Reivew: Joe Hisaishi Symphonic Concert: Music from the Studio Ghibli Films of Hayao Miyazaki

Heartfelt and tear-inducing but ultimately healing

By Bradley Storer

As part of the collaboration between Arts Centre Melbourne and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne audiences are extremely lucky to experience this concert of the music of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films as conducted by their original composer, the legendary Joe Hisaishi.

After a preliminary speech by both MSO Managing Director Sophie Galaise and Consul-General of Japan in Melbourne, Kazuyoshi Matsunaga, maestro Hisaishi entered the stage to rapturous applause before launching into a suite of dramatic themes from the epic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. The first act of the concert was a journey of contrasts – this suitably dynamic start to the evening contrasted with a soothingly peaceful but bright suite from Kiki’s Delivery Service, before flowing into the chilling, explosive violence of Princess Mononoke.

Hisaishi was a commanding and masterful presence throughout the evening, switching seamlessly between conducting and accompanying the orchestra on grand piano. Australian guest artist Antoinette Halloran appeared to lend her powerful operatic soprano to several pieces, a charming fairytale vision in her pink gown. The Australian Air Force Band made a surprising entrance to provide a wonderful rendition of the Laputa: Castle in the Sky score under Hisashi’s direction, before a small section of the MSO returned to deliver a very intimate performance of the jazzier Pocco Rosso as the act one finale.

The second act began with the stunning Howl’s Moving Castle opening theme before morphing into the gentle beauty of The Wind Rises. Scenes from the original films projected overhead reflect how inextricably the scores are intertwined with the story and scenery of each world, a testament to the enduring power of Miyazaki and Hisaishi’s partnership. Japanese guest artist Mai Fujisawa was introduced to provide her blissful airy vocalizations to selections from Spirited Away – Hisashi uttered his only words for the evening after her initial performance to introduce Fujisawa as his daughter, drawing delighted gasps of shock from the audience.

The evening was brought to a close with the entire ensemble of musicians and vocalists performing the cheerful and rambunctious songs of My Neighbour Totoro, before Hisashi ended the evening offering a message of support for the Australian public after the Bush Fire crisis along with the final image of Princess Mononoke: a destroyed forest returning to life. An absolute pleasure of an evening, heartfelt and tear-inducing but ultimately healing in its vision of simplicity and harmony – a treasure for die hard fans and first timers alike!

Venue: Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Kings Domain Gardens

Dates: 29th February and 1st March

Times: 7:30pm

Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au or 1300 182 183

Photography courtesy of The Arts Centre Melbourne

Review: Conchita Wurst & Trevor Ashley with Kate Miller-Heidke

Voices of Austria and Australia combine

By Owen James

Musical events where two great artists unite always make for an evening of enthralling entertainment. Last night however, Melbourne was treated to three world-class artists at Hamer Hall, and over two hours and through various musical styles, we were taken to music wonderland. The six standing ovations throughout the night are a testament to the magic of these renowned vocalists.

The audacious Trevor Ashley kicked off with classic tunes and brazen cabaret-style anecdotes of bad dates gone wrong, warming the audience up for a wild night of dauntless divas. Ashley channelled the great Shirley Bassey, gave a stirring rendition of the toe-tapping Peter Allen rousing anthem ‘Quiet Please, There’s A Lady On Stage’, and dazzled us with cabaret classic ‘The Man Who Got Away’. Ashley’s vocals especially impressed with Broadway classic ‘People’ from Funny Girl, receiving a deserving rousing ovation.

Eurovision legend Conchita Wurst delivered stunning anthem after anthem with her unmatched, heavenly soprano tones. This was Wurst’s first time performing here, and her warm and gracious personality has undoubtedly enamoured her first Melbournian audience. Performing recognisable hits including ‘Out Of Body Experience’ and infamous winning Eurovision ballad ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, Wurst also wowed with lesser-known tracks peppered throughout the evening. Ashley and Wurst also dedicated a substantial portion of the evening to a timely tribute to the music of James Bond, including Adele epic ‘Skyfall’, and piano-bar favourite ‘Goldfinger’.

