Muriel’s Wedding returns to Sydney

Based on the film by P.J. Hogan. Book by P.J. Hogan, music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures. Lyric Theatre, Sydney, July 4

Muriel Heslop is a bogan, a ratbag, a complete dag. She’s cunning but not terribly bright. The hideous frock she lifts from Target to wear to a wedding speaks volumes about her taste, as does her attendance at that wedding, which joins arch-bitch Tania Delgano and thick pantsman Chook in holy matrimony. Muriel lies, she cheats, she covets fame and when it comes her way she unthinkingly discards the few people who care about her. And, bless her, we absolutely adore her. She’s the underdog of underdogs and must be barracked for. It’s the Australian way. Plus the fact that P.J. Hogan’s 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding is practically a sacred text.

Hogan insisted on writing the book for this musical version himself despite not being an experienced theatre hand and it paid off. He understood that updating the piece gave him access to pure gold; that social media’s ability to create a star who was famous for being famous was pure Muriel. She could be an influencer! Actually, if I’m not mistaken, a brief influencer reference is new to the production, which has been slightly retooled – the show premiered way back in late 2017 and has had a bit of catching up to do with digital trends. It was also substantially recast for its Melbourne season earlier this year and is now back in Sydney.

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Natalie Abbott, centre, as Muriel Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

The nips, tucks and additions are beneficial and include a useful rethinking of Progress, the paean to unbridled property development, and an expanded role for the Swedish fab four ABBA, whose music is Muriel’s guide to life. What good luck that ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson held out on the matter of rights to their songs until Mamma Mia! ran out of steam. Muriel’s Wedding would be unthinkable without them and in the meantime (various people have wanted to do a Muriel musical for more than a decade) social media became all-pervasive. In a brilliant upping-the-ante move, for instance, Muriel’s wedding of convenience to visa-needing star swimmer Alex Shkuratov is live-streamed.

Muriel’s journey starts in her coastal home town of Porpoise Spit, crucible of her formation as a thoroughly flawed human being. It’s here we meet her vile, hair-tossing “friends”, layabout siblings, bullying father and neglected mother, all subject to the most unsparing treatment. Well, all except Muriel’s mother Betty. “I hope this story has a happy ending,” sings Betty poignantly about the potboiler romance she’s reading. We know how it ends for her.

So this is a comedy? Yes and no and finally yes, in that it does end happily for Muriel, her true friend Rhonda, and Brice, the first man to show Muriel true affection. Not all viewers are happy that Muriel gets to go off with a bloke at the end, which didn’t happen in the film, but he’s an underdog too, so yay!. Brice’s Act II self-deprecating song, Never Stick Your Neck Out, sets out his father’s advice for a happy life. Don’t aim high and you’ll never be disappointed. Only an Australian musical would have such a jaunty ode to under-achievement.

Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s music and lyrics are endlessly enjoyable and repay repeated listening (the original cast recording is available and excellent). There are big, singable, super-tuneful numbers in The BouquetAmazing, Here Comes the Bride, Why Can’t That be Me and True Friend and then there are the fabulously wicked satires on Heslop family life (Meet the Heslops) and the Porpoise Spit airheads Muriel so wants to be like (Can’t Hang and Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked – both just brilliant). As for My Mother (Eulogy), you have no heart if the tears don’t start pricking the backs of your eyes. Muriel comes to wisdom the hard way.

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Stefanie Jones and Natalie Abbott in Muriel’s Wedding. Photo: Jeff Busby

Every song hits its mark and, just as wondrously, sits entirely comfortably alongside ABBA. The small band under music director Daniel Puckey performs wonders.

Just one quibble: in Sydney, a rollicking celebration of the city’s elastic approach to moral and social standards, one lyric has it that you’re accepted whether “black or yellow or beige or brown”. This isn’t the songwriters’ fault, but the song would have more authority if there were more people of colour on stage singing it.

Under Simon Phillips’s buoyant direction Muriel’s Wedding expertly negotiates the mix of satire and pathos. Even at its most gaudy the show never lets you forget it has a heart, even if on opening night in Sydney the heart was a little obscured as some in the cast worked just that bit too hard. The margin of error in a piece such as this is minute.

