Review: Nine (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 5 – 14, 2019
Book: Arthur Kopit
Music & Lyrics: Maury Yeston
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Maddison Burton, Sophia Charters, Phoebe Clark, Kelly Goddard, Ellyn Gwillim, Amy Humphrey, Tayla Jarrett, Tisha Kelemen, Katelin Koprivec, Michele Lansdown, Andy Leonard, Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Sarah Murr, Sophie Perkins, Caitlin Rose, Petronella van Tienen, Megan Walshe
Images by Blake Condon

Theatre review
Guido Contini is caving under pressure, unable to start work on another film, after the failure of his last three efforts. Instead his mind wanders, and in the 1982 musical Nine, we see him obsess over all the women he has loved, as though longing for one of them to turn into a muse and solve his writer’s block. An old-fashioned work, with a male protagonist placed firmly at the centre, surrounded by innumerable women often looking disposable, Nine however still boasts some of the finest melodies in the Broadway canon, with Maury Yeston’s songs remaining as stirring as they had always been.

Director Alexander Andrews assembles all the parts proficiently, and his production bears a level of polish that almost glosses over the regressive nature of its gender representations. Antonio Fernandez’s energetic musical direction, Madison Lee’s imaginative choreography, and James Wallis’ multifaceted lighting design, all combine to deliver an enjoyable, if slightly too traditional, musical extravaganza.

A cast full of conviction, determined to bring vibrancy to the stage, with Andy Leonard in the leading role, offering nuance in his acting, but not quite satisfactory in terms of vocal requirements for several of his songs. The quality of singing is in general slightly disappointing, although it must be noted that the “Folies Bergeres” number is performed with remarkable wit, by Katelin Koprivex as Stephanie and Michele Landsown as La Fleur, both impressive with the vigour they introduce for their memorable scene.

Writing can date, but theatre must always be made for now. Some works need a greater attempt at innovation, so that they can speak more resonantly with audiences of the time, and Nine is certainly an example of how a relic should be updated to match conversations of the day. Many will find it jarring to see so many women on this stage serving no other purpose than to facilitate the narrative of a man in delusion. For many others though, the sheer pleasure of hearing these splendid songs, is more than enough to make up for its political faux pas.

Review: The Wild Party (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Nov 15 – 24, 2018
Book: Michael J. Lachiusa, George C. Wolfe
Music & Lyrics: Michael J. Lachiusa
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Michael Boulus, Jack Dawson, Nick Errol, Emily Hart, Prudence Holloway, Matthew Hyde, Tayla Jarrett, Katelin Koprivec, Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Rosalie Neumair, Sophie Perkins, Olivier Rahmé, Zach Selmes, Samuel Skuthorp, Georgina Walker, Simon Ward, Jordan Warren, Madeleine Wighton, Victoria Zerbst
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is New York City in the 1920s, and the party is lit. Bohemian types gather at the behest of volatile lovers Queenie and Burrs; not a single introvert in sight, all thirsty for a good time, ready to make the drama happen. Michael J. Lachiusa and George C. Wolfe’s 2000 musical The Wild Party is a rollicking ride with colourful characters taking us through a succession of exuberant numbers, celebrating life in the most exciting of cities.

Under Alexander Andrews’ direction, The Wild Party is a dazzling, fun-filled romp. Even though its narrative becomes somewhat vague, the production’s relentless vibrancy keeps us engaged and uplifted. Music direction by Conrad Hamill is lush and decadent, a wonderfully evocative element. Outstanding choreography by Madison Lee brings unexpected sophistication. Imaginative and adventurous, Lee’s work is thoroughly compelling, and along with dance captain Sophie Perkins’ efforts, it is the way bodies move through every second in this staging, that proves truly splendid. A group of 5 chorines, Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Rosalie Neumair, Jordan Warren and the aforementioned Perkins, are the stars, brilliant with their spirit and charm, extraordinarily cohesive with all that they present.

