About last week … March 26-April 1

A CLASH of ballet opening nights saw Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake go head to head – well, from my perspective. They were in different cities at the time. For reasons both artistic and logistical, I went to the first performance of Dream in Brisbane on April 1 and the second Swan Lake performance at the April 2 matinee. I reviewed both for The Australian and both will be up separately on the blog in the next few days.

The artistic reason for putting Dream first? It was the premiere in Australia of a Liam Scarlett work – a notable event in the ballet business – whereas Swan Lake, a traditional version choreographed by Stephen Baynes, is a revival. (I’ll have more to say about Swan Lake later after I get a few more performances under my belt.)

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream -  Laura Hidalgo and Victor Estevez. Photo David Kelly HR

Victor Estevez, Laura Hidalgo and members of Queensland Ballet in Liam Scarlett’s new A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The Scarlett is a co-production between QB and Royal New Zealand Ballet, which premiered the work last year. I saw it in Auckland and loved its sensuousness. (Tracy Grant Lord’s designs are a wonderful part of the equation.) Scarlett came through the Royal Ballet School and danced with the Royal Ballet until his choreographic career really started taking off (he was identified and encouraged while still at the school). The post of artist in residence was created at the Royal for him although it doesn’t tie him exclusively to the company. (If you’re interested I wrote about him at length here.)

He’s acutely aware of his dance heritage, and that of course includes a thorough knowledge of Frederick Ashton, founder choreographer of the Royal. I’ve seen earlier Scarlett works – the narrative Sweet Violets with the RB in London and the abstract Acheron performed by New York City Ballet – and wasn’t entirely bowled over by either. With Dream, however, you can see the Ashtonian influence and also that Scarlett isn’t merely copying but has his own voice. The intricate, detailed upper-body work and sharp, fast footwork is incredibly complicated yet looks unrushed, harmonious and gorgeously musical. In Dream Scarlett keeps most of the dancing quite close to the ground, which allows the dancers the trick of appearing feather-light but also more natural and characterful.

QB is a company of about the same size as RNZB and has plenty of zesty dancers, some of whom are quite new. QB artistic director Li Cunxin has hired three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba – principals Yanela Piñera and Victor Estévez and soloist Camilo Ramos – and principal Laura Hidalgo, an Argentinian-born dancer who was lately with National Ballet of Flanders. All danced at the Dream opening performance. (At only 22 Estévez is young to be a principal artist but he has handsome stage presence.)

Interestingly, after the performance I was asked not once or twice but three times who I thought had danced Dream better: QB or RNZB. It’s a tough one. Both companies clearly relished the style, humour and emotion and transmitted it joyously. But QB had only a few days with Scarlett, who made it on the RNZB dancers over some weeks. And, I will note, I saw the RNZB performance a few shows in, after the short Wellington season had been completed. The connection was deep. An example is Tonia Looker’s rapturous Titania in the big Act II pas de deux – I can still see the luscious abandon of her curved back. Hidalgo is a poetic dancer who I am keen to see in more key roles but she wasn’t quite as inside the role as Looker.

I’m talking cigarette papers here, as in minute differences, but that’s how it goes in ballet. I wonder too if there’s something about the feel of a ranked company (QB) versus an unranked (RNZB). We’re talking something quite elusive here and possibly there’s not a lot in it. But the idea did pop into my head. I might come back to this later.

Fiddler-on-the-Roof-Aust-Production-03-PIC-CREDIT-JEFF-BUSBY

Tevye (Anthony Warlow) and daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

Earlier in the week (March 29) Fiddler on the Roof arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne opening season. Director Roger Hodgman plays a very straight bat with it but it’s a production that works where it matters. Which starts, not surprisingly, with Tevye, the impoverished milkman living in early 20th century Russia with three daughters who are starting to think for themselves. Anthony Warlow inhabits this funny, dogmatic, sometimes infuriating man with salt-of-the-earth ease. Whether Tevye is having one of his many man-to-man chats with God or roaring at his daughters, there’s a great, enveloping feeling of warmth. This is a Tevye you can admire even when you don’t agree with him and love for his steadfast commitment to beliefs and family. Warlow’s burnished baritone is still a glorious instrument (now in his mid-50s, Warlow is in the sweet spot for the role in terms of age) and it adds incomparable lustre to songs we know so well but rarely experience sung with such glow. To hear If I Were a Rich Man as if new is a true gift. And is there a musical that begins with a more thrilling, information-rich number than Tradition? (Well, some friends immediately cited The Lion King’s admittedly roof-raising opening, but I think they’re talking about staging.)

Warlow has a mostly strong cast around him: Tegan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers as the loving, clever daughers; Mark Mitchell as rejected suitor Lazar Wolf; and Blake Bowden as the passionate student Perchik are all spot-on. Pop singer Lior, making his music-theatre debut as Motel, had a rocky start to Miracle of Miracles on opening night but rallied nicely to give a nuanced performance. Much has been said about Sigrid Thornton’s too-fragile voice for Tevye’s wife, Golde, and there is indeed a huge mismatch between her and Warlow; and Nicki Wendt’s turn as matchmaker Yente felt too hungry for laughs.

Dana Jolly’s reproduction of Jerome Robbins’s choreography is most welcome and musical director Kellie Dickerson is in charge of a small but very effective orchestra. I found Richard Roberts’s design somewhat uninspiring but the musical’s themes are undimmed and they resonate strongly under Hodgman’s expert direction. When, in 1964, Joseph Stein (book), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Jerry Bock (music) looked back to the early 20th century for a story about family disintegration, religious persecution and widespread displacement, they could well have been looking forward to today. Fiddler on the Roof is at the Capitol in Sydney until early May.