The title role’s originator in Sydney was newcomer Maggie McKenna and her successor Natalie Abbott made her professional debut as Muriel in Melbourne. Abbott, like McKenna, is a delightful presence on stage and sings wonderfully. There is more for her to find in Muriel but her journey from insecurity to acceptance was touching. Stefanie Jones settled into a very fine, tough-outside-sensitive-inside performance as Rhonda while Pippa Grandison’s reading of Betty deepened as the show progressed. The highly experienced David James was note-perfect from the start as Bill Heslop and another newcomer, Jarrod Griffiths, a suitably sweet and nerdy Brice.

Muriel’s Wedding has a limited run in Sydney before transferring to Brisbane in September.

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David James, centre, as Bill Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of the Muriel’s Wedding premiere in Sydney appeared in The Australian on November 20, 2017

Who doesn’t have a little of Muriel Heslop in them: the self-doubt, the hurt, the longing to be noticed and admired, the few extra kilos, the regrettable tendency to lie and steal? Well, perhaps that last quality isn’t universal but Muriel’s many flaws are what made her so relatable and so lovable when PJ Hogan brought her to the screen in 1994. Je suis Muriel.

The passing years haven’t dulled Muriel’s impact one little bit. On the contrary, the misfit from Porpoise Spit shines ever more brightly, and how. Under the ebullient guidance of director Simon Phillips, Muriel’s Wedding arrives on the musical stage with raucous, ribald, uninhibited energy and an unshakeable belief in the concept that more is more, particularly in the show’s manic first half.

The phrase “too much” has no absolutely meaning here. Gabriela Tylesova’s designs flood the stage and the eye with colours seen nowhere in nature, Andrew Hallsworth’s scintillating choreography is rarely out of sixth gear and Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s new songs – every one a keeper; extraordinary – just don’t stop coming. Neither do the fellatio jokes. Just so you know.

Hogan had dibs on writing the musical’s book and has delivered a faithful but updated version of his film. Muriel (Maggie McKenna) has no job, no friends, a dysfunctional family and a rich fantasy life fuelled by the songs of ABBA. Borne on the breeze of her mother’s misappropriated credit card, 21st-century Muriel – or Mariel, as she restyles herself – heads for Sydney and radical reinvention.

Her goal is marriage and famous-for-being-famous Kardashian-like celebrity. She wants to be a hashtag and in the show’s darker second half she gets her wish. And then she gets wisdom.

Making her professional stage debut, McKenna doesn’t quite access the deep well of sadness at Muriel’s core but her goofy eagerness is endearing and she is entrancing when it comes to the wonderful songs that illuminate Muriel’s inner life (young music director Isaac Hayward did the splendid orchestrations and arrangements).

Why Can’t That Be Me and My Mother are wrenching. Amazing and A True Friend, sung with the superlative Rhonda of Madeleine Jones, bring tears to the eyes just thinking about them. The celebration of female friendship is intoxicating.

Phillips deftly negotiates the big shifts from Aussie kitsch on steroids to genuine emotion, aided by an exceptionally well-chosen cast. The broad humour doesn’t hit its mark in every instance and there are a couple of scenes that are too long but there is no denying the skill with which each laugh is pursued.

Christie Whelan Browne, playing the ghastly – but married! – Tania gives a masterclass in physical comedy and timing. Tania’s girl-group song with her bitchy acolytes, Can’t Hang, is pure delight. Helen Dallimore is a hoot as Deidre Chambers, the woman unaccountably attracted to Muriel’s father Bill (blustery Gary Sweet). Ben Bennett is sweetness itself as Muriel’s would-be boyfriend while Stephen Madsen oozes sex appeal as the man she marries.

The outlier and linchpin of the piece is Muriel’s neglected mother Betty, given heartbreakingly quiet dignity by Justine Clarke. There are no jokes for her, just a beautifully written scene that edges into the magical and the surreal with a little help from ABBA.

Muriel’s Wedding, if you’ll forgive me, deserved its ecstatic reception.

Naming names: looking back on 2014

I’VE avoided making neat lists of 10 of this and 10 of that in my survey of 2014, which is good when it comes to the individuals who made the deepest impression on me. I decided not to divide the names by art form or vocation. There are dancers, opera singers, actors, actresses, directors and playwrights here and it pleases me to put them side by side. Or more precisely, one after the other in alphabetical order. Included are Australians who live in Europe but were home to perform and non-Australians I saw here.