Georgina Walker plays a very alluring Queenie, with an attitude and physical gestures that are flawlessly reminiscent of that bygone era. Sound engineering is often deficient, and Walker’s voice suffers as a result, but the intricacy of her performance is no less impressive. Prudence Holloway and Victoria Zerbst take on flamboyant roles with extravagant aplomb, both actors fierce and fabulous.

Parties are worth little when participants are unable to let their hair down, but as we see in The Wild Party, things can go too far. Art however, plays by different rules, and social transgressions are often an important part of how it can create impact. Considering the context, this staging is perhaps slightly polite, so it is never really able to provide much more than entertainment. To be wild, is to explore boundaries and question the rules. Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes may well be liked by everyone, but she is unlikely to have left an indelible mark anywhere.

5 Questions with Alex Mau and Olivier Rahmé

Alex Mau

Olivier Rahmé: If you could play any one role in the show, which one would it be?
Alex Mau: Queenie, of course! Who doesn’t want to play a blonde? Queenie is such a wonderful, three-dimensional female role, something we could do with more of in theatre! When the party is lit, Queenie is living her best life, sassing it up with her BFF Kate, throwing shade at the grand dame Dolores and killing it with her signature dance move, the “Black Bottom”. Come dawn, Queenie breaks it down with the most poignant and touching ballads in the show, alongside the gorgeous hunk Black. Queenie has so much light and shade, it would be so amazing to play her but, fortunately for you, I won’t be doing that and, instead, you’ll have triple threat and all-round superstar, Georgina Walker, portraying this once-in-a-lifetime role!

Which role excites you most in the rehearsal room? Why?
The director! I am in awe of how our director, Alexander Andrews, always does unique and refreshing takes on classics, such as Little Triangle’s inaugural production of Sunday In The Park with George and its sophomore production of Merrily We Roll Along. He encourages the cast to bring themselves to the characters, creating really interesting and fully-developed interpretations of characters that could otherwise be simple caricatures. I couldn’t stress enough than audiences should see this production of The Wild Party – not only is it a rarely produced musical in Australian theatre, you’ll definitely want to see what Alexander Andrews does with this amazing material!

What’s a funny/crazy/interesting thing you’ve picked up on in the rehearsal room?
The Chorines are like the bubbly and hilarious Greek Chorus of The Wild Party (portrayed by Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Sophie Perkins, Jordan Warren & Rosalie Neumair). Being incredible dancers, our fabulous choreographer, Madison Lee, has given them heaps of intense and electric choreography that it feels like they’re doing full-body workouts throughout the entire show! It’s crazy how effortlessly they smash that chorey and then go on to belt those group numbers like they eat dissonant harmonies for breakfast – #goals. Keep an eye out for what I think is one of their funniest dance moves (in the spirit of 1920s vaudeville), which I would describe as a cross between the spread eagle from Chicago and squats in the air – yes, I can see you trying to picture it, but you’ll just have to come and see it for yourself!

What is the wildest party you’ve ever been too?
What happens at The Wild Party, stays at The Wild Party.

What do you think the audience’s reaction to The Wild Party will be?
Michael John LaChiusa (composer and lyricist for The Wild Party) is well-known for writing complex theatre scores so I think audiences will be expecting some very challenging, intellectual theatre. Alexander Andrews has taken an interesting and refreshing interpretation of bringing out and focusing on the human connections between the characters so, while the music is still technically difficult (which, as a pianist, I love!), I think audiences will be surprised by the humanity and rawness of the story and the characters. Prepare for side-splitting laughter and tear-jerking moments, it’s gonna be a WILD PARTY!

Olivier Rahmé

Alex Mau: Describe The Wild Party in five words?
Olivier Rahmé: Hilarious. Crazy. Shocking. Thrilling. Eye-opening.

