Sunday, 24 September 2017

First Date: Broadway's Musical Comedy - Blak Yak Theatre (23 September 2017)

Director Lorna Mackie has a knack for bringing quirky, lesser known musicals such as 2014's The Great American Trailer Park Musical, 2015's Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, and last year's Bad Girls to Perth's community theatre stages. First Date fits comfortably into that tradition; a funny look at the pitfalls, embarrassments, and epiphanies of the blind date. Not only that, Blak Yak being a theatre company without a permanent home often comes up with interesting alternative venues for their shows. In this case the Shenton Park Community Centre which proved quite the intimate locale. As an aside, it was amusing to see a portrait of a much younger Queen Elizabeth II hanging high above the onstage antics. Perhaps Her Majesty would have approved and hankered for a burger.

Mackie also attracts the cream of Perth's community theatre performers with several here having lead role experience - Tom Hutton, Cassie Skinner, Helen Kerr, Therese Cruise, and reigning Finley Award Winner for Best Male Musical Performer Mitch Lawrence; the first four of whom were also in Bad Girls. Joining the cast were Arianne Westcott-King, James Hynson, and Jason Nettle.

In essence this is a two-hander - guy meets girl at a restaurant on a first date - that is surrounded by a colourful group of real and imagined characters. In some ways it felt like a musical version of 90's sitcom Herman's Head with a comic sensibility that reminded me of Spamalot (Aaron is Jewish, Casey is decidedly not) and there was even a little Avenue Q thrown in with an unexpected 'cameo'.

Hutton is the awkward BDV (blind date virgin) Aaron and Skinner's 'serial dater' Casey is all sass and confidence. On the surface. Over the course of drinks and a meal they get to learn more about each other with the help of the wait staff, reincarnations of mothers and grandmas, intrusions by imagined best friends, sisters, ex-lovers, and, in the modern age, technology itself.

This gives plenty of opportunity for the ensemble to shine in several funny set-pieces but the success of the production rests on the interaction between Aaron and Casey. In this I was impressed with the acting of both Hutton and Skinner who bounced off each other nicely, displayed good comic timing, and gave layers of doubt and vulnerability to their characters amongst the observational comedy and, at times, sheer shtick. Not to mention sporting credible American accents and the ability to freeze mid-ingestion of a pickle.

It's an odd musical in that the songs are liberally shared around with the two leads not often given prominence. Skinner does get a featured moment with the first act closer Safer which she belts out to great effect. The five piece band was nestled alongside one wall right next to the audience. Indeed I was about a metre or so from the keyboards in my second row seat. The sound balance, on the whole, was very good and I was delighted that the drums were suitably muted. Several musicals staged at venues without a pit have been cruelled by overpowering drum work.

The wireless microphones were occasionally problematic with Nettle suffering the most in this regard. The poor pickup often left him singing unamplified but he showed great composure (and style) in soldiering on. The intimate nature of the venue meant that nothing too much was lost though the rapid-fire lyrics were sometimes difficult to follow.

Of the supporting cast Mitch Lawrence was excellent as Aaron's best friend Gabe with faux indignation and 'bro advice' turned to high. Helen Kerr plays the ex that Aaron must get over with "I'm too good for you" insouciance though it's her appearance as Google - yes, the search engine itself - that cracked me up during a role call of social media in The World Wide Web is Forever.

James Hynson is a scene stealer as The Waiter (and accomplice for the guest cameo) with his I'd Order Love kicking off the second act in style. Arianne Westcott-King had a twinkle about her as Casey's hectoring sister Lauren and was light on her feet with a little tap for good measure. Therese Cruise adds colour as a drunk at the bar and as the Jewish Grandmother from Hell in the Pythonesque The Girl For You while Jason Nettle plays the over-the-top gay friend Reggie with swagger.

As I often find with comedy musicals there is always a more serious or tender song that stands out from the frivolity and here it's Hutton and Kerr (as Aaron's mother) singing The Things I Never Said which was a standout. Hutton also has a featured moment in the second act with In Love With You.

Mackie at the start of the show encouraged the audience to hoot and holler throughout and it's that kind of musical. Funny, over-the-top, but with some perceptive insights into the dating game and strong performances all round. A fun night.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Best Bits - WAAPA (17 September 2017)

Simply wow!

I haven't had as much fun in a theatre all year as I did with the graduating musical theatre students' final production before Showcase. I certainly haven't laughed as hard or as consistently at anything else, theatre or otherwise, for quite some time.

