Category: Theatre

Review: Ragtime

The peak of the modern Broadway musical.

By Bradley Storer

Ragtime, the much beloved modern classic of the American musical stage, finally makes its Australian professional premiere with the Production Company – judging from the rapturous audience response on opening night it has been well worth the wait. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s acclaimed novel, with a score by powerhouse composing duo Ahrens and Flaherty, and a book by legendary playwright Terrence McNally, Ragtime represents the peak of the modern Broadway musical.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the show depicts the trials and interactions of three families representing the cross sections of racial and socio-economic backgrounds in America at the time. An upper-middle class white family of New Rochelle, a pair of lovers from the marginalized black community of Harlem, and a father and daughter emerging from the impoverished immigrants of Eastern Europe. Director Roger Hodgman conducts these intersections of class and race across tiers of scaffolding, choregrapher Dana Jolly delineating all three groups clearly through movement (as well as several flashy vaudeville numbers).

The African-American lovers form the centre of Ragtime’s dramatic momentum and spirit, with Kurt Kansley cutting a commanding figure as pianist Coalhouse Walker Jnr., his fine baritone by turns beautiful and fearsome as Coalhouse’s struggle for justice descends into darkness. Chloe Zuel as his lover Sarah makes a huge impression with a powerful performance of the chilling ‘Your Daddy’s Son’.

Alexander Lewis as immigrant on the rise Tateh recalls a young Mandy Patinkin, bringing intensity and a thrilling tenor to the role as well as rogueish charm, combining all three in the pyrotechnic patter song ‘Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.’. As the acerbic Grandfather, John McTernan steals the show with barely a handful of lines. As the Mother of the white New Rochelle family, Georgina Hopson delivers the standout performance of the production. She delivers the show’s defiant anthem to the onward march of civilization, ‘Back to Before’, so winningly that the audience is held completely spell bound before exploding into applause.

Ragtime’s optimistic ending, which envisions a potential America whose socio-political boundaries have dissolved and united the people as family, seems slightly naïve in the face of the country’s (and indeed, the world in general) continued racial and class inequalities well into the 21st century. While we can only hope and work towards a future like the one prophesized here, musical theatre fans can rejoice in the vision of this beautiful production.

Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne

Dates: 2 – 10th November

Times: 7:30pm Wednesday – Saturday, 1pm Matinee Wednesday and Thursday, 2pm Matinee Saturday, 3pm Sunday

Prices: $25 – $150

Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au, 1300 182 183, Arts Centre Box Office.

Photography courtesy of Cavanagh PR 

Review: Mansion

Dancing, immersive horror with production design to DIE for

By Owen James

As we wait in the gardens of the Labassa Mansion, an ornate 19th century estate that screams gothic horror, spirits and demons conspire and glare from the balcony above, a glimpse of what is to unfold as we enter the house. Before this immersive experience has begun, we are already intrigued, on edge, and prepared to be spooked…

Producers Bass Fam Creative could not have selected a more perfect venue for Mansion. As we are lead from room to room by The Caretaker, the attention to detail inherent in the building itself is matched by breathtaking design in every costume (Bass Fam Creative) and accompanying masks, prosthetics, detailed makeup (Todd Winterton) and even creepy contact lenses. Lighting by Linda Hum and Gordon Boyd is simple but very effective, creating dark, cavernous spaces and sublimely highlighted moments of performance. Mansion’s design is cohesive and colourful – horror director Dario Argento would be proud.

The cast of eleven dancers are all given chances to showcase their vast skillsets, which range from delicate ballet to aerial circus acts. These are professional, trained performers at the top of their game who are incredibly adept at executing impressive routines in dangerously confined spaces (prepare for various limbs swinging mere measured inches from your face in the smaller rooms). Particularly memorable sections include a number with a water-filled bathtub, demons protruding from a lavish bed in a garish nightmare sequence, and a fiery duet atop one of the largest wooden tables I’ve ever seen. All this is connected with an overarching plot about the haunted Walker family, which itself is peppered with a healthy smattering of references to horror pop culture icons including The Exorcist, The Grudge, and A Nightmare On Elm Street. Horror fans will rejoice – or at least smile and nod.

