Thursday, 28 May 2015

Glengarry Glen Ross - Black Swan State Theatre Company (26 May 2015)

I’ll say one thing about Black Swan they sure do create wonderful sets for their productions. This one on a Revolve had a restaurant configuration with multiple booths on one side and a real estate office on the other. The level of detail was excellent, especially the freshly burgled office of the second act. Curiously though, unless my eyes deceived me, there was no Board which is referred to several times and the means by which the characters ‘keep score’ in the dog eat dog world of real estate sales. It’s an odd oversight.

The other aspect that undercut the stage presentation was the use of incidental sound – firstly with some cheesy, piped oriental stylings under the restaurant scenes; and with a car horn soundscape in the second act clearly on a loop. The former was particularly distracting. This is David Mamet who is famous above all for his dialogue. Why water it down with such a superfluous element?

To the performances in the third and final preview and this really was a mixed bag for me. The play starts with pairings in the booths – Shelley Levene (Peter Rowsthorn) and the office manager (Will O’Mahony) in one scene; followed by Dave Moss (Kenneth Ransom) and George Arronow (Luke Hewitt); then Ricky Roma (Damian Walshe-Howling) and Steve Turner’s timid prospect James Lingk. Competition is fierce and only those on top of the board will get the premium Glengarry leads. Roma is top dog; Levene is past his used by date but desperate to capture former glories; and Moss cajoles George into contemplating more drastic measures to avoid being fired.

I found Rowsthorn far too over the top both in exaggerated mannerisms and acting style to have any sympathy for Levene. His performance immediately kept me at arm’s length from the whole endeavour which was unfortunate. He starts at such a high pitch that there’s nowhere for him to go. Ransom struggled early in his opening scene but was helped out of a hole by Luke Hewitt who struck me as someone who would have done Levene far more justice. His simpleminded George was well pitched for mine.

Walshe-Howling fared quite well as the smooth talking and cocky Roma but the whole thing only found a rhythm deep into the production in two sequences - when Turner’s customer arrives in the office to withdraw his buy order; and O’Mahony’s retort to Levene’s admonishment after his intervention cruels Roma’s sale.

In stark contrast to the maelstrom of flailing limbs and overly gleeful swearing, Turner’s stillness as Lingk clutches a valise to his chest and quietly conveys his wife’s wishes is a welcome contrast and Walshe-Howling modulates his performance accordingly. It’s a quieter moment that facilitated an interesting scene whereas everything before felt overdone and too much of a caricature for all involved. It also allows for a build to the infamous Ricky Roma tirade instead of the whole play being pitched at the same heightened level. Likewise for O’Mahony who is dressed down by Levene only to push back with the reveal around which the story ultimately pivots. Again, it’s a far more considered moment.

This is only sporadically funny with Hewitt’s George really being the lynchpin to genuine laughs in his reaction to Ransom’s overplayed Moss. The character portrayed by Ben Mortley really doesn’t have much to do and I found him strangely passive in the face of Roma’s arrogance given his rank as a Detective.

Overall I was disappointed by Glengarry Glen Ross – yes, they’re supposed to be larger than life characters in what is described as a ‘vicious comedy’ but I was longing for some, indeed any, nuance to really let this fly.

The play is directed by Kate Cherry and is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 14 June.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Mary Poppins: The Broadway Musical - Stray Cats Theatre Company & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (24 May 2015)

The evening before the Sunday matinee I was walking along the Mandurah Boardwalk and there was a group of young teenage girls in front of me all singing Chim Chim Chere-ee. “This is an encouraging sign”, I thought to myself. So it proved with the final outing of a five show run packing out the spacious Mandurah Performing Arts Centre with a high proportion of children in attendance. The cacophony at intermission was quite something as was the excitement after the show with many of the cast still in costume including Mary Poppins herself emerging to pose for photos and sign autographs. Fair to say the children loved it with more than a smile of remembered childhood from their parents.

There is no doubt this is a glorious production to look at – from the colourful costuming of the massed cast to the detailed backdrops to the multilevel set itself depicting the Banks household – there was an audible gasp when the stage curtains first opened. Director Karen Francis certainly likes to put on a spectacle and the scope and ambition of her big, crowd pleasing musicals is both a joy and proven formula to attract a crowd. More power to her for the ongoing results, creatively and one would hope, financially to sustain the run of productions other independent theatre companies simply don’t have the resources to mount on this scale.

In Kristie Gray she has a performer who shines in the eponymous role made most famous by Julie Andrews in the Disney movie. Gray has a wonderful voice that did more than justice to the cavalcade of beloved songs. An accomplished singer, she also provided the vocal direction for the some 50-60 cast members. What was equally as impressive was her commanding stage presence – there was a confidence here that really galvanised the whole show. Her work with the Banks children played by Sebastian Coe and Maren Cosby was particularly excellent.

