirely honourable tradition. The multiple dinner theatre versions of Fawlty Towers have been going around for years, the late Jasan Savage repeatedly gave it a go at the University of Canberra with stage versions of "Vicar Of Dibley", "Are You Being Served", "Allo Allo" and "Absolutely Fabulous" and, more recently, "Yes Prime Minister" made an attempt at revival (bought undone by a dodgy script). Now it's an Australian sitcom classic trying the swapover? How does it go?

Well... okay. Ish. With Ruth Cracknell inconveniently passed away, recasting is going to happen, and comparisons are going to be, unfair or not, inevitable.  Original series writer Geoffrey Atherden updates the characters into a modern era to give Maggie a whole new set of confusions with cordless phones, multiple remote controls and skyping grandchildren, but still, this is the same characters in roughly the same situations. Noeline Brown manages to fare pretty well (she also has some material that seems shaped to suit her - in particular, she has some snazzy little dance moves near the end that I can't imagine Cracknell pulling off), while Darren Gilshenan has to throttle back his natural comic charm to play the relatively straight role of Arthur (and so tends to feel a bit wishy-washy). Rob Carlton effortlessly steals scenes whenever he shows up as Robert, similarly Nicky Wendt's ubertrendy Liz (who I kinda wish had more to do - she's offstage an awful lot!) Rachael Beck is a friendly fun presence despite, again, being underserved in the writing (of course, the show isn't for her, but she's luxury casting and a bit more actual material wouldn't go astray), similarly Robyn Arthur has a fine, albiet short, cameo as a gossipy companion to Maggie.

The script and direction is reasonably pitched towards the sitcom level, with longish breaks between the scenes - this doesn't flow as fast as it feels like it should. The skype-call segments are nice sketches to fill some of the gaps but they rarely relate to anything in the rest of the show (also, clearly Noeline Brown is using her own hairdo in them, not the one she's using to play Maggie, which weakens them a tad). Also I kinda feel the act-one break falls on a plot development that is not exactly suspenseful and kinda feels a tad cheap (no, it's quite clear they're not really going to go where they indicate they are, and it feels like an cheap fake-out to pretend you are).

This is a nice enough evening in the theatre - some good comedy performers with material that is good rather than great. I can't wildly object to it and I will admit to laughing a few times, but it's unlikely this is going to stick in the all-time memory bank. I can't honestly say it's worth $100 a ticket (which is what the Canberra Theatre is charging) but it's worth the roughly two hours of watching.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Radiance, Belvoir

Three sisters reunite for their mother's funeral. While they do, a couple of buried family secrets come out of hiding as the sisters laugh, drink and reminisce.

This is by no means a wildly original premise (among other things, it's the premise for "Memory Of Water", reviewed for this site back in 2012 - although, to be fair, Radiance predates "Memory of Water" by a year or so) but it's certainly a serviceable one for a few family secrets, a lot of good jokes and some of those long-awaited-things, good roles for actresses (in this case, "Radiance" was written on request for two of its three original lead actresses). 

In this current production, we get large chunks of the humour (particularly as handled by Miranda Tapsell, who gets the lionshare of the best jokes) and some great work with the family secrets as Shari Sebbens and Leah Purcell get to unburden themselves in act two. The decision to play it straight through without an interval does lead to a slightly odd set design (by Dale Ferguson) meaning act one is played fairly remotely from the audience - the actors only get to get up-close-and-personal with the audience in Act Two. A combination of writing and actress also means that Sebbens' opening monologue doesn't quite have the high-pitched anger that seems to be seething through the writing, though Sebbens clearly brings it home in her interactions with the other two actresses and particularly her monologue of resentment in Act Two. 

Purcell has dual duties as both actress and director - while her character isn't quite where her range normally is (I've mostly enjoyed Purcell more when she plays earthy practical characters), she does have a nicely toned hauter to her that is let go to remarkable effect as events roll on. Most importantly, all three actresses feel like they belong together, that they have shared history and are very lived-in people. 

If I have slight reservations, it's mostly to do with design (you lose a lot when you don't let your actors roam free on the belvoir stage) and with Nowra's script, which is more of the "good vehicle" rather than consistently great play - some of the revelations feel a bit forced and he does go to the melodrama side fairly often. But this is a solid enjoyable production and a good launch to the year.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Next to Normal, Doorstep Arts, Hayes Theatre

Kicking off the year with the 2010 Putlitzer prize winning musical is not a bad way to start. A dramatic, emotive tale about a family dealing with the mother's depressive mental illness, it's not the most obviously fun summer musical you'd think of but ... on the other hand, opera learned long ago, there's nothing so musical as a good long mad scene. A small cast-show (the cast is only six - mum, dad, son, daughter plus daughter's boyfriend and one actor playing both shrinks), it's almost through-sung and benefits from the intimate staging as the characters are pushed close together to deal with, or not deal with, their situation at close terms.

This staging has a few interesting tricks up it's sleeve. The key production concept to have the sets in black with various setpieces drawn in by the cast in chalk is broadly metaphorically suggestive of the way the characters create and recreate the world around them, and that metaphor works strongly (particularly in the second act, when mum loses memories due to treatment and dad decides to recreate her history to remove the traumatic event). However, there are a couple of cases where sightlines haven't been clearly considered so we can see that an actor is clearly drawing something, but we can't see what it is (mostly on the forestage), plus if the actors sit in the chalk then they tend to spend the rest of the show with obvious chalkdust on them, that becomes kinda distracting. This does slightly suggest that the production (a transfer from Geelong), hasn't fully been rethought for the new space.

Performances are mostly strong. Key to a lot of the material is Natalie O'Donnell playing the mum, Diana - she has the grand arias like "You Don't Know" and "I miss the mountains" - we're drawn inside a character who could easily be pretty disturbing and alienating - instead finding her sympathetic, even while she's suicidal and disturbed. Anthony Harkin as Dan, her husband, has a plaintive sense of isolation as he seeks a way through to his wife. I found Kiane O'Farrel's Natalie, the daughter, to be the weak link in the cast - she wasn't always confident with her notes, and she didn't find a way to show what's inside Natalie's beligerant exterior very often - it's a bit too surface-level rather than something fully engaged. Similar is true of Brent Trotter's Gabe, who's a lot of surface and only a little bit of what's underneath. Clay Robert's Henry is genially charming and creates a nicely rounded character in only a few small scenes. Alex Rathberger rounds out the cast as both Diana's Doctors, Dr Fine and Dr Madden - again, there is not much to the role but he gives it energy and engagement in equal measure.

Is this worth the trip up to Sydney? I don't know - I'd hope that it might get picked up in Canberra sometime and a local production would probably iron out some of the inconsistencies of this production. There is strength here, particularly in the performance of O'Donnell. But there's also un-evenness lower down the cast list that means this is good rather than, as it could be, great.