NOTABLE WOMEN:

Nicole Car (singer, Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia, Sydney, March): Car’s debut as Tatyana firmed up what we already knew. Car is a major, major talent. Her supple, warm soprano sounded as fresh, free and glowing at the extremes as it did throughout and her expression of text and character was most moving. That fact that she’s slim as a reed with a graceful, natural ease on stage does not hurt at all. She made her US debut as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro for Dallas Opera in October; next up she sings Marguerite in Faust in Sydney. An exciting prospect.

Misty Copeland (dancer, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane, September): Copeland, an African American, has become a powerful advocate for diversity in classical ballet and is on her way to becoming that rare beast – a ballet dancer recognised by the public at large. At 31 (she is now 32), she had waited a very long time to dance Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, and Brisbane had the privilege of seeing her role debut. Call it an out-of-hemisphere tryout if you want to, but I was thrilled to be at this history-making event. Copeland is the first African-American Odette in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history. Yes, the first. She had earned it, and she claimed it in Brisbane. She will dance the role for the first time in the US for Washington Ballet in April and then in her hometown, New York, for ABT in June. It will be a huge event, but we saw it first.

Lucinda Dunn (dancer, Manon, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April): Dunn retired from dance in April after an extraordinary 23 years with the company and more than a decade as a principal artist. She was a true prima, accomplished in every aspect of her art and with huge respect for her audience. Her farewell performance was in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, a cornerstone role for ballerinas. She looked as if she could dance for another 23 years, but she was 40 and in an art form that exacts a brutal toll on bodies. As much as balletomanes would have wished it otherwise, she had to choose a moment to call it quits.

Christine Goerke (singer, Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, February): The American dramatic soprano was electrifying in the SSO’s exceptional semi-staged production, pacing the stage like a lioness kept too long in too small a cage. Her opulent voice was transfixing and boldly rode the tsunami of sound produced by the stupendous orchestral forces conducted by David Robertson.

Caitlin Hulcup (singer, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): Gluck’s ravishing opera is rarely performed here and Pinchgut did it great honour. In the title role, mezzo Hulcup – an Australian who performs mainly in Europe – was heart-stoppingly good, singing with passion, glorious control and silvery beauty.

Lindy Hume (director, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): The City Recital Hall in Sydney where Pinchgut Opera performs each year is what it says – a hall. Hume’s direction of Iphigénie on Tony Assness’s powerfully conceived (and of necessity static) set was a model of dramatic clarity and restraint, giving the tempestuous emotions of the piece room to breathe.

Lauren Langlois (dancer, Keep Everything, Chunky Move, Sydney, July; and The Complexity of Belonging, Chunky Move, Melbourne, October): Langlois trained as a dancer and she’s very fine one. She also a knockout with text, as Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything and Anouk van Dijk and Falk Richter’s Complexity of Belonging proved. Her ability to combine the two disciplines in spectacular fashion had audiences shaking their heads in disbelief.

Meng Ningning (dancer, Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, July): There were many fine performances in Queensland Ballet’s audacious presentation of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet but the revelation was QB principal Meng, who was partnered with superstar Carlos Acosta for his two performances. Meng has always appeared to keep her emotions locked well within but Romeo and Juliet produced the key and the release was tremendous. Even when Meng was the excitable young girl of her first scene there were intimations of tragedy in those questioning eyes, and her long, silken limbs always seemed to be searching and reaching for the overwhelming feelings Juliet discovered could exist.

Joanna Murray-Smith (playwright, Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company, November): This is Murray-Smith in magisterial form. While rigorously maintaining the style and appearance of a naturalistic – even old-fashioned – bio-drama, Switzerland morphs into a psychological thriller and then what Dostoevsky called fantastic realism. It’s risky, surprising and very apt as Murray-Smith’s play takes on the qualities of Patricia Highsmith’s art, in form and atmospherics, and applies them to the writer’s life.

