About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

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Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

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Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

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Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.

Michael Griffiths; Bernadette Robinson

Michael Griffiths, Sweet Dreams: songs by Annie Lennox. Slide Lounge, Sydney, June 1. Bernadette Robinson, Slide Lounge, June 4.

HOW many times have you said how much you love a particular artist, but in reality you’ve stopped listening? Not stopped hearing, but stopped listening. Much of the time perhaps. The music does its job of reminding us of where we were and with whom; it uplifts or soothes or matches a blue mood. The lyrics – well, even if they were initially heard and absorbed accurately, they can so easily become pieces of rhythmic material adrift from meaning.  Perhaps they never meant anything in the first place. Da do ron ron.

Michael Griffiths and writer-director Dean Bryant have created a matchless way of compelling one to listen and hear anew. An earlier show in this style presented the music of Madonna. The subject of Sweet Dreams is – no surprise here – Annie Lennox, 50 per cent of the Eurythmics, 100 per cent  singer and songwriter extraordinare.

Michael Griffiths. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Griffiths. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The stroke of genius is to have Griffiths speak as Annie Lennox but not impersonate her. There are all the benefits of first-person narration without there being the slightest attempt to impersonate the woman. The show simultaneously showcases Griffiths as Lennox and Griffiths about Lennox. It’s intimate and detached all at once. Brecht would have been proud.

Accompanying himself immaculately on the piano, Griffiths plays and sings arrangements that intensify the mood and meaning of lyrics so they cast light and shade on the ups and downs of Lennox’s life. Which were many and varied, including an ill-advised marriage to a Hare Krishna devotee (“Don’t mess with a missionary man”), ill-fated relationship with the other half of the Eurythmics, Dave Stewart (Who’s That Girl?)  and much more. Including, of course, remarkably fine pieces of pop.

With Thorn in My Side Griffiths manages the miracle of audience participation that is not only not embarrassing, but really rather excellent – at least on the evening I was there. Here Comes the Rain Again is sung with melancholy understanding; even better is the sad and lovely You Have Placed a Chill in My Heart, and Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) gets a particularly graceful arrangement. Indeed, there is not a false note, metaphorically speaking, nor musically speaking. Sweet Dreams is a memorable and treasurable piece of music theatre.

Griffiths appeared in Sydney as part of a small-scale but impressive cabaret festival staged at and by Slide Lounge. Bernadette Robinson, who closed the festival, has had huge success with the theatre piece written for her by Joanna Murray-Smith, Songs for Nobodies, in which she performs songs associated with Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf. In her Slide show she covered some of this ground, showing her razor-sharp ability to convey the vocal quality, timbre, style and temperament that made such singers adored.

Robinson said at the end of the show that she considers herself an impressionist rather than an impersonator. “I evoke them,’’ she said. In truth she moves between those states. When it comes to her performance of the protest song Strange Fruit she is giving a very close picture of Holiday, and one that out of the context of Songs for Nobodies seems not quite right. On the other hand, her performance of La vie en rose was much closer to a suggestion of Piaf than a copy.

Robinson’s control of her instrument is extraordinary.  She can sing with crystalline clarity, absolutely on the note and with not a trace of vibrato, or else fatten the sound with lots of harmonics. She can alter tone, weight and colour at a moment and is masterly in her understanding of the expressive power of dynamics; necessary attributes for what we might call her vocal sleight of hand. That’s not meant to sound dismissive – I admire Robinson greatly – but her skill at these impressions, impersonations, evocations, whatever, can feel like a protective shield.

Robinson gave deadly accurate and most enjoyable versions of the disparate likes of Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey and Callas, the latter giving Robinson a chance to demonstrate her operatic chops with a snatch of the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor.  (She also sang the coloratura showcase Olympia’s aria from The Tales of Hoffmann. This was an eclectic program.)

The most memorable part of the show, however, was Robinson as Robinson. Her performance of Damien Rice’s The Blower’s Daughter was magnificent. I could hear that again and again.

Sweet Dreams, Melbourne Cabaret Festival, fortyfivedownstairs, ends June 7; Festival of Voices, Hobart, July 12-13.