Kate Miller-Heidke’s brief two-song stint in the second act stole the show for me. Miller-Heidke’s seamless blend of classical and contemporary vocal styles is mesmerising, showcased in both the finale from her 2016 Opera ‘The Rabbits’ and Eurovision ballad ‘Zero Gravity’ from 2019. She joined Ashley and Wurst for a gentle delivery of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ that made the perfect conclusion for the night.

Conductor Michael Tyack lead the magnificent 40-piece symphony orchestra who backed every piece with delicate nuance and soaring, rich explosions and crescendos. There’s no recorded alternative that that can match a stage full of live professional musicians in perfect synchronisation, and through every alternating musical style this set list demanded, this heavenly group were precise and moving.

Keep an eye out for the next live performance of any of these heart-warming artists.

conchitawurst.com
trevorashley.com.au
katemillerheidke.com

Photography courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne

Film Review: Escape and Evasion

A story of survival on the battlefield and of the mind

By Sebastian Purcell

Seth (Josh McConville) returns home from a mission in Myanmar after losing not only his fellow soldiers but also one of his best friends. Seth’s transition to life at home, becoming a father again, is punctuated by the series of PTSD episodes he experiences. Driven by the guilt he feels for the loss of his men and his actions, he is confronted by Rebecca (Bonnie Sveen) for answers about the death of her brother and Seth’s best mate Josh (Hugh Sheridan).

Writer and Director Storm Ashwood takes the all too familiar war in the jungle screenplay but overlays the effects of PTSD on returning servicemen. The use of alcohol to mask the pain, suicidal tendencies, inability to integrate and provide support to family are all themes explored. Ultimately the film seeks to reiterate that getting professional help is the most effective treatment; if a tough guy like Seth can accept help, then others can too. Ashwood also makes social commentary on the Australian Military’s role in training soldiers and not victims. Seth’s new mission is now to survive back in Australian suburbia.

McConville provides a committed performance throughout and the complexity he brings to the character is to be commended; displayed through his ability to swap between someone who displays brutal physical strength in a bar fight and survival in the jungle, to the vulnerable and emotional character in the aftermath of PTSD episodes.

The film uses flashback scenes to move the narrative forward and is well edited and paced by Editor Marcus D’arcy. The audience finds out the truth of what happened to Seth and his team as Seth re-lives the trauma and builds a bond with Rebecca. The most impressive scenes are the overlay between Seth’s current world and the trauma he is experiencing, allowing the audience to feel the same Seth’s horror, which, at times is realistically frightening. In saying that, I sometimes found the relationship between McConville and Sveen lacked chemistry, and at times, the physical relationship that develops feels quite forced.

This is an interesting take on a war film, but viewer discretion is advised as there are graphic torture scenes and suicidal material throughout.

Escape and Evasion is out in cinemas March 5, 2020.

Review: À Ố Làng Phố – Vietnamese Bamboo Circus

The epitome of modern circus

By Rachel Holkner

Asia TOPA is fast becoming one of my favourite Melbourne festivals. It is a hugely valuable months-long showcase of Asia-Pacific performing arts where the sheer volume of performances creates a powerful movement against the Eurocentric tradition of arts in Australia. The quality is consistently so high I would cheerfully throw a dart at the program to select a show. So, happily fed thanks to the Vietnamese menu currently on offer by Chef de Partie Vinnie Nguyen at Café Vic, I settled into the State Theatre for À Ố Làng Phố with very little idea of what would unfold. I was not disappointed.

À Ố Làng Phố (Vietnamese Bamboo Circus) is the epitome of modern circus, a flawless blend of storytelling, elite physical skill, music and choreography. The multitalented cast demonstrate a strength and depth of performance that is joyful and exuberant.

In an exploration of place, time and human relationships, the usual suspects of circus, such as juggling, contortion, dance and puppetry are utilised in a celebration of culture. What shone particularly for me were the harmonious interactions between cast members both within complex routines and in interstitial sections.

