DJ’s Diary

March 31, 2016

How time flies. Nearly a year since my last entry. I’ve decided to publish my shorter reviews in a column that will appear every week or couple of weeks depending on what’s around and what’s worth saying a few words about. It will be called About last week …

As for this space, well … let’s see.

April 30, 2015

I CAN’T think of any production other than this double bill for which the irregular but frequent sound of low-flying aircraft would be welcome. Not only welcome, but a tremendous asset.

Katie Pollock’s two short companion pieces Blue Italian and Nil by Sea are staged at Leichhardt Town Hall, directly under the path taken by planes on their descent to Sydney Airport. The roar of those mighty engines buoys these plays, gives them context and triggers in the viewer – well it did for me and others to whom I spoke after the performance – those little quivers of excitement, anticipation and perhaps slight apprehension when we take our seats, buckle up and prepare for takeoff. We’re leaving home or returning there.

Blue Italian and Nil by Sea are meditations on restlessness, the search for self, the hunger for experiences or betterment, and connection with others whether they be family or strangers. Blue Italian shows a young woman’s free-wheeling, fractured journey from place to place while in Nil by Sea the intentions and fate of a young man who stowed away in an aircraft’s wheel bay and fell to his death is discussed and dissected.

Blue Italian. Photo: Zorica Purlija
Blue Italian. Photo: Zorica Purlija

It doesn’t surprise me that Blue Italian was commissioned by ABC Radio National and that Nil by Sea is also destined to be heard on radio in the near future. Despite Benjamin Brockman’s very astute set of a maze-like assemblage of street barriers and Rachel Chant’s delicate direction, these plays really don’t need visuals or physical realisation. Their meaning is not amplified through the bodies of the actors, fine though Jennie Dibley, Nat Jobe, Alex Malone and Sarah Meacham are. What one needed to do was listen – to Pollock’s words and to those aircraft. The plays run at Leichhardt Town Hall, Sydney, until May 17.

April 15, 2015: New York, Day 8

IT’S Wednesday, so that means two shows, obviously. First up, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Would the production be as good as I’d heard? Yes, it was, anchored by Alex Sharp‘s wondrous performance as autistic teenager Christopher. The part is extraordinarily punishing as the production seeks to convey the complexities of the world as Christopher experiences it, with its confusing multitudes of stimuli that batter and assault at every turn. If you’ve read Mark Haddon‘s book you know the story: Christopher wants to discover who killed the next door neighbour’s dog, finds out a family secret and is catapulted way, way out of his routine. Everything revolves around this sweet, clever, demanding, difficult, hyperactive, maddening boy and you need to love and empathise with him. Sharp is utterly beguiling and convincing – including his English accent, which is not a given even with very gifted American actors. The young man graduated from Juilliard less than a year ago and one imagines has a pretty good career ahead of him.

Seeing On the Town in such a lively and affectionate revival was a treat. Is this the only musical that started life as a ballet? Probably. Jerome Robbins’s 1944 one-act work for American Ballet Theatre, Fancy Free, is the source of the musical, which also premiered in 1944. Quick work from composer Leonard Bernstein and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, eh? It’s a big dance show (Joshua Bergasse choreographed this revival), so much so that New York City Ballet principal dancer Megan Fairchild was tapped for the role of Ivy, the gal who captures the heart of a sailor on 24-hour shore leave in New York City. The show is lots of fun: an appropriate way to end a visit to New York I reckon.

April 14, 2015: New York, Day 7

ONE has just returned from an audience with Dame Helen Mirren, who is fabulous, obviously, as Queen Elizabeth II. It’s not as if she hasn’t had the practice. The Audience is in many ways a dry old stick of a play as the Queen and various of her prime ministers have their weekly private chat as imagined by writer Peter Morgan. Various bits of history, royal custom and British politics are laid out for those who don’t know them and the Queen is fleshed out, as it were, so we might understand her steadfastness and sense of duty while appreciating the practicality and dry wit ascribed to her. How like the real thing is this portrait? Who knows, but it certainly gives us an insight into Mirren’s talents as she plays the British monarch from young woman to the present 80-something. I didn’t see her in this in London but I suspect she’s broadened her reactions for the US audience so it doesn’t get left behind. The greater subtleties are in her body language as the years weigh her down or as she miraculously sheds decades to become the young Queen. The costume changes are a show in themselves and the corgis – for there are two very much alive and lively ones – are precious. Richard McCabe‘s Harold Wilson is a delight and scenes between him and Mirren anchor The Audience as other PMs come and go. Judith Ivey‘s Margaret Thatcher is rather too much of a caricature but Dakin Matthews is very fine as a scene-setting Churchill, the Queen’s first PM – the first of 12, of whom we see eight, although Tony Blair only very briefly. Morgan’s addition of Young Elizabeth (I saw Sadie Sink) doesn’t deepen the play as much as one might wish but Mirren’s star power carries the day. She’s the goods.

April 13, 2015: New York, Day 6

MONDAY night in New York and not a lot of Broadway theatres open. So Aida at the Metropolitan Opera called. True, I had just seen the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour version and I would have preferred it to have been Don Carlos, which is in the repertory at the moment but I can’t fit in. One can’t do everything, apparently. The Aida is not a new production, not by any means. Directed by Sonja Frisell, it premiered in 1988. Do not adjust your eyes. The cast then was super-starry: Leona Mitchell, Fiorenza Cossotto, Sherrill Milnes and Plácido Domingo. And who should be conducting last night? None other than Domingo. Small world. The design is beyond monumental and firmly rooted in Ancient Egypt – think vast columns, monumental steps and statuary. Apart from the final scene in which Radamès and Aida are entombed, the singers are quite dwarfed by the set when there are only two or three of them on stage, which is often, and the prevailing colour of the set is sand, which doesn’t have a lot of excitement to offer. Domingo conducted cleanly but not thrillingly and the night was not overflowing with transcendent singing. The Aida of Oksana Dyka was the most appealing by far. She doesn’t have Latonia Moore’s radiance – Moore is currently in Sydney but appears in this role at the Met – but Dyka is a warm, affecting performer with strong dramatic understanding. The Radamès of Marco Berti sounded very worn to begin with and although vocally he improved during the evening he lacked charisma. Violeta Urmana, a former Aida, did a fair bit of scenery-chewing as Amneris, but I suppose was trying to be noticed in the vastness.

This being the Met there appeared to be hundreds on stage or passing through for the Triumphal March – ravishing work from the onstage trumpeters – and there were two lots of horses. Overall though, despite a fourth act that started to get into dramatic gear and a good Amonasro-Aida scene, it was a disappointingly ordinary night.

Although this production first saw the light of day in 1988 it must have had some work done on it, as Alexei Ratmansky is credited as the choreographer, and in 1988 he was only 20 and two years out of the Bolshoi Ballet School. No, he wouldn’t have been at the Met then. Whenever he did the dances for the scene in Amneris’s chamber and for the Triumphal March, he  must have had laid upon him the opera-dance curse, which means pretty much than no good choreography can arise on the opera stage. Well, perhaps that’s a bit sweeping, but I see very little I like in this arena and Ratmansky’s work here did nothing to change my mind.

Note: I always read the fine print, and was interested to see listed in the Met’s current roster of singers Australians Amelia Farrugia, Kate Miller-Heidke, Mililani Nikolic, Alexander Lewis and José Carbo. Miller-Heidke was in The Death of Klinghoffer, but I think the others are covers who I suspect don’t get to go on much – not if the Met always gets as lucky with finding star replacements for ill singers as it did last week when Michael Fabiano substituted at about six hours notice for Joseph Calleja in Lucia di Lammermoor. Hard cheese on covers who have rehearsed madly, but the audience was pretty pleased about Fabiano, that’s for sure. Fabiano, who wowed Sydney recently in Faust, had just been in Paris for a couple of Faust performances there, and was in the States really briefly before heading for Glyndebourne in the UK where he takes on the title role of the rarely done Donizetti opera Poliuto. He’s there as we speak rehearsing for this first British performance of the opera.

And most interestingly, the Met still lists Domingo in its roster of tenors. Domingo, as the world knows, now sings mainly baritone roles. Not to great critical acclaim, it must be said.

April 12, 2015: Louisville, Day 5

A THREE-SHOW day, which is how we like it. First up a series of short playlets by four playwrights, who took their inspiration from the bluegrass music of Kentucky. The performers were all Acting Apprentices attached to Actors Theatre of Louisville and were entirely winning. Not all the pieces in That High Lonesome Sound hit their mark but the music was certainly terrific. In the afternoon Charles Mee‘s The Glory of the World took a wild ride through the life of Thomas Merton, the centenary of whose birth it is this year (he died in 1968). Merton spent more than 25 years as a Trappist monk in a Kentucky monastery, was a writer, poet, social activist and religious explorer, and died in somewhat unclear circumstances in Thailand when he was only 53. Mee’s play opens and closes with contemplative silences and in between becomes an increasingly raucous celebration of and argument about his ideas. There are 17 men plus director Les Waters as the quiet bookending presence (Waters is artistic director at Actors Theatre) so it’s a big, big show in all sorts of ways. Well, only 100 minutes long but packed with intellectual and physical action. I wasn’t surprised to read afterwards in the program that playwright Mee and director Waters share a love of Pina Bausch – which explains their little homage to her during the show. As the party to celebrate Merton’s centenary gets way, way out of hand two men strip down to swimming briefs, put on caps and goggles and slide up and down a watery strip of plastic. So Pina. There’s dancing, music, fighting, posing, a rhinoceros, a touch of nudity and even a Britney Spears song. As I say, wild. I loved it.

I also ended up loving the third play of the day, Dot, written by Colman Domingo and directed by Meredith McDonough. At first I was a bit underwhelmed. Dot is an incredibly conventional piece in so many ways with its realistic set, snippy banter constructed for maximum laughter and what seemed like quite a few contrivances in terms of its characters. Almost sitcom-style, in fact. And yet as it unfolded, its depiction of a woman heading quickly into dementia and the effect on her family was intensely moving. The cast, headed by the exquisite Marjorie Johnson as Dotty, was perfect.

There was only one play I was unable to fit into the schedule, Erin Courtney‘s I Will Be Gone. I do hope it wasn’t immeasurably better than everything else I saw, but I suspect not. Anyway, what with I Promised Myself to Live Faster (seen on Day 3 and mentioned below), The Glory of the World and Dot I am well content with my Humana Festival. The festival turns 40 next year. I might just go.

April 11, 2015: Louisville, Day 4

I POPPED back to the Brown Theatre to see second casts in Louisville Ballet‘s Director’s Choice program. It was such a treat to see Balanchine’s Square Dance again, as if is not a work I’d seen on stage before. Leads Erica De La O and Kristopher Wojtera did it proud. It was lovely to see how enthusiastically the Louisville Ballet audience is. On Friday night and on Saturday afternoon quite a few people stood to applaud, and there were plenty of bravos throughout.

I then raced away to get to a Humana Festival reception at a bar on Whiskey Row called Manny & Merle, where much fun was had. They’re a friendly crowd at the Humana. And after that, in the evening, I saw the new Jen Silverman play The Roommate – or, to be more precise, I saw half of it. I claim some residual jet lag (although potentially the afternoon wine was speaking), but the play, a kind of odd-couple comedy about middle-aged women in Iowa didn’t speak loudly enough to me to keep me up. After a refreshing half-hour sleep at the hotel, I returned invigorated to Actors Theatre of Louisville headquarters for Ten-Minute Plays, a terrific triple bunger of very short pieces. Steve Yockey‘s Joshua Consumed an Unfortunate Pear was the pick of the set – a very funny and deeply macabre playlet involving immortality, a moribund relationship and a rather upset girlfriend, accompanied by a five-person chorus commenting on thoughts and events. A perusal of Yockey’s biog reveals that the Los Angeles-based writer visited Australia in 2012 on an exchange program between Playwriting Australia and the US’s National New Play Network. So now you know.

By the way, I have discovered that the way to say Louisville is a most moveable feast. At least six ways of pronouncing it are quite acceptable, with the one I like best being “Luhvul“. It sounds a bit soft and slurry, just the thing for a city that prides itself on being a big, big whiskey centre. It also has what is claimed to be the biggest annual fireworks display in the US, called Thunder Over Louisville. It’s an introductory event to the Kentucky Derby and takes place next weekend. A very big deal I’m told. Kind of like Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks.

April 10, 2015: Louisville, Day 3

FROM the rain of New York into the sunshine of Louisville, a city only about two hours’ flying time from NYC but nevertheless a southern city. I haven’t had much time to explore but at first glance it is a place whose beauties, I suspect, take a bit of getting to know. It’s not the most physically lovely of towns but – huzzah! – appears to have a strong cultural identity. First up was an afternoon performance at Actors Theatre of Louisville‘s Humana Festival of New American Plays, into its final weekend here and thus packed with theatre types from across the States. I am reliably informed I am the delegate who has travelled furthest to be here. I have no problem believing that. I am seeing five of the six plays selected for this year’s festival, and started with Pig Iron Theatre Company‘s I Promised Myself to Live Faster. As one gazes on the faux proscenium arch, loaded with ornamentation, framing a curtain of silver ribbons and a microphone set unusually high, ones grasps immediately that a drag queen will appear, and one is not disappointed. Dito van Reigersberg is indeed quite tall and doesn’t mind a high heel. (The program notes that “his alter-ego Martha Graham Cracker is famously ‘the tallest drag queen in the world”.) Martha Graham Cracker – brilliant. But back to I Promised Myself to Live Faster, in which Martha does not star, although van Reigersberg does appear in a fabulous array of glittering costumes as the imposing Ah-Ni, an intergalactic eminence who needs the help of earthling Tim to find the stolen Holy Gay Flame and thus – and here I can do no better than the given synopsis – “save the race of Homosexuals and restore the balance of power in the universe”. A trio of unusual nuns comes into the picture and the whole is both a brilliantly funny lo-fi, sci-fi adventure yarn and potent piece about the right to exist.

AT Louisville’s Brown Theatre it was a thrill to be present at the first program chosen by Louisville Ballet‘s new artistic director, Robert Curran. Curran, as Australian Ballet fans know, was for a long time its undisputed leading man and one of the greatest ballet partners I’ve seen. You can read my 2013 interview with him here. When he left the AB he was determined that his path lay in directing a ballet company, and here he is (later I’ll put up an update to our conversation). While there are challenges (where not?) he’s feels he is in the right place. His first program was designed to be diverse, challenging and to stretch the dancers. It opened with the very exposing Suite en blanc, which did show up some inexperience with hardcore classical technique in some of the dancers, but featured two particularly fine ballerinas, Erica De La O doing the Flute variation and Natalia Ashikhmina, who was seductive in La Cigarette and also danced the Pas de Deux. That was followed by Balanchine’s Square Dance, designed anew locally for Louisville Ballet. It looked fresh and optimistic and its leads, Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, conveyed its joyous qualities with open hearts. A new work by Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes, closed the program with panache. The sleek work for five men and five women is danced to a new score, Sebastian Chang‘s Classical Symphony No. 1, and I felt didn’t have enough ideas to sustain its length. Thus the dance felt over-extended, although it was performed with tremendous confidence and authority. As so often with new pieces made for classical companies by men – and let’s face it, are then any other kind these days; discuss? – there were one or two moments of women being manipulated and hauled around that left an unpleasant taste, but Jervies does have a strong sense of group dynamics and the place and qualities of individuals within the group.

April 9, 2015: New York, Day 2

AND so to Skylight, with Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in David Hare‘s scorcher of a piece. I saw the National Theatre Live broadcast of one of the London performances and very much liked it, although thought Mulligan was just a bit too spiky. Not so in this performance. She was ferociously good. Nighy, on the other hand, seemed to be overly jittery in person, giving a performance that, shall we say, was very physical. I’ve seen a few productions of Skylight over the years and would see another anywhere any time, but I still keep remembering the Sydney Theatre Company production of 1996 (lord, nearly 20 years ago!!!) with William Zappa and Helen Buday. They were incandescently good.

April 8, 2015: New York, Day 1

AN on-time arrival (more or less) in New York created that blessed extra evening of play-going. As it happened, one of the closest theatres to my hotel is Circle in the Square, at which Fun Home is in previews. It officially opens in a week or so – or at least it opens on Broadway. The musical had an extremely successful Off-Broadway run and had awards thrown at it. Rocking up to the box office I got one of the last two tickets, although I note from a story in The New York Times the marketing people are a bit nervous. They want to stress the general theme of family rather than the more specific one of “young woman who realises she is lesbian also finds out that her father is gay and shortly after she comes out to her parents he commits suicide”. The audience I saw it with loved it, so there may be hope. Fun Home is based on graphic artist Alison Bechdel‘s life and written by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics). Sam Gold‘s production in the round is wonderful and so are the performances, particularly that of the stunning 11-year-old Sydney Lucas as Alison when young. Bechdel is played by three actresses, a device that works splendidly. Fun Home, by the way, is what the Bechdel kids called the funeral home run by their father, and it gives rise to a brilliant song-and-dance number by the Bechdel children (there are three siblings, and the two youngsters who play alongside Lucas as the young Alison are also frighteningly good). This is a sad, funny, sweet, painful piece. I was glad I could see it.

March 19, 2015

ONE could say I didn’t really need to Opera Australia‘s Madama Butterfly again. I have quite a few performances of the now 18-year-old Moffatt Oxenbould production under my belt. However, last night called to me because Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura is back in Sydney for five performances (four left; they end March 28). I first saw Omura in this production in Sydney in 2012 and then in last year’s Opera on Sydney Harbour version, in the searing La Fura dels Baus production. She was devastating both then and now. It’s not often I see an opera crowd leap to its feet almost to a person, but it happened last night. Omura got a huge, huge reception and deserved every second of it. She sings in this production in Melbourne in May. You’d be mad to miss it.

March 18, 2015

BELVOIR‘S Electra/Orestes is a contemporary version of one of Ancient Greek drama’s most enduring stories. Not everyone loved it, but I was gripped, and think I’ll write a few words on it over the weekend.

March 17, 2015

WHAT better way to spend St Patrick’s Day than in the company of Olwen Fouéré and riverrun, in which she animates the voice of the river in James Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake. Have I read Finnegan’s Wake? Of course not, but was very happy to float away with Fouéré. The piece could easily be called a dance work. Fouéré is a magnetic mover and her voice, as she navigates Joyce’s stream of consciousness, is as beautiful as any score. Those who saw Fouéré in the Abbey Theatre’s ravishing Terminus at Sydney Theatre Company in 2011 will know how intoxicating it is. You can catch her at STC’s Wharf 2 until April 11.

March 12, 2015

A rare treat for me – instead of going to a theatre work I heard the ravishing Les Arts Florissants with young singers from ensemble founder William Christie’s vocal academy, Le Jardin des Voix. True, the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House is a size too large for this delicate work but I enjoyed the concert mightily anyway.

March 11, 2015

SYDNEY’S Old 505 Theatre has a dear little space at the top of a building in Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills, that has a great deal of, shall we say, character. Lots of street art on the walls and, when I went to see Queen Bette, a non-working lift that meant it was a five-flight haul under one’s own steam to get to the show. It certainly made for crowd bonding. Although with this theatre, crowd is a relative term. Certainly the theatre was completely full for Jeanette Cronin‘s extremely entertaining tour through the life and works of Bette Davis, but that means only about 30 or so people. Still, a full house is a full house.

March 4, 2015

THIS is a bit disconcerting. I’ve realised that this has been only a two-show week, both seen on the same night. I reviewed Suzie Miller‘s new play Caress/Ache, at Griffin Theatre Company, for The Australian and will put up a longer piece at some point soonish. I agree with much of the critical response – the piece doesn’t live up to its aspirations.

Straight after Caress/Ache I dashed up the road to see Agent Cleave in the Mardi Gras cabaret Show Stopper. The venue was new to me – a room at the top of an Oxford Street store – which is always fun. I went with my dear friend and colleague Jo Litson and we were by far the oldest and straightest people there. I felt quite subversive really, which was a bit unusual for me. The place was incredibly dim, very atmospheric, and despite a rather muddy sound mix we really enjoyed the very glamorous Agent Cleave, who was backed by a terrific three-piece band that could have come straight from the 1970s. Slade lives! Agent Cleave looked fabulous in – well, not very much after an initial appearance in covetable long shiny coat and boots. Divalicious indeed.

February 28, 2015

SATURDAY afternoon, and Bell Shakespeare‘s As You Like It. My review appears in The Australian on March 2, and I’ll put a version up on the main page of the blog in a few days. Suffice to say I liked it rather more than most of my colleagues. No, we don’t all see the same show. Although in this case, I certainly didn’t see the same show, as I couldn’t go to the opening night performance. The audience I was with enjoyed As You Like It a lot, and was very, very responsive to the humour. I laughed a lot too. Some of my colleagues found it very unfunny. Go figure.

 February 27, 2015

MAN of La Mancha is 50 years old and not one of the timeless classics, I think we would have to say. It therefore was an intriguing choice of repertoire by Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre. It didn’t entirely win me over but Squabbalogic’s coup in enticing Tony Sheldon from New York to play the double role of writer Cervantes and his character Don Quixote is a big, big one. His fragile singing of The Impossible Dream, turned into barrel-loads of bombast by legions of casino singers, is impeccable. Man of La Mancha, Seymour Centre, Sydney, ends March 21.

February 26, 2015

I FINALLY caught up with Sydney Theatre Company‘s Suddenly Last Summer, and was chastened. I had decided ahead of time that the extensive use of filming was a kind of capitulation. That director Kip Williams didn’t trust the theatre enough. If you want to make a film, make a film, I said testily, albeit to myself. If you need to use close-ups all the time, why do you choose to direct in the theatre? Well. Talk about being converted. This is a gut-grabbing production that is rightly just about sold out. Obviously Robyn Nevin is wonderful as Mrs Venable, but the star turn is Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine – fragile, wounded but sticking to her guns. And a cast that has Melita Jurisic in a minor role … what can you say? Top to bottom fabulous. Suddenly Last Summer ends March 21.

February 24, 2015

BACK to Swan Lake and another cast. You can see the review on my main page. I realised that The Australian Ballet has performed this Graeme Murphy production nearly 200 times and I’ve seen about 10 per cent of them. Hmmm.

February 22, 2015

A TWO-SHOW day today: Belvoir’s Blue Wizard, in association with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi gras, and then chanteuse Geraldine Turner at Hayes Theatre Co. Blue Wizard is an enigmatic little show, witty too, although somewhat unformed. Blue Wizard (Nick Coyle, who wrote the show), lands on Earth via comet, lots of noise and some laser-light action. He carries a large egg and wears a sparkly outfit that hints at the god Mercury – the messenger. He’s taut, toned and very gay. He’s also missing his boyfriend and finding it hard to make contact with his home planet. He is not entirely fitting in here, that’s for sure. A puppet comes into play rather fascinatingly but creepily, and there are ideas about love, family, home and belonging (or not belonging). The hour-long meditation has a weightless feel: Blue Wizard is here, and then he’s not, and one isn’t entirely sure that the memories will last long. The program lists Adena Jacobs as dramaturg and Belvoir’s artistic director Ralph Myers as design consultant (the grunge set with reflecting floor and ceiling is fabulous) but I noted there was no director other than, presumably, Coyle himself. I’m not sure that ever really works. Blue Wizard, Belvoir Downstairs, ends March 15.

Okay, it was the first performance, but Geraldine Turner was greeted with nothing short of adulation on Sunday evening. Turner’s Turn takes a brisk run through the singer and actresses’s lengthy career, which has been studded with the usual ups and downs. Turner is delightfully candid about some of the latter which makes for an entertaining 90 minutes – Sydney Theatre Company’s Into the Woods was a challenging experience, it would seem – and an emotional one for Turner. Show business can be very cruel. So is the passage of time. Turner is  often uncertain in pitch and unless singing at forte can get very wobbly indeed. The show hangs together uncertainly too, but Turner’s devoted fans didn’t mind one little bit. She was back on stage, and they loved her. Turner’s Turn, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, ends March 8.

February 20, 2015

WHEN Opera Australia is in residence at the Sydney Opera House during summer The Australian Ballet is elsewhere, and for the past two years that elsewhere has been Brisbane. Right now, however, Wicked has taken over QPAC’s Lyric Theatre, so the AB took the bold move of performing in Sydney at the Capitol Theatre. Yes, a commercial production. My review is in The Australian on Monday but I can say it went very well indeed. And it looks as if tickets are flying out the door. I like to go on to ticket websites to see how shows are selling and with Swan Lake, unless there are tickets being held back for whatever reason, there doesn’t look to be much available other than the cheaper seats at Wednesday’s matinee. So a good call, it would appear.

February 19, 2015

GOUNOD’S Faust, David McVicar‘s production, Michael Fabiano in the title role, Nicole Car as Marguerite, Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Méphistophélès, Michael Keegan-Dolan‘s choreography, Guillaume Tourniaire‘s conducting, Charles Edwards‘s design. What is wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing. The show is a knockout. Opera Australia has been emboldened by the very strong response to put on an extra performance on Monday March 9, making nine in all. Obviously that’s many fewer than the number allotted to Madama Butterfly and Tosca, and perhaps the interest was under-estimated. I do know, however, that the availability of Fabiano was limited, as he is due in Paris to open in another production of Faust on March 25 (only two performances though; he takes over from the starry Piotr Beczała, who sings the first seven and who shares my birthday, not that that’s got anything to do with it). Given that Fabiano’s last Sydney performance is March 13, and he’ll have to rehearse Jean-Romain Vesperini‘s production, there clearly wasn’t much room to move, at least if OA didn’t have someone else as good to take over. And how could they? Fabiano is man of the moment in lyric tenor-land. As I’ve mentioned before I review Sydney opera productions for the London-based Opera magazine so I won’t expatiate here, except to say opera-lovers should hie themselves to the Sydney Opera House with all haste and speed. The best night I’ve had at the opera for many an age.There was a packed house, the audience went off and I floated out on a high.

