Review: Gypsy (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 18 – Jun 30, 2018
Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Richard Carroll
Cast: Blazey Best, Laura Bunting, Anthony Harkin, Mark Hill, Rob Johnson, Matthew Predney, Jessica Vickers, Jane Watt, Sophie Wright
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Probably the most well-known story about a stage mother, Gypsy is a highly-regarded biographical musical, that charts the early years of legendary American burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, with particular focus on her mother Rose’s overzealous efforts at attaining stardom for her two daughters. The show is a fascinating character study, but also thoroughly entertaining, with a structure that seems to include every ingredient necessary for a sure-fire hit.

The production, directed by Richard Carroll, is inviting and warm, especially sensitive in its depiction of family dynamics. The narrative is conveyed with emotion and depth, but some of Gypsy’s theatricality is lost in the realism that it cultivates; both its humour and drama can occasionally feel underplayed, perhaps too understated in approach for a form that honours all things larger than life.

Rose is very convincing here, as the “momager” with good intentions. Played by Blazey Best, her maternal qualities are irrefutable, but parts of the character that are nefarious and abhorrent, are softened as a result, and dramatic tensions never quite reach beyond the adequate. Laura Bunting impresses in Act II, as we watch the performer take little Louise through a breathtaking transformation, into the international sensation that was Gypsy Rose Lee. As the character begins to find her strength and power, we become accordingly captivated, relieved to experience a brighter side to the mournful tale. Supporting actor Jane Watt chews the scenery as Cratchitt and again as Tessie Tura, delivering some truly marvellous moments of joyful laughter, whilst demonstrating extraordinary comic ability and presence, in a very unexpected coupling of roles.

Also memorable is scenic design by Alicia Clements, romantically evocative of auditoriums from the early twentieth century, complete with ornamental proscenium arches and velvet curtains. Scene changes are impeccably executed by a very attentive and efficient team, headed by Cara Woods, the stage manager who rises to the challenge of a very technically involved show.

When successes come to bear, past transgressions tend to turn easily forgiven. It is true that Gypsy’s fame and fortune had come, partially, as a result of Rose’s unconscionable behaviour, but there must be no denying the depravity of her ways. The cliché that “everything happens for a reason” is useful in helping people move forward, and although there is no virtue quite as awe-inspiring as forgiveness, Rose should only be seen as a villain, whether or not one is able to perceive her redeeming features. Parents are simply never allowed to violate the sanctity and responsibility, of nurturing and protecting their offspring, no matter what riches are at stake. Contemporary parallels to the Gypsy story abound, with the Kardashians, Jenners and Hadids currently most conspicuous. It can seem a fine line between love and exploitation, but the matter of parenting has no room for ambiguity.

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?
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.

Review: Little Shop Of Horrors (Luckiest Productions / Tinderbox Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Feb 18 – Mar 19, 2016
Book & Lyrics: Howard Ashman
Music: Alan Menken
Director: Dean Bryant
Choreography: Andrew Hallsworth
Musical Direction: Andrew Worboys
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Tyler Coppin, Esther Hannaford, Brent Hill, Scott Johnson, Dash Kruck, Josie Lane, Kuki Tipoki, Chloe Zuel
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
When Roger Corman’s original film of Little Shop Of Horrors appeared in 1960, it was seen mainly as a science fiction comedy about aliens from outer space invading planet earth, a popular genre believed to represent the USA’s anxieties about the spread of communism in the middle of the twentieth century. By the time of its evolution into an off-Broadway musical in 1982, and the many subsequent revivals, Little Shop Of Horrors had taken on greater poignancy. It is now ironically a story about the horrors of capitalism, and the insatiable voracity of money. Seymour’s sacrifices for fame and fortune begin cautiously but they are soon beyond his control, and Audrey II literally takes on a life of its own to usurp much more than Seymour had ever intended. It is debatable if economies anywhere were ever as innocent in purpose as our protagonist, but Audrey II is a clear and unexaggerated parallel for the seemingly incessant threats of financial crises that we are warned about in the daily news.

Dean Bryant’s vision for this 2016 staging is wildly imagined and beautifully realised. There is great sophistication to be found alongside his exuberant showmanship, offering a night of sensational entertainment, the quality of which is admittedly rare. Bryant’s boldness in attitude meets with the material’s unbridled extravagance for a production that enchants and excites. Although fundamentally a very dark tale, its theatrical executions here aim for a wide appeal, ensuring that musical enthusiasts and general audiences alike would be equally captivated. Aided by a phenomenal team of designers (most remarkably Owen Phillips’ set and puppetry by Erth Visual & Physical Inc), the show is a visual feast resulting from daring dreams and big ambitions that the intimate space has very clearly failed to hamper.

