Tag: The Arts Centre

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: Bernadette Robinson in PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE

Gripping, glamorous, and remarkably funny

By Narelle Wood

When I read the release for this, it sounded to me like The West Wing crossed with a musical, which would be awesome. But what the collaboration of playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, director Simon Phillips and actor Bernadette Robinson accomplished in Pennsylvania Avenue was something far better than I could have ever imagined – and my expectations were pretty high.

Pennsylvania Avenue.jpg

Set in the Blue Room of the White House, famously directed by Jackie Kennedy, Harper Clare Clements (Robinson) takes us through her 40-year journey working in the entertainment department. This fictitious character, Harper, laments her personal narrative, interspersed with stories of musical greats whose performances are as much entrenched in the history of the White House as the ‘great’ men who held office. The tails begin with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy era and meanders all the way through to the Clintons and Aretha Franklin, all the while Clements describing her part in the musical as well as the political history.

Clement offers a unique and intriguing perspective of the power, privilege and unexpected perks of working adjacent to the Oval Office. And while Clement’s haunting past often acts as a conduit for the music, moments of political struggle and significance are also captured in dialogue and song: JFk’s assassination, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, to name but a few.

Anyone could be forgiven for thinking Harper Clare Clement and her exploits to be true. The story is so compelling and plausible: the historic events are portrayed so accurately and Clement’s tale seems an all-too-familiar one in an era that placed such little value on a woman’s voice. The movement of narrative from the ordinary, tragic, and joyous to the extraordinary would perhaps in other setting be unbelievable, but in The White House, anything seems possible. The plausibility is further facilitated by an array of still photographs that appear in the background, capturing and reinforcing the narrative as it moves along. But ultimately the believability factor must be contributed to the combination of Murray-Smith’s punchy writing, Phillip’s direction and Robinson’s embodiment of every character she plays. So accurate is Robinson’s mimicry in both voice and movement of the great musicians that after a Sarah Vaughan number the band broke into applause.

This production deserves every accolade it receives and more. Laugh-out-loud funny, charming and heartrending, Pennsylvania Avenue has all the ingredients for a killer political drama with a killer soundtrack to boot.

Venue: Playhouse, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
Season: Until 14th February, Tue – Thu 7.30pm, Fri – Sat 8pm, Wed & Sat 2pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: From $65
Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/musicals/pennsylvania-avenue

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/

REVIEW: Life Like Company Presents CITY OF ANGELS

Cy Coleman’s classic beautifully and stylishly revisited

By Myron My

Life Like Company‘s 2015 production has been the much-loved, Tony-Award-winning musical comedy thriller, City of Angels. Paying homage to the 1940s era of film noir while also taking a swipe at the Hollywood film industry, it is a heavily engaging and engrossing meta-story of betrayal, love, passion and murder.

Dress rehearsal photo from the Life Like Company production of City of Angels. Photography by Ben Fon - http://fon.com.au
Dress rehearsal photo from the Life Like Company production of City of Angels. Photography by Ben Fon – http://fon.com.au

Despite being first performed 26 years ago, the book by Larry Gelbart still come across as fresh and relevant. It may admittedly be a little politically incorrect and chauvinistic for current times (despite being mediated through characters we’re invited to critique) but the cheeky wit and cleverness of the script and the direction of Martin Croft ensure you still enjoy watching the relationships being depicted on stage. Led by Musical Director Kellie Dickerson, the live band superbly bring to life the upbeat challenging jazz score by Cy Coleman, and the cast certainly do justice to David Zippel’s sharp lyrics in their performances.

For those unfamiliar with the work, City of Angels offers two stories simultaneously told on stage. In one, mystery writer Stine (Anton Berezin), is attempting to perfect his latest film noir script while at the mercy of Hollywood film mogul, Buddy Fidler (Troy Sussman). In contrast, the second story (depicted entirely in black and white costumes and set pieces) has the audience entering Stine’s fiction where private investigator Stone (Kane Alexander) is hired by Alaura Kingsley (Anne Wood) to locate her missing stepdaughter and from there on, the plot thickens and the lines between reality and fantasy start blurring.