Hiromi Omura (singer, Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, March): Omura was a devastating Butterfly, singing with lyric beauty and spinto charge. She also unerringly charted Butterfly’s trajectory from radiant bride to the trusting wife who is discarded and utterly bereft. The expansive stage of rolling hills (Act I) and a crappy housing development (Act II) gave Omura a stunning canvas. I have never seen a Butterfly so convincingly transformed from submissive girl to a whirlwind of despair as her child is taken from her.

Pamela Rabe (actress, The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September): I was less enthusiastic about Eamon Flack’s production of the Tennessee Williams classic than were many others, but there is no dispute about Pamela Rabe as Amanda Wingfield, living on the edge of her nerves and trying vainly to keep up appearances. As always, Rabe is able to make one sympathise with a character who is in many ways monstrous. Amanda’s rage and disappointment were contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. But Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that was the case here.

Sue Smith (playwright, Kryptonite, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, September): Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. Lian and Dylan meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to survive. He’s a laidback Australian devoted to surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. There are so few plays that explore our regional issues and identity, and this is a beauty.

Christie Whelan-Browne (Britney Spears: The Cabaret, Sydney, August): The train wreck that was Britney Spears’s earlier life is well known. Whelan-Browne’s rendering of that life, lavishly illustrated by Spears songs, didn’t descend to ridicule. Yes, it was often funny, but at the same time exceptionally compassionate. An outstanding performance.

Doris Younane (Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney, March): I loved the whole Jump for Jordan cast (and the play) but Doris Younane was outstanding. She expressed with heart-rending anguish the plight of a migrant who has never felt Sydney was her home. 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 performance put you in that place.

NOTABLE MEN:

Declan Greene (playwright, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Greene takes two uneasy souls and exposes their every weakness and slender hopes. A man and a woman meet via a dating site. He is married and obsessively into pornography, she is a nurse with an out-of-control shopping habit. Both have a core of self-loathing covered with a thin layer of coping. He is the greater fantasist and she the more self-aware but they’re both in deep, deep trouble. I can’t stop thinking about this play and how acutely it expresses the inner lives of desperate people.

Chengwu Guo (The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December): Guo is something of a human flying machine and in The Nutcracker there were times when you’d swear he was suspended by invisible wires, such is his elevation and ability to hang in the air. Guo added the plushest of silent landings and pristine pirouettes for a performance of technical brilliance, but of course The Nutcracker isn’t just about the moves. Guo also showed he can be a Prince – always good news in the ballet world.

Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney, October): Mark O’Rowe’s double monologue is sometimes performed by a single actor; here the duty was divided. The play is in two equal and equally exhilarating parts – two sides of the one coin – so let’s consider Hawkins and Henry together. In Howie the Rookie Hawkins and Henry guided the audience through a toxic night in an insalubrious part of Dublin, taking us on a wild ride expressed in some of the most violent, vulgar and baroque language you’re likely to encounter. Both actors were scintillating.

Jay James-Moody (The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co, March): Jay James-Moody may be considered rather too young for Man in Chair, the narrator and orchestrator of this wacky, heartfelt homage to the light-hearted musical theatre of bygone eras. Nevertheless he succeeded brilliantly. While he was arguably too fresh to be the quintessential bitter and bitchy show queen that is Man in Chair, he brought unexpected and memorable poignancy to the part.

Simon Laherty (Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Sydney, March): Finally this wonderful piece came to Sydney. The story of the Elephant-headed god Ganesh’s quest to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis is typically explosive Back to Back subject matter as most of the company’s performers would have been considered extermination material by Hitler. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, but nevertheless Laherty made, as he has before, the deepest impression on me. His deliberate voice, grave demeanour and the clarity and poise of his interactions made an indelible mark.

Josh McConville (actor, Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, February): The thing is, I could hardly tell you what McConville looks like. He is a theatre chameleon, shape-shifting into whatever is required and so very good at it all. He’s played some pretty desperate men and perhaps his character in Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off could be described as such, but what fun to see McConville doing it for laughs. His stair work was exquisite.

Steven McRae (Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, July): The Australian-born principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet showed why he is one of the most admired Romeos on the stage today. The impulsive, passionate youth of this dance-drama could have been made for him, so natural was the fit. McRae has a slight, elegant figure but radiated huge amounts of energy, taking the stage like a whirlwind. His crystal-clear line, the way he hovered in the air for precious moments in a turn or jeté, his vibrant attack and heady speed were treasures in themselves but given point and purpose by the way these technical gifts created character.

