Review: Evita

Tina Arena’s lead receives a standing ovation

By Samuel Barson 

There is something undeniably refreshing about the story of Eva Perón. First and foremost, she was very much a woman in the centre of her own story. And while her husband was the President of Argentina, she too had a great deal of power as a celebrated actress and tireless advocate of workers’ rights and women’s suffrage. The truthfulness of her humble beginnings and subsequent life story also provide audiences with a break from the clichéd romanticism of many biopic stage adaptations. In this Australian tour of Evita, director Harold Prince has curated a strong cast and has created the most powerful, raw and heartfelt of musical productions.

I am usually quite cynical of big names being cast in big Australian productions. In an age of repeated casting, it’s become quite easy for certain showbiz personalities to be cast simply because of who they are. Tina Arena is a significant exception. Her grace, beauty and talent shine tenfold in her portrayal of the titular character. Her voice is reliably flawless, and she pleasantly surprises with her acting skill. Despite the numerous scenes and range of notes she perfects, the most memorable moment of the night was the curtain call. The tears Tina shed as she looked out into the large sea of a standing ovation perfectly reflected a humility and grace rarely seen on stage.

Supporting her were two equally impressive men. Tony Award winner Paulo Szot did the required work as Eva’s stoic husband, Juan Perón, to allow Arena’s Eva to take charge. Kurt Kansley was particularly impressive as Che, guiding the audience along with utmost energy, humour and aggressive charm in his role as narrator.

Rounding out the support cast were the charismatic and flashy Michael Falzon as Magaldi and recent high-school leaver Alexis van Maanen in a wonderful yet brief turn as the Mistress.

The ensemble cast were tight and provided the leads with an intricate and brilliant support network. Larry Fuller’s choreography put the cast to good use as they filled the stage and evoked the emotions of the Argentinian people.

Timothy O’Brien and Richard Winkler’s respective set and lighting design managed to be epic yet not too overdone. In collaboration with Duncan McLean’s clever video and projection design, they transported audiences into the essence of 1940’s Argentina and left room for our imaginations to fill the gaps. Mick Potter’s sound design complimented David Cullen’s exquisite orchestration, and Guy Simpson did a beautiful job in conducting their work.

Evita is a delightful production, with arguably the strongest leading musical cast to be seen in Melbourne. Tina Arena proves herself to be one of Australia’s most dynamic and versatile performers, and she is supported by a cast that I hope to see more often on Australia’s mainstages. Tickets to this production could be the perfect Christmas present for those who enjoy an entertaining night out.

Evita is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre until 17 February 2019. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.  

Photograph: Jeff Busby

Advertisements

Review: Bottomless

Engrossing and heartbreaking depiction of addiction and sobriety

By Owen James

Beneath an unsettling thunderstorm brewing overhead, the lives of seven people teeter on an alcoholic precipice of temptation both inside and outside the gates of the Broome Sober Up Centre. Will the ambitious Will find a way to become their angelic saviour of sobriety before the heavens above open up to quench the land’s thirst?

The personal connection for writer Dan Lee resonates deep inside every word of his text. It’s brutal and painfully accurate in every description, argument and metaphor, and the unbreakable romantic connection depicted between the drinkers and their drink is heartbreaking. It’s hard to believe this is Lee’s first play with text as expertly crafted as this.

Director Iain Sinclair has given Lee’s partially autobiographical play a world on the verge of collapse – which drought will break first? There is an undercurrent of resolved certainty here in Broome – things here may always be as they are now. Sinclair smartly mines Lee’s metaphorical text for every piece of clarity and objectivity that the audience crave to tighten our understanding of events, and also ensures we can connect with every character’s intrinsic longing for change.

There are no weak links in this very strong cast, each member provides terrifyingly realistic portrayals of unassailable alcoholics and their affected familiars – there are years of damage and desperation behind these weary eyes. Mark Wilson is one of my favourite actors in Australia and once again he delivers a powerful performance as determined Will. Margaret Harvey must keep all the plates spinning as Claudia, attacking her role with exhausted grit – we can see Claudia’s fatigue for her day-to-day struggle at every turn.

Mark Coles Smith is startlingly energetic, combining his clear talent for physical performance with his emotionally driven and manipulative dialogue he terrifies us as the alcoholic but clever Jason. Jack Charles as Pat embraces his powerful gravitas with every step before he even opens his mouth. Charles’ jaded but accepting delivery of grief-stricken Pat locks our eyes deeply into his.