February 18, 2015

AFTER that three-show day in Perth there were three show-free days. Unusual. But a great one to break the mini-drought. Belvoir’s Kill the Messenger, a new play by the wildly talented Nakkiah Lui, is thrilling, not least for the bravery of the playwright’s preparedness to put herself on the line in the most public way. Lui is the central actor in Kill the Messenger, playing herself. She does it really, really well. I reviewed Kill the Messenger for The Australian last week because the esteemed John McCallum, who has for decades been the paper’s Sydney theatre reviewer, sat in on rehearsals and thus became a participant. I’ve been The Australian‘s second-string theatre reviewer in Sydney for a long, long time but until recently haven’t been much called on, as John is ALWAYS there. With his entrée into various rehearsal rooms to watch new plays in development, I’ve been given the chance to write in his stead. Fun fact: John was my first drama tutor when I did my degree at the University of Newcastle back in the Pleistocene era.

February 14, 2015

A THREE-SHOW day in Perth, which is how I like it. First up The Rabbits, the Kate Miller-Heidke (music) and Lally Katz (libretto) children’s opera based on the book written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan. It’s a collaboration between Western Australia’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Opera Australia in association with West Australian Opera (whatever that latter bit means). Perth International Arts Festival and Melbourne Festival were the commissioners, so Melbourne gets next crack at it. The one-hour piece has a theme rather than a narrative and specific characters: the Rabbits, clearly the British, invade Australia and displace the Marsupials, obviously the Indigenous population. I wasn’t entirely taken with all Miller-Heike’s music, which is least effective the closer it gets to pop-ballad territory. When it has more of a cabaret or music-hall flavour – aided brilliantly by Iain Grandage‘s arrangements – it has lots of verve and interest and is sung vibrantly by the two quintets representing the opposing forces. There are other pleasures: It’s no surprise that Kanen Breen, well known to OA audiences, is the most vivid figure. He sings mostly in falsetto and uses his formidable stage presence to the hilt; Miller-Heike appears as a Bird commenting on events and does so with crystalline beauty; and Gabriela Tylesova‘s designs are magical and offer enough to enchant all by themselves. But there is a but … the fantastical visuals are not fully matched in richness of expression by the text. The Rabbits doesn’t resonate as powerfully as it might.

After The Rabbits came a second viewing of Mozart Dances, which only made me want to see the third and fourth performances in the short season. There was so much to see and to feel. Exquisite.

Finally there was the opening of the Beckett triptych Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby, which I review in Tuesday’s The Australian. It is an unmissable adornment to the festival. And it’s not going anywhere else.

Actually, there was a kind-of fourth thing. On the way back from Mozart Dances I got caught up with one of the mega-clusters of people watching The Giants. The official crowd figure over three days is 1.4 million. Greater Perth has a population of about 1.8 million. Obviously there would have been repeat visits over the period, but this is an incredible figure. No wonder everyone involved seems quite pleased.

February 13, 2015

THE morning brought the first episode of The Giants, Perth International Arts Festival’s big, big, big coup. One understands other Australian festivals had tried to get Royal de Luxe’s monumental community show but couldn’t make it work. Perth’s indefatigable artistic director Jonathan Holloway – soon to be the Melbourne Festival’s indefatigable AD – succeeded, and seeing the huge crowds following the event today one would have to say Holloway has capped his Perth tenure in spectacular style. Despite Friday being a work day, many thousands of people – including me – flooded into Langley Park to watch the Little Girl Giant wake, make her ablutions, dress and board a boat to start her search for the Diver Giant. There’s a great deal more to come, much of which I won’t be able to see as I’ll be inside at other festival events – a shame, because it’s extremely addictive.

Tonight’s opening of Mark Morris Dance Group’s Mozart Dances was unalloyed delight. My review will appear in the paper on Tuesday. Unfortunately there are only four performances, with the short season ending on Sunday. I’m seeing it again tomorrow afternoon which I’m thrilled about. I bought the ticket in hope rather than knowledge, not having seen Mozart Dances before, but it was one of my better calls. Well, not much of a gamble given the genius that is Mark Morris, but you never can tell.

February 12, 2015

ONE of the highlights for me of the Perth International Arts Festival is always West Australian Ballet’s season at the Quarry, where the company performs repertoire it mostly wouldn’t put into its usual haunt of His Majesty’s Theatre. This year there was a quadruple bill of unusually wide range. The new Hold the Fourth from former WAB dancer Daniel Roberts – he recently decamped to Sydney Dance Company – opened the show and the lively crowd-pleaser Zip Zap Zoom by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa closed it with a bang. Also on the bill were William Forsythe’s Steptext, staged for WAB by the wonderful Kathryn Bennetts, and the pas de deux La Pluie, made as a piece d’occasion for WAB by Lopez Ochoa. A bit of Forsythe always makes one sit up a bit straighter and Steptext was a great get for WAB. La Pluie was notable as a showcase for WAB ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle, who is married to WAB artistic director Aurelien Scannella. I’m sure she’s extremely valuable as a ballet mistress but even though La Pluie is a minor piece, a bon bon, it showed that Delasalle (partnered by WAB principal Matthew Lehmann) probably wasn’t ready to retire from the stage. She’s truly lovely.

February 10, 2015

TICKETS for Blood Brothers have raced out the door at Hayes Theatre Co, which just celebrated its first birthday. What a great asset it’s turned out to be, and in double-quick time. I reviewed Blood Brothers for The Australian on February 12, and will put up an expanded version shortly on my blog’s main page.

February 8 and February 11, 2015

I WAS talking to a friend the other day, a great lover of opera, and we talked about how many people do want to see certain repertoire again and again so they can hear different interpreters of work that interests them. Ballet aficionados similarly will attend any number of Swan Lakes or Giselles so they can compare and contrast. There may be new productions, or perhaps there are dancers new to these roles whom one is keen to see. (Such is very likely when a balletomane has perhaps four decades of viewing under the belt and the dancer is most fortunate to have a professional career lasting half that.) This is a long way of getting to the point that devoted theatregoers also like to have a chance to review a piece of drama in a new production.

I was greatly pleased to see Red Line’s production of Cock at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre, directed by Shane Bosher (seen on February 8). I’d seen Mike Bartlett’s play twice before, first in New York, and then the Melbourne Theatre Company/La Boite attempt, which has been roundly smacked, for good reason. Bosher’s production is that wonderful thing, a reading that substantially changed my mind about a piece I liked a lot but also had some ambivalence about. I actually thought the latter sensation was reasonable, given the subject matter. Bartlett’s bracing scenario is this: John has lived with his boyfriend, M for seven years, but he’s not happy. John happens to meet W and they start a relationship. W is a woman. Which would be all right, except that M fights back and John isn’t sure with whom he wants to be. An almighty tussle begins between M and W and within John, although John’s assertions can never be entirely trusted. He is an enigmatic, opaque man who hasn’t yet worked out where he is most comfortably himself. These are shifting sands, which one supposes could be the reason the MTC/La Boite production was set on a sea of white cushions. But the softness worked fatally against this exceptionally clear-edged play. It is written to be played in the round without sets, with no props and with little physical contact. The language and the argument and the way the actors play them are everything.

In New York the audience was seated on steep, plain wooden bleachers surrounding a small, completely bare circular acting area. M was sophisticated and controlling, W was sharply combative and John was close to being Mr Cellophane. Bosher’s reading is much warmer. Yes, M (Matt Minto) likes to run the show but is amusing and likeable. W (Matilda Ridgway) is smart, lonely and nurturing. The performances are terrific. The clincher is that we can see in Michael Whalley’s touching John why those two people might actually want to be with him. No longer can I say I find Cock a fine but infuriating piece. It’s fine.

Cock is running as part of Sydney’s Mardi Gras Festival, as is Gaybies (seen on February 11). This was written and directed by Dean Bryant, whose production of Sweet Charity is now playing in Canberra and thence goes to Wollongong and Arts Centre Melbourne following its season at the Sydney Opera House – a big move from Hayes Theatre Co where it triumphed last year. Alas Gaybies is no Sweet Charity. Verbatim theatre based on interviews with the offspring of gay parents, it starts off very entertainingly and promisingly. Unfortunately after about 20 minutes you realise you’ve heard pretty much everything it has to say but there’s still more than an hour to go. A gorgeous cast makes things supportable, and it’s nice that the message is so positive, but …

Not part of the Mardi Gras Festival, although it could be, is Playing Rock Hudson, which I saw on February 8, straight after Cock. Alas Cock and Rock didn’t make the fabulous double bill I’d hoped for. Playing Rock Hudson is given a decent production but nothing can overcome the tedium of the incessant and dull courtroom talk as lawyers try to work out whether Hudson’s lover Marc Christian deserved a big payout for being deceived about the actor’s AIDS or whether he was just a lying hustler.

Cock, Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney, until March 6; Playing Rock Hudson, Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney, until February 15 ; Gaybies, Eternity Playhouse, Sydney, until March 8.

February 5, 2015

OBVIOUSLY we’ve all had neighbours who are less than ideal, a truth that gives David Williamson’s new play Dream Home a theme to which anyone can relate. Young couple Paul and Dana (Guy Edmonds and HaiHa Le) manage to scrape enough money together to buy (with a big mortgage) a flat in Bondi. Their hopes are high but will be severely tested as the other owners in their small block quickly reveal their shortcomings. Over-the-top testosterone-fuelled aggression, kleptomania, kinky sexual urges and a past relationship of Paul’s all knock on the couple’s door and walk right in. Williamson – who directs as well as writes – works in quite a few good laugh lines but Dream Home is poised uneasily somewhere between a domestic comedy wishing only to entertain and a black farce with barbed points to make about sexual and racial politics. Williamson the director really should have asked Williamson the writer to do another few drafts. That said, Justin Stewart Cotta is brilliant as the muscled-up, mouthy, not-as-tough-as-he-seems Sam. Dream Home is at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, until March 28.

February 6, 2015

THE Phantom of the Opera is famous for its lavish staging. How would pro-am outfit Packemin Productions get on with it, I wondered. So it was off to Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres to take a look. Packemin has been putting on popular musicals at Riverside since 2010 and uses professionals in the lead roles and supports them with talented non-professionals. They are amateurs in the best meaning of the word, doing the work for the love of it. I imagine those planning to make a career in theatre also want to get more stage-hours under the belt. The cast list for Phantom reveals a lot of training and experience and I was impressed with the ensemble’s work. The sets efficiently cover the required ground – yes, a large chandelier rises and falls and there’s a boat to ferry Christine to the Phantom’s lair – and the orchestra, under music director Peter Hayward, plays very well. Given the pro-am basis I won’t go into detail about the performances, except to say all are extremely proficient, even if not everyone is absolutely ideal. The opening night audience gave it a huge reception. Phantom runs at Riverside Theatres until February 21.

February 4, 2015

I WAS lucky enough to be a guest at the Vienna Tourist Board’s reception for its Visions of Vienna evening, an ambitious multi-media event involving the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. As the SSO played its Greatest Hits from Vienna concert inside the Sydney Opera House, images of the players were projected on to the sails – surely the most fabulous canvas in the world – and the sound was relayed to spots around the Opera House and to Campbells Cove, directly opposite the Opera House. It was a magnificent free light and sound show on a night that had threatened rain but stayed dry and relatively balmy until shortly after the show was over. Naturally Johan Strauss II’s Blue Danube waltz was on the program – can one ever tire of it? I think not – and there was a rousing Radetzky March (Johan Strauss Snr) that raised all sorts of memories for me as it is the very first piece of music I remember. I was no more than four when my sisters and I used to stride up and down the living room in time to the tumpty-tum beat, or perhaps attempting to march in time. I’m not sure I was particularly coordinated but I did my best. It was a long, long time ago, and I can still see it.

February 3, 2015

JAMIE (Felix Johnson) is a rich kid whose father didn’t leave him anything in the will. Amelia (Emilie Cocquerel) is a singer/waitress from the sticks who just might not be quite good enough for a successful performing career. Winston (James Wright) is a student painter on the brink of getting his Masters and while he knows a great deal about art and can expatiate at length about this movement and that, it would seem his own work is derivative. Oh, and he may or may not be secretly in love with Jamie, with whom he shares a grotty walk-up apartment in New York. And something starts happening between Winston and Amelia when the three cook up an art scam in an attempt to bring in some cash. Into the mix comes Tess (Carmen Duncan), an extremely wealthy collector and former client of Jamie’s father. Can she be conned into thinking Jamie has in his possession a prized, hitherto unknown nude by the mysterious Jean-Paul Credeaux, an elusive genius now long-dead but gaining a stellar reputation by the second?

The Credeaux Canvas can’t be said to have delivered characters or a plot of any particular novelty, but Keith Bunin’s play about a fake painting does have a potentially satisfying underlying purpose. To what degree do these well-educated, articulate people fool themselves about their natures, gifts, feelings, ambitions and futures? Unfortunately, however, Bunin pads out what could have been a taut drama with far too much repetitive art babble and only occasionally does the writer convey the yearnings of the young people in a way that would make them meaningful beyond their squalid circumstances.

This production isn’t helped by feeling very undercooked (there were late changes to director – Ross McGregor stepped into the breach – and cast). Cocquerel is extremely good but Johnson and Wright operate mostly on one note, and that’s a fairly frenetic one at that. There is no sense of difficult, conflicting emotional layers. Duncan has a couple of knockout moments as she parses the Credeaux canvas the lads put before her but as the late-comer to the cast she is still feeling her way with text and accent, and is burdened with Bunin’s too-much-is-never-enough philosophy when it comes to explanation.

The Credeaux Canvas runs at the Seymour Centre until February 14.

January 29, 2015

AMANDA Echalaz has another seven performances as Tosca at the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre and I would strongly advise opera-lovers to get themselves there with all haste and speed. In the second act, which pits Tosca against Claudio Sgura‘s reptilian Scarpia, the entire audience seemed to be holding its breath. There were no coughs, no shuffles, just an intensity of attention demanded by an unfolding horror that felt all too plausible. John Bell‘s production puts the action during the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943 and the fit is chillingly good. Just two days before I saw Tosca the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was marked. In Bell’s third act the Shepherd Boy is a lad with a yellow star on his coat, part of a family about to be shipped off to – well, you can imagine. In this week in particular the presence of Nazi symbols and the sight of the Nazi salute made my blood run cold. The production continues until March 17, with Jacqueline Mabardi taking over the title role on February 26.  By that stage Sgura will have been replaced by Shane Lawrencev and Cavaradossi will be sung by Diego Torre, taking over from Riccardo Massi. Torre will bring a lot more vocal heft (well, a bit more physical heft too) to the part than is available to Massi, although Massi sings with plenty of ardour and at the performance I saw Act III’s E lucevan le stelle was delivered with rapt poetry.

January 28, 2015

IT’S always fascinating to see a piece of theatre that’s been much praised by others and find that, well, you are not entirely sure what they saw in it. Zoey Dawson‘s The Unspoken Word is ‘Joe’ is for me such a work. Heartbreak; the difficulties of getting a break in the theatre; fraught, competitive relationships within the business and the nature of performance itself are tossed into a blender and spewed out (at one point literally) as a piece of deeply self-referential drama. The conceit is that the audience is kindly attending a reading of a not-quite-ready  – to put it mildly – play by Zoey Dawson (played here by Nikki Shiels). Taking part in the “reading” (we need inverted commas here because of the theatrical layers, you see) are actors Matt Hickey, Annie Last and Aaron Orzech, played by actors Hickey, Last and Orzech. The wonderful Natasha Herbert – and she is indeed wonderful in this – acts as a kind of MC for and semi-participant in the “reading”. So, this is a play in which there is a bad play-reading of a very bad play. This is done by good actors playing friends (or “friends”) who are doing a friend, our increasingly unhinged heroine, a favour. It is taking place on a set that purports to belong to another production purportedly put on by Griffin Theatre Company, where the action is, in fact, truly taking place. Where others found this piling on of theatre references amusing, alas I found it rather tedious and lacking in revelation about character, heartbreak or theatre. Declan Greene directed with brio and once to twice one finds a moment of connection, but mostly this felt overly self-conscious and not anywhere near funny enough. Others obviously disagree. Part of theatre’s rich tapestry, eh?

January 27, 2015

POOR James Egglestone got soundly booed at the curtain of Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly tonight, although not for the usual reasons. His singing was fine; it’s just that the audience was so onside with Alexia Voulgaridou‘s Cio-Cio-San that Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton was never going to win approbation. OA’s production is the Moffatt Oxenbould-directed one with designs by Peter England and Russell Cohen, then bright young talents not long out of NIDA. That was nearly 20 years ago now but OA can still pull a crowd with it. Its predecessor, directed by John Copley, also had a long life. I imagine neither owes OA anything. So they’d be pleased about that.

January 26, 2015

Oh dear. The resolution to put up a few words each day after seeing a show hasn’t yet made itself evident. Let’s start now with a catch-up. January was the usual mix of Sydney Festival, Opera Australia’s Sydney summer season and theatre companies starting their year bright and early. OA’s first clutch of operas has been the now-familiar group of, well, the familiar. Summer in Sydney can be exceptionally fruitful for OA when it comes to box office revenue – if it programs all the hits and memories. The reason? Just go to Circular Quay and almost every day you will see a different ocean liner berthed at the Overseas Passenger Terminal. Many of these short-term visitors like to see something at the Sydney Opera House and a popular opera would appear to be just the thing. This doesn’t meet with favour in some circles, but OA appears to be resolute in holding this course. Revivals of the Gale Edwards Weimar-flavoured La boheme, John Bell’s World War II Tosca (which I see on January 29) and Moffatt Oxenbould’s much-loved production of Madama Butterfly (which opens on Tuesday) were programmed alongside a return of Julie Taymor’s reduced version of The Magic Flute and, for the more sober month of February, a new production of Faust, which opens on the 17th. La boheme was graced by Diego Torre’s achingly romantic Rodolfo and Flute, which I saw at a “relaxed” performance for the very young and for children who may have disabilities that make it difficult for them to sit very still, was wonderfully sung, with Samuel Dundas (Papageno) and Taryn Fiebig (Pamina) delightful. The kids were loud in their appreciation and it was a most happy occasion. On the theatre front, Sydney Theatre Company has a must-see in After Dinner. (A glance at the STC website shows limited availability for the entire season, which runs until March 7.) Andrew Bovell wrote After Dinner 30 years ago but its themes are timeless. Lonely people will always go to pubs, drink too much, do unsuitable things and bicker over the bill. After Dinner captures the comedy and the pain all at once, and is given cracking performances by Helen Thomson, Josh McConville, Rebecca Massey, Anita Hegh and Glenn Hazeldine. Also worth a visit is Belvoir’s revival of Louis Nowra’s Radiance, which dates from 1993. Three sisters with the same mother and different fathers reunite to bury their mother and exhume old conflicts, with an added twist. Descended from the country’s original inhabitants, the half-sisters are now cut off from the land and their family, just as the house in which their mother lived is separated from the island that was her grandparents land.On opening night (January 7) Leah Purcell’s production didn’t entirely find the right level in the first half, but had a very strong second half. Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens (who is superb) and Purcell herself star. Radiance runs until February 8. The other notable theatre piece I saw in January was Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of the Kit Williams children’s book Masquerade. It could do with a little bit of refinement here and there but is very affecting and refreshingly unsentimental as it intertwines Williams’s story of love and adventure with one of an ill child’s personal journey of discovery. This co-production between Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia opens in Adelaide on May 20. Club Swizzle had its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House on January 21 and is the latest incarnation of the cabaret-circus shows so successfully created by Brett Haylock. Club Swizzle is fruitfully set in a bar which before showtime sells expensive cocktails and thereafter is the performance area. It’s a fun concept but doesn’t yet live up to its “all chaos” promise. Predecessors La Clique and La Soiree have been much edgier and more surprising. I had an excellent time, by the way, but if Club Swizzle is to have the life-span of the earlier works it will need some tweaking. As Haylock’s format can be tweaked endlessly, undoubtedly he’s already on to the case.

December 15, 2014

LAST week Queensland Ballet put out a press release saying who was leaving the company and who was coming next year. The big news was the arrival of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC). The pair, who are partners in life, join at the end of January. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how they fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

And while the QB press release says Piñera’s position will be funded by Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, QB artistic director Li Cunxin told me on Friday night when I was in Brisbane for the premiere of The Nutcracker that Piñera will be a full time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company. Li certainly knows how to make his funds stretch to cover his needs.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence. Now in his late 30s he is still dancing wonderfully but his desire to move to the next stage of his working life is understandable.

Yet further down, the departure of principal dancer Natasha Kusch was mentioned without any amplification. She has been with the company for less than 18 months, having been a soloist with Vienna State Opera Ballet before being lured to Brisbane with a principal’s position. She first came to Brisbane as a guest in the 2012 International Gala and caught Li’s eye as he was moving into the QB artistic directorship.

While I was in Brisbane I took the opportunity of asking a couple of questions, and it’s my understanding Kusch will re-emerge at The Australian Ballet in 2015. Whether Li is unhappy about the move or takes it as part of the cut and thrust of ballet I don’t know, but it does indicate how much he has upped QB’s strength and visibility.

November 10, 2014

THE induction of the late Gailene Stock into the Australian Dance Awards Hall of Fame and  Leigh Warren‘s Lifetime Achievement award were two of the highlights of last night’s ADAs, held at the Sydney Opera House. Former Australian Ballet great Garth Welch (himself a Hall of Fame member) spoke simply and emotionally about Stock, who died this year at 68. Her work as director of the Royal Ballet School and, before that, the Australian Ballet School, has had far-reaching effects. Warren rightly received a huge ovation from the audience and poignantly said that receiving this acknowledgement “repaired any disappointments along the way”, a reference to his company Leigh Warren Dance’s protracted funding issues. He hands over its artistic directorship to Daniel Jaber from the beginning of next year and will continue his freelance work.

A third highlight was the naming of Gabrielle Nankivell as the recipient of the inaugural Keith Bain Choreographic Travel Fellowship. This came just days after her very successful season with Wildebeest, part of Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season (and reviewed on my main page). It was also extremely gratifying to see the Services to Dance award go to Annie Grieg – artistic director, choreographer, administrator and much more – who leaves Tasdance next year after leading it since 1997.

The Australian Ballet won Best Performance by a Company for Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. The AB’s Leanne Stojmenov won the women’s Outstanding Performance award for the same ballet. The men’s award went to James Vu Anh Pham for Chunky Move’s Aorta, a work that won for its choreographer Stephanie Lake Outstanding Achievement in Choreography. Dalisa Pigram‘s wonderful solo work Gudirr Gudirr was judged the Outstanding Achievement in Independent Dance.

Buzz Dance Theatre won Outstanding Achievement in Youth of Community Dance, Janet Karin won for Services to Dance Education, Sue Healey won for Dance on Film/New Media, and Red Hot Rhythm for Commercial Dance or Musical Theatre.

The program of performances that interspersed the awards was a mixed bag. It was a great pleasure to see Sydney Dance Company, The Australian Ballet and Kristina Chan perform but it seemed quixotic to give the closing spot to a performance called Smash It Sydney featuring young people from three dance schools – particularly when emerging dancers had already been seen in performances by NAISDA students and Team 9 Lives, a terrific group from Powerhouse Youth Theatre in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield.

To make one or two nods to the future is reasonable, but to have students taking up half the performance program gave the impression of a very thin pool of professionals from which to choose. Were there really so few available in Sydney last night for the dance industry’s big gathering of the clans?

October 13, 2014

SYDNEY Dance Company’s first Pre-Professional Year graduates – 23 in all – put on a cracking show at the Sydney Theatre last night in front of an incredibly supportive audience. I loved how the opening work for PPY14 Revealed, Lucas Jervies’s Once We Were, was shaped to give just about everyone a moment without seeming too contrived. He knows how to work with a large group, that’s for sure, even if perhaps the influence of Jiri Kylian loomed a bit too largely at moments. Jervies is SDC’s newish rehearsal director and he’s also listed as a company choreographer: good for both sides one would say. Excerpts from SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela’s Project Rameau also made splendid use of most of the dancers and was a rousing closer. In between, two more new works, from Craig Bary and Paul Selwyn Norton, and Tanja Liedtke’s touching, playful duet To My Suite. Liedtke was, as most know, artistic director-designate of SDC when her life was cut brutally short in a road accident. It was so good to be reminded of her great gifts. Two short films were graceful interludes while dancers changed for their next pieces – they mostly wore casual gear in a variety of shapes and colours and the lack of pretension suited the occasion. I won’t single out individuals apart from Kristina Wallbank-Hutton and Jason Fuchs, who were delightful in To My Suite, and Sam Young Wright, who was plucked from the PPY program to appear in SDC’s current production, Louder Than Words, when Bonachela needed a new man. A fantastic opportunity for him, but then being on the spot is part of the luck of the business. Being very talented, or perhaps just a bit talented, is not enough. Obviously some dancers appeared more gifted than others and not everyone had that extra spark that makes you want to watch. It was also interesting – and a bit salutary – to note that not everyone was as much a beginner as the name of the program might suggest. I salute them all for their tenacity.

September 11, 2014

It was a two-show yesterday, and as they both finish at the weekend I’ll be (unusually) brief.

Rachel Coopes and Wayne Blair’s Sugarland (ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf, Sydney) is rough, raw and a heart-stealer. A bunch of teenagers in Katherine try to find some way of getting through chaotic, sometimes violent lives. They are bolshie, lively, very funny kids who don’t always know what’s best for themselves but who haven’t had much guidance in that matter from the people who should have been looking after them. They have the cynicism of adults and the fecklessness of youth all in the same volatile bundle. Perhaps music could be a way ahead, as it (or sport) has been for so many disadvantaged youngsters. Or maybe not. On a flexible, evocative set by Jacob Nash, we see these youngsters shoot the breeze, get an idea of their hopes and the barriers they face, and wish we could get up and give them a huge hug. The performances feel absolutely authentic, with no drama school sheen to smooth the edges. All six actors are terrific, particularly Dubs Yunupingu (Nina), Hunter Page-Lochard (Jimmy) and Elena Foreman (Erica). Co-directors David Page and Fraser Corfield have done a superb job of letting them tell a story we need to hear.

Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell (Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney) gets a fine production from a team more usually seen in Sydney’s bigger theatres, including Rodney Fisher as director and designer and Max Lyandvert on sound design. With Vanessa Downing heading the strong cast – the others are Jake Lyall, Ben McIvor and Tony Poli – in this taut political tragi-comedy there is insurance aplenty for an entertaining evening. The scene is a Wisconsin farm house (Fisher’s realistic set in the tiny Old Fitzroy; that’s something worth seeing for itself) in which some exceptionally sinister, surreal machinations are to happen. Old farm families are virtually extinct, big business is taking over, the environment is under threat and coercive patriotism is on the rise. These big ideas are packed into a piece lasting not much over 70 minutes.