Daniel R Nixon portrayed the chimney sweet Bert with real cockiness and flair while Helen Kerr was a standout as Winifred Banks, the wife and mother who struggles to find her own identity next to husband George (Jon Lambert) and within his social circle. Both have fine singing voices as well; Nixon bringing the Cockney, Kerr the sweetness in their feature songs, Chim Chim Cher-ee and Being Mrs. Banks respectively. 

Lambert has perhaps the unenviable task of playing the distant Mister Banks whose emotional detachment is at the core of most of the obstacles the family face. He does so with a certain gruffness and exasperation that is likeable in its own way. The character’s preoccupation with events at the bank where he works is paid off nicely with a funny burst of manic energy as Lambert lets Banks finally loosen up.

Coe and Cosby were suitably wide-eyed or precocious as required and there was a set of colourful characters Mary Poppins and her charges encounter along the way, foremost among these being Bronwyn White’s Miss Andrews who is the closest thing to being the villain of the piece in an over-the-top portrayal that was amusing and eardrum threatening! Jeanette Southall’s featured song as the Bird Woman was cruelled by her microphone cutting out halfway through Feed The Birds so I was pleased when she was able to be heard in a brief reprise in the second half. Jo Bickford and Nicholas Gaynor added physical comedy as the hired help and Brad Tudor high camp as Mrs Corry.

The scene transitions were very slick and Francis likes to fill the stage with a big ensemble full of colour and movement (Choreography by Andrea Beissel) for the main set pieces. The highlight undeniably is Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious where the massed cast found an entirely new gear and really attacked the lyrics and choreography with relish. This is later reprised at the end of the musical and it was an energy level that I would have liked to have seen a little more of throughout. The other major highlight for me was Step In Time with Bert and the other chimney sweeps singing on a well depicted rooftop. Beautifully lit and performed it was quite an evocative moment. 

Finally, the 12 piece Orchestra under the baton of Conductor David Hicks generally played well though occasionally the brass section felt a little out of sync for mine.

The star, however, is Gray as the flying nanny and indeed she does, albeit briefly, with the aid of a harness. The children loved it along with the flying kites, the movable statues and the brief appearances of a real life dog that, if I’m not mistaken, once belonged to a certain Dorothy Gale in another time and on another stage! 

This was a fun production of an enduring family classic that was enthusiastically applauded as the cast took well deserved final bows.   

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Assassins - Midnite Youth Theatre Company (21 May 2015)

Ah, the American Dream. Where anybody from any background can pull themselves up by the bootstraps and achieve anything they so desire… including becoming the President of the United States. Yes, even you Arnold Schwarze—okay, well, maybe not. But what about those people whose pursuit of happiness and the American way is thwarted by disappointment and heartache; rejection and bitterness? Well, you too can find salvation, my friend… by killing yourself a President of these here United States!

It’s a provocative basis for a musical that squarely takes aim (okay, that’s the sole gun metaphor I promise) at the American Dream and its illusory promise of happiness for all. Instead, it can empower misfits and worse to acts of violence when they feel betrayed by their actual lot in life. Even more subversive is that many of the assassins and would be Presidential killers are presented, if not sympathetically, then certainly in a more even-handed manner than might be expected.

There is no doubt that this is dark terrain indeed but there is a streak of jet-black humour that infuses the proceedings with a vitality that is compelling. That balance between black comedy, social and political satire, and the undercurrent of genuine darkness is a fine line to tread.

What I loved about this production is that all involved attacked it with total commitment and absolute ferocity. There is incredible intensity in the darker hued characters that is matched by some standout comic performances as this rogues’ gallery improbably comes together, ultimately, in a wonderfully written sequence, to convince one of their confreres to commit perhaps the most famous assassination in American history.      

Before we come to the many highlights, the intimacy of the studio at the Subiaco Arts Centre really worked well for this. The audience was like a co-conspirator and we were immersed in the immediacy of the performances which were excellent across the board. The set was two movable bleachers that were slickly configured to represent everything from a shooting gallery to famous locations in the dubious history of American political assassinations. There was a smaller rostrum-like component that doubled for everything from a car to the electric chair. Yes, this line of work has a certain finality for more than just the victims. Above it all was a neon lit sign – Lucky Shot – with a bullseye. Subtlety isn’t necessarily a requirement!

Beautifully lit with use of diffused lighting through smoke but also harsher effects to enhance the absurdity or gaudiness of certain moments this was a very handsome production to look at. Costuming and props were very good and I must confess I recognised the thoroughly disgusting bucket of KFC prop from my recent WAAPA tour which drew a chuckle.

