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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 AT HOME

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

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

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Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

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

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

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

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

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

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

A detour into celebrity casting:

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

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

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

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

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

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

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

 

The Sound of Music

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High and low

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

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

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

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

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grease, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Grease, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, October 23 (matinee)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 23

THE simultaneous arrival in Sydney of Grease and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels isn’t the greatest news. The Sydney appetite for musicals doesn’t appear to be particularly buoyant at this moment so it’s rather bad luck to have both shows in town at the same time. We’re a long way from Broadway, baby. How tragic is this – that two musicals in a city as big as Sydney could be considered one too many for the market? I hope I’m wrong, even though I’d be lying to say both are must-sees. One is absolutely delightful; the other is a joyless stitching together of names presumably thought to appeal to different demographics.

So. Second things first. Grease really makes one’s heart sink. What started in 1971 as a scrappy, raunchy snapshot of 1950s American teenagers has turned into luridly coloured bubblegum. It’s sticky, but completely disposable. The reason it’s still done is because the songs – which now include ones written for the 1978 film – are so popular. Oddly, Grease has kind of metamorphosed into a jukebox musical.

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease, Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

The current production derives from the most recent UK one. For some reason it starts with an attempt at an audience sing- and clap-along as if it were a variety show at a club or pub. This is not promising and little happens thereafter to lift the spirits. The biggest stumbling block is the poor onstage chemistry: there is no sense that those in the cast naturally go together, no matter what the song says. Veteran Bert Newton as rockin’ DJ Vince Fontaine is a case in point. He is, ahem, of rather too mature vintage for this part (I speak as one who, as a child, was knocked out by his double act with Graeme Kennedy on In Melbourne Tonight, starting more than 50 years ago) and, alas, Newton peppers his lines with fragments of a locution only vaguely recognisable as American. On the subject of accents, Gretel Scarlett plays our heroine Sandy as an Australian, in homage to the luminous Olivia Newton-John in the film version. Her songs, of course, are delivered with an American accent.

I don’t blame Newton or Scarlett, or indeed anyone else on stage. These are matters of casting and direction. In amongst the noisy, superficial action Lucy Maunder stands out for bringing some nuance to tough-girl Rizzo and Todd McKenney’s Teen Angel is an enjoyable amalgam of Liberace and beloved cult comic figure Bob Downe. As a whole – well, there is no whole.

DEVOTEES of the con-man comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – and I count myself among them – know how it turns out, a circumstance that matters not one jot when it comes to the musical faithfully and ebulliently based on the 1988 movie.

The fun is getting there, although if you are no fan of self-referential theatre you may find Jeffrey Lane’s book for the show, written in 2005, just a tad self-indulgent as it nods and winks to the house. I couldn’t enjoy that sort of thing more when it’s delivered with the radiant command of leading men Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington.

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Scoundrels is set in the south of France where the smooth stylings of Lawrence Jameson (Sheldon) have long made him a man of dubiously acquired substance. Enter wannabe Freddy Benson (Hetherington), pretender to the Jameson throne despite lacking the necessary polish. The Odd Couple lives again in primary colours and the broadest of strokes, aided and abetted by a feisty dame (Amy Lehpamer’s Christine Colgate), a tuneful score and exquisitely silly lyrics by The Full Monty composer and lyricist David Yazbeck, and sumptuous servings of ham.

There could so easily be a sour taste to the show’s exaltation of acquisitiveness, which this production of Scoundrels avoids by the simple wheeze of getting its casting absolutely spot-on. I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway with David Carradine as Lawrence and he lacked the requisite lightness of spirit; again, as with my strictures regarding Grease, this doesn’t mean Carradine is not a fine actor. He was simply not quite right for Lawrence, a man Somerset Maugham would have recognised as one of his shady people in sunny places. Sheldon oozes the kind of dash and style that only money can buy, and who cares where the money comes from.

Making a welcome return from the US where he has been ensconced since his big success on Broadway in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Sheldon is in a class of his own for suavity and twinkly, knowing intelligence. Hetherington is the dishevelled, cocky goofball whose charms would be extremely dubious indeed if not tempered with sweetness and boyish buoyancy. Let’s put it this way. He manages to sell a scene in which Freddy pretends to be Lawrence’s chromosomally challenged brother, a scene replete not just with sexual innuendo but graphic sexual horseplay.

As I say, sweet.

Everything else swirls happily around these two. Given that Lawrence and Freddy essentially constitute the lead romantic couple, conventional musical theatre dictates there should be a secondary couple, here the local compliant chief of police (John Wood) and one of Lawrence’s marks (Anne Wood). The parts aren’t up to much really but are nicely played.

It’s a great pity there’s no room in the second half for Katrina Retallick’s rip-snorting Jolene Oakes, an Oklahoma gal intent on marrying up but still wedded to her cowgirl life. But Scoundrels needs to move on to Christine, which it does with double entendre-laden speed, and fortunately Lehpamer is adorable in this pivotal role. All hail to director Roger Hodgman for astutely managing the balance between laugh-out-loud impact and likeability, not just with Lehpamer but with everyone on stage.

The neat ensemble has attractive dance from Dana Jolly, pretty dresses by Teresa Negroponte and Guy Simpson conducts a terrific band notable for its generous size. Loads of undemanding fun.

The Sydney season of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been extended to December 8

Grease, Melbourne from January 2

A version of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels review appeared in The Australian on October 25.