Review: Assassins (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Sep 16 – Oct 22, 2017
Book: John Weidman
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Laura Bunting, David Campbell, Connor Crawford, Martin Crewes, Kate Cole, Bobby Fox, Hannah Fredericksen, Jason Kos, Rob McDougall, Maxwell Simon, Justin Smith
Images by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
Australia does not believe in capital punishment, and we certainly never condone murder under any circumstance, but this principled conception of the world relies entirely, on a justice system that convinces us of its adequacy. If men in high places get off scot-free after committing egregious acts of immorality, we begin to think in terms of vigilantism. In Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, a congregation of women and men remembered for the dubious accolade of having attempted to shoot and kill American presidents, are gathered for a history lesson, that talks about the phenomenon of political assassinations, and the meanings it represents in our modern democracies.

It is a great joy to be able to take pleasure in a work of musical theatre, that is not frivolously romantic, or twee, or excessively sentimental with its concerns. Some might argue that its topic is of particular relevance in 2017, but Assassins is thematically pertinent as long as our governments are a thing of contention, and for true democracy to exist, that sense of discordant anxiety must surely be ever-present. Whether or not the leader is to your tastes, there will always be a substantial portion of the population that is against them, if we are to uphold the fundamental doctrines surrounding our shared understanding of freedom.

Brilliantly conceived for the Sydney stage by director Dean Bryant, who balances spectacle with nuance, to deliver a show that is as entertaining as it is meaningful. In perpetual and harmonious motion, Bryant and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, have created a sophisticated interpretation of Assassins, that addresses the genre’s need to tease and dazzle, whilst maintaining an air of gravity to proceedings. The production is a visual delight. Alicia Clements’ set and Ross Graham’s lights continually steal the show, with surprises that unfurl through every scene, splendid and ravishing from beginning to end.

An impressive ensemble takes charge of the material. Although not evenly skilled, their spirited cohesion makes for a performance that is firmly captivating. David Campbell is compelling as John Wilkes Booth, the man responsible for Lincoln’s death. Fabulously gifted in voice, and delicately studied with his acting, Campbell may not be a leading man on this occasion, but proves himself to be the unequivocal star of Assassins. Justin Smith’s marvellous acting chops too, make a fascinating Samuel Byck, the all too familiar loony who would very likely be a regular caller on talkback radio if alive today. Also memorable, is Martin Crewes, whose passionate singing and radiant presence, are reliable, as always, for adding vibrancy to the presentation.

There is always a temptation to imagine a world suddenly better, after a terrible tyrant is killed, but history has proven time and time again, that the removal of a head, does not automatically bring peace to the body politic. If there is anything worth celebrating about our Western democracies, it is our ability to argue for the greater good to prevail. As long as our conscience leads the way, harm can be minimised, but by the same token, the imperfections of our societies will remain salient. Murder can be sweet revenge, but it solves nothing, serving only to prolong the torment of injustice.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

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: 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

5 Questions with Ben Hall and Hayden Tee

Ben Hall

Hayden Tee: Why does everyone call you Annie?
Ben Hall: Annie is a nickname given to me by Simon Burke who I worked with on Devil’s Playground. It’s a reference to the Woody Allen film Annie Hall; Simon has given quite a few people nicknames, isn’t yours “Maggie T” Hayden, as in Maggie Tabra?

Annie, describe yourself in three adjectives and tell us why?
Hmm, considered – I think about most decisions a lot, perhaps too much. I like to analyse things and find the best way of doing something. Self-deprecating – it isn’t always a useful quality but it helps to push me forward at times too and hopefully keeps me humble when things are going well. Placable – I don’t hold grudges I tend to be non-confrontational and laid back, I just like to get on with it.

Annie, in what ways are you similar to Tim, the character you play in Only Heaven Knows?
Funnily enough I think those adjectives above could be used to describe both of us, perhaps that’s why they came to mind. I also think that we are both willing to just go and throw ourselves in the deep end and see if we sink or swim. And I think we are similar in the way that we learn the most from the people that we are closest to and take on their qualities. Tim always wants to learn and he likes change and I think that’s what I love about the character.

Annie, you work regularly in all mediums, theatre, TV and film. Which is your favourite and why?
I love each medium in different ways, so far one hasn’t captured me more than the other. In theatre I love the collaboration, the research and the time you have to find real depth in a character (I think you learn more here because you can read the audiences response instantaneously too). In TV, I really enjoy exploring the technicalities and the stillness and specificity you can bring on such a minute scale when you’re in so close. I’m yet to do a feature length film but what I love about film is the attention to detail and the reality of it – you’re given the time and trust to live in the moment as truthfully as possible.