What drew you to The Wild Party and why should people see it?
A lot of my friends have worked with Little Triangle before, so I was thrilled, humbled and so excited to be a part of such a reputable company. People should come to the show because of the impact a show like this can have on you – that’s what I love about theatre. As actors we hope the audience members gain something from the performance; to leave with something to think about & to be impacted. I truly believe The Wild Party succeeds in doing this.

What surprised you most about The Wild Party and what do you think will surprise audiences the most?
I love how meaty some of the roles are and how the actor has so much to play with. The script offers a lot and doesn’t box any character into being one thing. Many of us show all sorts of colour, which I love. I think the audience will be surprised by the level of talent – So. Many. BEAUTIFUL. Actors! And the voices are really shown off. My hat goes off to the production team for their casting.

Tell us a little about your character Eddie and how your approach to the character has changed over time.
When I first started reacting to the energies the other actors were giving me and read the script, I thought… Eddie is awful. What an awful man. Perfect. I can do that! But exploring his journey more and trying to figure out why Eddie does some of the things he does, I’ve now realised; Eddie isn’t a bad person. He is a defeated person who does a horrific and unforgivable thing. He struggles a lot with his identity and doesn’t quite know how to be happy – constantly masking his unhappiness and failures by blaming how life turned out on his beautiful wife Mae (Emily Hart). Sidenote: Emily’s belt may or may not be a solid and definite reason you need to see this show).

Tell us a little about the most challenging thing about the role.
The most challenging this I find is the final scene with Eddie towards the end of the show when he abuses everybody both verbally and physically. Emotionally and physically this section is exhausting for me as the actor. I definitely feel my body and mind tiring out after a few runs of this scene!

Alex Mau is répétiteur/pianist and Olivier Rahmé plays Eddie in The Wild Party, the musical.
Dates: 15 – 24 Nov, 2018
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Merrily We Roll Along (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 7 – 24, 2018
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Embla Bishop, Phoebe Clark, Blake Condon, Tiegan Denina, Caitlin Rose Harris, Patrick Howard, Tayla Jarrett, Katelin Koprivec, Jesse Layt, Victoria Luxton, Michael McPhee, Matilda Moran, Shannen Sarstedt, Zach Selmes, Richard Woodhouse, Victoria Zerbst
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the most straightforward rags to riches story, told backwards. Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along commences at the point where its protagonist has attained considerable professional success, but whose personal relationships are all falling apart. Observing the story unfold in reverse order, we discover little that is surprising, although Sondheim’s songs remain characteristically enchanting. The musical was first presented on Broadway in 1981, lasting only 16 performances, after 52 previews.

Director Alexander Andrews introduces an appropriate pizzazz to the production, working with a very exuberant cast for a standard of singing befitting the often tricky compositions. Leading man Patrick Howard gives his character Frank a strong presence, and a commanding voice, but lackadaisical costume design diminishes the personality transformations that the actor tries to portray. His besties are played by Zach Selmes and Victoria Zerbst, both accomplished and persuasive with what they wish to achieve. Shannen Sarstedt leaves a strong impression as first wife Beth, able to convey depths of emotion as well as unexpected dimension, for one of Merrily‘s many cardboard characters.

The two musicians, Conrad Hamill and Antonio Fernandez prove themselves reliably versatile and efficient in providing accompaniment for the entire duration, but the very small band can sometimes deliver underwhelming results. Similarly, visual design in terms of sets and costumes, are insufficiently ambitious, and the staging struggles to live up to Sondheim and George Furth’s quite grand piece of writing. Nothing however, can take away from the sheer delight of the master’s songs, all of which are sung with gusto and precision, and this for his legions of fans, is plenty.

