The King and I

 Presented by John Frost and Opera Australia, April 19, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane.

LISA McCune has probably never sounded or looked lovelier. As Anna Leonowens in The King and I, McCune has all the sweet-spot songs – Hello, Young Lovers, I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? – and gets to sing them wearing Roger Kirk’s ravishing gowns. She is the calm, commanding centre of the piece and a joy to behold.

This is not unexpected. McCune is a music theatre veteran despite still looking as dewy fresh as a teenager and she has something of the sexy primness of the head prefect about her – perfect for the role of a Western governess in the Siamese court in the 19th century.

Lisa McCune in South Pacific. Photo: Brian Geach

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Photo: Brian Geach

In 1862 the exceptionally adventurous Leonowens, a widow, went to what was then called Siam to teach the multitudinous wives, consorts and children of King Mongkut, a man who apparently prided himself on his English-language skills and wanted his court to learn them. A wise move, as the West’s roving eye meant great vigilance was required. Leonowens wrote two memoirs full of vivid detail about culture, art, religious practice and her combative relationship with the monarch, books that inspired the 1944 Margaret Landon novel that is the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical.

It’s clear from Leonowens’s writing that while there were many practices in Siam she abhorred, she found much deal to admire in her pupils and in King Mongkut. Rodgers and Hammerstein were socially progressive too – think of the plea for racial tolerance in South Pacific – and while there’s an element of condescension in their portrayal of the Siamese court, so exotic to 1950s Western eyes, there are nevertheless Asian characters that claim the audience’s understanding. The secondary figures of Lady Thiang, Tuptim and Lun Tha aren’t given a lot of stage time and aren’t integrated into the musical entirely satisfactorily, but they are highly sympathetic.

Most crucially the musical within the musical, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is full of riches. In a narrated dance piece lasting about a quarter of an hour – an audaciously long interruption to the main body of the musical – the unhappy Tuptim, one of the king’s concubines, presents a fervent and touching distillation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, putting it into a Buddhist context. It is an act of protest on her part, beautiful but dangerous. At this point Jerome Robbins’s choreography (reproduced in this production by Susan Kikuchi), Brian Thomson’s design, Rodgers’s Eastern-inflected music, Hammerstein’s inspired writing and the performances of Jenny Lui (Tuptim) and the ensemble work together to create unforgettable magic.

I can’t help wondering to what degree The King and I’s earliest American audiences would have been reminded of their history of slavery at a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

In The Small House of Uncle Thomas Rodgers’s music quotes from It’s a Puzzlement when referring to the slave-owner Simon Legree – a rebuke to King Mongkut. There are also a couple of phrases from Hello, Young Lovers, linking the plight of the runaway Eliza and her lover George to that of Tuptim and her secret love, Lun Tha.

It’s a pity that a song that previously opened the second act, Western People Funny, was excised from this production for length reasons – the production, not the song – before it went to Broadway in 1996 and has stayed excised. In it Lady Thiang and women of the court criticise Western attitudes towards them. They have been asked to wear Western dress, and this is what they have to say about it: “To prove we’re not barbarians/ They dress us up like savages! … Western people funny/ Of that there is no doubt/ They feel so sentimental/ About the Oriental/ They always try to turn us/ Upside out and inside down!”

In Christopher Renshaw’s staging while this song is missing we do see Mongkut’s wives trying on vast hooped skirts. And, very regrettably, flashing a bit of bare bottom.

The King and I is far from being a work that casually dismisses Asians as childlike and amusing, although directorial choices can take one in that direction if they do not take into account changing attitudes. An audience today will look at the musical with very different eyes from those of 63 years ago when it premiered, and even from 23 years ago when this production was first staged – that’s a whole generation.

I was surprised last Saturday night that a production I had much enjoyed when first seeing it in 1991 now felt so heavy-handed, McCune excepted. Memory is a treacherous thing but I don’t recall Thomson’s design looking quite so gaudy with its riot of red and gold accessorised with a tsunami of crystals and multitudinous points of light. The look brought to mind the bold colours and outlines of a child’s picture book. And the opening scene when Anna and her son arrive in Bangkok – was it really that unsubtle in its tawdry depiction of a bustling Asian port and the gradations of power between court officials and minions?

The casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes commercial sense after his music-theatre debut in South Pacific as Emile de Becque, a role that needs a fine bass baritone. Rhodes’s singing of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine added great lustre to South Pacific. That he and McCune, who starred as Nellie Forbush, are now off-stage partners is presumably also a factor.

He is, however, not ideal casting for the role of the King of Siam. Most obviously, he is not Asian. Leaving politics aside (that’s a whole other and very large subject), it’s not convincing theatrically. It’s not even as if there’s an imperative to have the King played by someone who has been operatically trained.

