The Addams Family

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, March 23

THE Addams Family is helpfully subtitled The Broadway Musical in case you had the misapprehension you were seeing a play based on the 1960s television series. If only that were so. Instead one is asked to set aside two and a half hours for a plot that would scarcely stretch to 26 minutes on the box. Well, I call it a plot for convenience; it’s a contrivance. Wednesday Addams, all grown up, wants to marry a nice ordinary boy and wishes to bring together his straitlaced family and her kooky one for dinner. (Hands up who thinks that is completely implausible and not very interesting to boot.) Cue misunderstandings and trust hilarity will ensue.

One can understand Broadway wanting to appropriate Charles Addams’s cool, witty, subversive characters – there for the taking, really, along with the bonus extra of the brilliant TV theme music. That staccato four-note, two-snap intro has the audience on board from the get-go, and I must say it’s a long time since I’ve seen six beats do so much work with such ease. But it’s hard to think of a more “who cares?” idea than throwing two disparate families together, even if it were done in a fresh and amusing manner, which it isn’t.

Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, whose Jersey Boys was such a delight, have managed to come up with characters who are sketchier in three dimensions than in the original New Yorker cartoons. Morticia’s long tight gown, Gomez’s uxoriousness, Pugsley’s affection for torture, Lurch’s growl, Fester’s lightbulb moments, a cameo appearance by Cousin Itt – they all tick boxes of recognition without adding a skerrick of story. In fact they aren’t characters – they are a bunch of characteristics. Andrew Lippa’s songs, pleasant enough in themselves, also move nothing forward.

In the space where action might normally be there are pop-culture gags (a Charlie Sheen mention predictably gets a big response), heavy-handed jokes (“I can be impulsive – I just have to think about it first”) and sexual references for the grown-ups. They include a monumentally off-colour remark from Grandma, an example of The Addams Family’s oddly shifting tone. Perhaps it’s best to think of it as a series of extremely expensively produced cabaret acts – it certainly looks splendid – than a tightly structured dramatic work.

John Waters as Gomez and Chloe Dallimore as Morticia lead an expert cast including Teagan Wouters in fine voice as Wednesday. Best is Russell Dykstra, who finds some much needed sweetness and nuance in Uncle Fester. Mostly, though, my impression on opening night was of smoke and mirrors, painting by numbers, buttons pushed. Most dispiriting.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 25.

Bombshells

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, March 20

“I’M so fucking happy,” screams Theresa McTerry, bride-to-be, slamming down the bubbles. It won’t be the first time she says that. Protesting a little too much, perhaps? Theresa’s monologue is the fourth of six that make up Bombshells, Joanna Murray Smith’s cunningly named piece about women in a state of discovery. There are bombs thrown everywhere: little ones perhaps, given the suburban setting for five of the six pieces, but bombs capable of inflicting much damage nevertheless on those involved.

Sharon Millerchip as Theresa in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Sharon Millerchip as Theresa in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

It goes without saying Bombshells needs an actress of many and varied gifts to carry it off. It was written for Caroline O’Connor and thus asks for a triple threat performer. In Sharon Millerchip it certainly has that, and the Ensemble has a gold-plated hit on its hands.

Murray Smith has astutely allowed some latitude in shaping Bombshells for 2013 (it was first performed in 2004) and for Millerchip. There are some up-to-date cultural references – predictably Theresa has a bit of a Kim Kardashian thing – and a wildly successful interpretation of the final section, in which nightclub singer Zoe has become a German cabaret artist.

Bombshells gets off to a reckless, breathless start with Meryl, a harried new mother with older children to wrangle, a home to run and a very keen sense of how she is failing to cope with anything approaching serenity or even competence. Millerchip makes Meryl extremely endearing, pouring out the torrent of words with a dogged awareness that it’s impossible for her to achieve what others seem – laughably – to think possible.

