The Sound of Music

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 17.

A new production of Fiddler on the Roof has just opened in New York, directed by Broadway revival rainmaker Bartlett Sher. The musical, created in 1964, tells of the existential threat faced by a community of Jews in Imperial Russia, whom we see living their lives much as their ancestors did – Tradition! – while having to face the realities of contemporary society and politics. At the end we see them forced to leave their home of Anatevka to go – where?

Sher gave Fiddler a silent frame that, very briefly, brings the mass exoduses of today to mind. He hasn’t changed the work but has given it a context. What happened to Tevye’s community isn’t locked away safely in the past. “We have to ask questions about where we are now,” Sher told The New York Times. Sher’s touch has also been applied to revered Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals including South Pacific and The King and I, both of which have dark themes embedded within. Sher is able to stage a traditional version while reminding audiences that these shows aren’t entirely about washing a man right out of your hair and whistling a happy tune, no matter how tenaciously the glow of nostalgia hangs around them.

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Amy Lehpamer, left, with the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In The Sound of Music there are raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and Nazis at the door. In other words, there is, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last work a dark counterpoint that gives weight, texture and dramatic consequence to songs of unmatched sweetness.

It is wondrous just how lacking in cynicism, irony and guile the show’s most beloved songs are, but The Sound of Music is not all Do-Re-Mi, or shouldn’t be. It doesn’t seem enough in 2015 to give the impression the Nazis were a bunch of cartoonish heavies. One of the greatest evils of the 20th or any century is trivialised and the courage of the von Trapp family rendered far less affecting than it should be. The production now showing in Sydney, directed by Jeremy Sams, could have been teleported from 1959, when The Sound of Music conquered its first generation of admirers.

It’s true that Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book is perilously thin at times, in this respect and others, but in this production the flaws are magnified rather than resolved. It also doesn’t help that the sets, based on those for the 2006 London revival, have a strong whiff of having been reduced for ease of touring. When the Austrian alps are represented by an odd sloping disc, low-lying bumps and a lurid sunset you’re not exactly feeling the grandeur.

The old-school complacency is all the more frustrating because the show is blessed with some blazing performances. The enchanting Maria of Amy Lehpamer, Jacqueline Dark’s bounteous Mother Abbess and the eye-wateringly talented bunch of children raise the roof and save the day.

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Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In Lehpamer’s hands the novice nun who brings music and love to an unhappy family is shiningly good without being a goody-goody. Forthright and sensible but with girlhood not long behind her, Maria is bursting with untapped promise. Lehpamer sings with delectable warmth, ease and clarity, makes the familiar sound fresh and gives backbone to songs that need a firm hand if they are not to descend into whimsy.

On opening night there was entrance applause for Cameron Daddo, who plays the widowed Captain von Trapp; Marina Prior, who is the Captain’s intended, Baroness Schraeder; and veteran Lorraine Bayly (Frau Schmidt). None greeted Lehpamer, who is well known to music-theatre aficionados but – obviously – not so much to a wider public. She has it in her to be Australia’s next big music-theatre star and this role should do the trick.

Most usually seen on the opera stage, where she is a great favourite, Dark plays the Abbess with a twinkly eye and enormous generosity of spirit and voice. What luxury casting. One could have predicted she’d hit Climb Ev’ry Mountain out of the park and so she does, not as a barnstorming anthem but a passionate invocation.

As for the children, the opening night girls and boys were all adorable (two more groups alternate in these roles) but if one must play favourites, Nakita Clarke as the baby of the family, Gretl, would take the prize. The others – Jude Padden-Row as Friedrich, Savannah Clarke (Nakita’s sister) as Louise, Louis Fontaine as Kurt, Madison Russo as Brigitta and Erica Giles as Marta – are also blissfully at ease on stage and there are some impressive voices among them. As the “sixteen going on seventeen” oldest sister Leisel, Stefanie Jones is pleasingly unaffected and has a fine, true soprano.

Prior makes the pragmatic Baroness Schraeder nuanced and interesting but Daddo isn’t up to the task of papering over some very dodgy transitions in the book. Because he doesn’t convey megawatts of authority, several underwritten turning points in the musical are put under a very revealing light. The Captain’s turnaround from distant martinet to caring father is achieved with a handful of harsh words from Maria and his declaration of love for the novice nun happens moments after Baroness Schraeder gives him back his ring. Daddo looks amazingly handsome but there is, sadly, little sizzle between him and Lepahmer of the kind that might have prepared us for this outcome.