Rhodes’s key gift isn’tneeded here, although I admit it was fun to hear him make It’s a Puzzlement sound as if it actually has a melody. The King was originally played by non-singer Yul Brynner (triumphantly) and at one point late in his life by Rudolf Nureyev (disastrously), and the role has minimal musical commitments that can be negotiated by speaking in rhythm and occasionally going up and down. As for the acting requirements, Rhodes is allowed to give a one-note performance for most of the musical’s length. Much stomping and arms akimbo suggest childish petulance rather than a mature ruler’s implacable authority, although at the end Rhodes unleashes anger that at last feels authentic.

The more ambitious music is given to secondary figures, here cast from strength. Shu-Cheen Yu’s Lady Thiang, Lui’s Tuptim and Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha are all sung superbly, with Yu’s Something Wonderful a standout. The looser-than-ideal structure often grates, but it also allows room for The Small House of Uncle Thomas, with its radiant dance inspired by the classical Siamese tradition. And for this gift I can forgive quite a lot.

Brisbane until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1. Rhodes will appear in the Sydney season of The King and I but is unavailable for Melbourne, where Jason Scott Lee, an American of Chinese-Hawaiian descent who sang the role opposite Elaine Paige in London in 2000-2001, will appear with McCune.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

In March 2008, when I was still on staff at The Australian, I wrote a piece about musical theatre ahead of an Opera Australia production of My Fair Lady. With OA and John Frost opening The King and I in Brisbane, with Melbourne and Sydney seasons to follow, I pulled it out of the vault.

THE golden age of musical theatre started quietly. A young man was heard offstage – it was March 31, 1943 – extolling the joys of life and of that day in particular. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” he sang, a cappella. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …” Oklahoma!, and a new era, was under way.

The show was the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and its opening is one of the most inspired, and concise, pieces of scene and character setting in all musical theatre.

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, and with those first eight words (of which two are definite or indefinite articles) established an indelible image of open farmland on a sunny morning and, by association, the pleasant, optimistic nature of the man who notices such things. The rhythm of the line is clear and uncomplicated, and Rodgers supports it with a sweet melody that strolls along as easily as an old-fashioned country boy.

All this takes perhaps 10 seconds to get across.

Oklahoma! has a perfect structure and the score is one of the greatest light music scores ever written,” says David King, head of musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Most of the competition for greatness comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, with Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music coming from the pair in the space of 16 years. But they didn’t entirely corner the market. The dream run in the 1940s and 50s included Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, remarkable for the quality of their source material (from George Bernard Shaw, Damon Runyon and Shakespeare respectively) and the brilliance of their music and lyrics. More recent musicals might have one or two hit songs; shows in this group string them together like well-matched pearls. Expensive ones, too. If you’d invested $1000 in the original Oklahoma! your return would have been $2.5million.

That Oklahoma! has enduring appeal more than 60 years after its premiere attests to its quality: in 2008 there would be about 500 productions worldwide, including one at Perth-based WAAPA. But it goes further than mere popularity. Rodgers and Hammerstein set the standard and style for an era. The shows created in the space of little more than two decades, from 1943 to 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened, are the undisputed classics of the genre.

Writer Peter Stone [explains] Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove.

Gerald Bordman, author of American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, heads his chapter on this period The American Musical as a Conscious Art Form. What would become the musical started in the mid-1800s and developed out of popular theatrical traditions including operetta, melodrama, burlesque and revue.

Most commentators nominate 1866 as the start of the native art form, when a touring French ballet company found itself without a theatre and enterprising producers combined the talents of the danseuses with a melodrama that did have a theatre, The Black Crook. The young women of the ballet weren’t the only ones with legs, and the show ran and ran.

In the post-war 1920s the taste was for entertainment; in the 30s theatregoers wanted either escape from the Depression or socially relevant drama because of it. There was, however, a cluster of supremely talented people working in New York who would bring the light and shade together.

Hammerstein is a pivotal figure. His grandfather was a New York theatre district pioneer and, with Jerome Kern, he wrote the groundbreaking Show Boat (1927). With its racially integrated cast and a troubling theme of miscegenation, it foreshadowed the kind of work Hammerstein would do when he joined forces with Rodgers 15 years later. He was also an important mentor to Sondheim, who would much later reign over the high end of the market.

And Hammerstein was a lyricist of exceptional and subtle gifts. In their book Broadway: The American Musical, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon quote writer Peter Stone on Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove. In Carousel it’s If I Loved You, in Show Boat it’s Only Make Believe, in Oklahoma! there’s People Will Say We’re in Love.

Just how different Oklahoma! was from its immediate predecessors is illustrated by something that quickly passed into music theatre legend. A talent scout for the critic Walter Winchell went to New Haven to see a show, at that stage called Away We Go, which was having its out-of-town tryout. He cabled to Winchell the following assessment: No legs, no jokes, no chance!

The audience saw it differently, happy to view work that not only entertained and thrilled but often challenged as well. Oklahoma! became the first music theatre phenomenon, running for more than 2000 performances on Broadway.