The least successful section comes second as Tiggy gives a lecture on cacti that turns into a cry of anguish. It’s simultaneously obvious and awkward. Millerchip is on happy territory with the third monologue, in which schoolgirl Mary O’Donnell attempts to run off yet again with top prize at her school’s talent show. Without her, you understand, it would not be a talent show; it would just be a show. Precious.

The fifth monologue is the only one for which Millerchip is demonstrably too young, but she has the right delicacy and astringency of touch for the story of a widow, ever busy doing things with other widows, who unexpectedly has a chance to be desired again.

Theresa’s wedding is the most complex of the pieces. As it starts, and as it is played by Millerchip, the audience laughs at the character rather than with her, no doubt about it. I found that very uncomfortable, which is not a bad thing in the theatre. Theresa has been captured by the whole romance of the thing: a big wedding, having snaffled a bloke, having done what everyone expects of someone like her. But she’s got plenty of go in her and she isn’t stupid. Millerchip finds the underlying bleakness without hammering the point.

Sharon Millerchip as Zoe in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Sharon Millerchip as Zoe in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Bombshells ends with diva on the slide Zoe who rallies to put on a performance, albeit a shaky one, and insinuate herself with the audience. Millerchip creates a Marlene Dietrich-style chanteuse of slinky manner, smoky vocals, suggestive banter and only a passing acquaintance with sobriety, a situation which accompanist Lindsay Partridge handles with urbane charm. (Partridge also composed some additional music; Max Lambert was the original composer.)

On Wednesday night the audience immediately jumped to its feet for Millerchip. Quite right too.

Bombshells continues at the Ensemble, Sydney, until April 13.

Memoirs of a Showgirl

Slide, Sydney, March 7

SHAY Stafford is beautiful of course. There’s not a lot of call for showgirls who aren’t well above average in the face and figure stakes. She’s smart and funny too – an example of how life’s bounty can be quite unfairly distributed. But she worked very hard to get where she got, and when she got there, she kept on working hard.

Shay Stafford Paris Lido 2

There is Paris: first at the Moulin Rouge and then the Lido, bywords for a very particular kind of glamour that involves plenty of bling and spectacle, well-honed variety acts, a slightly naughty atmosphere and streams and streams of lovely women. Brisbane born and raised Stafford was one of those for more than a decade. Still is, if Memoirs of a Showgirl is any guide. Something that started as a one-off is steadily gaining traction as a regular event.

For those watching from the front, being a showgirl may not appear all that difficult. You dress up (or, more accurately, down) in a scanty confection of feathers, beads and sequins, swirl around a bit, and smile. After which you go to a fancy drinking establishment where you are whisked to the front of the queue and treated with much reverence, which is what Paris showgirls can confidently expect.

This picture is true, although only up to a point. You try balancing towering headdresses and hefty backpacks while high-kicking in high heels as you go up and down staircases, two shows a night, six nights a week. Not to mention the backstage drama associated with a whole lot of performers of different nationalities, all with their own ambitions.

Stafford took it all in her stride and had a great time, and then it seemed a good idea to come back home. She had married journalist Bryce Corbett – an Australian she met in Paris, wouldn’t you know it – and had two children. Then came her book, Memoirs of a Showgirl (Hachette, 2010), and the show of the same name. Yes, it’s pretty clear Stafford has plenty of showgirl left in her.

It’s early March and we’re at cabaret venue Slide in Oxford St, Sydney, where Stafford and Corbett are presenting Memoirs of a Showgirl. This time around there are only two performances, but Stafford and Corbett have nevertheless pulled together a supporting cast of six, old friends from the business who include an aerialist, a singer, musician and back-up dancers for Stafford. Corbett cheerfully acts as MC and is plainly proud as punch of his wife, who is warm, unaffected, and incredibly wholesome. She positively radiates humour, health and an appreciation for her good fortune, qualities that may perhaps be attributed to her 1980s upbringing in Brisbane.

The stage area is small and the technical resources slender, but never mind. What we’re going to get is a diminutive version of a Lido show. Well, think of a word that indicates something even smaller, and that will be closer to the reality.

For some reason I find this extremely touching.

