Category: Musical Theatre

Review: The Beautiful Game

Theatricalised slice of Irish Troubles

By Owen James

Amidst the madness of Fringe, independent company Manilla Street Productions are presenting a rarely-performed Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice musical about the lives of a football team wrestling with pride and confrontation during ‘The Troubles’. This is a high-quality production of material that I found at times unfulfilling and disjointed, but full kudos to Manilla Street Productions for choosing to tackle this little-known show.

Lloyd-Webber’s score is nothing groundbreaking, but suitably serves the emotional elements of the story. Though rife with generic and poorly-written lyrics that hinder potential character development, there are beautiful ballads and dynamic ensemble numbers peppered throughout. The book by respected veteran writer Ben Elton is at its best when tackling the darker themes stewing beneath these characters’ lives, crafting moments of emotion that are deeply affecting.

Director/producer Karen Jemison has brought the world of 1969 Belfast to life with evident understanding of the political and religious thunderstorm these conflicted young men are swallowed by. It is this ongoing conflict – both in their heads and on the streets – that is at the heart of The Beautiful Game, where you either take a side, or someone will choose one for you. Jemison has injected the production with a realistic sense of energy and danger that makes for compelling, engaging character work.

Choreography by Sue-Ellen Shook is seamlessly integrated into blocking, executed by an ensemble at the top of their game (no pun intended). A football match dissolves into a competitive, masculine dance sequence and out again in a West Side Story-esque blend of athleticism and choreographic metaphor. Daniele Buatti’s expert musical direction embraces the tender Irish melodies and rousing, chanted anthems of Lloyd-Webber’s score with vivacity and concentrated delicacy.

Stephen Mahy brings innocence and vulnerability to ambitious footballer John Kelly. This is a great vehicle for Mahy’s talents, his versatile voice gliding over difficult high melodies with ease – Mahy can sing anything. Stephanie Wall has crafted a detailed character in love interest Mary, and executes a perfect rendition of heartfelt, part-acapella ballad ‘If This Is What We’re Fighting For’.

David Meadows is a standout as Father O’Donnell, bringing gravitas and humour to this commanding but compassionate man, and finding depth in scenes both celebratory and devastating. Des Flanagan as bitter, turbulent Thomas carries the character’s complicated arc with building intensity in a delightfully intimidating and exceptional performance.

Sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco is superb, highlighting crisp and clean vocals and every note from the nine-piece band. Lighting designer Jason Bovaird has once again transformed the intimate Chapel into a colourful paradise, creating menacing alleyways, rowdy pubs, hotel rooms and bright football ovals, all with distant, twinkling Irish hues hanging over every desperate character’s decision.

The material is undoubtedly imbued with heart and passion, but does not always connect its serious and comedic elements in a believable manner, creating a sometimes confusing dichotomy of tone. The extremely strong cast and production team of Manilla Street have played to the show’s many strengths with a very faithful, polished presentation – audiences will undoubtedly relish the professional performances and quality of this production. I cannot wait to see what Manilla Street bring us next.

Running at Chapel Off Chapel until 29th September
Tickets: https://chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/the-beautiful-game/

 

 

Review: Sunday in the park with George

Every little detail plays a part

By Narelle Wood

It begins with George, drawing a single line onto a canvas, in a park, on a Sunday in 1884. He sits and sketches Dot, his model. As this first Sunday unfolds, as with the many that follow, we are introduced to the assortment of characters who inhabit George and Dot’s life, and will go on to inhabit George’s paintings. We then fast-forward to 1984 to meet another George, another artist. His struggles mirror that of 1884 George; both grapple with the pressure and expectation that comes with their work, continuously seeking approval, while searching for something new.

Nick Simpson-Deeks plays both versions of George, who are both stoic, but not completely void of feeling. Simpson-Deeks’s portrayal provides glimpses of subtle, controlled emotion, capturing frustration, sadness, anger, and at times love, which are tempered by the obsession the Georges have with their art. The charm Simpson-Deeks’ brings to the role means that, although George is frustrating, he is also very likeable. While George is restrained, Dot, played by Vidya Makan, on the other hand is forthright and sassy. Makan’s comic timing is impeccable, as is her ability to draw the audience’s attention, whether it is to her over-exaggerated facial expressions or to the feeble trembling of her hand when she transforms into 98 year-old Marie.

