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.

Two up, two down

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Workhorse Theatre Company, September 23

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company, September 24 (matinee)

The Last Confession, Chichester Festival Theatre production, Theatre Royal, Sydney, September 24 (evening)

Wicked, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, September 25

LET’S start with Wicked. It’s not quite The Lion King, which last week was announced as the world’s most successful entertainment with box office of more than $6 billion, but it’s not doing too shabbily. In its 10 years (to The Lion King’s 17) Wicked has grossed about $3 billion worldwide. Normally one doesn’t like to make money the measure of success, but in the musical theatre sphere it tells the story in the simplest possible way. People – lots and lots and lots of people – love the spectacle, the rousing music, the romance and the sense of occasion that these productions so expertly combine. Some audience members will see them once, others will go literally hundreds of times.

And some of us – critics, for instance – will see such productions perhaps three or four times. We are not the swept-away first-timers, nor the intensely (worryingly?) devoted regulars. We can see that every production is the same as the one that went before it, and the one that will follow it. That there is an automatic quality that can seep into the performances unless the cast members have particularly individual gifts.

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

In this incarnation of Wicked Reg Livermore, playing the Wizard, stands out as such an individual – but then that was always Reg. (I first saw him as Betty Blokk Buster in 1975 and it remains a cherished memory.) I salute Jemma Rix (Elphaba) for her generous, unmannered stage presence despite having performed this role more than 800 times. I found Lucy Durack (Glinda) somewhat frayed of voice and a touch too effortful in the comedy. The ensemble didn’t dance well enough, although the choreography isn’t all that much to write home about.

That said, Wicked has important themes in the acceptance of difference and the need to question oppressive authority (and how relevant are those right now!), and it has two strong women at its centre. Anyone seeing it for the first time should have a terrific night out.

Not such a terrific night out is The Last Confession, a too-wordy exploration of Vatican politics at a most intriguing time in modern Catholic Church history. It deals with the making of popes, the machinations of the Vatican Bank, the exercise of power within the Vatican and the sensationally short reign of Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days as pontiff. Was he murdered because he wanted to curb the ambitions of some senior and rather secular men of the cloth?

It’s a brilliant idea for a drama but first-time (and as far as I can tell, only-time) playwright Roger Crane has made dull work of it. The Last Confession is long, clunky and only occasionally gripping.

It does boast some fine acting, most especially from Richard O’Callaghan as Cardinal Albino Luciani, the man who reluctantly accepts the office of pope and immediately makes powerful enemies. The drawcard is David Suchet, the late Hercule Poiret, who perhaps chews the scenery a little too vigorously at times but is a resonant, commanding stage presence. The multinational cast is a very good one but the play and production feel very, very old-fashioned indeed.

There are, however, two unmissable productions in Sydney at present: Sydney Theatre Company’s Children of the Sun and Workhorse Theatre Company’s revival of its 2013 hit The Motherf**cker with the Hat. (I don’t quite get the use of asterisks in a word a seven-year-old could decipher, but at least it’s better than the American version, in which the key word in the title was expressed with a very long dash. Not one letter betrayed what the word might be.)

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Workhorse’s premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s scintillating tragi-comedy took place at the tiny TAP Gallery last year and in truth suited that space better than it does the larger Eternity Playhouse stage. Virtually sitting on the bed and couch with the cast really worked for this sexy, passionate, tempestuous piece, but more people can fit into the Eternity, and Workhorse greatly deserves that audience. Jackie (Troy Harrison) is just out of the Big House, is trying to stay off the booze and drugs and has got himself a job; his adored Veronica (Zoe Trilsbach) has waited for him, but has she stayed faithful? Jackie sees a man’s hat on the table in her apartment and it’s on for young and old. Drawn into the force-10 emotional hurricane are Jackie’s AA sponsor Ralph and his spectacularly discontented wife Victoria (John Atkinson and Megan O’Connell) and Jackie’s cousin Julio (Nigel Turner-Carroll).

Guirgis’s language is a blast – inventive, highly coloured and hilariously profane – but his heart is tender. Trust, hope and love are his themes, explored in a setting that just may make it impossible for them to prosper.

The cast is fabulous and Adam Cook’s direction crackles with energy. And if you haven’t yet visited the Eternity Playhouse, you’re missing a wonderful addition to Sydney theatre.

At the end of the matinee performance of Children of the Sun that I attended, the audience was stunned into silence for quite a few moments. Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Gorky’s play is wondrous. It enlivens the language with modern touches that bring the characters closer but never feels as if it’s trampling on the original spirit of the piece.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Hamish Michael in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Chris Ryan in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s the mid-19th century and we can see that the comfortable bourgeois life enjoyed by the family Gorky puts before us will not last (Gorky was writing in 1905, in jail). These are essentially good people, but not all of them are paying quite enough attention. There’s a scientist who can see into the future but not what is right in front of him; there’s a woman whose sensitivity to impending disaster is debilitating; there are people trying to love and people – the poor – finding it hard to survive.

Director Kip Williams has assembled a superb cast, with none better than Jacqueline McKenzie’s seer-like Liza. Justine Clarke is very fine as the percipient, neglected wife of chemist Protasov (Toby Truslove) and Helen Thomson manages to make the needy Melaniya less ridiculous than she could easily be. Presiding over the household is Nanny (Valerie Bader in top form), the kind of servant who holds everything together but still has to do the family’s bidding.

David Fleischer’s revolving set, with a detailed family room but otherwise vestigial corners of other spaces, marvelously shows a world in the process of disintegration. We know how it all ended for Russia. Children of the Sun shows it in the process of happening within one family. The ending is devastating, which is why we all sat silent in the darkness, scarcely breathing.

The Last Confession, ends October 4; The Motherf**ker with the Hat ends October 19; Children of the Sun ends October 25; Wicked, no closing date announced for Sydney. Brisbane season opens February 15.