Review: Big Fish (RPG Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Apr 18 – May 14, 2017
Book: John August (based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the screenplay by John August)
Music & Lyrics: Andrew Lippa
Director: Tyran Parke
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Kirby Burgess, Seth Drury, Joel Granger, Brendan Godwin, Zoe Ioannou, Brenden Lovett, Phillip Lowe, Alessandra Merlo, Adam Rennie, Katrina Retallick, Brittanie Shipway, Aaron Tsindos, Zachary Webster
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Edward Bloom spins yarns that only he can believe. He deals with reality using outrageous embellishment, but these tall tales have alienated his son Will, who struggles to connect with the man behind the illusions. Big Fish is about life and death, love and family, all the emotional stuff that make musicals work. A formula exists because it is effective, and here, we see all the obvious manipulations that get us to a predictable sentimental peak, yet we cannot help getting ourselves entangled in all of the Bloom family’s drama.

Dubbed the “12 Chairs Version”, this rendition may be streamlined, but director Tyran Parke brings a richness to the staging, with simple but exciting visuals that live up, surprisingly, to the story’s imaginative landscapes. The cast is buoyant and bubbly, determined to entertain. Leading man Phillip Lowe is fabulously charming, but problems with a throat infection seriously impair his ability to deliver the show’s many very grand showtunes. Instead, on hand to offer vocal magic is Adam Rennie in the role of Will, who is nothing less than sensational when the songs get chipper and stirring.

Women characters in Big Fish are often pathetically conceived, but the players do their best to bring life to their parts. Katrina Retallick takes the role of an embarrassingly docile mother, and turns her into a memorable figure; warm, generous and full of spirit. Her delivery of the heartbreaking “I Don’t Need A Roof” is a highlight, with Retallick’s performing talent proving to be the most captivating feature of the production. Also delightful is Brenden Lovett, simultaneously grotesque and adorable as circus ringmaster Calloway. The most over-the-top of Edward’s fantasies is also one of the most moving, when given the Lovett treatment.

We all know that our lives are finite, but we rarely think about how our deaths affect the way we live. We go about our daily business as though there is always tomorrow to worry about, but the unassailable truth is that death will come too soon. Edward was offered, as a child, a glimpse of his final moments, and what he saw was joyful. If we can all believe that what we eventually leave behind is going to be good, then our experience of today, must surely be replete with contentment.

Review: Calamity Jane (One Eyed Man Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 8 – Apr 1, 2017
Book: Ronald Hanmer, Phil Park (from the play by Charles K. Freeman, and film by James O’Hanlon)
Lyrics: Paul Francis Webster
Music: Sammy Fain
Director: Richard Carroll
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Laura Bunting, Virginia Gay, Anthony Gooley, Sheridan Harbridge, Rob Johnson, Matthew Pearce, Tony Taylor, Nigel Ubrihien
Image by John McRae

Theatre review
It is the story of a frontierswoman from American history, a tomboy type with a big heart and very tall tales. A neglected musical from mid-20th century, Calamity Jane is probably best remembered as a film starring Doris Day in 1953. No surprises then, that the writing is squeaky clean, conforming completely to the ideology of the McCarthy era, when the USA convulsed at its height of moral panic.

Director Richard Carroll’s version aims to subvert the obvious camouflages at work in the original, especially in terms of its delusory representations of gender and sexuality. Archaic notions of how a woman should dress, and how her libido should manifest, are confronted head on, in this uproarious and very likeable comedy about a woman in charge. This iteration of Calamity Jane does not obliterate the existence of patriarchal oppression, but it foregrounds our heroine’s resistance, culminating in the spectacular exposure of her homosexual impulses in the number A Woman’s Touch. Originally conceived to inflict upon her, the sacrosanctity of housework, Calamity takes the opportunity here to find redress and expression instead, for the lustful desires she feels for another woman.

Virginia Gay is irresistible in the title role, charismatic, supremely confident, and hilarious. Her singing alternates between musical theatre, country and jazz, bringing a surprising quality of rejuvenation to the show tunes. Although not all performers are equally suited to their parts, it is overall an effective cast, with Sheridan Harbridge and Tony Taylor particularly delightful, and very gleeful, as residents of the Golden Garter. The majority of instrumental accompaniment is provided by lone pianist, and musical director Nigel Ubrihien, who brings tremendous atmosphere and excellent character to the staging.

The production succeeds in its efforts at sending itself up, and in the process, confronts the subjugation of femininity in traditional forms of storytelling. There is a sense however, of the show losing steam, as it progresses into a more sentimental second act. Its actors remain strong and convicted, but the audience needs greater convincing to adapt to the significant change of mood, and its subtle shift in meanings. We stay loyal to the riotous nature of Act 1 because it strikes a chord. It is a time for wild women and unruly behaviour, and now is when we fall in love with Calamity Jane.

