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.