Thoughtful casting brings together a group of vivacious personalities who fire up the stage with vibrant humour and immense energy. There are bigger voices to be found in the industry for sure, but prioritising characterisations over technical ability pays off in spades. Brent Hill is an endearing Seymour, with a convincing purity that connects well with his audience. Leading lady Esther Hannaford’s comic timing is outstanding, and the Audrey that she manifests is a real and irresistible joy. It is a coupling that we cannot resist championing for, and that ensures the plot’s effectiveness from start to end. Supporting players Angelique Cassimatis, Tyler Coppin and Scott Johnson too, leave excellent impressions with brilliantly funny performances in their respective roles. It must be noted that sound designer Jeremy Silver’s achievements in finding the perfect sonic balance for the show is quite an accomplishment, helping the ensemble provide an engrossing and exhilarating experience that will prove to be unforgettable.

Revisiting classics is always a tricky exercise. Having to live up to standards set by two classic films and innumerable stage adaptations, is without a doubt a formidable task, but this version of Little Shop Of Horrors is quite possibly the best rendition that this generation can hope to see, and maybe for several years thereafter. It exceeds not just expectations, but also our fantasies of what the show could possibly look like before our own eyes. The artists have created a work of great spirit and surprising poignancy, and along with a good deal of wonderful singing and dancing, this is a show that will have you suddenly falling in love with musical theatre all over again.

Review: Sweet Charity (Luckiest Productions / Neil Gooding Productions)

rsz_sc_0005_bps4219Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Feb 7 – Mar 9, 2014
Book: Neil Simon
Music: Cy Coleman
Lyrics: Dorothy Fields
Director: Dean Bryant
Choreography: Andrew Hallsworth
Musical Direction: Andrew Worboys
Actors: Verity Hunt-Ballard, Martin Crewes, Debora Krizak, Lisa Sontag

Theatre review
Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the iconic Sweet Charity, on stage and on film, in the late 1960s. The dance sequences are some of the most striking moving images ever seen, so one of the main challenges in staging the work today would be the treatment given to the re-creation of those scenes.

The current production at Hayes Theatre Co, helmed by director Dean Bryant and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth straddles between faithfulness and innovation. There is an acknowledgment that times and audiences have changed, but also an awareness that the immortal is a hard act to follow. Bryant’s adaptation uses the theatre’s spacial limitations to his advantage, and turns the work into an intimate and emotionally rich experience. There is a sense of things being scaled down, but for the most part, he achieves a good intensity on stage that results from the distillation of something conceptually grander. Hallsworth’s thankless task of re-interpreting Fosse’s choreography is surprisingly effective, even if the numbers “Hey Big Spender” and “Rich Man’s Frug” do leave us pining desperately for the film.

Visual elements are especially noteworthy. Ross Graham’s lighting is varied, dynamic and sensually appealing, providing the minimal set an aura of tragic beauty. It also gives logic to time and place, making the innumerable scene transitions happen flawlessly. Tim Chappel’s costumes and Ben Moir’s wigs are thoughtful and impactful without being overwhelming. They tell the story of the characters even before they begin to speak.

Martin Crewes plays a trio of Charity’s men, and delights with every role. The energy he brings to the stage is staggering, and he possesses a headstrong determination that is seductive and commanding. Crewes impresses with his powerful and creative song interpretations, and is responsible for both the funniest and saddest moments of the show in his role of Oscar. Debora Krizak shines as Nickie, one of the more jaded dance hall hostesses, and is easily the raunchiest and most colourful of characters. Krizak’s ability to portray earthiness and pathos is a real highlight. Verity Hunt-Ballard is the star of the show, with a vocal talent that makes Charity’s songs more meaningful than ever. The comic elements of the role are difficult (it’s not the funniest of scripts), but Hunt-Ballard is deeply moving at every tragic turn.

Sweet Charity can be thought of as pre-feminist. It constantly defines its women in terms of their relationships with men, and depicts their work in the adult industry as unquestionably pessimistic. All efforts are made for them to appear vivacious and intelligent, but their desires are left unexamined and unevolved. Unlike Fosse’s film, this production does not leave you with thoughts of glitz, glamour and glossy dance routines. Instead, it makes you ponder the big questions in our lives… and the meaning of love.