Assassins, Hayes Theatre Co

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 19.

“I shall be remembered,” cries Charlie Guiteau as he dances his way to the scaffold, singing a plaintive hymn of his own devising. Charlie who? History can be cruel to those who seek to make their mark by whatever means possible. We may remember the effect of their actions but precisely who they were and the reason they did what they did? Not so much.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins (1990) throws together a motley band of successful and would-be killers of US presidents and assesses them against the unforgiving standards of American exceptionalism. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” the opening number asserts, by which is meant the right to be noticed, be taken seriously, make a mark, be someone, be famous.

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

The right to bear arms makes the pursuit of those goals just that bit easier. Some things never grow old. (Guiteau, by the way, was one of the winners, despatching James Garfield in 1881 partly because Garfield ignored his desire to be US ambassador to France.)

Assassins is explicitly set in a fairground shooting gallery, evocatively designed by Alicia Clements (set and costumes) and Ross Graham (lights) as a dark, seedy dump with touches of tawdry glamour. The action sits outside of time and place. Here, in a hallucinatory present, presidential murderers and wannabes from elder statesman John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln, 1865) to John Hinckley Jr (Ronald Reagan, 1981) get to explain themselves, mix and mingle a little and maybe get a little understanding.

Dean Bryant’s production of this rarely seen Sondheim comes very close to being great. The crack team includes a terrific five-piece band under Andrew Warboys’s direction and Andrew Hallsworth as the very fine choreographer. The cast couldn’t be better and the staging expertly walks the tightrope between black humour and coruscating anger and back again.

The themes have certainly not worn out their welcome. Like the tolling of a muffled bell, certain words repeat throughout Assassins. “Never, never, never.” “Nothing, nothing, nothing no good.” “No one listens.” “I am nothing.” Not. No. For all their delusions and misguided passions, these flawed souls have a powerful point about life’s injustices.

David Campbell in ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

David Campbell in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

It’s just a pity Bryant doesn’t let their carnival masks slip more often. Assassins would be more potent for it. His Little Shop of Horrors, which premiered at the Hayes early last year, was pitch-perfect; Assassins occasionally less than that, including the final image, which offers an easy laugh but not a dramatically satisfying reason for being in a work that gives the deplorables their moment in the sun.

The extraordinary 11-member cast otherwise knocks it out of the park. Each one deserves nothing but superlatives. Kate Cole and Hannah Fredericksen form a wacky double act as Sarah Jane Moore and Charles Manson acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. They each attempted to kill Gerald Ford in 1975 within three weeks of each other, as unsuccessful in handling a gun as Ford was in winning respect. Connor Crawford is the unnervingly self-effacing Hinckley, who shot and injured Ronald Reagan in an effort to win Jodie Foster’s attention.

Martin Crewes as Guiseppe Zangara (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933) and Jason Kos as Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley, 1901) make their anarchist firebrands worthy of our consideration and compassion. Justin Smith’s tremendously good Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon, 1974) is the epitome of madness masquerading as reason. “I’m talking, you’re listening,” he says. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Well, that’s what they all feel.

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

Newcomer Maxwell Simon is impressive as the sunny balladeer who morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy, 1963) and Bobby Fox’s Guiteau gets the big vaudeville song-and-dance treatment, nailing the number’s frenetic, “it’s showtime” gaiety. Appropriately though, David Campbell (the tightly wound, upright Booth) is first among equals. “The country isn’t what it was,” Booth sings in 1865 and his anguish echoes through the ages.

Rob McDougall gets the show off to a strong start with his laconic, sonorously sung shooting gallery proprietor and Laura Bunting is wonderful in Something just Broke, the song that finally turns the musical’s gaze away from the assassins and towards the ordinary lives they affected.

It’s powerful material despite the occasional clunkiness in Weidman’s book, particularly as Sondheim’s score is hugely effective, co-opting popular musical styles appropriate to each assassin’s era. Good luck with getting Hinckley and Fromme’s soft-rock duet Unworthy of Your Love out of your head.

Tickets: $70-$78. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au. Duration: 1hr 45mins with no interval. Ends October 22.

Little Shop of Horrors

Luckiest Productions & Tinderbox Productions. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 23.

