About last week … April 23-29

I could be wrong but I think the only Jonathan Dove opera to have made it to a professional stage so far in Australia is Flight, which I saw in 2006 when the Adelaide Festival presented the Glyndebourne production. The prolific Dove is something of a rarity, being a living opera composer whose more than two dozen works in the genre are much in demand around the world (except, it would seem, Australia). He told The Times of London last year that during 2015 there would be “17 new stagings of 11 of my operas in eight different countries”.

So it was a huge pleasure to be able to see Dove’s Mansfield Park (2011) staged by Operantics, the Sydney-based company founded last year to create performance opportunities for young singers. Home base is North Sydney’s Independent Theatre. It has a comfortable 300-seat auditorium and judging by the very good house at the April 24 matinee Operantics is already hitting the spot with just its third production.

Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton hit the spot too with their adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel of goodness rewarded. Gentle Fanny Price lives at Mansfield Park with well-off relatives and is secretly in love with her cousin Edmund. She might be considered the most insignificant member of the household but only she understands the dangers posed when vivacious, worldly Mary and Henry Crawford enter their lives and create emotional mayhem.

Mansfield Park - John Kilkeary DSC_8614LR

A scene from Operantics’ Mansfield Park. Photo: John Kilkeary

The action is wittily presented in two “volumes” and 18 “chapters”, each announced by the singers. Dove’s score, written for piano duo, flows freely and melodically, alert to the comedy and self-serving dramatics of most of the characters while giving Fanny some gentle, heartfelt music. A burbling undercurrent suits the rural setting and provides a very busy workout indeed for the accompanying pianists, in this case the heroic Nathaniel Kong and Geena Cheung. Only some very high-lying music for Mary Crawford and a couple of the more complex ensembles created real difficulties to understanding the text without surtitles; otherwise the Operantics cast of 10 sang with admirable clarity and, in the modest but effective production, were engaging actors.

It’s a real ensemble work, most winningly presented, so I won’t single out anyone other than Katie Miller-Crispe: she sang the role of Maria, is Operantics’ artistic director and was production manager for Mansfield Park. Brava. And in late September Operantics plans to stage Bellini’s La sonnambula. The company certainly doesn’t want for ambition.

The Detective’s Handbook, at Hayes Theatre Co, isn’t much more than an extended skit on an inconsequential subject but it does announce impressive new music-theatre talent in writer Ian Ferrington and composer Olga Solar (the latter is just 22). The musical is a spoofy murder mystery set in 1950s Chicago with the familiar tropes of mismatched detectives, femmes fatale and puns galore. Many people really enjoyed its helium-balloon lightness but for me the affectionate homage to the classic noir detective novel didn’t have enough to maintain interest for 80 minutes.

Detectives_Pic Clare Hawley

Justin Smith and Rob Johnson in The Detective’s Handbook. Photo: Clare Hawley

What it does have is Ferrington’s sophisticated, rhythmically complex wordplay and Solar’s lovely, nostalgic jazz score. I particularly liked the song for world-weary detective Frank Thompson (delivered beautifully by Justin Smith) early on in the piece and had there been stronger character development along those lines The Detective’s Handbook could have been both funny and more complex.

The Detective’s Handbook came out of New Musicals Australia’s development program and has had input from the best in the business. The great cast is directed by Jonathan Biggins, music direction is by veteran Michael Tyack, James Browne designed and choreography is by Christopher Horsey. As I wrote in The Australian this week, the loving production gives The Detective’s Handbook more than it warrants but let’s call it an investment in the future. It would be good to think Ferrington and Solar are already working on something else.

I managed to catch Patricia Cornelius’s tough, gut-wrenchingly powerful Savages at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse a few days before the end of its season. I went to the Wednesday matinee when the house was pretty much sold out to students, all of them young men. They were clearly listening closely and I imagine won’t forget it quickly. I do hope not. Savages sticks like glue to four close mates as they take a holiday on a cruise ship. They owe it to themselves to have a great time, and to have it together. To leave all the crap behind, to rewrite history, to drink, to bond, to root. What could possibly go wrong with pack mentality rampant?

Cornelius’s play has a dark poetry and is both all too understandable and deeply confronting. Under Tim Roseman’s direction, Josef Ber, Thomas Campbell, Yure Covich and Troy Harrison were frighteningly good. Frighteningly.

The late-night Old Fitz Theatre show on Wednesday brought more violence in the shape of Orphans, from Seeker Productions. In Savages mateship and misogny are the toxic ingredients; in British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Orphans they are family, a broken society and racism. While Kelly’s concerns are abundantly clear I ultimately found Orphans unpersuasive (and overlong) despite intensely involved performances from Liam Nunan, Jacki Mison (who also produced the play) and Christopher Morris.