5 Questions with Patrick Howard and Victoria Zerbst

Patrick Howard

Victoria Zerbst: Patrick, you have traversed many stages and productions in various wonderful roles, what has your theatre journey been like for the last few years and what brings you back musical theatre?
Patrick Howard: The past few post-drama-school years of working freelance in theatre have been really challenging and rewarding. I’ve found myself naked, covered in blood, crying on top of four tonnes of soil before quick-changing into a devil costume. I’ve found myself playing a weird detached version of myself, doing stand-up comedy about death. But mostly I’ve worked behind the scenes in production/stage management and as a director and sound designer. The last book musical I did was six years ago, discounting Marat/Sade a few years back, and it’s been wonderful and very different to be doing a musical again. As a musician (which I was before I was a thespian) and an actor, there’s something so incredible about reaching a place of heightened emotion as your character, where your only choice is to sing; words alone won’t cut it. Of course, Sondheim does this so well and seamlessly, it never jars at all. I missed that thrill, and I missed making music with a giant bunch of passionate actors, it’s so thrilling to be doing it again after all this time.

Frank would be such an interesting character to play! How do you develop a character who does such terrible things but remains likeable and charming throughout the show?
It’s a tricky one. I often find myself very frequently playing men that are quite performatively masculine, aggressive and do terrible things. I take a lot of perverse pleasure in this, being a bit of a bleeding-heart queer boy in real life – I feel like this gives me a unique take on what can be, at times, pretty architypical roles. The difference with Frank is that, as the central protagonist of the story, the audience needs to root for him even though he does some really awful things – he’s not a cut-and-dry bad guy. With any character, playing the truth of what’s in the text should do almost all of the work, you’ve got to trust the writer as god of the world you’re inhabiting, and in Merrily, Sondheim and Furth have cleverly arranged Frank’s story in reverse, with the audience watching him transform from a tragic, miserable wreck of a man into his former, youthful, optimistic self. Your empathy for Frank grows through this, you can see the mistakes he’s made, and more than if it were played chronologically, I think it makes you really consider what choices lead us to our various ends.

What has it been like working with Little Triangle and all the amazing members of the cast and crew?
A bloody dream. The team are so wonderful and it’s got to be the most professionally-run indie company I’ve ever worked for. Our producer, Rose, is so organised and her love of her work is so evident. Our director, Alex, is an absolute dreamboat, and is incredibly insightful and intelligent. Conrad, our MD, is a wizard and has to be one of the most optimistic and encouraging people I’ve ever met. Our répétiteurs Antonio and Alex are remarkable, and the rest of the cast… I mean you just have to come and see them. Each is more talented, generous, gorgeous, encouraging and intelligent than the last. There’s an incredible synergy in the room, and I’m not ashamed to say that after the first few rehearsals I’d walk the bus home with happy tears welling in my eyes, because they all brought so much joy into my little artfag heart. We sing a lot about being ‘Old Friends’ in the show for people who’ve only known each other for a few months, but it truly feels like we all go way back.

Do you reckon prospective audience members should listen to a few tunes before coming to the show? Which ones would you recommend?
Oooh, I suppose it depends if you’re someone who likes to know everything about what they’re about to see, or if you like to be completely surprised. Not many people know this show very well, it was famously a tremendous flop when it opened on Broadway in 1981, and despite being re-written a bunch and being a truly brilliant show, it doesn’t get seen often outside of, oddly, high school productions (as can be seen in the recent movie Lady Bird). But if you wanted a little taste of the show before going to see it, I’d recommend tapping your toes along to ‘Now You Know’, which is the absolute banger that closes Act 1, or the titular ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ which opens the show. For something with a little more heart, ‘Growing Up’, ‘Not A Day Goes By’, or ‘Good Thing Going’ are what you’re after.