RESISTANCE is useless Earthlings. Little Shop of Horrors is back and roaring for warm blood. Human blood. Your blood. I doubt it will be denied, at least in cult-musicals circles. The greatly cherished show has an almost mystical following and, with this production, should recruit a new generation of devotees.

To recap: after an unusual atmospheric disturbance, lovable loser Seymour Krelborn (Brent Hill) stumbles upon a weird plant and brings it back to the drooping Skid Row florist shop where he works alongside another of life’s punching bags, self-sabotaging Audrey (Esther Hannaford). Given the name Audrey II by lovesick Seymour, the plant soon reveals itself to be carnivorous. Rapaciously so. What could possibly go wrong? And what will nebbish Seymour do to hold on to his dreams once he becomes something of a celebrity thanks to Audrey II, with a concomitant boost to his previously minimal store of courage?

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1141

Brent Hill as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical takes its B-grade schlock-horror plot from a 1960 Roger Corman quickie film but it has much more heart and substance than that may suggest. At the Hayes, in a tightrope act pulled off with impeccable style and sophistication, director Dean Bryant expertly digs into the multiplicity of dark interpretations implicit in the text while keeping things light and fleet enough on the surface to keep the laughs coming.

Hanging over the story are those mid-20th century fears of invasion and subjugation in which aliens stood in for the enemy at the gate (think Orson Welles’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids just to name two). These fears are not entirely unknown today. Little Shop of Horrors is also a cautionary tale about the dangerous seductions of fame and money, particularly for someone as innocent as Seymour.

But it’s the central story of doomed love and impossible aspirations that Bryant and his production team really hit hard and strong, just as they did in 2014 with their thrilling reworking of Sweet Charity.

Little Shop of Horrors premiered Off-Broadway in 1982, distant enough from Corman’s film to be able to indulge in fond nostalgia for the 1960s and having it both ways by casting an arch but critical eye over the lingering 1950s social values of the time. Bryant sails audaciously close to the wind in his conceptions of Audrey and Seymour. When we first see Hannaford’s Audrey her emotional fragility is heightened dramatically by the production design, an expressionistic rendering of the dismal grey lives of the denizens of Skid Row. Hannaford looks wraith-like and her not-entirely-American accent and twitchy, fey gestures make her seem already not of this world.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

Audrey’s resigned subservience to her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello DDS (Scott Johnson) – she’s never allowed to forget Orin’s academic credentials – is exceptionally painful and gives exceptional poignancy to her wistful fantasy of a safe, well-appointed home (Somewhere That’s Green). The song is funny and heartbreaking all at once and Hannaford is attuned to every nuance. To hear her wish for not only a washer but a dryer too is to hear an entire life story. Hannaford’s performance is exquisitely calibrated: strange, beautiful and unearthly, even when raising the roof with Hill’s Seymour in Suddenly Seymour, where tenderness and a thumping great love ballad collide magnificently.

From Hill, also in tour-de-force vocal and dramatic form, we get to understand that even someone as sweet and gentle as Seymour is liable to turn into a kind of monster if he chooses to make compact with one. Still, that might be better than what he had to start with, no? And anyway, once on that slippery slope there’s no getting off.

Bryant’s Little Shop of Horrors lets such thoughts niggle tenaciously while making whoopee with the musical’s trashy laughs, irresistible songs and grand guignol gestures. Erth Visual & Physical Inc’s series of Audrey II plants (Jamie Clennett, animator) is spectacularly successful, as are the designs by Owen Phillips (set), Tim Chappel (costumes) and Ross Graham (lights). In a brilliant coup de théâtre they transform a dismal grey world into riotous colour when success comes calling at the decrepit business run by Mr Mushnik (Tyler Coppin). Andrew Hallsworth’s pitch-perfect choreography is the cherry on top. Well, that and the darling red bias-cut coat Chappel gives Audrey in Act II. Divine.

While Hill and Hannaford are the glorious linchpin, the full cast of nine is a knockout, particularly Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel as a sassy, sexy Greek chorus in close-harmony girl-group guise and Scott Johnson’s pure macho evil as Orin that makes you laugh and gasp in horror all at once.