The God of Hell isn’t one of Shepard’s greatest pieces. The atmosphere of menace so relentlessly developed descends into less effective grotesquery that undercuts the intensity of the drama, or at least it did for me. That said, the packed house (of course it doesn’t take much to pack the Old Fitz, but …) loved it.

Sugarland and The God of Hell both end on Saturday, September 13

August 9 2014

Given that Tap Pack has been around for quite a while, bobbing up for seasons here and there (Parramatta, Melbourne, Newcastle and now the Hayes Theatre in Sydney), the creator-performers must be pretty happy with the way it is. Which is a bit depressing, because Tap Pack is an unpolished set of cliches clumsily wrapped around exceptional dancing. The story, such as it is, involves a small posse of dancers who are being dragged down by their has-been leader. Enter a young gun who wants to breathe new life into the group he has idolised since whenever. Conflicts ensue. It’s all very last century – Tap Pack aims to bounce off the glamour of the fabled Rat Pack – but in a bad way. The show feels terribly old-fashioned rather than light and effortlessly breezy. This is a great shame because the dancing ranges from very good to spectacularly good. Jesse Rasmussen and Thomas J. Egan (co-creators of Tap Pack with Jordan Pollard) are the pick of a fine bunch: Rasmussen is a nuggety, forceful presence with rapid-fire speed; Egan’s flowing, sinuous style is elegant and sophisticated. The five-member team is rounded out by Pollard, Ben Brown and veteran Christopher Horsey as the bottle-toting loser. There’s good support from the six-member band Tap Pack Bandits and all are relaxed, attractive performers. But the material just isn’t up to the mark.

July 18, 2014

OPERA RUMOUR PART ONE: As opera nerds will know, Opera Australia’s website listed Tamar Iveri as the Tosca for OA’s Melbourne season later this year long after the singer and the company parted ways on Otello in Sydney. If you’re reading this you know the reason why. She’s no longer listed – thanks Clive Paget, Limelight deputy editor, for keeping one up to date on that. Coincidentally I heard a snippet of something – I can be no more specific than that – that gave me a notion regarding the replacement, yet to be announced. I would suggest it’s possibly Svetla Vassileva, the soprano who last year sang in La Forza del destino in Sydney for OA. Guess what? Yes, she has Tosca in her rep, and she happens to be singing it in Italy in October. Tosca runs in Melbourne in November.

July 18, 2014

OPERA RUMOUR PART TWO: On June 29 I wrote that next year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour will be Aida. This is true. I also wrote that it would be directed by Graeme Murphy. This used to be true, kind of, in that I gather he was in the mix but plans have changed. The director is much more likely to be Gale Edwards, who directed the HOSH Carmen last year. She knows her way around a big show, that’s for sure. I am also pretty convinced that the gorgeous Latonia Moore will be hitting the harbour in the title role. Just so you don’t have to scroll down, I’m copying part of the original diary entry right here so you can see how my thinking evolved on this casting matter.

Naturally I took at look at American soprano Latonia Moore’s schedule for 2015 as she was so wonderful as Aida for Opera Australia in 2012. Boy that woman is highly sought-after in the role. Anyway, she is listed as singing Aida for the Metropolitan Opera from October this year to April next year. So I perused the Met’s program for March next year – when one might expect HOSH to be presented – and bingo, no Aida during that month. (In fact, while Moore is down as Aida in February for the Met, another singer is listed for April.) Moore has Catalani’s La Wally for Dallas Opera in February next year, but only very early in the month (wouldn’t that be good to see?).

Now I need to say I have ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER to suggest that Moore has been engaged for Aida, but she seems to be available and, just as with Hiromi Omura in Butterfly, really won over audiences on the Sydney Opera House stage in the role.


July 7, 2014

CABARET’S elasticity could not have been better illustrated than yesterday evening at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co when Tom Sharah premiered That 90s Show and, straight afterwards, Toby Francis gave his final performance of Love and Death and an American Guitar. (Another truth about cabaret – seasons are often tragically short. We’re talking three-show runs here; both deserve more.)

Tom Sharah, whose new show is a homage to the music of the 1990s
Tom Sharah, whose new show salutes the music of the 1990s

That 90s Show is a love letter to growing up in the 1990s (cassette tapes and mobile phones as thick as bricks notwithstanding) and Sharah’s affection runs deep and wide. Shallow, too. He has devotion that passeth all understanding for the Spice Girls, although in his defence he was only nine when they entered his world. Fortunately his taste is eclectic. And good. That 90s Show opens with Robbie Williams’s Let Me Entertain You and Nirvana’s Sounds Like Teen Spirit and towards the end there’s Alanis Morrisette’s You Oughta Know and the exquisite The Day You Went Away, which was a huge hit for Wendy Matthews in 1997. There’s a bit of Cher, a touch of Disney (The Little Mermaid is a Sharah favourite) and, naturally, homage is paid to the greatest 90s diva of them all, Whitney Houston.

Sharah’s voice has grown exponentially in size, range, colour and polish since his already impressive cabaret debut Que Sera, Sharah in 2010. He can be rocky or sultry, sweetly romantic or power-ballad ballistic, yet pull it together to make the sound his own, supported strongly by music director Nigel Ubrihien on piano, Andy Davies on drums and Steve Buchanan on guitar. Musically the show is a knock-out. The glue that holds the song list together still needs a little work however. A few cuts and a tweak here and there would be to Sharah’s advantage and one feels the lack of a director’s dispassionate eye.

Sharah’s trump card is the sunnily eccentric personality that warms his sharp wit but he shows his nerves with a few tics and slightly undisciplined chat. It’s not always clear when he’s moving from send-up to serious or, to be more accurate, to what degree in the mix one aspect is supposed to take precedence over the other. Nostalgia and genuine affection are the bedrock of That 90s Show but Sharah is also keenly aware of how ridiculous the precious passions of youth can appear. It was ever thus.

Toby Francis’s Love and Death and an American Guitar also concerns music that some may think has its best days behind it (not me though!). Jim Steinman is best known for the Gothic mini-soap operas interpreted by Meat Loaf, among them Bat Out of Hell and You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth. He also wrote Total Eclipse of the Heart and Holding Out for a Hero, which Bonnie Tyler sang as if the future of the free world depended on the fervour of her delivery. They’re big, beefy, bombastic songs that went perfectly with that fifth glass of wine and are still entirely acceptable under the right circumstances, as in this terrific piece of theatre.

What Francis has done with a big bunch of Steinman songs is intoxicating, and you don’t even need that fifth glass of wine.

The story-telling aspect of Steinman’s writing makes sense when you know that he wrote musicals back in his 1960s college days and had Broadway aspirations. It also makes sense when Francis, as Steinman, says Wagner was his favourite composer. In the mid-1970s Steinman started work on a musical called Neverland, a version of Peter Pan. It didn’t go anywhere but a few songs did, among them Bat Out of Hell – undoubtedly not the first song you’d associate with Peter Pan, but that’s part of the joy.

Francis returns Bat Out of Hell to Neverland in Love and Death and an American Guitar, summoning a contemporary, violent subculture via Steinman’s little psychodramas, interwoven with the songwriter’s angst about a career that often failed him. This show is quite a trip. Or was. Alas there are no more performances in this current Hayes season.

Music director Andrew Warboys energetically drove the sound from the piano and Noni McCallum dropped in and out to deliver powerful singing support, but it was Francis who made you believe.

That 90s Show has two more performances, Sunday July 13, 6.30pm and 8.30pm, Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point.

June 30, 2014

AS we all know by now Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li Cunxin doesn’t lack chutzpah, but Deborah MacMillan gave further proof of that on Saturday morning at a QB brunch. It was the night after the splendid opening of the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in Brisbane, an occasion studded with guest stars but underpinned by lots and lots of young dancers, many of them either just at the end of their training or not even there yet. It was incredibly impressive to see such a small company put on such a big ballet.

Anyway, Lady MacMillan, who became the custodian of her husband’s ballets after his death in 1992, told the gathering that Li had spoken to her about two years ago to ask if QB could have permission to stage Romeo and Juliet. She asked him how many dancers he had. She reckons he said he had 35. She found out this wasn’t entirely true. There are 27 company members – a tiny number around which to base Romeo and Juliet.

Anyway, it all turned out for the best and she was able to laugh about it now. I was intrigued, however, to hear Deborah MacMillan say Li had approached her about two years ago. In mid 2012 Li had only just been appointed as QB’s incoming artistic director and didn’t officially take up the position until the beginning of last year, although in practice he was working on programming. So it would seem that putting on Romeo and Juliet was one of Li’s earliest ideas, and it’s his most ambitious by quite a large margin. More power to his elbow in pulling it off.

June 29, 2014

I’M not the first to float this, if you’ll forgive the pun, but I have every reason to believe next year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour will be Aida, to be directed by Graeme Murphy. While I’m not the hugest fan of his 2009 production for the Opera Conference (Opera Australia and the state opera companies) there are plenty of people who love it and Murphy knows how to rise to a big occasion. One would assume he would be starting from scratch for HOSH, although you never know.

I would expect live elephants to be off the agenda. Those of us who are very old and have long memories will never erase the image of antsy elephants instilling terror into the hearts of those in the front rows at Aida at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the late 1980s. With HOSH Murphy would certainly have a suitably sized canvas on which to display the grander aspects of Aida even minus elephants, although the opera is remarkably intimate in many ways too. But then that’s also the case with La traviata and Madama Butterfly, HOSHes one and three, and they were a big success and a bigger success, in my opinion. HOSH two, Carmen – well, you can throw a lot at that and Opera Australia did.

Naturally I took at look at American soprano Latonia Moore’s schedule for 2015 as she was so wonderful as Aida for Opera Australia in 2012. Boy that woman is highly sought-after in the role. Anyway, she is listed as singing Aida for the Metropolitan Opera from October this year to April next year. So I perused the Met’s program for March next year – when one might expect HOSH to be presented – and bingo, no Aida during that month. (In fact, while Moore is down as Aida in February for the Met, another singer is listed for April.) Moore has Catalani’s La Wally for Dallas Opera in February next year, but only very early in the month (wouldn’t that be good to see?).

Now I need to say I have ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER to suggest that Moore has been engaged for Aida, but she seems to be available and, just as with Hiromi Omura in Butterfly, really won over audiences on the Sydney Opera House stage in the role.

I do, however, have pretty good reason – no, make that very good reason – to think Aida is indeed the go for next year’s HOSH. Bring it on!

June 22, 2014

MORAL questions aside – and admittedly that is a big aside – the Tamar Iveri saga is a PR disaster for Opera Australia. Long story short: Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri is in Sydney rehearsing the role of Desdemona in Otello, due to open on July 5. Last year Iveri’s Facebook page carried an anti-homosexual rant of unusual viciousness, and this was brought to the attention of Clive Paget, deputy editor of arts magazine Limelight. Paget published a story on Friday and has updated it several times.,opera-australia-stand-by-tamar-iveri-amidst-calls-for-her-dismissal.aspx

OA’s response? To say in a statement yesterday that Iveri had “issued an apology and explanation on her own Facebook page”. Otherwise, it was business as usual. Rehearsals and performances were proceeding as planned.

The wording was astonishingly bland and weak – bafflingly so. There was nothing from OA saying homophobia was abhorrent and had no place in its world. Perhaps the company might say we should take that as read, but still, one does like to see ideals clearly stated when the context calls for it.

Meanwhile, the story is whizzing around the world. What Iveri wrote or didn’t write, whether her husband wrote the post on her page or not, whether her apology is heartfelt or not, what she thinks or doesn’t think – these things are separate from the effect they will have on the company, which is being pilloried as weak and unprincipled. A bad taste can linger for a long while, well after the source of the bitterness has gone.

There will be people who say Iveri’s beliefs – or those of her husband, if you accept that account – are immaterial. That her singing is the only relevant matter. I think that’s disingenuous. We know what we know, which may be nothing, a little or a lot about an artist’s views on life. That knowledge will colour how we react to them as artists and what they have to communicate to us. People who were once idolised can find themselves beyond the pale. There’s a lot of that in the UK at the moment. We cannot unknow what we know. The material posted on Iveri’s page is vile, which is why many people of all persuasions feel so passionately about it.

These things so quickly get a life of their own. An opera company’s decision to hire someone on the basis of vocal suitability has turned into something else and is potentially heading towards evenings in which a singer gets booed, performances are disrupted, subscribers (some of whom will have no idea what’s going on) are made angry and a company’s reputation is tarnished.

There’s a much-trodden path taken by politicians who have found themselves in a pickle: “This has become a distraction. I have done nothing wrong but I don’t want to take attention from the incredibly fine work being done. Therefore I am withdrawing.” Time for that?

June 19, 2014

WHEN American Ballet Theatre brings artistic director Kevin McKenzie’s production of Swan Lake and an enticing triple bill to Brisbane in August and September the works will be danced by the “full company”, it was announced yesterday. Picked out for special superstar mention were principal artists David Hallberg, Paloma Herrera, Gillian Murphy, James Whiteside, Daniil Simkin and Cory Stearns, and also making the trip is soloist Misty Copeland, an African-American who has a high media profile due to her rarity in the upper echelons of classical dance. (I wrongly Tweeted yesterday that Polina Semionova would be in the party – not so alas. I got over-excited.) When McKenzie made a lightning fast trip to Australia in March to talk up the tour I asked if we’d be seeing Ivan Vasiliev, the stupendous Russian who is listed as an ABT principal but who dances all over the world, but got a negative to that. However, we will see another incredibly exciting dancer, albeit one with a lower international profile, in Herman Cornejo. Cornejo probably the dancer I am most keen to see, although I am not sure we will have the pleasure of him in Swan Lake. He is not the tallest of dancers and while he is getting the princely roles these days, it seems the gorgeous and tiny Alina Cojocaru, principal with English National Ballet, is often invited across the pond to appear with him. This very Saturday night Cojocaru and Cornejo appear in Giselle and next Friday in Swan Lake. How much would I like to be there? You can imagine.

But back to Brisbane. The description “full company” is a little misleading, although of course a company will bring, all this way, only the dancers it needs for the programs it is staging. Those principal artists who will NOT appear in Brisbane are, apart from Vasiliev, the noble Marcelo Gomes (sob), veteran Julie Kent, Italian superstar Roberto Bolle (always likely to be missing from the roster), and the luminous Diana Vishneva (redoubled sobs). But mustn’t grumble. There is still plenty of firepower on its way.

June 18, 2014

THE whimsy level is high in Pilobolus’s Shadowland, a piece (seen at Sydney’s State Theatre on June 17) in which a girl dreams she’s acquired a dog’s head and undergoes various torments and adventures. She is mocked, abandoned, kidnapped by mean circus folk, takes a dive into the ocean deeps, meets a like-minded soul and then is restored to the bosom of her family, undoubtedly a little wiser. It’s a water-thin narrative … well, not really a narrative; more an opportunity for a series of scenes that display the talented Pilobolus performers’ undeniably impressive skills, especially in shadow art. Much of the work is performed behind big screens saturated with bold colours as bodies are formed into animals, plants, machines and all manner of oddities. The individual images are strong and capable of delighting with their audacity but for all the adversity Dog Girl faces Shadowland doesn’t add up to much. Still, there’s always the encore. The audience was thrilled to its back teeth by the homage to Sydney at the end of the show, in which landmarks (the Sydney Opera House, natch, and Bondi beach) and the city’s name were brought to life via the performers’ bodies. How did they spell out Melbourne, where a similar homage took place? I would have liked to see that. The Shadowland tour ends in Sydney on Friday and moves on to Canberra, Perth and Adelaide, ending on July 13.

June 12, 2014

A JUNE 7 article by Sarah Kaufman in The Washington Post on choreographer Trey McIntyre suggests indirectly that Queensland Ballet will stage his Peter Pan next year. The piece refers to the prospect only in passing, and puts the timing as “in the coming season”, which for US audiences would mean anything from July of this year to June of next, as their seasons tend to start after their mid-year summer break. Obviously this year’s QB program is set, so next year would seem the go.

I understand the QB’s co-production of La fille mal gardee with West Australian Ballet (it opens in Perth in September) won’t appear in Brisbane until 2016, so there would seem to be room in 2015 for a light-hearted work with family appeal.

I spoke to QB’s media rep who, as expected, said this information couldn’t be confirmed or denied and that the 2015 program would be revealed later.

It wouldn’t be the biggest surprise if McIntyre’s ballet were selected for QB. Peter Pan, McIntyre’s first full-length ballet, was made in 2002 for Houston Ballet, where McIntyre danced for six years from 1989. Houston Ballet is where QB’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, performed for more than a decade after leaving China. He moved to Melbourne in 1995, the year McIntyre stopped dancing at Houston, so their paths crossed there. Li has kept up the Houston connection, bringing to QB two full-length works choreographed by Houston’s former artistic director Ben Stevenson, a key figure in Li’s career. Last year QB danced Stevenson’s Cinderella and his Nutcracker, the latter being a production Li intends to present annually in Brisbane at year’s end. (There was also a lovely Stevenson pas de deux danced in a contemporary program.)

According to a Houston Ballet press release from last year Peter Pan, set to music by Elgar, “features spectacular flying sequences, swashbuckling swordfights, giant puppets, colorful masks, as well as costumes inspired by punk fashion. With elaborate, magical sets by Thomas Boyd and imaginative costumes by Broadway designer Jeanne Button, the production reinterprets the classic story with verve and wit.” Sounds fun. And Peter Pan was revived there last year so one imagines the set and costumes are in good nick and ready to be hired.

In January McIntyre announced he was changing the way his company Trey McIntyre Project, which he founded in 2008, would work. TMP reportedly did its final performance as a full-time operation yesterday, appearing for Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts. From now McIntyre will work on individual TMP projects and take on freelance work.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


WELL, long story short. For a variety of reasons Antony and Cleopatra didn’t happen – well, it happened, but without me there – but I did manage to see Life of the Party, a showcase of the work of composer Andrew Lippa at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Among other things Lippa has written The Addams Family (music and lyrics) and The Wild Party (book, music and lyrics), and these not surprisingly featured in the show. As did Lippa, who played piano and sang along with our very own Caroline O’Connor, who was sensational, Damian Humbley and Summer Strallen. I confess that while I enjoyed the performances the songs didn’t have me leaping from the seat with excitement. Lippa is certainly a highly competent writer, but only occasionally moves beyond that IMHO. My review of the Sydney season of The Addams Family can be found on this site if you’re interested. I wasn’t much taken by it. So why did I go to Life of the Party? Mainly to see inside the Menier, which is doing headline-grabbing work in music theatre. Life of the Party was my final show in London. I’m back in Sydney, working hard to fit everything I’ve missed over the past two weeks into the schedule and resuming normal transmission in the latter part of this week, when Bangarra’s Patyegarang premieres at the Sydney Opera House. Onward!

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday June 1-3, 2014


WONDERFUL times in Dorset. I’ve been to Lyme Regis and walked along the Cobb in the steps of the (fictional) French lieutenant’s woman and seen the place from which the (fictional) Louisa Musgrave fell in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Even better was walking along the very promenades Austen herself did. Also on the agenda: Sherborne Abbey, and the spectacular cliffs that starred in the television drama Broadchurch, and the Cerne Giant, and seeing a reconstruction of Thomas Hardy’s study in the Dorchester museum. Much more too in this lovely county. A magical three days.

Tomorrow London calls briefly with Shakespeare’s Globe’s Antony and Cleopatra. And thence back to Sydney.

Saturday May 31, 2014

London, day 9

MISS Saigon is back in London at the majestic Prince Edward Theatre after a 15-year absence from the city. According to producer Cameron Mackintosh it’s the show of his that people most request to see return. So it has, 25 years after its premiere. I found it exceptionally moving way back when and still do. Some of the reviews have been a bit sniffy and yes, it’s true Miss Saigon pushes those emotional buttons with the expertise of a highly trained professional, but I was willing to be pushed.

Am now off to Dorset to see the beauties of the county with my great friend and esteemed colleague, Jo Litson. We may do some Thomas Hardy-related stuff. Will report back.

Friday May 30

London, day 8

COUNTRY house opera is much loved by a certain group of people – those who have a fair bit of dough, want to dress up, enjoy a long dinner interval and are prepared to travel well outside London for an in-crowd experience. Glyndebourne started it all, but that has really become an established opera house of note. Others operate on a slightly less elevated level, although certainly not an amateur one. Lots of excellent young artists, and many already with strong reputations, appear in these venues. My country house opera experience was at Grange Park in Hampshire, in a truly glorious setting. A theatre has been built inside a spectacularly beautiful neo-classical mansion which has a Grade I listing from English Heritage and which sits in tranquil grounds. The Grange Park season this northern hemisphere summer is La traviata, The Queen of Spades, Don Quichotte and Peter Grimes, the last of which I saw. Alas it wasn’t a Grimes for all time. Jeremy Sams’s direction was uninspired and at times more than a little hokey, unless you count as inspired flashbacks to childhood showing how Grimes came to be so hardened. Ho hum. There was some good singing, especially from the Ellen Orford of Georgia Jarman. Carl Tanner sang Grimes resonantly despite announcing an indisposition, but there wasn’t a great sense of character. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Stephen Barlow, didn’t excite greatly. I did, however, have a lovely meal in the long interval and spotted in the audience Stephen Fry and Joanna Lumley, who is married to Barlow. So that was good. Next up, Miss Saigon.

Thursday May 29, 2014

London, day 7, part two

I WAS impressed with the 25 or so rowdy knights the National Theatre was able to field for King Lear. But when it comes to supernumeraries, Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites wins hands down. Carsen’s 2002 version, being seen for the first time at Covent Garden, is exceptionally spare and beautiful, setting the French Revolution-era drama in a vast empty space that is sometimes filled menacingly by his vast force of chorus members, extra chorus and actors, who alone numbered 25. At points they move en masse across the stage, almost imperceptibly placing or removing props so they seem to appear and disappear almost by magic. Simon Rattle conducted and Sally Matthews was a luminous Blanche. A special night.

Thursday May 29

London, day 7, part one

WITH Once bound for Melbourne Theatre Company in October I thought I’d take another look at it, having seen it in New York last year. It was a sentimental thing to do because the production is exactly the same but it is a sweet and poignant show that does the heart good. With Once being set in Dublin and director John Tiffany being British one might have expected a London production to come before Broadway but the show opened in Boston and went to Off Broadway in 2011 before transferring to the Big White Way in 2012. Happily it was not glittered up for the occasion and its great dissimilarity to the conventional Broadway show paid off with scads of Tony awards. The London production opened in April last year and is due to run into next year, although I noted there were many premium seats left unsold at my Thursday matinee. That may, however, simply be a reflection of weekday matinee audience make-up. The cast got a huge reception and I admit to having had a little tear in my eye. Not so tough, eh?

Wednesday May 28, 2014

London, day 6

IT was suggested recently by Alex Broun, co-writer of the new musical Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You (Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney) that critics – myself included – who found fault with his work just didn’t like popular theatre. Against which charge I can only produce the following evidence regarding my tastes – tastes I know are shared by many of the critics I know.

This London excursion is in fact relatively heavy on musical theatre, a genre I have long loved, and encompasses the following: The Pajama Game, The Bodyguard, Once and the new version of Miss Saigon, coming up on Saturday afternoon. On the straight theatre front the list is Alan Ayckbourn’s Things We Do for Love, Simon Russell Beale in King Lear, Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III (of which more below) and Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe, which is my treat for the last night of my stay. Only two operas, alas – Dialogues of the Carmelites and Peter Grimes, and (sob) just one ballet, the Royal Ballet’s most recent triple bill.

The thing is, most of us who go to the theatre night after night go in hope and love, no matter what is being put before us. We really, really want it to be good.

Now to The Bodyguard, a musical based on the film of that name that starred Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. You may know the plot. An incredibly famous diva is discovered to have a dangerous stalker and a bodyguard is hired to protect her. Emotional entanglements ensue amongst scenes of the diva’s concert triumphs.

I think we could call it a popular hit: the line to get into the theatre nightly snakes along The Strand. I suspect the management isn’t terribly upset that patrons have a long wait as they are funneled through two small doors and all bags are checked at those doors, slowing things down considerably. It doesn’t hurt to be seen having an excited throng attempting to get inside a theatre. And the show has been running for about 18 months.

I found the book of The Bodyguard (by Alexander Dinelaris) rather paint by numbers and the choreography (Arthur Pita) simultaneously over-wrought and under-inspired. Director Thea Sharrock’s work occasionally gives into some base instincts that involve lots of bare and extraordinarly toned abs. Given that Rachel Marron, for that is our diva’s name, is supposed to be mega famous I also thought a bit more could have been spent on the set. Picky, picky.

But the truth is that everyone is there for the music and the “love that can never be” thrill. I caught Beverley Knight in the last week of her contract with the show (she is moving on to other things) and she has a fantastic set of pipes. As does Carole Stennett who plays Rachel’s sister. There are loads of Whitney Houston songs delivered powerfully and the audience rises to its feet at the end in ecstasy.

The list of producers includes our very own impresario John Frost. I’d suggest The Bodyguard could be making its way to Australia at some stage, although with a show such as this the casting of the lead will make or break it. It’s not a piece where the show itself is the star. The star is the star and she has to be incredible.

In the afternoon I was transported by King Charles III, Bartlett’s “future history”, at the Almeida. Queen Elizabeth II has just died and the formality of Charles’s coronation will follow in due time. But he is already the monarch and must assume the responsibilities of the role immediately. What happens immediately is a clash between the King and his government over a bill to restrict the press. Charles refuses to give royal assent and stubbornly sets off a constitutional crisis that ricochets across the country. There’s a tank out the front of Buckingham Palace before you know it.

Prince Harry wants out of the royal family, William is forced into a mediation role and Kate – well, there are exceptionally interesting developments there.

Bartlett treads a sure path between satire and tragedy while dazzlingly using Shakespearean forms and echoes to enrich and amuse. Much is in blank verse and there are references galore, albeit often glancing, to Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Henry IV. This framework lets Bartlett switch from laughter to tears in an instant and to give deep context to the discussion about the role of the monarchy.

For Charles (superbly given life by Tim Piggott-Smith), if he is not able to follow his conscience on individual matters, does he have any power at all? Others have a longer view about the way in which the monarchy can wield influence.