Annie, since I first started working with you on Les Miserables I have been saying “Ben Hall is the next Hugh Jackman” now I know you will actually be the first Ben Hall which is even more exciting. How does Ben Hall see himself making his mark?
Thanks Hayden! I suppose my end goal is similar to yours in the way that I’d just like to keep working on shows that affect people and make them more empathetic because from there real change can be made. To do that I think I’d need to create more and more realistic and believable characters that speak to more people – basically just keep on learning and getting better at what we do whilst still being a decent human being. It’s fairly low key really. 🙂

Hayden Tee

Ben Hall: Hayden, what is the role you’ve enjoyed the most in your career and why?
To be honest I’m happy as long as I am working and I have enjoyed them all for completely different reasons. Right now, playing Lana in Only Heaven Knows is my favourite. After 3 years of playing Javert in Les Miserables it is really refreshing and liberating to inhabit such a fun and light character, someone who’s first instinct is to resort to humour. He is also the closest I have ever been to playing myself including my first New Zealand accented role which I am very much enjoying.

Has this show changed you in some way? If so how/why?
This show has an incredibly important message. It is about the long march toward equality and that is something I am very passionate about. When there are concentration camps for homosexuals in Chechnya and countries where homosexuality is illegal and here in Australia still no marriage equality – I feel this play is saying something that needs to be said, although the play has not changed my view on these issues it has made me feel as if I am now a part of the conversation and I am honoured to be able to make people think after seeing this important play.

What is your ultimate goal in this industry i.e. When you’re 95 what do you hope to have achieved?
My goal is always to work and always has been. I would like to get to the end and still be doing what I love, I’ve always said i want to die on stage having never retired. Let’s hope it’s not at the Hayes in heels however.

What is your best theatre story?
BERTIE THE COCKROACH.
That time a cockroach crawled out of my toupee onto my face. During a scene. On stage. Apparently from the audience it looked like I was having a stroke. I have now added 3 cockroach checking seconds to my quick change.

What is your favourite moment in the show and why?
The nudity of course! I only wish I could see it instead of frantically changing gender backstage.

Ben Hall and Hayden Tee can be seen in Only Heaven Knows by Alex Harding.
Dates: 26 May – 1 July, 2017
Venue: Hayes Theatre

Review: Only Heaven Knows (Luckiest Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 26 – Jul 1, 2017
Music, Book, Lyrics: Alex Harding
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Mathew Backer, Blazey Best, Tim Draxl, Ben Hall, Hayden Tee
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Tim and Cliff’s love story begins in 1944, probably the most dangerous of times for gay men, with many impounded in European concentration camps, and the rest of the world correspondingly paranoid and cruel in their treatment of homosexuality. Alex Harding’s Only Heaven Knows remembers queer life in mid-20th Century Sydney, and the resilient community that persisted to thrive, with a dignified integrity, in the face of unrelenting and brutal persecution.

It is the subplots that captivate. Minor characters who chronicle struggles of a traumatic past, retain their pertinence, proving themselves more resonant than a central romance that seems unremarkable by comparison. The work is flamboyantly sentimental, but is only occasional moving. We are engaged instead by its textual complexity, seduced by an opportunity to analyse its sociopolitical connotations and to examine the degrees of relevance its narratives continue to hold over our existence today.

Production design attempts to address the frequent changes of settings, but scene transitions can often lack elegance. Performers take awkwardly long walks before finding the stage. Entrances and exits notwithstanding, the show is sensitively brought together by director Shaun Rennie, with a warm sincerity that elevates a slightly dated play from 1988, to something that is strikingly urgent. The ghost of Lea Sonia, a drag queen character, has the freedom to travel through time, to make references about marriage equality, and Grindr, so that history is resurrected for good reason.

There are marked divergences in terms of singing ability, but the cast is surprisingly cohesive. In the world of musical theatre, scene-stealing show-offs are almost encouraged, so it is a rare treat to be able to adore every performer equally. Matthew Backer is impressive with the thoroughness of nuance he introduces to all his roles, and is truly unforgettable in a scene that brutally portrays the experience of electroconvulsive therapy inflicted upon “sexual deviants” of the time. Blazey Best and Hayden Tee are excellent with their comedy, both actors sharp and confident, while adhering to the subtle tones of the production. The lovebirds, played by Tim Draxl and Ben Hall, are tender and effortlessly convincing, making the most out of fairly colourless material.

It is important that young ones know our queer histories, and it is important that love stories are made for people who identify differently from the mainstream. In 1944, queer folk had few past lessons to draw upon, and nothing in the future that they could look forward to. Only Heaven Knows allows us to grow with the knowledge that people had been through worse, but things keep getting better. It also serves as reminder the depth of depravity that societies are capable of, and that a sense of moral vigilance must never be taken lightly. The game of endless persecution may shift its focus away from one community to another, but those who had suffered must not be complacent in their newfound emancipation, but continue with a resistance against senseless violence and oppression.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

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.

www.bigfishaustralia.com.au

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.

www.hayestheatre.com.au