Calamity Jane reclaimed

One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, March 10.

The high-falutin’ way to describe director Richard Carroll’s Calamity Jane is to say its abundant meta-theatrics put a contemporary, ironic frame around an old-fashioned musical, revealing fresh insights. If that sounds deadly, fear not. The low-falutin’ truth is that along with being outstandingly clever, Calamity Jane is gut-bustingly funny and has an extraordinarily generous heart. Crucially, it is blessed with a central performance by Virginia Gay as fine as any seen on our musical stages since, I don’t know, forever.

Calamity Jane was presented last year as a staged reading in the Hayes’s Neglected Musicals series and turned out to be quite the surprise package for a piece that offers embarrassments on several fronts, including but not limited to race and gender.

CJ credit John Mcrae - Virginia Gay

Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane. Photo: John Mcrae

Take a look at Doris Day’s perky simplicity in the 1953 film that spawned the 1961 stage musical. Seen through the filter of the half-century since then, Calamity comes across as the town pet, patronised, indulged and patted on the head. If only she’d wash her face and put on a pretty frock: why, then she would be lovely and some man might condescend to marry her.

Gay’s Neglected Musicals turn, achieved with nothing more than a day’s rehearsal and book in hand, showed there could be a much more nuanced 21st-century take on a mushy mid-20th-century interpretation of an unconventional 19th-century woman. Calamity Jane had intriguing possibilities and a full production was put in the works. One likes to think the original Jane, real-life frontierswoman Martha Jane Cannary, would heartily approve.

Gay’s Calamity, or Calam as the good folk of Deadwood City call her, would smack you hard in the puss if you called her perky. She’s a roiling mass of powerful contradictions and ambiguities. Calam is physically strong and emotionally insecure; she can ride and shoot with the best of them but off a horse is a klutz; she’s blustery and bashful; resourceful and inept.

Only Calam would dash off to Chicago to bring back a superstar of the variety stage to save the bacon of old-duffer Golden Garter Saloon proprietor Henry Miller (Tony Taylor), who has stuffed up his entertainments program. Only Calam would bring back the wrong gal, ambitious but sweet Katie Brown (Laura Bunting). And only Calam, who has a heart the size of South Dakota, could make things right when Katie’s Golden Garter debut is a disaster.

She finds it much harder to sort out her love life, which is non-existent but so deeply wanted. Calam is desperate to be desired and perhaps it doesn’t really matter by whom. Whether Gay is assiduously tending to the wounds of her first choice, dashing Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce), or getting hilariously and Sapphically domestic with Katie, or discovering (spoiler alert!) that her old sparring mate Wild Bill Hickok (Anthony Gooley) feels something for her, her eagerness makes Calam achingly vulnerable.

CJ credit John Mcrae - Tony Taylor Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley

Tony Taylor, Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley. Photo: John Mcrae

The great beauty of Carroll’s production is how easily this emotional truth sits alongside the rollicking self-referential comedy, with its show-within-a-show-within-a-show jokes (“Now I’m going to sing Ev’ryone Complains about the Weather from Calamity Jane”), contemporary gags and happily blurred lines between actors and audience. The casting of Gooley as Hickok is particularly successful. He makes the legendary gunman a more observant and warmer figure than might be expected and he sings the wistful Higher than a Hawk with quiet grace.

The director makes having a tiny budget look like a brilliant artistic choice. The bijou cast size means Sheridan Harbridge and Rob Johnson have to take on several roles; both seize every chance to turn the multi-tasking into comedy gold of the highest grade. With music director Nigel Ubrihien at the upright piano there’s a band of precisely one, augmented by cast members on guitar, ukulele, trombone, accordion and tuba. And as there are only seven performers to represent rather more than seven characters, Ubrihien has to double as an actor too, which he does with aplomb.

Designer Lauren Peters’s bare-bones Wild West saloon, beautifully lit by Trent Suidgeest, works a treat and Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is a hoot. Adding to the general delight is the truly gorgeous score by Sammy Fain (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics), blissfully heard unamplified. Every song is a winner but first among equals are The Black Hills of Dakota, sung a cappella by the ensemble, and Gay’s thrilling My Secret Love.

