Review: Mamma Mia! (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 11 – May 6, 2018
Music and Lyrics: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson
Book: Catherine Johnson (originally conceived by Judy Craymer)
Director: Gary Young
Cast: Josef Ber, Jessica Di Costa, Alicia Gardiner, Alex Gibson-Giorgio, Sam Hooper, Phillip Lowe, Stephen Mahy, Sarah Morrison, Natalie O’Donnell, Monique Sallé, Ian Stenlake, Jayde Westaby
Image by James D. Morgan

Theatre review
The Mamma Mia! musical is approaching twenty years old, and although not particularly advanced in age, the work could benefit from a major refresh. The downside from having success on such a major scale, is the show’s inability to provide any surprises to a crowd waiting to be entertained. It delivers what it promises, and nothing else.

Every facet of this production feels no more than adequate, with safe artistic choices evident in every corner. In spite of all the predictability, it is unlikely that anyone would leave disappointed, although a hint of underwhelm might linger afterwards. The familiarity of Mamma Mia! is perhaps comforting, for those who come to the theatre seeking something slightly old-fashioned.

It is a well-rehearsed cast, uniform in skill and likeability. Leading ladies Sarah Morrison and Natalie O’Donnell are charming enough as the immortal mother-daughter pairing, both bringing a nice glowing warmth to the stage. There is accomplished but unremarkable singing by all, but the funnier performers make good use of comedic moments to leave an impression. Alicia Gardiner and Jayde Westaby are fun, flirty and glamorous as middle age besties who unleash a sense of vibrancy onto the sleepy town of Kalokairi. Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe and Josef Ber are suitably handsome and mischievous, playing the three potential fathers just how we have come to expect.

A wonderful thing about Mamma Mia! is the positive light in which all its characters are portrayed. There are no villains, no rivalries, and no one has to face punishment in order that its story of happily ever after can proceed. It is a perfect picture of the sisterhood, with good men providing colour and support; a strangely rare occurrence on any stage. No wonder it refuses to go away.

www.mammamiathemusical.com.au

Review: The View Upstairs (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Feb 8 – Mar 11, 2018
Book, Music & Lyrics: Max Vernon
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Henry Brett, Thomas Campbell, Nick Errol, Ryan Gonzalez, Martelle Hammer, Anthony Harkin, David Hooley, Markesha McCoy, Madison McKoy, Stephen Madsen
Image by John McCrae

Theatre review
Wes is an obnoxious brat, a twenty-something social media star escaping New York, for the less competitive town of New Orleans. The View Upstairs by Max Vernon imagines a hallucinatory haze, in which our protagonist encounters the inhabitants of a local gay bar circa 1973. It is a musical in which the gay Millennial travels over time and space to meet his cultural forebears, for historical lessons about those whose shoulders he stands on. In 2018 we have finally arrived at a time, when many young queers of Western civilisations are oblivious to the arduous journey required, to attain our current state of equality and tolerance. Wes takes things for granted and lives a reckless life, until he comes face to face with stories he never knew would resonate at such depth.

The View Upstairs is an undoubtedly well-meaning piece of writing, with beautiful sentimentality and a pervasive warmth, but its songs and narrative structure bear a derivative quality that is less than inspiring. Director Shaun Rennie focuses cleverly, on bringing heart and soul to the production, keeping us emotionally engaged in spite of the meandering, lacklustre plot. Isabel Hudson’s colourful set design is appropriately humorous; effective in its recollection of a period remembered for being less than aesthetically sophisticated, but infinitely more genuine in the way communities interact.

A charming cast performs the show, impressively well-rehearsed and with great ardour. Leading man Henry Brett is eminently convincing as Wes, bringing a wonderful intensity to the more dramatic scenes, and consistently bowling us over with some truly sensational singing. Similarly gifted is Markesha McCoy, whose voice is capable of bringing any house down, and on this occasion, we are grateful to be audience to her magnificence. Martelle Hammer and David Hooley are memorable for contributing a dimension of vulnerability to the story, both striking in the authenticity they deliver through their portrayals of the underclass.