The new breed of creators didn’t shy away from themes such as gang warfare (West Side Story), racism (South Pacific) and dispossession (Fiddler on the Roof), but it was in the context of well-made theatre that also provided the popular music of the day: Maria, Some Enchanted Evening, If I Were a Rich Man.

The genius, says Andrew Greene, who conducts My Fair Lady for Opera Australia in June, lies in the fact that “in (the classic) musicals it’s about the team: wonderful music, words, book and great choreography and direction, all coming together to create a wonderful night in the theatre”. No longer was the piece designed to revolve around a big-name star who sucked up most of the oxygen. Everything had to be in the service of the whole.

When a [Cole] Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Michael Grandage, director of the Donmar Warehouse production in London of Guys and Dolls, which is being staged in Melbourne, points to the detail and cohesion of its book. “From a directorial point of view, you’re able to approach a musical like Guys and Dolls exactly as you would one of the most perfectly made plays,” he says.

As with most classic periods, the golden age of the American musical was created by a relatively small number of people. They included composer and conductor Bernstein, the youthful Sondheim (as lyricist), producer David Merrick and director Hal Prince. The stellar Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote words as well as music: when a Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Crucially, dance became a force for concentrated storytelling, often psychologically revealing, for which Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins can take much of the credit. De Mille’s dream ballet for Oklahoma! and another for Carousel were so influential that she perhaps never received quite her due: soon everyone was doing what she did.

Robbins and de Mille came from the classical ballet world and didn’t see it as slumming from their duties at American Ballet Theatre. In fact Robbins, a forceful character who directed as well as choreographed, got the idea that became West Side Story while studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where Marlon Brando was among his peers. The exhilarating Act I Mambo in the re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet isn’t there for colour and movement. It reveals the depth of rivalry between the Puerto Rican and American gangs and, in the setting of a social dance, brings Tony and Maria together.

The porous divide between high art and the commercial theatre was manifest in a version of Aida, using Verdi’s music but translated to an American Confederacy setting and called My Darlin’ Aida. Obviously it didn’t enter the pantheon, but it does point to a general taste for music written for a more classic tradition of vocal training. Opera singer Ezio Pinza had huge success as Emile in South Pacific, and My Fair Lady called for a gifted soprano and got one in Julie Andrews. Rising opera star Taryn Fiebig will sing the role for Opera Australia.

OA’s chief executive Adrian Collette says the strong book is central to the appeal of My Fair Lady. It’s adapted from “a tough and polemical play by George Bernard Shaw … what the music unfailingly brings to it is the potential for romance. It keeps its essential ambiguity to the very end, but overlays it with this wonderfully romantic music.”

Greene says American musicals have been part of the lighter repertoire in European opera houses for many years, and is pleased to see OA tackling My Fair Lady after many years of Gilbert and Sullivan (OA has also staged Fiddler on the Roof).

“[Frederick] Loewe was amazing. He was a direct descendant of a 19th-century lieder composer of Austrian descent. We find him not only being able to write wonderful romantic-style pop tunes. He was able to [write in the manner of] the British music-hall style for My Fair Lady - Get Me to the Church on Time, With a Little Bit of Luck - and also something like They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon. He was a musical chameleon.”

Like all movements, this one was finite. Times, tastes and methods changed. A show such as Cabaret (1966) mostly presented its songs not as rising out of ordinary activity but within the context of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally Bowles worked. A Chorus Line (1975) stripped away all the trappings and was a more or less plotless show about people trying to get into a show.

The bubble had very much burst by the Broadway season of 1967-68. William Goldman in his book The Season saw everything that year. There were 14 new musicals and only one hit: the endearing but chaotic Hair. To come: the rock musical, Sondheim (a kind of one-man style), the British “popera” invasion spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Disneyfication and the jukebox musical.

It’s hard to see anything other than Sondheim lasting another 50 years but that doesn’t stop people from trying, year after year, to write the next hit. King says the New York Music Theatre Festival each year premieres about 40 new musicals – “there’s an enormous amount of stuff written” – and a few composers, Adam Guettel (Rodgers’s grandson) and Michael John LaChiusa chief among them, are writing works of note.

And a Broadway that can offer, simultaneously, musical versions of Frank Wedekind’s wildly controversial 1891 play dealing with youthful sexuality, Spring Awakening, and the perky Legally Blonde – King calls it imaginative and witty – is far from being dead, no matter how much people hanker for the glory days and start reading it the last rites.

The King and I, presented by Opera Australia and John Frost, QPAC, Brisbane, until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1.

THE BEST OF THE BEST FROM THE GOLDEN AGE

Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1943

On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, developed from Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre, 1944

Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1945

Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin, 1946

Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter, 1948

South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949

Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, 1950

The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1951

My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1956

West Side Story, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1957

The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1959

Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1959

Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1964

Strictly Ballroom the Musical

Lyric Theatre, Sydney, April 12

YOU know that climactic moment in Strictly Ballroom – the one where National Australian Federation of Dance president Barry Fife has the plug pulled at the Pan Pacifics on Scott and Fran’s music and their illegal steps, and then there’s the sound of one person clapping to get the rhythm going? And then everyone starts clapping, and Scott and Fran soar?