Scream-induced (and inducing) jumpscares are aplenty, with characters popping out from behind curtains, beneath furniture, and lurking in every dark corner you cautiously peer into. The storytelling is sometimes convolutedly crafted but always clearly presented – a very important facet when utilising a largely visual medium. Bass G Fam (writer, director and producer) has ensured the storytelling is thankfully at the forefront of every moment of the production, and created a successfully unified tonal experience in Mansion.

One caveat is the sound design – too often distorted or compressed. Whether the supplied audio files lacked sufficient quality or the distortion was intentional, many popular contemporary songs lacked the vivacity and consistency a show driven by sound should demand.

Bass Fam Collective have noted this is the second instalment in their ‘Trilogy of Love’ which began with ‘Matador’ earlier in 2019. Fans of dance theatre with a twist should keep an eye out for what comes next.

https://www.ticketmaster.com.au/mansion-tickets/artist/2673490

Photography courtesy of Sarochinee Saw

Review: Bright Star

A compelling story, anchored by powerful performances

By Bradley Storer

‘Bright Star’, the critically acclaimed Broadway/country musical composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, makes its Australian premiere under the helm of company Pursued by Bear and it is easy to see why this piece has rapidly become beloved by audiences. Director Mark Taylor has crafted a strong production stacked with wonderful talent that show off the virtues of this musical to maximum effect.

The story follows two parallel narratives – a young soldier (Callum O’Malley) returns from World War II to his hometown in the American South and sets off to become a writer, while the authoritative newspaper editor (Kala Gare) who takes him under her wing relives her own wild youth and the events that have led her where she is. Running underneath these intertwining stories is a refreshing score combining country, bluegrass and gospel brought to roaring life by the band assembled for this production.

O’Malley is charming and bright as the young writer Billy Cane, radiating good natured innocence throughout. Sarah Krndija as Margo, the book store clerk who is not so secretly in love with Billy, is effusive and sweet at the same time she nails every comedic undercurrent of their relationship. Ellie Nunan and Lachie Hewson as the newspaper staff are a hilarious duo peppering the emerging friendship between Cane and their editor Alice Murphy with acerbic zingers. The ensemble around them flow seamlessly and skilfully in and out of multiple characters, changing sets and eras fluidly (aided by lovely choreography from Freya List) as the story moves back and forth through time.

While the entirety of the cast is excellent, it is truly Kala Gare in the role of editor Alice Murphy who emerges as the ‘bright star’ of the title. From her first step on the stage her velvet but powerful voice tenderly and thrillingly strokes the opening notes of the bluegrass music, hooking the audience immediately. Alice’s journey across the show is emotionally gigantic, encompassing youthful exuberance, first love, tragedy, painful regret and joyous rediscovery, with Gare making every step of the way ring true. After winning turns in ‘Rent’ and ’50 Shades of Grey: The Musical’, Gare fully comes into her own as a leading lady of musical theatre with this performance.

A compelling and emotional story, anchored by unique music and a powerful performance at its centre, ‘Bright Star’ offers an unmissable experience for all fans of modern musical theatre.

Venue: Chapel off Chapel, 12 Lt Chapel St, Prahran

Dates: 25th Oct – 3rd November

Times: Mon – Wed 7pm, Thurs – Sat 8pm, Sunday 5pm

Price: $55 – $69

Bookings: chapeloffchapel.com.au or 03 8920 7000 or at the box office

Photography courtesy of Fon Photography

Review: UnHowsed

Tashmadada & Voices of the South Side present an experience far more pervasive than the stage

By Leeor Adar

A woman in St Kilda sings to herself alone whilst passerbys glance as they go on their way. Her only witness is the raining street. A life unsheltered by the world, for whatever reason, its woman against the world.

Director Deborah Leiser-Moore tells us that UnHOWsed is not a theatre work, despite the theatrical elements of the piece. The ensemble are women who have experienced homelessness in their lives, and the audience bears witness to their place in our world. They want to tell us that they are here.

The ensemble, Carla Mitterlehner, Susan V.M. McDonald-Timms, Jan Grey, Diann Pattison, Maurya Bourandanis, Catherine Samsury, Karen Corbett, Liza Dezfouli are all ordinary women who have come into extraordinary circumstances. The piece isn’t a misery-porn roller-coaster of tragedy, but rather a series of sung pieces and short monologues that are snippets, weaving together their experiences. There is an enormous amount of dignity in the way they carry themselves as women, not actors, living and breathing their truth.

Nela Trifkovic’s sound direction pervades the stage, creating a moody ambience that develops the narrative. The staging is also excellent. All the women sit within a low fence with their feet naked upon the sand. I am totally captivated as one dines with ceremony on a toy car, a symbol of finding normality in displacement and transience, and some take turns washing themselves on stage in less than comfortable conditions. One ruminates about what it must be like to live without a fixed address, to shower without privacy, to eat what is left, to find shelter where there is little to none. One tells us about a police raid that occurs at the camp she is at, and all are arrested except for her – the woman with the night gown with its Princess Dianna wedding puff, the Persian palace of her squat, making every place a home.

Older women experiencing homelessness is an ever-increasing reality. Last year there was an 83% hike in women ‘couch surfing’, and 75% increase in those sleeping in their cars. What happened? As affordable housing is almost unobtainable and increasing tens of thousands wait for government housing, older women are falling between the gaps, unable to obtain work or access important services. Services are going online – everything, as one woman points out, is online. How do you ask for help when you don’t have a phone? How do you ask for help when you can’t find electricity? The disconnect is painfully real. It’s a struggle to connect to these services as is, but when you have no home it’s a titanic struggle.

UnHOWsed is one of the most important work’s you’ll see. It’s under 60 minutes, and totally powerful. These are brave, real women, and they’re sharing a slice of themselves with the world to shed light on an experience far vaster and pervasive than the space of the stage.

UnHOWsed is performed at Theatre Works until Sunday 3 November. Tickets available here: http://www.theatreworks.org.au/program/unhowsed/.

Photography courtesy of Lachlan Woods 

Review: Gender Euphoria

Flipping gender dysphoria on its head

By Ross Larkin

Never before have I known so little about what to expect from a show as I did entering the world of Gender Euphoria.

Part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, I suspected perhaps an array of colour, a healthy dose of music and dance and certainly plenty of diversity. What I didn’t necessarily expect was to laugh raucously, be moved to tears more than once, and to feel utterly inspired and uplifted. 

Touted as Australia’s biggest line-up of Trans and gender-diverse performers, the ensemble of ten hail from multiple walks of life and all areas of the globe; and as diverse as they are, they most certainly all have one thing in common – talent. 

Director Maude Davey and musical director Ned Dixon bring a flamboyant and dazzling array of burlesque, song, dance, comedy, circus art and poetry, which are woven seamlessly together in a non-stop thrill ride of comedy, heartbreak and exhilaration. 

Mama Alto is not only the perfect charismatic hostess, but her voice is to die for and she had the audience in the palm of her hand with gorgeous interpretations of two classic songs by The Pretenders. 

Nikki Viveca and special guest from the UK, Krishna Istha, were also highlights, with their beautifully hilarious and poignant routines, as was the guest of all guests, Tiwi Islander Crystal Love, whose moving, yet uplifting segment had the crowd transfixed with awe and admiration. 

There’s no doubt about it, Gender Euphoria absolutely flips gender dysphoria on its head with charm, style and inspiration.

By the end, the packed house was on its feet cheering for more, and there was a sense that not only had we been part of something utterly moving and entertaining, we had also witnessed a groundbreaking and vitally significant and important piece of work.

If you’re able to somehow see this show, then do what you can to make it happen, as this is one event not to be missed. 