It is the usual custom for the graduating students to 'take the piss' out of their major 2nd and 3rd year productions during Best Bits. But this cohort has many gifted comic performers and as a collective they have impeccable timing and mischievous sense of humour. The send-ups of Rent, Heathers, 42nd Street, and Chicago were exceptional and there were even a few sly Bring It On references interspersed throughout the program. What is most impressive amongst the inspired satire is an understanding of the weaknesses in story or structure or character that is ripe for the picking.

It also reminds us of the many tremendous performances we've witnessed over the last two years. Most notably Kelsi Boyden in Rent; Monique Warren in Heathers; Mackenzie Dunn in 42 Street; and Boyden again with Jenna Curran in Chicago. Looking back it has been a strong slate of musicals with compelling female characters.

That's not to say the male students have been any less stellar as Finn Alexander (Today 4 U from Rent), Nick Errol (Freeze Your Brain from Heathers); and Luke Haberecht leading the charge in reminding us of the glorious tap dancing from 42 Street demonstrated.

This wasn't solely about making us laugh however. In a generous program that stretched over two hours there were plenty of opportunities for the students to show off their acting and singing skills. Dance, other than the tap from 42nd Street, wasn't as featured.

I liked that a lot of the songs had a lead-in requiring the performers to display their acting chops. The second half also included many more serious pieces to give a sense of emotional range. Indeed, it was an eclectic selection of songs from a remarkably varied smorgasbord of musicals. I was even teased with a snippet from Hamilton. Brief, all too brief!

The two standout moments in this section were -

A beautiful rendition of Falling Slowly from Once by David Cuny (also on guitar) and Monique Warren (on piano). Extra points for difficulty as Cuny dealt with an unexpected broken guitar strap mid-song; and

A powerhouse vocal performance by Cameron Steens of Dust and Ashes from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. The company adding backing vocals from the upper walkway elevated this further.

But there were so many highlights. To name a few:

Luke Haberecht delivering the rapid-fire, tongue twisting lyrics of Cole Porter's Let's Not Talk About Love with aplomb.

The accent work of Meg McKibbin and Daisy Valerio in singing The History of Wrong Guys (Kinky Boots) and I Have Confidence (The Sound of Music) respectively.

Some inspired mania by Joshua White during The Brain from Young Frankenstein.

A deliciously phlegmy (not a term I hope to ever repeat!) If I Were A Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof by Tom Gustard.

Benjamin Almon Colley bringing The Roundhouse Theatre to enthralled silence with Tomorrow Belongs To Me (Cabaret).

A lovely, authentic moment between Bailey Dunnage and Daisy Valerio as the former sang World Inside A Frame (Bridges of Madison County).

A couple of real character numbers written by Sondheim - Jenna Curran's scathingly delivered The Ladies Who Lunch (Company) and Mackenzie Dunn effortlessly handling the black humour of Worst Pies in London (Sweeney Todd).

During the show costumes and props, once they were used, were placed in large wicker baskets and suitcases. The symbolic packing up after three long years. Final bows were quite emotional but the applause was enthusiastic and well earned.

See you on the other side in a few months time on stages here, over east, and who knows, maybe throughout the world. As Alexander Hamilton would say... just you wait...

Hit Parade: Defying Gravity Turns 30! - WAAPA's Defying Gravity & Guest Performers (16 September 2017)

Three words immediately spring to mind after witnessing a rousing matinee perfomance of the WAAPA percussion students, returning alumni, and special guests:

Inspiration. Joyous. Family.

The last was mentioned by two of the students - Nanna Faulkner and Pavan Hari - at the post show interview held by the Friends of the Academy.

It's clear this is a tightknit group by the way they interacted on stage and even listening to some of the banter in the interval. That extended to returning graduates Joshua Webster & Catherine Betts (the duo that performs under the moniker Kaboom Percussion), Marcus Perrozzi, and Ian Robbie who were all given raucous acknowledgements.

Then there's Tim White, the Head of Percussion at WAAPA, who shares genuine enthusiasm and passion for the music and his students. Faulkner admitted she has called him 'dad' more than once and it's not difficult to see why as White exudes such a genial nature.

The joy was equally evident - the zeal with which students, alumni, and guests alike performed was writ large on their faces. The big grins, the concentration, the relief, the shouts and hollers.

And what joyous music it is - from full on aural assaults of massed drumming to melodic original compositions to delicate reinterpretations of Bach on the marimba, the diversity was astonishing. Inspiration was what I felt as a result. The talent, eye-hand coordination, the creativity and invention, the timing and synchronisation. Amazing. 