Of course you do. As does the audience for Strictly Ballroom the Musical.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom the Musical. Photo Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom the Musical. Photo Jeff Busby

According to the script of both film and musical, downtrodden Doug Hastings, Scott’s father and a closet dancesport renegade, finally asserts himself and supports his son’s rebellion against the petty tyranny of the competitive ballroom dancing hierarchy. At Friday night’s final preview the audience joined in after only two handclaps from Drew Forsythe’s Doug; at Saturday’s opening of Baz Luhrmann’s crowd-pleasing but deeply uneven extravaganza they didn’t even wait for that.

Uncued, except by their familiarity with the film, 2000 people put their hands together. Thunderously. Audience and show had became one.

In this respect Luhrmann’s translation of his justly loved 1992 film to the stage is a success. (More precisely this is a return to the stage, as the piece was born in 1984 as a theatrical work.) Luhrmann gives people what they expect and want, which is essentially the film’s structure, imagery, dialogue and songs with added musical numbers. There is, however, a considerable downside to this trip down memory lane. The bracing grotesquerie of the film too frequently hardens here into shrill cartooning and the new music, from a variety of hands, is mostly inconsequential at best, banal at worst and inconsistently applied. Why does Shirley Hastings sing while she’s putting a Band-Aid on Fran’s knee? Search me.

The balance is out of whack, giving Strictly Ballroom the Musical a loose feel when it should be as taut as the buns of steel so liberally on display. Let’s put it this way. By the time we’ve reached interval the show is already as long as the film is in its entirety. Along the way the show’s original impulses are trampled on. The themes of being true to oneself, resisting heavy-handed authority and seeing beyond the superficial to what is truly valuable struggle to compete with the noise.

Exhibit A is the scene at Fran’s modest suburban home in which Scott learns what the paso doble really is. It starts so well as the absolutely splendid Natalie Gamsu and Fernando Mira as Fran’s grandmother and father embody an earthy vigour that shows up the empty glitz of the ballroom world. And then one realises with mounting horror that the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen has been co-opted for an instant dash of Spain, given a soupy arrangement and, when one could hear a phrase or two escape from the murk, lyrics that are puerile and redundant.

Presumably this seemed a fabulous idea at the time but it sure doesn’t feel like it now. This is surprising because, like it or not, Luhrmann’s is an art of sensation and instinct rather than intellect. Catherine Martin’s designs are absolutely crucial in this, and here she revels in sets that advance, retreat and circle and delivers costumes in eye-poppingly artificial liquorice allsorts colours. The lithe, leggy ladies of the indefatigable ensemble are dressed either in clouds of tulle or in scarcely enough sequins to cover a pincushion; gents are encased in iridescent onesies with the snug fit of condoms. Divine. In a nod to Luhrmann’s description of this style of theatre, there are red curtains within red curtains.

One of Catherine Martin's sets for StrictlyBallroom the Musical. Photo: Jeff Busby

One of Catherine Martin’s sets for StrictlyBallroom the Musical. Photo: Jeff Busby

It takes experience to prevail over such sense-saturation. Wonderful Heather Mitchell heroically finds some nuance in Scott’s termagant mum Shirley and Robert Grubb’s tyrant Barry Fife is highly enjoyable. Andrew Cook as Scott’s friend Wayne is a standout in the younger set.

The honey-voiced Phoebe Panaretos is just lovely as Fran and will be lovelier if she drops the early daggy-girl schtick. Thomas Lacey has the show’s most difficult assignment in playing Scott and is at present a little under-equipped. He fields a light voice, a sweet personality and slightly reticent dance demeanour but may well blossom when more battle-hardened. His Act I dance number (choreography by John O’Connell) doesn’t thrill as it should and nor does the finale for Scott and Fran.

Scott’s Act I dance is a good example of the way in which Strictly Ballroom the Musical falters in the transition to the musical theatre form. This solo’s function is to convey the depth of the young man’s frustrations and ambitions. Choreographically it is uninteresting, with an over-reliance on barrel turns, but it is also staged in a perfunctory and frankly second-hand manner. Screens are wheeled in that at first obscure Scott, not necessarily the greatest idea. But wait, they are mirrors in which we are surely to see Scott multiplied and exalted. That idea is well known from The Music and the Mirror from A Chorus Line, which is Cassie’s expression of her frustrations and ambitions, but here the mirrors hardly have a chance to register before they are gone. Bewildering.

There are other examples of sketchy or lumpy shaping that would suggest nowhere near enough time has been spent on the show’s construction. The erratic use of the music – and its quality – also suggests that. A reading of the fine print at the back of the program reveals Lurhmann getting credits as composer and lyricist as well as co-writer and director. Who knew he also wrote music? Alarm bells ring at the thought of so many hats on the one head. Who is there to tell Luhrmann that lyrics he co-authored, such as those for When You’re Strictly Ballroom (to Strauss’s Blue Danube) and A Life Lived in Fear (to Bizet), or the music he co-wrote are far from being top drawer?

