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

Review: Big Fish (RPG Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Apr 18 – May 14, 2017
Book: John August (based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the screenplay by John August)
Music & Lyrics: Andrew Lippa
Director: Tyran Parke
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Kirby Burgess, Seth Drury, Joel Granger, Brendan Godwin, Zoe Ioannou, Brenden Lovett, Phillip Lowe, Alessandra Merlo, Adam Rennie, Katrina Retallick, Brittanie Shipway, Aaron Tsindos, Zachary Webster
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Edward Bloom spins yarns that only he can believe. He deals with reality using outrageous embellishment, but these tall tales have alienated his son Will, who struggles to connect with the man behind the illusions. Big Fish is about life and death, love and family, all the emotional stuff that make musicals work. A formula exists because it is effective, and here, we see all the obvious manipulations that get us to a predictable sentimental peak, yet we cannot help getting ourselves entangled in all of the Bloom family’s drama.

Dubbed the “12 Chairs Version”, this rendition may be streamlined, but director Tyran Parke brings a richness to the staging, with simple but exciting visuals that live up, surprisingly, to the story’s imaginative landscapes. The cast is buoyant and bubbly, determined to entertain. Leading man Phillip Lowe is fabulously charming, but problems with a throat infection seriously impair his ability to deliver the show’s many very grand showtunes. Instead, on hand to offer vocal magic is Adam Rennie in the role of Will, who is nothing less than sensational when the songs get chipper and stirring.

Women characters in Big Fish are often pathetically conceived, but the players do their best to bring life to their parts. Katrina Retallick takes the role of an embarrassingly docile mother, and turns her into a memorable figure; warm, generous and full of spirit. Her delivery of the heartbreaking “I Don’t Need A Roof” is a highlight, with Retallick’s performing talent proving to be the most captivating feature of the production. Also delightful is Brenden Lovett, simultaneously grotesque and adorable as circus ringmaster Calloway. The most over-the-top of Edward’s fantasies is also one of the most moving, when given the Lovett treatment.

We all know that our lives are finite, but we rarely think about how our deaths affect the way we live. We go about our daily business as though there is always tomorrow to worry about, but the unassailable truth is that death will come too soon. Edward was offered, as a child, a glimpse of his final moments, and what he saw was joyful. If we can all believe that what we eventually leave behind is going to be good, then our experience of today, must surely be replete with contentment.

www.bigfishaustralia.com.au

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