A quick word about the Le Corbusier tapestry Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast) unveiled Tapestryat the Sydney Opera House on March 29 in the Western Foyers. It was commissioned by Jörn Utzon in 1958 when the Danish architect was already thinking about what might be possible in the interior of his magical building (he wanted vibrant colours inside), and delivered to him two years later. Then came his dismissal and the tapestry from the great Swiss-French architect took up residence in the Utzon home. A group of benefactors and SOH staff members helped fund its acquisition at auction last year, it has been restored, and now hangs in the Opera House as a tribute to Utzon – not to mention its value as a work from the imagination of one of the key architects of the 20th century. If you’re in Sydney don’t fail to pop down to the Western Foyers to take a look.

About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

Ghost The Musical Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills DSC_8826

Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

Culture Club March 22_SOH_credit Prudence Upton 024

Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

turandot-hosh-2016-prudence-upton-10-high-res

Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.

Little Shop of Horrors

Luckiest Productions & Tinderbox Productions. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 23.

RESISTANCE is useless Earthlings. Little Shop of Horrors is back and roaring for warm blood. Human blood. Your blood. I doubt it will be denied, at least in cult-musicals circles. The greatly cherished show has an almost mystical following and, with this production, should recruit a new generation of devotees.

To recap: after an unusual atmospheric disturbance, lovable loser Seymour Krelborn (Brent Hill) stumbles upon a weird plant and brings it back to the drooping Skid Row florist shop where he works alongside another of life’s punching bags, self-sabotaging Audrey (Esther Hannaford). Given the name Audrey II by lovesick Seymour, the plant soon reveals itself to be carnivorous. Rapaciously so. What could possibly go wrong? And what will nebbish Seymour do to hold on to his dreams once he becomes something of a celebrity thanks to Audrey II, with a concomitant boost to his previously minimal store of courage?

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1141

Brent Hill as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical takes its B-grade schlock-horror plot from a 1960 Roger Corman quickie film but it has much more heart and substance than that may suggest. At the Hayes, in a tightrope act pulled off with impeccable style and sophistication, director Dean Bryant expertly digs into the multiplicity of dark interpretations implicit in the text while keeping things light and fleet enough on the surface to keep the laughs coming.

Hanging over the story are those mid-20th century fears of invasion and subjugation in which aliens stood in for the enemy at the gate (think Orson Welles’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids just to name two). These fears are not entirely unknown today. Little Shop of Horrors is also a cautionary tale about the dangerous seductions of fame and money, particularly for someone as innocent as Seymour.

But it’s the central story of doomed love and impossible aspirations that Bryant and his production team really hit hard and strong, just as they did in 2014 with their thrilling reworking of Sweet Charity.

Little Shop of Horrors premiered Off-Broadway in 1982, distant enough from Corman’s film to be able to indulge in fond nostalgia for the 1960s and having it both ways by casting an arch but critical eye over the lingering 1950s social values of the time. Bryant sails audaciously close to the wind in his conceptions of Audrey and Seymour. When we first see Hannaford’s Audrey her emotional fragility is heightened dramatically by the production design, an expressionistic rendering of the dismal grey lives of the denizens of Skid Row. Hannaford looks wraith-like and her not-entirely-American accent and twitchy, fey gestures make her seem already not of this world.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

Audrey’s resigned subservience to her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello DDS (Scott Johnson) – she’s never allowed to forget Orin’s academic credentials – is exceptionally painful and gives exceptional poignancy to her wistful fantasy of a safe, well-appointed home (Somewhere That’s Green). The song is funny and heartbreaking all at once and Hannaford is attuned to every nuance. To hear her wish for not only a washer but a dryer too is to hear an entire life story. Hannaford’s performance is exquisitely calibrated: strange, beautiful and unearthly, even when raising the roof with Hill’s Seymour in Suddenly Seymour, where tenderness and a thumping great love ballad collide magnificently.

From Hill, also in tour-de-force vocal and dramatic form, we get to understand that even someone as sweet and gentle as Seymour is liable to turn into a kind of monster if he chooses to make compact with one. Still, that might be better than what he had to start with, no? And anyway, once on that slippery slope there’s no getting off.

Bryant’s Little Shop of Horrors lets such thoughts niggle tenaciously while making whoopee with the musical’s trashy laughs, irresistible songs and grand guignol gestures. Erth Visual & Physical Inc’s series of Audrey II plants (Jamie Clennett, animator) is spectacularly successful, as are the designs by Owen Phillips (set), Tim Chappel (costumes) and Ross Graham (lights). In a brilliant coup de théâtre they transform a dismal grey world into riotous colour when success comes calling at the decrepit business run by Mr Mushnik (Tyler Coppin). Andrew Hallsworth’s pitch-perfect choreography is the cherry on top. Well, that and the darling red bias-cut coat Chappel gives Audrey in Act II. Divine.

While Hill and Hannaford are the glorious linchpin, the full cast of nine is a knockout, particularly Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel as a sassy, sexy Greek chorus in close-harmony girl-group guise and Scott Johnson’s pure macho evil as Orin that makes you laugh and gasp in horror all at once.

As can often happen at the Hayes on opening night the sound from music director Andrew Warboys’s small band was sometimes too boomy and precious lyrics were smothered. It’s a hard space to get right it would seem, but one is grateful for the gems it produces. One more thing: Little Shop looks too big for the 110-seat Hayes, but this was always likely. There’s a national tour ahead in more capacious venues.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on February 25.

Little Shop of Horrors ends in Sydney on March 19. Adelaide from April 20, Melbourne from May 4, Canberra from May 25, Brisbane from June 1, Perth from August 4.

Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

Thomas Campbell - MISTERMAN 1

Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

Ivanov3

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

SOM5070_Production-Photography-by-James-Morgan_R-1024x681

Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

The Sound of Music

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 17.

