Review: Calamity Jane (One Eyed Man Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 8 – Apr 1, 2017
Book: Ronald Hanmer, Phil Park (from the play by Charles K. Freeman, and film by James O’Hanlon)
Lyrics: Paul Francis Webster
Music: Sammy Fain
Director: Richard Carroll
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Laura Bunting, Virginia Gay, Anthony Gooley, Sheridan Harbridge, Rob Johnson, Matthew Pearce, Tony Taylor, Nigel Ubrihien
Image by John McRae

Theatre review
It is the story of a frontierswoman from American history, a tomboy type with a big heart and very tall tales. A neglected musical from mid-20th century, Calamity Jane is probably best remembered as a film starring Doris Day in 1953. No surprises then, that the writing is squeaky clean, conforming completely to the ideology of the McCarthy era, when the USA convulsed at its height of moral panic.

Director Richard Carroll’s version aims to subvert the obvious camouflages at work in the original, especially in terms of its delusory representations of gender and sexuality. Archaic notions of how a woman should dress, and how her libido should manifest, are confronted head on, in this uproarious and very likeable comedy about a woman in charge. This iteration of Calamity Jane does not obliterate the existence of patriarchal oppression, but it foregrounds our heroine’s resistance, culminating in the spectacular exposure of her homosexual impulses in the number A Woman’s Touch. Originally conceived to inflict upon her, the sacrosanctity of housework, Calamity takes the opportunity here to find redress and expression instead, for the lustful desires she feels for another woman.

Virginia Gay is irresistible in the title role, charismatic, supremely confident, and hilarious. Her singing alternates between musical theatre, country and jazz, bringing a surprising quality of rejuvenation to the show tunes. Although not all performers are equally suited to their parts, it is overall an effective cast, with Sheridan Harbridge and Tony Taylor particularly delightful, and very gleeful, as residents of the Golden Garter. The majority of instrumental accompaniment is provided by lone pianist, and musical director Nigel Ubrihien, who brings tremendous atmosphere and excellent character to the staging.

The production succeeds in its efforts at sending itself up, and in the process, confronts the subjugation of femininity in traditional forms of storytelling. There is a sense however, of the show losing steam, as it progresses into a more sentimental second act. Its actors remain strong and convicted, but the audience needs greater convincing to adapt to the significant change of mood, and its subtle shift in meanings. We stay loyal to the riotous nature of Act 1 because it strikes a chord. It is a time for wild women and unruly behaviour, and now is when we fall in love with Calamity Jane.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Ladies In Black (Sydney Lyric Theatre / Queensland Theatre)

ladiesinblackVenue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jan 3 – 22, 2017
Book: Carolyn Burns
Music & Lyrics: Tim Finn (based on Madeleine St John’s novel, “The Women In Black”)
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Kate Cole, Carita Farrer, Bobby Fox, Natalie Gamsu, Madeleine Jones, Kathryn McIntyre, Sarah Morrison, Ellen Simpson, Greg Stone, Trisha Noble
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
There is no question that the world needs more stories about women and our solidarity. Examples of how we tear each other down are aplenty, but the ways we offer love and support need to be better envisioned in art and in life, so that we may begin to subvert systems of patriarchy that rely on our disunity to thrive.

Ladies In Black features a group of “shop girls” at a Sydney department store in the 50’s, each of them consummate professionals, all of whom get on remarkably well. There however, is little else to enjoy about the musical. Thoroughly lacklustre, unable to deliver the exuberance and glamour it wishes for its characters to portray. Its humour is underwhelming, with narratives that fail to resonate, and even though Tim Finn’s songwriting could be admired for its slightly unconventional take on the musical theatre format, much of it is uninspiring and forgettable.

For a show that makes fashion one of its central interests, the production is designed with little imagination or innovation. Choreography never offers anything more than the bog-standard, and the cast rarely looks to be challenged or excited by what they have to present. Occasional appearances by Natalie Gamsu, Greg Stone and Bobby Fox as “continental migrants” introduce moments of exhilaration, but they are few and far between.