Steve Rodgers (actor, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Who better to illuminate Declan Greene’s play than Rodgers? Although the unnamed character he played is deceptive and cunning, Rodgers willed us to find some empathy. There was much before us that was messy, humiliating and ugly; Rodgers didn’t shy from the darkness but also revealed the pitiable emptiness of the life.

Richard Roxburgh (Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company, November): Not a lot needs to be said here. Roxburgh’s Cyrano was darkly self-aware, exceptionally witty and heart-breaking. A superlative performance from one of the greats of our stage.

Damien Ryan (artistic director, Sport for Jove, Sydney): Ryan’s Sport for Jove productions always reveal fresh insights into classic texts, and this year’s Henry V, which he directed for Bell Shakespeare was perhaps his best. Which is saying a lot, because his All’s Well That End’s Well for Sport for Jove was magnificent.

Monday: Best of the best

Opera and musical theatre in 2014

MUSICAL theatre in Sydney got a boost in 2014 with the arrival of Hayes Theatre Co. When Darlinghurst Theatre Company won the residency at the lovely new Eternity Playhouse, a group of music-theatre producers collectively known as Independent Music Theatre took over the Darlinghurst’s former premises, a small theatre in Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point. They named their venture after legend Nancye Hayes and got off to a cracking start with Sweet Charity in February.

Indie group Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre was originally part of the group, but quietly withdrew during the year and recently staged its Sondheim on Sondheim at the Reginald, the Seymour Centre’s smallest theatre space – and an endearing one too. Squabbalogic will be seen there again in 2015.

Regular work from both groups gives Sydney a strong alternative to the handful of mega-musicals that hog the city’s pitiful number of big houses for long runs.

On the opera front a three-tier system (albeit a lop-sided one) is settling in. Brilliant young outfit Sydney Chamber Opera, which concentrates on new work and Australian premieres of small-scale operas, now has a residency at Carriageworks. That should give it some extra security. Since 2002 Pinchgut Opera has performed works rarely heard in Australia, often from the baroque period. This year it staged two operas for the first time since its inception and will do so again in 2015. Last month Pinchgut and Opera Australia announced that Pinchgut would be given office space at OA’s Opera Centre in Surry Hills. OA has in the past helped with rehearsal space, costumes and props but in a show of solidarity has increased its commitment. Pinchgut made it clear it would be retaining its independence.

At the big end of the market is Opera Australia, obviously, but let’s not forget Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It presents only one semi-staged production a year but the scale of the music-making is tremendous and unmissable. For OA it hasn’t been the happiest of years, with the organisation regularly and severely criticised. I’ll talk about some of those things in a later blog on the year’s arts issues. For now, let’s look at what I loved in 2014. As with theatre, my favourites are presented in order of transmission. They include operas and musicals seen in New York and London.

OPERA

His Music Burns, Sydney Chamber Opera at the Sydney Festival (January): This was an entrancing double bill of rarities, both Australian premieres. György Kurtág’s … pas à pas – nulle part… and George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill were seen in elegant, spare productions and performed with musicianship of the highest order. Really special

Anna Netrebko in L’Elisir d’amore, Metropolitan Opera, New York (February): What to say about Netrebko except that she is deservedly a huge, huge star. Apart from having a voice of dark beauty, electrifying power and easy flexibility, Netrebko’s was a divinely acted Adina: strong, funny and touching. The sexy bass-baritone Erwin Shrott played Doctor Dulcamara as a very naughty boy indeed and with a voice to die for. Apparently the separation late last year of Shrott and Netrebko after a long personal partnership hasn’t affected their work. They seemed very jolly together on stage. A fabulous night.

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly, Metropolitan Opera (February): I’d longed to see this for years and I wasn’t disappointed. The setting is little more than a dark, glossy void that subtly reflects the action. Within 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 an excellent place to put Butterfly, and Butterfly. It’s not an intimate setting, 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. I heard Cio-Cio-San sung by South African Amanda Eschalez. When this production comes to Perth International Arts Festival in February it will feature the soprano who originated the role for Minghella, Mary Plazas.