The five piece band who handled the typically complicated Sondheim score with aplomb was situated at the back of the space. The music reflected the different time periods as the story cuts from assassins throughout history but in a fractured timeline. The show was a lock out due to the configuration of the stage and the performers weren’t mic’d. The sound balance, however, was very good and there were only a couple of brief moments where the band threatened to overwhelm the vocals. Well played Jackson Griggs (Conductor and keyboards), Joshua James Webb (keyboards), Elliot Frost (guitar), Gwyneth Gardiner (bass) and Rosie Taylor (percussion).

To the performances and each of the featured players have strong moments. The show begins with The Proprietor (Nicholas Miller) enticing our would be assassins to purchase a gun as they sing Everyone’s Got The Right. It sets the tone straight away and Miller, who I’m told is only 17 years old, gets us off to a really strong start. The Balladeer (Brandon Williams-West) then acts as a narrator of sorts as he introduces the diverse collection of misfits starting with the daddy of them all – John Wilkes Booth played by James Cohen. 

It’s all barbed satire and commentary delivered in wonderful style… until we come to Booth in the barn after he has shot Abraham Lincoln. Desperate to convince the world of his legitimate reasons in the face of The Balladeer’s protestations that it was more for personal vanity (The Ballad of Booth), this is a powerfully dramatic scene. It was the first sign that this show was going to deliver something more than laughs.

This is shortly followed by Sven Ironside’s immigrant worker Leon Czolgosz’s impassioned description of the horrendous conditions he faces in a factory that makes bottles, the casual breaking of one the catalyst for his rage. He later has a featured scene with Kimberley Harris’ Emma Goldman where he confesses his love to the anarchist leader and is gently rebuffed in perhaps the best acted moment of the show.
Likewise, Thomas Owen as Samuel Byck who planned to kill Richard Nixon by flying a 747 into The White House, gives a frenetic performance with his first monologue in particular a standout. Dressed in a dirty Santa Claus outfit and recording a message for Leonard Bernstein (the West Side Story references are hilarious given Sondheim’s own involvement), this is a profanity laced tirade that is part funny, part disturbing, and delivered with complete conviction. 

On the comedic side of the spectrum Cal Silberstein is all smooth charm as Charles Guiteau who wants to be Ambassador to France but is rebuffed by President Garfield. Nothing for it but to shoot him I guess. Arrested and sentenced to hang, the I Am Going To The Lordy/The Ballad of Guiteau is black humour at its most pungent as Silberstein plays the walk to the gallows with increasingly desperate optimism. Peter Martis adds further black humour with the electrocution of his character Guiseppe Zangara gloriously over the top.

Then there’s Olivia Everett’s housewife Sara Jane Moore who appears to be the least competent person to assassinate anyone let alone Gerald Ford. Dogs watch out though! She gives Moore an almost slapstick persona with thick glasses, wig and a lovable klutz-like charm. It’s very funny indeed. She works well with Niamh Nichols' Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme who also wants to kill Ford and proclaims herself Charlie Manson’s lover.

Lynette shares the ballad Unworthy of Your Love with Luke Wilson’s John Hinckley as each serenades their respective catalysts for murder – Charles Manson and Jodie Foster. It’s an affecting song because of the disparity between content and form. Wilson’s plays Hinckley’s obsession with the teen actress with a quieter off-kilter simmer that bubbles over as Fromme mocks him. 

Which leads us to the standout sequence as The Balladeer becomes Lee Harvey Oswald and is confronted by Booth one fateful day in Dallas, 23 November, 1963. Williams-West was thoroughly likeable as The Balladeer with a sweet voice and restrained mocking of the others but it’s here he excels with Cohen whose Booth persuades him to assassinate Kennedy. The audacity of that – Oswald and Booth together, with Booth summoning the help of the others so that they can in effect become immortal through one heinous act that reverberated around the world – is stunning. 

The ramifications are explored in the highlight for the ensemble in Something Just Broke. Comprised of Erin Craddock, Dash Fewster, Tessa Harris, David Jones, Kieren Lynch, Jessica Reynolds, Tatum Stafford and Alexander Wilkie, they gave excellent support throughout, dressed all in black and adding punch to scenes.

Directed with style and energy by Gregory Jones, I really enjoyed this – the storytelling is exceptional in its audacity; the humour is a rich vein of jet black comedy; the singing is very good indeed; and it’s well played and presented. Above all, you simply can’t be passive with something as intricate as Sondheim so I loved the intensity right from the get go. The run quickly sold out and an extra show was added – a matinee on 23 May (yes, today!). If you can get a ticket then it’s well worth seeing. If you can’t, just don’t shoot a President, okay?  

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Wicked - Crown Theatre (16 May 2015)

Some thoughts on today's matinee of Wicked at the Crown Theatre, a musical I saw last year in Melbourne:

Jemma Rix is a bonafide star as Elphaba and has a superb voice that is allowed full rein in the first half closer Defying Gravity and was particularly impressive in No Good Deed.

