About last week … March 26-April 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 10.

WILLY Russell isn’t a great lyricist and not much more than a journeyman composer but he’s no slouch with a heart-tugging story as his life-affirming plays Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine prove. The 1983 musical Blood Brothers also mines gritty British working-class life, although with a darker purpose.

There are twin boys furtively separated at birth, one taken by a childless, well-to-do family and the other raised by his natural mother, a woman with too many offspring and not enough money. The crucial moment of decision – the eeny-meeny-miny-mo moment that determines which baby stays and which one goes – will influence the course of their lives. And their deaths, which are shown in the first minutes. All the rest is flashback, or to put it another way, fate.

Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It’s winning the postcode lottery that sorts the cream from the crap in this tough northern England town. Blood Brothers is a Greek tragedy about the British class system; an uneven, passionate piece told with bold, broad, obvious strokes and a tuneful, repetitive score. A couple of the tunes are like buses to Bondi, coming along every 10 minutes or so, the Marilyn Monroe motif is worked way beyond its capacities and there’s a lumpy structure that oversells things that could be dealt with quickly and races through more important matters. But who cares? Certainly not the show’s multitudinous devotees.

Any flaws one can discern in Blood Brothers, and there are plenty, haven’t hurt the musical one bit. Far from it. Only Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera have had more music-theatre performances on the West End, and both have the advantage of being built along monumental lines. Blood Brothers is a much more modest operation. But something about its stern absolutes got under the skin. Blood Brothers is a product of the Thatcher era and Russell’s very real understanding of a divided Britain.

The 1988 revival ran for nearly 25 years and it’s commonplace to hear about people reduced to sobs at its ending, even though they know exactly what is to happen. For all its faults Blood Brothers spoke to its people and its heart-on-sleeve politics are still relevant. The divide between rich and poor continues to widen and privilege continues to bring unearned abundance.

The new, small-scale production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co goes at it with touching fervour. Scrappy Mickey Johnstone (Bobby Fox) and posh Edward Lyons (Blake Bowden) come across each other as seven-year-olds (“nearly eight”) and discover they share a birthday although they are unaware of their true connection. Their ease with one another – their essential alikeness – is in contrast to the gulf between stitched-up Mrs Lyons (Bronwyn Mulcahy) and fecund Mrs Johnstone (Helen Dallimore).

The action takes place over several decades on Anna Gardiner’s deliciously economic fold-out set, one that alas doesn’t have room to show the economical but driving four-piece band led by Michael Tyack. The musicians are banished to backstage, robbing the production of some rawness it could use with much profit.

The lengthy scenes with the boys as children show Fox and Bowden surprisingly convincing as kids in short pants, and then songs that hurtle the story forward as the deadly outcome shown at the start by the Narrator (Michael Cormick) comes closer. Cormick sings up a storm but in such a small space the inherent portentousness of the Narrator is magnified.

Andrew Pole directs with a lively, assured touch but backs away from the howling anger that is the raison d’etre of Blood Brothers. There is much to enjoy as the Narrator lugubriously invokes Fate, the impoverished Johnstone family bristles with rude energy and Mrs Lyons is a Valium crumb away from emotional collapse, but the Lyons family is overly caricatured and Dallimore’s fresh-faced, fresh-voiced Mrs Johnstone, appealing though she is, doesn’t look or feel like a woman who has had nine children and the toughest of lives. I didn’t emerge tear-stained.

Perhaps a more dangerous show will develop. Perhaps even has since opening night. Meanwhile, Blood Brothers is worth seeing for its brave heart and the lovely triangular dance of life between Mickey, Edward and Linda, the girl they both love. Christy Sullivan is a luminous Linda and Fox’s yearning Mickey and Bowden’s sweetly honourable Edward are just wonderful.

A version of this review ran in The Australian on February 12.

Blood Brothers ends March 15.

Two cautionary tales

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Lyric Theatre, Sydney, December 3, 2014

Beyond Desire, By Neil Rutherford and Kieran Drury. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, November 26.

WHO can tell why a modest little rom-com such as Dirty Dancing wins a passionate and lasting following while others are tossed on to the cinema scrapheap within a fortnight? As American writer William Goldman so sagely observed about the movie business, “nobody knows anything”.

Made in 1987 but set in 1963, “before President Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came”, Dirty Dancing – the film – is writer Eleanor Bergstein’s sweet American coming-of-age, breaking-loose story lightly seasoned with social-conscience issues and a dash of class conflict. It has attractive stars in Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, a soundtrack of popular songs and lots of locked-loins dance. The critics were lukewarm.

The audience, however, loved seeing a bright, warm-hearted girl getting together with a sexy rebel and latched on to two things: an overhead dance lift that made the young woman look as if she could fly and that much-loved film trope, a manly but sensitive public declaration of affection. “No one puts Baby in a corner.” Ker-ching.

KirbyBurgess and Kurt Phelan in Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kirby Burgess (Baby Houseman) and Kurt Phelan (Johnny Castle) in Eleanor Bernstein’s Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage. Photo: Jeff Busby

The stage show, a version of which premiered in Sydney 10 years ago and has since enjoyed wide international success, reproduces these moments and much else besides. Key images from the film are created with video projections, dialogue is transferred unchanged and line readings are thriftily recycled. There’s even a wig for star Kirby Burgess that mimics Grey’s abundant hair. Even more fundamentally, there is no process of recreation; no transference of the story from the medium of film to that of musical theatre. Music is either part of the soundtrack, presented as live entertainment at the holiday retreat in which the story is set or – and this is very illogical – sung by minor characters.