Christine Goerke’s Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra (February): 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 David Robertson and the SSO in the Concert Hall. Elektra’s is a magnificent obsession despite the madness underpinning it. Goerke gloried in the woman’s unwavering pursuit of justice and gave it a terrible beauty. She was incandescent in a production that really was very close to being fully staged. The SSO produces music dramas on a scale impossible in the Joan Sutherland Theatre – the last time Elektra was heard in Sydney was in 2000 as part of the Sydney Festival, in a production at the Capital Theatre with Deborah Polaski as Elektra and Simone Young conducting the SSO.

Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia (March): It was somewhat disheartening to see that OA believed – and I imagine it was correct – it could sell only eight performances of Eugene Onegin. It is such a ravishing piece. One could quibble about aspects of Kaspar Holten’s production – a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Fondazione Teatro Regio, Turin – but there was no quibbling where Nicole Car is concerned. She was greeted at the curtain with stamps and cheers after a glorious Tatyana and deserved 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.

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (March): Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura was all-conquering in the production designed and directed by La Fura dels Baus. Her desperate realisation that she was being abandoned and her son removed saw her racing across the mighty outdoor stage in frantic anguish. It was devastating.

Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Royal Opera, London (May): Carsen’s 2002 version, staged for the first time at Covent Garden this year, was exceptionally spare and beautiful. The set was almost non-existent, with the drama created by the women singing the doomed nuns and a vast force of chorus members, extra chorus and actors who formed a chilling, menacing mob. Simon Rattle conducted and Sally Matthews was a luminous Blanche. A special night.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Mayakovsky, by Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon (July): Yes, SCO bobs up again. Seeing and hearing their work is as bracing as it gets. New music, new libretto, intelligent production, cracking performances. What’s not to like?

Don Giovanni, Opera Australia (July): Who knew the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage could look this big? Designer Robert Jones worked all sorts of magic for David McVicar’s Gothic-tinged production of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, strewing bones and skulls about and putting centre-stage an imposing stairway that was never going to lead to heaven. Our anti-hero was a dead man walking among the undead.

Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut Opera (December): Pinchgut knocked it out of the park again. Lindy Hume’s direction, Tony Assness’s set, Alistair Trung’s costumes and Matthew Marshall’s lighting were perfectly judged to make virtues of the City Recital Hall’s strict limitations for dramatic presentation. There’s nothing limited about the hall’s acoustic, in which the opera glowed. Caitllin Hulcup (Iphigénie) and Grant Doyle (Oreste) were on fire and the women of choir Cantillation, Pinchgut’s chorus of choice, were particularly outstanding. Under Antony Walker, the Orchestra of the Antipodes honoured Gluck’s ravishing music with a performance that made the senses reel and the heart sing.

MUSICAL THEATRE

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Broadway (February): 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. Alec Guinness memorably 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 was taken up by Jefferson Mays, who was pure delight. Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) and Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) wrote 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 put a dear little stage within the stage, complete with a swooshing red curtain that falls to hide the next scene change. And there were many, all executed with much flair.

What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop (February): The stage was 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. The show was devoted, obviously, to the songs of Burt Bacharach and his main-man lyricist Hal David (plus some others). The music issued in a continuous stream to suggest – nothing more – a scenario of love and loss and the songs stood up brilliantly to loving reinterpretation. What’s It All About? presumably introduced this imperishable repertoire to a generation not terribly familiar with it, but for someone of my age it was 90 minutes of bliss during which one smiled foolishly, mouthed the words, and thought of days now long gone.

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co (February): It was down-sized, dirtied up and worked a treat. So much so that it’s soon embarking on a return season in rather bigger venues. Dean Bryant’s conception of the piece showed how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it was less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre at Hayes Theatre Co (March): This was one for the music-theatre nerds, and what a beauty. The Drowsy Chaperone purports to be the reflections of an everyman who just wants to take away from the theatre a tune he can hum, having enjoyed some pretty costumes, an amusingly tangled plot, a happy ending and definitely no audience participation. The show will preferably be short. On comes the musical within a musical, also called The Drowsy Chaperone. It is silly and formulaic, thus allowing The Drowsy Chaperone (the host musical) to shamelessly have it both ways. Creators Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) pay genuine homage to good old-fashioned entertainment while sending it up mercilessly. Our everyman, Man in Chair, yearns for the wit and glamour of Cole Porter but there is only the flimsiest facsimile of it in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason they don’t make ‘em like that any more, but also why there’s nostalgia for earlier, more graceful times.