Simon Gallaher was good as the Wizard but this version misses the touch of class Reg Livermore brought to the table over east. Maggie Kirkpatrick was very strong as Madame Morrible though she had to sing-talk her way through songs, thankfully brief and inconsequential. Steve Danielsen is suitably dashing as Fiyero and I very much like Edward Grey as Boq.

The real revelation for me was Suzie Mathers who was excellent as Glinda the Good and on balance I preferred it to Lucy Durack's performance in Melbourne. Mathers held her own vocally, with the duet For Good with Rix being quite touching, and she was very funny. Popular was a standout.

Overall I felt somewhat underwhelmed seeing this for the second time. There is no doubt it is a slick piece of entertainment and looks fantastic with amazing set design, costumes and lighting. The acoustics at Crown though meant it sounded 'thin' to me both in terms of the vocals and orchestra. There's something to those delightful old theatres in Melbourne that seem to allow for a much richer aural experience.

I think the main issue is that when I saw it last year I had no idea what to expect and while the book is quite clever in parts, its mysteries were now known and didn't have the same impact. Without that initial wonder it lost some of its magic. For example, this time I was watching to see how certain things were done instead of being wowed by the effects especially at the end of the first half. 

I also have to say, that while I bought the original cast recording last year, the ratio of truly memorable songs is light on compared to something like Spring Awakening and certainly Les Miserables, the last big musical to occupy the Crown Theatre. 

However, I would definitely recommend Wicked to people who have never seen it before and it undoubtedly remains a popular production that will draw people back to see the story of Glinda the Good and how Elphaba became the Wicked Witch of the West. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Tour of WAAPA - Friends of the Academy (5 May 2015)

The Friends of the Academy have been supporting WAAPA students for more than 30 years now, not only with fundraising activities but many other invaluable tasks such as assistance for interstate students getting acclimatised to their new surroundings. Financial grants are provided to supplement the travel and accommodation of final year students for work experience secondments. The Friends also contribute funds to the end of year Showcase tours for the graduating Musical Theatre and Acting students, so vital in securing agents in Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s always a pleasure to read the letters received from grateful students thanking the Friends for helping them achieve their goals. They are posted on the Friends Facebook page as are details of upcoming fundraising events. One of those events is regular tours of the WAAPA facilities. Having seen a little of the behind the scenes at the Mount Lawley campus during last year’s Open Day I arranged a day off work to tag along and see more…

What a fascinating day it turned out to be! We were greeted by the Secretary of the Friends, Tanya Tsirigotis who introduced us to our ‘tour guide’ for the first part of the day, Peter Cowan. Peter has a wealth of knowledge having worked at WAAPA for some three decades. He was full of wonderful stories about personalities and events as we made our way through areas the general public normally wouldn’t see.

First stop was the Geoff Gibbs Theatre where we heard about its history and development from the early days to its current configuration. This is probably the only time I will ever be on the main stage though thankfully no singing, acting or dancing was required on my part! Peeking behind the curtain to see the fly tower and other technical aspects was intriguing. 

Then it was off to the workshop where the set for Legally Blonde is being built for the Regal Theatre; followed by the props rooms full of all kinds of funky items; lighting with old analogue desks; costuming where again we saw a sneak peek of the designs for Legally Blonde; and other departments like sound. It’s a warren of corridors and rooms where students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes and create.

We sat in The Roundhouse Theatre which is perhaps my favourite venue to which Peter explained why it is so notoriously difficult to light and get the sound right for. It was kind of eerie seeing the set for the current production, All My Sons, devoid of actors, almost as if slumbering. Next was the Enright Studio which is currently configured for Much Ado About Nothing. We had seen the miniature mock-up of the set upstairs and what strikes you is how much work, skill and effort occurs in so many different departments well before an audience enjoys the production.

One of the actors, Lachlan Ruffy, poked his head in to say hello and talk briefly about the pleasure of working with the director Sean O’Shea, himself a WAAPA graduate. It’s one of the themes of the day – that sense of family and how the graduates give back to the Academy, most notably Hugh Jackman with his Foundation but many others as guest directors or in other capacities in the industry.

After a break for morning tea it was off to the Music Auditorium where a combination of 2nd and 3rd year musical theatre students, nine in total, were doing a “mock audition” for a production of Cats. There was a panel comprising the Head of Musical Theatre, David King; and the director and choreographer of Legally Blonde, Jason Langley and Lisa O’Dea respectively. Another choreographer impressively took the nine through their paces as dancing ability is a key component for a musical like Cats

Watching her build a sequence from scratch in blocks and explain in detail the body movements and positioning was fascinating. The students asked for clarification where necessary and it all felt very supportive while, I might add, not only the tour but a host of other students watched. Then it was time for the singing component of which we heard five students before we had to unfortunately move on. The idea was to simulate as closely as possible a real audition situation and notes and feedback were given afterwards but only for the students.