A new production of Fiddler on the Roof has just opened in New York, directed by Broadway revival rainmaker Bartlett Sher. The musical, created in 1964, tells of the existential threat faced by a community of Jews in Imperial Russia, whom we see living their lives much as their ancestors did – Tradition! – while having to face the realities of contemporary society and politics. At the end we see them forced to leave their home of Anatevka to go – where?

Sher gave Fiddler a silent frame that, very briefly, brings the mass exoduses of today to mind. He hasn’t changed the work but has given it a context. What happened to Tevye’s community isn’t locked away safely in the past. “We have to ask questions about where we are now,” Sher told The New York Times. Sher’s touch has also been applied to revered Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals including South Pacific and The King and I, both of which have dark themes embedded within. Sher is able to stage a traditional version while reminding audiences that these shows aren’t entirely about washing a man right out of your hair and whistling a happy tune, no matter how tenaciously the glow of nostalgia hangs around them.

SOM8333_Production-Photography-by-James-Morgan_R-1024x677

Amy Lehpamer, left, with the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In The Sound of Music there are raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and Nazis at the door. In other words, there is, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last work a dark counterpoint that gives weight, texture and dramatic consequence to songs of unmatched sweetness.

It is wondrous just how lacking in cynicism, irony and guile the show’s most beloved songs are, but The Sound of Music is not all Do-Re-Mi, or shouldn’t be. It doesn’t seem enough in 2015 to give the impression the Nazis were a bunch of cartoonish heavies. One of the greatest evils of the 20th or any century is trivialised and the courage of the von Trapp family rendered far less affecting than it should be. The production now showing in Sydney, directed by Jeremy Sams, could have been teleported from 1959, when The Sound of Music conquered its first generation of admirers.

It’s true that Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book is perilously thin at times, in this respect and others, but in this production the flaws are magnified rather than resolved. It also doesn’t help that the sets, based on those for the 2006 London revival, have a strong whiff of having been reduced for ease of touring. When the Austrian alps are represented by an odd sloping disc, low-lying bumps and a lurid sunset you’re not exactly feeling the grandeur.

The old-school complacency is all the more frustrating because the show is blessed with some blazing performances. The enchanting Maria of Amy Lehpamer, Jacqueline Dark’s bounteous Mother Abbess and the eye-wateringly talented bunch of children raise the roof and save the day.

SOM5070_Production-Photography-by-James-Morgan_R-1024x681

Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In Lehpamer’s hands the novice nun who brings music and love to an unhappy family is shiningly good without being a goody-goody. Forthright and sensible but with girlhood not long behind her, Maria is bursting with untapped promise. Lehpamer sings with delectable warmth, ease and clarity, makes the familiar sound fresh and gives backbone to songs that need a firm hand if they are not to descend into whimsy.

On opening night there was entrance applause for Cameron Daddo, who plays the widowed Captain von Trapp; Marina Prior, who is the Captain’s intended, Baroness Schraeder; and veteran Lorraine Bayly (Frau Schmidt). None greeted Lehpamer, who is well known to music-theatre aficionados but – obviously – not so much to a wider public. She has it in her to be Australia’s next big music-theatre star and this role should do the trick.

Most usually seen on the opera stage, where she is a great favourite, Dark plays the Abbess with a twinkly eye and enormous generosity of spirit and voice. What luxury casting. One could have predicted she’d hit Climb Ev’ry Mountain out of the park and so she does, not as a barnstorming anthem but a passionate invocation.

As for the children, the opening night girls and boys were all adorable (two more groups alternate in these roles) but if one must play favourites, Nakita Clarke as the baby of the family, Gretl, would take the prize. The others – Jude Padden-Row as Friedrich, Savannah Clarke (Nakita’s sister) as Louise, Louis Fontaine as Kurt, Madison Russo as Brigitta and Erica Giles as Marta – are also blissfully at ease on stage and there are some impressive voices among them. As the “sixteen going on seventeen” oldest sister Leisel, Stefanie Jones is pleasingly unaffected and has a fine, true soprano.

Prior makes the pragmatic Baroness Schraeder nuanced and interesting but Daddo isn’t up to the task of papering over some very dodgy transitions in the book. Because he doesn’t convey megawatts of authority, several underwritten turning points in the musical are put under a very revealing light. The Captain’s turnaround from distant martinet to caring father is achieved with a handful of harsh words from Maria and his declaration of love for the novice nun happens moments after Baroness Schraeder gives him back his ring. Daddo looks amazingly handsome but there is, sadly, little sizzle between him and Lepahmer of the kind that might have prepared us for this outcome.

The audience has to join the dots and take that relationship on trust because it’s not really there on stage. The political backdrop is similarly soft-edged and experienced at a safe distance despite the display of swastikas and men in uniform. I couldn’t help but compare this blandness with the shiver of horror John Bell evoked in his direction of Tosca for Opera Australia in 2013, which was set during the Nazi occupation of Rome. It’s all in the detail. It’s about making every new audience, every new generation, understand and believe in every aspect of a work, not just the raindrops on roses.

The Sound of Music runs in Sydney until February 28. Brisbane from March 11, Melbourne from May 13, Adelaide from August 9.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on December 21.

Ladies in Black

Queensland Theatre Company, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, November 19

BY the end of Ladies in Black its sweet, gawky duckling of a heroine has been transformed into a soignée swan, and in just six weeks. Why, without her glasses and with her hair up, young Lisa Miles is quite a looker. Goodbye school, hello world. This is no superficial alteration: Lisa is on the brink of something momentous, a life where she gets to choose who and what she wants to be. If a beautiful, lusted-after dress is part of the picture after years of wearing garments made at home lovingly, but badly, by mum, well that’s OK.