Not surprisingly I was somewhat reminded of King Kong, also produced by Global Creatures. It too featured a variable mash-up score and an uncertain structure. Despite CEO Carmen Pavlovic stoutly saying the producers were happy with it and there would be few changes, I understand King Kong is being significantly reworked. Certainly the postponement of its announced November Broadway opening would seem to back up what one hears.

If Strictly Ballroom the Musical has Broadway ambitions, which it undoubtedly does, it will also need substantial work, particularly as American audiences are most unlikely to have the passion for Luhrmann’s film that patrons here have. (James L. Nederlander, from the Broadway theatre-owning and producing family, is one of a number of overseas investors in the show.)

But even if people do know the film intimately, it is now more than 20 years old and being presented in a medium that has its own special attributes and needs. Luhrmann hasn’t taken the imaginative leaps one might have expected from him. He has made safe, predictable choices.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 14.

Macbeth and Cock in Brisbane

Macbeth, Queensland Theatre Company, The Playhouse, Brisbane, April 9. Cock, Melbourne Theatre Company and La Boite, The Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, April 9.

QUEENSLAND Theatre Company’s Macbeth isn’t set in a boardroom, or in Nazi Germany, or in the fiefdom of the Klingons. The unchanging set (Simone Romaniuk, who also designed the costumes) is a thicket of gnarled trees, Birnham Wood having already come to Dunsinane as Macbeth plays out his doomed tilt at a glory he hubristically hopes will last for generations. The men are dressed in simple battle attire, are always dirty and often bloodied. The witches are wild-haired, mud-caked creatures who slither out of the mire. Composer and sound designer Phil Slade’s opening volley of doom-laden thunder and David Walters’s shots of lightning support the louring stage picture. This is a dark and forbidding place for dark deeds.

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

QTC engaged Michael Attenborough, former artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre, to direct the Scottish play and he does so with a very straight bat indeed. His Macbeth is reverent, respectful and ultra clear in the delivery of its language. No one could leave the theatre thinking Shakespeare is hard work. These are not qualities to be derided, to be sure, but they do render this Macbeth too tame and earnest. The whiff of a production suitable for high school students hangs over it.

Attenborough has a long pedigree when it comes to Shakespeare, having, among his many other eminent positions, been principal associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 2002. His Brisbane cast doesn’t lack Shakespeare credentials, but perhaps Attenborough felt those credentials were insufficiently deep. Whatever the reason, the excitement engendered by the sound and light show that introduces the play is swiftly damped down as soon as the actors begin to speak. Attenborough has them deliver the text deliberately and carefully, almost as if they were still in the rehearsal phase, teasing out exactly what each phrase means.

This makes for the utmost legibility, but at the expense of dramatic tension, individual character and intensity of feeling. What is really driving each character, how they feel, what is at stake emotionally and politically, is apprehended intellectually rather than viscerally. The savagery of this society, riven by civil war and prey to the influence of spirits and auguries, is made really quite polite. This is so even in the case of the semi-clad witches, who hiss and writhe theatrically but are over-choreographed (by Nerida Matthaei). They mostly look contrived, although it’s a nice touch to have them as hooded attendants at Macbeth’s feast where they accompany Banquo’s ghost.

In such an environment Jason Klarwein’s Macbeth has many separate moments of value but they don’t add up to a tightly woven portrait of raging, flailing ambition fatally undermined by a susceptibility to portents. Veronica Neave’s Lady Macbeth is perhaps more of a piece but is too coolly efficient – a terrifically organised headmistress type who isn’t about to reveal much about herself. Thus there is little sexual spark in the Macbeth ménage and her breakdown has a guarded quality. One was a little surprised that she would kill herself.

The highly experienced Eugene Gilfedder seemed the most at ease at the matinee performance I saw. Playing a trio of small roles – Duncan, Old Man, the Doctor – he effortlessly differentiated between them and his delivery of the text was the most naturally achieved.

Macbeth was a venture between QTC and Brisbane company Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe, which enabled it to put a larger than usual cast on stage, and the state government’s Super Star Fund supported Attenborough’s involvement. The result is a strong, clean, handsome production that has attracted big audiences and given them a very nice night’s entertainment.

NO one comes out of Cock particularly well. John (Tom Conroy) is a character described as giving the impression of being drawn with a pencil and is as wishy-washy as that suggests. M (Eamon Flack in the Brisbane season of this MTC/La Boite co-production; Angus Grant played the role in Melbourne) is the teensiest bit over-bearing and controlling. W (Sophie Ross) is the same, only more manipulative. M’s father, F (Tony Rickards), a late entrant into the action, rounds out an unlikely dinner party and uses the occasion to deliver a homily on sexual preference.

Those who come out of it least well, however, are director Leticia Caceres and designer Marg Horwell. Horwell’s soft-furnishings set made entirely of white cushions gives a clue: Cock is ultimately flaccid, or at least it is in this production.