Next up was a movement class for the Aboriginal theatre students who were being taught by an effusive teacher again in a very supportive environment. This time the exercise was to undergo a birth as a creature of some description. Afterwards the students took questions and answered with passion and enthusiasm about acting and how such exercises help them enhance their craft as they develop characters and workshop scenes. I’m looking forward to seeing their showpiece production towards the end of the year.

The Director of WAAPA, Professor Julie Warn, then spoke to us in the courtyard and took questions and I was unaware that the Academy has as many as 1200 students. Clearly proud of WAAPA’s achievements, students past and present, and the upcoming international musical theatre conference and other events, it was nice to chat for a while. 

After lunch in the student cafeteria the day wrapped up with a Classical Tuesdays concert by the Symphonic Wind Ensemble back in the Music Auditorium. Conducted by Musical Director Dale Pointon it was an eclectic mix of 5 pieces, one inspired by the US Marine band; another - Sergei Prokofiev’s March Op. 99 - by May Day. A musically balanced view of US-Soviet relations back in the day!

It was a very enjoyable day and I would encourage firstly anyone interested in theatre and supporting WAAPA to join the Friends of the Academy and secondly, on doing so, to sign up for a tour. The creativity and energy in the hallways and in these workshops is inspiring and it is always a pleasure to talk to the students. 

Thank you to Tanya, Peter, and all the other Friends who provided the morning tea and also to the students and staff who allowed us a moment to share in your wonderfully creative and artistic world. The hard work, talent, and dedication are truly a delight to witness. 

Much Ado About Nothing - WAAPA (4 May 2015)

WAAPA have been doing some interesting things lately with their black box theatre, the Enright Studio. They have been using different configurations that have changed things up in terms of presentation and staging. I should have twigged that something a little unusual was in the offing when I walked by a queue of people where people normally have no right to be queuing. Yes, the main entrance to the studio was closed off and the audience was entering via an exterior side door. First time I’ve seen that happen.

Once inside we were presented with Leonata’s café decorated with pictures and posters from the 40’s with a sign welcoming the boys back home from presumably World War Two. Period music was used to good effect to complete the reimagining of Shakespeare’s comedy classic to the different time period as was the costuming, hairstyles and makeup.

What followed was a rollicking presentation of deception and schemes as Benedick (Rory O’Keeffe) and Beatrice (Elle Mickel), Claudio (George Pullar) and Hero (Anna Apps) eventually find love in the most unusual of ways after the various connivances of Hero’s Mother’s Leonata (Megan Smart) and Don Pedro (Lachlan Ruffy) to bring them together and the calculated manipulation of Don John (Giuseppe Rotondella) to tear them apart.

In typical Shakespearean fashion, conversations are overheard and either misrepresented or misunderstood to comical and mischievous effect. The more serious ramification is Claudio’s rejection of Hero at the altar after he believes a fabricated story that destroys her chaste reputation. It is interesting that the men are so quick to misjudge the women so completely with little but hearsay. But all’s well that… ahem.

O’Keeffe made for a robust Benedick who comes into his own in the second half when the ‘court jester’ takes on more serious airs as he confronts Pedro and especially Claudio about their treatment of Hero. Mickel was excellent as a most feisty Beatrice and her putdowns of Benedick were deliciously barbed. Pullar is a cocky Claudio but has a nice arc as remorse at his actions after being so thoroughly misled hits home hard in the second half. Likewise Apps has plenty to work with going from virtuous bride to disgraced ‘harlot’ only to regain that virtue on returning from her own fabricated banishment.

The villain of the piece, Don John, is given a certain panache by Rotondella as typified by his smooth exit as the first half closes. Emma O’Sullivan is hilarious as the thick accented Dogberry while Kieran Clancy-Lowe has some nice moments as Father Francis. Megan Smart is given a tricky role as Leonata going from proud mother, to contempt for her daughter then grief as the truth emerges, to vengeful matriarch. There is great strength here though she plays Leonata’s immediate reaction to Claudio’s humiliation of Hero as somewhat overwrought for mine.  

Ruffy’s Don Pedro is suitably commanding and it’s his belief in the deception perpetrated by Borachio (Joel Davies) that seals the deal for Claudio and initially Leonata. Brittany Santariga and Sophia Forrest get up to plenty of light-hearted mischief as Margaret and Ursula respectively.

Among the many highlights is the early dance sequence on the men’s return from war as couples jive and celebrate with great energy. Then there is the very amusing set piece where Benedick hides (badly) under a table listening to Don Pedro and Claudio falsely talking up Beatrice’s affections for him. This is matched by Hero and Ursula doing likewise about Benedick’s love of Beatrice while she is hidden behind the bar.