I’d actually seen Stafford in a show at the Lido back in 2005 – it was completely by chance, a last-minute thing – and marvelled at the scale of the enterprise. Millions of euros are spent on productions that are expected to run for years. Here in Darlinghurst we’re quite a way from that opulence but Stafford and Corbett manage to give a fair idea of how the Paris shows are constructed – with one important exception. There’s no “nude line” here.

It’s not full nudity at the Lido. Some dancers perform topless, in a statuesque, “don’t touch” kind of way, but at Slide the audience only gets to hear about it.  “If you’re going to join the nude line, I’ll need to see you topless,” the ballet mistress, Janet, told Stafford when she went for her audition at the Moulin Rouge all those years ago. “Smashing,” was Janet’s verdict, and Stafford was in.

Needless to say Stafford doesn’t relive that moment in full in Memoirs of a Showgirl. It’s a very Paris thing, this veneration of the female form where the reveal isn’t considered sleazy nor the admiration considered sexist. To give some idea of how it works Stafford does do a couple of dance numbers in costumes long on sequins and short on coverage, and looks, well, absolutely smashing.

In between, Paige Walker does an aerial act on the silken ropes, Ben Palumbo sings and strips, in a jocular manner, to red boxer shorts and Michael Bouroukas plays the piano accordion. A former colleague of Stafford’s at the Lido, Sara Dobson, dances and smiles regally, as cool and lovely as if back in Paris at a big show instead of being part of this sweet memory piece.

There have been performances in Sydney and Brisbane – 14 in all – but momentum seems to be building for “accidental theatrical producers” Stafford and Corbett, as he describes them. Melbourne, Adelaide and regional Australia may be in the offing as well as a more regular Sydney presence.

Memoirs of a Showgirl returns to Slide in Sydney on July 26 and in October.

Don Quixote, The Australian Ballet

Melbourne, March 16. With guest stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev

IF you were looking for a well-balanced Don Quixote, the Australian Ballet’s opening night in Melbourne on March 15 was probably the go, as Eamonn Kelly’s excellent review in The Australian on March 18 indicated. The following night was when star-power ruled, with Russian guests Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev getting people to their feet even before the end of the show.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote with The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote with The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Although their styles differ greatly, Osipova and Vasiliev have made Don Q their signature piece together and are ridiculously entertaining in it. Perhaps the AB was lucky to get their hands on the pair right now – albeit for only two performances – as there’s a suggestion Don Q may start disappearing from the Osipova/Vasiliev repertoire. An interview with Vasiliev published in London’s The Sunday Times on March 17 said the pair “now decline companies who only want them to bounce through this slice of colourful virtuosity”. Apart from the AB dates Osipova and Vasiliev are down to dance Don Q at the end of this month when one of their home companies, the St Petersburg-based Mikhailovsky, goes to London. (They are also principal artists with American Ballet Theatre.)

They will dance Giselle together in London in a few weeks’ time on the Mikhailovsky tour and Vasiliev is quoted in The Sunday Times as saying Albrecht is a role “I could perform all my life”. Albrecht would certainly give Vasiliev a chance to show more than the one mood he brought to Basilio in Melbourne, which was essentially manic from the get-go. Osipova on the other hand has a full armoury and brought most of it out. She is light and incredibly quick with razor-sharp footwork, a huge jump and fearless attack but can also be intensely lyrical. It was noticeable in the lively first act how whisper quiet Osipova was, even when landing from the most daring leaps or performing intricate allegro work. Her shining-eyed Kitri was in striking contrast to the silken Dulcinea of the Act II vision scene. In the Act III grand pas de deux Osipova fluffed one of her pirouettes in second but otherwise delivered all the expected fireworks with bells on.