So yes, on one level Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage is doggedly faithful to its source. On another it’s a gaudy puppet-show, minus the fun. As seen on the big Lyric Theatre stage, Dirty Dancing has exactly the wrong degree of exaggeration to fill the space. Minor characters are caricatures, leads Kurt Phelan and Burgess are directed as Swayze and Grey clones and the action has been expanded to accommodate choreography of a particularly stridentl and vulgar kind. Everything falls into the abyss, being neither intimate enough for the story nor lavishly appointed enough for sweep-you-away theatrical spectacle.

There’s not a scrap of genuine visceral or emotional connection. The lascivious hip-twirling and arched backs sure do get the audience squealing but the charge has all the allure of a buck’s night. The use of the body is to dance – is supposed to be to dance – what tubes of oil paint are to an artist: the medium through which something is expressed. Otherwise it’s gymnastics. In Dirty Dancing we saw the equivalent of paint being thrown extravagantly on to a canvas every which way. Colourful, without doubt, but with not a skerrick of emotional value or meaning. And alas, four couples distributed around a too-large stage do not constitute a thrilling ensemble. Another ker-ching, which is the sound of a production saving on cast costs.

No wonder Phelan’s Johnny Castle looks so tense. Phelan can move but his performance is all on the surface. Burgess – by far the best thing in the production – has warmth but, to quote the immortal wisdom of Velma Kelly in Chicago, she can’t do it alone.

Dirty Dancing has no life, no spark and no joy but I’ll acknowledge this: it does know how to press a button. Ker-ching.

A week before seeing Dirty Dancing I was at Hayes Theatre Co to see a very different kind of musical theatre. Many of my colleagues disliked Beyond Desire intensely; I think they were a little harsh on a new work (albeit one that has been in development for 25 years). Let’s put it this way. I would infinitely prefer to see Beyond Desire again than sit through Dirty Dancing another time. That’s not to say Beyond Desire doesn’t have problems – it does, many of them to do with a concentration of roles in one hand. I’ll get back to that. But first, the show as it is.

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire. Photo: Oliver Toth

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire. Photo: Oliver Toth

Anthony, a young university graduate, is recalled to England from holiday in Italy to find his father, Edward, has died. In short order his mother marries Edward’s business partner and Anthony finds himself confused, melancholy and suspicious that his father’s death was not suicide as the wallopers concluded. No wonder, when Edward is busily dropping damaging hints from his current residence, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

Hamlet gives Beyond Desire most of its characters and plot, which are then fashioned into an Edwardian-era music drama spiced up with a pinch of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and a big helping of Upstairs, Downstairs. The whole is enveloped in the claustrophobic atmosphere of an Agatha Christie country-house murder mystery and the unifying theme of Beyond Desire is that everyone has secrets (a theme, incidentally, that extends to behind the scenes in this production; the clues are there for anyone who cares to seek them out). At the end, homage is paid to Christie’s The Mousetrap when the cast begs the audience not to reveal an important plot twist to others.

Fair enough, although devotees of Hamlet and aficionados of the mystery novel – and yes, a Venn diagram of these groups is possible – will have little difficulty in working out what’s what quite early. This of course can be part of the enjoyment so I wouldn’t mark Beyond Desire down on that account. Book writer Neil Rutherford has rightly planted appropriate clues. Much more problematic is the show’s lack of inner tension despite its juicy elements of sudden death, family discord, forbidden love, the class divide and the supernatural. Rutherford has paid close attention to the forms of his inspirations but has not captured their essence. The lean muscularity of the best mystery fiction and the vitality of popular Edwardian entertainment are missing. Earnestness and reverence prevail over the occasional welcome flash of knowingness about the many appropriations.

I did enjoy the moment when the maid, Emily, is sent to the garden to talk to Anthony and glean what afflicts him (well, in slightly different terms), but borrowing so extensively and obviously from famous sources would seem to require a sharper sense of awareness about it. Nancye Hayes’s housekeeper Martha, delivered with Maggie Smith-esque acidity, comes closest to the mark.

Likeable performances from the cast of eight, led by Blake Bowden’s lusciously sung Anthony, are some recompense. And while the lyrics tend to deliver too much plot and not enough character, the score – heavily influenced by early 20th century composers – is lush, melodic and gorgeously orchestrated for piano (played by music director Peter Rutherford), violin, cello, clarinet, harp and horn. The colours are exquisite, although an iffy sound balance on opening night meant it wasn’t always easy to understand what was being said when text was in competition with underscoring.

Had there been a more successful realisation of all the elements – direction, book, lyrics, music, orchestration, set design, lighting – Beyond Desire would still not have been a music-theatre piece for the ages, but would have been an enjoyable piece of light entertainment. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, which won the Tony award for best musical this year, has absolutely no pretensions to being other than bright and witty and succeeds delightfully (I saw it earlier this year).

And why was this more successful realisation elusive in Beyond Desire? It’s hard not to think that Rutherford took on far too many creative roles. Among other duties, he wrote the book and lyrics and he directed. The program reveals the presence of two unusually named men, Luther Forinder as set designer and Leon Ferrithurd as orchestrator. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that they are anagrams. Given the length of time Rutherford has been working on Beyond Desire he may not have had to do everything at once – many of the elements may have been completed to his satisfaction before he started directing the show, but therein is the catch. Seeing the show come together in rehearsal, Rutherford was in the position of having to discuss any problems with himself. Would he overrule himself? Would he argue with himself? Could he stand back from himself to make a decision that might not necessarily please himself?

Rutherford’s passion for his project undoubtedly clouded his judgment. It’s a shame.

Beyond Desire ends December 14.

After its Sydney season Dirty Dancing moves to Melbourne from March 1; Brisbane from May 27; Perth from August 2.

Versions of these reviews appeared in The Australian on November 28 and December 5.