Three for the road

The King and I, Princess Theatre, July 22; Into the Woods, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 22; Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s, Melbourne

COME October next year Les Miserables will have been running for 30 years in London, longer than any other musical. Well, I suppose it’s possible Cameron Mackintosh will close the show before then, just as it is possible I will win a large amount of money in the lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Thirty years! Who would have thought it? Certainly not the critics who failed to see its merits when it opened at the Barbican in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. It was described by Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer as “a witless and synthetic entertainment” and by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness”.

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

As Lyn Gardner – who was one of the nay-sayers in 1985 – suggested in The Guardian in 2010 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, Les Mis succeeds precisely because it is a Victorian melodrama, a story that deals in big emotions and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity in this version of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel. Against a roiling background of social injustice, a good man is hounded by a self-righteous one. The nobility of self-sacrifice, the pain of unrequited love, the pathos of early death, the rapacity of opportunists, the gallantry of young idealists – these qualities are deliberately drawn in bold strokes.

So no, this isn’t subtle theatre nor is it intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart. If this is synthetic entertainment, so be it. The more than 65 million people who have seen it love it to bits and its creators are crying all the way to the bank.

The staging that opened in Melbourne this month hasn’t supplanted the original version – Mackintosh claims the West End production may have another decade of life in it – but is in the interesting position of being a revival of something that never went away. Thirty years is a long time in theatre technology and this version takes advantage of them. The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.

At the matinee I saw Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were riveting antagonists and both in superb voice. Gleeson sang Bring Him Home with touching grace and crowned it with streams of pure gold in falsetto; Tee was equally persuasive in creating character through timbre and phrasing, dark and aggressive. As Fantine Patrice Tipoki brought fresh insights to I Dreamed a Dream, starting simply and almost conversationally, while Kerrie Anne Greenland, making her professional music theatre debut as Eponine, is a huge find. The vile but perversely life-affirming Thenadiers were in the effortlessly scene-stealing hands of Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin, the latter substituting brilliantly for injured Lara Mulcahy. Light-voiced Euan Doidge (Marius) was a little under-powered in this company but gave a sensitive reading of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

Is Les Miserables a better musical than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? No, it’s not. There can be no argument that the Les Mis music, while exceptionally tuneful and stirring, can draw too often on bombast for effect and some of the lyrics land with a thud. Sondheim is, as we all know, a genius. But there was no doubt that Les Mis offered much more pleasure than did Victorian Opera’s production of Into the Woods. And yes, I’m taking into account the great differential in budget between the two. Obviously one has to cut one’s cloth according to one’s purse, but I have seen many cash-strapped theatre productions that have found better solutions to staging issues than did VO for Into the Woods. The main set element, cut-outs of trees that slid back and forth, failed rather dismally in its task of creating a sense of place and atmosphere.

Queenie van de Zandt was in killer voice as the Witch, Lucy Maunder was a lovely Cinderella, Rowan Witt was an appealing Jack and in the pivotal roles of Baker and Baker’s Wife David Harris and Christina O’Neill each had fine moments. Overall, though, there was a decided air of the production having been put on too quickly and without the best solutions found to stretching finite funds. (Not that the tickets were cheap – mine was $100 and that wasn’t top price.) The people involved were all highly experienced and Orchestra Victoria sounded just fine in the pit, but I couldn’t help but think a concert version may have been the way to go.

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

I took advantage of being in Melbourne to see Lou Diamond Phillips in the Opera Australia/John Frost production of The King and I. When the show opened in Brisbane Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King and will do so again in Sydney. (He is currently appearing for OA in the title role in Don Giovanni.)

Phillips appeared in this production of The King and I when it went to Broadway in 1996 after premiering in Adelaide in 1991. He was nominated for a Tony award so he has good form in the role, and, as he is partly Filipino in heritage, has the advantage of looking a credible King of Siam. He’s a charismatic, forceful one too and has excellent chemistry with Lisa McCune’s pitch-perfect Anna. I enjoyed his performance greatly.

So, three musicals in the space of 36 hours and I had not exhausted Melbourne’s music-theatre possibilities. See what can happen if you don’t pull down all your theatres?

Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Then Perth in January and Sydney in March 2015. The King and I, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until August 17. Sydney, September 7-November 1.

The King and I

 Presented by John Frost and Opera Australia, April 19, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane.

LISA McCune has probably never sounded or looked lovelier. As Anna Leonowens in The King and I, McCune has all the sweet-spot songs – Hello, Young Lovers, I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? – and gets to sing them wearing Roger Kirk’s ravishing gowns. She is the calm, commanding centre of the piece and a joy to behold.

This is not unexpected. McCune is a music theatre veteran despite still looking as dewy fresh as a teenager and she has something of the sexy primness of the head prefect about her – perfect for the role of a Western governess in the Siamese court in the 19th century.