The whole cast is exemplary in their portrayals of their characters, including elegant body language and accents, with many playing dual roles as they cross over between stories. Berezin and Alexander are highly entertaining to watch as each character faces his own personal struggles, as well as having to deal with each other. Their famous duet, “You’re Nothing Without Me” is a powerhouse number and stays with you long after the curtain drops.

Amanda Harrison as Donna and Oolie, while not having much stage time, is a consummate scene-stealer and her spectacular renditions of “You Can Always Count On Me” and “What You Don’t Know About Women” (with Chelsea Plumley) are highlights of the evening. Wood is a superb choice as the sultry femme fatale Alaura and her chemistry with Alexander has you hanging off their every word and action.

City of Angels has much love and respect for the film noir genre while poking fun at its tropes. This particular production is a sharp and highly amusing show with some stunning performances from its cast. The only thing criminal about Life Like Company‘s latest theatrical creation is that it is on for only four nights, as many more people should be given the opportunity to experience its bite and brilliance.

City of Angels was performed at the Arts Centre between 5 – 8 November 2015.

REVIEW: Critical Stages and Shane Anthony Present SONGS FOR THE FALLEN

A witty and sumptuous tragedy

By Bradley Storer

Marie Duplessis, 19th-century French courtesan, socialite, literary muse and all-round party girl who died just after her 23rd birthday and whose life inspired artists from Alexandre Dumas, Giuseppe Verdi all the way to Baz Luhrmann, returns from the grave for one last party at the Fairfax Studio – and this one is going to be a killer!

Songs for the Fallen

Songs for the Fallen is a fabulous melange of tragic musical, bawdy cabaret and pumping pop opera, the writing of Sheridan Harbridge and music by Basil Hogios finding a pulsating and contemporary vitality, appropriate for this story of the original ‘material girl’! The set by Michael Hankin recalls the decaying remains of a 19th-century French apartment but easily transforms into a drug-crazed disco or demented vaudevillian circus upon demand.

Harbridge in the role of Marie Duplessis is a dynamo, a slender and fragile figure with a huge voice encased in fabulous corsets and garters who claims centre stage, shamelessly courts and molests the audience from the get-go and whose boundless charisma never lets up. She is aided by two versatile fellow performers, Simon Corfield and Ashley Hawkes, who assume the roles of various characters as we are taken on a burlesque and irreverent retelling of Marie’s rags-to-riches-and-back-again story. The three work so seamlessly and effortlessly together that they produce the energy and character of an ensemble of ten! Hogios’ score wonderfully and tunefully captures the seductively lush materialism of Marie’s existence in thumping dance beats, as well as her despair at its fragility and lack of inner purpose in gorgeous pop ballads.

It is a credit to the show that even as it pokes fun at any pretence of seriousness or accuracy to the historical context, a beating and wounded heart lurks beneath the surface. Songs for the Fallen captures, better perhaps than any other derivative depiction of Duplessis, the tragic dimension of this complex woman who clawed her way up from the gutter, living in brief splendour only to be consumed by incurable illness that left her alone, wretched and friendless before her death. Refusing to draw a moral or produce judgement, Songs for the Fallen heart-breakingly communicates the senseless and unjust cruelties of the world at the same time it embraces the joy and immaculate pleasure of simply being alive.

Time: 8pm
Date: 29th September – 3rd October
Venue: Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre, 100 St Kilda Rd.
Tickets: Adult $49, Under 30’s $30
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au, 1300 182 183, at the box office.

REVIEW: The Intergalactic Nemesis

Irrepressible and impressive fun

By Rachel Holkner

It is difficult to describe The Intergalactic Nemesis. Is it a traditional radio play, but with pictures? A graphic novel plus sound effects? A troupe of storytellers with a piano and a laptop? They introduce themselves as a “Live-Action Graphic Novel” but this performance is so much more than that. With a history reminiscent of other science-fiction radio dramas adapted for stage or screen (Orson Welles, Douglas Adams), The Intergalactic Nemesis the stage show is adapted from a stage play, in turn adapted from a radio drama and now also available as a comic book and video series on Youtube. So does the story itself warrant this multi-media attention?

The Intergalactic Nemesis

It’s a traditional tale of alien invasion set in 1933 with a mismatched team of heroes destined to save the Earth. But it’s not the story that will draw you to see this show: it’s the unusual production, the performance and the promise of “awesome”. On stage is a table of mysterious objects, a laptop, and a piano. Through projected illustrations, an improvised soundtrack and live sound effects the story unfolds across space and time.

