Review: Hairspray (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Feb 5 – Apr 2, 2023
Book: Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell (based on the film by John Waters)
Lyrics: Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Music: Marc Shaiman
Director: Jack O’Brien
Cast: Brianna Bishop, Rhonda Burchmore, Ayanda Dladla, Mackenzie Dunn, Bobby Fox, Todd Goddard, Asabi Goodman, Shane Jacobson, Sean Johnston, Javon King, Donna Lee, Todd McKenney, Carmel Rodrigues
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review

Tracy is a big girl, and because it is 1962, she was never meant to appear on TV. When Corny Collins looks past conventions to recognise Tracy’s talents and casts her on his variety show, Tracy quickly uses her new platform to instigate change on national television, by forcing the integration of Black and white Americans on screen. Whether one sees Hairspray as yet another “white saviour” narrative, or a story that is about true allyship, the musical’s feelgood charm is hard to deny. Characters and the story from John Waters’ original 1988 film are colourful and adorable. Songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman from this 2002 Broadway creation are irresistibly soulful. Perfect in so many ways, this is a show that is likely to keep returning for generations to come.

Performer Carmel Rodrigues is completely delightful as Tracy Turnblad, full of vibrancy as the spirited teen. Her legendary mother Edna is played by Shane Jacobson, who although never really convinces as the divine maternal figure, impresses with his vocal prowess. Scene-stealer Javon King’s immense talent and unequivocal star quality, only makes us want the part of schoolfriend Seaweed to be much bigger, even though he is in no way an insignificant element of the show. Asabi Goodman as Motormouth Maybelle, may require a bolder sense of confidence, but her solo rendition of  “I Know Where I’ve Been” is certainly accomplished, and an important statement about the unfaltering efforts of Black activists, even when their white counterparts claim the limelight.

It should come as no surprise that Tracy is a good feminist. The fact that she faces prejudice every day, from inhabiting a physicality deemed contemptible by so many, could only mean that she must understand the deficiencies of how things are run. Tracy knows also, that it is not only one’s size that could be weaponised against people. We see her fighting for Black rights, because injustice is simply injustice, no matter how it manifests. Good feminists must continue to hold the door open, once they have entered the room, and they must never forget that no one is to be left behind.

Review: Cinderella (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Oct 24, 2022 – Jan 29, 2023
New Book: Douglas Carter Beane
Lyrics and Original Book: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
Director: Mark Brokaw
Cast: Daniel Belle, Bianca Bruce, Tina Bursill, Josh Gardiner, Shubshri Kandiah, Nicholas Hammond, Ainsley Melham, Matilda Moran, Silvia Paladino
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s exquisite songs for Cinderella were originally written for a 1957 television broadcast, and had taken more than half a century, to reach the Broadway stage. This 2013 adaptation with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, transposes the old tale for the contemporary stage, carefully incorporating updates and modifications, to make Cinderella palatable for twenty-first century sensibilities. The amalgamation of the classic score with a modernised narrative, proves a delightful opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the most familiar of stories, only with a lot less misogyny.

Our poor girl Cinderella is no longer incapacitated and desperate. She is now well-read, smart, intuitive, and maybe even a little ambitious. Performed by Shubshri Kandiah, she is also hugely endearing, and incredibly graceful. God forbid, she might even be a little feisty. Aside from this surprisingly refreshing take on the famous character, Kandiah’s singing and dancing are resplendent, effortlessly transporting us to somewhere magical, and wonderfully innocent.

Prince Topher too has become more human. Given charming humour by the dashing Ainsley Melham, who matches in performance ability with Kandiah; the two look to be a pair made in heaven. Their chemistry is the stuff dreams are made of, and we want their union to succeed as much as they themselves do. Also very impressive is Silvie Paladino, who brings incredible skill and a delicious campness to the unforgettable role of Fairy Godmother. Paladino’s presence is so strong, as is her voice, that she makes her enormous dresses seem a natural fit.

The excellent transformation that occurs in this newer Cinderella, is not that the pauper becomes the princess, but that young girls can now see a version of the heroine being valued for all the right things. The aspiration is no longer just to marry well, but to become intelligent, resilient, kind and generous. This should always be the lesson to teach our young, should we decide to keep telling this story for centuries to come.

Review: Saturday Night Fever (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 27 – Jun 2, 2019
Book: Robert Stigwood, in collaboration with Bill Oakes (based on the film by Nik Cohn)
Director: Karen Johnson Mortimer
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Natalie Conway, Paulini Curuenavuli, Euan Doidge, Bobby Fox, Melanie Hawkins, Marcia Hines, Stephen Mahy, Nana Matapule, Ryan Morgan, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji
Images by Heidi Victoria

Theatre review
The plot was always flimsy in Saturday Night Fever, but all its music and dance sequences have made it an unequivocal icon of the disco era. With a soundtrack album that has sold over 45 million copies worldwide, its songs and their accompanying decadent style, proceeded to define entertainment in the immediate years after its 1977 release, and continue to retain significant cultural cache for generations thereafter. This live theatre version first appeared 1998 in the West End, predictably stirring with the deeply familiar and seductive song list, and this 2019 rendition is similarly appealing.

Accepting that the story is largely irrelevant to how one should enjoy the piece, song and dance is then allowed to become the focus. Choreography by Malik Le Nost is exhilarating, and faithfully nostalgic. Paul Herbert’s orchestrations amplify the pizzazz and schmaltz that the audience adores. We want the big productions to never end, but alas, several extended scenes that attempt to deliver drama, or at least some sense of narrative, only prove themselves to be unsought distractions that bring the energy down, along with our excitement, between the genuinely gratifying episodes of discotheque fabulosity.

Leading man Euan Doidge is a very average actor in the role of Tony Manero, but thankfully shows himself to be a sensational dancer, and doubtless for many an audience member, a real looker. Even with the completely disco-erroneous short haircut and tight trousers, Doidge is a breathtaking specimen who almost has us forgiving everything. His dance partner is the impossibly perfect Melanie Hawkins, who makes every one of Stephanie Mangano’s entrances look like an angel descending from above. Club DJ Monty is played by the thoroughly engaging Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji, who absolutely shines in the supporting role, with timing and moves that have us eating out of his palm. All the hits are sung marvellously, mainly by a fantastic group of four (Natalie Conway, Paulini Curuenavuli, Bobby Fox and Nana Matapule), but there is no denying the superstar power of Marcia Hines, who is called upon to inspire awe with each of her brief appearances.

Saturday Night Fever tries to give us more than what we bargain for, where it should know better its own strengths. Like legendary party animals of the late 70’s and their penchant for amphetamines and cocaine, we come to the show as hedonists with no time for emotion. Between bumps of pleasure, we have to endure moments of tedium, but we stay for the duration, because we know exactly what the next peak is going to bring.

Review: Dream Lover (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

dreamloverVenue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 22 – Nov 27, 2016
Original concept and stage play: Frank Howson, John Michael Howson
Dramaturg/Script Consultant: Carolyn Burns
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: David Campbell, Martin Crewes, Hannah Fredericksen, Bert LaBonte, Marney McQueen, Caroline O’Connor
Image by Brian Geach

Theatre review

In the musical Dream Lover, Bobby Darin is a nice guy with a career to be proud of. Undeniably talented, the Italian-American from New York’s Bronx county made it big in show business in the middle of the twentieth century, leaving behind an impressive catalogue of songs, but an uneventful life story. The show starts off slowly, with characters that take time to connect, and a doggedly polite plot that resists sensationalism, mindful of a need to honour the late star, thereby sacrificing opportunities for a greater sense of theatricality and humour. Our emotions are guided by the quietly simmering narrative, so even though all its musical numbers are strong, the viewing experience only becomes exuberant later in the piece when its dramatic stakes finally gain height.

The jukebox musical format is carefully and cleverly utilised here, with preexisting songs from Darin and his era, assembled and rearranged to form a surprisingly coherent and entertaining show. Set design is striking but inflexible, with an undiminishable glitz distracting from its many sombre scenes, although remarkably effective in its visual demarcation of space. The production boasts an outstanding cast, with quintessential showman David Campbell in the lead, overflowing with extraordinary charm and skill, stealing hearts in every melody. There are moments when Campbell seems restrained and overly cautious in his portrayal of a venerated hero, and occasional issues with sound balance can be disappointing, but his powerful presence, astonishing commitment and infectious passion, guarantee a spectacular night at the theatre. Also noteworthy are Martin Crewes as Darin’s manager Steve Blauner, and Hannah Fredericksen as Darin’s wife Sandra Dee, both captivating personalities who provide solid support with unequivocal artistic brilliance.

Bobby Darin is from a time when we knew to celebrate dignity. There is no dirt in Dream Lover, which will take many of today’s audiences by surprise. Scandalous biographies are where the money is; in entertainment today, whether reality TV, tell-all books or on any other conceivable digital configuration, we consume crudeness as a matter of habit. It is troubling that the kind of career that Darin had enjoyed, could cease to be valued and appreciated in this new economy of vulgarity and gossip on steroids, where music is routinely sold in a package along with celebrity humiliation. Dream Lover may be about the past, but its ability to remind us of better days offers a nostalgic glimmer of hope. It inspires a longing for something purer, and on days like these, it could be the best that we can cling to.

Review: We Will Rock You (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

wewillrockyouVenue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 20 – Jun 26, 2016
Music & Lyrics: Queen
Story & Script: Ben ELton
Director: Ben Elton
Cast: Erin Clare, Casey Donovan, Jaz Flowers, Gareth Keegan, Brian Mannix, Thern Reynolds, Simon Russell
Image by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
There is a scene in which the Bohemians declare that they do not know what rock and roll is. Ben Elton, writer and director of We Will Rock You evidently suffers from that same predicament. The production showcases some of the greatest rock tunes ever written, but in the interest of the musical theatre genre, builds characters and a narrative around them that unfortunately serve no real purpose except to dilute and dumb down the genius of Freddie Mercury and his Queen legacy.