The audience has to join the dots and take that relationship on trust because it’s not really there on stage. The political backdrop is similarly soft-edged and experienced at a safe distance despite the display of swastikas and men in uniform. I couldn’t help but compare this blandness with the shiver of horror John Bell evoked in his direction of Tosca for Opera Australia in 2013, which was set during the Nazi occupation of Rome. It’s all in the detail. It’s about making every new audience, every new generation, understand and believe in every aspect of a work, not just the raindrops on roses.

The Sound of Music runs in Sydney until February 28. Brisbane from March 11, Melbourne from May 13, Adelaide from August 9.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on December 21.

Tragedy sped up

Belvoir, September 23

Nikolai Ivanov sits on a sofa looking desolate as the Lebedevs’ party swirls around him. He’s heading towards 40, he has no money, his relations give him grief, he’s given up on his marriage and he’s drawn to a girl half his age. Oh, and his wife is dying and her doctor blames him for hastening things. Naturally this is a comedy.

As Ivanov (Ewen Leslie) tells Sasha (Airlie Dodds), the young woman who passionately and naively wants to save him from himself, “comedy is tragedy sped up”. True, he’s a wildly self-dramatising man but that doesn’t detract from the truth of what he’s saying. Everyone in this backwater is going hell for leather, trying to extract some purpose and meaning from life while flailing around and behaving ridiculously. It’s just that Ivanov’s skin is much thinner than everyone else’s and his capacity for self-disgust – well-earned, it must be said – much greater.

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Director and adapter Eamon Flack sets Ivanov, the playwright’s first completed full-length play, in something that resembles contemporary Russia, what with the photo of Vladimir Putin on the wall, but it’s also very much a version of Australia today. Not a flattering one, it must be said, but punchy and provocative. What do we value in life, what do we have to offer and does any of it matter anyway?

While Ivanov wrestles with his demons, family and friends take a less resistant line. His uncle Matvei Shabelsky (John Bell) could potentially be persuaded to marry widow Marfa Babakina (Blazey Best) in an exchange of valuables: access to his American passport for her; access to her pig-based fortune for him. Sasha’s brittle, try-hard mother, Zinaida Lebedev (Helen Thomson), is no pushover in the money-lending business and places a lot of store by appearances. Pavel Lebedev (John Howard) just goes along with whatever his wife wants. It’s easier.

Ivanov’s cousin Misha Borkin (Fayssal Bazzi) has flexible morals and is a buffoon likeable in limited doses. Even Sasha, in whose shining youth one can see some tiny hope for the future, babbles on about “active love”, a label to rival “conscious uncoupling” as a way of describing the complexities of intimacy.

They do little more than pontificate about money and politics, talk themselves up, gossip cruelly, sing a few songs and get a skin full should the occasion merit. Their uselessness is grotesque and very, very funny. The only people somewhat spared are Ivanov’s wife Anna (Zahra Newman), an intriguing woman “from another country” who shares outsider status with Doctor Yevgeny Lvov (Yalin Ozucelik), who is Turkish. Covertly (Anna) and overtly (Lvov) their judgment hangs over the group. It’s a big cast and a wonderful one, not forgetting the Lebedevs’ hired help, Gabriella, played by Belvoir assistant stage manager Mel Dyer in a performance of pure comedy gold.

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Leslie’s Ivanov is, of course, insanely attractive despite the flaws he describes so vividly and exhaustively and he is, of course, doomed. He goes in for some meta-theatrical posturing about Hamlet, which goes down exceptionally well given Leslie’s history with the Dane (Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, Belvoir in 2013), and seems to be very much in love with the idea of being the lost soul. Ivanov is a man of poses – the thwarted intellectual, the failed man of action – but Leslie also makes one see the horror of such emptiness as well as its absurdity. “I am in disgrace with myself,” he says, and nothing could be more despairing. He stands outside himself, can see what he is and can do nothing to alter his course.

Needless to say Flack doesn’t allow a drop of sentimentality to intrude. Chekov tried a couple of endings for the play and Flack chooses the one that shows our man as the plaything of fate rather than creator of his own destiny. The joke’s on him.

Ivanov ends on November 1.

‘They shall be themselves’

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21.

THE Tempest starts in tumult and ends in calm. Prospero, ejected from his dukedom of Milan 12 years before, is going home. His daughter, Miranda, is to marry the heir to the throne of Naples, ending the enmity between two great houses. Ariel and Caliban, the light and dark creatures enslaved by Prospero on his strange island of exile are set free. Virtue has won over vengeance.