The slender and charming novel that inspired Ladies in Black, Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black, is a comedy of manners and fable of empowerment. Published in 1993 but set in the late 1950s, it casts an amused eye on an Australia slowly emerging from its blokey, monocultural straitjacket. A young woman blossoms; another discovers literature and the attractions of an experienced European man; a long-married woman has a sexual awakening; and the sophistications of a recent arrival to these shores work their magic. There is one delectable discovery after another.

Kate Cole, Christen O,Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

The cast of Ladies in Black

In a version of Jane Austen’s famous two inches of ivory – her “four or five families in a country village”- The Women in Black (and thus Ladies in Black, which is a faithful adaptation) inhabits a deliberately limited world, viewed from a female perspective. Like Austen, St John is witty and acerbic while maintaining an aura of smooth politesse. (How about this seemingly throwaway word in The Women in Black? Men talking about their families “joined in with remarks about their own sons and even their daughters”. Even. It’s a killer.)

St John had long been an expat, living in England where she felt she belonged, but her evocation of Sydney in summer is vivid and not without affection as she expertly registers and skewers the social attitudes and restrictions that drove so many Australians like her to flee (she was at the University of Sydney at the same time as Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and other luminaries). She touches on inequality between the sexes, the limiting of women’s ambition and the galvanising effect of migration with a soupçon of the sexual revolution thrown in for spice – heavy issues all, but rendered with an airy hand. This is the fable part: pretty much everything turns out wonderfully well.

At the centre of the story is Lisa (née Lesley, a name she feels doesn’t quite suit her). She has just finished her exams for the Leaving certificate and secured a holiday job at Goode’s department store, the place to shop in Sydney. She is assigned to Ladies’ Cocktail (not the alcoholic beverage; frocks) and promised as an additional pair of hands to the cosmopolitan Magda in Model Gowns.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda

Lisa is a very clever girl and likely to win a Commonwealth Scholarship to university, although as her father points out, what does a girl need with a degree when she’ll shortly be looking after a husband and kiddies? She isn’t a natural rebel but knows her life has more promise than that. The excitingly stylish Magda, a New Australian, as we used to call them (“Continental” to her confrères at Goode’s), treats Lisa like an adult and introduces her to thrilling new ideas. It’s a tumultuous few weeks for all in the domestic sphere and of course at work, where the women are rushed off their feet just before Christmas.

Singer-songwriter Tim Finn came across a copy of The Women in Black at Brisbane Airport and thought it might make a good musical. He hadn’t written one before but seems to be a natural. His openhearted, immediately likeable songs (Finn wrote music and lyrics) are deliciously melodic and flow easily through Carolyn Burns’s lively, compact book. Occasionally the joins show, but Ladies in Black is in excellent shape for a musical having its first outing and succeeds where it really counts by creating warm, believable, engaging characters and by having a top-notch cast bring them to life. Relative unknown Sarah Morrison, who plays Lisa, is a tremendous asset. She is radiant.

Anyone expecting a 21st-century gloss on issues about which it’s difficult to laugh these days will be disappointed. Ladies in Black is about how it was then, bathed in a rosily nostalgic glow that is even equal to the task of laughing at bad husbands. The Bastard Song, sung with sturdy relish by a quartet of women, had the show’s opening-night audience hooting, loving lyrics that include: “He’s a bastard, a bastard, a standard issue bastard, a bastard, coming home half plastered, I don’t know how it’s lasted …” You get the idea.

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole, Lucy Maunder

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole and Lucy Maunder

There’s no room here for cynics, ironists or revolutionaries. Ladies in Black unashamedly plucks the heartstrings and may even cause a certain dampness in the ocular area. For Australian women of a certain age there is much to remember. “I can see the future and everything I’ve dreamed is waiting there for me,” goes the rousing final number, and Ladies in Black means every buoyant, life-affirming word of it.

Queensland Theatre Company, backed by Queensland Performing Arts Centre, threw a lot of resources into Ladies in Black. Set and costumes are by the go-to designer for big occasions, Gabriela Tylesova (the staging boasts three revolves to facilitate the many changes of scene), and director Simon Phillips, who knows a thing or two about musical theatre, is at the helm. There is plenty to admire but the production nevertheless has the feeling of falling somewhat between two stools: it could be done on a rather more intimate scale or, alternatively, would profit from a grander staging with a lot more bells and whistles. There’s no money pit like the musical theatre.

The former outcome is perhaps more likely than the latter but however it goes, Ladies in Black deserves to have an audience after these premiere seasons in Brisbane and, from January 16, in Melbourne.

Brisbane season ends December 6. Melbourne Theatre Company, January 16-February 27.

Further reading: Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, by Helen Trinca. Text Publishing, 2013. (Co-Winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, 2014)

Grey Gardens, with special reference to women in theatre

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 20.

On Monday night I went to an inspiring meeting in Sydney organised by Women in Theatre and Screen – WITS – to discuss gender inequity in the arts and to plan a positive, sensible, achievable course of action. One of the greatest truths spoken was that discrimination against women can be so entrenched as to be virtually invisible.

Women are the primary decision-makers in buying theatre tickets, so why hasn’t the audience risen up and demanded greater visibility for women and their experiences? I was reminded of a conundrum posed to me when I was very young. It was probably in the late 1950s, and went something like this: A boy is badly injured, taken by his father to the hospital, and raced into surgery. The doctor emerges from the operating theatre and says: “I’ve saved my son.” This was a real head-scratcher. The father had brought his son to the hospital; how could he also have done the operation? The answer, of course, was that the surgeon was a woman. But it took a lot of cogitation in those days to come up with that solution. Surgeon. Woman. Gee, that doesn’t compute.

In Ireland there’s a similar push for visibility for women theatre-makers, hastened by the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 program announcement. The season is called Waking the Nation but half the nation wasn’t getting much of a look in. There was only one play by a woman and of the 10 directors, three are women. Enter the campaign Waking the Feminists.

