About last week … April 9-15

It’s 13 years since Li Cunxin published his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer and its appeal hasn’t dimmed. It’s still in print, of course, and there was a condensed version made for young adults and an illustrated children’s book The Peasant Prince. That was also featured in an Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concert in 2009 with excerpts read by an actor, projections of Anne Spudvilas’s illustrations from the book and music composed by Katy Abbott. That’s a lot of mileage.

Now there’s a new theatre piece for children based on The Peasant Prince, created by Monkey Baa Theatre Company, which I saw on April 11 at Monkey Baa’s home, LendLease Darling Quarter Theatre, Sydney.

The Peasant Prince - Jonathan Chan

Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway in The Peasant Prince

In Monkey Baa’s unerring hands a worn old blanket summons a family with few material goods but rich in love. Rolled up it is a cooking bowl, unfurled it’s a bath towel and, wrapped about an embraced child, it is a potent image of a mother’s care. In just a few minutes the wordless, elegant scene gets to the heart of The Peasant Prince. This boy knows what it is like to have nothing and everything. We understand why he will never forget the source of his strength.

As Mao’s Last Dancer relates, former dancer and now ballet company director Li Cunxin was 10 when an emissary from Madame Mao came to his impoverished village in Shandong Province looking for promising children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. By the way, if anyone doesn’t know how to pronounce Li’s given name, they will know after this. It’s Schwin Sin. (Li is his surname, but from earliest days in Australia he was called Li as if it were his given name and he is happy to answer to that.)

Li was overlooked until a teacher, not knowing why, called the man back and suggested the boy be taken. Having been offered this miraculous way out and up, which must have seemed as alien as space travel, Li could not fail his family. As one of his brothers told him when Li came home for a rare visit, he must tell his mother and father only good things. The sixth of his parents’ seven children had to find the courage, focus and discipline to make the most of his opportunity.

Monkey Baa writers Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry are dab hands at adapting books for young audiences and bring Li’s story to the stage with deceptive economy. The play moves swiftly, with David Bergman’s video designs effortlessly and vividly summoning a village schoolroom, a busy city, a ballet studio, a rural scene, a flight to the US. John Gomez Goodway is bright-eyed Li and, under McGarry’s lucid direction, Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong play everyone else with admirable clarity.

Momentum falters a little once the action moves to Houston, where Li defected. The happy ballet rehearsal, which is overlong, and the Chinese attempt to send Li home don’t have the same crystalline definition as the rest of this otherwise fine dramatisation.

There is no shying away from the challenges Li faced as a child and the resilience he had to develop; they’re valuable things for children to consider. It’s also an inspirational fable, like one Li hears and loves as a child, about aspiration and achievement. In other words, perfect for its young audience.

Footnote: Monkey Baa’s blissful Pete the Sheep had a national tour in 2014 and is being revived for loads of performances at the Sydney Opera House (July 2-17) and a few shows at Arts Centre Melbourne in late July. I loved it to bits and may well have to go again.

The Peasant Prince ends in Sydney on April 20, followed by an Australian tour to 37 cities. (See monkeybaa.com.au for cities and dates.)

There’s something so enchanting about children’s uncensored reactions to theatre made for them, even if it’s not specifically interactive theatre. At the performance (April 14) I saw of CDP Productions’ Mr Stink, adapted from the popular David Walliams book (Sydney Opera House until April 24), children instantly shouted out when one character asked another a question requiring the answer no and they started clapping happily to the beat in a Bollywood dance number. They’ll find out soon enough they are supposed to sit quietly and not answer back in the theatre, but how lovely to see them thoroughly engaged. Maryam Master does a straightforward job of adapting Walliams’s story of a bullied girl who befriends a homeless man and teaches her family a valuable lesson or two and director Jonathan Biggins – he also directed Pete the Sheep – gets some welcome physical comedy into the mix. The fart jokes, of which there were several, made their mark on each occasion. Some things never grow old.

Mr Stink is for children as young as six years. Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Stunt Lounge (just finished at the Sydney Opera House) was for those aged 12 or older and features FFFC recent graduates putting on their first independent show. It didn’t entirely make clear its aim of exploring risk in the lives of young people and defining boundaries but the performers (I saw them on April 14) were delightful, with Jess Mews’s magical hoops solo a standout. Director Darcy Grant was a founding member of Circa and that company’s interest in using circus skills in the service of complex dramatic situations was clearly an influence. Circa is now a big deal internationally and has broadened the idea of what circus can achieve so it’s not a bad model.