Delightful moments of clowning employed gentle self-mockery which was never demeaning of others, so often the go-to of circus clowns. All the comedy sketches were beautifully timed and added poignancy to the overall production.

The lighting, props and costumes remained straightforward throughout with the emphasis on bamboo as a material. Whether woven into a basket or disk, as a short stick or long pole, a juggling club or an instrument, it seemed bamboo was used in its every possible configuration except as a food. Its warmth was echoed by the sepia tones of the opening, transitioning through to a multicoloured and joyous conclusion. Motifs of pattern-making and rhythm grounded the entire performance.

My complete lack of any Vietnamese language proved no barrier at all to my understanding. Through song lyrics or occasional dialogue, the expression of voice and gesture were far more important in conveying meaning.

The entire simplicity of execution lent an elegance throughout, balanced beautifully by the undertones of truth and humour. All these aspects were perfectly integrated into a whole celebration of Vietnam and, by extension, humanity.

Asia TOPA continues through March 2020 at various venues across Melbourne. See http://www.asiatopa.com.au for more information.

Photography courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Review: Jack Frost: The Musical

A timely fairy-esque tale

By Bradley Storer

Despite the industry wide instability currently decimating the Australian theatre scene, opening night of new Australian musical Jack Frost luckily proceeded. A fairy-esque tale that follows the journey of a young girl travelling both backwards into her past and headfirst into her future, the tale feels eerily appropriate for the current global situation. A small town facing environmental chaos, a political struggle between a conservative past and the pull of progress, and the rise of a charismatic but underhanded leader.

The absolute crowning glory of the piece is composer/writer Joseph May-Dessmann’s score, a lush and inviting affair under the musical direction of Jayla McLennan. While no specific number stands massively above the rest (with the possible exception of Frost’s solo number ‘Take Care’) the songs of Jack Frost are truly a wonder, lifting the cast and audience towards musical theatre magic.

The script and book need some further work, with some character motivations and plot points still a little unclear textually. A little more exploration and explanation of the world in which the characters inhabit may also solve some tonal and linguistic shifts from scene to scene that felt slightly jarring. Despite this, director Lauren McKenna has done a wonderful job of crafting the dramatic journey and stage imagery to a polished gleam.

Tayla Muir as Stella Forte, the heroine of the story, is the guiding light of the production. With an exquisite voice and a lovely stage presence, Muir is absolutely captivating – when the stage lights go down to focus on only her face and voice, it is almost impossible to turn away. As her best friend Michael, Ben Hallam is adorably campy, and stage veteran Samm Hagen rounds out the central trio as mayoress Violet Flowers. Hagen commands the stage from her very first moment, wielding her massive voice with finesse and lifting the performances of everyone around her with her presence alone.

As the ostensible antagonist Leo, Joseph Spanti offers both incredible singing and a refreshingly natural and truthful performance of the agonized character, flowing with ease into the charismatic showmanship of the second act. Callum Andreas, in a very grounded and gentle performance, has only one song as the mystical Jack Frost but easily turns it into the highlight of the show with his stunning voice. Ambrose Steinmetz and Penny Larkins, as Stella’s mother and grandmother respectively, radiate warmth and love, lifting the mood in the second act with their charming comedic duet.

While the rest of the season has been cancelled in light of recent developments, with as amazing a cast and an sublime a score as this Jack Frost definitely deserves a wider audience and further development and we can only hope it will return.

Venue: St Martin’s Youth Theatre, 28 St Martins Lane, South Yarra

Bookings: No longer available

Review: END. OF.

Dark sensibility and deep vulnerability

By Bradley Storer

Comedic writer/performer extraordinaire Ash Flanders returns with his latest work, END. OF. Beginning in the doldrums of police transcriptions, Flanders moves down the river of memory in a journey that spans childhood, death and the eternal quest to be the funniest one in the room. Looming over proceedings is the long shadow cast by the indomitable Flanders matriarch, Heather Flanders, whose bombastic catch phrase gives the show its title.