Elton’s show features an endless series of dad jokes, and a tenuous context of anti-establishment that reads more like anti-progress and narrow minded, greying conservatism. It attempts to make jokes of pop culture icons such as Australian Idol, without acknowledging the fact that the strongest performer in its cast had been a prominent winner of that very franchise. It uses names like Britney Spears and Katy Perry as punchlines, as though we would all share its appetite in humiliating those women and obliterating their undeniable achievements. The show finds it energy from the music it is authorised to use, but unlike the musicians it attempts to pay tribute to, We Will Rock You is spiritless and banal.

The story is yet another take on the messianic allegory. Like Jesus from the Bible or Neo from The Matrix, Galileo is sent from the heavens to save us all. Whether or not one is concerned with the political incorrectness, and tastelessness, of creating opportunities for another white man to deliver us from evil, the trope is frankly, very desperately tired. As though its format is not already archaic enough, a female “lead character” is included for no discernible reason except to provide Galileo with a love interest, presumably to assure us of his hetero-masculinity in case, god forbid, Freddie Mercury’s gayness would befall him by association.

It is a well-performed show nonetheless, with an excellent band, and a strong cast that traverses the rock and musical genres effortlessly. The aforementioned Idol winner Casey Donovan steals the show as the villainous Killer Queen, winning us over to the dark side where everything is much more appealing and infinitely more rock and roll; very ironic indeed. Brian Mannix, frontman of 1980s rock bad Uncanny X-Men, is also on hand to bring hints of authentic flavour to a stage that is ostensibly tailored for a “family-friendly” type crowd. They may all be stars that we see having their glitzy moment in We Will Rock You, but it is certainly not rock heaven that they have taken us.

Review: The Sound Of Music (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Dec 13 – Jan 17, 2015
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Russel Crouse, Howard Lindsay
Director: Jeremy Sams
Cast: Johanna Allen, Lorraine Bayly, Eleanor Blythman, Du Toit Bredenkamp, Nakita Clarke, Savannah Clarke, Cameron Daddo, Jacqueline Dark, Philip Dodd, Louis Fontaine, Erica Giles, David James, Stefanie Jones, Amy Lehpamer, Dominica Matthews, Jude Padden-Row, Marina Prior, Madison Russo
Images by James Morgan

Theatre review
The Sound Of Music premièred on Broadway in 1959, which makes it a reasonable assumption that most of us had grown up with songs from the iconic musical, figuring prominently in each of our own musical education. Maria brought music to the Von Trapps, and also to lives of millions. Our familiarity with the songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece is quite unparalleled, and although some of the show’s dialogue has long become archaic, its power over our cultural consciousness is second to none.

This manifestation for an Australian touring production is a straightforward one that presents no surprises. The text is unchanged, and all the trappings of a commercial musical are delivered efficiently. Sets transform with military precision, lighting evolves endlessly to take us through every mood change, and the last note to every song decides whether or not its audience should applaud. Everything is thoroughly refined, and the experience is orchestrated to a measured and mechanical perfection, but a cast in live theatre of course, will always be susceptible to some variation, even in the most immovable of productions like this one.

In the role of Maria is Amy Lehpamer, who delivers an impossibly flawless rendition of one of the most popular musical characters of all time. There is no denying the fact that viewers will gauge any actor taking on the part against the legendary film version, but Lehpamer easily meets our expectations, with deeply impressive technical abilities and a presence so warm that every last punter in the nosebleed section cannot help but be won over. She is glorious from prologue to curtain call, with an effortlessness that only a true star of the stage can portray. Similarly fabulous is Jacqueline Dark, whose Mother Abbess is simultaneously commanding and endearing, memorable for her astoundingly powerful singing in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Cameron Daddo’s vocals are thankfully adequate, and while not a scene-stealing performance, his work as Captain Georg von Trapp is often believable and surprisingly moving, aided by a cast of enchanting youngsters who play his children with irresistible cuteness and brilliant conviction.

The anti-Nazi story in The Sound Of Music provides a gravity that helps set it apart from the often excessively frivolous quality of its genre. It is ironic that the entirety of its very large cast is of Caucasian appearance, but the show’s message is unambiguous. We think about the meaning of freedom, and its primary importance in any life. We think about the magic that comes from great music and great art, and how our humanity cannot be divorced from the wonderful capacity of song that brings hope to the darkest of days. When things are not going well, we can find ourselves caged in by fear, but it is our human ability to imagine something better that gives us resilience and ingenuity. In our weakest moments, the simplest of lyrics will lift us up; “Follow ev’ry rainbow till you find your dream.”