Friday, 29 August 2014

Concussion - Ellandar Productions (29 August 2014)

Take a bow Ross Mueller. Yes, before we discuss the work of director Sarah McKellar and her excellent cast we have to talk about the writing. This is nothing less than what I call a “writer’s play” with sly references and nods to the writing process itself and, oh my, Mueller is having a grand old time with it. Word play galore, fractured timeline narrative, intersecting character storylines, a faux mystery, characters breaking the fourth wall and even suggesting scenes, and the mocking of clich├ęs associated with this style of story as the characters are all very self-aware about the tale they’re in. 

It’s deliciously clever, subversive and funny. Even the somewhat overwrought shouting match at the end I took to be a poke at the expectations usually contained within this type of tale. As a writer myself this was absolutely in my wheelhouse and I loved the cheekiness and audacity of the script.

When you give such great writing to the talented cast McKellar has assembled, well then, we’re off to the races. Those actors are Richard Mellick as the cop Caesar who has been bashed on his way to court with seemingly no memory of events leading up to that moment; Nichola Renton as his girlfriend Julia who is also an emergency room Doctor and dealing with her needy ex-husband James Jnr Jnr played by Ian Bolgia. 

Then there’s Paul Grabovac as James Jnr Jnr’s brother, James Jnr (I told you Mueller was having fun!) who is melancholic and very anti-accordions. Russya Connor plays Katerina who is Caesar’s legal advisor, the source of James Jnr’s moping, and (stay with me here) is having sex with Caesar’s 15 year old son, Sergio (Danen Engelenberg) who blogs about their sexual exploits having been ostracised from Facebook by his schoolmates.

Initially I thought we were going to see two mysteries solved over the course of the play – the reason for the bashing; and the resolution of the relationship drama between Caesar and Julia. To be honest, the first is really a device to give a major reason for these characters to collide in surprising and unusual ways and it’s that exploration that is fascinating not the mystery itself which remained fairly oblique.

Renton who is excellent as the caring Julia gives an inkling of what’s to come with an early monologue directed at the audience where she indicates that this will not be another tragedy and that their landscape is comedy. There is also repeated mention of the cerebral meeting the physical and that it is actions that define us not words - amusing when so many fine words are being deployed here. She grounds the play with a well measured, sympathetic turn as the woman supportive of her partner and striving to free herself from her ex.

Bolgia gives a wonderfully boisterous performance as a man who tries to win his wife back but uses words as a weapon even beseeching others to guess what he is thinking by giving them the word count and number of syllables. Grabovac is suitably morose by comparison as he loses his job to his brother; is censored on air, not for his ideas but because he used foul language; and who struggles with the loss of his girlfriend.

Mellick gets to inhabit two completely different sides of Caesar – the bewildered bashing victim who muses about Bob Dylan, Osama bin Laden and various other pop culture figures to amusing effect; and the last good cop in town who refuses to lie in his statement to the court about a celebrated war veteran who was murdered at “2am, in the morning, at night”. Writer’s gags everywhere.

Connor is all feisty and sexy as the lawyer and has several raunchy moments that are well staged with Engelenberg as the horny teenager who doesn’t understand the ramifications of his actions and the trouble his blog will cause. He has a standout moment delivering an hilarious monologue that is as explicit as it is downright funny.

McKellar keeps the pace crackling along and I was having a fine time with this. The playing with timelines means that the major revelations when they are come are well crafted with the ending of the play a nice surprise yet totally in sync with what has been set up. Impressive writing that is directed and acted with impressive skill.

Concussion is on at The Blue Room Theatre with only one more show, 7pm Saturday 30 August. Written by Ross Mueller and directed by Sarah McKellar, it stars Richard Mellick, Nichola Renton, Ian Bolgia, Paul Grabovac, Russya Connor and Danen Engelenberg.

Narrow Graves - Second Chance Theatre (28 August 2014)

Narrow Graves is the third production I have seen by Second Chance Theatre this year after the atmospheric Bye. Gone and the apocalyptic relationship drama Coincidences at the End of Time. All three were written by Scott McArdle who is nothing less than prolific with his debut musical Extra Ordinary People due to hit Murdoch University’s Nexus Theatre in November. This one is at the Drama Workshop also on the Murdoch campus.

McArdle is a young writer with great potential and he’s certainly not afraid to explore provocative and dark subject matter such as in this play. That he does so with wit, insight, and at times brutal realism is testament to his writing ability – a skill that might take him to NIDA and beyond, all things being equal later in the year. Not content with being the author, he also does the lighting design and acts, notably in this one, naked for a large portion.

He is joined on stage by his Coincidences co-star Emily David (as Charlotte) who plays a newly arrived ‘guest’ at a facility whose previous owner was one A. Hitler. We quickly learn things haven’t changed much as this unnamed place indulges in the kind of experiments that would not be out of place in those evil times. David has an eminently watchable quality that is powered by a stillness and calmness in her acting. This works to the play’s advantage as her character is perhaps the only sane person in a bunch that includes fellow ‘guests’ Juliet, a partially lobotomised, childlike presence; and Ethan, stoically played by McArdle who stands naked in a bucket of water as a form of ritual humiliation.

Charlotte’s guide, Benjamin (a doctor of some sort), is played by Rhys Hyatt who obliquely explains the rules of this strange world. Hyatt portrays the character with a mix of condescension and smarminess to amusing effect though we soon discover a much darker side as he takes advantage of Juliet (Jade Galambosi) for his own sexual gratification. Galambosi is sweet and tragic as the damaged soul stuck in this horrid place.

The final character is The Warden, a strong performance by Laughton Mckenzie. This is the charismatic yet unhinged ‘visionary’ who demands complete obedience yet is unaware of the chaos his actions reap. Which is ironic as chaos is the very thing he wishes to eliminate and the entire purpose of this facility. A chaos brought about by emotion, love and sex, all sins to be removed from the unwilling guests. Exercise time is a euphemism for joyless sex as Charlotte and Ethan are forced to couple every day under the watchful eyes of Benjamin and the Warden. The unwanted results of such ‘experiments’ can be terminated with a syringe.

It’s all bleak and unrelenting but this appears to be McArdle’s intention. A world without love, emotion and sex leaves people a gibbering mess in the corner of a very dark place indeed. It is a cautionary tale regarding the rise of conservatism in places such as Australia where governments seek to control aspects of our lives that really are none of their business. Ultimately though I wasn’t sure what the takeaway from this is as the cycle repeats itself as even Charlotte crumbles in the face of such heartless brutality. This was after an act of perverse kindness that did surprise me and was shocking in its ruthlessly efficient staging.

There is black humour throughout to leaven this nightmarish vision and it was interesting watching the power structure at play. This hierarchy is most noticeable with Benjamin who lords over the guests but is obsequious and subservient to the Warden. The performances are all strong but pitched very differently with Hyatt and Mckenzie given licence to have the showier roles while David, Galambosi and McArdle drive the emotional punch of the play. The set is simple yet effective with good use of lighting guiding us through scene changes.

This is SCT’s most overtly political piece and it’s certainly not for the fainthearted. The creative team and actors are to be applauded for producing a play that will make you think and wasn’t without its own share of adversity in bringing to the stage. There are three more shows; tonight at 7.00pm sharp (there is a lockout) with a matinee and evening show on Saturday. 

