Review: The Bridges Of Madison County (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 6 – Apr 5, 2020
Book: Marsha Norman (based on the novel by Robert James Waller)
Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Neil Gooding
Cast: Michael Beckley, Anton Berezin, Beth Daly, Kate Maree Hoolihan, Zoe Ioannou, Katie McKee, Ian Stenlake, Grady Swithenbank
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
When we encounter Francesca, she is a housewife in 1960s Iowa, with 2 kids and a husband, seemingly happy to be on a farm living the simple life. A fortuitous meeting with photographer Robert however, reveals that she does want more. The Bridges of Madison County is one of the most famous of American romances, a novella by Robert James Waller that has sold over 60 million copies since its initial publication in 1992. Francesca’s struggles about fulfilling her duties as wife and mother, are presented as completely incongruent with what might be a greater happiness. For a moment, she experiences exhilaration with Robert, but must weigh the consequences should she dare to follow her heart.

This musical version, first created in 2013, features strong songwriting by Jason Robert Brown, but its individual numbers, although delightful, do not necessarily add up to a satisfying plot for the show. Direction by Neil Gooding is able to suffuse a sense of intensity to the emotions being depicted, but the general pace for its storytelling is unsatisfying. Design and technical aspects of the production are on the whole accomplished, with Phoebe Pilcher’s work on lights noteworthy for bringing valuable flamboyance to the staging.

Performer Kate Maree Hoolihan plays a very sentimental Francesca. Her interpretation tends to be simplistic, but proves ultimately to be a moving one. Ian Stenlake looks every bit the National Geographer photographer and love interest Robert, but some of his singing at crucial points are not quite up to scratch. Although evident that the couple works hard to find chemistry, the attraction between the two is never really convincing. Beth Daly and Michael Beckley however are memorable as Marge and Charlie, quirky neighbours who bring occasional but very needed humour to the staging.

In the song “Almost Real”, we hear Francesca talk about her relationship with Chiara, her sister in Naples, who “would open her legs just as easy as speaking.” In her efforts to separate herself from that negative perspective of a free woman, Francesca spends her life doing what she thinks is the right thing, but it is clear that all she does is dedicate herself to being a subject of conformity. Although an indisputably credible character, the writers of Bridges refuse to allow Francesca the gratification she craves, and deserves. We are made to think that to be a good mother, Francesca simply has to give herself up, and that we must all realise, is a lie.

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

Suzy Goes See’s Best Of 2014


2014 has been a busy year. Choosing memorable moments from the 194 shows I had reviewed in these 12 months is a mind-bending exercise, but a wonderful opportunity that shows just how amazing and vibrant, theatre people are in Sydney. Thank you to artists, companies, publicists and punters who continue to support Suzy Goes See. Have a lovely holiday season and a happy new year! Now on to the Best Of 2014 list (all in random order)…

Suzy x

 Avant Garde Angels
The bravest and most creatively experimental works in 2014.

 Quirky Questers
The most unusual and colourful characters to appear on our stages in 2014.

♥ Design Doyennes
Outstanding visual design in 2014. Fabulous lights, sets and costumes.

♥ Darlings Of Dance
Breathtaking brilliance in the dance space of 2014.

♥ Musical Marvels
Outstanding performers in cabaret and musicals in 2014.

♥ Second Fiddle Superstars
Scene-stealers of 2014 in supporting roles.

♥ Ensemble Excellence
Casts in 2014 rich with chemistry and talent.

♥ Champs Of Comedy
Best comedic performances of 2014.

♥ Daredevils Of Drama
Best actors in dramatic roles in 2014.

♥ Wise With Words
Best new scripts of 2014.

 Directorial Dominance
Best direction in 2014.

♥ Shows Of The Year
The mighty Top 10.

♥ Suzy’s Special Soft Spot
A special mention for the diversity of cultures that have featured in its programming this year.

  • ATYP



Photography by Roderick Ng, Dec 2014


Best of 2018 | Best of 2017 | Best of 2016Best of 2015Best Of 2013

Review: Desperate Houseboys (Matthew Management / Neil Gooding Productions)

despboysVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 18 – 28, 2014
Playwrights: Cole Escola, Jeffery Self
Directors: Christian Coulson
Performers: Cole Escola, Jeffery Self

Theatre review
It takes a certain amount of gall and audacity to present a work that is entirely frivolous. Theatre practitioners are rarely able to look at their work as purely entertainment, while having no concern for conventions and audience expectations. Cole Escola and Jeffery Self’s Desperate Houseboys is creative, original, irreverent and wild. It is Generation Y post-modernism, attacking the notion of comedy with constant references to popular, theatre and gay culture, with the aide of theatrical structures that shift throughout the hour. It is like John Waters, only a lot younger.