As can often happen at the Hayes on opening night the sound from music director Andrew Warboys’s small band was sometimes too boomy and precious lyrics were smothered. It’s a hard space to get right it would seem, but one is grateful for the gems it produces. One more thing: Little Shop looks too big for the 110-seat Hayes, but this was always likely. There’s a national tour ahead in more capacious venues.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on February 25.

Little Shop of Horrors ends in Sydney on March 19. Adelaide from April 20, Melbourne from May 4, Canberra from May 25, Brisbane from June 1, Perth from August 4.

High and low

High Society, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 7; Anything Goes, Sydney Opera House, September 8   

IN one giddy night of mayhem, pairs of lovers – former, would-be, should-be, desperately mismatched – ricochet around in the search for a safe harbour. Intoxicants are taken, identities are mistaken, the low-born mingle with the high-born, a man is very much an ass and everything turns out for the best in the end.

No, not A Midsummer Night’s Dream but High Society, which in the hands of director Helen Dallimore and a blue-chip cast is a blissful demonstration of just how foolish we mortals can be. Throw in a selection of Cole Porter songs (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, True Love, Let’s Misbehave and many more) and the happiness is complete.

The 1997 musical (book by Arthur Kopit, additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) is based on the 1956 film based on Philip Barry’s 1940 play The Philadelphia Story. Rich and beautiful Tracy Lord (Amy Lepahmer, adorable) is about to marry George Kittredge (Scott Irwin, hilarious) so upright you could use him as a plumbline and thick with it. Tracy’s former husband CK Dexter Haven (Bert LaBonte, coolly suave) pops by to solve a problem and cause mischief simultaneously and two party-crashing journalists (Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox, perfection) stir the pot and arouse passions.

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Tracy’s parents are having a spot of marital bother of their own, her Uncle Willie is a drunken, lascivious old goat and young sister Dinah is a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued observer and meddler. It’s all go in the Lord household as a pre-wedding bash for 700 guests gets underway.

How to manage that in a 110-seat theatre? Amusingly and effectively, as it happens, with set designer Lauren Peters cunningly representing the glamorous big-house, old-money setting with a simple set of moveable arches. She even gets in a cheeky reveal after interval. Not only are changes of location achieved in an instant, there’s a pleasing swirl that echoes the emotional eddies and flows. The four-piece band – yes, only four – under Daryl Wallis’s direction achieves wonders and the sound balance is far better than usual at the Hayes, which is a big win.

LaBonte gives a slow-burn performance that speaks of feelings kept in check under a glossy and sophisticated exterior and Jessica Whitfield is very funny as Dinah, the wise-beyond-her-years kid who wants to save Tracy from herself. With Delia Hannah as Tracy and Dinah’s mother Margaret, Russell Cheek as Margaret’s errant husband Seth, Laurence Coy enjoyably chewing the scenery as Uncle Willie and Michelle Barr and Phillip Lowe as the two-person chorus of household servants, it’s a classy cast from top to bottom.

And you’d have to go a long way to see better than Lepahmer, Gay and Fox. Lepahmer looks a million dollars in her slinky red gown and is a greatly gifted, all-singing, all-dancing comedienne. Fox gets writer Mike Connor’s mix of cracking hardy and regret at wasted talent. And as Liz Imbrie, Gay gives a performance that should have music-theatre fans from around the country rushing to see it. In love with Mike, avoiding Uncle Willie’s clutches, seeing everything and understanding all, she is smart and witty and heartbreaking.

The contrast between High Society and Anything Goes, seen – partially – the following evening, couldn’t have been greater. The light, fizzing comedy so necessary for Cole Porter’s imperishable melodies and the featherweight storyline of Anything Goes (young lovers; social climbing; a nightclub singer who was previously an evangelist; gangsters on the run) is AWOL. There is little other than Dale Ferguson’s lovely costumes to evoke the drop-dead glamour of a sea crossing from New York to London in the 1930s. Director Dean Bryant leans too heavily on material that should be nimble and buoyant as it flies through the serial improbabilities of the book. I was so disheartened I left at interval so my comments, necessarily brief, must therefore be seen in that light. The second half may have delighted.

High Society ends October 4. Anything Goes ends October 31. 

There will not be light

Next to Normal, Doorstep Arts in association with Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, January 15.