Jim Daly, Julie Forsyth and Alex Menglet play six characters between them so well that you’d be forgiven for thinking there were six separate actors on the stage. From frenzied addicts to bewildered tourists, each distinct character is detailed and often battles their own demons. There are other stories hiding within them waiting to be told.

Atmospheric light and sound design by Andy Turner and Russell Goldsmith respectively builds tension and extends the production design elements by Romanie Harper into the invisible distance. As the piece builds to a sudden climax, the remaining rubble of these crumbled minds reminds us of the inescapable and circular nature of addiction.

Bottomless explores consequences and guilt inside the mental pressure cooker that unhealthy dependence creates, and it’s a truly engrossing world to watch deteriorate. Addiction and sobriety are fascinating topics that create utterly engrossing characters, and I would happily have sat through a second hour of Bottomless. Congratulations to the whole team and especially to artistic director Mary Lou Jelbart for backing this new Australian piece over a number of years to finally reach this fully-fledged production.

 

Bottomless is being performed at fortyfivedownstairs until 14 December. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966. 

Review: Rent

A strong production of much loved rock musical 

By Bradley Storer

RENT – Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical of poverty-stricken bohemian artists on the streets of ’90s New York comes to Chapel Off Chapel in a new staging by James Terry Productions, and anyone who attends will certainly be able to see why the show continues to connect with audiences today.

Across the board all the performances are solid, although my personal favourites were those who managed to put their own twist on these well-loved characters. Evan Lever brings a gawky and geeky boyishness to Mark along with his powerful vocals. Connor Morel’s Roger tends more towards callow youthfulness rather than embittered intensity which is refreshing to watch. Kala Gare commits so thoroughly to Maureen’s ridiculousness and spins her narcissistic self-absorption in such unexpected ways that it becomes incredibly charming instead of potentially annoying. Angel, the emotional centre of the ensemble, is a great opportunity for the right performer and Marty Alix is wonderful in the role – channelling elements of ball culture and vogueing rather than Broadway razzle dazzle to winning effect, Alix’s soft and gentle stage presence is a beautiful match to the character.

Under Katie Weston’s assured and capable musical direction, the score thrums along and clearly communicates the vital pulse of this work even today. The bleak scaffolding set is combined with menacing wire fences to cleverly transition scenes and separate spaces as well as a gorgeous luminescent love heart deployed at appropriate moments.

Director Mark Taylor has made deliberate choices that step away from previous productions, which one can appreciate with a musical as well known and regularly staged as this one. The presence of an onstage piano which allows the homeless characters to express themselves creates poignancy, and the transformation by choreographer Freya List of a subway ride into a physical movement piece for Santa Fe was certainly charming. The reimagination of Maureen’s (intentionally) pretentious performance art piece allows for some hilarious contributions from Willow Sizer and Nathan Fernandez as backing dancers. The reconfiguration of Contact as a feverish nightmare is a unique interpretation, although in applying a more literal framework it felt as though it lost some of the emotional wallop that usually accompanies this moment.

The Will I? sequence was incredibly moving, buoyed by Jye Cannon’s heartbreaking solo and the continuing reality of people living with HIV/AIDS reveals how relevant the show’s themes remain – costume designer Kim Bishop’s inclusion of actual shirts from the ACT UP movement is a nice touch that drives this point home.

A strong production of a modern classic rock musical, sure to delight any die-hard fans and thrill any new comers!

RENT is being performed at Chapel Off Chapel 29 November – 9 December. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photograph: James Terry

 

Huckleberry: A Musical Adventure

Timeless classic receives musical treatment

By Amy Planner

Taking on a timeless classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a big job, though this production set its sights and heads for something unique.

Huck, a boy who escapes a life ruined by his drunken father and Jim, a runaway slave, set on down the Mississippi River looking for a new life away from the confinement of what they know. Along the way they teach each other about the ways of the world and become the best of friends. Huckleberry: A Musical Adventure takes this literary classic and adds an interesting musical element.

Chris Wallace, the creator of this original twist also plays the narrator, Mark Twain. Wallace evidently has a fascination with Twain, not to mention an uncanny likeness to the man himself. Wallace’s hillbilly musical theme carried throughout the show but did unfortunately become a little repetitive. The songs were quite short and rather sporadic at times with the difficult timing tricking the performers in certain songs. But they found their place, carried on, and did so with fervour.

