Tag: Stephen Sondheim

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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REVIEW: Watch This Presents COMPANY

Stunning performances in superb production

By Adam Tonking

Stephen Sondheim can be tricky. His shows seem to be full of pitfalls to trap the unwary theatre company into poor choices, and Company is no exception. With no linear narrative, just a series of vignettes centred on marriage and relationships in New York and his usual densely layered music and finely wrought lyrics, there are a myriad of ways for this show to go off the rails. Fortunately, the cast and creative team behind Watch This’ Company are more than up to the challenge.
Company Photo Credit Jodie Hutchinson

The cast are sublime. The protagonist Robert is a difficult role to play; a mostly passive observer to the five married couples in his friendship circle, he still needs to build a rapport with the audience so they care when he stops for a moment of self-reflection. Nick Simpson-Deeks was perfect, engaged in every scene as the fulcrum around which the action takes place, charming and affable with a stunning voice: there could not have been a better choice for the dramatic lynchpin that carries the whole show.

But there were many beautiful performances from the rest of the cast also. Mark Dickinson as David in an early scene where he reveals a controlling side was absolutely chilling, Johanna Allen as Jenny brought a delightful schadenfreude and glorious voice to “Getting Married Today”, and Sally Bourne brought poignantly to life the difficult song “The Little Things You Do Together” as Joanne (a role which in another performer’s hands could have seemed like a mere mean drunk there simply to throw in the acerbic asides). These were a few of my favourite moments, but the whole cast were spectacular.

In fact, the creative team have likewise done a spectacular job. The choreography by Michael Ralph was inventive and finely detailed; in a show that doesn’t require big dance numbers, his choreography was clever and beautifully executed. Costume design by Zoe Rouse carefully managed a balance between current fashion and the 1970s era in which the show is set, while also cleverly colour-coding the married couples to help the audience manage visually the relationships between the characters.

One glaring problem with this production is the choice of venue. Unfortunately for a portion of the audience, the action was obstructed from view by poles or railings, which is a shame because the direction and staging was flawless. A sparse and economical set by Eugyeene Teh was transformed under the direction of Kat Henry into the multitude of locations required, and Henry’s tight direction kept the momentum going through the quietest of scenes. The creative team also made the brave choice to have the performers work without microphones, with mixed results. There is something so much more engaging and compelling, particularly in an intimate show like Company, to hear the performers under the musical direction of Lucy O’Brien without the filter of amplification, and in many moments in this production it was magnificent. Until the performer turns away from you and you’ve missed what they’re saying. Again, I confess I blame the choice of venue.

That said, I would dearly love to see this exact production again, preferably in a different venue, or at least in a better seat. This is Sondheim, after all, and Watch This have presented a brilliant production of Company. My suggestion is, see it, but make sure you choose your seating carefully. Actually – see it anyway. Because even from my seat next to the band where I couldn’t see half of the stage, I still loved it.

Watch This presents Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth is on at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, from September 16 till October 4. Tickets available at www.fortyfivedownstairs.com or by calling 03 9662 9966.

REVIEW: Manila Street Productions Presents SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM

Musings of the man on his music

By Bradley Storer

With Sondheim on Sondheim, Manilla Street Productions assembles a star-studded cast to perform a revue of Broadway’s most prolific living composer, an evening of Stephen Sondheim’s music intercut with projections of the man himself with a variety of anecdotes and details relating to his life and song-writing. Among the cast were leading lady of Australian music theatre Lucy Maunder, Rob Guest, Endowment winner Blake Bowden, Martin Crewes, Delia Hannah, Michael Cormick, Lisa-Marie Parker, Anton Berezin and Australian theatre legend Nancye Hayes.

Sondheim on Sondheim

The structure of the show itself, songs and scenes from Sondheim’s oeuvre presented alongside exclusive interviews with the composer himself, is problematic – none of the songs can gain enough momentum to hold the audience before they are interrupted by snatches of interviews, and thus the flow of the evening drags. Sondheim himself is a charming and engaging presence onscreen, and hearing him speak on various topics is one of the joys of the performance. By the second act, the portions of Sondheim’s interview are more smartly dispersed alongside longer numbers which allow some much-needed momentum, leading to wonderful group songs like the self-parodying ‘God’, ‘Opening Doors’, ‘The Gun Song’ and ‘Smile Girls!, an Ethel Merman number cut from Gypsy.

The all-star cast seemed surprisingly tentative, too unsure to invest themselves in their individual numbers enough to perform a ‘star turn’ – which unfortunately is what revues such as this need to stay afloat. Maunder’s Act Two strip tease, ‘Ah, But Underneath’, was the closest the evening came to a show-stopper and allowed Maunder (who earlier delivers a touching performance of ‘Take Me to the World’) to unleash scintillating dance skills and charismatic sexuality, but was undercut by the entrance of the male ensemble and an oddly dissatisfying climax to the number. One of the greatest moments of the evening was the simplicity of watching Hayes grabbing a stool and taking centre stage to sing with heart-breaking simplicity the famous ‘Send in the Clowns’.