Sweet Charity, Sydney Opera House, January 16, 2015

IF there is a choice to be made between darkness and light, musical theatre will tend to go for the latter. It’s just how it is. Indeed, Next to Normal, a musical in which the central figure suffers from bipolar disorder, ends on that note literally. The last lustily sung phrase from the ensemble is: “There will be” – big pause – “light”.

It’s an absurd, sentimental conclusion to a work that wants to have it both ways – to have dark subject matter but to end on a note of warm optimism. Next to Normal requires its audience to take an impossible leap of faith, based on the evidence the musical sets out before us.

Diana is a mother and wife who, in addition to being bipolar, struggles with anxiety, depression and episodes of delusion. Really, though, the key source of anguish is deeply rooted grief that Diana cannot or will not relinquish.

Natalie O'Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

Natalie O’Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

This second thread gives Next to Normal its narrative twist and funkiest musical number (I’m Alive) but the intertwining of debilitating mental illness and personal loss feels manipulative. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are undoubtedly sincere in intent but make no persuasive case. If there’s a platitudinous way to say something, it will be found. (Apparently “the price of love is loss but we love anyway”. Ugh.) Likewise, Tom Kitt’s music is generic rock-pop with a strong and regular beat and no great emotional complexity. As to the medical insights Next to Normal offers, the less said the better.

That it won the 2010 the Pulitzer Prize for drama is a mystery for the ages.

Nevertheless, Geelong’s Doorstep Arts does interesting things with the show and I particularly admired Natalie O’Donnell’s Diana. A set consisting of a few rostra and chalk outlines economically conveys Diana’s dislocation and O’Donnell’s warmth and raw honesty appeal strongly. The supporting cast of five works its heart out for director Darylin Ramondo (she could afford to dial down the energy level) and overall makes a good fist of this very flawed show. And I must say it worked rather better for me than did Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2011 production. So that’s a win for regional theatre.

While the little Hayes Theatre Co hosts Next to Normal, its smash hit from last year, Sweet Charity, has burst out of indie-land and started a series of top-end-of-town seasons. Its first port of call is the Sydney Opera House, where Dean Bryant’s production makes a raucous, confident move to the Playhouse stage. (One degree of separation: Bryant directed MTC’s Next to Normal.)

Crucially, Verity Hunt-Ballard is even more luminous this year than last as Charity Hope Valentine, the unschooled, trusting dance-hall hostess – okay, prostitute – whose sweetness and optimism are painfully tested at every turn.

Around her the production is louder and more garish (and The Rhythm of Life number still doesn’t earn its keep, no matter how much everyone loves it) but the clear-sighted vision that made last year’s incarnation so persuasive is still there. Charity may have knocked around a bit but she isn’t so hardened that she can’t be crushed. Sweet Charity originally ended with Charity shrugging philosophically and an assurance to the audience that she’ll keep plugging away with good cheer.

Hunt Ballard’s Charity offers no such comfort. When her dream of escape evaporates there is nothing but desolation.

There will not be light.

Next to Normal ends February 1. Sweet Charity ends in Sydney on February 8. Canberra, February 11-21; Melbourne, February 25-March 8; Wollongong, March 11-15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 19.

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.

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 13

HAYES Theatre Co came into being when Darlinghurst Theatre Company vacated its tiny 19 Greenknowe Ave premises in Potts Point, having become the resident company at the spiffy new Eternity Playhouse. Sydney City Council, which spent about $8 million on the transformation of the former Baptist church into a beautiful 200-seat theatre, then asked for expressions of interest in Greenknowe Ave.

A group of savvy but itinerant music-theatre presenters seized the moment and formed a consortium with the very pragmatic name of Independent Music Theatre and a most laudable goal: to provide Sydney with a permanent home for regular productions of musicals and cabaret. IMT won the bid, had a successful Pozible fundraiser to give the theatre a bit of a facelift – petite chandeliers in the foyer! – and gave itself a more user-friendly name to use in public: Hayes Theatre Co. The name pays tribute to Nancye Hayes, who was cheered to the echo on the opening night of Hayes Theatre Co’s first show, Sweet Charity.

Girls on chairs

It was a rather glamorous evening, actually, although I suspect there will be less glamour behind the scenes as producers work to big-city standards on low budgets. Tickets to Sweet Charity are a measly $49; the producers may have to rethink the pricing strategy when – and we must hope it’s when – you can’t get one of the 110 available seats for any money.

Sweet Charity set the bar high for what is to follow. It was produced by David Campbell, Lisa Campbell, Richard Carroll and Neil Gooding, all highly experienced in the field. The cast was headed by Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins) and Martin Crewes (loads of large-scale musicals here and on the West End) and the creative team featured the almost ubiquitous Dean Bryant as director (worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert etc etc et al), Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer (Priscilla, loads of Production Company and Melbourne Theatre Company shows) and, get this, Oscar, BAFTA and AFI winner Tim Chappel on costumes.

With this kind of commitment it’s hard not to be reminded that the small Menier Chocolate Factory (180 seats) has become a big player on London’s theatrical landscape. Limited means don’t have to equate to limited results. In fact, it can be revelatory to see on an intimate scale work that was premiered splashily. Australia lacks London’s depth, it is true, but it’s pleasing to think that work developed at Hayes Theatre Co could have a life elsewhere.

And now to Sweet Charity, which has been downsized and dirtied up in a way that not only suits the theatre but also is very much to the benefit of the piece. I was somewhat reminded of the extraordinary John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd I saw on Broadway some years ago. Todd is frequently done by opera companies in the grandest manner; here there was scarcely any set, the re-orchestrated score was played by actor-singers who never left the stage (Patti LuPone’s Mrs Lovett on tuba, if you can imagine that) and the effect was shattering. Similarly, Chicago is still running on Broadway 17 years after its stripped-down appearance as part of New York’s Encores series.

Sweet Charity, of course, is no Sweeney Todd (or Chicago). Some of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s songs and lyrics still have a little currency – who doesn’t recognise the tough six-note statement that introduces Big Spender? – but Charity is very much of its time. Within moments of the start Charity’s boyfriend steals her bag and throws her in a lake; later a film star hides her in a cupboard while he entertains his girlfriend; later still she is dumped because her new man can’t get over her “past”. Sex and sentimentality collide, and all this is supposed to be really rather amusing and Charity a good sport.

Nevertheless, Bryant’s conception of Sweet Charity shows 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’s 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.

On a dark, almost bare stage (set design Owen Phillips, lighting Ross Graham) with a hard-edged band up the back, Bryant eliminates most of the dubious sentimentality that can make Sweet Charity a decidedly icky affair. These days, who wants to chuckle indulgently at a poor, barely educated young woman working at the fringes of the sex industry? To counter that the design team creates the mood of a seedy nightspot, with just a few screens and some basic chairs; performers hang around the edges to get changed and Bryant and choreographer Hallsworth have men circling women like hyenas in search of a feed. After all, Nickie (Debora Krizak) does describe the Fandango Ballroom work this way: “We defend ourselves to music.”

There is a downside, though. In many ways Bryant’s muscular, stripped-down approach makes Sweet Charity’s flaws even more obvious (Neil Simon was responsible for the flabby book), and he doesn’t find a way of making sense of one of Sweet Charity’s biggest musical hits, Rhythm of Life. It’s rather rushed through, presumably because it is an odd fit in this crepuscular world.

Big Spender, always an ironic number, works a treat and Rich Man’s Frug is a Surrealist delight thanks to Chappel’s costumes and Hallsworth’s splendid choreography.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Leaving her long stint as Mary Poppins well behind her, Hunt-Ballard is a shiny-eyed, exceedingly likeable Charity who carries the show with tremendous verve. Touchingly, this Charity is much more intelligent and resourceful than she gives herself credit for, although Hunt-Ballard could usefully find a little more vulnerability. You don’t really sense the extent of her damage, although the ending shows she has it in her. All the women (and one man) of the Fandango Ballroom are wonderful, with Krizak outstanding in two roles.

Crewes, playing all Charity’s men friends, is a super-sexy Vittorio, an over-nerdy Oscar and could with profit turn the dial down – he’s a man used to commanding 2000-seat auditoriums; here the audience is practically sitting on his knee.

Speaking of which, there is little to match the thrill of theatre seen right up close. Sweet Charity may be a problematic piece but the work done on it by this small, highly expert team is exceptional. Next up from March 14: The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Squabbalogic. Can’t wait.

Ends March 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 17.