Review: Mack & Mabel (Working Management)

workingmanagementVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 18, 2016
Book: Michael Stewart (based on an idea by Leonard Speigelgass)
Music: Jerry Herman
Director: Trevor Ashley
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Shay Debney, Adam Di Martino, Sally Hare, Scott Irwin, Caroline Kaspar, Shaun Rennie, Kuki Tipoki, Stephen Valeri, Jessica Voivenel, Zachary Webster, Mikayla Williams, Deone Zanotto
Image by Lightbox Photography

Theatre review
Set against a backdrop of early Hollywood, Mack & Mabel is about a love that never happened, a romantic tale that is more “coulda woulda shoulda” than happily ever after. Created in 1974, the musical is in essence a damsel in distress story, where the girl is not strong enough to get what she wants, and in this case, the guy never quite gets his act together to rescue her. The songs are fun and perky, but mostly unmemorable. Every imaginable cliché of the genre is enlisted for a show that works hard to entertain, and although it is never able to surprise, the experience it delivers is nonetheless an enjoyable one.

Directed by Trevor Ashley, with choreography by Cameron Mitchell, the show is highly animated, and relentless with its pizzazz. Every song is staged with great detail and deliberation, but while there is no shortage of energy and action, its comedy is not always effective, and its pathos is insufficiently potent. It is a diverse cast with varying levels of competencies, but their conviction keeps us attentive to every sequence being presented. Leading lady Angelique Cassimatis charms us with indefatigable flamboyance, and her male counterpart Scott Irwin provides grounding with a melancholic sincerity. Deone Zanotto is outstanding as Lottie, a secondary character called upon to bring all the bells and whistles needed to spice things up. Zanotto’s physical discipline and vocal agility are a joy to witness. Also noteworthy is Neil McLean’s sound design achieving excellent dynamism and clarity with how we hear music, lyrics and dialogue in the production.

There is little in Mack & Mabel that we can relate to, but it is a good excuse for some exhilarating song and dance. There is a frustration in seeing Mabel’s life presented as a failure due to her fruitless dedication to Mack. What might have been a kind of beautiful resignation and saccharine sentimentality in the past, is now just far-fetched, and tedious, whether or not one reads the musical from a consciously feminist perspective. The drama relies on our submission to its dated sensibilities about romance, and thankfully, many of us have progressed far beyond that.

Review: Side Show (One Eyed Man Productions)

oneeyedmanVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Sep 23 – Oct 16, 2016
Book & Lyrics: Bill Russell
Music: Henry Krieger
Director: Richard Carroll
Choreography: Amy Campbell
Musical Direction: Conrad Hamill
Cast: Daniel Belle, Gabriel Brown, Laura Bunting, Kerrie Anne Greenland, Michael Hart, Bree Langridge, Lachlan Martin, Joshua Mulheran, Elenoa Rokobaro, Berynn Schwerdt, Timothy Springs, Hannah Waterman
Image by Kurt Sneddon

Theatre review
Daisy and Violet Hilton were conjoined twins who in the 1930s, caused a sensation in the American vaudeville circuit. We meet them in the musical Side Show, as their ascent to fame begins, and encounter the highs and lows of the women’s irrefutable difference, in a world determined to treat them as anything but normal. Its plot is unconventional, and for a musical to have at its centre an unpredictable story, is remarkably refreshing. Instead of distinct good and bad categories as is common for the genre, characters exist in spaces of grey, resulting in a tale that surprises with its realism. The songs are beautifully composed, with unusual depth and textures that forsake formulaic writing in favour of accurate representations of human emotion.

Laura Bunting and Kerrie Anne Greenland are the splendid twins, with a persuasive sisterly closeness that keeps us firmly on their side. Bunting plays the extrovert Daisy with an alluring effervescence, while Greenland uses an earnest approach to tug at the heartstrings. Both are excellent singers, although Greenland’s very big notes are undeniably scene-stealing. In the role of Buddy is Gabriel Brown, who impresses with nifty footwork, along with a striking presence, for a character memorable for his exceptional charm. Director Richard Carroll successfully introduces a dignified air to the “freak show” context, but the production often seems too stagnant and minimal in its use of space. There is an admirable restraint in Carroll’s rejection of creating scenes that are overly sentimental, but the show would benefit from greater amplification of its more humorous elements.