Miss Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh, London (May): Producer Cameron Mackintosh says it is the musical he was most asked to revive, so he did it. This Vietnam-war era version of Madama Butterfly has been given a terrific new production and its poignancies still resonate as vividly as they did when the show first opened in 1989.

Les Miserables, Cameron Mackintosh, Melbourne (July): The musical is still selling its socks off so this is a revival of something that never went away. It’s not subtle theatre or intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart; a big story told in bold strokes. The new version, which opened in Melbourne and is Sydney-bound, is very, very well done indeed.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret, starring Christie Whelan-Browne (August): I’d seen this before but it certainly bore repeating. Under the direction of Dean Bryant, who also wrote the show – him again! He’s everywhere! – Whelan-Browne channeled the pop star and her music to demonstrate the corrosive effect of fame on a kid who became the family bread-winner way, way too early. This wasn’t satire; it was tragedy. Whelan-Browne has performed Britney off and on for some years and it looks, sadly, as if it’s had its last outing.

Miracle City, Hayes Theatre Co (October): Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s 1996 musical finally got the revival so many music-theatre lovers wanted, and it was good. Barnstorming Christianity and a lust for worldly achievement combined to explode spectacularly within the 90-minute span of a Sunday morning televangelism show. Echoes of A Doll’s House were loud in Blazey Best’s terrific performance as an obedient wife who’d been married far too young.

The Legend of King O’Malley, Don’t Look Away (December): The rollicking Michael Boddy-Bob Ellis political musical got a rough-and-tumble revival that honoured the spirit of the piece and – ouch! – did not feel at all like a period piece.

On Monday: Dance

‘She makes you laugh then makes you cry’

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

IT’S little wonder so many former child stars go off piste spectacularly, particularly those who started very young. Right from the get-go they learned that to be a success they would have to know how to please. To please Mommy, who took her to all those dance lessons. To please Daddy, if he was around, who paid for those lessons. To please the judges of the talent shows, and the advertising people picking out the prettiest, most compliant kids to be in the commercial. To work really, really hard because they were very likely the family breadwinner, and not to screw that up by not pleasing.

If you’re a pleaser, perhaps you get taken advantage of. It’s hard to lose the habit of being the one who is the approval-seeker. It’s sad. Even if you have a bulging bank account to ease the pain.

Christie Whelan Browne

Christie Whelan Browne

In the case of Britney Jean Spears, for quite a while she didn’t even have control of the bank account. Her father did that when she was judged unfit to manage her affairs and to take care of her children. She’d pulled quite a few stunts, true, but perhaps they too were another aspect – a more adult one – of trying to please. The paparazzi sure liked what she did, and she obliged big time.

Out of Spears’s very public woes writer/director Dean Bryant and the glorious Christie Whelan Browne have fashioned a new (relatively; Britney Spears the Cabaret first saw the light in 2009) take on a very old tale: fame as nightmare. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” story.

Whelan Browne delivers her performance with laser precision, switching in a nano-second from dumb broad to sweet innocent without you seeing it coming. She makes you laugh at Britney’s naivety and then makes you cry. Well, I got a bit teary. People can be so very cruel, particularly when they wield the power. And the fans do. They get to decide who is in and who out; who is not longer adored; who is to be chased and who ignored.

Obviously there are worse things in the world than being an over-impulsive, undoubtedly under-educated, far too rich and silly young woman (or young man, guess who?), but they’re with us, and they say something about us as well as themselves.

Assisted superbly by music director Matthew Frank at the piano, Whelan Browne interprets Spears’s songs with ferocious energy (she’s a great singer – no Auto-Tune required here!) and point. Circus, Piece of Me, … Baby One More Time, I’m a Slave 4 U, Womanizer, Oops! … I Did It Again, Toxic … well, you can see how songs with such titles might fit into the depiction of a troubled life. Frank’s arrangements do the rest by ripping them out of the pop realm and making them sound very unsettling indeed. Brilliant.

Britney Spears the Cabaret ends September 7.