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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

On the town

Hayes Theatre Co, May 7

IN February 2012 The New York Times published a short article about Dogfight, which would have its Off-Broadway premiere six months later at Second Stage Theater. This is how Patrick Healy’s report ended: “… Lincoln Center Theater originally commissioned and developed the musical but passed on producing it because the show became too large in scale for the space intended.” One has to assume the production was slated for one of Lincoln Center’s smallest performance halls, either the one seating 300 or the other with 130 seats, rather than the Vivian Beaumont, which has nearly 1100 seats.

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats, proves, however, that small is perfect for Dogfight. Neil Gooding’s production doesn’t go soft on the macho posturing that kick starts and punctuates the action but neither is it exalted and glorified – always a possibility if there’s a big cast, lots of room for exuberant choreography and plenty of budget. It’s easy to glamorise bad behaviour if you put enough resources behind it.

Rowan Witt, Luigi Lucent and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Set in 1963, Dogfight takes its name from a deeply unsavoury challenge played by the military: put in some money in the pot, find an unattractive woman to take to a party, see whose date is judged the ugliest, and bingo! We have a winner. (The musical is based on the 1991 film of the same name.) The heedless cruelty and blood-chilling contempt for women are breathtaking.

But not only did their fathers bring these young men up this way, they’re also embedded in a ferociously masculine and controlling culture. The men in Dogfight are Marines, poised to go a country they’ve barely heard of and couldn’t find on a map. That would be Vietnam. They think they’ll be back soon after an easy tour of duty; we know they won’t. You would have to be made of stone not to feel some sympathy for these emotionally stunted boys as well as despair at their callousness.

Then one of the lads, Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) meets Rose (Hilary Cole), folk guitar-playing waitress and the show’s moral centre. Eddie is, like all these men, a persuasive bullshitter, particularly attractive to a young woman who doesn’t get out much. He knows how to reel her in, and why not? She is an honest, truthful person who pays Eddie the honour of believing what he says. Well, she doesn’t believe the crap he spouts about music but the rest sounds persuasive. The love story that emerges tentatively, thanks to Rose’s goodness and guts, is gentle and kind even as Lucente and Cole spark satisfyingly off one another. The little-bit-shy, little-bit-sexy bedroom scene is a delight.

Dogfight’s 1960s-style pop, rock and folk score (music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) colours and anchors the landscape just as it should. The music lets you know where you are, with whom and why, a state not always achieved in the music-theatre field, even though you would think it’s non-negotiable.

Director Gooding has gathered a terrific ensemble, including Toby Francis and Rowan Witt as Eddie’s closest mates. Witt’s lightning transformation from likeable nerd to momentarily violent aggressor is one of the musical’s most sobering and lasting images, Johanna Allen gives hooker Marcy a ballsy combination of pragmatism and anger, and Mark Simpson does wonders of differentiation with seven small roles. In do-it-yourself style everyone efficiently moves simple pieces of furniture around in James Browne and Georgia Hopkins’s fluid versatile set that quickly establishes a scene and equally quickly changes it.

The evening isn’t without a few niggles. One simply has to understand that Cole has been cast for her voice (splendid) and acting ability (ditto) and not for any lack of personal attraction. The daggy attire (costumes by Elizabeth Franklin) helps only very slightly. In fact, Cole looks rather sweet in her ruffled party frock. As usual, the sound quality at the Hayes can be less than optimal at times but the small band under the charge of Isaac Hayward does a feisty job. And finally, Peter Duchan’s book brings Dogfight to a surprisingly abrupt end, which robs the heart-tugging resolution of some of its effect. Still, while it gives audiences the hopeful ending most people crave, you can’t accuse Dogfight of easy sentimentality. Better this way than the syrupy song others might have thought appropriate at this point.

When in New York recently I saw the rollicking revival of the 1944 musical On the Town, which follows the fortunes over one night of three sailors on leave. In the morning they are shipping out to war but in the meantime they want to find a girl. The echoes in Dogfight are strong: a trio of young men with animal high spirits, a deep friendship, a thing for the ladies and the spectre of imminent departure to war. Dogfight is set just shy of 20 years later than On the Town but the gulf is enormous in its depiction of how certain men feel about women. The innocent hijinks of On the Town seemed a very, very long way away.

Until May 31 at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney.