Tag: MTC

Watch This Presents MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

Fine performances in a challenging musical

By Bradley Storer

Merrily We Roll Along, currently being presented by Watch This at the MTC, is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most beloved scores but was regarded in its original Broadway incarnation as a critical and commercial flop. Part of this is due to the challenging structure of the show, moving backwards in time to unravel the complexities of the characters depicted, but also since we begin with the central character at his most morally corrupt it can be hard to generate sympathy for him.

WatchThis Productions

As this character, Franklin Shephard, Lyall Brooks faces an uphill battle trying to make him sympathetic. He acts and sings the part very well, but feels stronger as the older Frank more than the younger one. Nelson Gardner is charmingly nerdy and goofy as Charley, bringing wonderful physical comedy to the role. Completing the central trio in the role of Mary is Nicole Melloy, and she is so brilliantly funny and heart-breakingly transparent in every moment that it feels like the role could have been written for her – watching her in the part makes a compelling case that the show’s central journey is actually Mary’s instead of Frank’s.

Sophie Weiss as Beth ably handles the show’s biggest ballad, ‘Not A Day Goes By’, and her character’s transition from a haunted and heart-broken woman to the sunny naivety of youth. As the famous Broadway star Gussie, Cristina D’Agostino nails her big dance number but doesn’t manage to find the humanity under the glamourous façade, directed to play the character so over the top that it comes off a caricature. The ensemble, playing a wide variety of characters across the twenty-year time lapse, are marvellous with too many standout moments to recount here, and their united voices as they sing ‘Our Time’ are a truly beautiful conclusion to the evening.

Sara Grenfell’s direction and staging feels slightly confused which is a problem with a show such as this where there is already a complex structure, and the minimalistic set (consisting mainly of a large staircase and a set of curtains) tends to blur the scenes together. Cameron Thomas does a wonderful job as the sole musician in this production, and while it is lovely to hear the voices of the cast and ensemble unamplified in the space, the score loses much of its potential power when played only on the piano.

While not entirely successful on all fronts, the collection of strong performances and Sondheim’s magnificent score make this new production of Merrily a worthwhile visit.

Venue: The Lawler Studio, Melbourne Theatre Company, 140 Southbank Boulevard, Melbourne VIC

Dates: 29th June – 15th July

Times: Tues – Sat 7:30pm

Prices: $39 – $49

Bookings: 8688 0800, MTC tickets online

Image by Jodie Hutchinson 

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Amanda Muggleton in THE BOOK CLUB

Thoroughly entertaining

By Myron My

A book club: where everyone has great intentions to read the book but, for some reason, never seems to have the time. Either that, or the meeting itself turns out to be an opportunity to talk about everything – but the novel. In The Book Club, middle-class suburban housewife Deb Martin seems to have found the perfect literary social group, but a few indiscretions and a blurring of fact and fiction begin to create some interesting moments for Deb.

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Amanda Muggleton is completely at ease with the demands of this production which, in her case, is portraying every single character – male and female – and relying on nothing but her spectacular facial expressions, body language and voice for differentiation. Her comedy timing and physicality is spot on and while she plays these characters as “big”, Muggleton still manages to retain an honesty and authenticity to them all. 

The story, originally written by Roger Hall and revised here by Rodney Fisher, is entertaining and fun for the most part. There are times when I felt the momentum slows a little and certain events occur merely as a device for making Deb feel even more low and ashamed of what she is doing. It’s as if the script wants to push Deb so far that we have no choice but to sympathise with her, rather than trust that the audience will like her despite her actions.

However, Muggleton’s impressive performance and Nadia Tass‘ playful direction, playing out in Deborah’s book-filled living room as designed by Shaun Gurton, greatly assist in getting the audience through the lags and in quickly building towards the numerous climaxes throughout the show – both literally and figuratively speaking. The times when Deb goes out to the audience or acknowledges a reaction from the spectators adroitly strengthen the relationship between us and the character, and allows for a deeper sense of empathy to be shared.

While it’s true what Deb says about finding happiness in a good book, you can also find it in a good show. The Book Club is an enjoyable 90 minutes of laughs that can boast a story that is well-grounded yet enticingly dramatic and scandalous, and a dynamic and engaging performance by Amanda Muggleton.

Venue: Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Season: Until 14 August | Tues – Sat 7.00pm, Sat 3pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets From: $70.45 Full | $65.35 Conc
Bookings: Melbourne Theatre Company

Image by Casey Wong

Gail Louw’s BLONDE POISON

An engrossing and triumphant performance

By Myron My

Seventy-one year-old Stella Goldschlag is nervously anticipating the arrival of a visitor. It is 7am and he is expected in just under four hours. Her anxiety stems from her past as a Nazi collaborator, where in order to save herself from the horrors of Auschwitz, agreed to inform on other Jews in hiding to the Gestapo. Presented by Strange Duck Productions, Blonde Poison is the intriguing yet disturbing true story of Stella and the cost of her survival.

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Belinda Giblin as Stella is an example of when casting is perfection. The accent is flawless, even when Stella’s emotions sometimes get the better of her as she recalls the more horrific moments of her life. The poignant facial expressions and wide eyes made up with the iconic black eyeliner are still printed firmly in my mind. You can’t help but sympathise with this character, but at the same time, she is responsible for the death of thousands of Jews. Giblin’s portrayal of the desperation and defeat enveloping Stella in the final moments of the show are so powerful and conflicting that they leave you wondering if Stella has managed to manipulate yet again. It truly is an amazing performance.

Jennifer Hagan‘s careful direction shows Stella’s gradual unraveling, as it becomes clear that she is slowly losing herself to the horrors of her past: lamps are turned on despite it being morning and picture frames are placed backwards on coffee tables. The script itself, written by Gail Louw, does lose its momentum at times, but Hagan and Giblin work hard at overcoming this with that masterful finale.

The set design by Derrick Cox is well thought-out and subtly links in with Stella’s life and ideas raised in Blonde Poison. The full-length mirror that Stella occasionally looks into and speaks to visually reproduces her inner self-reflection and her external confessional, and the suitcase full of dolls is a constant reminder of not only of Stella’s own child, but also the naivety and innocence Stella had when was doing what she did to stay alive. Jeremy Silver‘s hauntingly captivating score is paired well with Matthew Tunchon‘s adroit lighting design, both which build on the intensity during Stella’s interrogation scenes.

Blonde Poison‘s overarching idea – what would you have done? – is a difficult demand to answer and fortunately, one that we are unlikely to ever face. While it’s easy initially to condemn Stella Goldschlag for these crimes, the growing impact of her protestations of  innocence are difficult to ignore. Blonde Poison is a thought-provoking production that is both relentless and powerful in its execution.

Venue: Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Season: Until 11 June | Tues – Sat 7.30pm, Sat 1.30pm
Tickets:
From $52.90
Bookings: Melbourne Theatre Company

Vic Theatre Company Presents THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE

A superb production of this very funny musical

By Sally McKenzie

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee sounds, on paper, like a very interesting concept for a musical. However, with an original and at times beautiful score by William Finn, hilarious dialogue (some written by Rachael Sheinkin and some improvised by each new cast), and the inclusion of four audience participants as extra spellers, Spelling Bee is one of the funniest, most creative musicals to come out in the 2000s. This production, performed by Vic Theatre Company, is no exception.

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The story centres on a group of six children (played by adults), the man and woman running the bee, and the comfort counsellor, all of who are dramatically affected by one day at the ‘Bee’.

In this production, the sound designed by Marcello Lo Ricco is excellent, with the band well-balanced and never overpowering the singers. Once or twice a solo line was unable to be heard over the ensemble, however; never at a critical point. Lighting by Jason Bovaird was well-designed, with the dialogue happening under stark lights reminiscent of the gymnasium setting, and the lighting during the songs more ‘stagey’, with spots and bright colours, often to great emotional and dramatic effect.

Rebecca Moore as Rona Lisa Perretti is placed and poised with a beautiful ‘legit’ soprano voice that suits the role perfectly, although is perhaps a little young for the role.  David Spencer plays a less exaggerated Panch.  Mahoney (Matt Heyward) was vocally well-suited for the role, although his character came across as perhaps a little too ‘mellow’ and understated.