The three actors Rachel Landon, Christopher Lee Gibson and Brock England are a delight in hamming up their somewhat stereotypical roles as characters in this 1930s sci-fi mystery story. If there had been any sets they would have been chewed to pieces by these enthusiastic performers. Having the 1,200 illustrations projected behind the players, with the computer being on stage, gave an air of being shown a giant Powerpoint presentation. The art matched the atmosphere perfectly, yet I felt it wasn’t always necessary as the action on stage was much more appealing.

With over half a dozen parts each, the trio not only spoke their lines but acted out their roles as much as standing behind a microphone allowed them .Accompanist Harlan Hodges very successfully fleshes out the show with a wide variety of mood music, trills and stings on the piano, yet it is foley artist Kelly Matthews who steals the show.

Even watching her prepare various props for upcoming scenes was fascinating as you’re kept wondering what each strange object might be used for. Concrete blocks, sheets of plastic, odd packets and tubes make a huge variety of creative sound effects. A small box of macaroni shaken in just the right way makes for a very compelling steam train chuffing along.

Some of the 1930’s-style jokes unfortunately fall a little flat as they don’t always translate for a modern Australian audience, and there was a big deal made about audience participation during the lengthy introduction which did not quite eventuate as it might if it were a broadcast performance. I can see this working much better with a larger audience of children than the sedate evening performance I attended.

The greatest highlight were the moments when the show became self-referential: when the performers played wonderfully off one another. Most of these moments felt very well-practised however and are in danger of becoming stale. The projected comic images keep the show running exactly to schedule and are unfortunately somewhat limiting as they remove the opportunity for the actors and sound artists, who know their roles so well, to improvise and add freshness to the performance.

Nonetheless, The Intergalactic Nemesis is a terrific family show, highly entertaining and warmly recommended for people who like to know how things work behind the scenes.

See more at http://www.theintergalacticnemesis.com
Dates: 9 – 13 September 2015
Tickets: $30-$45
Venue: Arts Centre Playhouse

REVIEW: MTC Presents THE WEIR

Spectacular veteran cast share a drink

By Christine Young

The Weir takes place at a country pub in the south of Ireland where a handful of locals have taken refuge on a cold, windy night, though there’s no doubt they enjoy a regular tipple regardless of the weather. The stage in the Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio is aptly decked out as a cosy pub with a bar for gossiping and a hearth for conversations from the heart.

MTC THE WEIR photo Jeff Busby

It’s clearly an important meeting place for local bachelors of a certain age who gather for a bit of ‘craic’ (conversation) which is central to the Irish psyche and way of life. The Weir is true ‘slice of life’ theatre: the audience eavesdrops on a conversation between the publican Brendan and locals Jack and Jim who are soon joined by Finbar and the mysterious newcomer Valerie.

The cast of MTC’s (Melbourne Theatre Company) production is impressive and all are veterans of Australian stage and screen: Nadine Garner (Valerie), Peter Kowitz (Jack), Finbar (Greg Stone), Jim (Robert Menzies) and Brendan (Ian Meadows). You may not recognise all their names but their faces are familiar from recent ABC programs such as Janet King, Doctor Blake Mysteries and The Moodys.

So the casting is excellent, the acting is brilliant, and the setting is just right. But the play itself is slow going and this reviewer found the first half, well, boring. It’s quite possible that I missed the whole point but it seemed to me that the initial conversations and stories were so pedestrian that they weren’t very interesting. Even naturalistic theatre needs some contrived excitement to propel a play’s narrative.

The play only began to pique my interest when Nadine Garner as Valerie delivers a heart-wrenching monologue which becomes the ‘psychological moment’. From this point onwards, the characters begin to speak authentically and drop the bravado.

That said, there are plenty more learned people than me who have given The Weir high praise. The play was Irish playwright Conor Mcpherson’s breakthrough script in 1997-98 and it won several prestigious theatre awards following its premiere season in London.

It’s not my glass of brandy … but it is wonderful to see some of our finest actors treading the boards together.

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne
Date: Until 26 September, 2015
Tickets: $49-$119
Booking: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au