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.

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.

Retirement and promotion at the AB

 La Sylphide, Sydney Opera House, November 25

IT’S one of the Australian Ballet’s most striking images.

Olivia Bell looks at the camera with a cool expression, her head inclined slightly downwards so the effect is of mystery rather than direct challenge. Her hands are on her hips and her weight is placed on her left leg, giving her torso a lithe S-bend. She looks strong, sleek, glamorous, ultra-modern and enigmatic.

That’s about right. Justin Smith’s photo was taken in 2005, two years before Bell became a principal artist at the AB and was a promotional image rather than a production shot, but it astutely captured the qualities Bell brought to the stage as one of the AB’s top-ranked dancers.

Last night Bell, 35, called it quits, retiring after a glowing performance of Paquita at the Sydney Opera House. Bell has for some years tried to juggle dance and the demands of being a mother – and not just of one child, but of three, including twins. This in a company that moves around more than most. Indeed, it’s a tribute to the AB and its enlightened maternity leave provisions that Bell had been able to stay this long.

Newcastle-born Bell trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School after winning a scholarship at the Prix de Lausanne. Her pristine, elegant line and sophisticated demeanour are no doubt legacies of that time. She joined the AB in 1995.

Bell was also marked out by her imposing height. Speaking at the time of her elevation to principal in December, 2007, the AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, told me: “She owns up to five feet nine and three quarters (177cm), which is really five feet 10.” On pointe, of course, Bell easily broke the 180cm mark. Fortunately the AB soon had Adam Bull on hand, who at 193cm is the tallest man in the company. His partnering in Paquita last night presented Bell exactly as she should have been, as a glittering, precious jewel.

Bell’s notable roles included the Baroness in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, Zobeide in Scheherazade, Choleric in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Peter Wright version of Nutcracker, the role she danced on the night of her promotion to principal. She was a powerful presence in Kylian and Forsythe works.

Bell said after last night’s performance that there would be others to replace her. Yes, of course there are always other dancers, but from the beginning of her time at the AB to the end, there has been no other dancer like her.

When Bell bowed out, at about 8pm last night after the one-act Paquita, the AB had 10 principal artists remaining – five women and five men. When the evening’s main event, La Sylphide, ended the AB had a new star, Chengwu Guo. McAllister came onstage to announce his elevation to the top rank after Guo had given a luminous performance as James. His technical gifts are prodigious and were used entirely in the service of the Bournonville style. I saw him earlier in the run as well as last night and was enchanted not only with his swift, brilliant footwork, soaring elevation and beautifully placed upper body, but with the way he had thought about the character in a manner right for him.

As I wrote in my DJ’s Diary on November 16: “Guo was a soaring James in La Sylphide, his command of shape and structure magnificent and his elevation a thing of immense beauty. He looked as feather-light as his Sylph on this occasion, Reiko Hombo. In the mix’n’match season Guo also partners Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota. Guo is obviously the next male principal artist of the Australian Ballet. Just a matter of when. Do see him if you can.” McAllister has wisely wasted no time. (On the subject of Kubota, she was Guo’s Sylph last night and danced with gossamer lightness and fascinating shades of character. A memorable performance.)

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo as Basilio. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Last night’s promotion wasn’t the first this year for Guo, who at 24 is the youngest of the principal artists. He was made a senior artist in April after his delightful Basilio in Don Quixote. At the time I wrote: “As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like [Ivan] Vasiliev [a guest artist with the AB in Melbourne] he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly.”

So – a night of losses and gains.