Cole Escola and Jeffery Self do not seem to take themselves seriously. There are no discernible politics, and no obvious ambition to their work, but their supreme confidence in their niche is rare and admirable. Their undeniable talent is thoroughly utilised in this production, but it is within their comfort zones that the action takes place. It is high camp and highly amusing, without a need to try being too clever. Maybe because these young men are already extremely clever.

Their performance is energetic, with a manic silliness that characterises their persona and show. Like all great comic duos, the chemistry that exists between Escola and Self is bewilderingly powerful. Escola is more animated of the two, but Self is hardly the Dean Martin in this relationship. Both are outlandish and ridiculous, and it is this meeting of likeness that creates their success. It can be argued that their work requires these same qualities from its audience. This is a show about inside jokes, not necessarily with its themes, but in tone. Desperate Houseboys appeals to a specific sense of humour, one which is neither mainstream nor common. This would then mean that what Escola and Self have here is pure comedy gold for the right audience, but for others, quite possibly the opposite.

Presented as part of the Mardi Gras festival, the question remains whether Escola and Self are too offbeat for the target audience. With LGBT liberation in Sydney entering its fifth decade, and so many advances made in our sociopolitical lives, has the “gay community” become something too mainstream for this brand of madness? Have the Sydney gays gone too straight for a show about lube closets and overgrown twinks?

Review: Thank You For Being A Friend (Matthew Management / Neil Gooding Productions)

goldengirlsVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 13 – 28, 2014
Playwrights: Thomas Duncan-Watt, Jonathan Worsley
Directors: Neil Gooding, Luke Joslin
Performers: Julia Billington, Chrystal de Grussa, Donna Lee, Darren Mapes, Nigel Turner-Carroll

Theatre review
The Golden Girls was a big TV hit series in the 1980s, and has left an indelible mark on audiences everywhere. Many of us remember catchphrases, character traits, relationship dynamics, and plot structures. Indeed it is nostalgia that gives this revival in puppetry form its appeal. There are minor references to contemporary culture (like a “cell phone”, Fifty Shades Of Grey and Kim Kardashian), but effort was put into a show and script that is absolutely faithful to the original. The set is a delightful re-creation. We even get ad breaks that feature commercials from the era, of defunct fashion labels and forgotten brands.

All four puppeteers have a thorough understanding of the roles they assume. The mannerisms and voices they replicate are funny and thoroughly delightful. Donna Lee’s depiction of Sophia is endearing and, like on the TV show, delivers the biggest punchlines. Darren Mapes facial expressions are so reminiscent of Beatrice Arthur’s Dorothy, one probably looks at him more than his puppet. Julia Billington never fails to get a laugh whenever she brings up St. Olaf as Rose, and Chrystal de Grussa’s Blanche is a hilariously overblown version of Blanche Devereaux, whose “man-eater” antics remain uproariously ridiculous. Also noteworthy is Nigel Turner-Carroll, the fifth member of the cast who tackles a host of male support characters with aplomb and great humour.

The production is part of the 2014 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras program, not only because of Blanche’s gay son’s appearance, but also because of our memories of the original series’ efforts at discussing issues such as coming out, same-sex marriage, AIDS and discrimination against people with HIV. This loving tribute has rekindled a strangely deep relationship between audience and those golden girls. These ladies are fictional, but they are also dear friends.

5 Questions with Cole Escola

coleescolaWhat is your favourite swear word?

What are you wearing?
A tasteful bolero jacket made of recycled human flesh and a pair of wedge sandals from Jessica Simpson’s Payless collection. For makeup I chose a neutral lip color and coupled it with a smokey eye. Instead of blush or bronzer, I finished the look with a thick layer of battery acid to give it that “I just died in a car accident” effect. No pants.

What is love?
Full disclosure, I’ve never even heard that word before. Sorry, I guess we don’t have it in the states.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The last show I saw was Waiting For Godot on Broadway starring Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. I give it zero stars. Take that, McKellen!

Is your new show going to be any good?
I wish I could lie, but unfortunately the show is going to be extremely good. Honestly, it will be a transformative experience for everyone involved. We’re going to break down some walls and make some truly heartening discoveries. No pants.

Cole Escola is performing in Desperate Houseboys, part of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras 2014 festival.
Show dates: 18 – 28 Feb, 2014
Show venue: Seymour Centre