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Great Expectations - WAAPA (27 August 2014)

In the early going of Great Expectations there is a bare knuckled fight between a young Pip (Adam Sollis) and Herbert (Harry Richardson) started by the latter, won decisively by the former. They much later become fast friends. I mention this because it prompts the thought that I have been watching a World Heavyweight Title Fight all year between the respective third year musical theatre and acting classes at WAAPA. Two evenly matched opponents slugging it out and what a bout it has been!

If West Side Story is the crowning achievement of the musical theatre class in the red corner then the acting cohort in the blue corner have replied in stunning fashion with this production. To extend the boxing analogy, I had a ringside seat, front row centre, at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre. And what a view it was - a brilliant adaptation of the great novel, inventively staged and directed, with superb performances across the board.

The cast of seventeen actors are all given moments to shine as the adaptation features the use of a rotating chorus who vocalise Pip’s innermost thoughts and provide ancillary characters as well as, amusingly, such things as dogs and gargoyles. The cast is in constant movement and this gives the play great energy and a unique treatment to one of the classics of Western literature.

But it’s in the featured roles where impressive performances are everywhere:

Firstly, I doff my cap to Adam Sollis as Pip who is tremendous. From frightened young boy, to disgruntled apprentice, to eager suitor, to a gentleman in London living the high life, to a man whose newfound world crumbles around him as the revelations pile up in the second act, he gives such a likeable and convincing performance in the demanding central role.

Jonny Hawkins is wonderful as Joe Gargery, the simple blacksmith with a big heart. I spoke to him briefly afterwards to congratulate him on the show and his blistering performance in Festen and he said the trade-off for playing the devil in Festen was to play Joe, the complete opposite. He was in high spirits and clearly had fun in the role generating a lot of good-natured humour.

Emma Diaz is radiant as Estella, the object of Pip’s affection. Pip is constantly asked by Miss Havisham if Estella is pretty and yes, Diaz is every bit the beauty here but plays the cold and heartless creature of Havisham’s creation very well.

Alexis Lane is unrecognisable as Miss Havisham with grey, bedraggled hair, dirty wedding dress and stark make-up. She appeared to be relishing the role of the manipulative old woman whose heart was broken at the altar with a mischievous gleam in the eyes that was compelling. 

Jane Watt shines as the (male) lawyer Jaggers and after final bows almost danced off stage and so she should be happy with her authoritative performance. Harry Richardson plays Herbert with a straightforward earnestness that I really enjoyed and Stephanie Tsindos is an honest, straight talking Biddy.

Alex Malone is a vigorous Mrs Joe and really propels the play in the early scenes. Likewise, Julio Machado provides an early comic turn as Pumblechook that sets up the lighter tone that is throughout the play though not so much in the latter stages of the second act as we get down to business with a series of revelations that actually require a lot of exposition and even the odd ‘flashback’ scene, one done very effectively in silhouette behind a white sheet.

Aleks Mikic is brutally in your face as the convict in the opening and has a much bigger presence in the second act as Magwitch makes his presence known to Pip. While a changed man and the source of Pip’s good fortune, he can’t help but be who he was conditioned to be as he attacks his nemesis Compeyson (Alexander Frank) to seal his downfall. Liam Maguire is suitably creepy and resentful as Orlick with Harriet Davies (Wemmick), Henry Hammersla, Joel Horwood, Kirsty Marillier, and Felicity McKay rounding out the cast in various roles and as part of the chorus.  

The buzz at intermission and after the show was one of real excitement. I was talking with three young actors who have aspirations to go to WAAPA and how could you not be but inspired on the evidence of this outing. That and the fact there were two other high quality performances going on in the nearby venues. It was also great to see such good crowds all three nights that I have been at the Mount Lawley campus this week.

Directed by Andrew Lewis (also in high spirits after the show), Adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan and featuring WAAPA’s graduating acting class, there is only one show remaining at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre, Thursday 28 August at 7.30pm. If you can get a ticket definitely go and see it - a highlight of 2014. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Grapes of Wrath - WAAPA (26 August 2014)

There are basic human rights that we accept as a given (though under threat from time to time) such as a roof over your head, access to food, the ability to work, and protection by the law. This story is one where all of those things are taken away from a family and how they struggle to survive in the face of such unthinkable adversity. Yes, the extended Joad family are kicked off their farm in 1930’s dustbowl America and forced to travel to California on the promise of work. Along the way they discover all kinds of hardship and people who would take advantage of an over-abundance of labour during the Great Depression.

On the surface this is a bleak tale but it is the indomitable will of the mother, Ma Joad (an authoritative performance by Megan Wilding), that defies all assaults on her family and the calamities that beset them that resonates so strongly.

Our tale begins with newly paroled Tom Joad (interesting casting choice but one where Elle Harris excels) returning to the family farm. On the way he discovers ex-preacher Jim Casey (Andrew Creer) who is no longer moved by the spirit of the Lord as he once was. Seems young Tom spent four years inside for killing a man who had attacked him, a crime he does not regret. On learning of the family plight the decision is made to travel westwards where orange handbills promise plenty of work picking grapes and other fruit in the lush California valleys.

Three generations of the Joads including a reluctant Grampa (Luke Fewster), Granma (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), Ma and Pa Joad (Dacre Montgomery), Al Joad (Bevan Pfeiffer), Uncle John (Seamus Quinn), the pregnant Rose of Sharon (Becky Gulia), the two children Ruthie and Winfield (Brittany Morel and Jessica Paterson), Tom and Casey all pile into an old truck. This is amusingly yet effectively portrayed by a plush couch with the ‘children’ holding torches to signify headlights. There are two tragedies and warnings along the way that they are chasing fake dreams of a better life. But what else is there for them to do?

Once they get to California there are all manner of people willing to prey on their desperation. Seems those handbills have been more than effective in attracting families like the Joads which means the employers can slash wages to grossly unfair levels. Then there are the run-ins with the law whose officers have an aggressive attitude to all the ‘immigrants’ flooding into the State. The parallels to modern day situations in various parts of the world are obvious. Those confrontations see Casey on the run and Tom subsequently reprising his crime as he checks a commotion outside a work camp one night only to find the worst kind of trouble. As he leaves the family he vows to fight the injustice that is rife all around them. The play ends with a storm, a birth, and an act of charity that is well handled and moving.

The production is in the black box theatre of the Enright Studio and director Sandie Eldridge has chosen to have her actors stay in the space eschewing exits and entrances. They lurk in the wings when not in scenes. With such a simple set it’s the use of various props that creates the world – blue plastic sheet representing water/river; use of a door held upright then placed on the stage floor; the couch which is utilised in various ways; and the sort of detritus and assorted possessions that such a family accrues.

A Narrator (Stephanie Panozzo) periodically reads descriptive passages from the novel and observes the action while occasionally playing the harmonica. She also guides characters who have perished into the wings like some guardian angel. This allows us to accept why the dead are suddenly up and about as they have to get off the primary stage space.

The acting is good (as are, generally, the American accents) with Wilding and Harris featuring but I also liked Creer’s good-natured performance as Casey and Montgomery as a somewhat bewildered Pa Joad. Props go to Gordon-Anderson and Fewster playing characters well beyond their years. Gulia comes into her own in the later stages as her character goes from tragedy to offering an unusual and potent gift of generosity.