The orchestra, under the capable direction of Kellie Dickerson, were in great form, performing the new arrangements with great zest and skill – one mistake however was the choice of a slower tempo for the explosive ‘Franklin Shepherd Inc.’, a show-stopper that requires manic and frenetic energy to work, leaving Crewes’ valiant attempt to deliver the number underwhelming.

Sondheim on Sondheim unfortunately fails to deliver on the promise of its incredible cast and rich material, finding only moments here and there which capture the deep well of emotion and beauty within’s Sondheim work – the show itself has structuring issues which certainly don’t help the creative team and need more time and finesse to overcome.

Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, corner of Southbank Boulevard and Sturt St.
Date: Saturday 23rd May, 2015
Time: 2pm & 7:30pm
Tickets: A Reserve – $69, $59 Concession, B Reserve – $59, $55 Concession
Booking: www.melbournerecitalcentre.com.au, 03 9699 3333, at the box office.

REVIEW: Emma Clair Ford in LAUGH UNTIL I CRY

Impeccable

By Bradley Storer

A rich languorous voice in the darkness, calling and drawing listeners into the deep folds of blissful undisturbed slumber – as Melbourne cabaret mainstay Emma Clair Ford takes to the stage of The Butterfly Club in her latest work Laugh until I Cry, she trails her characteristic air of seductive mystery and refreshing emotional honesty, wrapped up in a honey-hued voice that thrills at the same time it soothes and relaxes.

Laugh Until I Cry

Laugh Until I Cry is a jazzy exploration of the anxiety-riddled emotional rollercoaster known as adulthood. What sets Ford apart from fellow and equally talented cabaret performers is the absolute economical tightness of her writing, in which not a word seems excessive or unnecessary but perfectly calibrated for maximum effect. Aided by Alister Smith‘s snappy direction, Ford unleashes torrents of manically-driven monologue and beautifully nonsensical dream imagery with admirable clarity and precise diction, the rich underlying musical soundscapes provided by accompanist Vicky Jacobs helping to take the audience on these imaginative journeys.

Ford herself is that contradictory combination of being radiantly charismatic at the same time she is intensely relatable and seemingly ordinary, blessed with a gorgeous voice and comic gift that can take Adele’s ‘Right as Rain’ from a jazzy jaunt into an adrenaline-crazed outburst worthy of Sondheim. Drawing on composers ranging from Gershwin and The Beatles all the way to Michael John LaChiusa, Ford takes us from one end of the day to the other, paralleling the journey from despair to acceptance and forgiveness of our own human frailties.

Laugh until I Cry, as its title implies, is an ultimately joyous celebration of the strength and fortitude needed to wade through even a single day of adult life, a great new work from an established cabaret artist which is mandatory viewing for any cabaret aficionado or those wishing to see cabaret in its purest and most creative form.
Venue: The Butterfly Club, 1 Carson Place, Melbourne.
Dates: 4th – 8th March
Times: Wednesday/Sunday 8pm, Thursday – Saturday 9pm
Tickets: Full $30, Concession $26, Members $25, Group 8+ $24

REVIEW: Victorian Opera’s INTO THE WOODS

Stunning cast in superb production

By Adam Tonking

Into The Woods is admittedly one of my favourite musicals. With the movie adaptation due out at the end of the year, now is the perfect opportunity to see Stephen Sondheim’s masterful exploration of fairy tales in all its original glory, and fortunately, Victorian Opera have staged an immensely enjoyable production of this wonderful show.

Victorian Opera 2014 - Into the Woods © Jeff Busby

The amazing cast deftly handle all of Sondheim’s tricky score and dense lyrics. Truly impressive, in that even at its most tongue-twisting, not a single syllable was lost on the audience, allowing us to enjoy every witty line and every beautifully crafted lyric. Sondheim writes wonderful characters for women, the three main ones in Into The Woods being The Baker’s Wife, The Witch, and Cinderella , and the three actresses in these roles were more than up to the task.

Christina O’Neill was perfect as The Baker’s Wife, never missing a single moment in the character’s development, bringing energy to some of the weaker spoken scenes, and providing blessed relief in the challenging, exposition-heavy second act with her stunning rendition of “Moments In The Woods.” Queenie van de Zandt was in usual glorious form as The Witch, bringing an engaging pragmatism to the role’s more obvious malice, allowing a clearer understanding of the character. Her skilled handling of The Witch’s rap was awe-inspiring, but she was truly breathtaking in my favourite song “Last Midnight.” Lucy Maunder as Cinderella was spectacular, and her duets with O’Neill were some of the most touching of the night. Among the men, particular praise should go to John Diedrich as the Mysterious Man for bringing one of the weakest characters and a terribly awkward part to life.

Clearly I cannot lavish enough praise on Victorian Opera’s Into The Woods. This is simply a magnificent production of a gorgeous show. Don’t miss your chance to see it. It’s playing from now until Saturday 26 July at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. Book tickets at www.victorianopera.com.au or by calling 1300 182 183.

