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.

Grease, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Grease, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, October 23 (matinee)

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 23

THE simultaneous arrival in Sydney of Grease and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels isn’t the greatest news. The Sydney appetite for musicals doesn’t appear to be particularly buoyant at this moment so it’s rather bad luck to have both shows in town at the same time. We’re a long way from Broadway, baby. How tragic is this – that two musicals in a city as big as Sydney could be considered one too many for the market? I hope I’m wrong, even though I’d be lying to say both are must-sees. One is absolutely delightful; the other is a joyless stitching together of names presumably thought to appeal to different demographics.

So. Second things first. Grease really makes one’s heart sink. What started in 1971 as a scrappy, raunchy snapshot of 1950s American teenagers has turned into luridly coloured bubblegum. It’s sticky, but completely disposable. The reason it’s still done is because the songs – which now include ones written for the 1978 film – are so popular. Oddly, Grease has kind of metamorphosed into a jukebox musical.

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease, Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo with the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

The current production derives from the most recent UK one. For some reason it starts with an attempt at an audience sing- and clap-along as if it were a variety show at a club or pub. This is not promising and little happens thereafter to lift the spirits. The biggest stumbling block is the poor onstage chemistry: there is no sense that those in the cast naturally go together, no matter what the song says. Veteran Bert Newton as rockin’ DJ Vince Fontaine is a case in point. He is, ahem, of rather too mature vintage for this part (I speak as one who, as a child, was knocked out by his double act with Graeme Kennedy on In Melbourne Tonight, starting more than 50 years ago) and, alas, Newton peppers his lines with fragments of a locution only vaguely recognisable as American. On the subject of accents, Gretel Scarlett plays our heroine Sandy as an Australian, in homage to the luminous Olivia Newton-John in the film version. Her songs, of course, are delivered with an American accent.

I don’t blame Newton or Scarlett, or indeed anyone else on stage. These are matters of casting and direction. In amongst the noisy, superficial action Lucy Maunder stands out for bringing some nuance to tough-girl Rizzo and Todd McKenney’s Teen Angel is an enjoyable amalgam of Liberace and beloved cult comic figure Bob Downe. As a whole – well, there is no whole.

DEVOTEES of the con-man comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – and I count myself among them – know how it turns out, a circumstance that matters not one jot when it comes to the musical faithfully and ebulliently based on the 1988 movie.

The fun is getting there, although if you are no fan of self-referential theatre you may find Jeffrey Lane’s book for the show, written in 2005, just a tad self-indulgent as it nods and winks to the house. I couldn’t enjoy that sort of thing more when it’s delivered with the radiant command of leading men Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington.

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Scoundrels is set in the south of France where the smooth stylings of Lawrence Jameson (Sheldon) have long made him a man of dubiously acquired substance. Enter wannabe Freddy Benson (Hetherington), pretender to the Jameson throne despite lacking the necessary polish. The Odd Couple lives again in primary colours and the broadest of strokes, aided and abetted by a feisty dame (Amy Lehpamer’s Christine Colgate), a tuneful score and exquisitely silly lyrics by The Full Monty composer and lyricist David Yazbeck, and sumptuous servings of ham.

There could so easily be a sour taste to the show’s exaltation of acquisitiveness, which this production of Scoundrels avoids by the simple wheeze of getting its casting absolutely spot-on. I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway with David Carradine as Lawrence and he lacked the requisite lightness of spirit; again, as with my strictures regarding Grease, this doesn’t mean Carradine is not a fine actor. He was simply not quite right for Lawrence, a man Somerset Maugham would have recognised as one of his shady people in sunny places. Sheldon oozes the kind of dash and style that only money can buy, and who cares where the money comes from.

Making a welcome return from the US where he has been ensconced since his big success on Broadway in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Sheldon is in a class of his own for suavity and twinkly, knowing intelligence. Hetherington is the dishevelled, cocky goofball whose charms would be extremely dubious indeed if not tempered with sweetness and boyish buoyancy. Let’s put it this way. He manages to sell a scene in which Freddy pretends to be Lawrence’s chromosomally challenged brother, a scene replete not just with sexual innuendo but graphic sexual horseplay.

As I say, sweet.

Everything else swirls happily around these two. Given that Lawrence and Freddy essentially constitute the lead romantic couple, conventional musical theatre dictates there should be a secondary couple, here the local compliant chief of police (John Wood) and one of Lawrence’s marks (Anne Wood). The parts aren’t up to much really but are nicely played.