Side Show is an elegant work that is respectful in its portrayals, but there is a persistent gentleness that can make it feel somewhat distant. Art must always be aware of cliché and do all it can to avoid it, like it does on this occasion, but the temptation to resort to the tried and tested is always present. The musical format has a strong tendency towards the “garden-variety”, mainly due to commercial pressures, but also because of the seemingly inherent limitations of the genre. There are few avant-garde musicals for good reason. It is a theatrical form with rules that cannot be broken, and that insists on subjugation of its artists, but for some of those who do give in, the rewards can be spectacular. True fulfilment might have been elusive, but Daisy and Violet had a taste of fame and fortune by giving the crowds what they want, and that is a level of success many could only ever dream of.

5 Questions with Bree Langridge and Lachlan Martin

Bree Langridge

Bree Langridge

Lachlan Martin: In Side Show, you play the Tattooed Lady. Do you have any tattoos?
Bree Langridge: I have three; a spider on my ankle, a lotus on my wrist and Aboriginal symbols on my ribs. I love tattoos. If I weren’t a performer I would get a full sleeve.

What is your dream role?
Sally Bowles from Cabaret. (Lachlan: Funny – my dream role is the Emcee from Cabaret.)

Have you worked at the Hayes before?
I performed my cabaret/tribute show called Little Diana based on the life of Diana Ross.

You’ve performed in some of Australia’s biggest theatres. How are you feeling about putting this reasonably large musical in such an intimate space like The Hayes?
I’m quite petite so I’ll fit nicely in the Hayes. But it will be a challenge especially because we are playing with the idea of dancing on silks hung from the ceiling. Exciting nonetheless.

Do you have any funny moments that have happened from previous productions?
I’ve just finished touring Cats as an onstage swing and the first time I performed the role of Rumpleteaser, (usually Cockney) I jumped past my light, over energised my voice and sounded Celtic. The rest of the show was banging though.

Lachlan Martin

Lachlan Martin

Bree Langridge: You play the Lizard Man in the freak show. How do you relate to lizards?
They are long and skinny – me down to a tee!

What are you enjoying about the process of creating the world of the freak show?
Well, I have never worked with any of the cast so getting to know them is fun. What we are doing is sometimes silly and very physical; we are throwing ourselves into it, which is allowing all sorts of creativity. The freaks are essentially a family and even after day 4 I can see us as actors becoming a family. And they are all super talents!

If you could have anyone over for dinner, dead or alive, who would it be?
James Dean. I can’t cook though so we would go out to a fancy restaurant and he would pay. Ha!

In Side Show you play not only the Lizard Man but a variety of other small roles. As an actor how do you differentiate between them?
We are still working through that process but as I’m a very physical person I use several different postural choices, vocal shifts and accents. The story travels during the show allowing us to access all sorts of worldly characters.

What attracted you to working in theatre?
As a child I would run around the house like a show queen! I grew up in Glenelg, Adelaide and mum took me to lots of theatre. From a very young age I knew I wanted to perform however it may happen – singer, dancer, actor, lizard!

Bree Langridge and Lachlan Martin can both be seen in Side Show the musical.
Dates: 23 September – 16 October, 2016
Venue: Hayes Theatre

Review: Xanadu (Matthew Management / Hayes Theatre)

xanaduVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 12 – Jun 12, 2016
Book: Douglas Carter Beane
Music & Lyrics: John Farrar, Jeff Lynne
Director: Nathan M. Wright
Choreography: Leah Howard, Nathan M. Wright
Musical Direction: Andrew Bevis
Cast: Dion Bilios, Francine Cain, Catty Hamilton, Kat Hoyos, Jaime Hadwen, James Maxfield, Ainsley Melham, Josh Quong Tart, Jayde Westaby
Image by Frank Farrugia

Theatre review
1980 is not exactly a great many lifetimes ago, but we have certainly lost a considerable measure of innocence since then. The Xanadu stage musical is a recent incarnation of the now cult classic film that materialised at the very dawn of the 80’s, and judging by the thoroughly farcical approach now taken, twenty-first century life seems to be very cynical indeed. Gone are all the naive idealism and whimsical romance that had accompanied Electric Light Orchestra’s bubblegum pop for the original, replaced by post-modern campery so sardonic, Liberace and Mae West are blushing in their respective graves (maybe with jealousy, but hard to know for sure).

The Xanadu film was never well regarded by critics, and its box office takings were disappointing, but it retains a significant place in pop culture history chiefly for the hugely successful music that it features. It makes sense that Douglas Carter Beane would re-write the piece exposing all the silliness of the story so that we can laugh with his version, instead of laughing at it as was often the case with its predecessor, but there is a compromise to the substantial presence of the original songs that does not always find harmony. Beane can subvert everything in the book, but shoehorning his comedy into the perfectly constructed pop masterpieces often feels antipodal and frankly, a waste of opportunity. Instead of improving the storytelling around the euphoric compositions of passion, he tries to re-engineer them for his comedic purposes with mixed results. Nonetheless, the show is by and large, a very funny one, in the style of a “children’s show for 40 year-old gay people” as one of its character states.

