Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Ickle Pickle, Belconnen Community Theatre

When Disney's animated film of "Beauty and the Beast" came out in 1991, it was proclaimed by the New York Times theatre critic to be the best musical of the year. The combination of Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken's iconic score and Linda Woolverton's screenplay gave the film a wide appeal. So it's not surprising that a stage version followed fairly quickly, with productions round the world. Ashman's passing meant that the additional songs had Tim Rice lyrics instead (Tim Rice is never a bad choice of alternate lyricist), but the fundamentals of the score and the script remained - a slowburning romance as a smart heroine warms the chilled heart of her not-so-ogre-ish captor.

Ickle Pickle's production captures much of the charm of the material - the Belconnen Community Theatre isn't the biggest stage and it's clearly being done on a smaller budget, but by and large this is a production that's made wise choices. Kaitlyn Nihill's Belle is our Disney Princess made flesh - perfectly pretty, smart, courageous and compassionate. Adam Salter's Beast builds in effect - initially not much more than a gruff growling presence, but as the story develops, the beastly facade drops away and we see his vulnerability and deep sorrow. The various household servants-turned-furniture are a highlight - Pip Carroll's uberFrench Lumiere is playful, lusty and ever-genial, Patrick Galen-Mules' Cogsworth is foppish, snobbish and thoroughly ridiculous in the best way possible, Bojana Kos is a flirty, witty delight as Babbette, and Amy Jenkins is warmly motherly as Mrs Potts. On the villianous side, Liam Jones has the buff buffoonery and brutal over-egotistical Gaston down to a T, and Lachlan Burke's toadyish Lefou is as close as a human being can be to becoming a cartoon character - his slapstick physicality is constantly delightful. Josh Kirk's D'ARque has to be pointed out as being incredibly sinister for his brief appearance onstage.

Jordan Best's direction captures all the highpoints - the humour is delightfully silly while the romance warms the heart. Steve Galinec and Anita Davenport's set is simple but effective in giving us grand storybook panoramas, while Mim Miley-Read's costumes are effective and clever (and in the climactic dance between Belle and Beast, hit that "just like the movie" spot effectively). If you're going to do your music through sequenced keyboards rather than by having an orchestra (and in the BElconnnen Community Theatre, squeezing an orchestra in is unlikely), Susan Davenport's arrangements are as effective as you're going to get, and she also gets strong voices out of her cast (although the sound mix early on is a little too heavy on the keyboards at the expense of the unmiked cast). Jodi Hammond gets good choreographic effects out of the cast - the all-in joy of "Gaston" and the climactic battle sequence being the highlights.

In short, this is highly effective theatre for anybody who likes a soulful romance mixed with some wild comedy and some iconic songs. There's still a few performances before this closes at the end of the week, so if you're wondering .. yep, it's definately worth the trip.

(Edit: Apologies to Kaitlin Nihill, whose first name was mistyped in an earlier version of this review!)

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Jasper Jones, Belvoir

Whatever else you can accuse Belvoir of, they always seem to bring things back home when they've got a family show to deliver. And this year's production of Craig Silvey's novel is more or less a family show (albiet ones with some fairly dark themes). It's a coming of age story as a young boy in a WA country town discovers the dark secrets of his elders and of the place around him - how prejudice and boredom and petty hatreds make a toxic cocktail.

I'll admit I haven't read the novel so I can only say that Kate Mulvaney's adaptation is clear, funny, tense and heartfelt. If it does meander a scene or two longer than it possibly needs to, that may be partially a choice of focus - the title of the show is "Jasper Jones", but the play (and presumably, novel) is very much about the narrator. THere is, I suppose, a bigger question about why a story whose main dramatic hook is a half-caste boy involved in a murder needs to be so much about the white boy who watches it, but ... well, Belvoir's got an indigenous adviser in on this, so hopefully they know what they're doing.

As the narrator, Tom Conroy delivers a bookish 14 year old to perfection - shy, over-thoughtful, embarassed and eventually brave. I honestly did not realise this was the same actor I'd seen in Mortido two months ago, and the stark difference suggests Conroy is really an actor to watch out for in the future. Guy Simon's Jasper is a little distant but has that firm inner strength and conveys multiple layers of feeling when he finally spills over into anger. Charles Wu's Jeffrey has a radiantly funny hopefullness that is rarely shattered even in adverse circumstances. Matilda Ridgeway's delivery as both of the Wishart sisters is nicely complex - Laura is largely a silent figure of menace while Eliza is enticing, awkward and with an inner strenght that plays through. Steve Rodgers has a good pair of cameos both as a kindly father and a mysterious outsider, and writer Mulvaney also scores both as Charlie's stern but bewhildered mum and as the bullying cricketer Warwick.

Anne-Louise Sarks scores strongly in this (I'm beginnning to suspect my problems with her previous works were that she was doing writing duties as well or developing someone else's script- she's a strong director as long as she has a strong basic text to work with, less so when she's not). Michael Hankin's set works like all the best belvoir sets in being both decorative and simple, and giving the actors plenty of room to play.

All in all this is a fine piece of theatre that I suspect Belvoir will be looking to tour whenever possible - it's appealing, thoughtful and smartly specific.

The Magic Flute, Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House

Mozart's last opera is one of the permanent favourites of the repertoire. And it features some radiant tunes (in particular the ever-popular and ultra-challenging Queen of the Night aria). It also features a plot, which is where things get a little wobblier - it's a loosely written adventure epic where goodies and baddies switch places pretty much at random, the hero basically waits for other people to do stuff for him most of the time, and the villian's comeuppance is utterly a deux ex machina.

Julie Taymor's production takes all that and gives it an epic shine. A big perspex set of various geometric shapes and arcane symbols, with the various creatures in the plot represented by giant puppets. Even as the plot is making your eyes roll, the visuals are making you agog with wonder.

John Longmuir's Tamino is suitably stolid and heroic and does the heroic tenor thing which is to seem nice, heroic and possibly a little dim, but never the less handsome. Taryn Fiebig may be too good an actress for Pamina, paridoxically - her character is manipulated repeatedly and put through hell and you feel for her, to the point where you wish she wouldn't just accept everything at the end. Samuel Dundas' Papageno is fun and strange in the scene-stealing comic relief way, and manages to play well with an unexpected audience interruption (part of the risk of kids matinees - the kids start advising you if they get over invested!). Hannah Dahlenberg has both the trickiest aria of the night and the trickiest headgear, and pulls both off with aplomb. Benjamin Rasheed is pure panto villain as the unsubtly named "Monstratos".

I'll admit, this was my first go at opera live and in person (I've seen the occasional one on TV, but otherwise my musical education is pretty much musicals). And it's an odd one to kick off with, but never the less, was a suitable feast for the eyes and ears (even if it occasionally left the brain a tad bemused).