The Spellers are where the show really shines. It was refreshing to see now well-worn characters played in different ways than the usual. Chip (James Coley) executed his ‘jock’ role perfectly. Olive’s character (Caitlin Mathieson) was played as ‘realistic’ and mature. Although a convincing and heartfelt performance, it left a couple of her usually ‘funny’ lines falling flat.  Sage Douglas as Logaine and Henry Brett as Leaf both managed to find subtleties and levels in characters that are often played ‘over-the-top’. They were both adorable, and Teresa Duddy (Marcy) also executed her role well. Special mention to Riley Nottingham as the Janitor, who managed to be hilarious without a single line of dialogue.

Direction, by Ben Giraud, is clever. He makes innovative use of the space, and it was nice to see the more movable chairs instead of the static bleachers commonly used.

Musical direction, by Trevor Jones, is excellent. It was very fitting to see the talented musicians in the band aptly dressed in school uniform and reacting to the action on stage.  Vocal harmonies were perfectly balanced and executed. Choreography by Bernie Bernard is also extremely creative and unique, matching the moment perfectly.

Costumes, by Zoe Felice, are well-suited and strike just the right balance between outlandish and everyday. Meanwhile the set by William Bobbie Stewart is highly creative, with yellow tarps lining the walls, paper cut-out bees and banners hanging down, and the floor painted as a gymnasium floor.

Overall, Vic Theatre Company’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is excellent, both side-splittingly funny and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and well worth checking out whether you’ve never heard of it, or you’re a well-worn veteran, like myself. You won’t be disappointed.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is playing at The Lawler from 30th of March to the 10th of April.  Bookings www.mtc.com.au  | 03 8688 0800

Image by James Terry

REVIEW: MTC Presents LADIES IN BLACK

Sleek, stylish and utterly winning

By Caitlin McGrane

The lead-up to Ladies in Black has been, for me, quite mysterious. It is the creative brainchild of Carolyn Burns (North by Northwest) and Tim Finn, so my expectations were suitably high, particularly because the production is also directed by Simon Phillips (North by Northwest). During the interval of Ladies in Black I struggled to think whether I had ever seen an Australian musical – would Priscilla or Strictly Ballroom count? And generally speaking musicals aren’t my thing, but Ladies in Black was jolly good fun, uproariously funny, and most importantly melted my feminist heart.

Ladies in Black starring Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer.jpg

It is the gentle, uplifting coming-of-age story of Lisa (Sarah Morrison), a shy, bookish Sydney teenager in the 1950s and her job at Goodes’ department store. Her colleagues in cocktail frocks Fay (Naomi Price) and Patty (Lucy Maunder), along with the magnificent Magda (Christen O’Leary) and lovely Miss Jacobs (Deidre Rubenstein) softly introduce her to life in the adult world. Although excellently played by Morrison, I found Lisa was sometimes competing for stage space with other characters in ways that felt, to me, a little jarring. That is not to say that anyone or any scene was unnecessary, I think writer Carolyn Burns did an exceptional job of rounding out every character as much as she could, to me this seemed like the consequence of not wanting to leave anyone out because they were all so worth seeing. I particularly enjoyed the (wonderfully oft-repeated song) about men being bastards and the way in which it was the male characters that were sidelined and showed shame for their sexual appetites, neatly subverting historical convention and giving the play a truly modern edge.

My only reservations about the whole production are: I would have loved to see the New Year’s Eve party, and some lines from other scenes sometimes felt like unnecessary exposition. Even though O’Leary’s Magda was terrific rattling through the evening’s events at breakneck speed, I would have enjoyed seeing Lisa and Fay dancing; however, I appreciate that the focus of the play was the women, not their male beaus.
The play is beautifully staged, and the opening of the second act was a particular highlight. The band (Gerard Assi, David Hatch, Matt Hassall, Jo To and Paul Zabrowarny) playing the music (nicely visible behind the stage) were outstanding – each scene felt accompanied by the perfect jazz riff or subtle tinkling of atmospheric music.

Unsurprisingly the costumes (from designer Gabriela Tylesova) were breathtaking, and now I really want to own at least one cocktail frock. Lighting (designed by David Walters) was suitably impressive – moving seamlessly from snowy street to sunny beach to moody bar.

My usual aversion to musicals has been swiftly demolished by this beautiful performance: it was extremely difficult not to get caught up in the whimsical daydreams of all the characters, and I left feeling as though it was the first production I had seen in a long time that didn’t talk down to the audience and really relished in the shiny, glossy newness of a beautiful dress.