Despite the passion of the performers, the writing let them down a little with transitions between songs being a little disjointed and the music not adding much to the story. It must be said that Huck’s song in which he describes his escape from the cabin was quick and catchy and used in a great comedic way.

Monty Burgess, Sami Weleda’abzgi, Tess Branchflower, Chris Wallace, Tess Walsh

Tess Branchflower (Huckleberry Finn) and Tess Walsh (Tom Sawyer) were fantastic casting choices. As explained, their physical size and higher vocal register lent themselves to portraying these young male characters perfectly. They were energetic, enthused and did these famous characters such due justice. The accents and characterisation of these two ladies and of Sami ‘Obama’ Weleda’abzgi (Jim) were outstanding.

The minimalistic set design by Adrienne Chisholm was really quite effective. A central raft-like structure, although a little small to accommodate the performers at times, was used with great imagination to go from scene to scene.  Smaller more detailed props helped create the runaway drama that Huckleberry Finn is built on.

The costuming, also by Chisholm, was fantastic. It was well thought through and not overly simplified like some shows set in this era can be. There were layers and a lot of effective weathering which really gave the characters something to work with and draw inspiration from.

This show definitely has a unique quality about it and has some undeniable talent involved in the cast and crew. However, some refinement in the writing style and musical elements would certainly give this production the little boost it needs.

Huckleberry: A Musical Adventure is being performed until 9 December at Chapel Off Chapel. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 8920 7000. 

 

Gothic: a journey through Gothicism in music

Oh, to go a little Goth

By Leeor Adar

It conjures up images of storming nights, the occult, hauntings, and everything else in between. If you walk a little along the dark side, you’ll have found yourself drawn into the stream of this poetic and imaginative underworld.

I for one found nothing more delightful than a late afternoon of music inspired by the Gothic; namely stories and imagery conveyed by words and sounds that evoke feelings that excite and terrify us. Gothic is brought to us by experimental music maven, Andrée Greenwell, whose arrangements and compositions of such varied works of the dark-kind delight and scintillate.

It began with the death of the young wife of Victorian Gothic poet, Edgar Allan Poe in Annabel Lee, a whimsical poem of death and the sea, and wonderfully brought to life through the visual design and animation of Michaela French. French’s beautiful and hypnotic animations, which were projected onto three arched windows, are a Gothic architectural throwback that served as a perfect visual world to fall into as the music played.

We quickly leaped into a modern transformation of the Gothic in an arrangement of The Cure’s A Forest, an atmospheric piece of the Gothic rock band that draws the listener into the dark.  We steadily moved deeper into the morbid world and the added vocals of the operatic Jessica O’Donoghue contributed to the sense of drama. The pieces chosen are starkly different, yet completely cohesive when assembled together by this talented group of musicians which included Andrea Keeble and Kyle Morrigan (on violins), Joshua Stilwell on viola, Noella Yan on cello and David Trumpmanis on electric guitar and on-stage audio.

The Birds, a short story of Daphne du Maurier’s and later known for its Hitchcock grandeur makes for a screeching segue into Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, a most beloved revival of Emily Brontë’s book of the same name. O’Donoghue performs the piece in a far more sombre manner and it is here that I was hoping for the pitch of Greenwell’s voice to soar instead.

Gothic took off suddenly from the ethereal into a far more disfigured terrain with Chosen, written by Maryanne Lynch and Andrée Greenwell, which bases itself on the entrapment of Kerstin Fritzl, whose walls were her world until she was 19. This progresses to the seedy world of a suicide at a motel with Death at the Beach Motel, focusing on the death of artist Brett Whiteley. The feel of this piece takes on a more Southern Gothic feel of urban decay.

Swiftly back into the land of goose bumps, all forms of Nosferatu and night creepers were projected in snippets of film as the troupe performed Thriller. And finally, after all the excitement I was glad to return to the ethereal with Edgar Allan Poe in The Bells, capping off with the strange beauty of the theme from Twin Peaks, a work by film composer Angelo Badalamenti and performed to perfection by the troupe.

Badalamenti’s Fallen was the perfect closure to the evening, giving me the sense that I’d woken from a dream. Gothic was exactly what I always wanted and never thought to envisage. Thanks to Greenwell and her team, I was able to say my cravings for Poe and Twin Peak binges had at last made sense: I am of the Gothic kind.