The standout moment though is the wedding where Pullar’s Claudio explodes into venomous condemnation of his prospective bride. Apps’ anguished response matches his disdain. It is a powerful dramatic moment in the midst of all the comedy. And this is a very funny play indeed with all the deceits and manipulations gleefully played out. The exchanges between Benedick and Beatrice, in particular, are verbal jousting at their best.  There was also a lovely moment as Claudio puts words to his remorse at Hero’s supposed grave and one by one the supporting cast blow their candles out until darkness ensues. O’Keeffe’s funnily inept attempt at song was another memorable moment and was in marked contrast to Kate Betcher’s beautifully rendered effort earlier as Balthasar.

Despite the obstacles along the way it all ends in joyful dance as the two sets of couples finally commit to each other and the cast take their final bows. One minor note would be that the audience was seated along three sides of the studio with those bows only delivered to the back wall rows.

Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Sean O’Shea and performed by the second year acting class, Much Ado About Nothing runs until Thursday 7 May at the Enright Studio on the ECU Campus in Mount Lawley. 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

All My Sons - WAAPA (2 May 2015)

Twenty one men.


Their fighter planes fallen from the skies during World War Two. Not shot down. Sabotaged. From their own side. Faulty parts deliberately shipped and installed.

Two men are accused. One is exonerated. One is sent to jail.

So is the context for this slow burn drama that culminates in a devastating third act as the revelations pile up to reveal unpalatable truths and the importance of taking responsibility.

What I loved about the writing here is that Arthur Miller has put characters that are unshakeable in their core beliefs into conflict:

Kate Keller (Brittany Morel) is unswayed in her absolute certainly that her son Larry is still alive even though he never returned from the war.

Her husband Joe Keller (Andrew Creer) is resolute that he did nothing wrong and was fairly exonerated.

Their other son, Chris Keller (Bevan Pfeiffer) believes in his father's innocence; and they both know that Larry can be none other than dead despite Kate's desperation.

Anne Deever (Stephanie Panozzo), the daughter of Steve Deever who still languishes in jail, is convinced of her father’s guilt. 

Her brother George Deever (Hoa Xuande) arrives at the Keller home implacable in his hatred of Joe’s alleged deception that has ruined his father.

To complicate matters, Anne used to be Larry’s girl but now Chris wants to ask for her hand in marriage.

That is a powder keg of conflicting beliefs just waiting to ignite. It does so as the mystery of what happened at the wartime factory is slowly revealed and the ripples tear these two families and their close neighbours asunder.

Brittany Morel is simply superb as Kate. The ferocity of Kate’s conviction that Larry is still alive results in a woman who is barely in control and Morel plays this with great skill. From the right hand she splays against her thigh to conceal its shaking; to the wide-eyed expressions as the emotion brims every time someone even remotely challenges that belief; to the forceful restating of Larry being alive; it is a compelling performance. That this seemingly anguished and deluded woman turns into something far more potent in the third act is remarkable and Morel’s transformation is riveting, at one point even launching herself at Creer who must be twice her size.    

Andrew Creer is indeed an imposing physical presence but his Joe is part magnanimous, part prone to flights of anger and ultimately the façade crumbles as the revelations pile up. It is fascinating to watch the reverse arc – a man seemingly so strong disintegrates while his wife mired in self-denial becomes the rock of the family. Creer handles that trajectory well.

Bevan Pfeiffer’s Chris is also a complex character, almost sweet and naïve in his courting of Anne but quick to anger when events conspire to keep them apart. Pfeiffer ratchets up the outrage as the play builds to its tragic conclusion and his confrontations with Joe are heartrending. His monologue about his duty during the war and his reaction on returning home was a highlight.

Stephanie Panozzo’s Anne plays a pivotal part as the ultimate bearer of the truth but before that dagger I was never quite sure of the character’s motivations. This was intriguing as again it is a complex character and Panozzo gives ‘Annie’ a real strength, determined never to be left alone again no matter what the cost.

Hoa Xuande is the impending threat as George and his arrival illuminates the story from a very different perspective to that of Joe’s. His acquiescence in the face of Joe’s denial felt a little convenient though it was dressed in the importance of the neighbourhood and community which is a featured component of the story. His reversion to malevolence towards the Keller’s is nicely done with Morel’s Kate unintentionally providing the critical link. From then on the play races towards a frantic conclusion that played on high emotion that was affecting and visceral.

Benjamin Kindon, Elle Harris, Dacre Montgomery, and Harriet Gordon-Anderson play neighbours who are entwined in the Keller’s misfortunes and all have important moments. Kindon’s Jim Bayliss delivers a strong monologue in the second half as he sits with Kate; Gordon-Anderson, a beautiful piece of understated acting as she greets George and the subtext of missed opportunities and what might have been shines through; while Harris is perfectly catty as the neighbour who needles Anne about Joe. Montgomery comes across as perhaps the only decent man while also doubling as Bert, a child from the neighbourhood.