Friday night brought a complete change of pace with The Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C, a staging of George Balanchine’s mighty homage to classical style paired with a clutch of divertissements.

My review appears in The Australian tomorrow (May 2). I’ll put up a more detailed analysis later in the week.

The Detective’s Handbook ends on May 7.

On the town

Hayes Theatre Co, May 7

IN February 2012 The New York Times published a short article about Dogfight, which would have its Off-Broadway premiere six months later at Second Stage Theater. This is how Patrick Healy’s report ended: “… Lincoln Center Theater originally commissioned and developed the musical but passed on producing it because the show became too large in scale for the space intended.” One has to assume the production was slated for one of Lincoln Center’s smallest performance halls, either the one seating 300 or the other with 130 seats, rather than the Vivian Beaumont, which has nearly 1100 seats.

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats, proves, however, that small is perfect for Dogfight. Neil Gooding’s production doesn’t go soft on the macho posturing that kick starts and punctuates the action but neither is it exalted and glorified – always a possibility if there’s a big cast, lots of room for exuberant choreography and plenty of budget. It’s easy to glamorise bad behaviour if you put enough resources behind it.

Rowan Witt, Luigi Lucent and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Set in 1963, Dogfight takes its name from a deeply unsavoury challenge played by the military: put in some money in the pot, find an unattractive woman to take to a party, see whose date is judged the ugliest, and bingo! We have a winner. (The musical is based on the 1991 film of the same name.) The heedless cruelty and blood-chilling contempt for women are breathtaking.

But not only did their fathers bring these young men up this way, they’re also embedded in a ferociously masculine and controlling culture. The men in Dogfight are Marines, poised to go a country they’ve barely heard of and couldn’t find on a map. That would be Vietnam. They think they’ll be back soon after an easy tour of duty; we know they won’t. You would have to be made of stone not to feel some sympathy for these emotionally stunted boys as well as despair at their callousness.

Then one of the lads, Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) meets Rose (Hilary Cole), folk guitar-playing waitress and the show’s moral centre. Eddie is, like all these men, a persuasive bullshitter, particularly attractive to a young woman who doesn’t get out much. He knows how to reel her in, and why not? She is an honest, truthful person who pays Eddie the honour of believing what he says. Well, she doesn’t believe the crap he spouts about music but the rest sounds persuasive. The love story that emerges tentatively, thanks to Rose’s goodness and guts, is gentle and kind even as Lucente and Cole spark satisfyingly off one another. The little-bit-shy, little-bit-sexy bedroom scene is a delight.

Dogfight’s 1960s-style pop, rock and folk score (music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) colours and anchors the landscape just as it should. The music lets you know where you are, with whom and why, a state not always achieved in the music-theatre field, even though you would think it’s non-negotiable.

Director Gooding has gathered a terrific ensemble, including Toby Francis and Rowan Witt as Eddie’s closest mates. Witt’s lightning transformation from likeable nerd to momentarily violent aggressor is one of the musical’s most sobering and lasting images, Johanna Allen gives hooker Marcy a ballsy combination of pragmatism and anger, and Mark Simpson does wonders of differentiation with seven small roles. In do-it-yourself style everyone efficiently moves simple pieces of furniture around in James Browne and Georgia Hopkins’s fluid versatile set that quickly establishes a scene and equally quickly changes it.

The evening isn’t without a few niggles. One simply has to understand that Cole has been cast for her voice (splendid) and acting ability (ditto) and not for any lack of personal attraction. The daggy attire (costumes by Elizabeth Franklin) helps only very slightly. In fact, Cole looks rather sweet in her ruffled party frock. As usual, the sound quality at the Hayes can be less than optimal at times but the small band under the charge of Isaac Hayward does a feisty job. And finally, Peter Duchan’s book brings Dogfight to a surprisingly abrupt end, which robs the heart-tugging resolution of some of its effect. Still, while it gives audiences the hopeful ending most people crave, you can’t accuse Dogfight of easy sentimentality. Better this way than the syrupy song others might have thought appropriate at this point.

When in New York recently I saw the rollicking revival of the 1944 musical On the Town, which follows the fortunes over one night of three sailors on leave. In the morning they are shipping out to war but in the meantime they want to find a girl. The echoes in Dogfight are strong: a trio of young men with animal high spirits, a deep friendship, a thing for the ladies and the spectre of imminent departure to war. Dogfight is set just shy of 20 years later than On the Town but the gulf is enormous in its depiction of how certain men feel about women. The innocent hijinks of On the Town seemed a very, very long way away.

Until May 31 at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney.