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

Review: Guilty Pleasures (Blue Saint Productions)

bluesaintVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Dec 17 – 21, 2014
Book: Joshua Robson
Lyrics: Hugo Chiarella
Director: Joshua Robson
Music Director and Composer: Robert Tripolino
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis
Image by Mike Snow

Theatre review
Joshua Robson, Hugo Chiarella and Robert Tripolino’s Guilty Pleasures is a 45 minute musical with murderous women and their bad men. It is Chicago‘s “Cell Block H” expanded, and they’ve all had it coming. Comprising a series of independent stories about fatal romances, the short narratives are amusing, with compelling songs that add drama and a colourful sense of theatricality.

Performed by just one woman, the work demands that Angelique Cassimatis provides range and variety to each character, but the show does not have enough tonal shifts in performance or design, to create textural complexity from its string of tales. Robson’s direction blends each segment to form a cohesive whole, leaving behind the lively and fluctuating nature of the text. Cassimatis’s training and experience is evident, especially with her physical discipline and dance abilities, but her approach tends to be a technical one. Her talents in singing and acting seem to come less naturally, but the actor’s conviction is clear to see, and her energetic presence helps endear her to the crowd.

Burlesque touches in the production provide a sexy edge to the already risqué themes it covers. The writing has a dark humour that would appeal to those who seek a musical theatre experience that is less than “family-friendly”, but its execution might be a little subdued for some. Written and directed by three men, Guilty Pleasures is a feminine work with a queer sensibility and a charming cynicism about romantic relationships. The women in the show are determined to define themselves against the men in their lives, and all pay a hefty price at the end.

www.bluesaint.com.au

Review: Little Egypt’s Speakeasy (Grand Moustache / Django Bar)

grandmoustacheVenue: Camelot Lounge (Marrickville NSW), Nov 6 – 9, 2014
Writers: Luke Escombe, Lucian McGuiness, Dominic Santangelo
Director: Lucian McGuiness
Cast: Brian Campeau, Kelly Ann Doll, Amos Elroy, Luke Escombe, Danica Lee, Lucian McGuiness, Katie-Elle Reeve, Dominic Santangelo, Damien Slingsby, Elana Stone, Aaron Flower, Nick Hoorweg, Evan Mannell, Mathew Ottignon
Image by Frank Farrugia

Theatre review
The term speakeasy refers to the illegal trade of alcohol during the American “prohibition” period from 1920 to 1933, and Little Egypt is the name of an exotic dancer from even earlier in the twentieth century. Lucian McGuiness’ show Little Egypt’s Speakeasy draws inspiration from both, to recreate the setting of a nightclub filled with sounds and sights from the 1950s. McGuiness is leader of the handsomest band in town, with four kooky vocalists, and a beatnik MC who provides the thread that helps us imagine the narrative that the show is vaguely built upon. Incorporated flawlessly are two burlesque dancers and the band leader’s comedic brother Don who owns the joint.

There are some stellar performances in the piece. The dancers Kelly Ann Doll and Danica Lee are both scintillating and drop dead gorgeous. The MC and narrator Amos Elroy has the deepest voice imaginable from a baby face, with a use of words and humour that is transportative and quite magnificent. Singer Elana Stone is vibrant in personality and in voice, and her male counterpart Brian Campeau is simply divine with a Chet Baker style sensuality, only with much stronger pipes. McGuiness is star of the show with an extraordinarily sharp presence that exemplifies the irresistible sexual allure of the entire evening.

Don and his club’s story do not quite take hold, but the introduction of a through line for a cabaret show is ambitious and astute. It is almost human nature to want to follow a plot, and the experience is certainly enriched with Don and the MC bringing cohesion to the many separate items presented. Little Egypt’s Speakeasy brings a taste of the bohemian life to Sydney, and it is delicious.

camelotlounge.wordpress.com | www.lucianmcguiness.com

Review: Desperately Young At Heart (New Theatre)

roberthofmannVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 23 – 27, 2014
Director: Stuart Maunder
Cast: Robert Hofmann, Cherie Boogaart, Tommaso Pollio
Image by John Marshall

Theatre review
Robert Hofmann’s work Desperately Young At Heart features the singer in various guises, performing humorous renditions of jazz and musical theatre classics. The show’s title reveals the fun-loving approach taken by Hofmann, but it serves also as a warning that nothing particularly poignant transpires. The songs are linked by a performance that sees Hofmann transform with wigs and costumes, although no obvious narrative connects each incarnation. Its sense of pageantry feels at home in the cabaret format, and while not terribly original, the show does afford an amusing glimpse into the creative mind of its author.

Hofmann’s baritone voice is accomplished and confident, with shades of opera that give his singing an enveloping power. The gender diversity of his characters is a key feature of the show, but Hofmann’s liberal use of falsetto is less effective. Mezzo-soprano Cherie Boogaart’s appearance is brief but memorable. Her comic abilities are competent, but it is her voice that truly delights. Pianist Tommaso Pollio is the unsung hero of the piece, single-handedly controlling the many mood transitions with ease and flair.

The presentation tries to be loud and outrageous, but it is the quieter moments when Hofmann works with more subtlety that resonate better. Desperately Young At Heart strength is the matured skill of its performers, whose expertise is clear to see. It is an opportunity for the artists to practise a genre of theatre different from their usual vocations, and results are mixed. It is not an enormously adventurous venture, but their enthusiasm in presenting a labour of love is quite infectious.

www.facebook.com/robert.hofmann.singer