I confidently predict Calamity Jane will get a standing ovation from the entire house at every show. I have more reasons than the ones just enumerated here but try to see for yourself, if you can get in. The run has been extended but seats are scarce.

Calamity Jane runs until April 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 13.

My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

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Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

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Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

Aladdin, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Disney Theatrical Productions, August 11.

“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess,” said Oscar Wilde, who obviously wasn’t in a position to advise Disney on Aladdin but would not have been able to fault its abundance. It confidently contrives a standing ovation before interval, secure in the knowledge there’ll be another one at the end.

Sure, there’s a wholesome story somewhere in there about being honest, generous and true to yourself, but essentially Aladdin is a super-charged salaam to fabulousness.

The beloved 1992 animated film for children has been thankfully shorn of the unpleasant racial stereotyping with which the movie opens and turned into a type of The Road to … comedy-fantasy-adventure yarn where the rules of Aristotelian unity don’t exactly apply. If Bing Crosby popped up in hologram form to croon a number or two you wouldn’t be surprised.

Aladdin and Lamp - Ainsley Melham_Photo By Deen van Meer

Ainsley Melham as Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

In bringing the film to the stage Disney clearly realised its flaws. They didn’t manage to eliminate them all but took the diversionary path of giving a makeover that makes Priscilla Queen of the Desert look demure. Aladdin takes place in an alternate universe where too much is never enough. And to be fair, the gold-plated limos of Middle East epigones seen about London these days attest to a committed love affair with display in certain stratas of society.

There are, according to informed sources, half a million Swarovski crystals bedecking Gregg Barnes’s eye-popping costumes, which gives some idea of the intense devotion to bling. Even the Sultan could comfortably double as a disco mirror ball. It was lovely to see veteran New Zealand actor George Henare comporting himself with such dignity while decked out like Donna Summer. Then there’s the flying carpet, giving Aladdin its astonishing “how on earth do they do that?” moment. In a film such effects are business as usual; on stage they fill the audience with heart-swelling awe.

Aladdin is – not wrongly – billed as a family musical and youngsters will undoubtedly enjoy the spectacle (Bob Crowley’s saturated-colour sets are beautiful), but this ebullient, knowing, magpie of a piece has plenty of extras for grown-ups who know their showbiz.

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw is as shameless in his borrowings as he is expert in their use. Panto, vaudeville, swashbuckling adventure, golden-era Hollywood, old-fashioned romance, newfangled technology, high camp and low humour mingle agreeably, as do a dazzlingly eclectic array of dance styles. And I rather enjoyed the way the baddies had their plotting scenes in front of a drop, so reminiscent of the technology-poor old days when set changes had to be covered by a dialogue scene.

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Michael Scott James and Ainsley Melham in Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

The undisputed ace in the hand, though, is the fourth-wall-breaking Genie. His big – no, huge – number Friend Like Me is a Busby Berkley extravaganza crammed into eight exhausting, enchanting minutes. American actor Michael James Scott is made to work hard for his Act I ovation and earned every second of it on opening night. He has a smile that lights up the room and a warm, cheerful demeanour that’s incredibly winning. He’s like the funny best pal you’d love to have.

The rest of the terrific cast manages to hold its own remarkably well against Scott’s formidable presence. Adam Murphy (Jafar) and Aljin Abella (Iago) are superbly hiss-worthy villains and Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Troy Sussman and Robert Tripolino are a hoot as Aladdin’s sidekicks. Ainsley Melham (Aladdin) and Arielle Jacobs (Princess Jasmine) have sweet, believable chemistry and sing charmingly. Nicholaw has them meet in a manner reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet at the ball – a big dancing scene in the market brings them face to face – and this brief moment resonates, as does Melham’s scene with James when Aladdin promises to free the Genie.

Such pleasures do a reasonable job of obscuring the weaknesses. Aladdin’s mates get loads of zappy stage time, while Jasmine’s besties are pretty much limited to “you go girl” background chatter. That’s a big irritant. Jacobs makes a strong fist of what she’s given, but Jasmine isn’t much more than a pretty cipher.