Without the knowledge of how things have come to be, so much of daily life can seem meaningless. The immense achievements of the gay rights movement are enjoyed by so many of us in the West today, but it is becoming increasingly evident, that those who benefit most, are least aware of the sacrifices required to arrive at this point of evolution. LGBTQI elders had all wished for brighter futures, but few had imagined that with the eradication of prejudice, comes the blind ignorance of entitlement. The best qualities of humanity, whether compassion, resilience or ingenuity, are often derived from great adversity. When life becomes easy for our children, we have to worry about the virtues they fail to cultivate.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Darlinghurst Nights (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Jan 4 – Feb 3, 2018
Book: Katherine Thomson (based on the book by Kenneth Slessor, and original concept by Andrew James)
Music: Max Lambert
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Baylie Carson, Andrew Cutcliffe, Natalie Gamsu, Abe Mitchell, Billie Rose Prichard, Sean O’Shea, Justin Smith
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
For many who reside in Sydney, the Darlinghurst area marks the heart of our city. It may not be the official “central business district”, but its spirit represents how we think of home, at our most wistful moments. Darlinghurst Nights, the musical and the locale alike, are a little tawdry and decadent, always seedy but romantic, full of melancholic nostalgia. The story by Katherine Thomson, based on Kenneth Slessor’s 1933 book, is a bittersweet embodiment of the bohemian essence we love associating with Sydney and the Kings Cross area, inventively devoid of the bourgeoisie.

Colourful characters and their dramatic stories are brought to the stage by Lee Lewis’ passionate direction, offering dreamy and ghostly tribute to lives that continue to gloriously disgrace the area. Historical tales are accompanied by Lee’s modern sensibility, allowing for a convergence of past and present, so that we relate intimately with the action unfolding before us. The production is cleverly designed by Mason Browne, whose set and costumes help to tell the story with remarkable sophistication and minimal fuss. Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest is especially noteworthy with his very thorough and imaginative work, in introducing a sense of poetic evanescence to all that we see, persistently exploring ideas for emotional landscapes that keep us firmly engaged with the show.

The cast is strong, a well-rehearsed bunch admirable for their restrained approach to the musical format. Each personality is convincingly portrayed, and whether raspy voiced or vividly sparkling in tone, every song is performed with great conviction. There is exceptional beauty in Max Lambert’s music for Darlinghurst Nights. Crossing over from classical to jazz and pop, Lambert has the intricately conceived entirety blended into one seamless work, that feels so marvellously accurate in its sonic representation of this city.

Ultimately, it is all illusory of course, our sentimental fantasy of this Sydney that has no big business, no bureaucracy and no black history. In Darlinghurst Nights, the truth is not allowed to get in the way of a good story, but as this nation strives to move towards a stronger future, a greater honesty needs to inform the way we think and talk about ourselves. We can no longer afford to leave buried, all our hard and inconvenient truths.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Three In The Bed (Birdie Productions)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 11 – 26, 2018
Book, Music & Lyrics: Jonathon Holmes
Director: Jonathon Holmes
Cast: Adin Milostnik, Daniella Mirels, Caroline Oayda, Alicia Rose Quinn, Aaron Robuck
Image by Douglas Frost

Theatre review
It is not the first time we come across a work of fiction, about three women falling crazy in love with one very unexceptional man. These stories never make any sense, of course, and because we are in this supposedly “woke” year of 2018, it is understandable if many were to find that tired narrative a particularly painful one to have to tolerate. Jonathon Holmes’ Three In The Bed is infuriating for the feminist viewer, and the number of us who will not accept that kind of unimaginative and inconsiderate writing, is increasing by the legions.

Its women are completely objectified, and none of the characters bear any sense of complexity or even attempt to be in any way remotely realistic. It is astonishing that songs about “why doesn’t he like me?” and “let me clean your room” are being unleashed on Australian audiences, in this day and age.
Sexually exploitative scenarios (the production’s unabashed selling point) are manufactured, just for laughs, but in the absence of verisimilitude, humour simply becomes impossible. When people do laugh, it is in response to the purposely uncomfortable sexuality being portrayed. The show tries repeatedly to tickle, but we can only cringe in response.