I haven’t seen such a stimulating, audacious new play in a very long time. Rupert Goold directs brilliantly and there is ravishing incidental music from Jocelyn Pook, who also provides a glorious entrance hymn to mark the passing of the Queen.

Not surprisingly the Almeida season was sold out (it ends shortly) and King Charles III transfers to the West End in September. I was so glad to have seen it in the intimacy of the Almeida but would be thrilled to see it again anywhere.

Tuesday May 27, 2014

London, day 5

THE Pajama Game is the musical that catapulted Shirley MacLaine to stardom. She had to go on in the role of Gladys – the character who gets to dance Steam Heat – when Carol Haney sprained her ankle. As MacLaine would later write, when the announcement was made in the theatre “there were boos from the orchestra to the second balcony”. She dropped her hat during the number but won the crowd over. She got a standing ovation and a film contract on the strength of it.

This was in 1954, a kinder, gentler time for entertainment. The world may have been embroiled in the Cold War and the US on the brink of entering the Vietnam conflict but on the box Americans were happily watching Leave it to Beaver and I Love Lucy. The action of The Pajama Game, such as it is, takes place in a pyjama factory where the workers are fighting for a raise. There’s a handsome superintendent, Sid, and a spunky union representative, Babe, and the stage is set for romance across the management-worker divide. That’s it really. Shoring it up is a sweet score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross that includes Hey There (You with the Stars in Your Eyes), There Once Was a Man, Hernando’s Hideaway and Steam Heat. Those last two don’t have a great deal to do with factory life, but hey, a show needs a production number or two.

The staging currently at the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End comes from the Chichester Festival Theatre and comes trailing a lot of praise. It’s pleasing, I grant you, but not quite as peppy and uplifting as I had hoped. Crucially, there isn’t a huge amount of electricity between Joanna Riding’s Babe and Michael Xavier’s Sid, although both are perfectly charming, and Stephen Mear’s choreography doesn’t hit the spot the way Bob Fosse – the original choreographer – could. Well, that’s not a huge surprise, but still … Steam Heat pays homage to Fosse, which is only natural and sensible, but the number doesn’t set the stage on fire despite energetic work from Alexis Owen-Hobbs as Gladys.

The thing I loved without reservation was the Shaftesbury Theatre. It is so ornate it’s like sitting inside a pavlova. Gorgeous.

Monday May 26, 2014

London, day 4

IT was a public holiday today, hence (I assume) the Royal Ballet’s Monday matinee. It certainly worked for me – what with those brilliant Thursday matinees it means this week I have four afternoons in the theatre as well as the evenings. The RB’s program of three one-act ballets certainly merited the title mixed bill. It started luminously, ended with brio and there was quite a deep hole in the centre. I say without hesitation I haven’t seen Balanchine’s Serenade danced better. One always marvels at its magical construction but there’s not always such poetry and radiance. Sarah Lamb was particularly blissful and Natalia Osipova floated like a feather. The program ended with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse – and how often do you see a dance homage to very fast trains? The use of the corps is as witty as all get-out as they back four main couples in depictions of speed, travel and connection. I think on balance the piece was slightly more exciting when I saw New York City Ballet perform it in February. Those dancers have an edgier look and my impression is that The Australian Ballet’s Nicolette Fraillon, who was conducting, took the Michael Nyman score at a sharper clip. But the RB was still very good. Of such things are critical memories made.

Now to the middle work, Liam Scarlett’s Sweet Violets, a 50-minute kind-of story ballet about the Jack the Ripper murders. I say kind-of because the story is bafflingly opaque. The painter Walter Sickert is being posited as Jack and there are comings and goings in his studio with characters who are impossible to identify, a beautifully staged scene in a theatre and prostitutes seen done away with in squalid rooms by Sickert’s black-clad alter ego Jack. The production (design by John McFarlane) looks gorgeous, no doubt about it, although scenes take too long to change. Those changes may be only a few more seconds than desirable but I could feel the audience getting more and more withdrawn from a ballet that has a relatively languid pace, is too long and doesn’t have a visceral connection with the subject. It should be harrowing but is very dull indeed.

As I mentioned in a recent review of BalletBoyz: The Talent, there are very high hopes for Scarlett, who is getting a lot of important commissions. I think Sweet Violets should not have got to the stage in this state, but there you go. The relative scarcity of young choreographers working in the classical idiom means talents are perhaps pushed forward too quickly and without enough dramaturgical help.

In the evening I was fortunate to be able to see Simon Russell Beale in King Lear, directed by Sam Mendes for the National Theatre. It wasn’t an entirely transcendent production but the moments of poignancy as Lear realises he is losing his mind and has thrown away everything of value were piercingly true. I was sitting quite close to the stage and to see this greatest of classical actors reveal the depths of Lear’s folly, madness and final clarity of vision was an experience I won’t forget.

An aside: one has to give it to the National Theatre. A company that fields for Lear a retinue of about 25 convincingly riotous soldiers is a company prepared to go the extra mile to achieve a director’s vision. The cast numbers 51 in all.

Tonight, a slight change of pace: The Pajama Game! Steam Heat. Once a Year Day. Hernando’s Hideaway. Can’t wait.

Sunday May 25, 2014

London, day 3

NOT a day for theatre – it was a friend’s 50th and was spent eating and drinking very well indeed. But coming up, the Royal Ballet‘s triple bill of Serenade, Sweet Violets and DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse. (an unusual Monday matinee, but I’m grateful for it) and Simon Russell Beale in King Lear at the National – a very hot ticket indeed.

Saturday May 24, 2014

London, day 2

ALAN Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business (1987) has been revived at the National Theatre but for my fix of the master I went to Richmond to see Things We Do for Love (1997), a touring production from Theatre Royal Bath. Part of the reason was to take a look at the theatre, a Victorian-era gem opened in 1899. It has a high vaulted ceiling, chandeliers and all the trimmings but still has a quite intimate feel.  A quote from Alexander Pope sits above the proscenium: “To wake the soul by tender strokes of art”. Things We Do for Love is not terribly tender, but never mind. It’s also not Ayckbourn’s best, but his relatively ordinary is, of course, not to be sneezed at. Things We Do for Love is something of a rarity, having been written specifically for end-staging. Most of his plays are designed to be performed in the round, but that would be impossible here: the setting is a three-story house owned by a single woman, Barbara. We can see all of her living room and can also see a sliver of the room above, which is a bedroom, and a sliver of the separate flat below, which Barbara has rented to a postman called Gilbert. Thus, while all the action in Barbara’s flat is visible we can see only the lower legs of those in the bedroom above – Barbara is temporarily renting the space to a friend and her fiance – and occasionally we can see Gilbert below as he paints his ceiling. What the characters can see and what they can’t; what they are prepared to show and what they are hiding – these are what drives Things We Do for Love. The production, directed by Laurence Boswell, got a little too cartoony for my taste but rattled along enjoyably. It was fun to see Neighbours alumna and pop star Natalie Imbruglia in her stage debut as Nikki, who went to school with Barbara and, in the fine print, to note that Boswell was the director of David Williamson’s Up for Grabs in the West End. While I thought Imbruglia was directed to be rather too skittish, I also thought she held her own well against others with vastly more theatre experience. Ayckbourn, incidentally, has just written his 78th play. He’s 75 so he has set a cracking pace. And doubtless he has a few more in him yet.

By the way, the Pope poem continues:

To wake the soul by tender strokes of art,

To raise the genius, and to mend the heart;

To make mankind, in conscious virtue bold,

Live o’er each Scene, and be what they behold:

For this the Tragic muse first trod the stage.

Friday May 23, 2014

London, day 1

WHY waste one’s first evening in town? Moira Buffini’s Handbagged proved more than up to the task of keeping jetlag at bay although I don’t think it’s entirely as wonderful as the many ecstatic reviews suggested. It probably helps to be British, in that Handbagged looks at the career and philosophy of Margaret Thatcher via the prism of the prime minister’s weekly meetings with the Queen. Anyone of a certain age who paid even a little bit of attention would be able to follow the politics but those who lived the experiences inevitably must feel the play more keenly than those who saw the events from afar. Buffini takes an overtly theatrical approach that has its undeniable wins but also more than a few clunky moments. The actors frequently talk directly to the audience, reminding everyone that this is not a documentary, given that the meetings between the Queen and the prime minister of the day are by tradition private. Buffini makes it clear that Handbagged is her idea of what the relationship between these two powerful women may have been. Her depiction of Queen Elizabeth II is extremely dry and droll and that of Maggie T unremittingly tough, which may well be where the truth resides. It is still quite shocking to hear some of Thatcher’s signature policies laid out with the Iron Lady’s unshakeable confidence and salutary to be reminded of in what ways the Queen quietly made her position known. The women are double cast, seen as their young selves and the age they were at the end of Thatcher’s prime ministership, and they often contradict one another. It’s a strong way of presenting a great many difficult – and indeed unknowable – situations. The four women are excellent. Marion Bailey is the older Queen and Lucy Robinson the younger; Stella Gonet is the mature Thatcher and Fenella Woolgar the younger. Woolgar is outstanding, not only looking and sounding so right but conveying that stubborn inner core of self-belief that took Thatcher to the greatest heights but was also her downfall. Jeff Rawle and Neet Mohan play a wide range of minor characters – in this play Ronald Reagan, Denis Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Rupert Murdoch and many others count as minor. All this is entertaining and at times incisive, but I found Buffini’s rather heavy-handed commentary on the role-playing somewhat tiresome after a while. I must say it was great seeing Jeff Rawle on stage. Aeons ago he was in the brilliant TV series about TV news Drop the Dead Donkey, a show that will always be bright in my memory. And now to bed.

May 12, 2014

MY weekend visit to Perth to see West Australian Ballet’s Giselle (a fine production) happened to coincide with performances by STEPS Youth Dance Theatre of its new work Fights and Flights, part of its 25th anniversary celebrations. Fights and Flights got top-grade treatment, being staged at the Heath Ledger Theatre in the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia – it’s a beautiful venue for dance and the huge cast revelled in the space. One of the most impressive things about the venture was that despite its being the product of many hands, it was a highly disciplined and cohesive piece. There were five choreographers – STEPS artistic director Alice Lee Holland, Matt Cornell, Jessica Lewis, Tyrone Robinson and Isabella Stone – and five superb guest artists performing separately and as part of the ensemble. When you can give young dancers the chance to learn from the likes of Natalie Allen (formerly with Sydney Dance Company), Sofie Burgoyne (she’s worked just about everywhere with everyone), James Pham (Chunky Move), James O’Hara (lots of work with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) and Tyrone Robinson (a gypsy like Burgoyne) you’ve hit the jackpot. The fine-looking production was perhaps a little too reliant on running as the primary movement motif, although that did allow the youngest dancers to participate strongly. Still, one or two sections could have been shortened with some profit. It’s a small quibble though. It was a joy to see the fierce commitment of every performer and the way in which an extremely wide range of ages (and therefore skills level) was integrated. It shouldn’t be underestimated what an achievement it is to make everyone look good when dealing with such a disparate group.

April 30, 2014

THE other evening I was in Brisbane – again – to review, seeing Queensland Ballet‘s new Coppelia. It’s a co-production with West Australian Ballet, where it will be seen next year and where I expect a certain section will go down well. One of the happiest features is the inclusion of a bit of Australian Football as young men come on in black and white striped jumpers and throw the Sherrin around. I did a bit of sleuthing and choreographer Greg Horsman may be slightly ahead of himself in giving these colours to Hahndorf in the late 1800s, but never mind. It’s lots of fun. Of course Aussie Rules, as we oldies call it, has featured in more than one ballet. Queensland’s art minister Ian Walker said at the Coppelia opening night party that the footy scene was a first for ballet, so obviously he hasn’t seen either Robert Helpmann’s The Display or Graeme Murphy’s Beyond Twelve. Still, Walker spoke enthusiastically, so that’s good. It was pointed out that given the co-production between Queensland and Western Australia, it was probably very diplomatic to set this Coppelia in South Australia. I’d agree with that.

April 13, 2014

DAVID Harris’s Time is a Traveller sees the music theatre star in an intimate setting and a reflective mood, just the thing for a Sunday evening I thought. Harris is performing on other nights of the week – he has shows at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co on a Friday and Saturday as well as two more Sundays – but there’s a slightly melancholy air at the very end of the weekend that to my mind was perfectly reflected in Time is a Traveller.

David Harris

Not that Harris was down – he was charming and giving – but in his stories about school days, some theatre experiences and a number of the songs he chose, there was acknowledgement that not everything in life is perfect but one soldiers on. Time is a Traveller refers, of course, to Peter Allen’s Tenterfield Saddler. After years of hitting the talent quest circuit as a teenager Harris learned how to be a professional during a long stint with The Boy from Oz and he feels a special affinity with Allen’s songs, several of which are in his show and form a kind of thread during it.

I very much liked that many of Harris’s repertoire choices, including some Allen songs, were from the road less travelled when it comes to cabaret performances. Allen’s If You Were Wondering introduces Harris’s boyhood reminiscences – head boy at both primary and secondary school; not popular – and there are songs from Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Full Monty, both of which Harris has appeared in. From the latter comes the very touching You Walk With Me.

There is a lighter side to Time is a Traveller, expertly integrated, but I won’t give the surprises away. What I will say is that they involve Harris’s beautiful head voice, which he uses on occasion to float some gorgeous final notes and also puts to good use comedically. The brilliant Bev Kennedy on piano is Harris’s rock during the 90-minute show, which looks very elegant in a simple setting of draped curtains, a sprinkling of candles and a side table bearing a vase of flowers. I enjoyed Time is a Traveller greatly.

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, April 27, May 2, 3, 4.

April 13, 2014

THE turn-up at the premiere of Strictly Ballroom the Musical last night showed Baz Luhrmann has much pull. A partial list includes Kylie Minogue, Joel Edgerton, Jack Thompson, Molly Meldrum, Gretel Killeen, Danielle Spencer, TV stars galore and so on and so forth. Nicole Kidman caught a preview. My review is up on The Australian‘s website now and I’ll post a slightly extended version in a day or two. Reviews that have surfaced so far are in broad agreement that boils down to this: great visuals, bad music.

April 5, 2014

LONDON-based OPERA magazine – for which I contribute reviews from Sydney – has a little gossip section that always contains snippets of interest. Relevant to Australia is the news that bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is to appear in Don Carlos for Opera Australia next year. Whether in Sydney, Melbourne or both is not revealed. I invited OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini to share with me but funnily enough he said he couldn’t, and Furlanetto’s website annoyingly only lists engagements up until August this year. The last time OA staged Verdi’s grand opera was in 1999, with Simone Young conducting and Elijah Moshinsky directing. Those with long memories may recall there was high old excitement when Moshinsky gave an interview to the ABC’s Anne Maria Nicholson in which he opined that musical standards in Australian opera were not particularly high. Talk about tension! I can’t say whether there will be a new production because Terracini won’t tell me anything, the spoilsport, but I’d suggest we’ll be seeing the four-act version – which is the way it was seen in 1999, in Italian rather than the original French – rather than the v-e-r-y long five-act extravaganza. I think the latter makes more dramatic sense, but it is a substantial sit. And I suppose, given the cost of new productions, that a rarity such as this wouldn’t get any more money spent on it than necessary. It undoubtedly makes more sense to put the money towards top-flight singers. Furlanetto – if the gossip is correct, which obviously I hope it is – would of course sing Philip II, King of Spain, a role in which he is much acclaimed. He sang it at the Metropolitan Opera early last year and got a big rave in The New York Times. He created “a chilling portrait of authority rotting from its core”, wrote Zachary Woolfe, among other highly complimentary things. So, that would be good, wouldn’t it?

March 20, 2014

DONNA Abela’s play Jump for Jordan, at Griffin, would be moving at any time but feels particularly pungent and relevant when the question of refugee settlement is so fraught. Jump for Jordan is very funny a great deal of the time, and exceptionally lively, but it’s also a family drama with conflicts that undoubtedly arise in almost all migrant families where the Australian-born children seek to live their lives in ways not always acceptable to their elders. The play overflows with passion and not a little pain as daughters Sophie and Loren – named after the actress – negotiate very different ways of relating to a Jordanian mother who has never felt as if Sydney is her home.

I loved how this production, with a superb cast directed by Iain Sinclair and Pip Runciman’s incredibly evocative set, traverses time zones, eras, cultures and languages while always keeping touch with the deeply intimate nature of the story. To what degree can the next generation be expected to understand and accept the customs of another place and time? What of value can be taken from the past while living in the present? And, most shatteringly, how does one leave behind everything that has been dear – family, traditions, language, the sights, smells and sounds of home – and plant oneself in new and alien soil?

This is what refugees do, because something even more terrifying impels them to do it.

I’d heard that some audience members leave Jump for Jordan in tears. I did too.

Jump for Jordan continues at Griffin Theatre Company until March 29.

March 13, 2014

IT is somewhat disheartening to see that Opera Australia believes – and I imagine it is correct – it can sell only eight performances of Eugene Onegin. It is such a ravishing piece. I went on Tuesday, to the fourth performance, and while the house was reasonable it was far from over-flowing. It should have been. One can quibble about some aspects of Kaspar Holten’s production – a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Fondazione Teatro Regio, Turin – but there’s no quibbling where Nicole Car is concerned. She was greeted at the curtain with stamps and cheers after a glorious Tatyana and deserves every accolade she has received. The young singer – she is not yet 30 – is in full bloom. Her soprano is richly coloured, lyrical in quality and gorgeously produced from top to bottom, and Car looks a dream on stage, moving well and acting with natural ease. She makes her US debut with Dallas Opera as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro in October and has a US agent. So I suspect we may not be seeing as much of her (understatement!) as we have been used to over the past couple of years, during which she has been well nurtured by Opera Australia. There are four more chances to catch Car’s Tatyana, on March 15, 19, 22 and 28.

March 9, 2014

I’VE almost sorted my disrupted Sydney theatre schedule. Going to New York for two weeks in early February really threw the diary into disarray. I have only Griffin’s Jump for Jordan (much anticipated) to come in the catch-up category, having got under the belt Sydney Theatre Company’s Travelling North (see below), Belvoir’s Once in Royal David’s City and Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Falsettos this week.

Along with The Winter’s Tale, which I review on my main page, it was a diverse week one would have to say. Once in Royal David’s City was the runaway highlight, although I also very much enjoyed Stephen Colyer’s production of Falsettos, a musical apparently destined to be seen in Sydney every 10 years. STC staged a production in 1994 and the New Theatre in 2004 (I saw the first but not the second).

In Michael Gow’s Once in Royal David’s City Brendan Cowell plays a director sorting out how to face one of the most profound personal upheavals life can throw at us. He also has a professional decision to make, having been asked to give a lecture on Brecht to school students that he’s not sure he wants to undertake. From these circumstances springs a play of great passion – passion for family, for ideas, for theatre, for self-awareness and so much more. Belvoir’s production, directed by Eamon Flack, effortlessly weaves through time and space in a setting (design and lighting by Nick Schlieper) of uncompromising sparseness.

Just the thing for a play in which the intellectual and emotional meet on equal terms.

It’s impossible for Falsettos to pack the punch it did in its earliest days and incarnations (it consists of two parts, initially performed separately), but its purpose can’t be faulted. Falsettos shows how a family can be created against the odds and by unconventional means, as long as there is enough love. In the first half, Marvin has come out and has a young male lover but he also wants to hold on to the wife and child he left. In the second half, something very bad is happening in the gay community. So yes, Falsettos was very much of its time but William Finn’s music and lyrics can’t fail to delight. A show that opens with Four Jews in a Room Bitching has much going for it.

Colyer choreographs Falsettos intricately, non-naturalistically, and occasionally puzzlingly, but his production has wit and megawatts of energy, and the cast is terrific. Special mention must go to Anthony Garcia, the 13-year-old I saw as Jason (he alternates with Isaac Shaw). The young man has bags and bags of talent.

Falsettos ends March 16; Once in Royal David’s City ends March 23.

March 7, 2014

THIS year is quite the David Williamson year, with eight productions of his plays scheduled for Sydney alone, and his Rupert, premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company, getting a run in Washington next week at the Kennedy Centre. It’s a remarkable amount of attention for a playwright who in recent years hasn’t had quite the respect he once enjoyed.

The late-flowering affection must be very gratifying. What would not be so gratifying is the hash Sydney Theatre Company made of Travelling North (written in 1979). John McCallum wrote in his review for The Australian that Travelling North is a much better play than this production makes it appear. I saw it at the Wednesday matinee this week and couldn’t agree more. (An aside: some commentators have used this occasion to heavily criticise the play and its author. An inability to separate a piece of writing from its production, perhaps, or else a desire to do a tired old bit of Williamson bashing? Discuss.)

Travelling North is an intimate, small-scale play concerned with some of life’s biggest challenges. Frank and Frances, their respective families grown, set out from chilly Melbourne to settle in the warm north. Frances’s children are not happy. Old people having sex! What about the baby-sitting! The pressures of marriage and children besetting the adult offspring are set against the freedoms Frank and Frances seek.

The problem starts with David Fleischer’s set, which is entirely impossible for this play. The Wharf 1 stage area is dominated by a large arrangement of wooden decking so uncompromisingly bare that it makes last year’s Waiting for Godot set seem luxuriously appointed by comparison. The play takes place between suburban Melbourne and the abundant tropics, but it may as well have been in the Simpson Desert at night, so arid is the acreage of blond wood and the dark bare walls behind it. There are one or two props, but mainly the actors are left to stand about.

This is one of the least suitable sets for any play I’ve seen in more than 40 years of theatre-going, and that’s saying something. (Mind you, it reminded me the tiniest bit of the equally spare, and almost as awkward, set for another STC production, Joanna Murray-Smith’s Honour in 2010. This was another case of a far too minimalist set for the play at hand.)

Bryan Brown is monumentally miscast in Travelling North as the extremely unwell Frank, being one of the least fragile-looking people on the planet – he has the vigour of a Mallee bull – and having been assigned a part that is not within his range. Some of the other characters are played too broadly, although Alison Whyte, who came in very late for an injured Greta Scacchi, is just lovely and the production’s saving grace. Although how come she has to wear the same frock through time and space when others get to change their gear? A mystery.

It would have been a kindness for STC artistic director Andrew Upton to ask someone else to direct. He has many gifts but appears not to have been greatly in sympathy with Travelling North. Waiting for Godot, which Upton took over after original director Tamas Ascher couldn’t travel to Sydney, was a huge, huge triumph. Travelling North quite the reverse.

Travelling North continues until March 22.

March 4, 2014

ROYAL New Zealand Ballet had hoped its starry American artistic director Ethan Stiefel would stay longer than his initial three-year contract period, but it is not to be. Today the company has announced he will depart on September 1 “to pursue new opportunities in his homeland”. The RNZB position was his first as an artistic director.

The decision is perhaps not a great surprise. Stiefel’s fiancée, Gillian Murphy, is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre, and although she has spent significant amounts of time in New Zealand as RNZB’s principal guest artist, the couple is also apart for significant periods. And in November last year Stiefel was announced as consultant and choreographer on a new ballet-world drama for the pay-tv Starz channel, Flesh and Bone. The writer and executive producer, Moira Walley-Beckett, was involved in similar roles for the highly acclaimed series Breaking Bad and is a former dancer.

PR Newswire reported at that time: “Flesh and Bone follows a young ballet dancer, Claire Robbins, who has a distinctly troubled past, as she joins a prestigious ballet company in New York. The dark and gritty series will unflinchingly explore the dysfunction and glamour of the ballet world.”

Stiefel is not new to this field, having starred as Cooper Neilsen in two Centre Stage films. Former and current American Ballet Theatre stars will also take part in Flesh and Bone.

Just three weeks ago The Hollywood Reporter announced that David Michod, who wrote and directed the Australian film Animal Kingdom to huge acclaim – and incidentally launched the late-blooming international career of Jacki Weaver – is to direct the first episode. Filming is reported to be starting in New York shortly and the series to be screened next year.

In 2012 I went to Wellington, where RNZB is based, to do a feature on Stiefel for The Australian. The company was thrilled with him and it was clear he was taking the dancers to new heights. I asked RNZB general manager Amanda Skoog how long she thought New Zealand could hold on to an international star such as Stiefel. “It would depend on other opportunities out there,” she said. “I would like to think Ethan would be with us for five years. There are a lot of things we want to work on together. That’s the expectation.”

Now, however, the hunt is on for his replacement. ‘’We believe that the increased international profile that Ethan Stiefel has brought to the RNZB can only be a positive thing as we look to appoint his successor,’’ said RNZB chair Candis Craven in a statement released today.

RNZB also said it hoped to continue an association with Murphy, an outstanding ballerina who danced her first Giselle with the company, has mentored younger dancers and has been cited as an inspiration in class and the rehearsal room.

Murphy will appear in the RNZB mixed bill, Allegro: Five Short Ballets, to open in Auckland on July 30, and is expected to feature prominently when American Ballet Theatre visits Brisbane in August with artistic director Kevin McKenzie’s production of Swan Lake and a triple bill of Robbins, Tharp and Ratmansky works. McKenzie, Murphy and ABT principal James Whiteside are currently on a brief visit to Sydney to promote the tour.

February 26, 2014

CHRISTINE Goerke’s Elektra, heard on Saturday and Monday (I was at the latter) at the Sydney Opera House, was incandescent; a performance to place gratefully in the never-to-be-forgotten folder of one’s mind. Goerke’s soprano is a huge instrument, full, plush and radiant with no sense of strain despite having to soar over the mighty forces of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in the Concert Hall. Elektra’s is a magnificent obsession despite the madness underpinning it. Georke gloried in the woman’s unwavering pursuit of justice and gave it a terrible beauty. If the SSO’s new chief conductor and artistic director, David Robertson, has more of this kind of adventure in store for us during his tenure we will be very fortunate indeed. (I will be reviewing the performance in more detail for London-based OPERA magazine, although that appearance will be a little way off.)

The SSO of course isn’t new to this opera business, having programmed many concert performances in the past, including a ravishing Queen of Spades in 2012 and a most welcome Flying Dutchman last year, although to my mind that didn’t quite reach the heights of the Tchaikovsky. Elektra, by the way, was described not as a concert version, but as “an opera in the Concert Hall”, in that it was more than semi-staged, although not a full-scale production. There were only two performances so opera-lovers had to be on the ball, but the SSO adds a hugely important element to Sydney’s operatic life. It can produce music dramas on a scale impossible in the Joan Sutherland Theatre – for instance, the last time Elektra was heard in Sydney was in 2000 as part of the Sydney Festival. That was a production at the Capital Theatre, with Deborah Polaski as Elektra and Simone Young conducting the SSO.