Mike Bartlett’s compact play, written in 2009, is composed of a series of scenes in which John is deciding whether he wants to be with M, with whom he has lived for seven years, or W, who inducts him into heterosexual pleasures after John makes his first go at breaking away from M.

M treats John as a child, but W adores him and offers the prospect of children. What to do? John is a great vacillator and liar, but no matter. What he thinks – well, he doesn’t know what he thinks. Others are more than happy to do the thinking and acting for him. In this scenario F may be seen as a kind of referee, albeit one who loads the dice in favour of M. But he’s there to outline the rules as he sees them pertaining in this day and age.

M and F are acting out a battle of the sexes with a twist and John is the weapon that keeps changing hands. The exercise of power is M and F’s sport, and they are prepared to play very dirty. John’s situation is more fluid. He is in one sense putty in the hands of both M and F, twisting and turning between them. But he’s also the prize, and in that respect is the combatants’ Achilles heel.

The man with the pencil-drawn outline – no heavier than 2B one would suggest – is only a fragment of a character, as are the others. We hear of M’s career as a broker, W’s as a childcare assistant and F’s loneliness following the death of his wife, but these are little more than are labels enabling a couple of good quips or, in the case of F, a detail that obliquely bolsters his line of argument. We can’t see the information as part of the fabric of a complex character. Caceres seems to want more, however. You can feel the pull towards humanising the players – F’s slightly sad old-guy tracksuit, all the tumbling around on pillows, M’s air of domesticity – but it only dilutes the impact of the play.

Cock is, or can be, an act of provocation – cold, hard-edged, laugh-aloud funny and irritating. John is the empty vessel into which are poured ideas about sex, love, ownership, power and desire; M, W and F pour away. The irritant factor is important, and an unusual one in the theatre. The depiction of the feminine in the shape of W is intensely vexing. The out-of-left-field sermonising of F is awkward and frankly unbelievable in any realistic context. M is something of a cliche – the well-off guy who likes everything just so – and John is Mr Cellophane. But as the punches keep on coming and the ducking and weaving goes on, the ground shifts and the raygun of one’s irritation is continually redirected.

I freely admit to having been influenced in this view by seeing, in New York, James Macdonald’s sparer than spare, gladiatorial production. It was cold as ice and a bracingly savage dissection of sexual power play.

Macbeth ends April 13; Cock ends April 12.

Bernadette Peters in Concert

Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2

“ISN’T it bliss? Don’t you approve?” These lyrics from Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, from A Little Night Music, could not be more apposite when it comes to the Bernadette Peters effect: her concert is indeed bliss and yes, the audience approves to the point of adoration.

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters during her Sydney concert. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As for those question marks, there are none of any consequence. Let’s just say they are a lovely indication that despite her standing as Broadway royalty – and she looks it, with that form-fitting sparkly gown and riot of bronze curls – Peters exudes no sense of entitlement. She is warm, low-key and friendly, keeping the chat light and easy and letting the songs speak for themselves.

Most importantly, she knows exactly how to use that distinctive, sexily husky voice to best advantage. While still having a youthful cast it now sounds quite a delicate instrument, even fragile at times, but the payoff is a deeply intimate connection with the music. Peters makes choices that give fresh impetus to songs heard hundreds of times – and sung by her hundreds of times, when we’re talking about music from her Broadway shows.

Songs others might bring to a full-throated conclusion are crowned with a finely wrought thread of sound, tempos are sometimes contemplatively slow and she brings to the concert stage her skills as an actress, shaping phrases with scrupulous, insightful attention to meaning as well as form. And she never, ever over-sings. Peters’s taste is exemplary.

Sondheim’s work dominates the 90-minute concert, as it does so many concerts. But Peters sings this material by right, having had a long and close association with the composer and lyricist. In her most recent Broadway appearance (2011) Peters played Sally in Follies, from which she sings In Buddy’s Eyes and the sublime Losing My Mind. Into the Woods (Children Will Listen, No One is Alone), and songs from Anyone Can Whistle and Company are also on the set list.

Less expected are lovely interpretations of songs usually sung by men: Johanna from Sweeney Todd, Some Enchanted Evening from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, and Peter Allen’s If You Were Wondering, the last with adapted lyrics. Even more enchanting is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Mister Snow from Carousel, a lilting, sweetly optimistic song from one of the greatest of all musicals.

Peters is accompanied by a mostly local 11-member band directed by a frequent colleague, the vastly experienced conductor and composer Marvin Laird. The Australian Stage Orchestra, as it is dubbed, got off to a very ordinary start on Wednesday, which may be why Peters’s opening number, Let Me Entertain You from Gypsy, was her weakest. There was also some unacceptable flubbing. The ensemble is an excellent one in theory and once things settled down it provided skilful backing. It appeared, however, to need more practice than it got before Peter’s first performance.