John Bell’s reading of Shakespeare’s late romance shimmers with light, fills the air with music and reaches into the heart with the most wonderful simplicity. Unburdened by contemporary social and political theory, it is concerned with self-discovery. Prospero has paid the price for putting his head in his books and letting his ambitious brother, Antonio, do all the heavy lifting in Milan. In the course of one afternoon – the timeframe is highly explicit – the key players in the story come together and harmony is restored.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

“My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore and they shall be themselves,” says Prospero near the end. They shall be themselves: it is the most profound of all outcomes.

The Tempest opens with a cracking storm and shipwreck as Prospero’s enemies, handily passing by, are tossed on to the island. Alan Johns’s operatic score, designer Julie Lynch’s wildly billowing curtains and Damien Cooper’s expressive lighting immediately conjure a world of theatrical magic in which anything might happen.

We see two young people fall in love at first sight, regicide attempted, buffoons ape their betters and insanely plot a coup, sorrows endured and wonders beheld. Lipson’s Prospero, orchestrating these events, is less a tyrant than mercurial, slightly distracted professor. For all his powers he is intensely human, admitting “some vanity of my art”, hugging Miranda (Eloise Winestock) fiercely and keeping Ariel (Matthew Backer) captive with something that feels very like an ageing man’s neediness. When Backer stands beside Lipson, looking very much a younger version of him, there is a sense of what Prospero wanted to be – a free spirit unburdened by the cares of office. But that is not possible in the real world.

Ariel is very much at the centre of things, watching gravely and intently as the tasks he has been assigned bring the pieces of the story together. Backer is transcendent, a seamless amalgam of intelligence, other-worldliness, understanding and yearning. And he is given some delicious pieces of business too, making spirit-world light of lifting a log the young Ferdinand finds so heavy and clutching his ears in pain as a badly sung song assaults his senses.

There’s much joy and laughter too in the Stephano-Trinculo subplot, in which Hazem Shammas and Arky Michael come up a treat in commedia dell’arte antics and fantastical clothing and are howlingly funny. In this fine cast Winestock is at present too skittish but has one of the evening’s most delicious moments, Felix Gentle is a sweet-mannered Ferdinand, Damien Strouthos powerfully conveys Caliban’s hurt and Robert Alexander has effortless nobility as Prospero’s old friend Gonzalo. Maeliosa Stafford’s bluff King Alonso and Shammas and Michael doubling as Antonio and Sebastian complete the company.

This Tempest would delight on any occasion but has particular poignancy as Bell farewells the company he founded 25 years ago. In the epilogue Prospero speaks directly to the audience and asks for its good will. He has wanted only to please and needs the audience’s approbation before he can leave his enchanted island. “Let your indulgence set me free,” he says as the lights go out.

On opening night the audience rightly stood as one and turned to Bell, giving him a sustained ovation. It should be noted, however, that next year he directs for Opera Australia and next month appears in Belvoir’s Ivanov. Bell’s revels are not ended, not by a long shot.

The Tempest plays in Sydney only and ends on September 18.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on August 24.

Sydney Opera House, February 28

IN the guise of a sweet and playful romance, As You Like It drives its characters (and ourselves) to seek answers to life’s deepest questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my rightful place?

As the story begins the world is in disarray. A ruler has been usurped, an arrogant man refuses to fulfil his responsibilities towards his younger brother and a woman, Rosalind, is wrongfully banished from home. She escapes to the Forest of Arden where all is made well. Wrong-doers repent of their sins, lovers find their right match and order is restored.

Taking on the guise of a boy, Ganymede, Rosalind is the prime mover of events; the director, if you will, as well as a player in the comic roundelay.

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Peter Evans’s production for Bell Shakespeare skips rather too lightly through the thickets. The suggestion of a 1950s setting gives an opportunity for some very pretty frocks (by Kate Aubrey-Dunn) and finger-snapping tunes (Kelly Ryall) for the songs but confers no great insights. Michael Hankin’s set design – saggy canvas backdrop and a “forest” of flowers on hanging ropes – is almost perverse in its refusal to make theatrical magic. Jaques famously describes all the world as a stage, but in this As You Like It all the world appears to be gathered backstage.

And yet, there is, in Zahra Newman’s Rosalind, a shining tribute to powerful women that is extraordinarily potent in the light of today’s politics. She is an acute thinker, has courage, resourcefulness and is a person of action in thought and deed. Newman bounces about the stage with enlivening vim and vigour. She makes things happen.

Only the most cursory nod is made to her assumption of a male persona as Evans gives a wide berth to contemporary gender politics. Newman wears a suit that does nothing to disguise her womanliness. It’s a costume that allows her to exert control.