Opera Australia simply can’t do everything, so we’re fortunate in Sydney to have Pinchgut Opera working the early end of the market (and it’s adding a second production this year) and Sydney Chamber Opera offering mainly contemporary works. Both those admirable companies usually come up with an Australian premiere. Bravi. And then there is the SSO, able to wield huge musical forces and to look at repertoire not frequently or usually performed here. Put these things together and you’ve got quite a few bases covered.

February 9

New York, day 13

IT’S a wrap – 20 shows in 13 days. The last day of theatre-going was a beauty. In the afternoon, New York City Ballet with two works I’ve read a huge amount about but never seen: Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering and Balanchine’s Union Jack. To top it off, principal dancer Jenifer Ringer was giving her farewell performance. New York certainly knows how to show the love.

In the evening I saw what I have been referring to as Caryl Churchill’s new play, Love and Information. That was because I didn’t do my homework on that one. Love and Information was first staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre in September 2012 and that production was being revived at the lovely Minetta Lane Theatre – a venue most happily situated very close to a subway station, as it was snowing in the early evening. While there has been a huge amount of snowfall during my stay, this was the first time it actually snowed on me, a circumstance not encountered since my childhood in Ballarat, and then rarely.

But I digress. Love and Information is broadly about those two things, in a dizzying array of forms. In more than 50 short scenes – some last only seconds – with more than 100 characters played by a cast of 15, Churchill touches acutely on the variety of ways in which communication happens and also what it contains. Information can be personal, scientific, mathematical, political, mediated, terrifying, baffling, consoling, right, wrong and so many other things.

It was fascinating to see a scene in which a man tells a friend about his new love, who turns out to be a computer. The film Her covers this ground too, but Churchill got in first. An early and very funny scene has a woman telling a man who may be a new boyfriend what she does for a living. It involves killing chickens to study brain function. In another lovely brief scene a woman asks a waiter how many foreign words for table he knows. He reels them off, and she is at first full of wonderment at the variety this simple question brings, but then decides that for her, this thing at which she is sitting will always be “table”. How could it be anything else?

And on it goes, for two hours without interval, with most scenes taking place between two people. It is probably a touch too long and the feeling at the end is of having seen a superb mind at work making miniature puzzles, but I was so pleased to have been there, sitting in the vertiginous mezzanine of the Minetta and being able to see perfectly. Not always the case in some of the older New York theatres where the rake is minimal.

The setting for Love and Information is brilliant, a stark white tiled cube that is completely blacked out at the end of each scene to allow the nifty changes we see. Backstage must be an awesome sight as actors constantly change costume and stage management gets the props on and off.

The highlight of the afternoon’s ballet was Dances at a Gathering, a suite of dances to Chopin piano pieces that has no narrative but is full of connections between the dancers. To see it performed by the company for which it was made in 1969 was a dream come true. It is, as everyone claims, a masterpiece.

Union Jack was Balanchine’s contribution to the American bicentenary, and he decided to look at the US’s British connections. It’s a very lightweight work, but undeniably fun. The opening, in which I think there were close to 80 dancers on stage, is a bit like an Edinburgh Tattoo, with lots of formation marching. Later sailors and WRENS kick their heels up and the finale is the ensemble with flags semaphoring God Save the Queen. Pretty wild, actually.

So now it’s back to Sydney, and the whirligig of that city’s vibrant theatre scene.

February 8, 2014

New York, Day 12

I WAS particularly keen to see the new Liam Scarlett ballet for New York City Ballet, but as it turned out, the highlight in the mixed bill was something else. Scarlett is the new wunderkind of classical choreography.  He started choreographing when a dancer with the Royal Ballet, and is now an artist in residence with the company. He’s also been commissioned by Miami City Ballet and now NYCB, and at just 27 is on a starry trajectory. He’s reported to have works coming up for English National  Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Phew!!

Alas I found Acheron rather dull. The ballet is named after a river said in Greek mythology to separate the worlds of the living and the dead and the mood is rather wafty and uninvolving. Scarlett certainly has talent for shaping and moving large groups of dancers – he used 17 here – but his response to the music, Poulenc’s Concerto in G for Organ, Strings and Timpani, was predictable.

The opening ballet in this New Combinations program was Mauro Bigonzetti’s Vespro, a pretentious work danced fabulously. The middle work, Angelin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence, was the winner. A kind of ghost story with trace elements of vampirism, it made one think of all those doomed women in white in classical ballet. The music was bits and bobs by John Cage, some of it surprisingly romantic, and the dancing was exhilarating.

In the evening, my final Saturday in New York, I toddled off to La Soiree. Yes, I’d just seen it in Sydney, but obviously with different acts. It was interesting to see the show tailored for downtown New York. There was more gay stuff and less extreme burlesque, although that may well have been only because Miss Behave and Ursula Martinez had just been in Sydney and were on a break. (They have appeared in NYC.) Contortionist Captain Frodo was nowhere in evidence.

I was thrilled, however, to see the English Gents again. One never tires of their witty take on the old strength and balance act, or their abs. On the national pride front, it was lovely to see Sydneysider Stephen Williams be such a hit with the crowd as Bath Boy. He deserved every accolade.

February 7, 2014

New York, Day 11

ANTHONY Minghella’s 2005 Madama Butterfly is one I’ve always longed to see and I wasn’t disappointed. The setting is little more than a huge, dark, glossy space that subtly reflects the action. Within it there are simple white screens that move to create a space or camouflage the removal of things or people. It could be seen as a giant lacquer box with white compartments, which seems to me an excellent place to put Butterfly, and Butterfly. It’s not an intimate setting, to be sure, but the high artifice – for me at least – heightened the emotional content.

The crowning effect is the use of Bunraku puppetry, most fascinatingly and powerfully to represent Butterfly’s little boy. (Sure gets over the problem of having a kid who could never, not ever, pass for two and a half.) I can see that with an inferior cast one may be left with an empty shell, but this one was excellent, with just a few reservations. Cio-Cio-San was sung by South African Amanda Eschalez, who has a vibrant soprano with dark colours and great attack, although in the first act there was perhaps a touch too much vibrato. She sounded too mature. The second half was hugely rewarding, however, as she surrendered herself to the doubt, anguish and passion. Elizabeth DeShong’s Suzuki and Scott Hendricks’s Sharpless were sensationally sung and acted, and Adam Diegel sang out ringingly, although was somewhat unvarying. (He sang Don Jose in Carmen in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour last year. Overall, though, no complaints. I really look forward to Butterfly on the harbour next month. It is sure to be very different, coming as it will from La Fura dels Baus.

February 6, 2014

New York, day 10

UNFORTUNATELY the Met’s new production of Prince Igor was not what I had hoped for, at least on the staging side. Borodin’s opera was incomplete at the time of his early death in 1887 and came to be performed in many tinkered-with versions. It’s a sign of its difficulty that the Met hadn’t presented Prince Igor for near a century. It is, however, much loved in Russia. For this production director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Gianandrea Noseda created a new edition, cutting, reordering and adding. The music sounded superb, epic in scale and full of Russian colour and vigour. The key singers were excitingly authentic, coming as they do from eastern Europe: from Russia, Georgia, Slovakia, Ukraine. (Young Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov sang the title role.)

Tcherniakov decided to get inside Igor’s mind, and to this end created black-and-white filmed sections to show close-ups of anguished faces and piles of bodies representing the less glorious side of war. There was a touch of the Battleship Potemkins about it, which is not necessarily a bad idea, but the execution of the idea seemed clumsy to me, and not a little obvious.

The first act took place on a raked semi-circle that was filled with a riot of poppies. Again, it was part of Igor’s dreaming, but unlike many dreamscapes gave the performers little room to move, apart from wandering through rows of flowers. It made for a very static act, except for when a large group of dancers appeared to perform the famous Polovtsian dances. This they had to do in amongst the poppies, which led to choreographer Itzik Galili giving them little more than running, leaping and turning to do. And as they leapt the sound of feet on what sounded like plywood made for a most non-poppy field sound.

Picky? Perhaps so, but I could not deny to myself that I found the whole think stolid. Still, I was able to close my eyes.

It was quite a Russian day really. Earlier I popped into the Neue Galerie (not far from the Metropolitan Museum) to see a lovely Kandinsky exhibition. Not huge, but with some tremendous paintings. The Neue Galerie is also home to some wonderful Klimts, including the glowing Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, acquired in 2006 by Ronald Lauder for a reported figure of $US135 million. At the time it was described as the highest price ever paid for a painting. (Lauder is a founder of the Neue Galerie.)

Local interest note: Itzik Galili’s work will be seen in Perth during West Australian Ballet’s Ballet at the Quarry season. That opened this very day as I write.

February 5, 2014

New York, day 9

A WOMAN walked past the queue waiting to get into the Belasco Theatre for the evening performance of Richard III and was taken aback at its length. “It’s only a play!” she exclaimed. Yes, but what a play and what a company playing it. (Also, it must be said that because Broadway theatres have no foyers to speak of there are always quite long lines of people waiting to get in.) I was fortunate that the Shakespeare’s Globe season on Broadway was extended into my stay here and that I was able to get pretty good seats to what has been an extremely successful season. Even better, I was able to see Twelfth Night and Richard III on the same day.

A program note from designer Jenny Tirami is headed Striving for Authenticity, and she talks about original conditions at theatres such as the Globe in 16th and 17th century London. In the Belasco the Shakespeare’s Globe productions are staged as if in an indoor hall, such as may have been used for plays at a university college, an aristocratic house or the Inns of Court. The costumes are handmade from materials that resemble the originals , there is live music played on period instruments and so on. And of course all the roles are played by men.

The big drawcard is Mark Rylance, who plays Olivia in Twelfth Night – or Mr William Shakespeares Twelfe Night, or what you will, to be more historically minded – and the title role in The Tragedie of King Richard the Third. He is dazzling, no doubt about it, but he’s also working with a supremely accomplished ensemble. Among them I was particularly taken by two young actors who play Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night and Queen Elizabeth and Lady Anne in Richard III. Samuel Barnett and Joseph Timms are alike enough in physique for the Viola-Sebastian pairing, which isn’t always the case, and with their heavy white make-up and long wigs they could be taken for twins. This similarity made the play’s denouement not only dramatically feasible but exceptionally funny and touching. In Richard III the two men are similarly impressive.

Rylance’s Olivia is an intelligent, decisive but somewhat flustered figure, thrown into deep disarray by her sudden passion for the youth Cesario, Viola in disguise. The most fascinating aspect of the company’s approach to acting is that there is a high level of artifice and constant acknowledgement that this is indeed a play, co-existing with exquisitely nuanced delivery of the play’s very real emotional currents. It was thrilling from start to finish.

Rylance’s Richard is a most individual figure. There is none of the personal charisma many actors use to counter the physical impediments and give them a head’s up for the early Lady Anne wooing scene. This Richard is a ratty-looking, manipulative murderer with absolutely no redeeming features from the outset. The only thing he has working for him is his position of power, which he uses relentlessly and wildly, and the weaseling ways that somehow seem to work with those who can’t see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that Richard is completely mad, flailing this way and that as he attempts to gain a crown he could never possibly keep.

The first half, as always with Richard III, requires huge concentration to keep up with the myriad alliances and political thrusts. The second half is wonderfully and powerfully clear. There are far too many superb touches to mention but here are two I cherish. The scene where Richard has to be persuaded (ha!) to take the crown is always a top moment, but here was rendered more lively as the onstage audience – another authentic touch – really entered into the spirit of the thing and urged him on.

And I think I will carry with me for a long time the scene in which Richard asks a lackey to put out the news that Lady Anne “is sick and like to die”. Anne – Joseph Timms – is standing beside Richard as he sits on his throne and Richard keeps jovially pulling her to him in a gesture that would seem affectionate, if not for his words and if not for the rag doll-like quiescence with which Timms allows himself to be cuddled, all the while standing upright, dazed, but still noble. Tremendous stuff.

February 4, 2014

New York, day 8

NORMALLY I take long look at casting before I go to any ballet, but for some reason failed to do that before the performance of New York City Ballet’s rather limply titled mixed bill, Scenic Delight. (A name, by the way, that does disservice to the choreographers and dancers. Anyhoo.) Imagine my surprise and delight on arrival at the theatre to see that the evening’s conductor was Nicolette Fraillon, music director of the Australian Ballet. The program was both a mixed bill and of mixed delight, choreographically speaking, but musically it was very satisfying, and diverse.

The show opened with Bal de Couture, a poor trifle from NYCB’s ballet master in chief Peter Martins. It has costumes by Valentino and was made for a gala in 2010. And that’s where it should have stayed. The Valentino gowns are mainly long, voluminous, black and white creations with red underskirts that quickly lose their interest and there are three demi-soloists in puffball tutus. Are the red pointe shoes meant to evoke a certain film? Surely not, given its theme. The men look elegant in tuxes as they waltz. A lot. On the bright side, Bal de Couture is danced to various Tchaikovsky excerpts, chiefly from his opera Eugene Onegin, so there was some pleasure. It was also fascinating to see the casting of 12 principal artists in this piece of fluff. Amazing.

But let’s move on. Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse, to a propulsive score by Michael Nyman, and Jerome Robbins’s The Four Seasons, to music by Verdi, made a strongly contrasting pairing and both are terrific. The first is tough, fast, powerful, and brilliantly structured for four principal couples and a pulsating corps. I would love to see it again very soon but alas can’t fit it into the schedule before I leave. The second is playful and witty. I did love the shivering corps women in white during Winter, and the sexy pas de deux for a languorous Summer. For Fall, Robbins choreographed a showy solo for a Puck-like figure, which Daniel Ulbricht danced with all the trimmings.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the AB could get both into its repertoire?

Three notes:

The amount of repertoire that NYCB presents in a four-week season such as this is astonishing, and a huge workload for the dancers. For the visitor it’s a treasure trove (mostly) and a chance to see many, many principal dancers. Who do I love? I think top of the list would have to be Sara Mearns, who can be wild and dangerous and whose engagement with and understanding of music is outstanding. I’m seeing her in a wide range of repertoire and she deserves her fervent following.

Second, it is quite amusing but kind of nice that when the NYCB principals take their special bow they dash in front of the curtain, acknowledge the audience speedily, then dash off. They do this twice. There’s definitely no milking of applause as was so common in the old Soviet days and which can still be seen from some Russian dancers. But the NYCB stars could linger a little longer.

And finally, I was sitting in the First Ring at the David H. Koch Theatre for Scenic Designs and at the end could see orchestra members applauding. Usually they are dashing for the exit at this point (and of course they can’t see the dancers), so I can only assume they were applauding Fraillon. A most pleasing gesture. Brava.

February 3, 2014

New York, day 7

HERE we are just beyond the half-way mark! I’ll keep this report brief, or what I call brief. It had been my intention to do that all along,but …

After a day of relatively heavy snow it was a bit of a slog from midtown to the downtown Barrow Street Theatre but worth the effort. Plus, of course, I have a tight schedule to maintain.

Jonathan Tollins’s comedy Buyer & Cellar is a solo show, so obviously all depends on the actor. Michael Urie,an absolute sweetheart on stage, is so associated with Buyer & Cellar that there was quite a lot of publicity when he had to take a weekend off and his understudy went on. One hopes he was excellent, but Urie has made this his own. I can see why it kept coming up as a recommendation from friends and acquaintances.

At its heart Buyer & Cellar examines just how different from you and me the very, very, very rich and famous are, and, inter alia,  the price one pays for fame and the desire of lesser mortals to be close to the famous. There are sub-themes, but essentially those are the driving forces. Tollins went about his work in an astonishingly original way by using a bizarre detail from Barbra Streisand’s book My Passion for Design and weaving a fictional story around it. For those who don’t know, Streisand’s house has an underground arcade of up-market boutique stores which have but the one customer. Herself. Urie plays an out-of-work actor employed to mind the shops. Or shoppes.

I’m not going to review Buyer & Cellar in any depth here. The New York Times did a perfectly fine job of that in July last year. I perhaps didn’t find the piece as howlingly funny as others seem to have, but I did find it touching and insightful – better to my mind – and have to pay the deepest tribute to Urie’s tour de force performance.

February 2, 2014

New York, day 6

I’VE just realised I’ve been confusing myself in the matter of dates. I was using Australian time rather than NY time and it was doing my head in. I’ve now reverted to local time. So it was that on February 2, New York time, I went to a matinee of Jewels at New York City Ballet (for a second viewing) and in the evening to What’s It All About?: Bacharach Reimagined.

To the second first. What’s It All About? is at the bijou New York Theatre Workshop on East 4th St, a dear little space. And yes, they do spell theatre that way in their name and so does American Ballet Theatre. I do not know why.

But back to Bacharach. The stage area is decked out with a jumble of old sofas, a tower of guitars with a few other objects thrown in, rugs on the walls and many glowing lamps. It looked like an explosion in a student bedsit, only more welcoming. Some audience members can sit on the stage on comfy couches and the vibe is very 1970s hippie. The show is devoted, obviously, to the songs of  Burt Bacharach and his main-man lyricist Hal David (plus some others), although don’t go thinking We Will Rock You or Jersey Boys. This is definitely not your basic jukebox musical. The music issues in a continuous stream to suggest – nothing more – a scenario of love and loss.The structure is pretty loose and perhaps obvious from a dramatic perspective, but beautifully built from a musical standpoint.

Kyle Riabko was the mastermind, he got Bacharach’s blessing, he did the arrangements, and he performs in the show with six other singer-instrumentalists who appear to be able to turn their hand to anything as they sing, play and dance. The songs stand up brilliantly to this robust, loving reinterpretation. What’s It All About? is presumably introducing this imperishable repertoire to a generation not terribly familiar with it, but for someone of my age, it is 90 minutes of bliss, during which one smiles foolishly, mouths the words, and thinks of days now long gone.

What’s It All About? is directed by Steven Hoggett, a man who possibly flies under the radar of some but who has a blue-chip list of credits in direction, movement and choreography (despite having had no dance training). He’s a natural at developing heightened movement from natural interaction. Those lucky enough to have seen Black Watch at the Sydney Festival some years ago will know what I mean. Hoggett also did the movement in the musical Once; ditto for The Glass Menagerie, which I saw a few days ago. Hoggart is the co-founder of British outfit Frantic Assembly, and in 2010 Sydney Theatre Company staged that company’s Stockholm, with Hoggett coming out to work with the local actors.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents Once in October and November this year, in the current version, so Hoggett’s work will be able to be seen there too. Commercial producer John Frost is one of the local producers, so presumably the production will tour. And I note that New York Theatre Workshop is also listed as one of the producers, so that’s another connection. I saw Once on a previous visit to New York – in fact, cleverly bought my ticket just before the Tony awards were announced. Once won best musical. It’s an extremely gentle, non-Wicked kind of show with wonderful music. So that’s another one for the diary.

A second look at NYCB’s Jewels confirmed for me that I really don’t like the design at all. I felt the production looked tired. I’m not talking about the dancers, just the decor. I am not sure, either, that NYCB quite has the measure of the elegant, restrained but sumptuous French style in Emeralds. This may sound odd, as Jewels belongs to NYCB. It was choreographed for the company. But having been lucky enough to see the Paris Opera Ballet dance this in Sydney, I stick to my guns.

Not surprisingly, NYCB does a fabulous Rubies, and I adored Sterling Hyltin, who has the flirty dazzle to go with impeccable technique. In Diamonds, Teresa Reichlen was ravishing. She is quite a different dancer from Sara Mearns, who was so commanding on my earlier visit. Reichlen was softer and more introspective, while showing with utmost clarity the ways in which Diamonds honours the Russian legacy and, in particular, the Petipa repertoire. It felt like the deepest homage.

February 1, 2014

New York, Day 5

WELL that was a good day. Two great artists in two art forms – in the afternoon, Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet in Balanchine’s Kammermusik No.2 (to the music of Paul Hindemith) and in the evening, Anna Netrebko in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at the Met. I now see why the chief dance critic of The New York Times, Alastair Macauley, keeps raving about Mearns. She is a tempestuous, dangerous dancer at one moment, sensuous and seductive at the next. In this fast, hyper-athletic work laden with difficult rhythms and accents, she was going for broke at every moment. Alas this rather put everyone else in the shade, but what a performance. In the Diamonds section of Jewels, which I mentioned briefly earlier, she showed other facets, if you’ll pardon the pun, and I am about to see her in the Emeralds section of Jewels this afternoon. You’d think she’d be a shoo-in for Rubies, but Emeralds – well, let’s see, but I suspect she’s pretty good in everything. I’m seeing her in a couple of other things in the coming week too.

Also on this all-Balanchine bill was Concerto Barocco from 1941, a fascinatingly constructed work that seeks only to illuminate the music of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor and does it exquisitely. (If my memory serves I’ve never seen this performed before; just seen the Trocks do their send-up.)

Concerto Barocco is said to mark the first appearance of Balanchine dancers in practice clothes, something that would become a feature of many works.  Here the women are all in white, with a little skirt. Eight women who form a kind of chorus of handmaidens, two principal women and one man move in unison, canon, mirror one another, and enter and leave in response to the music. Poetry and harmony reign and the detail is delicious: at one point the solo man is gently entangled in a thicket of the supporting women; at another he turns a simple promenade of his partner into courtly admiration. Just lovely.

The afternoon ended with Who Cares? to the music of George Gershwin, which the audience adored. I’m afraid most of the latter left me fairly cold. The dance is lively, the dancers upbeat and happy, the backdrop is hideous and the costumes are worse. Still, I very much enjoyed seeing two dancers looking pretty damn fine. Principal Amar Ramasar hasn’t impressed me much previous visits but here he was super charming and brought Fred Astaire-style elegance to the party. Sterling Hyltin, also a principal artist, was glamorous to the nth degree.

What to say about Netrebko except that she is deservedly a huge, huge star. The Met (4000 seats) was packed to the gunwales for the final performance (in this season) of L’Elisir. It’s a straightforward production, pretty and full of lovely touches from director Bartlett Sher. Apart from having a voice of dark beauty, electrifying power and easy flexibility, Netrebko’s is a divinely acted Adina: strong, funny and touching. At first glance Ramon Vargas (Nemorino) didn’t cut a terribly romantic figure. He is a tenor in the shortish, slightly tubby mould, but his sweetness of temperament was winning and it didn’t hurt that his rival in love, Sergeant Belcore, was played (very effectively) by the, ahem, larger-than-life Nicola Alaimo.

Vargas made a gorgeous start, then a little roughness and wobbliness crept in. Not hugely oppressive, but noticeable. A Met man arrived on stage with a microphone after interval. Oh-oh! But we were told that while Vargas hadn’t entirely recovered from a recent illness, he would finish the show. Much relieved applause. He finished magnificently, getting a huge ovation for Una furtiva lagrima, which he sang with more beauty and refinement than many a tenor in tip-top form.

The sexy bass-baritone Erwin Shrott played Doctor Dulcamara as a very naughty boy indeed and with a voice to die for. Apparently the November separation of Shrott and Netrebko after a long personal partnership hasn’t affected their work. They seemed very jolly together on stage. A fabulous night.

January 31, 2014

New York, day 4

WHY there aren’t Thursday matinees in New York, as there are in London, is a mystery. Broadway thrives on the tourist trade. Why not give those who are in town for only a few days as many chances as possible to buy a ticket? A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder really bucked the trend by offering a Friday matinee, but presumably that was on account of the Super Bowl to be played across the way in New Jersey on Sunday. New York is packed with football fans at the moment. Still, this Friday slot was a real gift to the visitor tying to maximise her program.

If you’ve seen the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets you know the story (the source material is a book by Roy Horniman). Impoverished Monty Navarro discovers he comes from aristocratic stock. Only eight members of the D’Ysquith family stand between him and a title. As you may know, Alec Guinness played all members of that august family (called the D’Ascoynes in the movie). In this witty, sweet and beautifully staged musical that particular gauntlet has been taken up by Jefferson Mays, who is pure delight. Perhaps he is nowhere better than as Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, a cleric who comes to a very bloody end, but his adventurous do-gooder Lady Hyacinth is also remarkably fine. It’s certainly a star turn, but the production has a second star in Bryce Pinkham, whose Monty is utterly charming and most attractively sung. In his hands murder seems such a delightful thing.

Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) and Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) have written extremely jolly songs with a light music-hall touch that feels authentic. Monty’s love interests, Sibella Hallward and Phoebe D’Ysquith, are high soprano roles and the clear, silvery sound is a million miles away from the big power-ballad sound so often heard in contemporary musicals. Alexander Dodge’s set design puts a dear little stage within the stage, complete with a swooshing red curtain that falls to hide the next scene change. And there are many, all executed with much flair.

There is one problem: most of the murder victims get theirs in the first act. After that it’s mostly love tangles and the second act does lose some momentum as a result. A bit of a nip and tuck wouldn’t go astray.

The evening brought Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera. It was rather a disappointment in several departments. The 1993 production from Otto Shenk is an uninspired affair, having nothing of the fairytale mystery it presumably means to summon. The set for acts I and III is a hugely inflexible blob of lake and rocky outcrop, most of which can’t be used. The lake – an effect achieved with sparkly fabric – takes up a huge part of the vast Met stage and only right at the end does it have a theatrically effective reason for being so bloody big. Much is in semi-darkness and while there is an undeniable Arthur Rackhamesque atmosphere, nothing much is done with it.

In the title role, Renee Fleming makes her first appearance perched in a dead tree, set well back. She was often scarcely audible, although as much later one of the Wood Sprites sounded very well from that same spot, placement wasn’t the issue.

Fleming was a little troubled at the highest reaches of the voice on sustained notes and generally seemed to be singing at reduced strength.This shouldn’t be a problem for her appearance at the Super Bowl on Sunday, where she sings The Star Spangled Banner (usually a pop star gets the honour, so good on her for getting the gig). The anthem at a football match is not quite as taxing an assignment as Rusalka. But certainly on Thursday night she wasn’t sounding in peak form.