Inspiration for all of us - students, staff, and audience - came by way of world renowned percussionist Kuniko Kato. She was clearly revered by the students after spending a fortnight giving master classes as part of the thirty year anniversary celebrations. The three pieces she performed - the multi-percussion Rebounds, the atmospheric Fratres inspired by the chanting of monks in ancient times, and the aforementioned Bach cello suites were mesmerising but all in completely different ways. The first was a robustly physical piece that became increasingly complex in its drumming patterns; Fratres was a multi-layered exercise in mood; and the combination of Bach and marimba demonstrated the sheer beauty of music.

Other highlights:

The smile of relief from graduating student Laura Harris and reception from her fellow students as Harris completed the first piece of the afternoon in style. She also showed great composure during Fratres when it seemed there was a technical malfunction and she changed to another vibraphone with minimal disruption.

The flourish with which Tom Robertson finished the jaunty Log Cabin Blues on xylophone which he crushed in a dazzling display.

You will never see a bigger grin than Pavan Hari's as his world premiere composition Dark Lotus was met with rapturous applause. His piece not only incorporated vibraphone and other percussion instruments but also cello and violin. Not content with that, two dancers complemented the beauty of the music with the beauty of the human body in motion.

Tim White giving the first head of percussion, Gary France, a warm hug after France led the perfomance of Bonham, an ode to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.

When you not only hear music but you feel it - the sheer waves of sonic vibration during another world premiere - alumnus Marcus Perrozzi's Momentum on taiko drums; and the massed drumming of the whole company led by another alumnus Iain Robbie celebrating the rhythms and traditional sounds of Papua New Guinea and the south-west Pacific. The frenetic attack of the latter was punctuated by a snapped drum stick sailing over Robbie's shoulder.

A captivating and inspirational couple of hours followed by birthday cake in the lobby (it was yummy too!). Happy 30th anniversary Defying Gravity. 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Radio Active - WAAPA (14 September 2017)

A terrific showcase for the vocal and musical talent amongst the now 200 strong cohort of contemporary music students. A fun time for the audience with an eclectic mix of songs from artists as varied as Toto to Beyonce. But an early highlight puts this all in context. Mia Matthiessen gave an excellent performance of the haunting Grandma's Hands by WAAPA alumna Meg Mac who is currently on a national tour with a hit album riding high in the iTunes charts. That's where the bar is set for these students - the possibility, one day, of a recording contract, album sales, hit singles, national tours and beyond. Heady stuff.

The musicianship of the band with rotating members was excellent. The vocal talent of the singers was uniformly outstanding. The stagecraft and how to work an audience, for many, is still a work in progress though there were a couple of natural performers in Zain Awan and Nicholette Chew. We also gained a brief insight into the personality of and inspiration for many of the singers as they introduced songs by their colleagues.

The first set was dominated by female vocalists with the second half leaning a little more to the male singers. Both sets were very good and I should mention the other students who make a night like this work - sound and lighting design, stage management, and the oft unsung arts managment front of house.

My other highlights:

Beyonce's Halo by the remarkable Ritchell Lim with backing vocals by the WAAPA Gospel Choir.

A blistering rendition of Justin Timberlake's Cry Me A River by Zain Awan, both vocally and in sheer style.

A moving version of Sia's Chandelier by Lani Melrose who proved a crowd favourite with a down to earth enthusiasm for her craft and the evening.

The band rocked out to Detroit with Cameron Hayes prominent on lead guitar.

Katie Reid presented an extraordinary arrangement of Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill using her voice to lay down and layer a live 'backing track' of increasing complexity.

James MacCallum flashed rock star credentials with Allen Stone's Satisfaction, again with the band kicking into full on rock mode.

Nicholette Chew brought the pizazz and the pipes for Beyonce's Daddy's Lessons.

Radio Active is a rare synthesis of audience and performers' enjoyment and is a great couple of hours to spend with possibly tomorrow's stars, standards from the past, and hits from the present.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Choice Cuts - WAAPA (9 September 2017)

A greatest hits 2015-2017 megamix to help raise money for the upcoming showcases and to celebrate three years of studies coming to an end.

In that spirit of learning here's what I gleaned from this hour long revue...

In what surely will become the industry standard, Martin Quinn's pre-show announcement to the audience did more than merely remind me to check my landline, but filled me with confidence that in case of an emergency ECU's multitude of physicians would save me.

Quinn later explained, whilst disguised as a Noel Coward character, the latest state of the art theory in how to write a play. Apparently it involves a basket, a river, and a 7 day wait. Revolutionary.

Corpsing is a skill best taught in a safe, supportive environment such as The Roundhouse Theatre. Mitchell Bourke, Roy Joseph, and Katherine Pearson excelled under extreme provocation; baskets, hats, melodies and all.

If you're not doing Shakespeare with rap are you even doing Shakespeare at all?