Simpson-Deeks and Makan are supported by a stellar ensemble; including Anton Berezin (Jules / Bob Greenberg), Jackie Rees (An old lady / Blair Daniels) and Courtney Glass (Yvonne / Naomi Eisen). There are times when the lyrics are fast, overlapping and intertwining, and the movement of the characters (thanks to choreographer Zoee Marsh) reflects the music’s pace. The cast do not miss a beat, moving between the stillness of the tableaus to the busyness of the park with ease.

And then there are the sets, costumes, lighting and music. The creative team of Sarah Tulloch, Rhiannon Irving, Rob Sowinski and Ned Wright-Smith, under the direction of Dean Drieberg and Sonya Suares, have put together a simply astounding show. The set itself is a character in the play, changing and developing along with the storyline. The costumes, mostly dictated by the George Seurat painting, are exquisite and highlight the colour techniques and level of detail that Seurat was aiming for in his work. Drieberg and Suares have clearly taken a word of advice from George, that “every little detail plays a part”, and as a result have produced a show worthy of a much longer run and a much bigger audience.

Sunday in the Park with George is a gentle, witty and frustrating stroll through the toils of being an artist. It is also a gentle, witty and frustrating stroll through the toils of being an artist’s subject, and of the art itself. I would definitely spend Sunday, or any other day for that matter, in the park with George.

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Lawler

Season: Until August 24th

Tickets: www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/other-companies/sunday-in-the-park-with-george/

Photography by Jodie Hutchinson

 

Review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A colourful romp sure to delight

By Bradley Storer

The musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved childhood tale opened in Melbourne this week, and while children will surely be delighted by this colourful romp, I feel its charms may be lost on adults with fond memories of the 1971 film.

The problem is best encapsulated in the treatment of Wonka himself – here onstage from the very first moment of the show, the character loses the mystery and ambiguity of Gene Wilder’s portrayal. In his initial interactions with the unwitting Charlie, Wonka comes off as casually cruel in a way that makes it hard to stomach the rest of his journey, despite Paul Slade Smith’s natural charm and clear command of the role. The wonderment and entrancing beauty of the original story and movie only truly appears in the strains of the classic ‘Pure Imagination’, as video projections and LED lights transform the stage into Wonka’s Edenic candy-land.

On opening night Lenny Thomas was irresistibly loveable as Charlie, particularly in his final scene. Tony Sheldon wielded his stage expertise and comic timing to maximum effect as Grandpa Joe, dropping groan-worthy Aussie references and clearly having the time of his life. As Mrs Bucket, Lucy Maunder was radiant, as always, in a somewhat thankless role.

The quartet of Charlie’s fellow ticket winners are even more unlikeable than you remember, with the exception of Jake Fehily’s glowingly good natured Augustus Gloop (unfortunately buried under a cavalcade of one-note fat jokes). Karina Russell brings beautiful dancing to the screechingly awful Veruca Salt, and her eventual demise is one of the few shocking surprises of the evening. Harrison Riley nails the physical comedy of the sociopathic hacker Mick Teavee, but Jayde Westaby as Mrs Teavee has to deal with an introduction number so fast that the lyrics are completely lost. Backed up by the refreshing Madison McKoy as Mr Beauregard, stand out Jayme-Lee Hanekom is a miniature supernova of talent as ‘queen of pop’ Violet.

I found the new tunes for the show mostly prosaic, despite being lifted by the masterful musical direction of Kelly Dickerson. The ensemble in their multitude of roles are world class, and the appearance of the Oompa Loompas is quite possibly the high point of the entire evening.

Despite the uneven material, the talent, dedication and vitality of the Australian cast shines through, creating a worthwhile family-friendly night at the theatre.

Dates: 15th August – 1st December

Times: 7pm Wednesday, 7:30pm Thursday – Saturday, 2pm Saturday, 1pm Wednesday and Sunday, 6pm Sunday

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, 219 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC 3000

Bookings: ticketek.com.au, 13 28 49, at the box office or Ticketek Outlets.