It’s a great pity there’s no room in the second half for Katrina Retallick’s rip-snorting Jolene Oakes, an Oklahoma gal intent on marrying up but still wedded to her cowgirl life. But Scoundrels needs to move on to Christine, which it does with double entendre-laden speed, and fortunately Lehpamer is adorable in this pivotal role. All hail to director Roger Hodgman for astutely managing the balance between laugh-out-loud impact and likeability, not just with Lehpamer but with everyone on stage.

The neat ensemble has attractive dance from Dana Jolly, pretty dresses by Teresa Negroponte and Guy Simpson conducts a terrific band notable for its generous size. Loads of undemanding fun.

The Sydney season of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has been extended to December 8

Grease, Melbourne from January 2

A version of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels review appeared in The Australian on October 25.

Noel and Gertie, The Removalists

Noel and Gertie, a CDP production, Glen St Theatre, Sydney, May 25.

The Removalists, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, May 29

NOEL Coward and Gertrude Lawrence met as child actors and immediately and lastingly took to one another. Sheridan Morley’s evocation of their bond, Noel and Gertie, was created in 1981 to be performed at a benefit, although its careful construction meant it had a later life in several theatre seasons in the 1980s in London. It’s a wisp of a piece: amusing, charming and deftly avoiding anything too personal – not that Morley was unacquainted with this subjects as he had written biographies of both. He chose, however, to concentrate on the glamour, wit and style of the pair as refracted through the theatah.

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Naturally this means lots of lovely songs, sensitively accompanied on grand piano by music director Vincent Colagiuri, and happy reminders of Coward’s stage works. Scenes from plays – Private Lives, of course; Blithe Spirit; Tonight at 8.30 – are stitched together neatly with the music and material from diaries and letters to paint a fond and rosy picture with just a tinge of melancholy. Coward and Lawrence’s youth when they started in the business is the excuse for a rollicking Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington, and Has Anybody Seen Our Ship? from Red Peppers, one of the 10 short plays that make up Tonight at 8.30, is cheerful, uplifting nonsense.

The show, however, leans more towards reflection. Parisian Pierrot, from the revue London Calling!, was written for Lawrence and is beautifully sung by Lucy Maunder, as are Sail Away and If Love Were All, which contains the phrase so often associated with Coward, “a talent to amuse”. It was much more than that, of course, although not necessarily recognised right away by the critical establishment. James Millar, as Coward, is given the lovely line that in the early days he was forced to accept “the bitter palliative of commercial success”. What a Noel-y thing to say.

Under Nancye Hayes’s light-touch direction Maunder is an enchanting Gertie, poised and soignee to just the right degree. Millar could find just a little more gloss for the Master but he has time, given the lengthy tour Noel and Gertie is about to embark on.

And just a few words on The Removalists …

THERE could be no greater contrast to Noel and Gertie than David Williamson’s The Removalists (1971), written in the playwright’s gritty early years (it was written in the same year as Don’s Party and the year after The Coming of Stork).

The Tamarama Rock Surfers production, directed by Leland Kean, is a beauty: tough, lean, as shocking today as it was four decades ago. Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan), fresh out of the academy, turns up for his first day of work to find he’s in a little suburban police outpost where if things are big, they need the attention of a bigger station, and if they are small, they’re probably too small to worry about.

Justin Stewart Cotta

Justin Stewart Cotta in The Removalists

The sergeant (Laurence Coy) is one of those incredibly passive-aggressive types who has the art of manipulation so well-honed it’s as natural as breathing. Or, in his case, as sitting down and deflecting work. Except when there might be a bit of advantage to be taken.

The Removalists is a NSW HSC drama text and the performance I attended was an early evening one for students. It was fascinating and heartening to see the group of mainly young men so attentive to the piece, and also taken aback by the casual sexism Williamson so deftly illuminates. I assume the students had already read the play so knew where it was all heading, but the way the Sarge patronised the women who had come for his help, made vile insinuations and put his hands everywhere had some in the audience literally gasping.

Terrific performances all round, by the way, with a special mention to Justin Stewart Cotta as Kenny, the over-bearing, boorish husband who knocks around his wife a bit and gets rather more back than anyone intended.

Noel and Gertie ends at Sydney’s Glen St Theatre on June 1. Then Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5-6; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11-15; Frankston Arts Centre, Frankston, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21-22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26-29; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan, July 2-7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, Dubbo, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, Orange, July 12-13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16-18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, July 23-27.

The Removalists ends June 15.