The Abbey’s artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail didn’t get off to a brillilant start in reply to the outcry, Tweeting: “I don’t and haven’t programmed plays or productions on a gender basis. I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with.” Who was admired? Who did Mac Conghail mostly want to work with? Mostly people like himself, it appeared. Men. Mac Conghail quickly retreated, realising how breathtakingly dismissive he sounded and the Abbey has acknowledged it has some work to do.

Sometimes it takes a lot of agitation, as well as cogitation, to change things.

As it happens, in the past couple of weeks I have seen three productions – all musicals – in which women have been central figures, the ones that drive the action. Visible. That doesn’t mean the problem is solved, of course. It’s like saying if there are one or two women on a company board everyone should think everything is just dandy. It was, however, a wonderful alignment of the stars.

GG_Maggie Blinco, Beth Daly 2_Pic Michael Francis

Maggie Blinco and Beth Daly in Grey Gardens. Photo: Michael Francis

The musical Matilda has a pint-sized heroine who is brainy, gutsy and hugely imaginative; Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black, based on the Madeleine St John novel with a book by Carolyn Burns and music by Tim Finn, has an overwhelmingly female cast and is set in the frock department of a big store; and Grey Gardens dares to be about two very difficult women –and what a no-no that is generally thought to be.

I’ve written about Matilda here and will write next week on Ladies in Black (both shows will be seen in Melbourne next year). Grey Gardens, which was given its Australian premiere by The Production Company in 2011, is having its first Sydney outing thanks to small independent company Squabbalogic.

When Albert and David Maysles made their celebrated 1975 documentary about former high society fixtures Little Edie Beale and her mother, Big Edie, you could perhaps say the women, performers manqué both, finally got the audience they had so long craved. The fascinating musical based on Grey Gardens suggests another way of looking at it. What happens when ambition, high spirits and individuality are stifled and thwarted?

Photographs of Little Edie show a remarkably beautiful young woman. She was American royalty, one of the well-to-do Beales whose summer home was the East Hamptons mansion Grey Gardens. As a gorgeous, rich, upper-crust gal in the 1930s and 1940s, Little Edie’s trajectory was apparently fixed: go to lots of parties, date eligible men (Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty were said to be among her beaux), marry well like her mother and stay out of the newspapers.

There was little chance of the last once it was discovered, in the 1970s, that she and Big Edie were living in considerable squalor in their disintegrating house with perhaps 50 cats for company. The connection with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, their cousin and niece, assured wide publicity.

The 2006 musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) looks to the past not so much for answers to this reversal of fortune as for clues. The set-up is perhaps over-extended but has its charms. In the first half we see a fictional rendering of the lively Beale establishment on an eventful afternoon in 1941, cunningly played in light musical-comedy style. Big Edie is presiding over preparations for a party at which Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy Jnr is to be announced. You might think Little Edie should be at the heart of proceedings but Big Edie has other ideas, having prepared a list of nine songs and arias she will present as the evening’s entertainment.

Her husband is expected to make a rare appearance, coming from New York by train – cue the jaunty The Five-Fifteen – and already present in the house are two little girls, the bride-to-be’s cousins Jackie (later Kennedy) and Lee (later Radziwill), Big Edie’s great chum George Strong Gould and her father, Major Bouvier. Naturally there’s a servant to answer the telephone, Brooks, who now would be called African-American but then would definitely have just been black.

The unnerving centrepiece of the first act is Big Edie’s undermining of Little Edie’s chances, delivered to Joe Kennedy Jnr as an anecdote supposed to illustrate Little Edie’s vivacity and wide appeal. Is Big Edie monstrous, stupid or self-sabotaging? Spoiling things for Little Edie turns out to be quite the own goal.

The second act leaps forward to 1973 and a situation that seems darkly surreal but is taken directly from the Maysles film. Mother and daughter are now indigent and irrevocably tied to one another, the Vladimir and Estragon of Suffolk County. They are not, however, lacking in wit and resilience as Frankel and Korie’s songs, now emotionally rich, establish.

Big Edie is indeed fantastically vain and controlling but there’s a mad kind of freedom in the way she lives, careless of rules and standards. In her palmier days she knew the rules of the Establishment all right but failed to be compliant enough and paid a big price, as women so frequently do. Big Edie ended up divorced, more or less disinherited and broke; Little Edie couldn’t make much of a splash in the wider world and came home to Grey Gardens and mother.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present,” says Little Edie, a perception underlined by having one actress play Big Edie in the first half and Little Edie in the second. It’s a gift of an opportunity and Beth Daly grabs it avidly for Squabbalogic, playing Big Edie with self-absorption so grand as to be almost admirable and wonderfully capturing Little Edie’s glorious eccentricity and underlying melancholy, although over-egging the woman’s distinctive accent.

It’s also very difficult to depict the glamour and privilege of the Beales’ glory days when you don’t have a bean, which is pretty much the Squabbalogic situation. The company doesn’t usually let that defeat inspiration as productions of Carrie and Man of La Mancha proved. Grey Gardens presents the challenge of conveying the 28-room mansion’s glory days and alas Squabbalogic’s set looks far too cheap and wobbly in Act I before the rot sets in. It’s a big distraction.

Still, there’s a decent band of nine – luxury in these circumstances – led by Hayden Barltrop and director Jay James-Moody has his usual incisive hand at the helm. He has gathered a strong cast, pre-eminently Maggie Blinco in magisterial form as Big Edie in Act II. Caitlin Berry is a glowing first-half Little Edie although it’s difficult to see in her the woman she becomes (not her fault – there’s not enough in the book); Simon McLachlan doubles impressively as Little Edie’s intended groom Joe Kennedy Jnr and helpful teenager Jerry; and Blake Erickson is wryly amusing as Big Edie’s indispensible friend, hanger-on and enabler George Gould Strong.