Gold Coast, tonight (April 5); Melbourne, Monday and Tuesday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on April 4.

Five plays

The Pride, Side Pony Productions, Bondi Pavilion Theatre, March 25; Fight Night, The Border Project/Ontroerend Goed, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, March 26 (matinee); The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Lambert House Enterprises, Gingers at the Oxford Hotel, March 26; Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre, March 27 (matinee); Stitching, Little Spoon Theatre, TAP Gallery, March 27.

WHEN I was in fulltime employment I rarely went to a matinee and I saw shows almost exclusively at their opening performance. First nights are usually great fun, of course. The foyer is crowded with friends and acquaintances of the cast and crew and many in the audience know one another well. The best seats in the house are given over to critics, politicians and maybe a celebrity or two; there will be industry figures and perhaps a few representatives of sponsors; and many – sometimes all – in the house will not have paid for their tickets. I don’t want to call this an artificial situation because it is an accepted, regular part of the process of putting on a play, an opera, a ballet or whatever. But it is not representative of the rest of the season.

That standing ovation given to a musical may indeed turn out to have been for one night only, fuelled by the show’s producers and invited celebrities leaping immediately to their feet. The house that didn’t have a spare seat at the premiere may be far easier to access once word of mouth does its influential work. On the other hand, it’s sometimes possible to find much greater enthusiasm for a piece when it’s played for a general public audience than for a tough opening night crowd – the opera is a good example.

Whatever the result, I always find it rewarding to see a show during the run, to observe the make up of the audience, to listen to their comments and to gauge their reactions.

The cast of The Ensemble's Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

The cast of The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

This past week I saw five pieces of theatre, only one of which – Stitching – was having its opening night. It was therefore a good week in which to see paying customers in action. In Fight Night, the audience is literally seen in action because its attitudes help shape the show. It is a deliberately manipulative piece in which the audience is asked to vote for actors representing politicians in an election. Additionally, the audience is asked to give some information about age, income, and attitudes. I was at a matinee, so wasn’t entirely surprised to see that more than 85 per cent of my audience was aged 60 or older.

At Fight Night everyone is given an electronic pad that can register choices, although as is the case with most situations where one appears to have alternatives, there are strong limits to the number and nature of those offered. The actors make their pitches, we vote, they throw in a couple of not entirely democratic twists and turns, and we’re left with one person who is supposed to be the one most of us want. The result is actually deeply unsurprising.

The best bit at the performance I attended was near the end, when one of the actor/politicians persuades some audience members to opt out of this obviously skewed process by handing in their electronic pads and leaving the theatre. One man in this dissident group stomped out, throwing the word fascists at us as he departed. The actor representing the last politician in the race commented that this man hadn’t understood the play, but I thought that unfair. Fight Night only works if the audience pretty much agrees to be manipulated, so I thought it a bit thick to knock someone for having been taken in to the degree that he actually felt something important was really at stake.

If you want to see important things at stake, The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park is the go – if you can get a ticket. The season at The Ensemble’s Kirribilli home was sold out very early but there are two extra performances at The Concourse in Chatswood. It is highly recommended.

In acts set 50 years apart, there is a beautifully wrought discussion about race and history seen through the prism of a family home, although with intimations of the wider world. In the first half a white couple is about to move, their house having been sold to a black family – unseen – who will be the first coloured people in the neighbourhood. In the second half the house, now dilapidated, is about to be demolished. Both situations spark fractious argument undimmed by a half-century of change.

Tanya Goldberg directs an unimprovable cast of seven – Paula Arundell, Thomas Campbell, Briallen Clarke, Nathan Lovejoy, Wendy Strehlow, Richard Sydenham, Cleave Williams – in a production that is exceptionally funny, sometimes quite shocking, and always very, very sharp.

I also very much enjoyed The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, David Drake’s autobiographical 1993 piece (originally a solo show) about growing up gay. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the additional scene Drake has written to take same-sex marriage into account, but Ben Hudson and James Wright’s performances lit up the tiny Gingers space. There’s nowhere to hide for actors and audience members alike when both are scarcely an arm’s length apart and there was lots of lovely eye contact.

Hudson and Wright gave their all in front of a very small audience. It was undeservedly small, but part of the truth of theatre is that the house won’t necessarily be packed at all times – something the inveterate first-nighter doesn’t get to see. The cast of The Pride had the same experience this week as they acted out what was, for me, a fairly ho-hum fable about domination and the loss of it. The Pride has had success elsewhere but I was underwhelmed. As I was about Anthony Neilson’s two-hander Stitching, which has also received praise in other productions. Stitching presents a relationship in big, big trouble. To spice things up it jumps around in time and introduces hot and heavy role-playing.

Unfortunately actors Lara Lightfoot and Wade Doolan were unable to make me believe in their plight or sympathise with it, but others may feel differently. That’s the beauty of an audience, that singular entity made up of many individuals.

The Pride ends on April 5. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me ends April 6. Stitching ends April 12. Fight Night ends April 13. Clybourne Park ends at The Ensemble April 19 (season sold out); extra performances at The Concourse, Chatswood, April 23 and 24.