Young Lisa confronts parochial Australia in Ladies In Black. She is at a crossroads, encountering choices that stoke her passions, versus others that feel easy and normal. We observe a blandness that can take hold, and ways of living that can pale our existences into insignificance. The women go to work everyday, and in their camaraderie, attempt to find deeper meanings to their existences, but the struggle to prevent their black clothed power from fading into a repugnant beige is ever-present, and often defeated.

wwww.queenslandtheatre.com.au

Review: Bare (The Depot Theatre)

supplyevolutionVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Nov 30 – Dec 17, 2016
Book: Jon Hartmere, Damon Intrabartolo
Lyrics: Jon Hartmere
Music: Damon Intrabartolo
Director/Choreographer: Hannah Barn
Cast: Aaron Robuck, Sophie Perkins, Alex Jeans, Natalie Abbott, Timothy Langan, Teale Howie, Alexandra Lewtas, Caroline Oayda, Matt Laird, Stephanie McKenna, Ibrahim Matar, Tara Hanrahan, Annette Vitetta, Penny Larkins, Gavin Leahy

Theatre review
The musical is set in a Catholic high school. Peter and Jason are secret lovers struggling to come to terms with their gay relationship and the identity markers that will inevitably become a matter of controversy given the social context. It is an age-old story, but one that bears repeating. Our religious institutions remain unkind to those who do not conform to their narrow definition of acceptable sexual behaviour, and Bare‘s response is still important, even if its story offers little that would be refreshing for the twenty-first century.

Hannah Barn’s direction of the piece pays strong attention to the show’s emotive qualities. Every melodramatic flourish is amplified to passionately drive its point, and to captivate. The more humorous portions of the musical seem to be neglected, which results in a production that can feel slightly unvarying and predictable, but there is plenty of dynamism to be found in the music. Musical director Matthew Reid does wonders with his 8-piece band, providing injections of energy whenever required, and calibrating atmosphere with remarkable sensitivity throughout, but sound design, especially in the first half, needs to be refined.

It is a very committed cast of performers that take to the stage. Alex Jeans and Aaron Robuck play their leading parts with integrity, and even though their interpretations of characters can feel somewhat one-dimensional, both young men tell their stories with impressive enthusiasm. Along with Jeans and Robuck, accomplished singing by Natalie Abbott and Penny Larkins give the production a surprising polish that reflects a good level of professionalism and admirable devotion to the time-honoured craft of musical theatre.

Bare is yet another work that documents the struggle of gay men in a society that refuses to accept them as equals. We have heard it all before, but we must not stop telling these tales of oppression as long as the cruelty persists. For some of us, progressive political movements have brought us better lives, but for many others, the chains of injustice are a daily reality. We might like to think of ourselves as first world civilisations, but if we have children living in fear and in some tragic cases, taking their lives, our complacency has to take responsibility.

www.thedepottheatre.com

Review: Mack & Mabel (Working Management)

workingmanagementVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 18, 2016
Book: Michael Stewart (based on an idea by Leonard Speigelgass)
Music: Jerry Herman
Director: Trevor Ashley
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Shay Debney, Adam Di Martino, Sally Hare, Scott Irwin, Caroline Kaspar, Shaun Rennie, Kuki Tipoki, Stephen Valeri, Jessica Voivenel, Zachary Webster, Mikayla Williams, Deone Zanotto
Image by Lightbox Photography

Theatre review
Set against a backdrop of early Hollywood, Mack & Mabel is about a love that never happened, a romantic tale that is more “coulda woulda shoulda” than happily ever after. Created in 1974, the musical is in essence a damsel in distress story, where the girl is not strong enough to get what she wants, and in this case, the guy never quite gets his act together to rescue her. The songs are fun and perky, but mostly unmemorable. Every imaginable cliché of the genre is enlisted for a show that works hard to entertain, and although it is never able to surprise, the experience it delivers is nonetheless an enjoyable one.

Directed by Trevor Ashley, with choreography by Cameron Mitchell, the show is highly animated, and relentless with its pizzazz. Every song is staged with great detail and deliberation, but while there is no shortage of energy and action, its comedy is not always effective, and its pathos is insufficiently potent. It is a diverse cast with varying levels of competencies, but their conviction keeps us attentive to every sequence being presented. Leading lady Angelique Cassimatis charms us with indefatigable flamboyance, and her male counterpart Scott Irwin provides grounding with a melancholic sincerity. Deone Zanotto is outstanding as Lottie, a secondary character called upon to bring all the bells and whistles needed to spice things up. Zanotto’s physical discipline and vocal agility are a joy to witness. Also noteworthy is Neil McLean’s sound design achieving excellent dynamism and clarity with how we hear music, lyrics and dialogue in the production.