Big Edie died in 1977, after which Little Edie went to live in Florida. When permission was sought to turn the documentary into a musical, Albert Maysles got in touch with Little Edie. In an interview, Frankel said Little Edie was delighted at the prospect, replying to Maysles: “I am thrilled by what you wrote about the musical g.g! My whole life was music and song! It made up for everything! With all that I didn’t have, my life was joyous!” Little Edie didn’t see the musical. She died in 2002.

Grey Gardens ends December 12.

High and low

High Society, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 7; Anything Goes, Sydney Opera House, September 8   

IN one giddy night of mayhem, pairs of lovers – former, would-be, should-be, desperately mismatched – ricochet around in the search for a safe harbour. Intoxicants are taken, identities are mistaken, the low-born mingle with the high-born, a man is very much an ass and everything turns out for the best in the end.

No, not A Midsummer Night’s Dream but High Society, which in the hands of director Helen Dallimore and a blue-chip cast is a blissful demonstration of just how foolish we mortals can be. Throw in a selection of Cole Porter songs (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, True Love, Let’s Misbehave and many more) and the happiness is complete.

The 1997 musical (book by Arthur Kopit, additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) is based on the 1956 film based on Philip Barry’s 1940 play The Philadelphia Story. Rich and beautiful Tracy Lord (Amy Lepahmer, adorable) is about to marry George Kittredge (Scott Irwin, hilarious) so upright you could use him as a plumbline and thick with it. Tracy’s former husband CK Dexter Haven (Bert LaBonte, coolly suave) pops by to solve a problem and cause mischief simultaneously and two party-crashing journalists (Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox, perfection) stir the pot and arouse passions.

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Tracy’s parents are having a spot of marital bother of their own, her Uncle Willie is a drunken, lascivious old goat and young sister Dinah is a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued observer and meddler. It’s all go in the Lord household as a pre-wedding bash for 700 guests gets underway.

How to manage that in a 110-seat theatre? Amusingly and effectively, as it happens, with set designer Lauren Peters cunningly representing the glamorous big-house, old-money setting with a simple set of moveable arches. She even gets in a cheeky reveal after interval. Not only are changes of location achieved in an instant, there’s a pleasing swirl that echoes the emotional eddies and flows. The four-piece band – yes, only four – under Daryl Wallis’s direction achieves wonders and the sound balance is far better than usual at the Hayes, which is a big win.

LaBonte gives a slow-burn performance that speaks of feelings kept in check under a glossy and sophisticated exterior and Jessica Whitfield is very funny as Dinah, the wise-beyond-her-years kid who wants to save Tracy from herself. With Delia Hannah as Tracy and Dinah’s mother Margaret, Russell Cheek as Margaret’s errant husband Seth, Laurence Coy enjoyably chewing the scenery as Uncle Willie and Michelle Barr and Phillip Lowe as the two-person chorus of household servants, it’s a classy cast from top to bottom.

And you’d have to go a long way to see better than Lepahmer, Gay and Fox. Lepahmer looks a million dollars in her slinky red gown and is a greatly gifted, all-singing, all-dancing comedienne. Fox gets writer Mike Connor’s mix of cracking hardy and regret at wasted talent. And as Liz Imbrie, Gay gives a performance that should have music-theatre fans from around the country rushing to see it. In love with Mike, avoiding Uncle Willie’s clutches, seeing everything and understanding all, she is smart and witty and heartbreaking.

The contrast between High Society and Anything Goes, seen – partially – the following evening, couldn’t have been greater. The light, fizzing comedy so necessary for Cole Porter’s imperishable melodies and the featherweight storyline of Anything Goes (young lovers; social climbing; a nightclub singer who was previously an evangelist; gangsters on the run) is AWOL. There is little other than Dale Ferguson’s lovely costumes to evoke the drop-dead glamour of a sea crossing from New York to London in the 1930s. Director Dean Bryant leans too heavily on material that should be nimble and buoyant as it flies through the serial improbabilities of the book. I was so disheartened I left at interval so my comments, necessarily brief, must therefore be seen in that light. The second half may have delighted.

High Society ends October 4. Anything Goes ends October 31. 

Matilda the Musical and memories of childhood

Matilda the Musical, Lyric Theatre, Sydney

I’M sorry. I make no apology for the following revelation because it’s relevant. I was the intellectual of the Kindergarten class at St Columba’s, Ballarat North. I could read before I started school and thus, when the teacher – not a sympathetic one, I fear – took us endlessly through a huge alphabet chart on the wall (A apple, B bat, C cat and so on) I thought I would go mad. I can still see it, and shall we say this was some small time ago, when we all sat in rows at wooden desks with inkwells. I also had a lazy eye and zero coordination. Being chosen last for rounders was a given, and in the foot races we were forced to take part in I always came last. Unless Helen Sherry was in my group, and then I came second last.

What balm, then, Matilda the Musical is for little girls and boys like me, and for me too these many decades later. Those memories are forever green, unfortunately.

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Tim Minchin so gets that. Take one of his early songs in Matilda, School Song, in which the alphabet is trawled to build up to a climactic: “Just you wait for Phys Ed”. That not only gets Z done and dusted in sensational style, it speaks to the monumental terror so many of us felt when forced to get our heads out of a book and our puny bodies on to the sports field. The humiliation was intense and complete.

The staging of this song piles Pelion on Ossa (classical reference!) by having the senior students played by adults. Remember how big the big kids looked when you started school. It’s that, magnified. All this happens shortly after a rousing opening number in which Matilda’s youngsters boast of just how marvelous their parents’ think they are. They are in for a shock.

Minchin, Dennis Kelly (book), Peter Darling (choreography), Rob Howell (sets and costumes) and Matthew Warchus (original direction of this Royal Shakespeare Company production) create wonders from Roald Dahl’s story. Matilda is exhilarating fun while being very, very brainy. Books, language, courage, resilience and imagination are celebrated as weapons of rebellion against the philistine and the mean-spirited. There’s an inescapable darkness in Matilda but a beautiful spirit of optimism prevails. It’s magical and it has something to say to everyone.