Vasiliev is elastic and bouncy with elevation that defies gravity and speed that defies time. That he is short and stocky helps here. Vasiliev gets lift-off from powerful glutes and thighs that give him a decidedly non-streamlined look but oodles of acceleration. In his first Melbourne performance Vasiliev threw off apparently impossible flying turns and added loads of extra details to already jam-packed choreography. Not everything came off and Vasiliev could have pulled back a notch or two but the sense of danger was energising. Frequently the stage could scarcely contain his range of movement – nor was there always perfect agreement between him and Orchestra Victoria under the baton of AB music director Nicolette Fraillon. There was a fair bit of colouring outside the lines.

Vasiliev didn’t quite nail his most audacious trick, that of rising to demi-pointe in arabesque while holding Osipova aloft in a one-armed lift, but it was huge fun to see for a second. His series of pirouettes finished with a perfect arabesque in attitude, however, was a thing of great beauty.

The AB audience pretty much had only had eyes and cheers for Osipova and Vasiliev; despite some lovely moments from members of the AB their light was dimmed by the glare thrown out by the supernovas. Unquestionably the performance wasn’t the best Don Q possible. The level of energy thrown out by the visitors was of quite a different extent and nature from that of the AB dancers, whose outlines looked softer as a result (this was particularly true of the men).

In an interview in the March edition of Dance Europe magazine Osipova talked about being a guest artist and said: “Our presentation of one ballet, for example, Don Quixote, will vary depending on where we are performing it. I correlate the temperament and the role with the place we’re performing and their specific traditions. Because if you come in and just do it as you want, without any adaptation, that doesn’t create any good impressions …”

This reflection is undoubtedly why Osipova blended well in a dramatic sense with the AB dancers. It was far less the case with Vasiliev, who overplayed the comedy. Steven Heathcote’s Don Quixote – how good to see him on stage again – and Matthew Donnelly’s Gamache had a much better sense of where to pitch their characters. Both were surprisingly touching.

But if there was some disconnect in a purely dance sense between the guests and the AB, the audience certainly didn’t seem to mind and it is certain the AB dancers would have found it challenging and illuminating to see Osipova and Vasiliev at work.

 

 

6000 miles away

Choreography by William Forsythe, Mats Ek and Jiri Kylian. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, March 8

MATS Ek’s Bye is the crowd-pleasing work in this rich, concentrated evening of dance but William Forsythe’s Rearray is where the real nourishment is. Forsythe and Sylvie Guillem go way back – nearly a quarter of a century – and his understanding of her unique gifts runs deep. The outstanding physical qualities are still in thrilling shape despite Guillem now being closer (much closer) to 50 than 40. Her plasticity is extraordinary, the limbs long and ultra-refined, the arch of her foot dramatic in its intensity, her line and placement exquisite. But despite their luxurious quality, these things are merely the tools at Guillem’s disposal. In recent years Guillem has taken an adventurous approach to her work, and her celebrity is such that audiences will go where she goes.

Sylvie Guillem in Bye, by Mats Ek. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Bye, by Mats Ek. Photo: Bill Cooper

Rearray was made on Guillem and one of her regular partners, Paris Opera Ballet’s Nicolas Le Riche: classical ballet royalty, in other words. Le Riche has been injured of late and for that reason wasn’t seen in the recent POB season of Giselle in Sydney. For this tour of 6000 miles away Guillem appears with another of her (few) frequent partners, Massimo Murru of La Scala.

Rearray is something of a love letter to classical dance in that it persistently returns to ballet steps and positions while removing them entirely from a conventional ballet setting. There are gorgeous ports de bras, sharp beaten steps, creamy pirouettes, a frequent stop in an open fourth position and so on, but they are seen in a dreamlike context, given astringency by David Morrow’s austere score.

The light, never strong at any point, fades in and out of a space enclosed with dark curtains. Guillem and Murru, dressed in simple dark trousers and tops, enter and leave. They dance together and separately, giving suggestions of other worlds. At one point Guillem does a little hip twirl accompanied by feet that could come from a square dance; Murru, with his hands clasped behind his back, has his body in planes that make one think of Merce Cunningham. But these are hints only.

As the relatively brief work unfolds the desire to see more grows ever greater but is thwarted. It’s impossible, Forsythe seems to be saying, to see and know everything. Guillem and Murru leave for the last time, the light dies away and the mystery continues.

Bye starts with the startling filmed image of Guillem’s eye in close-up. It is quite an unsparing view but Guillem, bless her, seems to have little vanity. Fair enough when you are as naturally elegant as she is, I suppose. This elegance is something to be overcome in Bye, which shows a woman breaking free of home and hearth for a moment to cut the tiniest bit loose. Guillem is dressed by Katrin Brannstrom in a skirt, blouse and cardy which on anyone else would look exceptionally daggy and which on her has the air of being by Miuccia Prada. She makes ungainly shapes with those glorious limbs and even stands on her head a couple of times. Probably only she could get away with it, but Guillem makes Bye, danced to the lovely Arietta from Beethoven’s Piano sonata Op.111, a touching picture of the everyday housewife. It’s done with humour, touches of the unexpected and a lovely combination of play and wistfulness.

Jiri Kylian’s 27’52” acts as a kind of curtain-raiser to Guillem’s pieces and shares something of their mood and appearance. There is an almost bare stage, a spare sound, crepuscular lighting and something not entirely knowable being enacted, although the result is not in the same league as Bye and, especially, Rearray. This is minor Kylian as a man and a woman negotiate a space in which intimacy and separation play equal parts but it’s given top-notch performances by former Nederlands Dans Theater members Natasa Novotna and Vaclav Kunes. What they do has a strong degree of obviousness but their melting fluidity is mesmerising.  27’52” – I’m pretty sure it didn’t last that long, but what the heck – is billed as being performed “with the participation of Benjamin Stuart-Carberry”. Until last year he was a member of the Australian Ballet and I looked forward to seeing what he would do here. Alas his role is the briefest walk-on as he appears in the gloom, just onstage, to cover Novotna with the end of a long strip of material. Puzzling that one would ask a highly trained dancer to do so little.

6000 miles away continues until Friday March 15.

De Novo

Sydney Dance Company. Choreography by Rafael Bonachela, Alexander Ekman and Larissa McGowan.

IF Alexander Ekman is true to his program note he won’t read this review, or any other. It’s a shame, because I’d like to let him know how much I enjoyed Cacti. Perhaps someone at Sydney Dance Company will pass the word on, but then perhaps he doesn’t care. Cacti is, after all, a dance work sending up critics and what Ekman sees as judgmental intellectualising and pretentious dribbling on about meaning. In his half-hour romp Ekman puts a cactus up the critical fundament in quite an extensive fashion – which may mean he really does care, in which case I might point out that cacti thrive in arid climes, and that Ekman did tell The Australian recently he thinks there’s a lot of contemporary dance that’s too self-absorbed.

But enough of this theorising. Ekman has pulled off one of the most difficult challenges in dance, which is to be genuinely funny. Cacti is a delight: witty, effervescent, playful, surreal and joyously physical. The dancers, identically dressed in roomy dark trousers over flesh-coloured bodysuits and wearing hair-covering caps, at first kneel on low platforms and whack the platforms and themselves in an exhilarating display of energy, rhythm and co-ordination. Later they will strip down to basics and pose with cacti as if it were the most glamorous thing in the world to do. There’s lots more besides, but this is a piece to see rather than read about. The 16 dancers are adorable, there’s a glamorous string quartet that plays some of the score live and there’s a dead cat.

Larissa McGowan showed last year in Sydney’s Spring Dance festival (curated by Rafael Bonachela) that she, too, can cause mayhem in the theatre and it was a great delight to see her short work Fanatic given a larger forum. It’s a riotous homage to and send-up of the Alien and Predator films and fans of the genre. Natalie Allen, Thomas Bradley and Chris Aubrey deliver their roles with gusto (there is also a second cast).