Photography by Heidi Victoria

Review: Come From Away

The theatre we need right now

By Kim Edwards

On the Canadian island of Newfoundland, if you’re not local, you’ve come from away. And in the remote little town of Gander, when 6579 strangers from all over the world suddenly arrived frightened, bewildered and angry on their doorsteps, the townspeople and their neighbours immediately took them all into their halls, schools and homes. They provided food, shelter, bedding, clothes, medication, toiletries and personal items, and supplied an even more generous wealth of kindness, support and friendship to their stranded guests – the international passengers of 38 planes diverted from New York on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Come From Away is an utterly astounding, compelling, hilarious and profoundly moving theatre experience. In an era of jukebox musicals and movie-to-stage adaptations, this stunning creation written and composed by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is the epitome of what original music theatre as an art form can achieve. In ninety non-stop minutes, dozens of characters share their stories with us and the storytelling is both adroit and engrossing. Lyrics, dialogue, music and movement blend seamlessly and skilfully in weaving the varied tales and emotions together.

Extraordinary creative and technical achievements including Beowulf Boritt’s iconic timber set, Howell Binkley’s spectacular lighting design and Toni-Leslie James’ subtle and intelligent costume design work in visual harmony to establish landscape, character and atmosphere for the myriad of scenes, roles and locations. It is a triumph that you never lose track of who is playing whom where and when, which is grounded in Christopher Ashley’s direction and Kelly Devine’s musical staging.

Moreover, our yearning to hear and see more, and our burgeoning affection for the characters we discover rests powerfully with the individuals on stage. The cast of twelve (Kellie Rode, Emma Powell, Richard Piper, Sarah Morrison, Simon Maiden, Kolby Kindle, Douglas Hansell, Sharriese Hamilton, Zoe Gertz, Nathan Carter, Nicholas Brown and Angela Kennedy on the night reviewed) and the eight-piece band (Ben Smart, Xani Kolac, James Kempster, Matthew Horsley, Tim Hartwig, Caleb Garfinkel, Dave Beck and musical director Luke Hunter) are exemplary in their multifaceted performances. Actors meld easily from one memorable character to the next, musicians fluidly switch style, emotion or instrument, and we laugh at and cry for people we’ve only just met and songs we’ve just heard for the first time.

Come From Away at its heart is about people coming together in dark times to create something wonderfully good, and its true story and ensemble of storytellers reinforcing this poignant theme not only plays out in recognizing the amazing creatives who have built the production, but resounds in the audience experience as well. We are made at home and part of the story from the beginning. The constant addresses to the audience, uninterrupted performance time, well-crafted character arcs, the sweep and swell of songs and underscore, the fact every cast member is integral, the band are onstage in scene and get personal curtain calls, and our only moment to applaud mid-show is in unison with the performers makes for an experience where everyone matters. Everyone is part of the moment, we have all ‘come from away’, and it is little wonder the audience rose as one for a prolonged standing ovation when our journey together was over.

This was a unique experience. This is a special show. It’s wise and witty, inspirational and exhilarating. So if you’re feeling heartsore with life and the modern world lately, Come From Away has so much comfort, kindness, courage and comedy to share. This is a musical that welcomes you with open arms and sends you away more whole – and more hopeful.

You’ll be so glad you came.

Come From Away is currently playing at The Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 1300 111 011.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

Review: Lazarus

An artful masterpiece, exquisitely executed 

By Narelle Wood

 

The Production Company presents Lazarus, David Bowie’s last project, written in collaboration with Enda Walsh. In true Bowie style it is both an incredible spectacle and a little hard to accurately describe.

Loosely based on The man who fell to earth, Newton (Chris Ryan) struggles with his existence on earth, the absence of his wife and his inability to return to his home planet. While Newton attempts to grapple with his life through alcohol and twinkies, a potentially imaginary girl (Emily Milledge) appears whose intention seems to be to help Newton in his quest to escape the earth. Meanwhile mass murderer Valentine (iOTA) is on the prowl for his next victim. And Elly (Phoebe Panarentos) and Zach (Mat Verevis) try to keep their relationship together despite the challenge of Elly’s new job as Newton’s assistant and her infatuation for him. The stories of the other characters – Maemi (Kaori Maeda-Judge), Michael (Mike McLeish), Ben (Josh Gates), supported by Jessie Monk, Baylie Carson and Jessica Vellucci – weave throughout, adding further complexity to the ethereal storyline.

