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.