I wasn’t a fan, however, of the use of music that only had the effect of wrenching me out of the drama. I understand the temptation of the lyrical association of songs such as Do You Know the Way to San Jose and (a rock version of) California Dreaming but those songs are at least 30 years after the time period being depicted as were a couple of even more modern tracks. There was a great dance sequence full of energy and fun amidst the gloom of the family predicament and it worked well when the actors were performing The Clapping Song which is based on a 1930s number. But when the modern version is played over the top it again dissipated my immersion in the world.

Other than that this is the first time I have seen the second year acting students and they acquitted themselves well in an iconic American tale.

Directed by Sandie Eldridge, Written by Frank Galati based on the John Steinbeck novel, and featuring Elle Harris, Dacre Montgomery, Andrew Creer, Bevan Pfeiffer, Seamus Quinn, Megan Wilding, Becky Gulia, Stephanie Panozzo, Brittany Morel, Jessica Paterson, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Claudia Ware, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Luke Fewster, Rian Howlett, Ben Kindon and Lincoln Vickery, The Grapes of Wrath has two more performances, 7.30pm 27-28 August at the Enright Studio. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Merrily We Roll Along - WAAPA (25 August 2014)

What a year - Hair, West Side Story and now Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. From the 300 seat Geoff Gibbs Theatre to the 1100 seater at the Regal to the intimate confines of the Roundhouse (fast becoming my favourite theatre venue) WAAPA’s third year musical theatre students have been outstanding. In the words of Sondheim himself, “Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damn few.”

Indeed, the story of three talented friends who rise from humble beginnings to achieve their artistic dreams on Broadway, in publishing, and beyond is an apt one. This graduating class is in the early phase of realising their own dreams and the talent on display bodes well for the future. But Merrily We Roll Along posts warning signs along the way about how ambition and expediency can erode artistic integrity and, perhaps more importantly, alienate those who matter most - the friends, loved ones and collaborators who helped make the journey possible.

The dramatic conceit here is that the story is told in reverse chronological order. We see these characters at their worst at the beginning of the musical before exploring how they arrived at such an emotionally barren place. When the show first opened on Broadway in 1981 it was a flop. It’s almost hard to believe as the score is excellent, the lyrics witty and perceptive, and there’s surely a resonance for anyone who has harboured an artistic dream of some sort. The structure is complex but not prohibitively so as we move backwards from 1976 to eventually land in 1957 (a year I should have realised the significance of) where the final scene is beautifully constructed and thematically perfect. It signals a time where anything was possible, where ideas could change the world, where artists could make the papers and musicals were popular and could raise important themes. A time when three people meet who will become friends, collaborators, and take the world by storm... but at what cost?

This is why the reverse timeline works – there is such idealism and hope in the final sequences of the production that we largely forgive where these characters ended up. That they fail in life by becoming so successful in their chosen professions is also down to the sort of human frailties we can easily identify with.

The three friends, Composer (and subsequent Hollywood producer) Franklin Shepard, lyricist Charley Kringas, and writer/critic Mary Flynn are played by Jack Van Staveren, Ben Adams, and Rebecca Hetherington respectively. Van Staveren is excellent as the one who craves success and fame as he chases first Broadway then Hollywood. Along the way he loses his wife Beth (Sophie Cheeseman) and ends up marrying Broadway star Gussie Carnegie (Chloe Wilson) who was enamoured of his musical talent. I have to admit it’s such a likeable performance that I never really felt he was the ‘villain’ in the early going. Adams is the perfect foil and has a highlight moment during Franklin Shepard, Inc. as Charley expresses his disappointment and anger at how Franklin has sold out for the money thus ending their friendship. The two are convincing as friends and long-time collaborative partners which makes their falling out (retrospectively) more potent.

But the standout for me is Hetherington who gets to play the faithful friend in love with Franklin and who wears her heart on her sleeve even trashing the opening sequence party in his honour with some harsh home truths. Not only is her acting impressive but vocally she shines, particularly during Not A Day Goes By (Reprise) as Mary comes to terms with the fact she will never be with Franklin as he marries Beth.

Of the supporting cast, Chloe Wilson plays the diva Gussie with great confidence and sass. There was a moment in the opening sequence where she slipped (on strewn lettuce) and fell hard to the audible gasps of the audience but didn’t miss a beat as she picked herself up, blood nose and all, and confronted the newest object of her husband’s affections, Meg (Miranda Macpherson). If anything, it added to the drama of the moment.

Sophie Cheeseman plays Beth with a southern accent and trusting innocence that is charming but always destined for tears and she is great with the young child performer Sebastian Coe who plays Frank Junior. Nick Eynaud comes into his own as Gussie’s husband Joe Josephson the further we go back in time. He has an amusing moment telling Franklin and Charley they need to write more hummable tunes, the reason Sondheim wrote Merrily in the first place in response to critics of his work. The rest of the cast is, as is to be expected, strong vocally and look terrific in an assortment of costumes appropriate to the different time periods.

After the big, elaborate musicals of the last few days over in Melbourne this show was a pleasant reminder that a stripped back production such as this in an intimate setting with talented performers and musicians can be just as entertaining and memorable. And yes, Mister Sondheim, I was tapping my feet more than once!

Directed by Jason Langley, Musical Director David King, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim with a Book by George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along stars WAAPA's third year musical theatre students and has six more shows until 30 August at The Roundhouse Theatre. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The King and I - The Princess Theatre, Melbourne (23 August 2014)

The final production of the trip was the newly minted Helpmann Award winning Best Musical for 2014, The King and I. What immediately strikes you is this – Lisa McCune is a star. She gives a commanding performance (pun fully intended) and, I must say, looked stunning in an assortment of costumes befitting the period. McCune sings beautifully, shows a deft touch with the younger cast members, and had good chemistry with Lou Diamond Phillips especially in the more comic sequences.

Phillips, while perhaps not that strong a vocalist, gives a charismatic performance and is clearly enjoying himself in the role of the King of Siam. He delighted the audience at final bows, hamming it up a little as the curtains closed. 

The costumes are sumptuous and there is an array of gorgeous drapes that provide backdrops throughout. The set itself is very simple especially when compared to the intricacies involved with Wicked and Les Miserables.

I also found it a quite static production which is perhaps as much to do with its construction (it is, after all, 63 years old) rather than the staging – long dialogue passages with many of the set piece songs essentially a featured performer or duets only. It’s not until The Small House of Uncle Thomas in the Second Act that there’s real movement and, of course, Shall We Dance? that soon follows. 

The child cast are charming and each has a featured moment during the introduction to the King’s children. Adrian Li Donni (as Lun Tha) and Vivien Emsworth (who played Tuptim for this performance) had a couple of lovely duets as the illicit lovers in We Kiss In A Shadow and I Have Dreamed while Marty Rhone was suitable stern and officious as The Kralahome.

The orchestra was strong and there are well-known tunes and standards here that were done very well with McCune at the forefront (I Whistle A Happy TuneGetting To Know You, and Shall We Dance?). It was certainly interesting to compare the distinct stylistic differences with its more modern brethren and it’s perhaps appropriate that the show was staged in that grand old dame of a theatre, The Princess.

Les Miserables - Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne (22 August 2014)

Speaking of Act One closes, the next production has a pretty decent one as well! Yes, One Day More sung by the massed company from Les Miserables with the orchestra in top form is stirring and memorable. This was a monumental almost three hour show that featured 16 WAAPA graduates including Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean who gave a fine performance in such a demanding role. His Bring Him Home was a highlight but there were so many here.