The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney’s Kirribilli does what it does entirely without government support and has continuously for nearly 60 years – longer than any other professional theatre company in Australia. Obviously the company has to have an eye to repertoire that will fill the auditorium but it makes some extremely astute choices in the pursuit of fulfilling founder Hayes Gordon’s belief that theatre should be a civilising influence.

It was at The Ensemble in 2012, for instance, that I was able to see Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which Melbourne Theatre Company had staged the year before. The Ensemble also programmed, in 2014, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park (also seen at MTC). In late May the Kirribilli theatre stages Nina Raines’s Tribes, a much-garlanded play I saw Off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Right now it’s offering David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, a play (it opened on April 13) that tests assumptions about social mobility.

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

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

Under Mark Kilmurry’s direction and with a tremendously good cast led by Tara Morice, Good People takes us to South Boston – Southie – where Margaret (Morice) is being laid off from her shitty job at the Dollar Store. She’s been late once too often. Well, many times too often, but the last straw has been reached. She has her reasons, what with having a disabled adult daughter, but she’s also not perhaps the most reliable of employees.

She gets involved in a long-shot scheme to get a job via an old boyfriend Mike (Christopher Stollery), a man who got educated, became a doctor and lives in a very good part of town with his accomplished wife Kate (Zindzi Okenyo). Things don’t turn out too well, in large part because Margaret doesn’t know how to operate in this world. Despite being what she and her friends call “good people”, in this situation she is out of her depth – too angry, needy, calculating and devious.

Lindsay-Abaire’s evocation of Margaret’s world and that of her friends Dottie (Gale Ballantyne) and Jean (Jane Phegan) and her former boss Stevie (Drew Livingston) is vivid and compassionate. Sometimes circumstances just conspire against people, and some other people have all the luck.

Good People runs at The Ensemble until May 21 and if there is any justice will have full houses for every performance.

Last week (April 15) also brought the premiere of Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever, the 1925 Noel Coward comedy. My review is in the April 18 edition of The Australian and I’ll expand on that in a few days on the blog. Let’s just say for now that Heather Mitchell, playing Judith Bliss, is a goddess and director Imara Savage has two for two after her triumph of last year with Andrew Bovell’s After Dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2015 AT HOME

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

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

Thomas Campbell - MISTERMAN 1

Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

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

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

Ivanov3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

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

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

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

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

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

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

A detour into celebrity casting:

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

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

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

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

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

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

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

 

Three premieres

The Aliens, Old Fitz Theatre, August 27; La Traviata, Belvoir Downstairs, September 1; Bull, Old Fitzroy Theatre, September 3

AMERICAN playwright Annie Baker has been mentioned, many times, in the same breath as Chekov and it’s a comparison that has merit. Baker, who is only 34, probes beneath the surface of apparently ordinary and often fragile lives to unearth the struggle and the wonder of life. Nothing much happens, unless you think that an intimate understanding of how people connect with one another counts as a lot.

I was able to see The Flick – first produced in 2013, winner of a Pulitzer Prize last year – when in New York earlier this year and found it profoundly moving. (Melbourne’s Red Stitch was smartly on the case, producing it last year with direction by Nadia Tass.) Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre staged Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation, set in a community adult drama class, in 2012, and now at the Old Fitz it’s possible to see The Aliens, written in 2010 (no one can accuse Baker of slacking) and given a luminous production by Outhouse Theatre Co.

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters) hang out in the cruddy garbage area at the back of a café and shoot the breeze about music, writing (Jasper is a Charles Bukowski aficionado) and relationships in a patchy, tentative, affectionate kind of way. Their conversation is all stops, starts and gaps but far from empty. Hurt, aspiration, bravado and need are often expressed as much in what is not said as what is.

When shy young café employee Evan (James Bell) ventures out the back to try to shoo them away – this is private property – KJ and Jasper stand firm. They are going nowhere, and for the tiniest moment you think The Aliens might fall into convention; that Evan will be bullied by these older, bigger, apparently more worldly men. But no. KJ and Jasper draw him into their little circle and supremely delicate connections are made. The performances are perfectly pitched. One does wonder why actors of the calibre of Wood and Waters are not seen more often and Bell is quite, quite magical.

