Review: Melba (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Aug 11 – Sep 9, 2017
Book & Lyrics: Nicholas Christo
Music: Johannes Luebbers
Director: Wayne Harrison
Cast: Annie Aitken, Michael Beckley, Caitlin Berry, Andrew Cutcliffe, Blake Erickson, Genevieve Lemon, Emma Matthews, Adam Rennie, Samuel Skuthorp
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Nellie Melba was the first Australian musician to have achieved international stardom, a legendary figure whose story provides inspiration not only to artists who dream of making it big, but also for women everywhere who know how it is to be told to tame their ambitions. She became wife and mother early in life, as was de rigueur in late nineteenth century, and in the musical Melba, we see her struggle to acquire the independence necessary for professional success. A fabulous selection of classical arias are inserted into a new work of musical theatre, with book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo, and music by Johannes Luebbers.

The original material is delightful, with scandalous details in Melba’s story providing an unexpected sense of titillation to proceedings. Director Wayne Harrison keeps us invested in the show’s characters and narratives, for a production that captivates at every point. Design elements however, are generally underwhelming, with set and costumes requiring greater imagination and boldness, for a more accurate approximation of our fantasies, of the diva and her circles.

Performers Annie Aitken and Emma Matthews share the eponymous role, each bringing to the stage, their phenomenal talents and abilities. It is a strong concept, to have disparate disciplines, opera and musical theatre, represented in this quite unique format for Melba, but it is not always a seamless blend in its efforts to accommodate two physical manifestations of the same personality. Nonetheless, the magnificent quality of singing in the show is sufficient to remedy most of its shortcomings. Also noteworthy is Andrew Cutcliffe who successfully turns us against the forsaken husband Charlie. His creation of a persuasive villain for the piece, is efficacious, and impressive.

In its efforts to keep the memory of our heroine, dignified and noble, Melba can often feel compromising in how it portrays her humanity. The picture it delivers is unbelievably pristine, and the drama is subsequently more gently rendered than is perhaps desired. We need people to look up to, especially trailblazers who show us that the impossible can be done, but it is important that we understand that flaws and foibles are what we have in common, especially when the magic they possess can seem so unattainable to mere mortals.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Velvet (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 20, 2017
Director and creator: Craig Ilott
Musical director: Joe Accaria
Choreographer: Lucas Newland
Cast: Joe Accaria, Kaylah Attard, Emma Goh, Marcia Hines, Mirko Köckenberger, Rechelle Mansour, Tom Oliver, Craig Reid, Stephen Williams

Theatre review
The show begins when a young man appears on stage with luggage. Dressed as a Jehovah’s Witness, or maybe a Mormon, the wide-eyed innocent finds himself in a new city, and we imagine that he encounters disco for the first time. This would mean that the action takes place in the late 1970s, when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the charts, and in New York, the notorious night club Studio 54 was the epicentre of society and culture. Craig Ilott’s Velvet is essentially a variety show, an homage to the era of the hustle, the afro and cocaine. All is light and frothy, with the protagonist’s journey offering a vague sense of narrative, that holds everything together.

At the centre is a slew of hits, unforgettable songs that defined a generation, marvellously reassembled and executed by musical director Joe Accaria, who ensures that their sparkly appeal is always accompanied by a deep appreciation for the soul and funk roots of these dance-floor stompers. Living legend Marcia Hines plays the diva with effortless grace, trusting that her exceptional voice to take us away from daily humdrum to her realm of sequinned ethereality. Leading man Tom Oliver works harder to prove himself, in archetypal musical theatre style, energetic and earnest in his efforts to reach out to everyone in attendance. Acrobats and circus performers provide excellent spectacle and thrills, each of them accomplished and beautiful. The production relies heavily on two very versatile talents Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour, to maintain its effervescence but later sections require more surprises, perhaps in the form of bigger costumes or additional dancers, to sustain our enthusiasm.

Colours of the rainbow flag make more than a few appearances. We cannot be sure if our boy comes out as gay, but he certainly does come out of his shell in the process. Disco may be about debauchery and hedonism, but we remember it also, for the liberation it inspires and represents, even today. At its best, disco is uplifting while it keeps us feeling dirty. It makes us think of sex as salvation, and creates a space where heaven and hell can meet to reveal so much that is dichotomous about being human.

www.velvettheshow.com

Review: Under The Covers (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Jul 19 – 23, 2017
Playwright: Matthew Mitcham
Director: Nigel Turner-Carroll
Cast: Matthew Mitcham, Rhys Morgan, Matthew Ogle

Theatre review
It has been 9 years since Matthew Mitcham won a gold medal at the Olympics for his diving. At 20 years old, he was on top of the world, having the time of his life, bathed in glory. Normalcy afterwards, has been understandably challenging. Under The Covers is a cabaret presentation in which Mitcham searches for something satisfying, in his current status as a retired athlete. It is an experience we rarely encounter, a young man having to come to terms with the idea that his best days are probably over. He names his state of anxiety, “midlife crisis”, which is outlandish for a person in his twenties, but Mitcham helps us understand his emotional struggles in this earnest, if slightly clumsy, string of autobiographical disclosures.