The orchestra was superb (Musical Director & Conductor, Geoffrey Castles) and the iconic score sounded wonderful in Her Majesty’s Theatre. The stage somehow didn’t seem as big as the Regent’s so this felt quite intimate even seven rows back. And yes, for the second night in a row a tall dude sat right in front of me [insert more expletives deleted]. 

The set was quite simple for the first third featuring mainly backdrops until the wings unfolded when we get to Paris and all sorts of trickery comes into play that was really quite impressive. There was extensive use of smoke and dry ice throughout to diffuse the light but also a lot of shadow and silhouette with characters entering from and receding into darkness that was visually compelling in key dramatic moments.

Unfortunately, a side effect of so much smoke was the amount of coughing from the audience that was vaguely preposterous and increasingly annoying in the quieter moments. The use of projections was inventive with a particularly memorable sequence recreating the sewers under Paris. I’m still trying to work out how they did Javert’s death which was utterly filmic in its execution.  

Hayden Tee was a worthy adversary as Javert with Kerrie Anne Greenland excellent as Eponine. Emily Langridge and Euan Dodge worked well together as Cosette and Marius while Lara Mulcahy and Trevor Ashley gave an hilarious comic performance as the Thenardier’s with Master of the House a highlight. The Ensemble was also terrific and this is a show where they get their own moments to shine such as Lovely Ladies and, of course, the work on the Barricades which was nicely designed and executed (pardon the pun). Patrice Tipoki gave a heart-wrenching performance as Fantine with, as ever, I Dreamed A Dream an early highlight. 

Special mentions to the young boy who played Gravoche who was amusingly cocky; and the young girl who gave a lovely rendition of Castle on a Cloud. All in all a rousing production that sounded superb vocally and musically.

(Excerpt from Three Musicals and a Blockbuster)

Wicked - The Regent Theatre, Melbourne (21 August 2014)

First up was Wicked, a show that was all kinds of spectacular. The production was just around the corner in the lovely Regent Theatre in Collins Street. I had a third row seat that was deliciously close to the action, only spoiled somewhat by the six foot tall dude who sat in front of me [insert expletive deleted here].

This really was an impressive show. Lucy Durack was excellent as the comic foil, playing Glinda, and gave a really perky performance with a healthy dose of physical comedy. But it was Jemma Rix as Elphaba who was truly outstanding. Steve Danielson was an immensely likeable Fiyero, Anne Wood had a little Hunger Games going on as Madame Morrible, and Emily Cascarino quietly shone as Nessarose. The rest of the supporting cast, including the venerable Reg Livermore as The Wizard, were terrific.

The set was elaborately constructed and moved like clockwork, no surprise given that clock faces and gears were a recurring motif. The lighting was superb and this was a glorious production to look at. The Wizard’s “giant head” prop was something to be seen (and heard) but curiously the mechanical dragon that loomed above it all was used only in the Overture never to be revisited.

The costuming was colourful and inventive, particularly the flying monkeys and the whole thing was slickly produced, sounded great, and was firing on all cylinders.

I particularly liked how clever the writing was, incorporating familiar elements from The Wizard of Oz but shining them through the prism of a classic storytelling ‘what if?’ What if Glinda the Good and The Wicked Witch of the West had once been friends? Memo to George Lucas – THIS is how you do a prequel about a person’s descent to the dark side! 

Wicked has maybe the best end to an Act One ever, certainly that I’ve seen. The staging, lighting, singing and special effects work on Defying Gravity was outstanding and left the audience gasping in appreciation as they broke for Intermission. What a way to kick off my musicals junket!

(Excerpt from Three Musicals and a Blockbuster)

Three Musicals and a Blockbuster (21-23 August 2014)

There was a memorable photo a few weeks ago. The combined casts (in costume) and crews of the four big musicals playing in Melbourne at the time – Wicked, Les Miserables, The King and I, and The Rocky Horror Show – had gathered on the steps of State Parliament House to celebrate what was being coined the East End theatre district. It sowed the seed of an idea, one that came to fruition over the last few days.

I organised time off work, booked flights and a hotel in the heart of the city, and purchased tickets to three of those musicals, Rocky Horror having finished its run.  I decided if I was going to do this that I would get good tickets. I didn’t want to travel to the other side of the country to sit forty rows back. That proved a little expensive but so be it. The other key component of the trip was to see a football game at the famed MCG, a venue I had never been to. Fortuitously, a blockbuster was on the cards, Geelong versus Hawthorn. It was to be a lightning trip – three shows and a football game in three days.

First up was Wicked, a show that was all kinds of spectacular. The production was just around the corner in the lovely Regent Theatre in Collins Street. I had a third row seat that was deliciously close to the action, only spoiled somewhat by the six foot tall dude who sat in front of me [insert expletive deleted here]. This really was an impressive show. Lucy Durack was excellent as the comic foil, playing Glinda, and gave a really perky performance with a healthy dose of physical comedy. But it was Jemma Rix as Elphaba who was truly outstanding. Steve Danielson was an immensely likeable Fiyero, Anne Wood had a little Hunger Games going on as Madame Morrible, and Emily Cascarino quietly shone as Nessarose. The rest of the supporting cast, including the venerable Reg Livermore as The Wizard, were terrific.
The set was elaborately constructed and moved like clockwork, no surprise given that clock faces and gears were a recurring motif. The lighting was superb and this was a glorious production to look at. The Wizard’s “giant head” prop was something to be seen (and heard) but curiously the mechanical dragon that loomed above it all was used only in the Overture never to be revisited. The costuming was colourful and inventive, particularly the flying monkeys and the whole thing was slickly produced, sounded great, and was firing on all cylinders. I particularly liked how clever the writing was, incorporating familiar elements from The Wizard of Oz but shining them through the prism of a classic storytelling ‘what if?’ What if Glinda the Good and The Wicked Witch of the West had once been friends? Memo to George Lucas – THIS is how you do a prequel about a person’s descent to the dark side! 

Wicked has maybe the best end to an Act One ever, certainly that I’ve seen. The staging, lighting, singing and special effects work on Defying Gravity was outstanding and left the audience gasping in appreciation as they broke for Intermission. What a way to kick off my musicals junket!

Speaking of Act One closes, the next production has a pretty decent one as well! Yes, One Day More sung by the massed company from Les Miserables with the orchestra in top form is stirring and memorable. This was a monumental almost three hour show that featured 16 WAAPA graduates including Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean who gave a fine performance in such a demanding role. His Bring Him Home was a highlight but there were so many here. The orchestra was superb (Musical Director & Conductor, Geoffrey Castles) and the iconic score sounded wonderful in Her Majesty’s Theatre. The stage somehow didn’t seem as big as the Regent’s so this felt quite intimate even seven rows back. And yes, for the second night in a row a tall dude sat right in front of me [insert more expletives deleted]. 

The set was quite simple for the first third featuring mainly backdrops until the wings unfolded when we get to Paris and all sorts of trickery comes into play that was really quite impressive. There was extensive use of smoke and dry ice throughout to diffuse the light but also a lot of shadow and silhouette with characters entering from and receding into darkness that was visually compelling in key dramatic moments. Unfortunately, a side effect of so much smoke was the amount of coughing from the audience that was vaguely preposterous and increasingly annoying in the quieter moments. The use of projections was inventive with a particularly memorable sequence recreating the sewers under Paris. I’m still trying to work out how they did Javert’s death which was utterly filmic in its execution.  