Molly Barwich as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Molly Barwick as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Given the subject matter, Matilda the Musical has to rest its case on small shoulders. There are superb performances from James Millar (silken-voiced, despotic headmistress Miss Trunchbull), Elise McCann (divine Miss Honey) and Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen (Matilda’s ghastly parents, the Wormwoods). The kids are all a delight too, but Matilda has to be the shining centre.

There are four girls playing our heroine in rotation, obviously not five-year-olds but several years short of teenagehood. I have seen two of them, Molly Barwick (10) at a preview and Bella Thomas (11) at last week’s opening night. They were very different and both enchanting. I very much want to see Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin, obviously out of professional interest, and also because it means I get to see Matilda again.

Berlin, Paris, Verona, Worcester County

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Belasco Theatre, May 21; An American in Paris, Palace Theatre, May 22; The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Polonsky Shakespeare Centre, Brooklyn, May 23 (matinee); The Flick, Barrow Street Theatre, May 24

IS there a more gallant, a more scintillating, a more lovable character on Broadway right now than Hedwig, in the person of Darren Criss, lately of Glee? Well, perhaps Jerry Mulligan, as brought to life by New York City Ballet heartthrob Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris, could give Hedwig a run for her money, albeit for a different demographic. And if we extend the search to Off-Broadway, in Fiasco Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona we have the generous, upstanding, truly honourable (and handsome) Valentine played by Zachary Fine, who also doubles felicitously as the naughty but terribly charming dog Crab.

Zachary Fine as Crab in Fiasco Theater's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goldstein

Zachary Fine as Crab in Fiasco Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Also Off-Broadway are the three most affecting people you could encounter anywhere – the beaten-down-but-not-out trio of Annie Baker’s miraculous play The Flick. One couldn’t say they are scintillating personalities, but they are gallant in their own ways, and heart-breaking.

Robert Fairchild in flight during rehearsals for An American in Paris. Photo: Matt Trent

Robert Fairchild in flight and Leanne Cope held aloft during rehearsals for An American in Paris. Photo: Matt Trent

The Broadway revival of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is wildly entertaining, for the most part, although not without its oddities. To explain the unlikelihood of the “internationally ignored song stylist” appearing on Broadway, the conceit is that a new musical has just closed – at interval on its premiere – and the Belasco Theatre’s stage has been freed up for a one-night-only performance by Hedwig. And the musical that bombed, if you will excuse my language? It was Hurt Locker: The Musical, discarded Playbills for which litter the floor of the Belasco (they are very amusing). The Hurt Locker set – all exploded bits and bobs plus a derelict car – is now Hedwig’s to play with and she uses it with manic energy. The sight of Darren Criss in his high heels bounding on and off the car and bouncing up and down the walls will not soon be forgotten.

Being on Broadway gives Hedwig the opportunity to delve into a bit of Belasco theatrical history and to muse on the Great White Way’s current crappy shows and various performers who don’t come up to Hedwig’s pitiless standards. Kinky Boots, for instance, does not get a good mark from Hedwig (I’m kinda with her on that). It’s all very meta-theatrical, given that Hedwig was born in East Germany in 1961 and the Berlin Wall plays an important part in proceedings. No way is she anywhere near mid-50s now, not with hot young Mr Criss in the sequins! No, the dates don’t exactly work, but who cares? Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a fabulous, glam-rock hallucination about a singular, genderqueer soul who is prepared to expose everything about his/her life and desires.

Criss is an impish, rather sweet Hedwig despite the torrents of trash talk and inventive vulgarities. At 28 Criss is far too tender for world-weariness; what he has instead is youthful excess, electrifying physicality and exuberance to burn. He’s an unstoppable whirlwind in lavish wigs, glittery outfits and make-up enough for all of Broadway’s chorines.

If Criss was perhaps working just the tiniest bit too hard the night I saw the show, I would have to point the finger at the audience, bless it. A lot of the show’s references, both current and historical, clearly went through to the keeper. Fans of Glee, where much of Criss’s renown resides, are not necessarily fully up on glam rock, mid-20th century European history or indeed the history of Broadway. And that’s the dilemma: we have here a truly Broadway-worthy show (it won last year’s Tony Award for best revival of a musical) in the sense that it deserves attention, status and big audiences, but it’s a show with an Off-Broadway heart.

So it was that the audience I was in seemed somewhat flummoxed by much of Hedwig. It was a bit sad that one of the filthiest, funniest quips didn’t really register. At one point Criss licks the floor and claims to pick up the taste of John Cameron Mitchell, not only Hedwig’s author but one of the roster of stars who has taken on the role in the show’s current incarnation. The name didn’t seem to ring a bell. But everyone was absolutely delighted to be in Darren Criss’s orbit, as they should have been. He is wonderful.

The show itself, however, did feel a little bit baggy and over-extended. It’s billed as running for 90 minutes. The night I went it was a good 20 minutes longer than that, what with all the extra schtick.

Sometimes a gamble pays off spectacularly well. Who would have thought choreographer Christopher Wheeldon could take on the direction of a new Broadway musical as well as provide the dances? Well, as we now know, An American in Paris is a huge, huge hit (12 Tony Award nominations!). Blitzing Broadway after its premiere in Paris, it is packing them in and is fifth in the list of New York’s top-grossing shows, after The Lion King (of course), Wicked (naturally), The Book of Mormon (ditto) and Aladdin (the only show of these five I haven’t seen, but obviously there is family appeal).