The Drowsy Chaperone

 Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, March 18.

HE has no name other than Man in Chair, this cardigan-wearing musicals tragic, for he is Everyman, screaming inside at the bombast of the modern sung-through show – and yes, he means you, Andrew Lloyd Webber – while maintaining an exterior of mild exasperation. Well, he is every man or every woman who just wants to take away from the theatre a tune they can hum, having enjoyed some pretty costumes, an amusingly tangled plot, a happy ending and definitely no audience participation. The show will preferably be short.

Jay James-Moody as Man in Chair. Photo: Michael Francis

Jay James-Moody as Man in Chair. Photo: Michael Francis

Nestled within The Drowsy Chaperone is such a musical: The Drowsy Chaperone. (You will search in vain for it in any theatre database, as it is a work of fiction created for The Drowsy Chaperone, although for the purposes of the evening treated as if it were a real show. Obviously The Drowsy Chaperone – the host show, as it were – is also a work of fiction, but operating on a different plane. What fun.)

There’s a phrase people often use about the theatre, and particularly about the musical theatre. It takes you out of yourself, they say, meaning that for a few hours you forget your cares and get caught up in a world more carefree, more glamorous, more vibrant, more everything than the one you’re going home to. That’s what Man in Chair wants, and here the idea is given literal form.

As the lights go down Man in Chair starts confiding to the audience his decidedly unfavourable views on the current theatre. What does he consider a good show? That would be The Drowsy Chaperone, a 1920s piece of fairy floss that, he acknowledges, is perhaps not perfect but does exactly what he needs it to do. Allow him to illustrate.

Within moments of the needle hitting his treasured vinyl cast record of The Drowsy Chaperone, its characters burst into Man in Chair’s room. As he eagerly watches the action unfold he gives an aficionado’s gloss on the plot, the lyrics, the actors playing the roles and, in little snippets, his own life. No longer is Man in Chair in his dreary apartment. He is intensely engaged with the show.

The Drowsy Chaperone company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Drowsy Chaperone company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Drowsy Chaperone takes place on the wedding day of Janet Van de Graff, a 1920s theatre star leaving the stage to be married, much to the chagrin of her producer. Can Janet be persuaded to change her mind? Helping things along are heavies disguised as pastry chefs, a lavishly accented Latin lothario, an aviatrix, a vaudeville act, a big tap number and a resolution that just falls from the sky. Adding some spice are the shenanigans of Janet’s dipsomaniac and therefore chronically sleepy chaperone.

It is as silly and formulaic as it sounds, which is where The Drowsy Chaperone shamelessly has it both ways. Creators Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) pay genuine homage to good old-fashioned entertainment while sending it up mercilessly. Man in Chair yearns for the wit and glamour of Cole Porter but there is only the flimsiest facsimile of it in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason they don’t make ‘em like that any more, but also why there’s nostalgia for earlier, more graceful times.

Squabbalogic’s production captures the dichotomy immaculately, and – as Sweet Charity did before it – makes triumphant use of the tiny Hayes Theatre Co space. On Broadway the show opened out to become the extravaganza Man in Chair sees in his mind’s eye as he listens to the music, and the glittering production values meant Man in Chair’s favourite musical actually came up rather well. At the Hayes there is no escaping the fact that we are in Man in Chair’s generic city apartment. The musical’s flaws – which Man in Chair admits exist – loom larger.

Interestingly, this turns out not to be any kind of problem, due mainly to a pivotal piece of casting. Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a very fine team but his most successful choice was the assignment of himself to the part of Man in Chair. It was a great call; James-Moody is tremendous. He is very young for the role but that also fails to be a problem. James-Moody is too fresh to be the quintessential bitter and bitchy show queen. Instead there is unexpected poignancy in seeing the importance Man in Chair places on this extremely minor piece. The casting probably wouldn’t work in a huge theatre, but then that’s exactly where we are not.

There are little windows in Man in Chair’s apartment (splendid design by Lauren Peters) that give glimpses of the world he has shut out. With his eager face, intelligent high forehead, wry self-awareness and irony-tinged delivery, James-Moody really makes you hope Man in Chair isn’t setting himself up for the fate of an actor whose demise he describes. It involves a solitary death and a poodle.

In every department – direction, performance, design, choreography, music (a terrific six-piece band) – there is complete understanding of the show’s style and wit. It seems a little unfair to single individuals out from the terrific ensemble, but here goes. Extra bouquets to Monique Salle, who is not only a zesty Trix the Aviatrix but choreographed imaginatively within very tight limits; Hilary Cole, whose charmingly self-regarding Janet could not be further removed from her tormented Carrie of last year (also for Squabbalogic); Michele Lansdown’s seedily glamorous Chaperone; and Tom Sharah’s lustily sung Adolpho, whose intelligence is located well south of his head.

The Drowsy Chaperone ends on April 6.