Review: Beautiful The Carole King Musical (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 17 , 2017 – Jan 21, 2018
Book: Douglas McGrath
Music & Lyrics: Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Director: Marc Bruni
Cast: Jason Arrow, Stephanie Caccamo, Doron Chester, Barry Conrad, Andrew Cook, Marcus Corowa, Julia Dray, Akina Edmonds, Esther Hannaford, Amy Lehpamer, Cameron Macdonald, Nana Matapule, Mike McLeish, Lorinda Merrypor, Joseph Naim, Ruva Ngwenya, Josh Piterman, Naomi Price, Rebecca Selley, Sean Sinclair, Angelina Thomson, Mat Verevis, Anne Wood, Chloé Zuel
Image by Joan Marcus

Theatre review
It was 1958 when 16 year-old Carole King sold her first song to Dimension Records, thus beginning her career as a trailblazing female of the music industry. Featuring her hits, and others of the era, Beautiful the musical charts King’s early years as a songwriter, depicting personal and professional challenges that had come her way, as she evolved into the legendary figure we have come to know.

Douglas McGrath’s book is tender, gently but effectively sentimental, and memorable for its surprising humour. The soulful songs are arresting, with an immediacy of appeal derived from the unabashedly catchy style of 3-minute hit factories typical of the time. Powerfully nostalgic, there is no other way to respond to the music than to gush with excitement, at the beginning of each familiar tune.

Esther Hannaford is deeply endearing in the lead role, effortlessly sassy but with a startling quality of earthy humility that closely approximates our impression of the woman herself. Hannaford’s voice is scintillating in ballads and in numbers that convert easily to the musical theatre format, but grittier fare like “Natural Woman” and “I Feel The Earth Move” expose the rift in genres that remains to be ameliorated.

It is a large and talented cast, with moments of brilliance emerging from each member, to our immense delight, as the show progresses. Beautiful is a simple story, but rich with theatrical pleasures. Director Marc Bruni’s creation seems always to be perfectly gauged. It fulfils predictable requirements of a conventional Broadway show, but is fundamentally elegant in all its approaches. There are bells and whistles everywhere we look, but nothing ever goes overboard.

It is not a regular occurrence on stage, that a tale is told of a woman who reaches great heights of success, without her having to make enemies, or to lose integrity. Beautiful is about women making it in showbusiness, without demeaning themselves or anybody else. The show is unquestionably enjoyable, and it delivers all the frivolous fun one asks of the format, but its quiet representation of a sovereign womanhood, is the reason for our elation.

wwww.beautifulmusical.com.au

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: Velvet (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 20, 2017
Director and creator: Craig Ilott
Musical director: Joe Accaria
Choreographer: Lucas Newland
Cast: Joe Accaria, Kaylah Attard, Emma Goh, Marcia Hines, Mirko Köckenberger, Rechelle Mansour, Tom Oliver, Craig Reid, Stephen Williams

Theatre review
The show begins when a young man appears on stage with luggage. Dressed as a Jehovah’s Witness, or maybe a Mormon, the wide-eyed innocent finds himself in a new city, and we imagine that he encounters disco for the first time. This would mean that the action takes place in the late 1970s, when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the charts, and in New York, the notorious night club Studio 54 was the epicentre of society and culture. Craig Ilott’s Velvet is essentially a variety show, an homage to the era of the hustle, the afro and cocaine. All is light and frothy, with the protagonist’s journey offering a vague sense of narrative, that holds everything together.

At the centre is a slew of hits, unforgettable songs that defined a generation, marvellously reassembled and executed by musical director Joe Accaria, who ensures that their sparkly appeal is always accompanied by a deep appreciation for the soul and funk roots of these dance-floor stompers. Living legend Marcia Hines plays the diva with effortless grace, trusting that her exceptional voice to take us away from daily humdrum to her realm of sequinned ethereality. Leading man Tom Oliver works harder to prove himself, in archetypal musical theatre style, energetic and earnest in his efforts to reach out to everyone in attendance. Acrobats and circus performers provide excellent spectacle and thrills, each of them accomplished and beautiful. The production relies heavily on two very versatile talents Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour, to maintain its effervescence but later sections require more surprises, perhaps in the form of bigger costumes or additional dancers, to sustain our enthusiasm.

Colours of the rainbow flag make more than a few appearances. We cannot be sure if our boy comes out as gay, but he certainly does come out of his shell in the process. Disco may be about debauchery and hedonism, but we remember it also, for the liberation it inspires and represents, even today. At its best, disco is uplifting while it keeps us feeling dirty. It makes us think of sex as salvation, and creates a space where heaven and hell can meet to reveal so much that is dichotomous about being human.

www.velvettheshow.com

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

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: Mr Burns (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 19 – Jun 25, 2017
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Music: Michael Friedman
Lyrics: Anne Washburn
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill, Ezra Juanta, Jacqy Phillips
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
There are three distinct acts in Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play. First, we discover that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket; it is the apocalypse, and we have run out of electricity. A small group of survivors huddle together, trying to keep themselves sane by retelling episodes of The Simpsons. They each contribute fragments, but memory, like all human ability, proves to be considerably less than infallible.

Over the next decades, this compulsion to hark back to when things were better, grows in magnitude. The act of storytelling becomes grander, so do the increasingly fabricated remembrances of how things had been, back in the day. Eventually, we see that The Simpsons is turned into a kind of origin story that no longer accurately recreates the real thing.

Anne Washburn’s play is wildly imagined, but not always successful in its ability to aid our suspension of disbelief, as is necessary for all styles of science fiction. At each step of the narrative, we are bothered by questions left unanswered, that create an expanding sense of implausibility to the narrative. It is appropriate then, that the show turns progressively extravagant, until in Act Three, where we are presented with something that looks no different from standard Broadway musical fare.

The production begins dour, perhaps understandably so, but its long and enduring dullness marks a disappointing start for a crowd that has clearly amassed for that very particular Simpsons sense of humour. Satisfaction eventually arrives with Act Two, as the tone turns quirky and playful, and stimulating philosophy is introduced to its existentialist explorations.

The first musical number appears, quite unexpectedly, weaving American pop references into a kind of campy postmodern mash-up, to excellent effect. We see the characters desperately trying to hold on to all things bright and shiny from the past, much like the conservatives in our real life, unable to come to terms with their new circumstances. Entertainment continues to be dispensed henceforth, but we discover that the show had reached its peaked too soon. It all comes to a somewhat underwhelming conclusion.

It is a proficiently designed production. Mr Burns’ black sequinned catsuit by Jonathon Oxlade is very fabulous indeed, an unforgettable vision for the theatrical annals. Oxlade’s sets are appropriate to each sequence, but the show offers only a few surprises with its imagery, presumably restrained by its context of resource depletion.

Mitchell Butel leads an endearing cast of enthusiastic and colourful performers. As Mr Burns, Butel’s gangly limbs attempt to steal the show with their incredible animated dexterity, but the actor’s comedic capacities are impressive, and a real asset to this tenaciously serious creation.

It really is no joke, that we refuse to adequately address our energy crisis. Those with a stake in industries that are bringing devastation to the environment, like the villainous Mr Burns, continue to be allowed to plunder and destroy. We have to keep optimistic in order to be of any effect as opposition to their corruption, but the prevailing state of confused democracy seems to be getting us nowhere. Knowing right from wrong, is no longer sufficient in mobilising power and generating action, in our current climate of fake news, alternative facts, and insatiable greed. If history teaches us anything, it is revolution that will shift paradigm, but there is no hint even of burgeoning insurgency, in this age of despondent complacency.

www.belvoir.com.au