Why hand someone a business card when you can surprise them with a hat instead as Jack Scott so ably demonstrated.

One cannot truly experience their first kiss without a little one hit wonder pop embellishment. Even if you're a doomed Jewish girl.

Stephen King has it all wrong. Clowns aren't scary at all. Unless you get dragged onstage pre-show and asked if you have a "tight 5 minutes".

The lyrics of Mack the Knife, suitably altered, prove a fitting send off for this graduating class. Until, you know, their last show in October, The Threepenny Opera.

This was a fun, breezy, hour long restrospective and the chemistry of this group is very strong. It's a really good graduating class.

It was also witnessed by, unless I'm mistaken, Perth girl Katherine Langford who might have ended up on this very stage if not for successfully auditioning for the show that has made her a star, 13 Reasons Why.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Momentum - WAAPA (29 August 2017)

The unexpected gem. There's at least one every year. A show you maybe don't know much about and have little or no expectaton for that turns out to be a theatrical treat. Momentum, a self devised piece by the 2nd year actors under the tutelage of visiting director Andy Paris, is such a production.

Based in the Moment Work technique this is the presentation of a collection of stories using movement, dance, lighting, props, costuming, audio and multi-media elements, utilising the whole of the Enright Studio space to support and enhance the text. These are the stories of the actors themselves, drawn from or inspired by their own personal experiences.

In its shape and construction Momentum is reminiscent of Love and Information, currently being performed by the 3rd years. However, there is an emotional authenticity and rawness here that is compelling in its honesty. The whole troupe have shared insights into pivotal moments in their lives and it's this vulnerability and generosity that makes Momentum a remarkable work.

Not so much Love and Information as Memory and Fears. Parents feature heavily in these memories, a combination of the traumatic, touching, and insightful. Fears are portrayed in relationships with parents, friends and possible lovers as well as touching on anxiety, bullying, suicide, domestic violence, identity, religion, and sexuality. That may sound 'heavy' but the creativity in the staging and the universal themes explored resonant deeply and keep this totally engaging.

There are also moments of humour including an hilarious 'guest star' appearance by Bobby De Niro himself and a little slapstick here and there.

Music is supplied by the divinely voiced Mia Morrissey on guitar as well as, wait for it, Duran Duran whose Hungry Like the Wolf I never thought I'd hear in a WAAPA production! Jessie Lancaster adds vocal support towards the end showcasing another fine voice.

This truly is an ensemble piece however I'd also like to recognise Teresa Moore's distinctive dancing throughout; Cameron Rouse's opening monologue that sets everything up and gives the actors 'permission' to own their stories and for the audience to embrace them; and the work of Sam Corlett who attacked his story about masculinity with complete fierceness.

The intimacy of the black box Enright Studio is perfect for this type of production and I'd highly recommend attending one of the last two nights this week.

*originally published at facebook.com/perththeatrereviews

Monday, 28 August 2017

Chicago - WAAPA (28 August 2017)

By scheduling a bona fide musical blockbuster in the last slot of 2017, WAAPA has eschewed the choice of lesser known productions over the last few years (The Beautiful Game, Carrie, Merrily We Roll Along). The results are surprisingly uneven.

Make no mistake, the songs and score are first rate and I was heartened to see a 15 piece orchestra under the baton of David King that played well. Special mention to the trumpet players Jack Sirett and either Matthew Smith or Benn Hodgkin.

The characterisation and staging though were very vaudevillian. This is not a slinky, sexy production by any means, more a heightened satirical romp that left me oddly disconnected from the material.

The opening number All That Jazz was strangely lifeless and Cell Block Tango suffered mightily with the over-exaggerated portrayal of the Merry Mistresses of Murderess' Row.

The show did settle into a strong sequence of scenes/numbers from A Little Bit of Good to We Both Reached For The Gun to Roxie and the second half was much more convincing particularly with the trial sequence.

Director Crispin Taylor and guest Choreographer Michael Ralph made Jenna Curran work her backside off as Velma Kelly in a physically demanding performance. Kelsi Boyden, an always expressive performer, impressed as Roxie and Laura Jackson also caught the eye as Mama Morton. I didn't quite get the pathos of Amos from Finn Alexander though, again, he was mainly played for laughs.

David Cuny was suitably slick as Billy Flynn but the choice of a boxing themed introduction to the character jarred. Tom Gustard stole the show with the Mary Sunshine number A Little Bit of Good. Nick Errol makes the most of his cameo as Fred Casely in great style.

A colourful confectionery that had its moments but needed a more hard-boiled edge to truly convince.

*originally published at facebook.com/perththeatrereviews