It was a great pleasure to see and hear tenor Piotr Beczala, one of the main reasons, really, why I went. He sounded a little dry to start with but opened up to be an ardent, elegant, persuasive Prince.

Dvorak fared much better in the pit, where Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Met orchestra sounded drop-dead gorgeous. So not a wasted night. Next up operatically speaking, Anna Netrebko in The Elixir of Love.

January 30, 2014

New York, day 3

OFF to New York City Ballet and Balanchine’s Jewels! I think I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen it a second time, which I will on Sunday. One thing though – it was wonderful to see Sara Mearns in Diamonds. She really is a dancer on a grand scale. Brilliant.

January 28 and 29, 2014

New York, days 1 and 2

MY plan to see 20 shows in 13 days has got off to a great start. An on-time arrival in New York on Tuesday was the key to success. I threw the bags into the hotel room, rugged up and raced to the lovely 59e59 theatre for a 7pm start. On my last trip to NYC I was so confident of arriving on time that I booked to see Mike Bartlett’s Bull at 59e59 but was stymied by bad weather. Not happy – particularly as I’d very much enjoyed Bartlett’s highly engaging play Cock on an earlier visit to NYC. (Melbourne Theatre Company opens its production of Cock on February 7. Wish I could be there.) This time I decided to wing it and all was well. Not only did I arrive in good time to buy a ticket to The Tribute Artist, it cost me only $US20. A special offer, I was told. And it was a great seat. Theatre A at 59e59 is an intimate space that I enjoyed very much; The Tribute Artist, well, it’s not quite cooked (I saw a preview). Written by and starring Charles Busch, The Tribute Artist is a wonky farce in which Busch – who is a female impersonator – plays a female impersonator, or “tribute artist”, who impersonates a suddenly deceased friend in order to lay hands on her fabulous home. A long-estranged relative with a transgender child turns up unexpectedly and much trouble and confusion ensues. Busch is charismatic, no doubt about it, but the play doesn’t live up to its madcap potential. Still, previews are designed to test out material and perhaps Busch is nipping and ticking as we speak.

Wednesday was a two-show day, naturally. First up, John Patrick Shanley’s new play, Outside Mullingar. Shanley won a Pulitzer prize and a Tony for Doubt in 2005; he is unlikely to repeat that feat with Outside Mullingar, a whimsical piece with poetic touches set in Ireland. There is a great deal of black Irish humour about death and quite a lot of sentiment about farming and the land, wrapped up in a romance about two prickly souls. Brian F. O’Byrne’s Anthony and Debra Messing’s Rosemary make attractive antagonists but I do wish Shanley had come up with a better reason for Anthony’s shrinking from the world. One waits for the revelation eagerly, but the reason is too mad for words. Messing, best known for her television work – Will & Grace, Smash – is clearly a drawcard and she got the famous person’s round of applause on her entrance. She isn’t quite as technically adept a stage performer as her co-stars, giving a performance that is feisty, vigorous and good-hearted, but she falls back on large-scale mugging just a bit too often. Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy are wonderful as Anthony’s father and Rosemary’s mother. Outside Mullingar is a sweet enough 95 minutes, though, and looks fine, with John Lee Beatty’s evocative interiors and lots and lots of rain.

American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield, is superb – one of those productions you could see again and again and one it’s hard to imagine being bettered. The director is John Tiffany, whose riveting Black Watch we saw at the Sydney Festival a few years back. Stephen Hoggett, who choreographed Black Watch, is movement director. In this production Tennessee Williams’s memory play is illuminated by so many delicate, resonant, surprising, beautiful, heart-breaking touches: Bob Crowley’s spare set of hexagonal platforms that floats in a dark sea, the skeletal fire escape stairs that diminish in size as they disappear upwards, the one glass animal that represents Laura’s collection, the way in which Laura makes her entrance and exit, the sudden pull of memory that draws Tom into the past, the tenderness and restraint of the scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller … well, one could go on and on. The performances, all of them, are exquisite – Jones, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller suspend time and place. What a privilege to see such art.

January 26, 2014

MY New Year’s resolution: keep up with the diary. This is where I’ll natter on about all the shows I will be seeing very shortly in New York. If I manage to see one the night I arrive – on Tuesday – I’ll fit in 20 shows in two weeks, a number I think is very satisfactory. Lots of ballet, four operas, plenty of theatre. Can’t wait.

January 12, 2014

THE Sydney Festival hasn’t quite got everything right with its expanded Festival Village, but it’s going in the right direction. The much larger site on Hyde Park offers lots more room for people to meet for a drink and soak up a bit of summer atmosphere. Problem is that the licensing laws restrict the number of people allowed into the space, and count in that number those hidden away in the two main venues within the village confines – the Spiegeltent and the Circus Ronaldo Tent. So the Festival Village can look quite sparsely attended while people are queueing and waiting at the entrance. Naturally this gets people grumbling. I don’t know what the answer is, but it needs some attention. You really don’t want a festival club that people bitch about. On the very bright side, the shows in the tents are huge fun – I’ll put something up about them when I’ve got a few more under my belt.

December 12, 2013

IT has been thrilling to be at the third Ring cycle in Melbourne. We’re only halfway through, so I think I’ll wait until all is done before venturing thoughts on the production. People I’ve chatted to at interval are saying the same thing: they want to see how everything comes together – or not – before pontificating. On the music front there’s certainly plenty to say right now. The Melbourne Ring Orchestra is putting in a blinder, and there is much soul-stirring singing. Warwick Fyfe is having a huge success as Alberich having stepped up when John Wegner sadly had to pull out due to ill health. Miriam Gordon-Stewart, making her debut as Sieglinde, was cheered lustily last night, and of course the house adored Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund. Jacqueline Dark is a truly formidable Fricka, and Susan Bullock is proving to be a fascinating and highly attractive Brunnhilde – a combination of youthful exuberance and deep passions. And not only that, she is in tip-top physical shape. The production requires her to do a brisk run up a huge spiral pathway, and she does it with what looks like the greatest of ease, not breaking stride for a second. Finally, it’s a huge privilege to be here for what will be Terje Stensvold’s final outing in a full Ring (we will hear his Wanderer on Wednesday in Siegfried). The Norwegian baritone, who very recently turned 70, has announced he is retiring next year. He is in fantastic voice and is extraordinarily charismatic on stage. He is certainly leaving on a high. What a class act.

November 19, 2013

SOME time ago I was able to assert that Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was a strong candidate for the best play written in my lifetime. This large claim was possible because Waiting for Godot was written, in French, a couple of years before I was born, although its first production came shortly after that happy event. The first production in English was in 1955. That may sound a fair time ago, but it took but a moment for Godot to be recognised as one of the greats. I studied it for my Higher School Certificate, only 15 years after it appeared before a rather hostile London audience whose opinion was sharply reversed when the influential Sunday critics Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson weighed in. Those were the days, eh! Anyway, this is a play I adore, as you can tell from my review. And I will take the opportunity here to run yet another of Lisa Tomasetti’s brilliant production shots. If you’re in Sydney before December 21, do not hesitate a moment.

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

November 16, 2013

FINDING myself at liberty this afternoon I went to the Sydney Opera House for a return bout of La Sylphide. There were two reasons: the second was to catch Chengwu Guo’s James; but before that I wanted to see Lucinda Dunn in her first performance of the current season in Paquita, the curtain-raiser to La Sylphide. She was so wonderful in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 earlier in the year and it’s always worth searching the cast list for her appearances. Dunn was particularly fine in her Paquita adagio, regal with sumptuous detail. Later she substituted a manege for the fouettes, a choice I liked very much. The swiftly flowing circles within circles sparkled like diamonds. Even the magisterial Lana Jones on opening night had a little blemish or two in her grandly executed fouettes at this point in the ballet and while that seems an incredibly picky thing to point out, ballet always aspires to a state of perfection. I did adore Jones, by the way, as you can see from my review on this blog. Daniel Gaudiello partnered Dunn in Paquita and was rightly cheered for his bravura. I love a matinee audience – the level of inhibition is much lower than in the evening. Guo was a soaring James in La Sylphide, his command of shape and structure magnificent and his elevation a thing of immense beauty. He looked as feather-light as his Sylph on this occasion, Reiko Hombo. In the mix’n’match season Guo also partners Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota. Guo is obviously the next male principal artist of the Australian Ballet. Just a matter of when. Do see him if you can.

October 31, 2013 – updated: Broadway before Hamburg!

THE power of the internet! Since posting the piece below I have received feedback that leads me to believe that, contrary to the info I originally had, a Broadway production of King Kong will indeed precede a Hamburg one.

The key question is which theatre will host King Kong? If you read below, you’ll see there’s a prediction from The New York Post that the Foxwoods will soon be available, and there’s an implication that King Kong will go there. I get the impression that it’s not a done deal, and that other theatres capable of staging King Kong – and they are few in number – may still be in consideration.

I’d still be of the opinion that Hamburg would be a good place to start a reworking, but hey they didn’t ask me. And given that we hear a second animatronic Kong is either in the process of being built ot close to it, two productions could more or less coincide, or certainly overlap.

We shall see.

My original piece:

WHEN in Melbourne for the festival last week I kept thinking I should go to see King Kong again to see if it has been tweaked in any way to address some of its quite large dramaturgical issues. (If you’re interested, I reviewed it for the blog not long after the opening.) I didn’t have the time to revisit the show last week, and anyway, I hear it’s pretty much as it was on opening in June. This morning, via UK theatre columnist Mark Shenton, I read a column by The New York Post entertainment writer Michael Riedel that gave Kong a little mention. The column was essentially about the musical version of Rocky that’s heading for Broadway, but then Riedel segued into a mention of Spider-man,Turn Off the Dark. Riedel says he’s hearing that Spidey may be scuttling out of Broadway on January 5 as its grosses are way, way below break-even point. As you will recall, the show officially opened in 2011 after an unprecedented number of previews and much anguish amongst the creative team. Now here’s the interesting bit for us. Riedel writes: “The stomping sound you hear is King Kong, making its way to the Foxwoods Theatre.” In June, shortly after the Melbourne opening, producer Carmen Pavlovic told The New York Times she was considering further productions of King Kong for late 2014 and for 2015 and that she hoped to bring Kong to Broadway first. She said she would not seek a total rewrite of the book – the most criticised aspect of the show – nor to rethink the score, which also displeased some critics, but was, in my opinion, a rather more successful element than the book.However, she did say “I do expect we’ll make some changes to the musical before our next production”. In November last year – well before Kong opened – the NYT was reporting that the King Kong producers were eyeing the Foxwoods, Broadway’s largest capacity theatre, for a production to come in “perhaps as early as 2014”. At the time, the Spider-man people said they had no intention of vacating the Foxwoods and expected the show to be in situ through 2014 and beyond. The NYT reported its weekly gross was about $US1.5 million a week. But that was a year ago. Today the NY Post is saying the show is pulling in only about $US700,000 a week. Despite all this exciting Broadway talk, I’m hearing that Kong‘s next stop will be Hamburg next year. It makes sense in a couple of ways, particularly as Pavlovic told The Sydney Morning Herald only a week ago that Broadway was on the cards “within the next two years for sure”, a rather more elastic time frame than previously spoken off. She didn’t want to name theatres she was looking at, because to do so would suggest an incumbent show was close to closing. Riedel suggests that’s the case regarding Spider-man and the Foxwoods. However, Kong‘s book does need a lot of work before hitting super-critical Broadway. A decision appears to have been taken to leave the Melbourne production as is, which sounds fair enough in business terms. We know Kong has to leave Melbourne’s Regent Theatre well before May next year because Wicked is returning, so why disrupt the show extensively at this point? After that the producers can roll their sleeves up for the second act. Getting a huge production like Kong right doesn’t happen overnight, particularly in an environment such as Broadway. We see that from the Spider-man experience. So what better place to sort out issues than Hamburg which, incidentally, is the city that embraced Rocky so warmly when it premiered there in November last year? Just an idea.

October 26, 2013

THE Melbourne Festival’s last few days have more treasures than I can fit in, more’s the pity. Last night’s Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker by Belarus Free Theatre was thrilling, and I’ll have a few things to say about it when I pull together a group of things I’ve seen in the past two weeks. I probably won’t throw it in with the musicals Grease and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, both seen on Wednesday (bless the matinee – see below). There are other things it has rather more affinity with. It is interesting to see the festival throwing the spotlight on criticism, about which there has been much hand-wringing (mainly in the UK) about whether professionals can survive in the digital age. My piece on the subject that ran in The Australian is now up on the blog. I am pretty optimistic that serious, experienced and knowledgeable criticism will continue in a variety of forms. Thing is, while UK critics are fearful that no one will in the future be able to make a living from being a critic, in Australia that happy state is incredibly rare. Almost every critic working in Australia does it in addition to other employment, or as part of a wider  range of duties. To suggest that criticism is doomed because no one will be able to make a living from it is an irrelevant argument here.

October 18, 2013

THIS weekend the ABC will screen John Weiley’s rediscovered and restored 1968 documentary about the Sydney Opera House’s rather challenging teething problems. We all know the path to the building’s current eminence was rocky but it’s easy to forget the extent of the struggle, superbly encapsulated here. Away from the politics, Weiley is unsparing in his depiction of those citizens who thought an opera house entirely surplus to Australia’s requirements. Oh how we laughed at the preview screening last night in the Concert Hall, but we shouldn’t forget that the arts still have to fight hard to be valued here as they should be, and that the Sydney Opera House is in need of extensive remedial work. No wonder the SOH’s chief executive, Louise Herron, last night gleefully relayed to the large preview audience the results of a Deloitte study on the value of the Opera House. It concluded that the “cultural and iconic” value of the SOH is $4.6 billion, a figure so attractive Herron just had to say it again. And apparently the SOH contributes $775 million annually to the Australian economy. I find this very pleasing given my association with the House from a very early stage – as an impecunious 20-something I worked as an usher during the testing stage just before the opening. I do feel the tiniest bit of ownership. Autopsy on a Dream can be seen on ABC1 at 9.25pm on Sunday.

October 9, 2013, afternoon

ALL hail the weekday matinee! I’ve just returned from a 1pm performance of A Murder is Announced at the Sydney Theatre (a review will be up in a day or two, once I get a couple of other things out of the way). But what it was like is beside the point here. It was Wednesday, it was afternoon, and it was on. There hasn’t been much of a tradition of mid-week matinees in our big cities, not at least as far as I can remember. Yet this year I’ve been to quite a few and it’s a practice I am getting to like greatly. Some performances have been timed for schools audiences, and I’m very happy to be part of that crowd. The kids seem to be rather better behaved in the theatre than we were in my youth (not that I got the chance to go to much), but then I think the shows are infinitely better. The Ensemble in Sydney’s Kirribilli knows its audience, putting on loads of Tuesday and Thursday matinees at 11am, which undoubtedly encourages patrons to have a good old talk about the play over lunch. Very smart. A Murder is Announced – based on an Agatha Christie yarn – is a commercial show directed, one imagines, at an older and perhaps more conventional audience than may be found at the subsidised theatres. But the place – very well attended – wasn’t entirely stacked with septuagenarians. Indeed, I was sitting next to a little girl who had been brought by her aunt and the kid adored the show, as did the aunt. I must confess, however, that pensioners probably predominated. Obviously it helps if you don’t have to go to the office. I am a retired senior myself, but hey, 60 is the new 40. And Wednesday afternoon is the new Saturday night. Plus I get to go to the theatre tonight as well (Griffin, for The Floating World. Can’t wait.) Win, win, win.

October 9, 2013, morning

BLESS! Sydney has a new theatre carved out of East Sydney’s former Burton Street Tabernacle – just up the road from my inner-city pad, conveniently enough. The building has been beautifully re-purposed in a multi-million-dollar Sydney City Council project, keeping the bones of the old Baptist church and its stained glass windows while creating a lovely 200-seat auditorium. Under the stage, by the way, is the old baptismal font, accessible should such be required in a production. The name of the theatre could not be more perfect: it’s the Eternity Playhouse, in honour of Sydney identity Arthur Stace, a drunkard who saw the light at a church on Broadway in 1930. It was at a service at the Baptist church (at the corner of Burton and Palmer streets) that he got the inspiration for the decades-long act of devotion that earned him the name Mr Eternity. For nearly 40 years he walked the city at night, writing “Eternity” over and over again in chalk in the most beautiful hand. Darlinghurst Theatre Company is the lucky resident company and opens its first production at the Eternity, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, next month. First up next year, a most welcome production of William Finn’s musical Falsettos. Later in 2014 Darlinghurst Theatre Company hosts a return season of The Motherf**ker with the Hat from Workhorse Theatre. It had a season this year at TAP Gallery and was a knockout. The playhouse will also be available for part of the year for other ventures – it will be interesting to see if the Sydney Festival can put it to use, given that Falsettos doesn’t open until February 7.

September 30, 2013

IN December 2009, when I was editing the Review section of The Weekend Australian, I asked Graeme Blundell to write about Steven McRae. He was then only 23, a young man brought up in Sydney’s western suburbs who had recently become a principal artist with the Royal Ballet. In just six years he had gone from ballet student to the highest rank in one of the world’s leading companies. It was a great story then and it’s still a great one as McRae cements himself as an international star. He seems to be able to do no wrong as far as the British dance critics are concerned, and they can be a snippy lot. He is also much in demand for galas and guest appearances around the globe. He has returned home to dance only once, appearing in The Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet in Sydney in December 2009 and in a Melbourne gala. Now Li Cunxin at Queensland Ballet has snaffled McRae to dance Romeo for two performances in next year’s season of the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo & Juliet, partnering one of QB’s principals. English National Ballet’s artistic director and prima ballerina Tamara Rojo and the Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta will also dance two performances each. Li will pair them with a QB dancer too, rightly seeing this as an unparalleled opportunity for his dancers. To accommodate a production of this scale and artists of this stature, Romeo & Juliet will be staged in the large Lyric Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre rather than the usual Playhouse. There will be eight performances, from June 27.

Here is a link to Blundell’s piece:

While I was in Brisbane for the festival last week I dropped into QB’s headquarters to have a chat to Li and he invited me to watch a rehearsal for forthcoming regional performances of Giselle. I was able to get a close-up look at QB’s lovely new principal artist, Natasha Kusch, who has joined from Vienna State Opera Ballet, where she was a soloist. Ukraine-born Kusch appeared in last year’s International Gala at QB where she danced with the Australian Ballet’s Daniel Gaudiello in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Originally from Brisbane, Gaudiello, by the way, will also be a guest for Romeo & Juliet, dancing Mercutio.

Of Kusch, Li said: “She makes your heart leap. She’s breathtaking. These rare talents, they don’t come around that often, so when you can secure them, you want them to be part of the company. She is so hungry. She is such a perfectionist. I love that. It is never enough for her, even if she’s already beautiful. That attitude, that’s something I love.”

Anyone who knows anything about Li will understand that this kind of commitment is something he prizes passionately in dancers. From what I could tell from the highly detailed, stop-start rehearsal process, Kusch will be an exquisite Giselle.

QB now has six principal artists and a guest principal artist, Huang Junshuang, who will return to QB in the same capacity next year.

 September 19, 2013

I HAD the pleasure of interviewing Alexei Ratmansky recently about his new production of Cinderella for The Australian Ballet. This was for the AB’s program – if you go to Cinders, do buy one! – and we talked about various matters that didn’t end up in the program essay. Some things just don’t fit in. I was intrigued, however, to discover during my research for the piece that there is a spooky connection between Prokofiev, who wrote the wonderful score for Cinderella, and Stalin, under whose regime Prokofiev lived and he and so many artists suffered. You can hear in Cinderella an undertow of melancholy that’s entirely appropriate to the times. (The score premiered in 1945.) But back to the link, which is this: Prokofiev and Stalin died on the the very same day in 1953. And a further connection: the Mariinsky Ballet has in its repertoire a version of Cinderella that Ratmansky choreographed in 2002. And on what day did that work premiere? March 5, the anniversary of Prokofiev’s death, and of Stalin’s. As it happens, Ratmansky says he didn’t register the date’s significance. “Yeah true – 5th of March. I never knew,” he said. Presumably the Mariinsky did.

September 12, 2013

IT’S been quite a coup for West Australian Ballet to get John Cranko’s Onegin for the company. It’s a great favourite with dancers, who love the meaty roles it offers. For potential audiences, though, there can be a bit of a stumbling block to enjoyment (and possibly to ticket-buying): how do you actually pronounce Onegin? It wouldn’t be a problem for rusted-on balletomanes, but as for the wider potential audience, well …

With the premiere looming (Onegin opens on September 20) I was delighted to discover that WAB did a vox-pop to put the name to the test. One-jin, anyone?

I recalled something Richard Evans had said in passing about Onegin when he was the Australian Ballet’s chief executive, so I gave him a call. “It’s much loved by dancers and companies and used to be loved by audiences,” he said, but thinks the name doesn’t have the recognition it once enjoyed. “Audiences in the past were more familiar with a broader slew of references,” he said.

He’s undoubtedly right. And who knows, it may be why Cinderella is getting plenty of play in ballet companies at the moment (the AB’s new Cinders opens on Tuesday). It’s easy to say and everyone knows the essentials of the story, which can be boiled down to a dozen words – motherless girl, horrible stepsisters, fairy godmother, ball, prince, lost slipper, happy ending.

Obviously I’m greatly looking forward to Cinderella, which comes from the hands of the mighty Alexei Ratmansky. I’ll also be in Perth for Onegin – on-YAY-gin (hard g) – just a few days later, and will review it for The Australian the week after next and at greater length on this blog shortly thereafter.

And here, for older ballet fans, is a piece of history. Egon Madsen, who created the role of Lensky in Onegin for John Cranko, is seen here coaching WAB’s newest principal artist, Jiri Jelenik, formerly of Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada, and fellow principal artist Jayne Smeulders, in the roles of Onegin and Tatiana.

September 5, 2013

LAST week the Metropolitan Opera’s supremo, Peter Gelb, wrote a piece for Bloomberg that I suspect Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini would agree with. Having just returned from Europe and seen what reduced levels of subsidy are doing to companies there, Gelb took the opportunity to stress how audience-friendly the Met, with hardly any public assistance, needs to be.

”In order to avoid becoming a cultural dinosaur, opera must continue to attract an audience that will not only buy expensive tickets, but also make generous donations. (Last year alone, the Met raised $150 million in contributions to balance its budget.)

Reinterpreting the classics with a new breed of opera stars who possess acting skills to go with their high C’s, and guided by conductors, directors and designers at the top of their game, we at the Met aim to offer extravagant yet sophisticated entertainment.

Of course, most of opera’s past success was based on its ability to entertain audiences, which should be self-evident to anyone who has been moved by the tragic circumstances of Verdi’s “Otello” or tickled by the comic relief of his “Falstaff.”

But today the notion that high art can also be entertainment is anathema to those who think that genius is not suited to accessibility and that opera presentations should be a Spartan exercise.

… Now, with global finances for the arts tightening like never before, a reality check is in order. Since opera is an art form that depends on the positive response of the public and on attracting new audiences, it’s not a good idea to turn off either. Audiences are not going to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to be confused or insulted.

There’s lots more in that vein, so it’s no surprise to see that the Met, in its forthcoming season, is staging plenty of accessible repertoire, including Falstaff, La boheme, The Magic Flute, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto and Tosca. The Met also has to satisfy an experienced constituency, so there’s Wozzeck, Rosenkavalier, Prince Igor and Die Frau ohne Schatten on the schedule as well as other operas with name recognition but outside the top 10. There is very little of a truly thrilling nature.

Whatever Gelb’s juggling act, Terracini’s is just as difficult. He has tackled the audience expansion matter well with Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, putting a classic musical into the mix and next year’s Opera on the Beach at the Gold Coast, which sounds magic. Getting the Ring up in Melbourne is a triumph. When it comes to the regular programming, however, there’s the never-ending necessity of getting streams of people through the door so the bills can be paid. Put on too many performances – any? – of Wozzeck and let the red ink flow.

I will never forget British soprano Susan Bullock telling me, when she was performing in OA’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 2009, that there were times when the audience numbered about 300 (and there wasn’t a huge number of performances). This was for a sensationally good production. And where was the audience for Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in 2009, with its unforgettable central performance from Anthony Dean Griffey? I believe Terracini when he says he can’t sell Peter Grimes – and by that he’s not saying the OA marketing department isn’t up to scratch. He’s saying there are not enough people who want to pay to see that opera. This is despite the fact OA has a terrific production and can attract Stuart Skelton – a superlative Grimes – to appear in it.

There are plenty of other examples. This isn’t about berating potential audiences for not wanting to spend their hard-earned cash on operas they don’t want to see. That’s just reality, and there aren’t enough hardcore opera-lovers to take up the slack. They may bitch about it, but if only 300 people a night want to see a top-notch Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, extremely well cast, it’s a disaster for the bottom line.

Obviously one would hope that the popularity of South Pacific (last year and this) and The King and I (next year) would help cover costs for less conventional repertoire, and I expect that’s the plan. Which is why if opera buffs hate the idea of OA doing musicals they should just take a deep breath, shut up, and go to something else.

I can only assume OA is going through a very careful financial phase right now because next year’s program won’t frighten the horses in any way. Otello and Eugene Onegin are as dark and difficult as it gets. I think that’s a shame, but then I don’t have to do the sums. From conversations with Terracini I know he’d love to really push the boat out, so this isn’t a bashing exercise. More a lament.

That said, I’ll be perfectly happy to see just about everything – well, the Julie Taymor reduced version of The Magic Flute isn’t a fave, nor the Francesca Zambello Carmen – and look forward to the new productions, particularly David McVicar’s Don Giovanni, which is to be the first in a series of three new Mozart productions from McVicar over three years. I am really, really keen to see The King and I again (I saw this production in its first incarnation in 1991) and call me shallow, but one of the great moments was the reveal of Anna’s Shall We Dance gown (costumes by Roger Kirk). Honestly, the audience just clapped and clapped. On a more serious note, it’s a wonderful piece and deserves to be a big hit.

Terracini gets a big tick for getting Jonas Kaufmann to these shores. Yes, it’s only for a recital, but we have to take what we can get in that quarter as Kaufmann is scorching hot at the moment.

In other opera news it was wonderful to see the program Victorian Opera’s Richard Mills has devised for next year. It’s ridiculously good and I want to see it all. Luring very successful young Australian soprano Jessica Pratt for La traviata is a great coup; it’s a splendid idea that a second Sondheim musical, Into the Woods, will follow this year’s Sunday in the Park with George; there is a new Australian work from Iain Grandage (music) and Alison Croggon (libretto) based on Tim Winton’s The Riders, so that’s unmissable; and there will be an intriguing concert version of Norma as Bellini intended it and as we usually do not hear it. (Cecilia Bartoli has been a champion of this and has recently sung the title role.) In this version Adalgisa is taken by a lighter voice than we would expect these days, and soprano Nicole Car has been engaged for the part.

Which leads to the inescapable conclusion that 2014 is the Year of Nicole Car. Apart from Adalgisa she will sing Mimi and Tatyana for OA’s Sydney summer season, Tatyana in Melbourne in the autumn, and will share Desdemona with Tamar Iveri in Melbourne. At this rate she’ll also be asked to give us her Michaela in Carmen in Sydney. Or perhaps not. It’s a big workload, and good luck to her.

August 31, 2013

IN 1974, when I was a mere slip of a girl, I saw The Rocky Horror Show which – in star Reg Livermore’s words – was being staged at a “tacky old movie house” in Sydney’s Glebe. The show had premiered in London only a year before and I recall it being a pretty hot ticket. The show was fantastic and the dilapidated theatre perfect for it. I’ve seen a few productions since, but none better. One of Livermore’s fellow cast members was Sal Sharah, who, in the interests of full disclosure, I need to say I know well, as he is married to my very good friend and fellow arts journalist Jo Litson. He is also the father of exciting young performer Tom Sharah, who in a roundabout way is the subject of this entry. It’s all connected though. About a week ago I saw Tom’s cabaret show, It’s Raining Me!, at Slide Lounge in Sydney and was blown away by how much his voice has grown over the past couple of years. What he needs now is the tutelage of an experienced theatre director to hone and harness his raw but considerable talent. Much of It’s Raining Me! was based around Tom’s stint in the Channel 10 reality show I Will Survive (Tom was runner-up) but he put in some unrelated songs, including Sweet Transvestite from Rocky Horror. He makes no secret of wanting to play Frank N Furter some day and I reckon he’s got the chops for it. He’s at that point where things are starting to happen for him, and they should. They don’t, however, include the new production of Rocky Horror that’s opening in Brisbane early next year, and one can see why. It’s one of those big-venue productions – I believe it’s one currently doing the rounds in the UK to mark Rocky Horror‘s 40th anniversary – that needs some known names in the cast. The older demographic is being wooed with Craig McLachlan, named this week as Frank N Furter. Other roles are yet to be cast, but at least some of the performers are going to have to be attractive to younger theatregoers. Those bases need to be covered. It’s the business part of show. But I don’t think I’m just wallowing in nostalgia when I say I’d prefer to see a grungey, small-scale production of Rocky Horror with a kid with a bit of edge, like Tom, in it.

August 16, 2013

AS I mention in my latest post on current Sydney theatre I had been going to review the US comedy-music act Blue Man Group this week. My invitation was withdrawn by the producer, Rodney Rigby for reasons that remain a little unclear to me. However, he told the arts editor of The Australian, Ashleigh Wilson, that he found the paper’s reviewing “inconsistent”. That’s an unusal comment – The Australian uses the services of many critics in all artforms across the country. How could consistency be possible – and that’s not even to mention whether it would be desirable to have some kind of uniformity of opinion-making? Who would police that? Very sinister. If Mr Rigby’s remark about consistency was directed at me, as I’ve said elsewhere, I think I am consistent. If a show’s good I say so; ditto if I find a show lacking. Ah well, a little mystery. Obviously I could have bought a ticket to Blue Man Group and reviewed anyway, but on opening night the only tickets available were in the top circle and were $99 for a seat in the centre (there were $49 tickets to the side). I thought that was a steep price for that part of the theatre, and also wasn’t sure that I’d see the show to advantage from there. Various friends and associates who were attending the show offered to take me as their plus one, but I didn’t think that would be an honourable thing to do. Mr Rigby didn’t want to give me one of his complimentary tickets, which is his right to decide. And they are expensive tickets. Very expensive. So I went to Stories Like These’s Fireface instead.

August 12, 2013

HOW long, one wonders, before most films are made in 3D and 2D techology joins black-and-white films in the vaults? Having just seen the Mariinsky’s Swan Lake in the cinema in 3D I can only hope the world’s leading dance companies find the funds, and quickly, to follow the St Petersburg company’s lead. This wasn’t a production I warmed to particularly. In the old Soviet manner this was Swan Lake with a happy ending, there was a pesky, intrusive Jester and the Odette, Ekaterina Kondaurova, while a sumptuous dancer, made little connection with her Siegfried. She seduced madly as Odile, but that’s not where the heart of the ballet lies, is it? On the plus side, the 3D technology made it seem as if one was in the theatre with the dancers. The whizz-bang for which 3D is mostly used was entirely absent – there were no swans flying headlong at one. But there was depth and spaciousness that gave the corps tremendous authority in the white acts. And it was thrilling to see the spectacular form, in the Act I pas de trois, of young Xander Parish, the first British dancer to be hired by the Mariinsky. He trained at the Royal Ballet School and was a member of the corps at the Royal Ballet before being snapped up by the Mariinsky’s director Yuri Fateyev in 2009. He is not only exceptionally handsome and a lovely clean dancer but has bags of star quality. The one that got away as far as British ballet is concerned, that’s for sure.

August 6, 2013

THE Australian Dance Awards are the best kind to have – concentrated, voted on by people who are all highly expert in the field and offering the industry a great chance to get together and celebrate. As with most awards, not everyone will agree with every decision – see my concerns below – but having been involved as a judge in the past I have seen the commitment the awards organisers have to inclusiveness and transparency.

The annual ADA event took place in Canberra last night, where Sydney Dance Company emerged as the big winner. Rafael Bonachela took the award for outstanding achievement in choreography for 2 One Another, SDC won outstanding performance for a company for the same work and it also scored for Charmene Yap the outstanding female dancer award.

Wen Chen missed out on the outstanding male dance award, nominated for 2 One Another, but he was in an incredibly strong field this year – so strong that there were five nominees rather than four. The judges selected wonderful Kimball Wong for Australian Dance Theatre’s Proximity from a field of nominees rounded out by Bangarra’s Daniel Riley McKinley for Terrain, James O’Hara for Gideon Obarzanek’s There’s Definitely a Prince Involved (The Australian Ballet) and Paul White for his spell-binding solo role in Martin del Amo’s Anatomy of an Afternoon.

As it happens, Wong’s was the only performance of the five that I didn’t see, but I know his work. I can imagine how difficult it was to separate these men.

Antony Hamilton followed up his Helpmann Award from last week by winning outstanding achievement in independent dance for Black Project 1.

Other winners were: Tracks Dance Company (youth and community dance), Jackie Hallahan (dance education), Sue Healey, Virtuosi (dance on film or new media), Tap Dogs company (commercial dance or musical theatre) and Shane Carroll (services to dance).

Ronne Arnold was given the Lifetime Achievement Award, recognising the profound and exciting impact he had on contemporary dance after coming to Australia from the United States more than 50 years ago.

Alan Brissenden has joined the Hall of Fame, and quite right too. Alan was a longtime colleague at The Australian, for which he has reviewed with distinction for many decades. His scholarship ranges far and wide and has been carried out over an astonishing six decades, providing those of us behind him with invaluable knowledge and inspiration.

Bravi both.

The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship was also announced last night, and has been awarded to Kay Armstrong, founder of western Sydney-based youMove Company. The annual fellowship of $10,000 is funded by the estate of the Australian Ballet’s founding artistic director and is given to a mid-career choreographer.

I’ve commented on this before, but again I note that classical dance is lightly represented in the awards. No room in the best choreography nominations for Graeme Murphy’s The Narrative of Nothing or Obarzanek’s There’s Definitely a Prince Involved, both of which were on the AB’s Infinity program?

Most puzzlingly, no nomination for the AB for outstanding performance by a company for Gemini, part of the Icons program? The first cast of Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes was extraordinary.

With Queensland Ballet undergoing quite a change of pace under Li Cunxin and with West Australian Ballet performing Onegin shortly it will be interesting to see if they gather any nominations next year.

August 5, 2013

THE launch today of the musical version of Strictly Ballroom was a huge media event, despite there being nothing much new to learn. Casting? Not a whiff. Selections from the score? Nope, although much-loved songs already known from the film will feature. Was there an early look at some designs? Unfortunately not.

Never mind. We know the production will start previews in Sydney on March 25 next year and it will have its official opening on April 12. And it’s probably fair to say there was one nugget. Director Baz Luhrmann revealed there would be a “participatory element” for the audience. “Everyone dances in this show,” he quipped.

So why was everyone there today, under chandeliers at Sydney Town Hall? It’s partly the glamour that surrounds Luhrmann, and partly the enormous affection people quite rightly have for the film of Strictly Ballroom, now 21 years old.

The genesis of the story goes back, however, to Luhrmann’s days at the National Institute of Dramatic Art when he and a group of fellow students created a short play about ballroom dancing. As Luhrmann tells it, that short piece was made in response to the Cold War. It may sound a stretch, but the theme of overcoming oppression is indeed a driving force of the piece. Luhrmann also talked about Strictly Ballroom’s incorporation of the “transformative myth” of the ugly duckling – apparently the students had been tasked with finding a way of refracting “primary myth” through their own experience. Luhrmann had learned ballroom and one of the group, Glenn Keenan, was a champion dancer. As history relates, that first go at Strictly Ballroom was invited to the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival in 1986, where it caused a sensation. At that time and in that place, young people saw behind the tulle and frou frou.

The film premiered in 1992 and its triumph at a midnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival is part of Australian film legend (and spawned legions of Strictly thises and Strictly thats). Luhrmann had a pleasing little note to add to the story today, describing how the Cannes festival’s invitation to screen there was extended while he was holidaying in a caravan park. A person had recently been killed there by a falling coconut, so Luhrmann took the international phone call while wearing a bucket on his head for protection. As you do. That invitation was the spark that lit the Bazmark flame.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell was at the launch, of course, and said that Strictly Ballroom the Musical (oh hateful nomenclature, but what can we do?) was expected to generate about $20 million for the city during its run and there was the usual faffing about Sydney as a global city, whatever that means. But O’Farrell spoke gracefully and briefly, so all good there.

For me the most pertinent question was posed by Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures, which is producing the musical with Luhrmann’s Bazmark. What do dinosaurs, dragons, great apes and ballroom dancers have in common, she asked, referring to the Global Creatures shows Walking with Dinosaurs, How to Train Your Dragon and King Kong.

What indeed. Global Creatures has excelled at works on a massive scale that create a sense of awe in the viewer. But for all the talk of challenging authority, for all the sparkle of the sequins and the loving but large send-up of the competitive dance world, Strictly Ballroom is an intimate story. The gawky girl, the daggy dance class, the suburban rooftop, the migrants and the working-class strivers – these places and people are the heartland of Strictly Ballroom.

It was good to hear Pavlovic say she felt the common denominator between the dinosaur and the dance hall was “a journey of emotion and delight”. Lurhmann is now 50, and says this new incarnation of Strictly Ballroom is “at the right time for my personal journey”. He spoke of “breaking new theatrical ground”, which I suspect – hope – means finding a way of using today’s whizz-bang technology as the obedient servant rather than the overbearing master. So no, there won’t be puppets doing the paso doble.

What is assured is a memorable, individual look for the show. The set and costume designer is, not surprisingly, Catherine Martin, whose stamp on Bazmark is indelible. As Luhrmann fondly said today of his wife: “I think she’s got potential.”

August 3, 2013

HARD on the heels of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s highly successful Bolshoi Ballet season – QPAC is boasting an audience satisfaction rating of 99.7% – comes news of a coup for the 2014 International Series. American Ballet Theatre will make its first Australian appearances in Brisbane from August 28 to September 7 next year with nine performances of Swan Lake and four of a triple bill of works by Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky.

Founded in 1940, ABT is considered one of the world’s leading classical companies and in 2006 was named the US’s national ballet company. Speaking at a media launch on August 2 the US ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey L. Bleich, wryly noted that it took an act of Congress for this to happen. He quipped that it was possibly the only piece of legislation passed in recent years by that famously divided body.

Speakers at the launch, including co-presenter Leo Schofield, noted the international make-up of ABT. “It’s a metaphor for America generally,” Schofield said.

ABT’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, selected the repertoire for Brisbane, Schofield said. Some weeks ago I suggested to Schofield that it would be exciting if ABT were to bring to Brisbane its production of Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia and Ratmansky’s recently premiered Shostakovich Trilogy, but these were, of course, vain hopes. Sylvia, to the music of Delibes, is not well enough known to the general public and an evening of Shostakovich is not likely to be as crowd-pleasing as QPAC needs its program to be. Bringing organisations of this size and stature to Australia is an expensive business.

McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake, which premiered in 2000, is a traditional one with individual touches. It is played with one interval, combining Acts I and II in the first half and III and IV in the second, and can’t be accused of dallying. The second half of this Swan Lake takes only 45 minutes in all to perform, rushing pell-mell from the Act III court scene in which Odile seduces Siegfried to a brief lakeside denouement.

The triple bill represents ABT’s “trajectory of artistic ambitions”, according to Schofield. Robbins’s much loved Fancy Free, danced to the music of Leonard Bernstein, dates from 1944 and follows the lively adventures of three sailors on leave in New York during World War II. Tharp’s Bach Partita was the choreographer’s fifth creation for ABT, premiering in 1983. She went on to make dozens more.

Bach Partita is something of a rarity having been last performed by ABT only two years after its premiere, but it will return to the repertoire in October this year before coming to Brisbane. It is danced to Bach’s Partita in D for unaccompanied violin. Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was given its first performances in 2009 and is danced to sonatas by keyboard virtuoso Domenico Scarlatti. Ratmansky is ABT’s artist in residence, a post he has held since early 2009. He is currently working with the Australian Ballet on a revision of his 2002 production of Cinderella.

It is, of course, far too early to know which members of ABT’s stellar group of principal artists will tour. My wish list includes Herman Cornejo, David Hallberg, Polina Semionova, Hee Seo, Cory Stearns and Diana Vishneva. Gillian Murphy should be considered a very strong chance given that she spends a significant part of her time just across the ditch in New Zealand, where she is a principal guest artist (her fiancé, Ethan Stiefel, directs RNZB).

Ballet fans in Australia and New Zealand can get an early viewing of Murphy in Swan Lake, albeit in a different version, as she is scheduled to dance in the Russell Kerr production in Auckland later this month. I saw her in Wellington and she was extraordinary.

QPAC’s 2014 International Series dates are rather later in the year than for this year’s Bolshoi engagement. I asked Queensland Ballet’s artistic director Li Cunxin whether that would affect QB’s operations. He said it’s possible there may be some impact on the timing of his 2014 mixed bill but that QB’s staging of the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet, a big coup for the company, would have already been performed. Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo are coming to QB as guest artists so there’s a great deal in store for Brisbane dance fans next year – and indeed for Australians. Much easier to go to Brisbane than New York or London.

August 1, 2013

WHEN Einstein on the Beach was staged at the 1992 Melbourne Festival I was fortunate enough to be arts editor at The Australian and this work, legendary since its premiere in 1976, was obviously something I had to see. As I nestled down into my seat I reflected that I was unlikely ever to be able to see this again. I therefore would not take advantage of the offer to patrons to come and go as they wished during the interval-free performance. I would hunker down for the four and a half hours required.

Well, miracles do happen, and Einstein has again come to Melbourne, looking and sounding radiant. Once more there was not a moment to be lost. I found I could not leave my seat. Indeed, if I could stay another night in Melbourne I’d go again. There is far, far too much to take in on one viewing.

Einstein is a cornucopia of teasing allusions, formal stage pictures of staggering beauty, virtuosic singing from the chorus, monumental playing from the small group of musicians and dance by Lucinda Childs of sophistication, grace and complexity. At every point there is something new to see or hear within a structure that honours the power of repetition and tiny alterations within.

It’s surreal, and testing, and sweet, and funny, and exhilarating, and enchanting. And it ends with a kiss. How lovely is that?

July 30, 2013

LAST night’s Helpmann Awards were a stark reminder of how lacklustre a year it’s been in Australian musical theatre. Three of the four nominees for best musical were imported productions – Legally Blonde, The Addams Family and South Pacific.  The only new production was the Melbourne-only A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, staged as a vehicle for Geoffrey Rush, who won the Helpmann for best male performance in a musical for his role as the wily slave Pseudolus. Lucy Durack won best female performer for Legally Blonde, which was also named best musical.

It was instructive that the Helpmann organisers allowed King Kong to take part in this year’s awards as it was still in previews when nominations closed. At least it bulked some of the musical theatre categories up, although it was rightly omitted from the best musical list.

I’m not sure what the King Kong decision means for next year. What if, say, this monster musical gets a substantial script makeover, something it very much needs. Producer Carmen Pavlovic told The New York Times a major overhaul was not on the cards, but – stay with me here – what if there’s enough tinkering to improve the underwritten, at times very clunky, part of Ann Darrow? She is played by the wonderful Esther Hannaford, who at present makes the most of a very thin role. She couldn’t be nominated again, could she?

The requirement for judging in any Helpmann category is that the invited experts have seen two of the four nominees. There is apparently a complicated weighting system to take that into account. Does the system work? Possibly, although I think that having seen only two out of four nominees is a poor way of judging what is best. Obviously that requirement acknowledges the vastness of our continent and the impossibility of judges travelling to see all potential nominees, but it doesn’t make for highly credible choices.

I’m not saying none of last night’s winners deserved their gong, but as always there were some nominations very much from left field and, from those groups, some unlikely winners.

I don’t know all the ins and outs of the weighting system but I would have thought that shows seen in a few cities would have a huge advantage over those that don’t. But apparently not!

The Addams Family (Sydney only, after a lacklustre response) scored a best supporting actor award for Russell Dykstra – he was terrific, loved him – and as mentioned, Rush won best performer for Forum (Melbourne only). I saw Forum on opening night and thought Rush was incredibly nervous and not in great voice. Perhaps many judges saw him later in Forum’s run.

Legally Blonde and South Pacific were seen in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, but South Pacific failed to pick up the performer nominations one might have expected. I looked in vain for Lisa McCune, who was the best I’ve seen her as Nellie Forbush. Indeed, I thought South Pacific immeasurably superior to Legally Blonde in just about every way. Is it because South Pacific was presented by Opera Australia that music theatre experts discounted it? Or were they just not in the theatre to see it?

As always, there are many more questions than answers with these awards. And one I’m idly asking this morning is how many of the Helpmann judges saw all four works nominated in the best musical category.

I did (I was not a judge this year). I know The Sunday Telegraph‘s Jo Litson did (she was a judge). How many others are there?

July 22, 2013 

I see it’s been nearly a month since I last wrote something. Must improve. I’m just about to leave Welllington, New Zealand, where it’s been a rocky old time with earthquakes but a wonderful time with Royal New Zealand Ballet on the occasion of its 60th birthday celebrations.

There have been loads of former dancers, administrators and backstage people in town and they were honoured at two public occasions yesterday, at a book launch for The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60,edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse and published by Victoria University Press, and at the curtain call after a special Sunday matinee performance of Swan Lake.

There were lots of private parties too, including one after the matinee. Among the exciting events was the earthquake that hit a bit after 5pm. I was impressed with the speed with which we were given the very sensible instruction not to dash down the stairs, but to hit the deck and cover our heads. We did this promptly as everything swayed around us, and happily all was well. After that bracing event we all went back to the wine, very thankful things had not been worse.

I had my own private anniversary event when Sir Jon Trimmer, leading artist with RNZB and a man who has worked with every artistic director, gave me a little spin around the room. What a treasure and a legend he is.

Must dash now. The room is starting to shake again …

June 30, 2013

As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred Dunlopillo.” – Kenneth Tynan on Titus Andronicus, 1955.

Tonstant Weader fwowed up. – Dorothy Parker on A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner. (She reviewed books under the byline Constant Reader.)

AUSTRALIAN reviewing is pretty tame by and large, which is why there’s a ripple of excitement when someone breaks ranks and gets really savage. Byron Bache, writing on, didn’t like Melbourne Theatre Company’s new production of The Crucible. A lot. He didn’t like it a lot. He thought it was shit and said so in exactly so many words. “I saw director Sam Strong stirring a cauldron that he’d filled not with beans, lentils and some stray frog like Tituba’s, but with shit,” he wrote early in the review, coming back to the excrement idea near the end.

There was some opinion, expressed on Twitter, that using poo imagery was a very bad thing. Bache had gone too far. (I need to point out, of course, that my impression of the views of others is formed entirely by those who I follow, those they retweet and those with whom they have had conversation on Twitter on this subject – it can’t be seen as the full picture. It’s a snapshot.)

Yes, Bache’s review was robust; yes, his poo references were what some people consider tasteless. I thought there was quite an elegant arc in the writing, but that’s just me. Bache really, really hated this production and wanted to express himself vehemently. I think that’s ok, and if regular Crikey readers don’t like this kind of expression in their publication, I expect they’ll say so.

More pertinent, however, was and is the discussion and questioning about what constitutes defamation and what is factual. This is where I’ll leave Bache’s review behind and talk generally.

When I was arts editor of The Australian, from 1991-2000, there were countless times when a review was run past the in-house lawyer. We needed to be absolutely certain that what we published would not lead to a defamation suit. Whether you think the defo laws are too restrictive is immaterial at this moment. If you don’t like a law, lobby to get it changed, but when you’re on the point of publishing – and yes social media users, this also means you! – you need to adhere to the law unless you want to get into trouble.

So it was fine for us to say, or for a reader to get the inference, that so-and-so acted poorly on this occasion in the theatre, but not that so-and-so cannot act. You would have to see every single performance in that actor’s career and be an acknowledged theatre expert to be able to make such a call without fear of reprisal. This is not only sensible legally speaking, it’s being fair and honest.

Being fair and honest can co-exist quite happily with exceptional toughness by the way. Scrupulous accuracy is the key.

On this front – well, it’s interesting, and dispiriting, how frequently many writers get impression and fact confused, or get carried away with hyperbole. Matters that are impossible to be independently verified are confidently presented as fact, or the reactions of a few are inflated into being those of the many. Dramatic licence, you might say. This is where it can get dangerous.

But if matters of law and fact are fixed, opinion, style and taste are fluid.

Whether someone’s opinion is worth paying attention to comes down to their level of knowledge on the subject at hand, which is able to be gleaned from their writing; the quality of their perceptions, ditto; and the quality of their writing, also ditto.

Which is why I don’t get exercised at all about the proliferation of opinion on the web. Readers can make up their own minds and I don’t think it’s for us to get all high and mighty about whether those readers are getting the “wrong” impression – the subtext being that there are all these dumb folk out there who need to be protected from stuff we think is bad.

One area that is incredibly difficult is that of tone and effect. Is something precise and penetrating in its expression or is it being smart-arse? Is it illuminating or is it just vicious; amusement in the form of animal cruelty. Should the critic necessarily have a shard of ice in his or her heart?

I think Tynan’s description of Vivien Leigh’s acting in Titus Andronicus was deeply cruel – especially as we know Leigh had to socialise with Tynan – but it’s also incredibly vivid. I can hear the performance across the decades. Was Tynan right in his perception? For him and possibly others, yes. Yet Philip Hope-Wallace in The Guardian wrote: “As that ‘map of woe’ Lavinia, Vivien Leigh is a striking picture of silent reproach.” They are both opinions. The reception by individuals of Leigh’s acting on that occasion cannot be a matter of fact.

Dorothy Parker’s review of The House at Pooh Corner is, I think, infinitely more funny than cruel, and in four words gets across a world of meaning. Brilliant.

Finally, many people will also know that Parker wrote about Katharine Hepburn, appearing in a play called The Lake, that she ran “the gamut of emotions from A to B”. It’s a most famous summation.

Except that as far as I can tell, Parker didn’t write it at all. She is reported as having said it during interval. So did she really say it? Probably. But I can’t say it’s a fact.

June 25, 2013

WITH the Helpmann Awards nominations announced yesterday it’s been open season – again – on them. The Helpmanns are now in their 13th year and seemingly little closer to being able to overcome very real barriers to credibility. How can any awards that cover a country as large as ours ever be judged in a consistent manner? They can’t be, of course. Not enough people see all potential nominees, and how could they? I’m extremely hard-pressed to see everything in Sydney in my areas of interest – dance, musical theatre, theatre – that might possibly be up for an award let alone all around the country. I travel around a LOT to see dance, and still don’t see everything of note; not by a long way.

I was extremely surprised, as were many, to see King Kong in the nominations. It opened on June 15, after the cut-off date of May 31. How can this be so? I looked up the awards criteria, and found the following:

Exceptional circumstances would include permitting an entry in the interests of:
(a) populating an Award category which has been in existence for less than 2 Helpmann Awards Seasons;
(b) ensuring that the entries in an Award category reflect the breadth and diversity of performances in that category for the Helpmann Awards Season.

So presumably clause (b) came into play in the musicals category, because Esther Hannaford and Chris Ryan – both just fine in their roles – were nominated for their performances in Kong. It’s very true that it hasn’t been a sparkling year for musical theatre, which one imagines is why Kong was allowed to be judged on the basis of previews. Presumably the thinking went that many in the wider group of people who vote on the nominees would have seen the show during its official run. But it’s not ideal I think you’d have to say.

King Kong didn’t get a nomination for best musical, which is the right call given its many flaws. Even so, the best musical nominee list contains two productions I thought quite weak – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and The Addams Family. They are up against South Pacific and Legally Blonde, which like The Addams Family are locally cast versions of productions created elsewhere. At least Forum was created in Melbourne.

Oh dear. Such a difficult situation. The promotion of Australian arts and entertainment and Australian talent isn’t something you want to knock, but it’s very hard to believe the awards get close to getting it right.

People in Melbourne reckon Sydney gets more attention than it should; those in smaller cities think Melbourne and Sydney dominate too much; when productions from smaller cities are nominated there’s a suspicion they are in there to make the awards look more national; giving nominations to non-Australian talent looks odd; and so on. And so on.