De Novo opens with Bonachela’s Emergence, a work in which equal power lies with the music of Sarah Blasko and Nick Wales, the terrific costumes from Dion Lee in his first dance outing, Benjamin Cisterne’s super-sleek stage and lighting design and Bonachela’s dancers. You’ll note I say the dancers rather than the dance itself. The movement language fits these gorgeous people like a glove but for frequent Bonachela-watchers Emergence has no surprises. Bonachela has, however, an inexhaustible gift and appetite for collaboration with intriguing artists from other disciplines. This may be his strongest suit.

De Novo ends on March 23.

This review first appeared in The Australian on March 4.

February wrap

A quick look at what February brought in the theatre in Sydney, and beyond …

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

AT this year’s Perth International Arts Festival I was able to see, in one evening, the festival’s biggest and smallest pieces of theatre – The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, weighing in at about three hours and filling His Majesty’s Theatre, and Remor, an 11-minute piece for two performers, an audience of about 10 and taking place in a space smaller than many a garden shed. Fittingly, the Remor shed was indeed inside the Festival Gardens.

I don’t think it’s a festival unless I can see at least two performances in one day – I’d prefer to see three or four; just a personal quirk – so the Threepenny Opera/Remor day was a satisfying one. Remor was a wordless physical theatre in which a man and a woman, oblivious to one another, enacted the terrifying restlessness of someone locked away with no hope of release. It was rough, sweaty theatre.

The Threepenny Opera was the exact reverse: urbane, sophisticated, knowing, visually exquisite and performed with immense poise, clarity and wit. I loved that the actors weren’t much chop as singers but put their songs across as if they were; I loved that Macheath looked like a perverse version of matinee idol Leslie Howard, Peachum as if he were wearing a Noh mask and Tiger Brown as a ringer for Conrad Veidt in his Cabinet of Dr Caligari days; I adored the band playing that tremendous Kurt Weill music … Well, you get the picture. It was a brilliant piece of programming from Jonathan Holloway.

Back in Sydney, February offered theatre productions as diverse as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (Gaiety Theatre in association with Mardi Gras), George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (Sydney Theatre Company), Great Falls by Lee Blessing (The Ensemble) and This Heaven by Nakkiah Lui, at Belvoir Downstairs.

Torch Song Trilogy suffered from feeling and looking like a museum piece. Director Stephen Colyer didn’t find a way of bringing the politics and emotional tangles into the here and now, where they certainly still exist. Great Falls isn’t such a great play – too contrived in so many places – but under director Anna Crawford, Erica Lovell and Christopher Stollery give cracking performances which almost persuade you the play has more merit than it does.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is a play Sydney Theatre Company subscribers appear to have been hanging out for. An extension was announced before it even opened. The question of how one is to survive in an unequal world is evergreen, as is the question of who gets to judge whom. Sarah Giles’s production is a little too cool for my taste, with Lizzie Schebesta getting the rectitude of Vivie but not enough else. Helen Thomson is seen to great advantage as Mrs Warren, her ripeness a welcome contrast to the brittleness of the rest, but I don’t think I was supposed to side with her as strongly as I did.

Lui’s This Heaven is the work of a young writer with a supple voice and something to say. Under Lee Lewis’s direction it has emerged as a shattering piece of theatre. In its essentials the story is far from unique. There’s an Aboriginal man from out west in Sydney, an arrest, a death, the attempt to get justice, the failure to get it, the inevitable anger, and a chilling aftermath. The characters are engrossing and the action unfolds as precisely as in an ancient Greek tragedy.

Lui has the ability to see the reality of individuals – how their circumstances, their nature, their ambitions, their limitations shape them – and to show them as flawed and changeable without losing focus or seeming forced. Equally important is how resonant This Heaven is. It’s rooted firmly in a very specific story, but is not limited by it. The play isn’t perfect – there’s a somewhat uneasy start and one or two clunky moments – but it’s been given a superb production that deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. The performances from Jada Alberts, Joshua Anderson, Travis Cardona, Eden Falk and Tessa Rose are tremendously strong, with Cardona and Anderson just heartbreaking.

Great Falls continues at The Ensemble until March 9. This Heaven continues at Belvoir Downstairs until March 18. Mrs Warren’s Profession, until April 6 and July 4-20.