Flanders’ usual mix of caustic camp and neurotic melancholy is underlaid here by a darker sensibility. Acid trips gone haywire and a trip to the slaughter house provide imagery bordering on true horror, Rachel Burke’s lighting and Tom Backhaus’ sound design combining with the text to create some deeply chilling moments.

Flanders is, as always, an effortlessly charismatic performer, needing little more than Nathan Burmeister’s simple (but quietly effective) set, his own comically lithe physicality and incisive turn of phrase to carry the entire show. The loveable narcissism of previous shows is tempered here by a deeper vulnerability in later sections and a beautifully realized joy that draws the work to its conclusion.

In a show that searches to unpick the meaning in making story and structure, Flanders wryly comments: ‘It’s hard to know what to hold on to when you believe in so little.’ Even as the show leaps through time and place within seconds (and it could be argued that some sections of the piece could be trimmed slightly), it is a credit to both the strength of Flanders’ writing and the canny direction of Stephen Nicolazzo that the whole flows together in emotional seamlessness.

A wonderful new work from an established comic performer that solidifies his continuing artistry, as well as expands his range into gorgeously new and beautiful territory!

Venue: Northcote Town Hall, 189 High St, Northcote Town Hall

Date: 11 – 22 March

Times: Wed – Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 6pm

Prices: $28 – $35

Bookings: www.darebinarts.com.au, ticketing@darebin.vic.gov.au, (03) 8470 8280

Review: Running with Emus

Beautiful and thought provoking

By Ross Larkin

Local playwright, Merrilee Moss’s new work, Running with Emus, is a comedy drama about a small outback community which is considering becoming ‘refugee friendly.’ 

Part of the current VCE curriculum, the play explores themes of hope, identity and change with surreal elements (namely, a ghost) in an otherwise naturalistic and contemporary setting. 

When Pat’s granddaughter Krystal arrives on her doorstep unexpectedly, her youthful spirit and drive immediately makes ripples through a seemingly narrow-minded town, where the idea of refugees and immigrants is a totally foreign concept, pun intended.

As Pat and Krystal’s differing personalities and opinions clash, Krystal begins to assimilate to a new life in the town while learning the truth about her grandmother’s past. 

Acting luminary, Julie Nihill, is ideally suited to the introspective and detached Pat, more at ease with the birdlife than the few humans in her predominantly isolated world. 

The small, yet strong, supporting cast are all worthy of note, particularly the ever versatile and deft Kevin Dee as well as Sam Baxter, who is excellent as the charismatic Italian ghost, Raffaele, injecting some necessary spice to the mix.

Director Kim Durban takes a minimal and simplistic approach with the staging of the work, which mostly serves it well, but for such a dialogue heavy and arguably lengthy piece in need of trimming, it might have benefited from some more dynamic blocking.

Overall, Running with Emus has some beautiful and thought provoking moments, a stellar cast and plenty of poignance and relevance to the current political climate to warrant a viewing of a piece which will no doubt go on to become a staple in the library of important Australian works. 

Running with Emus is playing now at La Mama’s Courthouse Theatre in Carlton until March 22nd. For bookings go to https://lamama.com.au/

 

Review: Slut

Pertinent and permeating progressive perfection

By Owen James

Witnessing an ensemble of collaborators and performers so in tune with each other, as well as in tune with the message and tone of the work they are presenting, is a rarity. Slut is a powerful dissection of the tangible inner conflict imposed on women making their journey from childhood to adulthood; and this is a production that for me comes close to perfection.