Josh Gates, Kaori Maeda-Judge, Phoebe Panaretos and company. Photograph: Jeff Busby

And then there, of course, are David Bowie’s songs which connect the various plots and characters together. Each of the songs seems as if it was specifically written for the show, rather than the other way around. If someone were to describe everything happening on stage throughout the production, and sometimes all at once, it would risk sounding as if it were an awkward performance piece. There are LED screens with photographic projections, balloons, glitter, eccentric costuming, colourful wigs, dancers and a dance number evocative of a burlesque performance. But each detail works to create a Bowie-esque experience, an artful masterpiece that is exquisitely executed.  This is not only a testament to Bowie and Walsh’s vision but also to the team at The Production Company who have brought this production to life, including Michael Kantor (director) Jethro Woodward (Musical director), Stephanie Lake (choreographer), Natasha Pincus (film director) and Nick Roux (projection designer).

I’m not entirely sure whether this is a show everyone will walk away from loving in terms of its storyline, but that doesn’t seem to be its purpose. Lazarus is an experience and a masterful one at that.


Lazarus runs at Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 9 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photographs: Jeff Busby

Review: West Side Story

Slick spectacle with astonishing dance numbers

By Leeor Adar

1950s ‘Murica. Nothing quite says New York, New York, like West Side Story. It’s the kind of American dreaming particular to the imaginings of Jerome Robbins, the original director and choreographer of the beloved and memorable work. Instead of a Miller-esque fatal flaw, our characters operate in a world that has marginalised them, and they exist between missing the past and wanting a future. Migrants, lovers, hooligans, West Side Story is a warm embrace for musical theatre lovers everywhere.

I’m as surprised as the next person to see Opera Australia take on the collaborative work of heavyweights Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. It’s pure musical sugar, with numbers that are hyper and tantalising in a way that opera often turns away from. I am of course intrigued, as Opera Australia wades into the commercial realm to reach out to a broader audience perhaps. I want grit from West Side Story and Bernstein’s score, but instead we are treated to something lightweight, which does not do justice to the grandeur of Opera Australia, and certainly not the yearning power of this excellent and nuanced musical.

Director and choreographer Joey McKneely’s production has some astonishing dance numbers which render the music almost secondary. The central issues in the work concern its casting (and not in this instance the whitewashing that the Sydney production was accused of). The clash of an operatic coloratura soprano Maria (Sophie Salvesani) with a pure musical theatre voice for Tony (Todd Jacobsson) is hard to move beyond. Jacobsson is more a sweet romantic than former Jet, struck by the lightning bolt of infatuation. Despite this, I had chills during Jacobsson’s “Maria”, which is essentially to music theatre what La Bohème’s “Che gelida manina” is to opera. Even so, Salvesani has a rich and enveloping voice, that is ill-matched to her co-star.

The band of Jets, led by a charismatic Noah Mullins as Riff, overall look more like young awkward schoolboys than a gang of hardened street rats, and they are outmatched as they move between voluptuous and highly sexualised women. In contrast, the Sharks, led by a convincing Lyndon Watts as Bernardo, are muscular, intense and commanding on stage. Wonderfully, the Puerto Rican women are an absolute force on stage. Outshining all other characters in this production, Chloé Zuel as Anita is breathtaking in a memorable and electric performance. “America” is the pinnacle of perfection and quality I wanted out of West Side Story, and unfortunately it is one of the few moments I was nodding my head in joy. The Jets redeem themselves in a playful “Gee, Officer Krupke”, which joyfully washes over the salty reality of their poverty and troubled homes, but I was very much drawn less to the music than the physicality of the show.

Paul Gallis’ set design is in itself a character in this production, with looming grey photographs of Manhattan and a shanty-town of wooden pilings to show the decay of this part of the iconic city. The gloom of the set powerfully contrasts with the gorgeous costuming of Renate Schmitzer whose smashing array of decadent hues, which are complimented by the rich lighting design of Peter Halbsgut, set alight the already blazing dance numbers.

