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: Promised

Navigating the promises made by others

By Narelle Wood

Written by Nick Conidi, Promised follows the story of Angela and Robert as they navigate a promise of marriage that their fathers made many years before.

The story spans 20 years, beginning with Angela’s (Antoniette Iesue) birth under difficult circumstances – her mother Rosalba (Tina Arena) is found in labour on the floor of the family’s pastry shop – in the early 1950’s, through to 1974 when Angela and Robert (Daniel Berini) are reunited after he returns home from studying in Oxford. While Angela has always known about the arranged marriage, she has found herself in a different world to that in which the promise was made. She is studying English Literature, longs to be a writer and is in love with an Australian boy. To complicate matters further, Rosalba and her husband Sal (Paul Mercurio) are indebted to Robert’s parents, Joe and Maria, for rescuing Rosalba during labour, and to complicate things even further, Joe is connected, in the Italian mobster sense of the word. The story is almost Shakespearean; part tragedy, part farce, but it is also reminiscent of The Godfather, minus, thankfully, the horses head.

The film is beautifully made, and made in Melbourne. The settings and costuming perfectly and authentically capture 1970’s Australia. Conidi, who also directs, has an uncanny knack for slowly unfolding a complex story, without it ever feeling like it is loosing pace. The performances are solid, especially from stalwarts Arena and Mercurio, though Iesue and Berini do more than hold their own portraying complex characters that are both likeable and frustrating in equal measure. And this was perhaps the reason why I found this film a little uncomfortable at times; there was no clear hero, and each outcome would possibly end up disappointing someone. However, this was also perhaps the reason why this film works. Promised is in many ways a manifestation of the tagline “Love like life is never perfectly arranged”. It is complex, heartfelt look at intergenerational, intercultural and family expectations, with a lovely dose of nostalgia.

Promised is in cinemas now.

Review: George Michael: Listen to Your Heart 

Enjoyable night of unforgettable music

By Samuel Barson

Careless Whisper. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Last Christmas. All synonymous with your Mum’s record collection, all synonymous with one man… George Michael.

Like many artists of his time, Michael’s music, fashion and unique approach and outlook on life has allowed for him to remain a stronghold in the hearts and minds of music lovers of all ages. The tributes are naturally endless and on October 17th, Melbourne held a very special tribute of their own.
George Michael: Listen to Your Heart was a 2 hour long tribute to not only the music behind the man, but also the man behind the music. Household names Rob Mills and Hugh Sheridan joined a cast of former Voice contestants and music theatre personalities to take audiences through Michael’s extensive discography, making some spoken word tributes to what the man meant to them as artists. The cast were joined by a tight and impressive full orchestra, all under the helm of maestro John Foreman OAM.
Whilst many of these tribute shows run the risk of being self indulgent on behalf of the cast (the people on stage making it more about themselves than the artist they are honouring), this show’s biggest strength was that it did the exact opposite. It was only ever about Michael, and the connections the cast made between themselves and Michael never felt too facetious or fabricated. There was a genuine and palpable love for Michael being shared by the cast and the audience.
Production values of lighting and choreography never took too much focus away from the main focus; the entire night was undoubtedly Michael himself.
The cast did a solid job, and it was enjoyable seeing such a diverse musical cast representing different parts of Michael’s musical talent and skill – I think you would be hard pressed to find one artist who could encapsulate Michael in his entirety these days. Special mention must be made to Sheridan for perfectly showcasing Michael’s smooth and sexy jazz side.
A great night for all ages, it was fantastic seeing such a diverse demographic in the audience, all attending to enjoy a night of unforgettable music in recognition of such an important musical icon.
George Michael: Listen to Your Heart played at the Arts Centre’s Hamer Hall for one night only.

Review: The Selfish Giant

A giant production with so much to love

By Narelle Wood 

Victorian Opera Youth Opera brand new work, The Selfish Giant – based on the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name – is sure to become a favourite for opera aficionados and newbies alike.

Under the Direction of Cameron Menzies, we follow the story of the giant (Stephen Marsh) as he comes home from an extended trip to find his beloved garden overrun with happily playing children. Scarred from his childhood, and wanting the garden all to himself, the giant scares the children away. The next day Spring (Saffrey Brown) arrives with her fairies (Stephanie Ciantar and Chloe Maree Harris) to wake up the garden, but something is wrong. Soon after Snow (Michael Dimovski), Wind (Noah Ryland) and Frost (Darcy Carroll) arrive with Winter (Olivia Federow-Yemm), looking for a place to call home. Spotting the deserted garden they make themselves at home. After some time has passed, children again find their way back into the garden, prompting the selfish giant to think about sharing. Winter is banished and Spring returns.

Composer Simon Bruckard’s captures the story with dynamic shifts in mood, from the playfulness of the children and the grumpiness of the giant to the sprightly spring and the glacial winter. Some of my favourite moments come from the children playing, where librettist Emma Muir-Smith has managed to capture both the fun-loving and at-times menacing behaviour of children, in a very Oscar Wilde-esque way. There are moments of endearing wit, especially from the Dimovski, Ryland and Carroll whose characters lend themselves to Wilde’s frivolity. I wondered whether there were more moments to capture Wilde’s sardonic wit, especially for the giant.

While James Browne’s set is minimalist, the dimensions and angles of the stage and carefully placed set pieces creates the impression of an imposing house, suitable to contain an imposing giant. Browne’s costumes, however, were one of my favourite things in a production where there was just so much to love. Menzies’ use of props to represent the garden is incredible, as are all the performances. Marsh is endearing as the giant, even when he’s been selfish, and the Youth Chorus and Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra are faultless in their supporting roles.

Tickets to this world premiere were hard to come by, and it’s easy to see why. This is a charming opera showcasing the immense talent that all of these performers have to offer. The run was short, but hopefully The Selfish Giant will get the revival it deserves.

For more Victorian Opera performances and tickets go to victorianopera.com.au

Photography courtesy of Charlie Kinross