Hayden Tee was a worthy adversary as Javert with Kerrie Anne Greenland excellent as Eponine. Emily Langridge and Euan Dodge worked well together as Cosette and Marius while Lara Mulcahy and Trevor Ashley gave an hilarious comic performance as the Thenardier’s with Master of the House a highlight. The Ensemble was also terrific and this is a show where they get their own moments to shine such as Lovely Ladies and, of course, the work on the Barricades which was nicely designed and executed (pardon the pun). Patrice Tipoki gave a heart-wrenching performance as Fantine with, as ever, I Dreamed A Dream an early highlight. 

Special mentions to the young boy who played Gravoche who was amusingly cocky; and the young girl who gave a lovely rendition of Castle on a Cloud. All in all a rousing production that sounded superb vocally and musically.

The final production of the trip was the newly minted Helpmann Award winning Best Musical for 2014, The King and I. What immediately strikes you is this – Lisa McCune is a star. She gives a commanding performance (pun fully intended) and, I must say, looked stunning in an assortment of costumes befitting the period. McCune sings beautifully, shows a deft touch with the younger cast members, and had good chemistry with Lou Diamond Phillips especially in the more comic sequences. Phillips, while perhaps not that strong a vocalist, gives a charismatic performance and is clearly enjoying himself in the role of the King of Siam. He delighted the audience at final bows, hamming it up a little as the curtains closed. 

The costumes are sumptuous and there is an array of gorgeous drapes that provide backdrops throughout. The set itself is very simple especially when compared to the intricacies involved with Wicked and Les Miserables. I also found it a quite static production which is perhaps as much to do with its construction (it is, after all, 63 years old) rather than the staging – long dialogue passages with many of the set piece songs essentially a featured performer or duets only. It’s not until The Small House of Uncle Thomas in the Second Act that there’s real movement and, of course, Shall We Dance? that soon follows. 

The child cast are charming and each has a featured moment during the introduction to the King’s children. Adrian Li Donni (as Lun Tha) and Vivien Emsworth (who played Tuptim for this performance) had a couple of lovely duets as the illicit lovers in We Kiss In A Shadow and I Have Dreamed while Marty Rhone was suitable stern and officious as The Kralahome. The orchestra was strong and there are well-known tunes and standards here that were done very well with McCune at the forefront (I Whistle A Happy Tune, Getting To Know You, and Shall We Dance?). It was certainly interesting to compare the distinct stylistic differences with its more modern brethren and it’s perhaps appropriate that the show was staged in that grand old dame of a theatre, The Princess.

To round out the trip I changed gears and went to the jewel of the Australian sporting landscape where theatre of a very different kind is played. That place is the MCG and what a stadium it is! It truly is world class and even from the fourth level in the Olympic Stand the view was tremendous. It was a big game too – over 72,000 to see Hawthorn play Geelong in a blockbuster towards the end of the AFL home and away season. Only about 30,000 more people than I’ve ever seen at a football game before! I was sitting in a predominantly Geelong section though my friend is a mad Hawks supporter who found her voice in the second half after Hawthorn stormed back from a 5 goal deficit at half-time to win convincingly.

What did surprise me though was that the atmosphere wasn’t quite as electric as I’d hoped – maybe it’s because I was a neutral observer (my team was playing back in Perth) or the fact that the game itself was actually a little lacklustre. But as a sporting venue it is quite exceptional. I also liked the fact that we walked back into the city with a mass of people and it was all so good-natured on a lovely Saturday evening. In fact, I was lucky with the weather throughout this trip.

Finally, I was fortunate enough to talk with WAAPA graduate Ben Hall (ensemble, Marius understudy) after Les Miserables, and Tim Cunniffe (assistant Musical Director and keyboards) after The King and I who were both generous with their time providing interesting insights into their respective shows. It was inspiring to see so many WAAPA graduates in all three musicals, with headliners coming from the acclaimed academy – Lucy Durack (Wicked), Simon Gleeson (Les Miserables), and Lisa McCune (The King and I). 

As I prepare to watch the next round of WAAPA acting and musical theatre productions in the coming week it is a timely reminder of the sheer amount of talent being trained right in our own backyard to be the next generation of Australian theatre stars.

It proved to be a wonderful trip and an inspired decision to go.   

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Bremen Coffee - Hayman Theatre Company (17 August 2014)

The power of good theatre - indeed any good storytelling - is to transport us to a different time and place often to explore themes that at first may seem foreign but resonate in some way with a modern audience. That is certainly the case with this play which plunges us into a misogynistic world set in 1960s American suburbia where woman appear to only exist to serve and please men. The opening scene is a shocking and brutal reinforcement of this. It had me squirming with discomfort. That the hero of the story is a woman who craves freedom – of thought and deed – in this male dominated world is to be applauded. That she does so by murdering everyone who belittles and humiliates her by serving them poisoned coffee is subversive, confronting, and occasionally a source of deeply black comedy.
   
That woman is Gish played superbly by Beth Tremlett in an eye-catching performance. The range she displays is impressive and the arc from meek housewife to conniving murderess to a confident woman at the height of her powers at the end of the play (albeit with a wreckage of dead characters behind her) is outstanding.

The play opens on a domestic scene between husband and wife. I apologise as I was unfamiliar with most of the other actors and there was no programme to assist with who was playing what character. Let me say though, the young actor playing Gish’s first husband, John, had the unenviable task of being, let’s face it, a complete bastard. He does this well… very well in fact which was the source of my discomfort. Not only does he belittle and manhandle Gish, he forces her to perform a sexual act that is well staged (suggested not seen) but shocking in its perfunctory nature. This is after two of his friends, Michael and Zimmerman (who will come to feature in Gish’s life) have stopped by for a drink as men do.

Gish responds by serving John the poisoned coffee which leads to his painful demise. The subtlety Tremlett shows here with the barest hint of a smile as she watches her husband struggle is terrific.

The one male constant in Gish’s life is her overbearing father who immediately makes plans to have a man take over John’s business because, obviously, as a woman Gish couldn’t possibly do so. This ends up being Michael who Gish falls madly in love with and who moves in with her. Except her Mother (by process of elimination I’m thinking played by Eleanor Davidson), a good Christian woman, harangues her daughter for living in sin. Well, that’s the end of her as Gish serves up another deadly brew.

Michael, who can’t stand the sound of Gish’s two children at play - and more crucially the fact that they are John’s - refuses to marry her. On learning this, in a truly shocking beat, Tremlett’s glance towards the door behind which the children laugh seals their fate. As she takes the poison to their room there were audible gasps from the audience. It is a truly awful and tragic highlight and shows the depths to which the need for a man has permeated her psyche that Gish would sacrifice her children. That Michael continues to refuse marriage wanting to keep his options open spells the end for him - another coffee, another fatality. But not before she calls a priest to marry them just before he dies. This was an overtly funny scene that gave the audience a chance to genuinely laugh instead of the nervous “did he really just say that?” titters of discomfort throughout. The values on display were so utterly anathema to today’s society, leastways spoken out loud so brazenly.

And so the roster of coffee inspired deaths mount – her father who still insists she can’t run the business. Zimmerman who becomes another lover but yet again proves to be the same as any other man in her world. Gish’s brother newly returned from what appeared to be military service who wants to wrest control of the business from her, and even her female friend (Zoe Barham) for, well, gladly accepting her role as a plaything for her own husband.

In the end, Gish sits alone in front of the television, free at last… but at what cost?