There are losses, and some may find them too great. Evans makes nothing of the difference in temperament and style of the rustic folk in the Forest of Arden and the escapees from court and Shakespeare’s boy-girl, girl-boy confusions are excised along with the attendant laughter and inherent complexity. But the gain is in the fierce concentration on Rosalind as a woman of wit and substance who will lead us to the heart of the matter as others flail about blindly or, in the case of John Bell’s brilliantly dry Jaques – an accountant type with notebook and pencil – privilege thinking over feeling.

It’s hard to believe it is 25 years since Bell founded his company, and that this is his last year as its leader (well, for the last little while co-artistic director with Evans). His command of the stage remains undimmed. There are few more delightful lines in As You Like It than Jaques’s “Let’s meet as little as we can,” which got a huge laugh. It reminded me of the best cartoon in the world, by Bob Mankoff for The New Yorker, in which a businessmen on a phone says in response to someone seeking to get into his diary: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never – is never good for you?”

Evans’s cast of 11 is attractive and funny (well, Gareth Davies finds it hard to make Touchstone amusing but he’s not Robinson Crusoe in that). Charlie Garber’s Orlando had women at the matinee I attended audibly sighing in sympathy with him and what a treat to see Tony Taylor (doubling Adam and Corin) back on stage.

Overwhelmingly, though, it’s Newman’s show.

Ends March 28. Canberra, April 7-18; Melbourne, April 23-May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 3.

The Winter’s Tale

Bell Shakespeare, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5.

“A SAD tale’s best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins,” says the boy Mamillius, through whose eyes John Bell filters Shakespeare’s late, great fable. Mamillius’s bedroom, bathed in a fairy-world pastel light and hung with stars, is where everything will happen, a reflection of the lad’s experiences, imagination and desires.

Rory Potter in The Winter's Tale. Photo: Michele Mossop

Rory Potter in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Michele Mossop

Amidst the child-size chairs, tumble of toys and a dress-up box, Leontes, king of Sicily, launches into a bewildering denunciation of his wife Hermione and orders the deaths of those closest to him, Mamillius dies and his new-born baby sister is abandoned in Bohemia. Sixteen years pass and, magically, harmony is restored after scenes of bucolic simplicity, assumed identities and sweet romance.

Bell’s decision to put Mamillius at the centre is a touching one. The child who was supposedly the image of his father and presumably heir to his throne – where is he at the joy-filled ending? Has the sensitive boy who, “conceiving the dishonour of his mother, he straight declined”, been utterly forgotten?

Not here he hasn’t, and this brings a set of memorable images (a terrific solution to the “exit, pursued by a bear” problem) along with questionable emphases. Bell’s production lacks weight and deep resonance, a situation underscored by the laughter too often elicited where horror or disgust would be more effective. Not all the text is delivered with clarity, either – too often there are long strings of sounds that fail to make sense – although a big bouquet goes to Michelle Doake’s wonderfully centred Paulina. I also very much liked Felix Jozeps who doubles as a courtier in the first half and Prince Florizel in the second.

The production smooths over the two very different halves of The Winter’s Tale, but this isn’t a play that seeks stylistic unity. The first part is hell, or should be, and without strong distinction between Sicily and Bohemia the latter’s trippy flower-power vibe registers as goofy rather than the radiant relief of a world where love and peace may be found.

Myles Pollard’s hearty Aussie bloke reading of the part blunts the extremities of Leontes’s jealousy. He’s one of those vigorous touch-feely men, pummelling and punching, exerting his physical strength. It sets up the picture of a man who doesn’t think very much. That’s a possible way of looking at Leontes’s inexplicable actions, but a reductive one. The Winter’s Tale, as Bell’s production stresses, is a story; something of which to take heed. It’s not one of those all-too-frequent, terribly sad reports of domestic violence we read about every day in the paper, destined to be repeated in a never-ending loop of unreason. A Leontes such as this fails to convince of his profound sorrow, and he is rather sidelined in his reconciliation with Helen Thomson’s poised Hermione – potentially one of the most heart-cracking scenes in all theatre. This production has made it all about the boy.

But what a boy. At Wednesday’s opening Mamillius was played by Rory Potter (he shares the role with Otis Pavlovic). Potter, 13, is already remarkable. His qualities of keen watchfulness, alert intelligence and ability to be still but highly engaged are gold dust.

To have him as observer and at times orchestrator of the drama – he is a mini-Prospero if you will – is not a wildly off-kilter idea but it is limiting. The immense, soul-tearing themes of reconciliation, unswerving commitment to the truth, unalloyed goodness and the power of forgiveness in the face of appalling wrong are diluted. Bell gives us the story of a boy who wants his mummy and daddy to love each other and to be together. It doesn’t seem the best use of The Winter’s Tale.

The Winter’s Tale ends March 29.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 7.