There is little in Mack & Mabel that we can relate to, but it is a good excuse for some exhilarating song and dance. There is a frustration in seeing Mabel’s life presented as a failure due to her fruitless dedication to Mack. What might have been a kind of beautiful resignation and saccharine sentimentality in the past, is now just far-fetched, and tedious, whether or not one reads the musical from a consciously feminist perspective. The drama relies on our submission to its dated sensibilities about romance, and thankfully, many of us have progressed far beyond that.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Summer Rain (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 17, 2016
Book & Lyrics: Nick Enright
Music: Terence Clarke
Director: Trent Kidd
Cast: Rebecca Burchett, Daisy Cousens, Laurence Coy, Anna Freeland, Catty Hamilton, Tom Handley, David Hooley, Nat Jobe, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Michele Lansdown, Joy Miller, Jacqui Rae Moloney, Clare Ellen O’Connor, Brett O’Neill, Steven Ritchie, Andrew Sharp, Chris Wilcox
Photography © Chris Lundie

Theatre review
In Nick Enright’s wonderful Summer Rain, we are transported back to 1945 Turnaround Creek, a sleepy town in the Australian outback. A show troop arrives Christmas time hoping to make a quick buck, and to reconnect with a place they had visited 15 years ago. The “showies” are received warmly by the township, buoyed by the promise of a jubilant reprieve from their daily humdrum, but patriarch of the Doyle family responds with hostility, indicating a hidden history that can only reveal itself in dramatic fashion.

The genius of this collaboration between Enright and composer Terence Clarke, is evidenced by how unmistakably moving Summer Rain is. Some of it is thoroughly conventional, and some of it is completely unexpected of the genre, but what results is full of heart. Trent Kidd does an extraordinary job of telling the melancholic yet whimsical story, as both director and choreographer of the production, delivering a theatrical experience that engages our emotions and captivates all our senses. It is a remarkably good looking show, highly detailed with its visual presentations. Mason Browne’s work on sets and costumes, along with Juz McGuire’s lights, are impressive elements that contribute to the overall sophistication and power of this staging.

A very large cast of 17 performers lend their talents to the show, with some very strong portrayals adding high polish and wow factor. Most notable is Anna Freeland, who plays Peggy with charm, conviction and a sensitive authenticity. Freeland’s voice is a highlight, confident and rich in its accurate depiction of Peggy’s inner world. Catty Hamilton is similarly likeable, and comparably beautiful a singer, additionally memorable for her dance sequences with Nat Jobe, both entertainers accomplished and delightful in their Fred & Ginger style offerings. Andrew Sharp anchors the show as troop leader Harold with gentle humour and excellent chemistry with every colleague, but it is Laurence Coy’s Barry who produces the most poignant moment of the show with “The Eyes of Nancy Keegan” a song of loss and yearning.

The halcyon days in Summer Rain give us more than nostalgia. It speaks to our sentimentality not only through various romantic touches, but more importantly, it depicts human connection in ways that are perhaps deeper than its familiar contexts would initially lead us to imagine. Each of its little narratives begin from ordinary points of departure, but Enright’s musical takes us to conclusions that are not about happily ever after, but about hope. The people we meet have not yet landed in a place of complete and fantastical resolution, but we see them embarking on a trip that looks to be brighter, and merrier, than before.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Marat/Sade (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 5 – Nov 5, 2016
Playwright: Peter Weiss (translated by Geoffrey Skelton and Adrian Mitchell)
Director: Barry French
Cast: Tom Aldous, Kaiya Bartholomew, Andrea Blight, Debra Bryan, Lyn Collingwood, Garreth Cruikshank, Tahlia Hoffman Hayes, Tim De Sousa, Gregory Dias, Patrick Howard, Isaro Kayitesi, Mark Langham, Leilani Loau, Jim McCrudden, Lynn Roise, Emmanuel Said, Irene Sarrinikolaou, Alia Seror-O’Neill, Liam Smith, Peter Talmacs, Annette van Roden, Jacque Vickers
Image by Bob Seary

Theatre review
Originally conceived as a work set inside a psychiatric hospital, director Barry French’s version moves the action to a modern day asylum centre, with characters transposed from the mentally ill to asylum seekers who have gone mad from incarceration. A lot of the production makes good sense, with the play’s concerns and motivations proving to stand the test of time, but the text remains a difficult one half a century after its 1964 premiere.