I really liked this though I did have qualms. Every single man without exception is a bastard. Okay, maybe the priest might prove okay but don’t drink the coffee Father just in case. The play presents a very particular viewpoint but with no redeeming features in any of the men it tends to undercut any potential dilemma for Gish in the eyes of the audience. They all deserve it so they all get it. Case closed. The staging was very effective with a good set depicting the suburban household but the use of a pop soundtrack particularly early tended to dilute the drama. The tone was interesting because the start is so in your face that it’s only later I started to sense that there was a sporadic, deeply black, comedic heartbeat.

The performances - with American accents - were good but this is clearly a showcase for Tremlett’s talents as she’s hardly ever off stage and proves to be the standout. On the evidence of this performance and at only 18 she has a very bright future.

Written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Directed by Michelle Endersbee and starring Beth Tremlett, Zoe Barham, Eleanor Davidson, Aaron Smith, Jamie Turner, Jeremy Bunny and Kane Parker, Bremen Coffee is on next Sunday night, 24 August, at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs at Curtin University. 

Gifts - Hayman Theatre Company (17 August 2014)

It seems that God has been on the mind of university drama students this week. Hot on the heels of Back to Eden out at Murdoch comes Gifts, the first production of tonight’s Sunday Night Theatre offering at Curtin University.

I apologise in advance for the generic mention of performers as there was no programme with actor names assigned to roles.

However, here God is ‘the beginning’ and portrayed in lively fashion as a glam rock ‘n’ roll star who has grown bored of his own existence. What is one to do but to create a new plaything, give it a head, two arms, two legs, eyes, the power of speech and, in perhaps an error he will come to rue, a brain. I give you Man.

Man immediately demands freedom (and the ability to dance) quickly followed by a Wife. God decides that the Wife shall bear Man’s children, a decision she isn’t exactly wild about but, God being God, he gets his way. A child soon arrives with three more to follow in quick succession with thumb-sucking intensity. They too will eventually demand their freedom as unruly teenagers rebelling against their parents. God introduces happiness to quell the unrest.

What I like about a lot of Curtin productions is that they contain a range of performance styles – dance, movement and song are integral parts of this play. There is the use of classic pop tunes – David Bowie’s Life on Mars as God creates Man, and the play ends with The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers. A highlight, however, is the live performance of Queen’s We Will Rock You as the four performers playing (by now) disaffected teenagers harangue the Man and Wife while a bemused God looks on (and provides the iconic beat).

There is also a lovely use of a simple white sheet with a slit down the middle where, in order, Man’s, above him Wife’s, then God’s head only appear as they debate what has been wrought. It was nicely done. The costume and hairstyle for God would have made Marc Bolan proud.  

This was a short, tongue in cheek production that was amusing and energetic. Directed by Emelia Peet and written by Joanna Hempel, it starred Kharla Fannon, Tristan McInnes, Chris McIntosh, Keliesha O’Breza, Kane Parker, Ashleigh Ryan, and Aaron Smith.

Xanadu - Koorliny Arts Centre (16 August 2014)

Before we start, I have a confession to make. It’s 1981. The album Physical by Olivia Newton-John has just been released. I vaguely know who she is from Dad’s collection of old vinyl albums. The fresh-faced country singer of Me and Bobby McGee fame. This, however, is not my father’s Olivia. Blush. Yes, I had a crush on ONJ! (Settle down, I was only 15. Imagine my delight when I later discover Grease). I mention this because Saturday’s matinee has these long forgotten, adolescent memories, ahem, flooding back.

Now, to describe the plot of Xanadu as naff would be an understatement of mythical proportions. Based on the 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, and Michael Beck, a demi-god comes down to Earth to inspire a chalk artist to open a roller disco. Two of her sisters, put out that they were overlooked for top Muse duties, curse her to fall in love with this mortal which, as all good classical scholars know, is against almighty Zeus’ rules. Okay then.

None of this matters. One. Little. Bit.

Xanadu the Musical knows exactly what it is and embraces the kitsch and cheesiness with such a good-natured sense of fun and cheekiness that you can’t help but be charmed. It also features songs from the aforementioned Olivia Newton-John as well as ELO. Songs I know by heart. Songs I was tempted to sing along to. There are also original numbers written for the musical. Plus this, performers on rollerskates!

The first thing that strikes me is that the band is located on an elevated platform tucked into a corner, stage left. In front of them are the three ‘pit singers’ (Paul Taylor-Byrne, Sylvia Mellor and Vikki Walker)… or ‘anti-pit singers’ as the director referred to them afterwards. They not only lend some vocal oomph but are part of the choreography and, at times, amusingly seem to be ‘judging’ events on stage below them. The band, led by Musical Director Kate McIntosh (also on keyboards) and Taui Pinker (keyboards), Vlad Sturdy (guitar) and Nikki Gray (drums) are in cracking form and have fun with that unmistakeable early 80s sound prevalent here.

Drue Goodwin plays Sonny, the artist with big dreams, who falls in love with his Muse and even travels to Mount Olympus to rescue her from Zeus’ wrath. As all good mortals do. It’s an exuberant performance and Goodwin is great playing the character with a nice mix of cockiness and naivety. He also sports (to my ears) a convincing American accent… and an outfit that could only have been worn in the 80’s! Vocally he is stronger in the more rock oriented numbers though has nice moments in Don’t Walk Away and Suspended in Time.

Kimberley Harris shines as Clio aka Kira who descends from Mount Olympus (once again as we discover) to inspire the artistic ambitions of a mortal.  She gets to show off a thick Aussie accent in her human disguise as Kira but also, briefly, an American one in the flashback with Danny. Impressively she is on rollerskates for the majority of the show - a skill I later learnt took her 4 months to master. Of course, she has the unenviable task of following ONJ in singing well known numbers such as MagicXanadu and the duet Suddenly. She does these well but it’s original numbers such as Suspended in Time where she wings her way to face Zeus on Pegasus (a great prop) where Harris really comes into her own.

The supporting cast are terrific, especially Rachel Monamy (Melpomene) and Elethea Sartorelli (Calliope) as the jealous muses who get up to all kinds of mischief. Their work in the ELO classics Evil Woman and Strange Magic is hilarious and they threaten to steal the show with cackling good performances. Ryan Taaffe (also the director) plays Danny, the older version of Sonny, who was visited by Clio decades before. He gives a nicely gruff performance before doubling as Zeus himself whose judgement will be swayed by a loopy argument put by one of Zeus’ wives.

The ensemble comprises Hillary Readings (also the choreographer), Brooke Pimlott, Allen Blachford, and Jamie Harrold. The dance numbers are good fun and the ensemble add so much colour and movement with great vocal support and humour. The finale with the majority of the cast on rollerskates singing Xanadu is a suitably over-the-top spectacle. A featured Blachford gets his Gene Kelly on with a lovely tap routine during Whenever You’re Away From Me which is a highlight with Harris looking the glamorous 40s starlet in Danny’s flashback.

Above all, this is funny and utterly entertaining. I was having a great time with the show. So much so that apparently my nickname backstage was Chuckles! There is a lot of talk throughout about artistic inspiration with several in-jokes that tickled my fancy. There’s also a killer pot shot at Andrew Lloyd Webber and who doesn’t like those? Naff said.