The intimacy of The Roundhouse Theatre was perfect for the high emotion on display and I felt right there in the backyard of the family home with its greenery and fallen tree. There were a couple of times though that actors had their back to the audience seated at the top of the thrust in key moments – Xuande’s George suffered most from this and I never saw his response in that beat with Gordon-Anderson; while Creer’s line that succinctly explains the true meaning of the play’s title was also delivered facing away from a third of the audience.

I loved the use of lighting that slowly dimmed then darkened as key memories from the past were revealed or to engender a sense of foreboding. Smoke was used increasingly in the second half as if to mirror the growing obscurity of events swirling around the Keller's. I wasn’t as fond though of the rock music that was played in the transition from second to third act as it momentarily jarred me out of the time period that had been so effectively built.   

This is a carefully and expertly constructed play that really packs a wallop. I admit I was quite moved by the breadth of the Greek-like tragedy that unfolds. It is very well acted with Morel’s performance in particular a highlight.

Written by Arthur Miller, Directed by Tom Healey and starring Andrew Creer, Brittany Morel, Bevan Pfeiffer, Stephanie Panozzo, Hoa Xuande, Benjamin Kindon, Elle Harris, Dacre Montgomery and Harriet Gordon-Anderson, All My Sons runs until Thursday 7 May at The Roundhouse Theatre on the ECU campus in Mount Lawley.    

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Addams Family Musical - John Curtin College of the Arts (1 May 2015)

The lights go down. The stage curtains are closed. The band plays the instantly recognisable Addams Family theme from the television show. Then this happens - large numbers of the audience are clicking their fingers at the appropriate points with perfect timing. It was really cool.

Then those curtains opened and cool turned into “Wow!”

For a high school production the level of detail in the set, costuming and makeup was quite extraordinary. Let’s start with the multi-level set with wings that folded in to represent the outside world with suitably happy murals. The inside of the Addams mansion, however, had wonderfully kooky décor and props, from the implements of torture and death Gomez collects to other bizarre items hanging on the walls.

The band was situated on the middle level and from my vantage point in the front row you could see, through the cobwebs, Musical Director Lochlan Brown on the piano with his back to us. Stairs led down to the main stage area and when the curtains opened the cast was sat there in a variety of distinctive costumes from the white of the ensemble to the darker hues of the family itself. The makeup was outstanding as well so the effect was striking from the opening moment. They then all burst into When You’re an Addams with such great energy that it was simply an inspired opening.

What follows is a very funny satire on family values, love and normality as the dark minded Wednesday (Jitana Jamieson) has fallen for Lucas (Johannes Kornberger), a boy from Ohio, causing all kinds of friction as Gomez (Kai Arbuckle) seeks to conceal the fact from his wife Morticia (Kira-Che Heelan) as Lucas’ family arrive for dinner. Pugsley (Albert Elton) fears his sister will no longer torture him now she has found, gasp, happiness and seeks to sabotage the union while Uncle Fester (Ethan Burke) has a far more romantic viewpoint. Lurch, Thing, and Grandmama with her potions are other immediately familiar characters.

I should mention that there is a rotating cast list during the four performance run so the principals are alternated from show to show which makes the whole endeavour even more impressive.

Arbuckle was terrific as Gomez with his pinstriped suit and thick Spanish accent. His comedy work was a highlight as he tries to mollify his wife and keep the family peace while dealing with Lucas’ parents Mal (Finn Pal) and Alice (Jessica Dalwood). The willowy Heelan towers over him and is resplendent in a black wig and elegant, black costume. They work well together and her character’s reaction to Gomez keeping a secret from her is a pivotal story development and thematic beat. Their tango is a lovely moment as is her eventual thawing as Morticia finally accepts her daughter’s decision to wed.

Jamieson gives an assured performance as Wednesday and it’s a lovely subversion of the usual boy meets girl story as Lucas proves his love by his willingness to actually die by her hands. Jamieson also has many featured songs and it’s here we need to talk about the musical aspect of proceedings.

Firstly, the band of Brown (piano), Steve Richter (drums), James Chong (percussion), Phillip Waldron (bass), Rachael Aquilina (violin), Scott Collinson (wind) and Brody Linke (trumpet) is terrific. The sound balance was excellent and their playing is a highlight. The cast, however, are not trained singers and this is readily apparent (with the notable exception of the student who belted out a lovely interruption during Let’s Not Talk About Anything Else But Love). Some get by, like Arbuckle, with a sing-talk approach, while the full company adds moments of support but most cast members struggle somewhat when featured.