Linking episodic thoughts and recollections, mostly presented through a monologue style, are songs that Mitcham sings, sometimes with his ukulele as accompaniment, and sometimes with a pianist and a drag performer for added interest. It is a raw performance, relying on honesty and sincerity to capture our attention. Even though he seems less seasoned than most musical theatre artists who take centre stage, there is an undeniable charm in Mitcham’s childlike innocence (he compares himself to Peter Pan), and gifted with a warm timbre that he uses remarkably well for his penchant for pop, the hour long show is ultimately an entertaining sojourn, if oddly unaffecting.

There are clear parallels between sport and art, most obvious of which is the endeavour for triumph. To strive, is to have the capacity to fail. In Under The Covers, Matthew Mitcham is humbled, brought to his knees almost, having to admit that that defining moment of heroism, has to be left behind, if the rest of his days is going to be meaningful. On this stage, we watch him shine, and witness instances of floundering, but the champion’s spirit remains intact and resolute, showing us how he cannot help but put up the best fight, no matter the circumstances.

www.underthecoverslive.com

Review: Bijou (Smallshows / The Depot Theatre)

smallshowsVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Aug 17 – 27, 2016
Playwright: Chrissie Shaw
Director: Susan Pilbeam
Cast: Alan Hicks, Chrissie Shaw
Image by Lyndel Arnett

Theatre review
Bijou has lived through a lot. Now in her autumn years, she looks back and recounts stories, with the aide of abounding song and dance, to share her experiences as a woman on the fringes of Parisian society. Chrissie Shaw’s script is charming, with surprising revelations that are guaranteed to delight, and even though it shies away from a stronger sense of drama that could deliver greater poignancy, it is certainly not afraid to touch on the raunchier aspects of Bijou’s past.

As performer, Shaw’s vocal abilities are her greatest asset. Interpretations of yesteryear songs are consistently enchanting, and the sharp focus she maintains in her one-woman show format is thoroughly impressive. Alan Hicks is on the piano providing accompaniment, with tremendous style and effortless flair. His voice and humour make only brief appearances, but they are very memorable indeed.

The elders of every community are truly the most valuable in terms of the wisdom they can offer, yet we relegate them to minor roles, often forgetting to include them in our ways of life. In Bijou, we are shown that many of the answers we seek, have already been found by those who had come before us. The seniors are ignored at our own peril, and the beauty of Bijou’s story, and of Shaw’s work, demonstrates how much there is to lose, if we persist with that ignorance. We can learn from going through firsthand, every high and low of life, but we must also listen to those who had taken the hard road, so that we may explore newer, more peaceful ones.

www.bijoucabaret.com

Review: Hot Brown Honey (Sydney Opera House)

hotbrownhoneyVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 22 – 26, 2016
Creators: Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Lisa Fa’alafi
Original concept: Candy Bowers, Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, Lisa Fa’alafi
Director: Lisa Fa’alafi
Cast: Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Juanita Duncan, Lisa Fa’alafi, Ofa Fotu​, Materharere Hope “Hope One” Haami, Crystal Stacey
Image by Dylan Evans

Theatre review
Six women take to the stage in a sensational update of the cabaret format, to confront big political issues of the day, and to entertain in the most spectacularly decadent ways possible. The women’s mantra is to “stand up and make noise”, and although deadly serious with their message, Hot Brown Honey‘s sense of humour is always an underlying and critical presence that keeps us engrossed even when the going gets tough. At the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia and body fascism, the stars create theatrical representations that are crucial to our nation’s discussions about justice and equity as applied to women of colour in particular. On a relentlessly vibrant and glamorous stage, we see stories that allow identification, but also confrontational statements that speak directly to those of us in positions of privilege. If live theatre’s most valuable feature is its dimension of danger that comes from the unpredictability of conscious individuals sharing space, then Hot Brown Honey is a triumph of magnificent proportions.

These women are powerful, emotional and aggressive, each with blinding talents gloriously showcased in sequences that aim to simultaneously seduce and repulse, with the formidable MC Busty Beatz bringing harmony and cohesion to the night. The programme features some of the most jaw-dropping beat-boxing ever to be heard (by Hope One) and massive notes from Ofa Fotu’s classic torch songs interpreted with acerbic irony, against a backdrop of musical production irresistible from start to finish, comprising mainly of hip hop, soul and funk influences. There are subversive stripteases, same-sex orientated twerking, mesmerising bridal aerial silk acrobatics, all passionately imbued with social commentary to deliver a show memorable for being uniquely dignified and progressive. Hot Brown Honey is wild and vivid in its expression of feminine disobedience and unapologetic with its pointed perspectives on cultural colonisation, giving voice to an under-represented but large segment of our population, and reshaping the way we think about identities for the purpose of empowering every darker skinned woman and girl.

