Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.

The Drowsy Chaperone

 Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, March 18.

HE has no name other than Man in Chair, this cardigan-wearing musicals tragic, for he is Everyman, screaming inside at the bombast of the modern sung-through show – and yes, he means you, Andrew Lloyd Webber – while maintaining an exterior of mild exasperation. Well, he is every man or every woman who just wants to take away from the theatre a tune they can hum, having enjoyed some pretty costumes, an amusingly tangled plot, a happy ending and definitely no audience participation. The show will preferably be short.

Jay James-Moody as Man in Chair. Photo: Michael Francis

Jay James-Moody as Man in Chair. Photo: Michael Francis

Nestled within The Drowsy Chaperone is such a musical: The Drowsy Chaperone. (You will search in vain for it in any theatre database, as it is a work of fiction created for The Drowsy Chaperone, although for the purposes of the evening treated as if it were a real show. Obviously The Drowsy Chaperone – the host show, as it were – is also a work of fiction, but operating on a different plane. What fun.)

There’s a phrase people often use about the theatre, and particularly about the musical theatre. It takes you out of yourself, they say, meaning that for a few hours you forget your cares and get caught up in a world more carefree, more glamorous, more vibrant, more everything than the one you’re going home to. That’s what Man in Chair wants, and here the idea is given literal form.

As the lights go down Man in Chair starts confiding to the audience his decidedly unfavourable views on the current theatre. What does he consider a good show? That would be The Drowsy Chaperone, a 1920s piece of fairy floss that, he acknowledges, is perhaps not perfect but does exactly what he needs it to do. Allow him to illustrate.

Within moments of the needle hitting his treasured vinyl cast record of The Drowsy Chaperone, its characters burst into Man in Chair’s room. As he eagerly watches the action unfold he gives an aficionado’s gloss on the plot, the lyrics, the actors playing the roles and, in little snippets, his own life. No longer is Man in Chair in his dreary apartment. He is intensely engaged with the show.

The Drowsy Chaperone company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Drowsy Chaperone company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Drowsy Chaperone takes place on the wedding day of Janet Van de Graff, a 1920s theatre star leaving the stage to be married, much to the chagrin of her producer. Can Janet be persuaded to change her mind? Helping things along are heavies disguised as pastry chefs, a lavishly accented Latin lothario, an aviatrix, a vaudeville act, a big tap number and a resolution that just falls from the sky. Adding some spice are the shenanigans of Janet’s dipsomaniac and therefore chronically sleepy chaperone.

It is as silly and formulaic as it sounds, which is where The Drowsy Chaperone shamelessly has it both ways. Creators Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) pay genuine homage to good old-fashioned entertainment while sending it up mercilessly. Man in Chair yearns for the wit and glamour of Cole Porter but there is only the flimsiest facsimile of it in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason they don’t make ’em like that any more, but also why there’s nostalgia for earlier, more graceful times.

Squabbalogic’s production captures the dichotomy immaculately, and – as Sweet Charity did before it – makes triumphant use of the tiny Hayes Theatre Co space. On Broadway the show opened out to become the extravaganza Man in Chair sees in his mind’s eye as he listens to the music, and the glittering production values meant Man in Chair’s favourite musical actually came up rather well. At the Hayes there is no escaping the fact that we are in Man in Chair’s generic city apartment. The musical’s flaws – which Man in Chair admits exist – loom larger.

Interestingly, this turns out not to be any kind of problem, due mainly to a pivotal piece of casting. Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a very fine team but his most successful choice was the assignment of himself to the part of Man in Chair. It was a great call; James-Moody is tremendous. He is very young for the role but that also fails to be a problem. James-Moody is too fresh to be the quintessential bitter and bitchy show queen. Instead there is unexpected poignancy in seeing the importance Man in Chair places on this extremely minor piece. The casting probably wouldn’t work in a huge theatre, but then that’s exactly where we are not.

There are little windows in Man in Chair’s apartment (splendid design by Lauren Peters) that give glimpses of the world he has shut out. With his eager face, intelligent high forehead, wry self-awareness and irony-tinged delivery, James-Moody really makes you hope Man in Chair isn’t setting himself up for the fate of an actor whose demise he describes. It involves a solitary death and a poodle.

In every department – direction, performance, design, choreography, music (a terrific six-piece band) – there is complete understanding of the show’s style and wit. It seems a little unfair to single individuals out from the terrific ensemble, but here goes. Extra bouquets to Monique Salle, who is not only a zesty Trix the Aviatrix but choreographed imaginatively within very tight limits; Hilary Cole, whose charmingly self-regarding Janet could not be further removed from her tormented Carrie of last year (also for Squabbalogic); Michele Lansdown’s seedily glamorous Chaperone; and Tom Sharah’s lustily sung Adolpho, whose intelligence is located well south of his head.

The Drowsy Chaperone ends on April 6.