In contrast, one strikingly dark place this production took the audience to was the terrifying assault of Anita by the Jets, witnessed by Jets-wannabe tomboy Anybodys (Molly Bugeja). After the violence the stage is quiet and Anybodys runs away screaming, suddenly voicing another cruel reality of the streets.

West Side Story remains as topical as ever, with gun violence, sexual violence and racism rampant in our world, it remains an ode to the oppressed and cyclical entrapment of those living a life of poverty and crime. Despite this, its musical message of hope for a better future and greater opportunity remains just as strong.

I’d like to see a future production of West Side Story by Opera Australia where it will hold its own and wrestle away from the slick spectacle of commercial musical theatre and find something to contribute of its own. Even so, West Side Story makes for an entertaining night with some memorable performances and staging.

 

West Side Story will be performed at Arts Centre Melbourne until 28 April before touring to Sydney, Wellington, Canberra and Adelaide. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 889 278.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

Review: Muriel’s Wedding

Explosive Australiana in musical wonderland

By Owen James

Sometimes classic films should remain untouched and untainted by a musical adaptation – but luckily this is not the case for Muriel’s Wedding, which places the timeless story on the mainstage in colourful glory. When outcast Muriel impulsively departs Queensland hometown Porpoise Spit in search of a brighter future, she discovers her true self and her place in the world.

Original film writer PJ Hogan has modernised Muriel’s story for 2019, ensuring her flight and plight is relatable for its contemporary audience – social media plays a big part in both her initial belittling and later success. Much of the sarcastic subtlety of the film has been replaced with larger-than-life characters, displaying Hogan’s adept adaptability as a writer across formats and decades. There are big lines from big characters at every turn which ensure these colourful personalities bounce off the back walls of Her Majesty’s Theatre in every scene.

Music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have both strong and weak points, but always boosts Hogan’s exaggerated Australia with punchy energy and vibrance. Miller-Heidke and Nuttall combine a contemporary musical theatre sound with moments of synth-filled pop that wouldn’t be out of place on the radio (such as ‘A True Friend’). Their detailed score also features cleverly reworked ABBA hits that offer many a catchy melody with standout songs including ‘Strangely Perfect Stranger’, ‘Here Comes The Bride’, and ‘Never Stick Your Neck Out’.

Ensemble numbers such as ‘Sydney’ and ‘Progress’ are staged with spectacle through Andrew Hallsworth’s engaging and dynamic choreography. Tight movement in songs like ‘Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked’ is jaw-dropping in its precise execution and numbers like ‘Here Comes The Bride’ demonstrate Hallsworth’s capability and love for large-scale chorey.

Director Simon Phillips has staged a heartwarming extravaganza in Muriel’s Wedding, which delves beneath initially superficial character tropes to find the diamonds waiting inside. It’s a simple and safe production with a lot of heart and colour. Set and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova transports us seamlessly between locations and embellishes the bright, larger-than-life tone set by Phillips.

Natalie Abbott absolutely shines as attention-starved underdog Muriel, never missing a beat in her mainstage debut. This is the perfect role to showcase Abbott’s varied talents, she captivates every audience member with quirky and sincere moments throughout.

Feisty friend Rhonda has been cast perfectly with Stefanie Jones. I could watch her for hours. Hilarious and heartbreaking, Jones is a talent sure to excel in many future productions.

With costumes brighter than Priscilla, more Australian humour than Strictly Ballroom, the sass of Kinky Boots and almost as much ABBA as Mamma Mia, Muriel’s Wedding is a new Australian musical very successful in its mission to entertain. It both celebrates and mocks our admittedly highly mockable culture with stereotypes you absolutely will find on a Queensland beach or a Sydney street.

Big bogans, big bitches and big budgie smugglers galore. Walk down the aisle to Muriel’s Wedding for a colourful and entertaining Australiana parodic, patriotic paradise.

Muriel’s Wedding plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until 16 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 13 28 49.

Photograph: Jeff Busby