Gender Euphoria was part of the Arts Centre Spiegeltent Tent Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Photography courtesy of Alexis Desaulniers-Lea

 

Review: Grey Rock

A celebration of humanity

By Owen James

 

New York-based company ‘Remote Theatre Project’ have assembled five actors from across the Palestinian territories for the first time, to create Grey Rock – a compelling exploration of conflict, born from culture versus determination.

Grieving Yusuf finds comfort and distraction by absorbing himself in an unusual passion project – constructing a secret rocket intended for the moon, in his shed. Aided by eager young assistant Fadel, striving to achieve his dream leads to turmoil within his family and religious community, and attracts attention from worldwide media. It’s an engrossing and often suspenseful story that adeptly displays humanity’s worldwide ability to overcome doubt and derision, even when nobody else believes in you.

Though all five Palestinian performers sometimes struggle to overcome the sizeable barrier attached to attempting a language that is not their native tongue, these moments of hesitation reflect the very themes of conquering adversity Grey Rock tackles. Ivan Azazian delivers an energetic, very enjoyable performance as apprentice Fadel, bringing sizzling fervour to the blueprint-laden shed. Fidaa Zaidan as daughter Lila is another standout, with two fiery, emotion-packed monologues that give her deserved moments to shine.

Writer and director Amir Nizar Zuabi has given the work a punchy pace and cleverly allowed characters’ true motivations to unfold slowly, maintaining our interest in Fadel’s escalating mission throughout. Though at many junctures this is a tense drama, Zuabi’s likable characters and frequent beats of comedic relief make the show a joy to watch. Design by Tai Yarden is simple but very effective, with a wall of opaque thin plastic sheets creating shadows and silhouettes often larger than the characters beside them.

Grey Rock embodies every value the Melbourne International Arts Festival exists to explore – “to connect Melbourne with the rest of the world, to connect a complex past with the emerging future, and to connect the passion of artists with the prose of society” – and should be commended for the cultural fusion it celebrates through language and the international curiosity of the human spirit.

Tickets: https://www.festival.melbourne/2019/events/grey-rock/

Photography by Carlos Cardona

Review: The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes

Gloriously unsettling re-education

By Owen James

 

Geelong’s ‘Back to Back Theatre’ have created confronting and inspiring theatre with ‘The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes’. Performed by five neuro-diverse artists, this journey through contemporary issues opens our eyes and our hearts in its hope to re-educate the public and defeat debilitating stigma.

‘Shadow’ is a triumph of collaboration, confirmed in the programme notes by writer John Bailey – which speak to the two and a half years of discussion that have fuelled this work and are ingrained in its every seam. So truthful and direct are the statements and questions posed throughout that they are sometimes shocking to process. Director Bruce Gladwin has weaved together conversive threads tackling First Nations recognition, the appropriateness of the term ‘disability’, ableism and attached intrinsic shame, disgraced public figures (such as Kevin Spacey) and whether their art can still morally be enjoyed, and the divisive future of AI. The heated and well-paced debates rationalise common thinking but also open our eyes to new, dangerous perspectives. These are the conversations we should be having, presented by a group with minds different to our own who recognise the juncture contemporary society is at.

Performers Michael Chan, Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price use their diversity to teach patience and acceptance. Their resilience stirs dreams of true, blind inclusivity, quickly unifying everyone in the room and imploring us to engage with their heartfelt message. Through humour and provocative, edgy assertions, a warm determination grows, and then hangs over the audience as we leave the theatre. This feeling hasn’t really left me since seeing the piece, proving Back to Back Theatre’s ability to yield a very successfully robust, enduring message through their art. It’s a demonstration of how theatre can challenge and teach when in the right hands.

I’ll certainly be along to see more of Back to Back’s permeating work in the future, and I recommend you don’t miss this hopeful, bold depiction of our confusingly contrary reality.

Runs until 20th October as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival at the Fairfax Studio: https://www.festival.melbourne/2019/events/the-shadow-whose-prey-the-hunter-becomes/

Photography by Zan Wimberley