June 20, 2013

IT was fascinating to be with a general audience at King Kong last night in Melbourne, having missed the opening night last weekend. Seeing a big production away from the very natural excitement of the premiere can be very revealing. I felt the audience was quite muted in its response, although, as I’ll discuss tomorrow in my review, the realisation of Kong himself is quite magnificent and that may be enough to gain good word of mouth for the show.  The word is always crucial, and even more so in a situation such as this when the reviews have by no means been raves. Interestingly, you can see writers struggling to come to grips with a production that emphatically does not follow the traditional musicals format. More tomorrow!

June 13, 2013

IT’S been quite an extraordinary time in Sydney theatre of late – Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert are in The Maids at Sydney Theatre Company, the two parts of Angels in America are at Belvoir and Bell Shakespeare’s Phedre has come to town. I want to write about them all together, so will get something up on those next week.

Last night Nederlands Dans Theater came to the Sydney Opera House, and I don’t think I’ve seen more dance luminaries in the one place at the one time. And this was in the auditorium. I had a lovely chat with Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela before we went in, both of us bemoaning the loss of the Spring Dance festival of which he was curator. Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon were there, ahead of restaging their version of Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet in Melbourne. It opens on June 21 – that would be tomorrow week if you’re reading today – so I assumed the pair were playing hookey for the evening. No, they don’t actually have a lot of time to put finishing touches to the show before getting it back on. But obviously they will get it done. They always do.

AB artistic director David McAllister was at NDT, of course, as was Queensland Ballet’s Li Cunxin. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

My review of NDT is up on The Australian‘s website now, and I’ll expand on it for next week too. Here is what’s online and will be in the paper on Friday June 14:

June 10, 2013

ON June 6 in The New York Times arts reporter Patrick Healy wrote the following:

Will the crowd-pleasing American musicals Kinky Books and Pippin deliver a one-two punch at Sunday’s Tony Awards to the British-made musical Matilda, the early front-runner in major categories? It’s starting to look that way, though Matilda partisans are hoping that its unsurpassable reviews from theater critics will trump the feel-good momentum of its two competitors.

But interviews with 35 Tony voters — out of the 868 eligible — suggest that sentimentality and emotional appeal will be powerful forces in both the musical and play categories, especially for the acting awards …

[M]any Tony voters, seeing the show, were puzzled by all the praise. While they liked the inventiveness of Dennis Kelly’s book and the staging and design work, they found the subject too dark — a young girl battling her cartoonishly cruel parents and headmistress — and a bit chilly. The upshot: Many Tony voters admire Matilda, but they aren’t itching to see it again.

Healy’s was a small sample to be sure, but it was bang on the money. Kinky Boots prevailed over Matilda to win best musical and best score, Cyndi Lauper edging out Tim Minchin for the latter. The director of Pippin, Diane Paulus, won over Matthew Warchus for Matilda. Billy Porter, who plays the drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots, triumphed over Bertie Carvel’s Miss Trunchbull.

Immediately after the Tonys were awarded Healy wrote in the NYT that Kinky Boots scored an “upset victory” over Matilda, which had been an early frontrunner, but in truth it wasn’t such a big surprise. Disappointing, but not surprising.

Sometimes awards get it right, if by right we mean there’s a strong consensus that the person or production who did win should indeed have won. That artistic merit was recognised and rewarded. Or near enough to. Sometimes a judging panel has to choose between two equally worthy candidates, or three, or four, because to have a tie would be anti-climactic. Everyone expects there to be only one winner.

But there are many other reasons why awards are given: for longevity; for perseverance; for having lost some time in the recent past for something that, on reflection, should have been chosen; for political reasons; because the judging panel isn’t as expert as it should be; because the judging panel’s tastes go in a certain direction; and so on and so forth.

There is no level on which Kinky Boots is a better musical than Matilda, at least not in the ways I would assess it. I thought it sentimental and predictable when I saw it recently on Broadway, although highly enjoyable and entertaining within those boundaries. And the times seem to favour this kind of security blanket. Broadway revenues look sound but that’s because shows such as Wicked and The Lion King can still fill houses and sell some of their tickets at (very high) premium prices. The fact is that many theatres are dark and attendance numbers are down. Accessibility and familiarity are good.

And let’s not forget, as the NYT wrote today in its Tonys wrap: “Only Broadway shows are eligible for Tonys, which are chosen by a pool of 868 voters — a mix of theater producers, directors, designers, actors and tour operators, some of whom have financial and personal interests in the outcomes.”

Toss in much loved popstress Cyndi Lauper as a competent, foot-tapping composer for Kinky Boots and Billy Porter as star and you have two more great stories, particularly with Porter. He is a 20-year veteran of Broadway finally making a splash with a showy, emotional role in a life-affirming show. His win is an endorsement of the dream – it could be the climax of a Broadway show.

As for Diane Paulus winning for her direction of Pippin over Matthew Warchus’s for Matilda, it must be said she found a way of theatricalising one of the most boring musicals of all time but for my money couldn’t get the droopy second act working. (The only reason I spent my money seeing Pippin was that The Testament of Mary, starring Fiona Shaw, closed just before I got to New York so I had a free matinee slot.)

Matilda didn’t come away empty-handed, winning four Tonys, but not the biggest ones. If I’d been handing out the prizes Warchus, Tim Minchin and Bertie Carvel would have been shoo-ins. Not much consolation, I imagine.

June 6, 2013

YESTERDAY’S bombshell announcement that Richard Mills has withdrawn from conducting The Ring for Opera Australia later this year has, naturally, aroused a great deal of interest and speculation. The company has never before presented a full Ring cycle and upped the degree of difficulty by engaging a director – Neil Armfield – who is new to the work (he told ABC radio he had not seen a full cycle) and a conductor who had not previously tacked this monumental work. The orchestra, made up of members of Orchestra Victoria and many other musicians, has never played the work.

The release from OA contained the following:

In making his decision Mills said, “To achieve artistic success the chemistry between cast and conductor needs to be of a certain vibrancy and character. Unfortunately the necessary unity of vision for this piece on this occasion was not achieved. It is a matter of personal chemistry which cannot be planned for and which sometimes doesn’t happen despite the best intentions of all concerned. Therefore in the interests of an outstanding cast and production, and after a great deal of thought, I have decided to withdraw. I have been completely supported by the team at Opera Australia at all times and this decision is mine alone. I wish the project the great success I am sure it will achieve as a landmark event in the history of opera in Australia.”

Whatever the detail of the events that led to this – and you can be sure journalists are trying their hardest to delve into the circumstances – one must feel very much for Mills. He has already devoted a vast amount of time to the project, and it must have been a bitter blow to feel it must be relinquished.

As for OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini? Well, he’s always been an onward-and-upward man. He told journalist Jo Litson he’d already had about 50 emails of inquiry from agents and conductors. The show always goes on.

June 4, 2013

A QUIET week after getting back from the US, and then back into the fray …

Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s knockout International Series has set the bar high for other performing arts centres in the dance arena. Despite its present very unsavoury troubles, the Bolshoi was a great get for producers Ian McRae and Leo Schofield. The Moscow company’s production of Le Corsaire is said to be the most expensive ever produced – the cost was around $1.5 million – and while on one level it might be viewed as an exceptionally large bon-bon, the window it gives into Imperial-era ballet is fascinating.

I reviewed Le Corsaire for The Australian – and will also review The Bright Stream for the paper (it opens on Friday), after which I’ll expand a bit for the blog. There’s plenty to say, as you can imagine.

Next year McRae and Schofield will bring to Brisbane … no, I won’t say. The announcement will be made in July unless some blabbermouth decides to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say it’s a corker.

Still on matters ballet, it was a delight to be able to catch the last two performances of West Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide. The end of the run happily coincided with my trip to Perth to review Jesus Christ Superstar (I’ll put an expanded review up in the next day or two, after I write about La Sylphide, which will be up shortly. Or now, depending on when you read this.) The Australian Ballet, by the way, will stage La Sylphide later in the year.

The final performance of Sylphide was also the last with WAB for lovely leading artist Yu Takayama, who is retiring. This leaves WAB with only three leading artists – the company’s highest rank – but, as I tweeted the other day (@debjonesoz, if you’re interested) – WAB will shortly have six new dancers, some I believe joining at the top of the tree.

I also gather the relatively new artistic director, Aurelien Scannella, is thinking about a change to the ranking system as the company expands its numbers.

Getting back to Takayama, she received a bouquet onstage at the end of the performance but not everyone in the audience would have realised why. She was dancing the role of Effie, not the Sylph, nor was it her first performance. One had to draw one’s own conclusions.

Audiences should never be left in any doubt as to what’s happening. If they feel excluded from something others seem to know about it can sour the experience.

I’ve always felt the Australian Ballet also downplays retirements. Yes, there is often some pre-publicity, and there is a flyer on the theatre seat, but not everyone sees the stories or reads flyers – audience members often think they are ads for something or other and drop them on the floor.

What’s wrong with making an announcement before the show and getting the audience onside for something out of the ordinary? I don’t get what is so hard about that. I’d say it’s the minimum really, when you consider with what ceremony many companies honour their retiring stars.

May 22, 2013

UNFORTUNATELY I wasn’t able to stay in New York long enough to see American Ballet Theatre’s trilogy of one-act pieces by Alexei Ratmansky to the music of Shostakovich, nor to see any of New York City Ballet’s 33 ballets in 3 weeks. It seems a bit unfair to New Yorkers that these things should be on at exactly the same time, but I suppose they can bask in the glory of New York’s position at the centre of the ballet universe right now.

I did manage to see two casts in ABT’s Onegin in a production marked by some superlative dancing and marred by the sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto. The muted tones – there was a lot of brown in various shades – made the action look over-polite when it wasn’t looking excessively dull, and the vast Metropolitan Opera House space was under-used. Each of the three acts should have a distinctively different feel as Tatiana moves from country house to local name-day party to aristocratic ball, but there was little help there. And what’s with the boring frocks for the ball guests in Act III, not to mention Tatiana’s ugly gown?

So there was much to be grateful for in the dancing. On the evening of May 17 Marcelo Gomes was a smooth, sophisticated, mature aristo and glorious Diana Vishneva a creamy, ethereal Tatiana. But despite his glamour and her exquisite classicism, the performance was otherwise slightly lacking in excitement.

The following afternoon it was a different matter in the cast headed by Polina Semionova, making her debut as Tatiana, and David Hallberg. Hallberg’s Onegin was very much the intellectually arrogant aesthete, effortlessly lording it over the provincials, including Joseph Gorak’s young and hitherto easily brushed off Lensky and Yuriko Kajiya’s bouncy and eager Olga.

When Onegin is challenged by Lensky after flirting with Olga at Tatiana’s party, the intensity of Hallberg and Gorak’s interaction was more gripping than I’ve seen in any other performance. Gorak repeatedly struck Hallberg’s face with his glove and then slapped him hard; Hallberg’s shock and disbelief were riveting: this is the starting point of his life’s disintegration, the moment when it all turns to ashes.

John Cranko’s choreography too often takes a good idea and hammers it home too many times but a compelling Tatiana will make you forgive the shortcomings. (Although I find it hard to be merciful about the corp de ballet’s diagonal rushes across the stage in Act I, merry peasants doing something entirely uncalled for in the drama while startling the audience into applause.) Semionova, meanwhile, made every back bend and sweep of the legs into a poem of longing and passion. She and Hallberg were luscious together.

After that, just for something entirely different, Kinky Boots called. It’s received more Tony nominations than has Matilda (well, only one more), but I’d be surprised if it were to vanquish Matilda for best production. Yes, Kinky Boots is a happy and entertaining night out, so cheerful and uplifting. And if they gave Tony awards for predictability, Kinky Boots would be a radiant shoo-in. Cyndi Lauper’s songs get the job done nicely but won’t trouble the American Songbook, and star Billy Porter is a generous, loveable Lola with a gallant but erratic English accent. If Matilda‘s Bertie Carvel is done over for best actor in a musical by Porter or his Kinky Boots co-star Stark Sands, who has also been nominated, it will be a miscarriage of justice.

Amusingly, Kinky Boots – for those who don’t know, it concerns a dying shoe manufacturer saved when it turns to making eye-catching footwear for drag queens and cross-dressers – starts with a very pointed message to the audience about turning off their cell phones. It’s delivered by one of the actors in character, and the audience loves it. Cheers madly.

But. But. As you may know, there’s been a lot of chat recently about irritating use of phones in theatres and the reaction of actors, some of whom have stopped shows to remonstrate with the rude. Just last week a American critic named Kevin Williamson created a huge splash after getting so angry with a miscreat at a show he was attending that he grabbed her device and flung it across the room. To some Williamson is a folk hero, to others he’s just as rude and disruptive as the woman who was texting or checking her emails or whatever it was she was up to. She stormed out; Williamson was ejected from the theatre.

Fantastic stuff. As Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote (to Leonard Bernstein’s music), “New York, New York, a helluva town.”


I AM not so very tall, and am perhaps a bit deficient in the area of torso length. I sit down in the theatre and seem to get appreciably smaller. Not only that, I have an uncanny ability to attract to the seat right in front of me the biggest heads and shoulders in the room. Or, in the case of Pippin, a man next to me so vast in bulk that part of his person was actually in my seat. (I stood up the back for the second half.) I’ve tried to be a good servant of the theatre. I don’t get it.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. It’s been a long time coming.

Now back to normal transmission. Coming up – the Australian Ballet and Garry Stewart in Canberra, the Bolshoi in Brisbane, Jesus Christ Superstar in Perth …

May 16, 2013

IT was fascinating to see Matilda and Pippin hard upon one another on Broadway. Both have dazzling productions but only one has a heart. Full marks to Pippin director Diane Paulus and the production team for finding a way of making this incredibly thin musical into a rousing piece of theatre but it’s odd to see such talent and energy expended on it. A night at Cirque du Soleil offers similar excitements without pretending (well, without pretending much) that their show has a valuable moral lesson to offer.

The second act of Pippin sags badly under the weight of the show’s sentimentality and sermonising but it has to be acknowledged that the circus setting is beyond inspired. Fantastic wrapping, nothing much inside.

Patina Miller as the Leading Player is brilliant in the manner of a diamond. You couldn’t break this one. She’s all sinew and muscle, hard as nails and cold and shiny as marble. Flash, dash and cynicism rule as Miller dominates effortlessly.

Matilda also knows that life’s a bitch and one has to find a way to survive, but what a great little trouper she is. Knocks droopy old Pippin into a cocked hat. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin’s musical is sweet, sad, funny, insanely energetic and as clever as a bag of monkeys. I saw Sophia Gennusa as our heroine and she was as poised and confident as any veteran. Actually, so were all the kids – lord knows how they do it. Great English accents too. It goes without saying Bertie Carvel is a marvel as Miss Trunchbull. I haven’t seen Kinky Boots yet – that’s Saturday night – so can’t hazard a guess as to whether either of its two Tony nominees for best actor in a leading role in a musical (Billy Porter, Stark Sands) will prevail over Carvel, but they will have to be extraordinarily good to do so.

Speaking of the Tonys, it was fun to see more nominated actors in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. David Hyde Pierce (who will forever be Niles Crane from Frasier to me), Kristine Nielsen and Shalita Grant have all got nods in this splendid contemporary homage to Chekhov. There are more laughs than in The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull and of course Uncle Vanya – now there’s a surprise – but it captures their mood. Vanya and Sonia … also stars Sigourney Weaver, who is in fine fettle as an insecure ageing actress.

May 14, 2013

BEFORE leaving Sydney for New York I placed a small bet on the flight arriving on time – about $50, the price of a ticket to the Mike Bartlett play Bull, at 59E59. The plane was to arrive at 5.10pm and the play to start at 8.15pm. Sounded pretty doable (and I must say that every other time I’ve come here the schedule has been impeccably maintained). So I bought the ticket ahead of time, figuring that a small theatre and a well-regarded drama might not have a last-minute seat available. Unfortunately bad weather delayed arrival – a big disappointment, as I very much enjoyed seeing another Bartlett play here last year, Cock. (Hilariously, The New York Times insisted on calling it The Cockfighter Play, finding the title not fit to print.)

Cock dealt with a struggle for possession, soul and body, of a young man who is gay but who has met a girl. The audience sat amphitheatre-style around a bare space in which the battle took place. Bull sounds as if it’s a kind of companion piece. Not that I really know.

I do know that Bull, set in a boxing ring, deals with vicious office politics. There are three employees, and by the end of the evening – that is to say, 55 minutes later – there will be only two employees.

With Bull off the agenda my attempt to see a show at every available opportunity fell at the first hurdle, but c’est la guerre.

Sunday afternoon’s New York City Ballet program was at the David H. Koch Theatre at Lincoln Centre, so I was on safe ground getting there. I almost missed my evening show, however, by incorrectly noting the street in which the Union Square Theatre resides and racing around madly trying to find someone who knew where the joint was. Not so easy. But happily an usher in another theatre in the vicinity was able to help, and thus I found myself seated just in time to see a preview performance of the musical Murder Ballad.

In fact, I even had enough time to buy a restorative cup of wine, advertised as pinot grigio. Hmmmm. It was $US8 and undrinkable. (An aside: the quality and price of wine at Broadway and even Off-Broadway theatres is extremely conducive to sober habits. Fact.)

The Union Square Theatre has a grungy vibe; just the thing for Murder Ballad. The show premiered last year at Manhattan Theatre Club but presumably suits the downtown location better. After all, if I caught one of the lyrics correctly, the Narrator despises everything above 14th St. (Murder Ballad has some fun with the Manhattan uptown/downtown divide.)

Like Cock and apparently like Bull, Murder Ballad has a gladiatorial feel. There’s a rectangular performing area with an energetic four-piece band at one end and a pool table at the other that won’t be used for playing pool. (Think hot, sweaty bodies.) On one long side of the rectangle is a bar; on the stage there’s a scattering of tables and chairs at which some audience members sit, re-defining the notion of being close to the action.

Right from the outset we’re told someone is going to die. There are only four characters – the Narrator, Tom, Sara and Michael – so there’s not a lot of choice, but even in this claustrophobic environment the show turns out to have a twist. It’s not only a brash, sexy, trashy whodunit, but also a whodunit to whom. Only the final moments in this swift-running 80-minute piece tell. The relationships are fraught, the songs are raucous, the performances are excellent and it’s huge fun. Book and lyrics are by Julia Jordan with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash.

The following night there was more blood and murder in the form of Macbeth, in which Alan Cumming plays all the principal parts. Yes, it’s a virtuoso turn, but much more than that. Stripped back to one act of 100 minutes, it sees Macbeth through the lens of madness. It will be a tale told not by an idiot – far from it – but by someone profoundly and desperately troubled.

A man is confined to a room of exceptional institutional ugliness. It has the queasy greenish cast one associates with places that have never had enough money spent on them and never will. There are surveillance cameras and an observation window. A doctor and nurse will come and go and very occasionally will enter Macbeth’s world. At the beginning, however, they are there to divest their patient of his clothes and to take a swab or two. There are bags marked with the word “evidence”. The staff seem to be kindly towards the man, but he has perhaps done something very bad. Certainly he has marks of violence on his chest.

As Cumming flits from character to character it is remarkable how extraordinarily clear the story-telling is, although that comes at some cost. There is wonderful differentiation but little complexity to anyone other than Macbeth. But it’s a choice worth making. Everything is filtered through the thane’s eyes. Macbeth has, to me, never seemed a man so fascinating, complicated, tortured and, yes, pitiable. The audience clung to Cumming’s every breath and stood as one at the end. Wonderful.

It would be lovely to think one of our festivals was in negotiation on this one (there’s even an Australian connection, as local producer Neil Gooding is one of the producers on Broadway). Cumming is very likely too busy to travel with it, but we can dream, can’t we?

Next up, Matilda!

May 13, 2013

IT’S enough to break the heart of any Australian ballet-lover. It’s spring in New York and New York City Ballet is skipping along with a program that started with its American Music Festival (April 30-May 19) and continues with 33 ballets in 3 weeks (May 21-June 9). There’s lots of George Balanchine, lots of Jerome Robbins, some Peter Martins, some Christopher Wheeldon and others. The major theme is American music – 18 composers and 24 ballets, just imagine – and a mini-theme within is a Tribute to Broadway. The ballets are mixed and matched in different ways so that NYCB can stage a multiplicity of views. Riches indeed.

NYCB is on its own in having such a repertory to call on (there are a couple of new works, but the season is mainly from the vault), and it has the advantage of being able to stay put in the David H. Koch Theatre for a great deal of its time. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking that surely it isn’t outside the Australian Ballet’s capacity to slightly enlarge its scope.

Why, for instance, must the AB always stage a single triple bill for the entire run of a Sydney or Melbourne season when it’s clear that ticket sales aren’t as robust as they are for full-length works? Twenty performances on the trot is a lot for a Balanchine/Kylian/McGregor program, no matter how good. Would it not make sense for the seasons to be split into two programs, thus doubling the chance of appeal to audiences and perhaps enticing the hardcore followers to come to more performances?

Naturally that means more work for the company, but there were plenty of dancers not needed for Vanguard in Sydney (which means they won’t be needed for Melbourne either when the program opens there on June 6). Let’s put it this way: NYCB has 87 dancers; the AB has 69. Obviously 33 ballets in three weeks isn’t possible for the AB, particularly as it has to service more than one city. But more than three ballets in three weeks? Should be a goer.

To be fair, the AB is also working on the new Garry Stewart work, Monument, for four performances in Canberra from May 23, and will throw in the divine pas de deux from Wheeldon’s After the Rain. The program also includes The Four Temperaments, which is part of the Vanguard program.  So let’s call the current load five ballets in four weeks, one of which is a pas de deux. (And yes, I know the AB is also preparing for Swan Lake in Melbourne, opening June 21, but it’s the Graeme Murphy version, which has been done about a million times …)

I can’t help but think that more work in the mixed bill area rather than less could pay dividends.

And complete other question: remember when the AB got extra funding so it could have 72 dancers? I don’t believe there has been that number for quite some time.

BACK at NYCB, it was a particular joy to see Robbins’s Glass Pieces, which premiered 30 years ago to the day I saw it (May 12). Robbins responds to the intricacies of Glass’s music, repetitive but with many alterations, in like spirit. In the first movement the large corps sweeps across the stage in stop-start waves as three couples make their own patterns in and around the crowd. The second section sets a meditative pas de deux against the backdrop of a processional line of women in silhouette, whose deliberate, flattened, highly formalised movement and aspect give intimations of ancient Egyptian art, and the third section is a brilliant eruption of highly disciplined energy for a huge corps – 36 of them.

Robbins’s N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz (1958), to the music of Robert Prince, saw the dancers in sneakers and snappy style – a standout was recently promoted (to soloist) Georgina Pazcoguin, looking young, fresh and eager – although the men looked oddly and distractingly lumpy in their colourful but bulky sweaters (costumes by Florence Klotz).

The opener, Balanchine’s Western Symphony (1954), is an affectionate tribute to the music of Hershey Kay with gorgeous costumes by Karinska, but was a wee bit dull on May 12. The women of the corps de ballet looked sappy rather than zesty and sassy as they flounced around in those incredibly pretty tutus and the New York City Ballet Orchestra, under Daniel Capps, sounded boring.

Robert Fairchild (in the Rondo) was a knockout, immensely handsome and cheerful while spinning madly, leaping high and being generally adorable. In the same movement, tall and glamorous Teresa Reichlen, who replaced the late-scratching Sara Mearns, wielded like weapons those legs that go on forever, all the better to establish her high-kicking superiority over the pack of lesser gals.

On Wednesday night it’s back to NYCB to see some Millepied, Wheeldon and Martins to music by Nico Muhly, Samuel Barber, Andre Previn, Leonard Bernstein and John Adams.

And tonight American Ballet Theatre has its spring season-heralding gala across the plaza from NYCB. Riches indeed.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Eric says:

    Just imagine, the AB using Australian composers.

    1. Eric, you may recall a program in 2008, Interplay when there was a triple bill with all-Australian composers – Richard Mills, Gerard Brophy and Ross Edwards. I vividly recall Stephen Baynes’s 1914 with that lovely Graeme Koehne score. But true, there’s not the hugest amount. Deborah

  2. David McAllister says:

    Hi Deborah, Sounds like you are having a ball! Very green with envy and wish I was there to see it all with you! Re: our seasons would SO love to do more rep in our seasons but we are locked into the subscription model that must have three saturdays etc. As an organisation we would love to look at this but it will take some work at modelling it given our box office model currently supports 60% of our opperational budget. If we had the NYCB 180 million dollar Endowment it could all change tomorrow!! Look forward to the next update! love David.

  3. Evelyn says:

    Like your diary very much. I’ve seen Matilda and Kinky Boots also. I love theatre. I’ve been following:

    It’s filled with great food and lots of celebrity photos. I saw pictures of Billy Porter (Kinky Boots), Tim Minchin and Bertie Carvel (Matilda) and many others. Thought you might like it. Hope you keep posting.


  4. Kool Aid, anyone? says:

    Funny that Mr Terracini says he can’t sell Peter Grimes, and just as bewildering that you believe him. It was a complete, 100%, total sell-out in its Sydney run in 2009 over 6 performances. And that was when Mr Terracini wasn’t yet responsible for trying to sell it.

    Surely Melboure, being the self-appointed cultural capital of Australia could muster enough interest to sell the 4 performances that OA keep promising, and then cancelling.

    I’ll add that the Sydney performances were sold out despite most of the marketing and PR for that season being directed at Sharman’s Cosi Fan Tutte, with backstage videos and double page spreads in the press.

    OA’s marketing strategy seems always to be to market only those works that they think will sell anyway. Witness the non-existent advertising for Rosenkavalier with Cheryl Barker. They were using a poster with Yvonne Kenny on it. Also the poster for the Armfield Grimes was an uncredited production image from the David Alden ENO Production from earlier in 2009.

    Terracini is, if nothing else, a very, very good salesman. I rather suspect that if he says he can’t sell something, it’s MUCH more likely that he doesn’t want to.

    1. Thanks for your comment. My understanding is that many performances of less popular repertoire are padded out to a greater or lesser degree. A full house doesn’t necessarily mean everyone paying full price, but one – and by that I mean people arguing both sides of the fence – would need to see the figures to be definitive. And as an arts editor of very long standing, I know that most – all? – editors of cultural sections make their own decisions about what stories and artists they cover. The companies don’t get to dictate. Finally, I’d suggest that a strategy deliberately aiming NOT to sell a product would be a bizarre one indeed.

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