Lisa McCune in South Pacific. Photo: Brian Geach

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Photo: Brian Geach

In 1862 the exceptionally adventurous Leonowens, a widow, went to what was then called Siam to teach the multitudinous wives, consorts and children of King Mongkut, a man who apparently prided himself on his English-language skills and wanted his court to learn them. A wise move, as the West’s roving eye meant great vigilance was required. Leonowens wrote two memoirs full of vivid detail about culture, art, religious practice and her combative relationship with the monarch, books that inspired the 1944 Margaret Landon novel that is the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical.

It’s clear from Leonowens’s writing that while there were many practices in Siam she abhorred, she found much to admire in her pupils and in King Mongkut. Rodgers and Hammerstein were socially progressive too – think of the plea for racial tolerance in South Pacific – and while there’s an element of condescension in their portrayal of the Siamese court, so exotic to 1950s Western eyes, there are nevertheless Asian characters that claim the audience’s understanding. The secondary figures of Lady Thiang, Tuptim and Lun Tha aren’t given a lot of stage time and aren’t integrated into the musical entirely satisfactorily, but they are highly sympathetic.

Most crucially the musical within the musical, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is full of riches. In a narrated dance piece lasting about a quarter of an hour – an audaciously long interruption to the main body of the musical – the unhappy Tuptim, one of the king’s concubines, presents a fervent and touching distillation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, putting it into a Buddhist context. It is an act of protest on her part, beautiful but dangerous. At this point Jerome Robbins’s choreography (reproduced in this production by Susan Kikuchi), Brian Thomson’s design, Rodgers’s Eastern-inflected music, Hammerstein’s inspired writing and the performances of Jenny Lui (Tuptim) and the ensemble work together to create unforgettable magic.

I can’t help wondering to what degree The King and I’s earliest American audiences would have been reminded of their history of slavery at a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

In The Small House of Uncle Thomas Rodgers’s music quotes from It’s a Puzzlement when referring to the slave-owner Simon Legree – a rebuke to King Mongkut. There are also a couple of phrases from Hello, Young Lovers, linking the plight of the runaway Eliza and her lover George to that of Tuptim and her secret love, Lun Tha.

It’s a pity that a song that previously opened the second act, Western People Funny, was excised from this production for length reasons – the production, not the song – before it went to Broadway in 1996 and has stayed excised. In it Lady Thiang and women of the court criticise Western attitudes towards them. They have been asked to wear Western dress, and this is what they have to say about it: “To prove we’re not barbarians/ They dress us up like savages! … Western people funny/ Of that there is no doubt/ They feel so sentimental/ About the Oriental/ They always try to turn us/ Upside out and inside down!”

In Christopher Renshaw’s staging while this song is missing we do see Mongkut’s wives trying on vast hooped skirts. And, very regrettably, flashing a bit of bare bottom.

The King and I is far from being a work that casually dismisses Asians as childlike and amusing, although directorial choices can take one in that direction if they do not take into account changing attitudes. An audience today will look at the musical with very different eyes from those of 63 years ago when it premiered, and even from 23 years ago when this production was first staged – that’s a whole generation.

I was surprised last Saturday night that a production I had much enjoyed when first seeing it in 1991 now felt so heavy-handed, McCune excepted. Memory is a treacherous thing but I don’t recall Thomson’s design looking quite so gaudy with its riot of red and gold accessorised with a tsunami of crystals and multitudinous points of light. The look brought to mind the bold colours and outlines of a child’s picture book. And the opening scene when Anna and her son arrive in Bangkok – was it really that unsubtle in its tawdry depiction of a bustling Asian port and the gradations of power between court officials and minions?

The casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes commercial sense after his music-theatre debut in South Pacific as Emile de Becque, a role that needs a fine bass baritone. Rhodes’s singing of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine added great lustre to South Pacific. That he and McCune, who starred as Nellie Forbush, are now off-stage partners is presumably also a factor.

He is, however, not ideal casting for the role of the King of Siam. Most obviously, he is not Asian. Leaving politics aside (that’s a whole other and very large subject), it’s not convincing theatrically. It’s not even as if there’s an imperative to have the King played by someone who has been operatically trained.

Rhodes’s key gift isn’t needed here, although I admit it was fun to hear him make It’s a Puzzlement sound as if it actually has a melody. The King was originally played by non-singer Yul Brynner (triumphantly) and at one point late in his life by Rudolf Nureyev (disastrously), and the role has minimal musical commitments that can be negotiated by speaking in rhythm and occasionally going up and down. As for the acting requirements, Rhodes is allowed to give a one-note performance for most of the musical’s length. Much stomping and arms akimbo suggest childish petulance rather than a mature ruler’s implacable authority, although at the end Rhodes unleashes anger that at last feels authentic.