Chad Beguelin’s book is much stronger on bon mots than plot, dispensing groan-worthy puns and somewhat clunky exposition. The realisation that the Genie needed to be introduced to the audience early in the piece both gives and takes away. The character is a certified winner but when he has to tell the audience not to miss him too much after his comprehensive opening number Arabian Nights you know the balance isn’t going to be right in Act I. When Arabian Nights is over – in it the Genie tells you what you are about to see in rather a lot of detail and if you were pressed for time you could leave after that and know the whole story – you are impatient for his return. Which admittedly is worth the wait.

As for Alan Menken’s score (with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin), I don’t think this one is going to trouble the Great American Songbook but by Genie it’s got earworms. End-to-end earworms. They are still cavorting happily in my head, and I expect that to continue for some time.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, July 6

I’m sure the good folk at Charlie Hebdo magazine won’t mind when I say, after seeing You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Hayes last night, that je suis Charlie. I must also say that je suis Lucy, or at least the better bits of her (I hope). But really we all are Charlie, as cartoonist Charles M. Schultz understood. Somewhere still within us is the four-year-old that Charlie was when he first appeared, and the five, six, seven and eight-year-old he became. The klutzy kid’s hopes and fears earn our laughter because we know them intimately. We undoubtedly still feel those things, except now we know enough to hide them. We make ourselves opaque; Charlie innocently lays it all out there. As a friend said last night, the emotion is unedited.

The musical – well, more a collection of gags and aphorisms, some of which are put to music – started life Off-Broadway in 1967 (with Clark Gesner’s book, music and lyrics), and was a big success. On Broadway it wasn’t. This is a delicate comedy not suited to the Great White Way’s need for red meat.

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Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

Shaun Rennie’s production, delivered by the excellent Georgia Hopkins (set and costumes), Hugh Hamilton (lights), Tim Hope (AV design) and Jed Silver (sound design), beautifully preserves the essential fragility of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. There is no set to speak of, just a set of side drops on which colours wash. Snoopy gets his red dog house, Lucy her doctor’s stall. Schroeder his piano and Linus his blanket (how not?) but otherwise everything is kept nice and simple as befits a show in which the big production numbers are about Linus’s security blanket and Schroeder’s passion for Beethoven. Michael Tyack’s musical direction could not be more sympathetic to this jaunty, uplifting music.

Rennie’s cast is sweet, funny and heart-meltingly vulnerable – yes, even Sheridan Harbridge’s Lucy as she carries out a survey to ascertain her level of crabbiness while hoping to get a tick for her ability to “sparkle in company”. Nat Jobe’s Schroeder, Ben Gerrard’s Linus and Laura Murphy’s Sally each has a welcome turn in the spotlight and all praise to choreographer Andy Dexterity, not only for his splendid dances but for stepping late into the role of Snoopy and making him quite the sophisticate. Snoopy’s Red Baron number gives Dexterity a chance to channel Bob Fosse very amusingly so it feels a bit curmudgeonly (Lucy-like?) to say it’s the show’s most dispensable song. Despite the many joys of this production You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown is just a bit too long for its material and could very usefully be a slightly slimmer one-act piece.

Don’t let that caveat put you off though because then you’d miss Mike Whalley’s Charlie – the gorgeous beating heart of the piece. Whalley somehow manages to turn his tall, grown-up self into the very essence of a lovely little boy who knows there are lots of things he’s not good at but keeps on trying anyway. In his own way he is as indomitable as Lucy – more self-aware, certainly – and the pluckiest of troupers. It would be a very hard heart that did not love him, and this production, to bits.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, runs until July 30.

About last week … June 20-26

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co was the venue for another in the invaluable Neglected Musicals series (June 21). Rehearsal is minimal (a day only), there may be a sketchy set and a few props, and the actors – always very, very good – have books in hand. By some strange alchemy it always feels like a proper show. I’ve seen some beauties. Unfortunately Baby the Musical (1983) can’t be counted among them. We were told it was nominated for seven Tony awards but had the misfortune to be up against Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Yes, well. I think it was kind of making up the category, as its competition included The Tap Dance Kid (I admit that’s a title entirely new to me) and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, which did not meet with much critical favour and didn’t last a year (nor did Baby). Baby is little more than an extended skit really about three couples expecting a baby or hoping to. That’s it. Music is by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and the book by Sybille Pearson. They’re not particularly scintillating except for the big women’s number I Want it All. That still works. The generous actors giving their all at the Hayes included Katrina Retallick, David Whitney (both fabulous) and the incredibly plucky Kate Maree Hoolihan who powered through a respiratory illness to keep the curtain up.