REVIEW: Theatre Works Presents PACIFIC OVERTURES

Sondheim, samurai, and scintillating theatre

By Bradley Storer

Out of nowhere a figure dashed onstage, the lights suddenly cutting out accompanied by a sudden strike of the drum. The lights slowly return to reveal a painted emblem emblazoned on the floor of the stage, the ensō – the Buddhist circle which expresses the moment of creativity uninhibited by the conscious mind. Into this symbolic void enters the ensemble of Pacific Overtures, clad entirely in white, taking their places around the ensō and beginning their first song: a choral ode to the cyclical serenity of feudal Japan, undisturbed by the outside world.

PACIFIC OVERTURES Photo Credit Jodie Hutchinson

Pacific Overtures, one of Stephen Sondheim’s more modest and lesser-known masterpieces, is an imaginative exploration of the moment in history when Japan was first forced into contact with Western civilization. Sondheim’s score, a minimalistic collection derived from the structures and principles of Asian music, is a distant cousin to the operatic scope of his work before and after, but is nevertheless a theatrical tour de force.

The cast are so strong both dramatically and vocally that it is extremely difficult to pick an outstanding performance. As a whole they perfectly capture the stylized but intensely emotionally and characterful style of kabuki theatre, and in their individual solos they all unveil beautiful and powerful voices – in the ensemble numbers they blend together in wondrous harmony. The closest would be Adrian Li Donni as Kayama, the samurai whose meteoric rise to power and subsequent corruption strings the plot together both narratively and emotionally. Donni’s open and expressive face (along with a golden singing voice) flawlessly captures the innocence and good nature of this warrior catapulted into diplomatic office.

Director Alister Smith, along with choreographer Michael Ralph, have done an exemplary job of building the striking dramatic images that make up this epic tale. A terror-stricken mob of villagers gathering as they spot the oncoming American armada, a hilarious pageant of prostitutes preparing to welcome American sailors, a traditional Kabuki dance exploding into a demented vaudevillian cake-walk danced by a demonic Uncle Sam. In a quieter moment, the song ‘Poems’ spins together the heart-meltingly lyrical tenors of Donni and Nick Simpson-Deeks into a sequence of heart-ravishing loveliness.

This production of Pacific Overtures is a seamless meeting of dramatic intensity, musical beauty and compelling story performed by a highly skilled company of actors and handled by an endlessly inventive creative team!

Venue: Theatreworks, 14 Acland St, St Kilda

Date: 19 Feb 2014 – 09 Mar 2014

Time: Tue to Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm

Preview: Wed 19 Feb 7.30pm & Thu 20 Feb 2pm

Price: $39 / $35 8+ / $29 conc

Bookings: Online at www.theatreworks.org.au or phone 03 9534 338803 9534 338803 9534 338803 9534 3388

REVIEW: Jemma Rix with David Young in THE RANDOM VARIETY

Wicked star braves the cabaret stage

By Bradley Storer

Introduced by her accompanist David Young, Jemma Rix, the recently-announced Elphaba for the new Australian production of Wicked, took to the stage of The Butterfly Club with a shy but toothy grin. Here she launched into a wonderful original song investigating the meaning behind the title of the show and ending in a medley of countless tunes shouted out on the spot by Young.

Jemma Rix

A misstep was following this rollicking song with the Eagles’ sombre ‘Hotel California’, an odd choice which drained the energy she’d built up in her first tune. For the first part of the evening Rix was clearly nervous and had trouble maintaining eye contact with her audience – not such a big problem for musical theatre but difficult for the intimacy of cabaret. She asked the audience’s forgiveness for her understandable nerves in her first outing as a cabaret performer.

After seeming a little unsure of herself through the first few pop songs on the set list, resorting to a few stock pop-singer stage moves at some points, one could almost feel her give an internal sigh of relief when she reached the first show tunes of the night – a winning combination of Stephen Schwartz’s ‘Beautiful City’ and Sondheim’s ‘Another Hundred People’, with Schwartz’s idealistic vision of a ‘city of men’ bringing out a surprising beauty in Sondheim’s bleak landscape of urban alienation.

The first moment where it felt Rix truly connected with her audience was with the song ‘With You’ from the musical Ghost – here her inhibitions melted away  and I felt transported as Rix brought us into the heartbreaking grief of losing a loved one, and from here on out she was on solid ground. Once her nerves were gone, Rix revealed herself as a charming and engaging performer, along with her voice of startling power and floating delicacy.

The later half of the evening brought some surprising and rewarding choices in repertoire. Rix informed us of her uproarious idea of a Romeo and Juliet juke-box musical based around the music of Rihanna (the only thing lacking were some daggy dance moves!). Her banter about the plight faced by youth today in an environment pervaded by cyber-bullying led into a brilliant fusion of ‘Quiet’ from Tim Minchin’s Matilda with David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’ that held the entire audience spell-bound.

A promising first show from an established music-theatre performer which assures us of great things for her cabaret future! 

Venue: The Butterfly Club, 256 Collins St (enter off 5 Carson Place), Melbourne City

Dates & Times: 23rd, 24th, 28th at 8pm, 25th, 26th, 27th at 9pm.

Tickets: Full $28, Concession $25, Group $23, Tightarse Tuesday $20.

Bookings: www.thebutterflyclub.com , 9663 8107 or at the door.