Director Nathan M. Wright rises to the challenge of bringing a tenacious and flamboyant vibrancy to the work, never missing a beat with his show’s unrelenting hammy humour. Always engaging and always in jest, every weakness of the 1980 film is turned into a knowing joke, as are the few effective poignancies from the original. The love story takes a back seat, making way for amusing and frivolous characterisations taking centre stage, performed almost vaudevillian in style, by an impressive cast that seems to have no limits to their abilities. It is not every day that we see people singing, dancing, acting and making us laugh, all at once, and on roller-skates no less. Jaime Hadwen is perfect for the role of Kira, sent from the heavens to raise Xanadu from its ashes. Hadwen’s comedic skills win us over from her first appearance, and while the tender warmth that she is able to inject surreptitiously, is easily overlooked in a mélange of frenzy, it is that quality of sweetness that keeps us endeared and quite miraculously, invested in. Her singing is exuberant and accomplished, but more creative sound design is required to live up to Olivia Newton-John’s legendary recordings. Xanadu may not be perfectly conceived, but its execution is top-notch, especially by the performers who give it their all on stage.

Kira discovers that the reason for humans striving hard for art, is linked inextricably to our mortality. As daughter of Zeus, her life is eternal, but the only way for us to live beyond the last breath is to establish legacy. The fact that Xanadu has endured against all odds through the decades, serves as inspiration to all of us who suffer from lapses of confidence in our work and indeed, other parts of life. We may not always receive affirmation and recognition for the things we do, but it is important to realise the ripple effect of even the smallest of our efforts. We cannot see every tomorrow, but the ones we touch will carry something of us into the days ahead, like “where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man /
Down to a sunless sea.” (Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

5 Questions with Dion Bilios and James Maxfield

Dion Bilios

Dion Bilios

James Maxfield: So you play Thalia, the muse of comedy in Xanadu. Who would you say your comedy inspirations are?
Dion Bilios: I grew up watching Jim Carrey movies. Ace Ventura and The Mask were my favourites. But you can’t go wrong with Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell.

Have you been mused or had a muse in your life before?
I like to think I’ve been a muse. Some people would say that I inspired the character “Donkey” from Shrek.

If you could have been born in an another era, what would that be?
Definitely the 70’s. I would have rocked a big afro. I can’t help myself when I hear a sexy disco bass line.

Your beautiful wife Danielle is also a performer. How do you two juggle your marriage, career and the on-and-off distance that so delightfully comes with working in this industry?
Yes, she is beautiful and extremely talented too! I’m very lucky to be married to someone who truly understands what being a performer entails. It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that! But setting goals and knowing that you have each other’s back no matter what is a huge part of it. Also, flying… lots of flying.

So you’re a bit of a foodie. What’s your favourite go-to places to eat in Sydney?
Oooooh I do love my food! Let’s see, I’m a big fan of A’Tavola in Darlinghurst (beautiful Italian). Also, if you feel like a treat with your significant other (or just yourself) spend 4 hours overlooking the harbour at Quay, it’s amazing.

James Maxfield

James Maxfield

Dion Bilios: Hey Jimmy, Xanadu is set in the 80’s. Some hated the era but I’m a fan. What are your thoughts about it?
James Maxfield: Massive fan! Who doesn’t love shoulder pads and power ballads, am I right?! Plus, nothing compares to the dance style of the 80’s. Stayin’ Alive, Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing. Classics!

So I know you’re an animal lover. Tell me about your pets.
I have two dogs. A pug named Bentley and a French bulldog named Tyson. I’m just a little obsessed with dogs that have squishy faces, breathing problems and a complete lack of gross motor skills.

We spent a lot of years dancing and performing together when we were younger. On a scale of 1 to I love you, how much would you say you love me?
Marry me! I mean, I would say you’re kinda up there in the “I Love You” league… I guess.

Now that you’re a Xanadu pro roller skater, what are your thoughts on competing in the world championships?
(Laces up roller skates, performs a perfect triple axle into arabesque., skates towards camera.) I’m a little rusty but I’ll give it a go *wink*

Any tips for young performers wanting to get into the industry?
Never stop learning! I’ve been doing this for 12 years now and there’s not a job I do where I’m not learning something new about my craft. The more boxes you tick, the more work there is out there for you. And just be nice. To everyone. It makes life so much easier.

Dion Bilios and James Maxfield can be seen in Xanadu the musical.
Dates: 12 May – 12 Jun, 2016
Venue: Hayes Theatre