Ladies in Black is now playing at The Sumner Theatre at the Melbourne Theatre Company in Southbank until 27 February 2016. More information and tickets at: http://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2016/ladies-in-black

Image by Rob Maccoll

INTERVIEW: North By Northwest’s SIMON PHILLIPS and CAROLYN BURNS

Screen-to-stage hit returns, as creators share their insights with Theatre Press

By Caitlin McGrane

Simon Phillips and Carolyn Burns, the marvellous creative team behind Kay + McLean Productions’ outstanding production of North by Northwest graciously agreed to be interviewed by me over Skype. As the show returns at The Arts Centre for two weeks only from 29 January I was keen to know about how the production came together, what their creative processes had been and what their next project will be.

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Theatre Press: Can you tell me a little about the production process and what it was like working with the MTC?
Simon Phillips: Well, I used to run the MTC for so long, so I love the MTC and everyone’s my friend, you see…
Carolyn Burns: … Yes, they’re always very gracious about the demands…
SP: And it’s lovely working with the MTC because [North By Northwest] was quite a big project and they took it on with enthusiasm and they were such big supporters. And before that we’d actually had it developed: it had been commissioned by Andrew Kay in Brisbane while we were trying to get all the video concept to come together. We couldn’t really proceed with confidence until we had that sorted out, because so much of putting the production together was unproblematic, but that really was something we had to get right. We did a lot of development with QPAC (Queensland Performance Arts Centre) and then with the MTC itself.
TP: Yes I can imagine that must’ve been quite involved as a process.
CB: The workshop we did in Brisbane we only got up to the airplane scene. It was really about Simon getting the style right before I even started writing, in a way. Because I knew the work and had done a lot of studying and knew the angle I wanted to take, so until Simon worked with Audio/Visual Artist Josh Burns on how to do those scenes… Simon and Josh came up with some brilliant concepts – I think Josh came up with the Lazy Susan.
TP: Can you tell me a little about how you adapted the film for the stage? Did you use any footage of the film? And was it very hard to obtain the rights for that footage?
SP: Well we actually didn’t use any of the footage from the original film. Although one of the main issues we had, was that Mount Rushmore is a copyrighted image so we had to find a creative solution to incorporating that. I always think that if you’re going to adapt a film for the stage there has to be a point of difference because if you’re showing parts of the film on stage you’re essentially saying that the film is unadaptable.
CB: The only real difference was that I wanted to make a tribute to Rear Window, which is one of my favourite films. So, starting off the production looking into people’s windows and getting a slight hint on who they were and what they were doing. The mother playing cards, one of them cleaning the gun, and getting a feel of the spies.
TP: I feel like the script and the way that the play pans out is a tribute to Hitchcock in a lot of ways it incorporates a lot of his themes and his unique visions. Would you agree?
CB: Oh well, I would. I studied [North by Northwest] at film school when I was a student from an art-direction point of view; I did fall in love with his wonderful way of shotlisting, and his take on life and his subtexts, and his mad, mad mind. My job really was to assume that no-one in the audience had ever seen the film, so it could still tell the story if they hadn’t seen the film. And Simon’s was to do everything else; he created the most beautiful set design.
TP: Can you tell me a little about your creative vision? And do you think you were able to realise that vision?
SP: I know it sounds too easy but Liza McLean [from Kay and McLean Productions] said to us after it had opened that it had perfectly realised what we had described and how it was going to work. But it’s funny because I really had to work out the design in order to say with confidence ‘yes I have a way of staging this.’ Actually I only realised the other day when I came across some early sketches that it did go through a hell of a lot of permutations. The two most difficult scenes were the cropduster and Mount Rushmore, and it was those two scenes that we had to make sure we were on top of before we even started. And Carolyn was very interested in the East versus West thing, spy versus spy.
CB: Yes. my favourite line is the whole thing is when Roger, the Carey Grant figure, says ‘you’re as bad as each other.’ And I just thought ‘both countries’ and I think it’s still the same and it’s still completely relevant today, wouldn’t you?
TP: I would completely agree. One of the great things about Hitchcock is that he is so contemporary and still so relevant today. For instance Eve is given her own character arc, she’s not a femme fetale, she has her own character development.
SP: Oh yes and she’s incredibly witty and very contemporary, which is so great and she is much more than a match for [Roger].
CB: And it also shows the development of one of the original Mad Men [Roger] who starts shallow and ends up slightly deeper. I did really enjoy writing for the mother, and in doing so making [Roger] even more of a mummy’s boy. We’re very lucky that Gina Riley has taken on that role.
TP: I just have one final question, Carolyn you mentioned your time at film school, I was wondering if you could give me a brief overview of your journey to the stage.
CB: Well, because I spent a lot of my childhood reading I found that writing was something that came fairly naturally to me and when I was 9 I wrote my first musical. Then I began writing little pieces for the newspaper; I didn’t really begin writing properly until I went to university in Auckland with Simon, where I wrote my first adult play. I’ve had a very long and complicated journey and in some way it has been a sideline to bringing up four children. I learned from Alan Plater while I was at film school that there is a real art to adaptation. But this one, North by Northwest, is really all about the style. Simon and I haven’t worked together that much but it is lovely to work with him now.
TP: That’s wonderful, thank you very much for your time. Best of luck with the next run of North by Northwest and with the opening of Ladies in Black.