There is however, real talent in Holmes’ musical ability, and his hopeless passion for the Broadway genre is evident. The cast is undoubtedly skillful and their exuberance, quite miraculously, carries the show, with Caroline Oayda eminently memorable in the role of Emma, bringing exceptional flair and prowess to the stage. The performers work hard, and smart, but they are powerless in trying to redeem these deeply unfortunate depictions of womanhood.

www.threeinthebedmusical.com

Review: Green Day’s American Idiot (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 11 – 14, 2018
Music: Green Day
Lyrics: Billie Joe Armstrong
Book: Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Mayer
Director: Craig Ilot
Cast: Kaylah Attard, Kyla Bartholemeusz, Erin Clare, Connor Crawford, Linden Furnell, Phil Jamieson, Alex Jeans, Nicholas Kyriacou, Vidya Makan, Phoenix Mendoza, Phoebe Panaretos, Christopher Scalzo, Maxwell Simon, Ashleigh Taylor, Kuki Tipoki
Image by Ken Leanfore

Theatre review
Comprising songs by American punk rock band Green Day, American Idiot is a musical, or a rock opera to be slightly more precise, that showcases the band’s unquestionably popular songwriting talents. Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool and Mike Dirnt are Gen X’ers who have found an audience with their brash but commercial sound, and like many successful music artists today, exploring a jukebox musical with their pre-existing catalogue is now par for the course.

While it is somewhat refreshing to have the punk genre incorporated into this almost always contrived genre of show, a stronger book is required for American Idiot to speak to those who are less than fanatic about the band’s oeuvre. We see characters go through the semblance of a plot, but glean no detail from any of their stories. Cheesy choreography and unimaginative use of projections, cause the show to further alienate.

The adaptation of music is however, fairly effective, with dramatic arrangements helping to sustain interest. It is a committed cast of varying abilities, most memorable of whom is Linden Furnell in the central role of Johnny, exquisitely confident in his multidisciplinary approach to the production’s quite exacting requirements. His effortless blend of rock and broadway, along with a physical agility, provide us with a sense of impressive polish and professionalism. Much less comfortable on the musical stage is Phil Jamieson, who although exhibits good presence from his years as a rock musician, is visibly disoriented in this switch in performance style.

It is certainly one for the fans, but there is no reason for the bar not being raised higher. There is excellent energy and poignant intent in each of the songs being sung in American Idiot, and when presented appropriately, there is plentiful opportunity for a wider crowd to connect. The talent here is evident, but greater diligence is necessary for a show that could speak to more, with better clarity and at a more affecting depth.

www.americanidiotlive.com.au

Review: Barbara And The Camp Dogs (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 2 – 23, 2017
Playwrights: Alana Valentine, Ursula Yovich
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Troy Brady, Elaine Crombie, Jessica Dunn, Michelle Vincent, Debbie Yap, Ursula Yovich
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Barbara has a lot of fun in the city, singing at bars and events, being independent and vivacious. She is a mischievous character, and together with her cousin René, they paint the town red on the regular, determined to devour all that life has to offer, and to escape the troubling roots of their outback origins. Barbara And The Camp Dogs by Alana Valentine and Ursula Yovich, falls into categories of the musical and the epic journey, but it is a consistently surprising ride that defies all manner of expectations.

Barbara does well in life, but as an Aboriginal woman, the scars that she carries are deep, agonising and easier left ignored. When she finds herself having to return home to fulfil her filial obligations, all that she tries to deny, come flooding back to taunt her. The play expresses the nature of that immense suffering, with extraordinary acuity. Barbara and René sing, because so much of Indigenous experience is beyond our usual capacities of speech. In Barbara And The Camp Dogs, we are able to connect with the injustice and pain that have become entrenched in Black Australia. It divulges with power and wit, through its songs and storytelling, the darkest, most hidden of many Indigenous women’s lives.