 

Gothic was performed  25 November 2018 at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Photograph: supplied

Review: Lamb

A family drama that sinks deep into your skin

By Samuel Barson

A farming family, across two generations, experiences loss, grief, love and guilt whilst working the harsh and lonely land of the Australian outback. In her new Australian work Lamb, Jane Bodie has created the most heartbreaking and fascinating of family portraits, providing audiences with a night of theatre that sinks deep into your skin and remains well after you leave your seat.

Annie (Brigid Gallacher) has been living in the city, making her place as a successful musician. When she returns home to the country for the funeral of her mother, she reunites with brother Patrick (Simon Maiden) and sister Kathleen (Emily Goddard). This reunion brings back years of pain and family secrets that propels the three siblings towards an uncertain future.

Maiden is a driving force in this play. His stage presence is astounding, and is undoubtedly the anchor of every scene that he is in.  His ability to present such a complex and tormented character, whilst still maintaining a considerable air of charisma, made him a clear stand out in this production.

Rounding out the rest of the cast was Brigid Gallacher and Emily Goddard as sisters Annie and Kathleen, respectively. Gallacher is charming, but unfortunately the presentation of her dialogue becomes slightly repetitive at times. Goddard serves as a much needed comic relief, and equally impresses in her darker and heartbreaking scenes.

Greg Clarke’s set and costume design is beautifully effective, inviting audiences into a familiar Australian landscape. The slight modifications made to the set and costumes during a flashback in time at the beginning of the second act were particularly impressive.

Justin Gardam’s sound design is invading and effecting, beautifully complementing the tense and jarring family dynamic that is taking place on stage. Similarly, Efterpi Soropos’ lighting design perfectly represents the lightness and darkness of this family.

The absolute highlights of this show are the songs performed by the cast, creating some of the play’s most poignant moments. Beautifully and cleverly written by Mark Seymour, the inclusion of music brings this show to a new level of class and emotion. Not to mention, Maiden and Gallacher both impress with their singing chops.

Director Julian Meyrick deserves to be applauded for turning an already brilliant piece of writing into one of the most moving and fascinating pieces of theatre that has played on a Melbourne stage this year. His attention to detail and understanding of the play’s complex themes is clear.

Thanks to some incredibly fine acting, direction and design, Lamb is the perfect conclusion to what has been an already successful year at Melbourne’s beloved Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. A huge congratulation to all involved.

Lamb is being performed until 13 December at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling 03 9533 8083. 

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson

 

Review: 80 Minutes No Interval

Provoking, strange and comic

By Samuel Barson 

Never have I seen a show like 80 Minutes No Interval. Despite it’s slow and uncertain start, the play develops a frenetic pace, unhinged sense of humour and obscure narrative that is unparalleled – even for a unique theatre maker like Travis Cotton.

The play tells the story of Louis (played by writer/director Cotton), a failing novelist turned theatre reviewer whose history of bad luck has not only prevented him from reaching his dreams but continues to leave a trail of destruction behind him.

Cotton is the perfect tragic hero. He navigates Louis’ misfortune with a grit and commitment that leaves the audience wincing each time the character inevitably fails. Typically when individuals decide to write, direct and act, they are unable to do all three to an equally good degree, but in this case Cotton excels in all areas. His work on this show is only another confirmation that he is one of Melbourne’s most valued and well respected theatre makers.

Rounding out the rest of the cast in a variety of supporting roles is Martelle Hammer, Robin Goldsworthy, Tom O’Sulivan and Tamzen Hayes. All give Cotton great support in their respective roles, but the cast member that leaves the greatest impact is Goldsworthy. His performance as publisher Dan Kurtz was the finest comedic performance I have ever seen on stage. Goldsworthy’s sense of timing, physicality and projection was nothing but perfect. He is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Brynna Lowen and Sarah Hall’s design was simple and served the play’s more absurd moments. Hamish Michael and John Collopy’s respective sound and lighting design excelled in illustrating the dreamlike (and more often than not nightmarish) sequences that Louis finds himself trapped in. The costume design complemented the play’s world and the flower display in the final scene was particularly effective and engaging.

I doubt that I will ever see a play like this again, and in a way I hope I never do. It’s very rare that a piece of art is able to be so uniquely captured and presented. A play of this intellect, strangeness and calibre deserves to live on in its own individual legacy. A must see for those who are seeking a refreshing and escapist experience in the theatre.

80 Minutes No Interval is being performed until 2 December at Theatre Works, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 03 9534 3388.

Photograph: James Terry