Fragmented and purposefully incoherent, Marat/Sade is a fiercely anti-capitalist work that challenges how we think of society and art, and was never meant to be an easy one to stomach. It relies on the creation of spectacle and a sense of presence unique to the experience of live theatre, to keep the audience intrigued and captivated. French does well at manufacturing a dynamic stage with powerful imagery, featuring excellent design work by Tom Bannerman (set), Spiros Hristias (lights) and Nicola Block (costumes). Further, the incorporation of a very large cast comprising over 20 actors provides a sumptuous visual majesty, but the calibre of performers are highly inconsistent.

Our attention fades in and out, depending on the quality of acting being showcased, and the general sense of visceral energy stirred by the writing’s violent insanity, is only occasionally authentic and seldom severe enough to fascinate or convince. There are however, memorable personalities in the show, including Jim McCrudden as the Herald who demonstrates exceptional flair and nuance in his charming theatrics, as well as Debra Bryan and Leilani Loau whose committed portrayals of tragic hysteria, deliver some of the play’s richer characterisations.

Also noteworthy is Nate Edmondson’s original music, thoroughly creative, with a welcome exuberance adding texture and depth to the staging. Performed to a backing track, we are struck by the beauty of the score’s arrangement, and are left hankering for an opportunity to hear the songs sung completely live in tandem with musicians.

On the surface, Marat/Sade urges the downtrodden to rise up for a revolution, but what it really does, is facilitate discussion on social injustices that have to be rectified. The play talks about the French Revolution of 1808, but with the passage of time, ideas of radical action seem to have lost their lustre. Many of us at the theatre are the complacent middle class, and shows like this aim to help expand our consciousness to include the lives of those who suffer under our oppression, but doing more than providing lip service seems always to remain a challenge. Stories of asylum seekers who ask for our mercy continue to be told, but how we respond is presently inadequate, if all we can do is talk.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Dream Lover (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

dreamloverVenue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 22 – Nov 27, 2016
Original concept and stage play: Frank Howson, John Michael Howson
Dramaturg/Script Consultant: Carolyn Burns
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: David Campbell, Martin Crewes, Hannah Fredericksen, Bert LaBonte, Marney McQueen, Caroline O’Connor
Image by Brian Geach

Theatre review

In the musical Dream Lover, Bobby Darin is a nice guy with a career to be proud of. Undeniably talented, the Italian-American from New York’s Bronx county made it big in show business in the middle of the twentieth century, leaving behind an impressive catalogue of songs, but an uneventful life story. The show starts off slowly, with characters that take time to connect, and a doggedly polite plot that resists sensationalism, mindful of a need to honour the late star, thereby sacrificing opportunities for a greater sense of theatricality and humour. Our emotions are guided by the quietly simmering narrative, so even though all its musical numbers are strong, the viewing experience only becomes exuberant later in the piece when its dramatic stakes finally gain height.

The jukebox musical format is carefully and cleverly utilised here, with preexisting songs from Darin and his era, assembled and rearranged to form a surprisingly coherent and entertaining show. Set design is striking but inflexible, with an undiminishable glitz distracting from its many sombre scenes, although remarkably effective in its visual demarcation of space. The production boasts an outstanding cast, with quintessential showman David Campbell in the lead, overflowing with extraordinary charm and skill, stealing hearts in every melody. There are moments when Campbell seems restrained and overly cautious in his portrayal of a venerated hero, and occasional issues with sound balance can be disappointing, but his powerful presence, astonishing commitment and infectious passion, guarantee a spectacular night at the theatre. Also noteworthy are Martin Crewes as Darin’s manager Steve Blauner, and Hannah Fredericksen as Darin’s wife Sandra Dee, both captivating personalities who provide solid support with unequivocal artistic brilliance.

Bobby Darin is from a time when we knew to celebrate dignity. There is no dirt in Dream Lover, which will take many of today’s audiences by surprise. Scandalous biographies are where the money is; in entertainment today, whether reality TV, tell-all books or on any other conceivable digital configuration, we consume crudeness as a matter of habit. It is troubling that the kind of career that Darin had enjoyed, could cease to be valued and appreciated in this new economy of vulgarity and gossip on steroids, where music is routinely sold in a package along with celebrity humiliation. Dream Lover may be about the past, but its ability to remind us of better days offers a nostalgic glimmer of hope. It inspires a longing for something purer, and on days like these, it could be the best that we can cling to.

wwww.dreamlover.com.au