It is impossible to overstate Jessica Dunn’s achievements as musical director. Barbara’s secret inner world turns intimately palpable, via influences of rock and soul, for a mode of communication sublime in its startling veracity. The songs move us as though a spiritual entity has taken hold. We are guided from scene to scene, with emotional intensity, precise and lush at every juncture.

Director Leticia Cáceres imbues the show with a warm glow, enchanting and irresistibly alluring. Everything about Barbara And The Camp Dogs is designed to have us fall in love with its characters and their narratives, and we endear to it all, readily and completely. There are occasional instances of abruptness in the transition of scenes, that can be slightly disorienting, but the raw aesthetic of the production is a forgiving one. Moreover, any blemishes would be easily shielded by the show’s incredibly charismatic stars.

The sensational voices and effervescent personalities of Ursula Yovich and Elaine Crombie win us over effortlessly, from the very beginning. The harmony forged between the two is a delight to our ears and to our hearts; what they present is wonderfully tender and exceptionally real. Yovich in particular, moves us in the most profound but unexpected ways. Telling us Barbara’s story of intolerable suffering, is not for a moment of catharsis, but a lasting gift of inspiration. We observe and learn, and promise to do better, to do more.

Barbara is not a social justice warrior. She is not a conscious activist, but she has to fight every day of her life, to defend herself against structural forces determined to keep her down. Australia’s shameful history of genocide, originating from the illegitimate claim of terra nullius in 1788, has reverberations that remain cruel and potent in the twenty-first century. A semblance of equality is not sufficient to heal these dreadfully severe wounds. Meaningful reparations will cost, but they must be made.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: High Fidelity (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 17, 2017
Book: David Lindsay-Abaire (based on the novel and film by Nick Hornby)
Lyrics: Amanda Green
Music: Tom Kitt
Director: Neil Gooding
Cast: Nicholas Christo, Erin Clare, Denise Devlin, Bronte Florian, Toby Francis, Zoe Gertz, Madison Hegarty, Alex Jeans, Joe Kosky, Dash Kruck, Jenni Little, Matthew Predny, Teagan Wouters
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
It is a break up story, with Rob in a state of devastation, trying to figure out why he had been abandoned and how he is going to win Laura back. In High Fidelity, the musical based on Nick Hornby’s novel (1995) and film (2000), we observe the nature of narcissism and its subsequent relinquishment, as our thirty-something boy protagonist, is driven to confront his own arrested development.

Rob owns a record store, in an age where the CD had all but decimated the market for vinyl. He organises stock not according to a logic that customers would find useful, but according to different periods of his personal life that the music had been prominent. The mixtapes he had gifted Laura, are of songs that only he loves.

This version of High Fidelity has trouble locating our empathy. The characters bear a trite American blandness. Both its humour and drama are ridden with cliché and a staggering predictability. None of the stakes that it attempts to set up, are able to convince us of any meaningful investment. Dialogue and lyrics are perfunctory, and only occasionally amusing, and the music is thoroughly, quite embarrassingly, run-of-the-mill.

The strong leads almost save the day, with Toby Francis and Teagan Wouters bringing an admirable sense of vulnerability and authenticity to their roles. Both are enthralling with the sheer beauty of their voices and passionate interpretations of songs, but much as they are effective in portraying the people-next-door, our enthusiasm for their story never quite takes hold. It is an accomplished cast, but there is something too straightlaced in their approach for a show that requires something more playful, more risky perhaps, to elevate it from its disappointingly pedestrian writing.

From a technical perspective, the production is assembled well. Lauren Peters’ set design is versatile and charming, and Andrew Worboys delivers exuberant dynamism as musical director. There is great conviction on stage, everyone gives their all, but we want an artistry that is more than elbow grease. The show people are clearly inspired, but the audience too, needs to be moved.

www.hayestheatre.com.au | www.highwayrunproductions.com