The plot is not much more than serviceable: it’s just after World War II and while everyone just wants to get on with life there are still some lurking shadows. The dark side of things feels a little contrived (Craig Lucas wrote the book) but is there to provide a bit of ballast for the main attraction: the pursuit of love in Paris. Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes are divinely elegant and it goes without saying that the music, courtesy George Gershwin, s’wonderful.

A sketch by Andrea Selby of costumes for An American in Paris

A sketch by Andrea Selby of costumes for An American in Paris

Another enormous gamble was the casting of ballet dancers in the lead roles of Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) and Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope, soloist with the Royal Ballet). We all know ballet dancers can’t speak, let alone sing, right? Wrong. Fairchild and Cope are delightfully natural on stage and sing with ease and grace. That settled, their dancing can shine without opening up a huge gulf between it and the acting side of things. The centrepiece ballet in the second act is exhilarating – Fairchild is phenomenal – but Wheeldon makes the whole show dance and allows himself a lot of fun with show’s brief gala ballet naughtily entitled The Eclipse of Uranus and a big fantasy number for Jerry’s friend Henri (Max von Essen) involving showgirls, feathers, a glamorous kick-line and I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise. I don’t think I’ve seen another musical where the transitions from everyday movement to dance seemed so right.

An American in Paris should have a very long and happy life. It’s also a very, very strong advertisement for ballet. S’wonderful.

The small theatre company Fiasco is a shining jewel in the Shakesphere. A couple of years ago I saw its persuasive production of Cymbeline – who knew it could be so entertaining? – and just now its The Two Gentlemen of Verona, another Shakespeare (possibly his first play) not exactly everyone’s must-see list. This production is changing minds about that as we speak.

The plot involves bosom buddies, ardent love affairs, a change of heart, friendship betrayed, banishment, brigands and, finally, reconciliation. There are funny characters made actually funny by Fiasco, which is no small thing, and – this is where Geoffrey Rush’s theatre owner Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love would have been thrilled – the blissful business with the dog.

It’s not Hamlet, to be sure and comes to its happy ending rather abruptly, but, when performed as radiantly as it is here, Two Gentlemen nevertheless has useful things to impart about self-knowledge, steadfastness and coming to maturity.

The cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goldstein

The cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Fiasco gets the job done with just six actors and a surfeit of wit, elegance and imagination. The lightness of spirit is evident everywhere. Derek McLane’s set is a sylvan glade, riotous with white blooms that are actually crumpled letters, there are two columns to left and right sprouting branches at their upper reaches to continue the theme of growth and renewal (and handy for concealing a few props), and benches to either side where the actors sit when not required. Costume designer Whitney Locher gives the men a preppy look suitable for the Sirs this and that in the play, dressing them in pale shirts and trousers redolent of a warm, lazy afternoon, and she makes the women look just luscious in the prettiest pastel-coloured knee-length frocks. A few adjustments to attire – a rolled-up trouser leg here, the addition of a scarf or hat there – is sufficient to signal a change of character and the occasional line or two will be thrown in from the side. The six actors – Jessie Austrian (who co-directed with Ben Steinfeld), Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffery, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen and Emily Young – sing a little in sweet close harmony, play a few instruments, engage directly with the audience and are altogether incredibly charming. The apparent simplicity is disarming and so is the lack of pretension.

There is no concept imposed on the play. There is just nimble, fresh, vivid and highly alert acting that makes everything abundantly clear, telling and engrossing. Shakespeare was quite a dab hand at theatrical language and Fiasco serves it transcendently well.

I can’t remember when I have been so moved by a play as by Annie Baker’s The Flick. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Red Stitch’s production in Melbourne last year.) It is in revival at the downtown Barrow Street Theatre with the original cast from 2013 – Matthew Maher as Sam, Aaron Clifton Moten as Avery, Louisa Krause as Rose and Alex Hanna in two small roles. This isn’t a play that sits up on its hind legs and begs for attention and approbation. Quite the reverse. It makes strong demands on its audience, or at least today’s audience. It deliberately, defiantly lacks spectacle of any kind. It makes no large gestures, much of its meaning is discovered in silences or underneath what is being said, and it takes its time. On Sunday night we were in the theatre for close to three and a half hours. This makes some people impatient. Well, so be it.

It is summer, 2012, in Worcester County, Massachusetts. Rose and Sam have been working at a crappy one-screen cinema for some time; Avery is a withdrawn college dropout with a vast store of knowledge about film. And he does mean film: this cinema still shows movies on 35-millimetre, more because the (unseen) owner is a poor businessman than a cineaste, but still. Avery can find a place here. Perhaps.

When the film is over and the patrons are gone, Sam and Avery have to clean up their mess, including, to Sam’s great disgust, the detritus of food brought in from outside. Sweeping up popcorn, picking up garbage and mopping the floor are, indeed, the only things one might call action in The Flick. The rest is the business of getting on with life with various degrees of hope and anxiety as the three employees dance gingerly around one another. Avery’s closed-in caution, Sam’s disappointments and Rose’s truculence preclude any real closeness, although there are moments when their impulses align, or almost do. The three have the false intimacy of the workplace along with the inherent tensions – Sam is crushed that Rose was trained as the projectionist even though he’d worked there longer – and yet there is something very delicate, true and sweet about their connection.

Photographs of the original production at Playwrights Horizons suggest that David Zinn’s cinema-seating set has been made a touch more grungy for Barrow Street. Perhaps not, but it is certainly effective, with the rows of empty seats an eloquent image of loneliness. And film may be beautiful and a repository of much genius, but its day is over. Unlike Avery, Rose and Sam can’t afford to be too romantic about that. They need work, poorly paid and dead-end though it may be.

Baker writes with great insight and compassion about these people and she takes all the time she needs to make us understand them. It is a remarkable piece.

Darren Criss stars as Hedwig until July 19, after which Taye Diggs takes over the role. The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been extended until June 20. The Flick runs until August 30.