Next in Neglected Musicals (from August 3 for six performances) is Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane, starring Virginia Gay. I’m absolutely up for that one.

Nederlands Dans Theater had one thing people could agree on during its brief Melbourne visit: the magnetism, authority and power of its dancers. Responses to the program (June 22) were more mixed. The evening opened and closed with works choreographed by NDT artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his associate Sol León that were long on visual glamour but rather shorter on emotional and visceral satisfaction.

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Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Sehnsucht (2009) was simultaneously overwrought and underdone. A man and a women played out a domestic drama in a small rotating box slightly elevated and set back – a kind of square tumble-drier with fixed table and chair and a window for escaping through. In front of them a solitary man emoted to Beethoven piano sonatas. In the second half a large ensemble was borne along by the majesty of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, although the connection between dance and music was tenuous. I couldn’t tell why this work in particular and not another one. One couldn’t deny, however, that Beethoven provided a thrillingly strong, familiar beat. The dancers looked marvelous, of course, although I did feel for Prince Credell, the solo man, who was forced to crouch at the front of the stage when Sehnsucht – the word suggests intense yearning – ended. The auditorium lights came up, he stayed, the audience stood about a bit and then he slowly unfurled himself.

Lightfoot/León’s Stop-Motion (2014), to music by Max Richter, had a similarly glossy air without convincing one that it meant anything other than generalised anguish. Too often the dancers stopped and posed either in arabesque or with legs held high to the side, either straight or with a bent knee. One admired the control, but admiring technical skill, particularly when invited to do so again and again, can get rather tiresome. Sehnsucht would have given the program a more striking ending but as Stop-Motion ends with quantities of flour being thrown about the stage, logistics demanded it closed the evening.

Thanks goodness for the central work (in all senses), Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. There was a backdrop of falling snow, Brahms piano and cello sonatas, and an aching sense of need and loss. In the crepuscular light dancers swirled, slid and connected as if their lives depended on it. Breathtaking is an overused and frequently meaningless word of praise. Here it was entirely apposite. I wasn’t aware of myself, those around me, or of the need to breathe. Those dancers, that dance, that music, that experience filled every moment.

I won’t say too much about West Australian Ballet’s Genesis program (seen June 23) because I serve as a member of the company’s artistic review panel. The program gives WAB dancers a chance to develop their choreographic skills and is a vital part of the operation, as it is with Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues. The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program seems to have disappeared, although this year two alumni, Alice Topp and Richard House, had work programmed as part of the AB’s mainstage season. At WAB just-retired principal artist Jayne Smeulders and soloist Andre Santos have made it to the mainstage via earlier workshops.

You will note I name two women, which is cause for rejoicing. One of the hot topics of conversation in classical dance is the scarcity – it’s close to complete absence – of female choreographers, although Crystal Pite is breaking through, as she deserves to. At WAB this year a gratifying number of women were represented: Polly Hilton, Florence Leroux-Coléno and Melissa Boniface stepped up to the plate alongside Santos, Christopher Hill, Adam Alzaim and Alessio Scognamiglio.

At the end of this year WAB stages a new Nutcracker co-choreographed by Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella and ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle.

 

About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

Bernadette Robinson

Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

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Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.

About last week … April 23-29

I could be wrong but I think the only Jonathan Dove opera to have made it to a professional stage so far in Australia is Flight, which I saw in 2006 when the Adelaide Festival presented the Glyndebourne production. The prolific Dove is something of a rarity, being a living opera composer whose more than two dozen works in the genre are much in demand around the world (except, it would seem, Australia). He told The Times of London last year that during 2015 there would be “17 new stagings of 11 of my operas in eight different countries”.

So it was a huge pleasure to be able to see Dove’s Mansfield Park (2011) staged by Operantics, the Sydney-based company founded last year to create performance opportunities for young singers. Home base is North Sydney’s Independent Theatre. It has a comfortable 300-seat auditorium and judging by the very good house at the April 24 matinee Operantics is already hitting the spot with just its third production.

Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton hit the spot too with their adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel of goodness rewarded. Gentle Fanny Price lives at Mansfield Park with well-off relatives and is secretly in love with her cousin Edmund. She might be considered the most insignificant member of the household but only she understands the dangers posed when vivacious, worldly Mary and Henry Crawford enter their lives and create emotional mayhem.

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A scene from Operantics’ Mansfield Park. Photo: John Kilkeary

The action is wittily presented in two “volumes” and 18 “chapters”, each announced by the singers. Dove’s score, written for piano duo, flows freely and melodically, alert to the comedy and self-serving dramatics of most of the characters while giving Fanny some gentle, heartfelt music. A burbling undercurrent suits the rural setting and provides a very busy workout indeed for the accompanying pianists, in this case the heroic Nathaniel Kong and Geena Cheung. Only some very high-lying music for Mary Crawford and a couple of the more complex ensembles created real difficulties to understanding the text without surtitles; otherwise the Operantics cast of 10 sang with admirable clarity and, in the modest but effective production, were engaging actors.

It’s a real ensemble work, most winningly presented, so I won’t single out anyone other than Katie Miller-Crispe: she sang the role of Maria, is Operantics’ artistic director and was production manager for Mansfield Park. Brava. And in late September Operantics plans to stage Bellini’s La sonnambula. The company certainly doesn’t want for ambition.

The Detective’s Handbook, at Hayes Theatre Co, isn’t much more than an extended skit on an inconsequential subject but it does announce impressive new music-theatre talent in writer Ian Ferrington and composer Olga Solar (the latter is just 22). The musical is a spoofy murder mystery set in 1950s Chicago with the familiar tropes of mismatched detectives, femmes fatale and puns galore. Many people really enjoyed its helium-balloon lightness but for me the affectionate homage to the classic noir detective novel didn’t have enough to maintain interest for 80 minutes.

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Justin Smith and Rob Johnson in The Detective’s Handbook. Photo: Clare Hawley

What it does have is Ferrington’s sophisticated, rhythmically complex wordplay and Solar’s lovely, nostalgic jazz score. I particularly liked the song for world-weary detective Frank Thompson (delivered beautifully by Justin Smith) early on in the piece and had there been stronger character development along those lines The Detective’s Handbook could have been both funny and more complex.

The Detective’s Handbook came out of New Musicals Australia’s development program and has had input from the best in the business. The great cast is directed by Jonathan Biggins, music direction is by veteran Michael Tyack, James Browne designed and choreography is by Christopher Horsey. As I wrote in The Australian this week, the loving production gives The Detective’s Handbook more than it warrants but let’s call it an investment in the future. It would be good to think Ferrington and Solar are already working on something else.

I managed to catch Patricia Cornelius’s tough, gut-wrenchingly powerful Savages at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse a few days before the end of its season. I went to the Wednesday matinee when the house was pretty much sold out to students, all of them young men. They were clearly listening closely and I imagine won’t forget it quickly. I do hope not. Savages sticks like glue to four close mates as they take a holiday on a cruise ship. They owe it to themselves to have a great time, and to have it together. To leave all the crap behind, to rewrite history, to drink, to bond, to root. What could possibly go wrong with pack mentality rampant?

Cornelius’s play has a dark poetry and is both all too understandable and deeply confronting. Under Tim Roseman’s direction, Josef Ber, Thomas Campbell, Yure Covich and Troy Harrison were frighteningly good. Frighteningly.

The late-night Old Fitz Theatre show on Wednesday brought more violence in the shape of Orphans, from Seeker Productions. In Savages mateship and misogny are the toxic ingredients; in British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Orphans they are family, a broken society and racism. While Kelly’s concerns are abundantly clear I ultimately found Orphans unpersuasive (and overlong) despite intensely involved performances from Liam Nunan, Jacki Mison (who also produced the play) and Christopher Morris.

Friday night brought a complete change of pace with The Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C, a staging of George Balanchine’s mighty homage to classical style paired with a clutch of divertissements.

My review appears in The Australian tomorrow (May 2). I’ll put up a more detailed analysis later in the week.

The Detective’s Handbook ends on May 7.