Patricia Cornelius’ exemplary yet disconcerting script was first performed in 2007, and as director Rachel Baring notes in the programme, “it is really hard when you take a piece from 2007 and it is just as relevant now as when it was written”. Baring has taken the raw, exposing elements inherent in Cornelius’ work, and turned the flame to high. Presented in the insanely intimate Fitzroy space ‘The Burrow’ (journey down a laneway off Brunswick Street to find a very cozy black box seating only 25), these feminist depositions are brutally honest and grippingly confronting. Baring ensures the dialogue and impressively rapid-fire choreographed movement are always as perturbing as the claustrophobic space these oppressed performers are unnaturally confined within. Lighting and sound design by John Collopy and Daniella Esposito respectively is exquisite, enhancing the text and direction at every turn.

The majority of dialogue is shared by a narrative triad composed of Lauren Mass, Jessica Tanner and Michaela Bedel. So impeccable is the timing and communal commitment to concentration shared by these three that we are transfixed with every word and gesture. Laura Jane Turner plays social renegade Lolita (named for the connotative qualities title “Lolita” recalls), and fearlessly delivers much of her exposition with disturbing composure mere centimetres away from audience members. This perfectly-matched company of four are of such high calibre I could happily have sat there fully engaged for hours.

A 30-minute show for almost $30 is a hard sell in our relentless economy where getting bang for your backbreaking buck is not only expected but necessary. But I’m here to tell you your spent dollars will be bereft of regret thanks to the dedication and expertise of these creatives. Slut is everything great theatre should be – urgent, relevant, and a good story well told; and proves how access to only limited resources is no obstacle to talented theatre-makers.

Don’t miss Slut, a powerhouse rollercoaster that propels itself forward with turbulent momentum at every turn, and will leave you simultaneously thrilled and terrified.

Running until March 21: https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=586996

Photograph courtesy of Michaela Bedel.

Review: The Hitmen

Get hired or get fired (at)

By Owen James

The latest black comedy from Baker’s Dozen Theatre Company riffs on the relentless job-hunting struggle facing 5.3% of Australians today. So desperate are six jobless hopefuls that working as a hired killer for professional assassination syndicate KOC (Killing On Command) is deemed a legitimate possibility. The Hitmen depicts a group-job-interview-cum-survival-of-the-fittest for these six employees, where only one will prevail with both the job and their life.

Writer Mish Wittrup and director Blake Barnard have created a world of unadulterated absurdity, where regular social constructs are often demolished or ignored, and we see normal people become wild animals ala Battle Royale. The pressure-cooker setting mixed with classic “only one can survive” setup is a strong premise which ensures the exposition is, for the most part, pleasantly swift and snappy. Wittrup craftily weaves individual backstories and motivations for most characters into the narrative with asides and soliloquys spattered throughout, which immediately makes each ‘John’ far more fascinating once we know why they’re there.

These six Johns (giving real names leads to execution) portray rising desperation with feverish realism, allowing the many moments of violence to feel deserved and authentic. Two audience favourites are undoubtedly Eidann Glover and Raymond Martini, who both give dedicated and extremely humorous performances. Glover finds comedic flare in her character’s unwavering unlikability but also genuine warmth in her affection for partner John (Harry Borland), and Martini plays the gamer nerd out of his depth to perfection. Cazz Bainbridge as tyrannical head honcho Gwendoline sometimes moves too fast through moments of potential comedic gold, but successfully creates a dominating and minacious persona who is always one step ahead of the game.

Amidst characters’ wavering integrity and blood splatters galore is a subversive and gratifying (but extremely dark) comedy, with meaningful comments about the societal juncture desperate job seekers face in contemporary Australia – what lengths may some go to just for a paycheque? Though tempting, can we live with an unethical choice? It is the abandonment of solidarity when in the face of disparity that these corrupt individuals barely question as they undergo the world’s most erratic and stressful job interview that provokes many fascinating questions, and may also force you to consider how strong your own moral compass would be were you in this environment. When it’s a world of every man for himself, is it possible to unify against our unethical leaders? Or, as Wittrup and co perhaps suggest, do we willingly accept our fate and the sniper’s headshot.

The Hitmen plays until March 14 at Theatre Works, St Kilda: http://www.theatreworks.org.au/program/the-hitmen/

Photography by Justine McArthur