Where power imbalances exist, politeness serves to deepen those inequities. When we let sleeping dogs lie, our problems become further fortified. The six ladies of Hot Brown Honey will disrupt and antagonise, using their bodies, minds and spirit to create pandemonium where a faulty establishment resides, but they have also made room for conversation, and participation therein is not exclusive. The subjects broached here are difficult ones, which means that many of us will try to avoid them, but this is a Pandora’s box that we desperately need, and some very loud noises have initiated the process. We can run but we cannot hide, from this yet another new wave of feminism, and the tenacious efforts currently under way for a paradigm shift.

www.hotbrownhoney.com

Review: Ljubičica – Wild Violet (Seymour Centre)

ljuibicicaVenue: Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Sep 17 – 19, 2015
Playwright: Melita Rowston
Director: Melita Rowston
Cast: Josipa Draisma, Mara Knezevic, The Squeeze Box

Theatre review
Josipa Draisma’s show is composed of stories and songs from her mother’s childhood. Born in a Croatian village, Ljubičica – Wild Violet details her days as a young girl missing her absent father, and her subsequent journey to Australia in search of a better life. The stories are sentimental, and the songs are romantic. The bitter-sweet show, written and directed by Melita Rowston, strikes a thoughtful balance between biography and entertainment, with surprising variations in atmosphere that help hold our attention. The piece could benefit from a trim to speed things up slightly, but it is ultimately a delightful insight into one of our many migrant experiences, with a special poignancy that seems to arise uniquely from true stories.

Draisma’s performance is a passionate one, and we are swept away by the many beautiful Croatian songs she presents with gusto. Several humorous impressions of characters in her mother’s life are especially effective; the actor’s talent seems to be stronger with comedy, but the show is presented mostly in a serious tone. Mara Knezevic provides fine support as the secondary voice of the production. The women’s harmonies together are sublime, and a rare treat for our Anglocentric city. The handsome Gypsy jazz trio The Squeeze Box adds a sophistication and polish to the stage with their sensual and confident accompaniment on accordion, guitar and violin. Draisma’s monologues help the music communicate with our foreign ears, but it is the music that gives soul to the show.

Our nation is composed of a million exotic tales. Attempts to obliterate our diversity from public discourse occurs everyday, but the fact remains that a vast majority of lives on this land have roots in places far away. Ljubičica – Wild Violet tells of one migrant’s experience, but we should not look upon it as unique or foreign. It should be embraced as the true face of normal, with all its individual colours and melodies.

www.josipadraisma.com

Review: Ali McGregor’s Alchemy (Hayes Theatre Co)

alimcgregorVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Apr 21 – 26, 2014
Musical Director: Sam Keevers
Cast: Ali McGregor

Theatre review
Ali McGregor has the kind of talent that we all wish to have. She is a singer who can sing anything across every genre, and she does them all incredibly well. In Alchemy, she showcases her frankly amazing ability at opera, rap, pop, rock, and all shades of jazz. There is nothing her voice is incapable of, and everything sounds authentic. Switching from musical theatre torch songs to hip hop à la Salt-N-Pepa is entirely effortless for McGregor. We never feel that the performer is more comfortable in one style than another, and the confidence she presents with each number is thoroughly enthralling and quite overwhelming.

When the diva sings, we are captivated and suspended in a timeless space; we lose ourselves and all our cares evaporate. McGregor says that Alchemy is about turning trash to treasure. The set list includes well known chart hits from the 80’s and 90’s, but rearranged to fit a jazz cabaret mode featuring Sam Keevers on the piano, Jonathan Zwartz on double bass and Tim Firth on drums. The programme is beautifully paced and constantly surprising, with an enjoyable juxtaposition of the familiar with the unexpected, providing amusement and delight. McGregor is a keen entertainer who engages her crowd with gestures and glances, and a lot of talking between songs. She is without question, a funny lady, and uses comedy well to create contexts for song choices, but unlike the music, her style and content of her chit-chat can become repetitive. She also shies away from more serious moments, frequently introducing a self-deprecating humour that is sometimes charming, but can also be disruptive. McGregor is capable of a lot of beauty with her presence and performance, and should allow more of her sublime qualities to resonate, instead of reverting to a persistent display of modesty and down-to-earthness.

It must be noted that lighting design for the show is inventive and very dynamic, transforming the simplest of stagings into something quite visually stunning. Sound however, does not show off McGregor’s range with enough effectiveness. The singer sounds impressive through the venue’s speakers for most of the duration but when she belts the bigger notes with her extraordinary power, the technical facilities seems to falter, losing dimension at these crucial points. Fortunately, the star’s determination and infallibility smooths over every flaw, and we cannot help but stay in love with her until the very end.

www.hayestheatre.com.au