The more ambitious music is given to secondary figures, here cast from strength. Shu-Cheen Yu’s Lady Thiang, Lui’s Tuptim and Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha are all sung superbly, with Yu’s Something Wonderful a standout. The looser-than-ideal structure often grates, but it also allows room for The Small House of Uncle Thomas, with its radiant dance inspired by the classical Siamese tradition. And for this gift I can forgive quite a lot.

Brisbane until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1. Rhodes will appear in the Sydney season of The King and I but is unavailable for Melbourne, where Jason Scott Lee, an American of Chinese-Hawaiian descent who sang the role opposite Elaine Paige in London in 2000-2001, will appear with McCune.

The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

LAST year it was easy to point to the events in dance one thought would be unmissable (not so very many) and theatre (vast amounts). Mostly performances and productions delivered pretty much what one thought they would and moments of transcendence were few, but I guess they always are. Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, Griffin Theatre Company’s The Floating World and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (for the Melbourne Festival) are among the shining few, and opera offered tremendous occasions in Opera Australia’s Ring cycle and Pinchgut’s Giasone.

This year is a bit harder to read, particularly in theatre. There’s a handful of sure things – well, likely sure things, if that makes any sense at all – alongside some more intriguing propositions. Note that I’m only talking about Sydney theatre because that’s where I see most in this art form. Otherwise I get around a bit.

The events are in chronological order – which incidentally reveals a few unfortunate clashes for the dedicated dance fan – American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (Brisbane) and The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadere (Melbourne) open August 28; West Australian Ballet’s La fille mal gardee (Perth) and ABT’s Three Masterpieces triple bill opens September 5. Akram Khan’s DESH opens in Brisbane on September 6.

Dance:

Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests. From January 16, Sydney Festival. Purcell, the Akademie fur Alte Musik, singers, dancers and a huge tank of water.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. From June 13 in Sydney, then Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne. Stephen Page’s new work on the meeting of minds between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman, in colonial Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet. From June 27, Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s version (the best in my opinion) and guest stars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Daniel Gaudiello.

The Red Shoes, Expressions Dance Company, from July 18, Brisbane. Choreographer Natalie Weir tackles this much-loved, influential – albeit rather creepy – story of obsession in the ballet world. Intriguing.

American Ballet Theatre, from August 28, Brisbane only. First up is Kevin Mackenzie’s Swan Lake, but I’m more interested in the triple bill, which includes Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus. From September 5.

La Bayadere, The Australian Ballet, from August 28 in Melbourne, then Sydney. Choreographer Stanton Welch promises Bollywood colour and energy and a clearer, speedier version than usual. The beloved Kingdom of the Shades scene will, of course, be as expected.

La Fille mal gardee, West Australian Ballet, from September 5. This sweet and sunny ballet, updated to 1950s rural France, is seen in Perth and then will go to Queensland Ballet in 2015. QB’s Coppelia, choreographed by ballet master Greg Horsman (opening April 24 this year), goes to WAB next year in a sensible sharing of resources.

DESH, Akram Khan, from September 6, Brisbane Festival. I have longed to see this since its premiere and missed it at the Melbourne Festival in 2012. This is one occasion on which I won’t rail against the tendency of arts festivals to program work from a fairly small (admittedly stellar) group of dance artists.

Theatre:

Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, from February 17. I first saw Michael Frayn’s brilliant farce about 30 years ago and laughed like a loon. The memories are vivid; let’s hope they can be matched – surpassed even! – by this new production.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Carriageworks, from March 12. At long last Sydney gets to see this hugely admired work.

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir, from June 28. Ash Flanders will star. And yes, he’s a bloke who often performs in female guise. Flagrant nicking of a role a woman should have or a revelation? We shall see.

Macbeth, Sydney Theatre Company, from July 21. STC is giving over the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre to the actors and putting the audience on the stage. Hugo Weaving stars. Sounds promising, no?

Emerald City, Griffin Theatre Company, from October 17. David Williamson never really went away, despite the protestations of retirement, but he’s having quite the resurgence these days (Travelling North gets things moving at STC from January 9).

Opera and musical theatre:

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia, from March 21. No explanation required.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical, from March 25, Sydney. No explanation required.

The King and I, Opera Australia and John Frost, Brisbane, from April 15, then Melbourne and Sydney. I saw this lovely production when it premiered in 1991, directed by Christopher Renshaw, designed by Brian Thomson and with frocks by Roger Kirk that got their own applause. There’s no reason to think it won’t be a winner again, particularly with Lisa McCune rather than Hayley Mills as Anna.

Into the Woods, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from July 19. Stephen Sondheim. Say no more.

The Riders, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from September 23. New Australian opera from Iain Grandage with libretto by Alison Croggon, based on Tim Winton’s book.