North by Northwest is showing at the Arts Centre in Melbourne from 29 January to 10 February 2016. For tickets and more information visit : https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/theatre-drama/north-by-northwest-2016
Ladies in Black is showing at the Melbourne Theatre Company from 16 January to 27 February 2016. For tickets and more information visit: http://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2016/ladies-in-black/

REVIEW: MTC Presents BUYER AND CELLAR

Here’s what Barbra keeps in her basement…

By Caitlin McGrane

As the house lights dimmed inside the Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre, I leaned over to my mother and whispered, ‘I don’t know anything about Barbra Streisand.’ This remains true, but I am now certainly informed about her basement. As Alex (Ash Flanders) recounts his fictional employment in Barbra Streisand’s basement shopping mall it was thrilling to revel in the affection that playwright Jonathan Tolins clearly has for the superstar singer. The play was warm, heartfelt and gregarious in all the right ways.

Buyer and Cellar

The play opens with Ash giving a brief introduction to the audience about the book that inspired the play (My Passion for Design by Barbra Streisand) and about how Streisand built a shopping mall in the basement of her Malibu home. Ash then becomes Alex and tells the wickedly funny story of how he moved from Disneyland to Streisand, and how Alex’s relationship with his boyfriend Barry is affected by the new job. It’s a true one-man show, and Flanders did a spectacular job of moving seamlessly between the characters with their idiosyncratic accents and mannerisms. As I stated before, I don’t know anything about Barbra Streisand, but Flanders’ impression of her softly lilting voice and affected mannerisms were outrageously funny.

For the most part the play had me in stitches, however, there were several LA references that went completely over my head and it seemed, much of the rest of audience’s as well. This has nothing to do with the delivery, just that the play was written about a particular place with which a local audience is not necessarily familiar. The saturation of American culture certainly helped contextualise the jokes, but specific references to freeways were always going to go over most of our heads. (I would love to see if something similar could be written about Melbourne; maybe Geoffrey Rush has a Pirates of the Caribbean set up in his garage, I don’t know.)

There is clearly so much passion and fondness for Streisand in the script; director Gary Abrahams has ensured the barbs (pardon the pun) are handled just right – carefully toeing that difficult line between gently mocking and barbarous (I’m sorry I can’t stop). Adam Gardnir simply and effectively designed the sets and costumes; while Rachel Burke’s lighting design was beautiful. For a play about such a massively successful musician, there wasn’t much music, however The Sweats’ composition and sound design carefully adorned and enhanced the performance. Finally, Flanders’ numerous accents were so accurate, that it would be deeply remiss not to mention voice and dialogue coach Suzanne Heywood who has clearly done a marvellous job.

It can make me wary when it looks like the cast and crew of a production have had lots of fun assembling and crafting their work, but in this case it was really joyous to see. Buyer and Cellar demonstrates how reverence can work well alongside gentle teasing, especially if the butt of your jokes is a multimillionaire who really does have a shopping mall in her basement.

Buyer and Cellar is showing at the Fairfax Theatre at the Arts Centre until 12 December. Tickets from: http://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/mainstage-2015/buyer-and-cellar/