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.

Grease, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

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

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

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

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

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

As I say, sweet.

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

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

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

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

Grease, Melbourne from January 2

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