Hugh O’Connor’s design is spot-on, with its crappy furniture and weeds poking through the cracks, and Craig Baldwin directs with a huge heart.

Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which is just finishing a short late-night season at the Old Fitz, is given its Australian premiere by Renaissance Productions with Rowan Greaves directing. It is a kind of companion piece to the same playwright’s Cock, which was so effectively staged at the Old Fitz earlier in the year. But unlike Cock it has only one idea, swiftly rendered in a four-hander that takes less than an hour to deliver the message that some people are natural victims who will be at the mercy of the amoral.

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Thomas (George Kemp) is the one destined to fail and Isobel (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Philippe Klaus) are his tormentors. As in Cock, three characters dominate the action with a fourth – here the corporate trio’s boss, played by Craig Ashley, entering late in the day – but the piece is not much more than a few brutal punches to the head turned into a rather longer fight than strictly necessary.

Sydney audiences will see Bartlett in a much more expansive mode when his King Charles III comes from London’s Almeida via Broadway during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 program. It’s wildly interesting in form and content – I saw it at the Almeida last year – as Bartlett projects forward to the earliest days of the reign of Prince Charles as British monarch. (King of Australia, too, undoubtedly.)

Also of interest in smaller-scale Sydney theatre is Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata, even if it’s not as revolutionary as one might have expected. Sisters Grimm – writer-director Declan Greene and writer-performer Ash Flanders – were inspired by Verdi’s 1853 opera as a piece of social criticism (the composer wanted it performed in modern dress but to get it on at Venice’s La Fenice had to make it a historical piece). But new work doesn’t always become what was originally intended. The political arguments flagged in the Creators’ Note in the program don’t make themselves felt strongly enough, but on the plus side it turns out you can do La Traviata in a theatre as small as Belvoir Downstairs and do it justice. In the course of a discussion about the value of art in a society that knows the cost-benefit ratio of everything, Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm have created a touching and memorable version of Verdi’s opera.

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

It’s wildly truncated and mostly lipsynched but the essence is there and it’s staged in a way that would cause no palpitations in, say, Germany, where regietheater (director’s theatre) reigns. Well, obviously it’s a hit-and-run version of the big thing, but it’s good. The countryside where Violetta and her lover Alfredo live is dotted with sheep, flower-entwined swings fall from the ceiling and Violetta’s gown is a cage. In Marg Horwell’s sets and costumes there are also jokey visual references to Lohengrin and Carmen. There’s quite a lot going on if you know your operas.

When the axe falls on Violetta’s happiness it is shown in devastating manner by Emma Maye Gibson, ever more desperately seeking approval from the audience, even to the point of standing on her head to sing (enter The Magic Flute). This is the courtesan as performer, but it’s also the performer as courtesan, touting for applause and money.

La Traviata is at its most original and thought-provoking here. The first third is an overlong satire on arts funding that, despite the warmth of Flanders, Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo, is more than the teensiest bit lame. Flanders does shout rather desperately in lieu of insights.

But the rest more than makes up for it. In the final third of the show the audience is invited to talk with the cast and each other and – surprisingly – the feeling is not the usual terror of audience participation but warmth and inclusion. Then opera singer Michael Lewis, the fourth cast member, comes to the fore, telling a deeply personal story about mortality before assuming the role of Violetta.

When it was announced last year as part of Belvoir’s 2015 season, La Traviata was proposed as a critique of current Australian arts politics. The word protest was used, although it’s hard to read this production as a call to arms. Instead it looks into the heart of the artist, the person who needs to perform and to be loved. What are the transactions required to achieve that?

Along the way La Traviata is also a love letter to the operatic art form, despite the pro forma sniping at the start (boring, long, elitist). Who better, indeed, than Sisters Grimm to understand the power of a theatre of grand emotions and extravagant gestures?

Bull ends September 12; The Aliens ends September 19; La Traviata ends September 20.

Reviews of The Aliens and La Traviata first appeared in The Australian on August 31 and September 3.

Berlin, Paris, Verona, Worcester County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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