Directed by Ryan Taaffe with Musical Direction by Kate McIntosh, Book by Douglas Carter with Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, Xanadu stars Drue Goodwin, Kimberley Harris, Rachel Monamy, Elethea Sartorelli, Ryan Taaffe, Hillary Readings, Brooke Pimlott, Allen Blachford and Jamie Harrold with band and pit singers Kate McIntosh, Taui Pinker, Vlad Sturdy, Nikki Gray, Paul Taylor-Byrne, Sylvia Mellor and Vikki Walker. There are three shows left at the Koorliny Arts Centre in Kwinana, 22-23 August at 8pm with a 2pm matinee on the 23rd. 

Get your rollerskates on and go see it!

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Last Five Years - Fresh Bred Productions (15 August 2014)

Ah, yes, The Last Five Years, the Memento of Musicals where a couple fall in then out of love; the man telling his story in normal chronological order, the woman is reverse chronological order with their timelines only crossing in the middle at their wedding. Sammy Jankis would be proud.

In honour of this conceit let me introduce our reviewers for this production:

A struggling screenwriter in a Hicksville town who has dreams of hitting the big time, called Richar—um, Jeremy; and

An aspiring theatre critic, the author of a little seen blog, who hopes to one day write for The West Australian Arts liftout section, Richar—um, Rachel.

Richar—um, Rachel: It’s after the show and I’m outside chatting to the director Craig Griffen who is clutching what promises to be the first of many alcoholic beverages. He is relieved but effusive in his comments. I get the lowdown on the wardrobe malfunction that causes an extended musical interlude before the performer reappears to the delighted applause of a generous audience. The biggest nugget of information (apart from the one’s I can’t tell you!) is that Craig deliberately chose to have the characters interact in certain moments (other than the wedding) to try and move away from a totally stand and sing style.

Richar—um, Jeremy: I realise I have made a rookie mistake the moment I sit down. Front row centre is my favoured spot for the theatre but at the Dolphin Theatre the front row is right up against a (highly) raised stage. I am peering up at the performers and, at one stage, when Eimear Foley sits on the edge of that stage she is only inches away. With her being so close and miked up, I enact the cone of silence lest my big laugh gets captured. Thanks also for the spotlight on the back of my follicle-challenged scone!  The cricks in my neck will come out soon, no doubt.

Rachel: The usual congratulations are taking place in the lobby and I have a fascinating conversation with a performer who has played the role of Jamie in a staging of this very show a while back. Then it’s a hello and introduction in person for the first time to the talented musical director and pianist, Kohan van Sambeeck, who looks pleased but exhausted. Amazingly, there has been only ONE technical rehearsal before tonight’s opening performance!

Jeremy: So the stage is set up with 5 musicians seated upstage and the musical director playing piano and conducting from stage right. There is a table in front of the musicians; a door with stoop stage right; a small table with chair stage left, and a couple of platforms on either side. The lighting is fairly rudimentary.

Right off the bat, let me say that this is a beautiful score and it is played wonderfully well by van Sambeeck on piano, Campbell Ellis (guitar), Tim Perren (bass guitar), Izurein Sabudin (violin), Beren Scott and Krista Low, both on cello. Their work is a highlight of the evening.

With only two performers though, this clearly is a showcase for the vocals. I must admit I thought that Jason Arrow (Jamie) and Eimear Foley (Cathy) didn’t really get into a rhythm until his ‘Moving Too Fast’ and her ‘I’m A Part of That’.

Rachel: The show ends with the wonderful ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You’ where Cathy (Eimear Foley) is at the start of her journey and is excited to see Jamie (Jason Arrow) again while Jamie, five years later, is saying goodbye for the final time. The song is perhaps the best crafted within the conceit of the storytelling and is a poignant and rousing final number. It is a fitting showcase for both Jason and Eimear.

Jeremy: Oh, hi there. What are you doing?
Rachel: Writing a review.
Jeremy: Hey, me too! What’s yours about?
Rachel: Love, loss and relationships, with singing.
Jeremy: Mine too! Want to compare notes?

Rachel: Sure. I was going to say that it’s a strange musical in many ways. The fractured timeline narrative, while clear for Jamie, seemed more muddled for Cathy. The choice to have them interact within their separate timelines was a little confusing even though I understand the director’s rationale.

Jeremy: I have seen Jason Arrow perform before in Hairspray and Cats. He has a big voice but I was curious to see how his acting would hold up under this sort of scrutiny. As pointed out to me, Jamie could easily be seen as unsympathetic because it’s his actions that largely cause the breakup of the relationship. I thought he did pretty well though. Now doing musical theatre at WAAPA, it will be interesting to see how his acting skills develop over the journey.

Rachel: I was unfamiliar with Eimear but I see from the programme that she is also at WAAPA studying Classical Voice and Opera. Some songs didn’t seem to suit her as well as others but I thought ‘I’m A Part of That’, ‘A Summer in Ohio’ and ‘Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence’ as well as the finale were very strong.

Jeremy: Of course Eimear got to play a little shtick in the audition sequence which was quite funny.

Rachel: And Jason did a little talking dummy/puppet work with ‘The Schmuel Song’… though neither reached for the gun.

Jeremy and Rachel: It’s perhaps ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ where they duet in the middle of the show that is the most satisfying emotionally as we finally see them fully together both in song and in their relationship.

Jeremy: The show ended to great applause.

Rachel: Does anyone park straight at UWA?

Directed by Craig Griffen with Musical Direction by Kohan van Sambeeck; Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown; and starring Jason Arrow and Eimear Foley; as well as the musical talents of Campbell Ellis, Tim Perren, Izurein Sabudin, Beren Scott and Krista Low, there is only one more opportunity to see this show at the Dolphin Theatre at UWA, Saturday evening at 7pm

Back to Eden - Black Martini Theatre (14 August 2014)

I remarked earlier this evening that I appear to be spending a fair bit of time at universities lately – Curtin with strong and interesting productions at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs; Edith Cowan’s Mount Lawley campus, home of course to WAAPA; and Murdoch which houses a few student theatre companies. I have already seen a couple of productions each from Second Chance Theatre and the Murdoch Theatre Company but tonight it was Black Martini Theatre’s production of Back to Eden at the Drama Workshop, written by Yuri Baranovsky.

The story, in short, revolves around Adam and Eve surrogates Michael and Samantha who are in a place they know not where, having arrived there they know not how, with their memories seemingly wiped. There is, however, a single white door. Through which bounds God-like businessman Andy Corvell who convinces Michael to sign a contract that promises him everything. Except things don’t go as expected for Michael and Samantha who end up getting married and having a child called Rose who rapidly grows as time has no meaning here, or is sped up, or… something. Yes, it’s all a little perplexing with plenty of talk about control and choice and life and suchlike with digs at religion along the way.

Now, for this review we have to discuss the writing before we get to the performances and Black Martini’s work. I had not heard of Yuri Baranovsky before tonight and I struggled with the first act – I didn’t understand the rhythms, I was unclear on tone, and the writing indulged in a lot of wordplay and trying to be clever but it fell flat for me. It also felt quite elliptical and downright obtuse at times. The acting, as a result, was also puzzling in a lot of cases. It was only in the early going of the second act when two armchairs were dragged on stage that it hit me like a freight train – this is, I swear to Corvell, a sitcom script not a stage play. 

Then it all started to make sense. I inserted my own canned mental laugh track and suddenly the odd, verbal riffing, the strange entrances and exits, the ‘guest appearances’ like the mother, the literal ‘mugging to camera’ acting for many characters, and the way it was staged began to work for me. I was in the audience for a live filming of a one-camera situational comedy set in a single location where an unwitting couple fall prey to the whims of God played as a corporate businessman.   
 