Why do you think this musical is still important? What do you want the audience to get out of it?
I think often a lot of theatre tends to focus on romantic relationships as central to plot, and that’s particularly the case in most musical theatre. Merrily does have quite a bit of romantic drama in it, certainly, but this is one of only a few shows that really focuses in on a complex, messy, beautiful friendship, namely between Frank, Charley and Mary. These three are the best of friends there are (and ultimately, they aren’t, which is just so, so heartbreaking), and I think it’s wonderful to celebrate friendship and have it portrayed quite honestly on stage. Playing scenes where Frank and Charley, two married, heterosexual men, openly tell each other in quite emotional terms that they love each other, is such a special thing as well – for all their faults, the way they express their friendship is really beautiful. I think watching the story unfold backwards makes it important, too. It gives an audience the relief of guessing ‘what happens’ and lets them concentrate on what’s happening, with the dramatic irony of knowing what comes next. You can find little moments in the action to think, ‘See, here’s where it starts to go wrong. Why can’t you see it happening Frank?’ and maybe that gives you pause to think more carefully about the choices you’re making in your own life.

Victoria Zerbst

Patrick Howard: What about theatre in Sydney is exciting you most at the moment?
Victoria Zerbst: I’m so excited by theatre in Sydney at the moment and there are so so many shows on my to see list. I think that’s because a lot of shows coming up align heaps with my interests – sick female-centred stories, independent musicals, works by new and emerging Aussies writers and lots of theatre for young people.

How has your background in comedy helped you prepare the role of Mary Flynn?
I think coming from a comedy background has helped me find new and interesting ways to deliver lines and bring out humour in dialogue. Mary is already a very wry and hilarious character with sick one-liners so experimenting with timing and delivery of the lines has been such a blast.

But I also think writing and performing comedy for the past few years has really helped me find my voice as a performer. Writing my own stuff has been very empowering because I’ve learnt what makes me laugh, what makes me different as a performer, and how I can uniquely shape a role from my own point of view.

That has really helped me find an honest and real way for me to tell Mary’s story that comes from my blood. Hopefully this will connect with audiences and bring the character to life.

Mary is quite an intelligent, complex character, but spends years pining for Frank, even when there’s little-to-no chance of fulfilment. What is it like to play a role like that in 2018?
This is such a cool question and something I think about a lot! Mary is a smart, thoughtful character but one of her primary arcs in the show is her dealing with an unrequited romantic situation. She is often left disempowered by her relationship with Frank and I often wonder if it appears that she is primarily defined by this relationship.

But I really think there is a lot more to her thank that. I try to reframe her romantic pursuit of Frank from her own point of view – she’s a total dreamer, she’s endlessly hopeful and loyal and she really cares about the people in her life. I think this speaks to her complexity as a character and her intertwined strength and vulnerability.

Strong female characters don’t have to be flawless, completely empowered women. I think her enduring love for Frank is totally relatable and, while I often wish she would just snap out of it and see her own worth, I think this internal conflict is something with which a lot of people can relate.

What’s been most thrilling about the process so far, and what’s been most challenging?
Thrilling: Definitely running all the songs in rehearsals. I love the music so much and hearing them sung so well by this amazing cast I swear everyday I’m so moved and then I’m dancing and then I’m crying.

Challenging: Oh man some of Sondheim’s melodies!! So often I sit by the piano frozen by this man’s genius and then I curse his name for those subtle little changes in musical phrases that literally keep me up at night.

Sondheim is a god of 20th Century theatre, and his music and lyrics alone are reason enough for people to come and see the show. What are some other reasons to come, and what do you hope audiences take away?
The thing I love most about this musical is that is has such a big heart. It’s definitely one of those ‘makes you laugh, makes you cry’ shows. I think audiences will totally fall in love with these characters and feel for them on their journeys as the show takes them back through time.

Because the show spans so many years of these characters lives, there are so many amazing emotional arcs and moments of growth and change. I hope in watching this show audiences are moved to think about the choices we make in life, how we define success, how people change over time, how our dreams are found and forgotten, and about how friendships are made and lost over time. There are so many juicy moments in the show about friendship and forgiveness, love and connection and I think that will speak to everyone who comes and sees the show.

Patrick Howard and Victoria Zerbst are appearing in Merrily We Roll Along, by Stephen Sondheim.
Dates: 7 – 24 March, 2018
Venue: The Depot Theatre