Let me say this though, all of them like Jamieson, Heelan, Dalwood and Burke commit totally to their songs and that is most admirable. It all still works as a musical because of the energy and enthusiasm they bring. There are also moments where the lack of singing prowess is played up for comic effect such as when Fester literally howls at the Moon or Lurch unexpectedly launches into a growly song. The most effective featured song for me was Elton’s What If? that had a nice poignancy to it while Full Disclosure that closes the first act was good fun with the whole company involved.

Back to the performances and Ethan Burke was the standout as Fester pretty much stealing every scene he’s in and acting as a faux narrator at times. His The Moon and Me where he serenades the Moon (Ella Norton) with the ensemble using a mix of white and black parasols was another highlight. He gave Fester a manic energy but also a sweetness when it came to matters of the heart that was compelling. Toto De Waele, with platform shoes to accentuate his height, was a most amusing Lurch while Lily Philp had some funny moments as Grandmama.

Dalwood played Alice’s arc from uptight wife to potion infused independent woman nicely with some great snark as the latter. I was also very impressed with Kirsty Clarke as Ophelia who glided across the stage exhibiting very elegant ballet skills accompanied by Julian Monck as her dance partner.

There were lots of other great moments including a tap dance from one of the female ensemble; violin and cello work from Meredith Jackson and Eleanor Campbell; and a diabolical chair prop that had me squirming! The lighting was again very well done throughout which enhanced the costumes and makeup to great effect.

This is deliciously dark and kooky with full throated performances and nothing short of impressive staging and presentation. Directed with flair by Fiona Tholet from a Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa there are two more performances on Saturday 2 May at John Curtin College of the Arts in Fremantle. 

The 39 Steps - Churchlands Senior High School (30 April 2015)

What a surprise to find such a wonderful theatre nestled in the grounds of the Churchlands Senior High School. At something close to 500 seats it is comparable in size to the Heath Ledger Theatre in the Cultural Centre. What a great facility for students to learn their craft both on the expansive stage and behind the scenes. I was told that the school has a very strong musical department and indeed there were eight musicians, headed by Musical Director Mathew Leak, who provide the tune that lingers in our hero’s head. While it was the turn of the acting department to shine with this high spirited farce I notice four of the musicians had parts as well including our Mister Leak!

Some 22 actors are listed in the program with many having small but amusing roles as our hero Richard Hannay (Jordan Price) charges from one misadventure to another in a parody of great Hitchcockian thrillers such as the movie adaptation of the same title and the classic North By Northwest. There is a funny send up of the famous crop duster scene from that film that sees Price flinging himself about the stage as pilots happily fire away.

The story sees Price’s character caught up in all sorts of espionage and intrigue as a sultry foreign agent (Lauren Elliot) is murdered in his apartment forcing him to flee to Scotland. Unfortunately not to Skyfall which I can spell but to a place that I cannot! He is pursued by all and sundry, accused of that murder and in search of the titular 39 Steps which is pretty much a MacGuffin in the grand Hitchcock tradition. To be honest it is the scrapes and japes he gets into along the way that supply all the fun as the plot is tenuous at best. There is an amusing resolution of sorts involving a vaudeville act that is set up early and gives Caitlin Strutt as the Compere and Irene Mateo-Arriere (Miss Memory) a chance to shine.

Many others do as well – Elliot as Schmidt whose untimely end is played as black comedy as our hero has to extricate himself from the scene of the crime; Lloyd Hopkins and Mikhael Poguet who play two salesman on the same train as Hannay flees London but also, with some lovely theatricality involving rapid changes facilitated by different hats, a variety of other characters; and Haralampos Protoolis and Emma Hall as the Scottish innkeepers Mr and Mrs. McGarrigle.

Ellen Harvey also comes into her own in the second half as Pamela. The first half tended to bounce around from one set of characters to another as Hannay ploughs on regardless of his increasingly dire circumstances. The story coalesces into something far more cohesive when he is paired up with Pamela as sparring partner and possible love interest. Price and Harvey work well together with two separate scenes involving handcuffs featured - one, a lovely entanglement as they try and cross a barrier; the other in the inn when they are forced to share a bed.

The show, however, revolves around Price’s performance in the lead as he is only off stage for maybe one brief scene. It is deliberately overstated in both accent and mannerisms as befits the parody but most impressively Price gives Hannay a real physicality as he navigates goons, police inspectors and our villain Professor Jordan (George Samios) with some inventive comic staging.

There are lovely moments throughout – actors flapping their costumes whenever it is windy ‘outside’ which was consistently funny; playing around with window frames as characters make their escape; the knife in poor Schmidt’s back; and some hilarious dummy work towards the end. It never takes itself at all seriously and is an entertaining evening of pratfalls and hijinks with plenty of laughs. 

The 39 Steps is an adaptation by Patrick Barlow and co-directed by Angela Padley and Ruth Sutherland. There are two more performances at the school, a matinee and evening show on Saturday 2 May. You can buy tickets at the door at the Churchlands Concert Hall in Lucca Street, Churchlands.