Michael Casas as Michael and Amelia Dee as Samantha struggle valiantly but they are playing the ‘straight men’ who don’t know what’s going on in this crazy construct. They have to do so much heavy lifting with Casas the earnest one and Dee the more questioning of the two. The problem here is that when the ‘crazier’ characters are off stage the play flattens out as they are too similar tonally and you can only play variations of “what’s going on?” for so long. There are bursts where Dee’s Samantha in particular seems about to cut loose but they are basically the ‘every-person’ couple trying to comprehend (as the audience is) events and their meaning.

The showy part of Corvell is entertainingly played by Philip Hutton who gives him a larger-than-life persona and after a strange entrance becomes the weird energy that drives the play. This is felt most clearly in his absence for a large part of the second act where we sorely miss his antics. Shannon Rogers is good as the ditzy secretary Jane and, alongside a cute running gag, does have interesting wordplay because it comes more from character not just the writer being clever. Then there’s Darren, one of Corvell’s employees, played by Andrew Trewin, who is, to all intents and purposes, our Kramer in this little sitcom which explains the over-the-top style he uses.

The ensemble is made up of Jessica Serio, Justin Crossley, Karen Hansord, Ryan Partridge, and Tijana Simich. They get to ‘nod and wink’ at the audience outrageously at times and even indulge in a little Pythonesque-style madness as we discover that Michael is indeed “not the Messiah”.

In all I found this an odd play but that was predominantly to do with the writing. It reverts to more traditional form towards the end where a choice finally needs to be made by Michael and Samantha – will they or won’t they walk through the door - and there are amusing parts along the way. I also enjoyed the cheekiness of the programme which included a section for Andy Corvell’s signature!

Directed by Thomas Dimmick and starring Philip Hutton, Amelia Dee, Michael Casas, Shannon Rogers, Andrew Trewin, Jessica Serio, Justin Crossley, Karen Hansord, Ryan Partridge, and Tijana Simich, Back to Eden has three more shows at the Drama Workshop, Murdoch University, 7.30pm Friday and Saturday with a 2pm matinee on Saturday as well. 

Sunday, 10 August 2014

WAAPA Open Day (10 August 2014)

A shining jewel in this State’s Arts sector is, without a doubt, the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. It is one of the leading academies in the world and there was much excitement recently when perhaps its most famous alum, Hugh Jackman, announced the Jackman-Furness Foundation to provide much needed financial support.

I joined the Friends of the Academy this year and have already seen five productions with another four booked. The talent on display has been nothing less than exceptional. Not only the performances on stage but the quality of the sets, props, costumes, lighting, sound, musicianship, the whole experience.

In this regard WAAPA’s reputation is truly deserved. As a screenwriter I know quite a few actors and, for many, getting in to WAAPA is an all-consuming goal. To say it is competitive is an understatement. I’ve known talented performers forced to look elsewhere after the heartbreak of getting so close but not close enough to gain one of those prized offers, whether it be in acting, musical theatre, dance, or any of the other disciplines available.

So when WAAPA opens its doors to the public it’s a big thing. Hopefuls with big dreams and wide eyes come to glean information on how to make their goals come true. Their parents, knowing how much a placement here means, are just as eager. For me, it’s a chance to glimpse behind the curtain and see how the magic is made…

I arrived early and what a glorious morning it was – sunny and crisp with people setting up stalls and refreshments stands. Inside, I check in at the main foyer and ask a few questions about locations having already worked out what I’d like to see. There is no shortage of students, staff and volunteers on hand to answer questions and they are all friendly and willing to help. While I wait for a tour to start I am drawn to the Geoff Gibbs Theatre where a sound check is in progress. A band is onstage, initially in darkness – bass, keyboards, drums, lead guitar and three singers. They are doing Marvin Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On and it sounds amazing with a tasty guitar solo and great vocals. Up next a quirky Sting song, the name of which escapes me at the moment, followed by a single vocalist accompanied on piano. A beautiful rendition of a song I wasn’t familiar with. I am impressed with how casual and relaxed they all are and the genuine sense of fun and play. This is a feeling that permeates the day.

Next is the tour of the props and scenery workshop, lighting and sound studios, costume and design studios, and workshops. Again, students and staff are on hand to introduce their sections and what they do with plenty of displays and actual props and costumes and the like. It’s a fascinating insight into all the work done behind the scenes for the some 40 productions put on each year. Down in the workshop I talk to a student and (I’m guessing) staff member about the amazing set for West Side Story and how the ‘trucks’ were built and how little time the performers had to rehearse with them. A feature of the tour is a custom made Indiana Jones set where I get to talking to three students who are delightful and rightfully proud of their work – all for Open Day only, all to be pulled down afterwards. So engrossed in this I… okay, well, I lost the rest of the tour!

As I wander the corridors I bump into my mate Michael McCall who directed the second year musical theatre students in Beach. We have a chat with a lovely lady about post graduate degrees then I’m off to… rehearsals!

First off it’s the third year acting students in The Roundhouse rehearsing Great Expectations. The director Andrew Lewis is initially conducting proceedings before, I assume, the assistant director takes over. I’m sitting behind the deputy stage manager. There are lots of familiar faces on stage from Festen and Realism. Once more there is a real sense of discovery and play, the mood light but professional. It’s interesting watching scenes being played then redirects then suggestions from the actors, including blocking. Also, for me as a writer, emphasis on line interpretations with questioning and clarification about what a line means or who or what it’s directed to. It’s something that will be revisited in the third year musical theatre students’ rehearsal. Very enjoyable and whets the appetite for the show in about a fortnight’s time.

Next is a session with the first year acting students conducted by Angela Punch-McGregor. We discover the first years have been spending time at day care centres to observe how 5 year olds behave and speak but also at hostels to do likewise with the elderly. After a warm-up exercise as 5 year olds a really interesting session on scene work takes place. The scene is a dramatic one from the Irish play The Good Father – a couple dealing with the loss of an unborn child and the impact on their relationship. It’s played several times with various pairings but also this – after a straight run through it’s redone as 5 year olds and in one version as an elderly couple. There’s even a version played as a 5 year old up against an elderly person. It was a very interesting way to explore the scene and draw out different performances. It was funny at times but very well done. A nice glimpse into this acting group’s potential.

Then there was the rehearsal for the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along. The third year musical theatre students are having a stellar year (Hair and West Side Story) and it was great to see this talented group up close. The mood is relaxed as they work through a scene and this one has a lot of redirection mainly as the blocking was being discovered but also with emphasis on line interpretations and character interactions. An unintentional highlight of the day involves a moment where a glass is yanked out of a character’s hand. Well, on one ‘take’ that glass sailed into the spectators on the other side of the studio like it had been shot out of a cannon. Thankfully nobody was hurt but it was one of those laugh-out-loud moments that had everyone in stitches. Unfortunately there was no singing but again, I’m really looking forward to the third years capping off 2014 in style.

After a sausage sizzle provided by dedicated helpers from the Friends of the Academy it was time to head home. It was heartening to see so many people there and it really was an interesting few hours taking a look at a wonderful place that provides world class training. What stays with me is not only the sheer talent but how supportive the environment is to explore and play.

Speed on the next round of WAAPA productions taking place later this month!