Review: West Side Story (Opera Australia)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Aug 16 – Oct 6, 2019
Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Jerome Robbins
Cast: Christian Ambesi, Matthew Antonucci, Daniel Assetta, Molly Bugeja, Olivia Carniato, Nicholas Collins, Nikki Croker, Paul Dawber, Angelica Di Clemente, Sarah Dimas, Amba Fewster, Anthony Garcia, Sebastien Golenko, Keanu Gonzalez, Paul Hanlon, Zoe Ioannou, Brady Kitchingham, Ariana Mazzeo, Noah Mullins, Natasha O’Hehir, Nathan Pavey, Sophie Salvesani, Berynn Schwerdt, Ritchie Singer, Taylah Small, Joshua Taylor, Blake Tuke, Dean Vince, Lyndon Watts, Daniel Wijngaarden, Jason Yang-Westland, Chloé Zuel
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
It is now 62 years, since the world was first introduced to the Jets and the Sharks, rival gangs from West Side Story, Bernstein and Sondheim’s landmark musical. Its relevance today is startling, as we find the United States in the throes of shocking immigration policies, determined to demonise those hailing from Latin America. The authentic darkness of the piece prevents it from dating, from its experimental musical styles to its thematic explorations into racial vilification, its resonances are timeless, even if the narrative seems to relate specifically to a distant time and space.

The production is highly polished, with director and choreographer Jerome Robbins’ original vision faithfully presented. Design elements no longer feel inventive by today’s standards, but the air of sophistication being conjured is unequivocal.

A tale about white supremacy, West Side Story features a group of white boys called the Jets, who spend their days taunting the Puerto Rican Sharks. Lyndon Watts is an imposing Bernardo, powerful and precise as leader of the Sharks. His nemesis Riff is played by Noah Mullins, a very peculiar casting choice given the performer’s glaringly bookish quality. Leading lady Sophie Salvesani is a suitably wholesome Maria, although rarely inspiring with her renditions of some extremely well-known songs. Daniel Assetta may not deliver a flawless Tony, but we are kept engaged by his likeable presence and surprisingly dulcet tones. The one real star on this stage is Chloé Zuel, whose Anita takes us through every gamut of emotion, impressive from beginning to end, as the proverbial triple threat.

Policing authorities in West Side Story fail to recognise the inherent power imbalance at play, as they attempt to handle the situation as though the feuding parties are equal in strength, unable to identify the victims they should protect. Minorities are routinely subjugated, when a level playing field exists only in our imagination. It is easy to place blame on the juvenile delinquents, who act out these objectionable impulses, but the problems are systemic, deeply entrenched in how we think and how we do things. The cure needs to target the root of the problem, and that will never be less than radical.

www.westsidestory.com.au

Review: Mars: An Interplanetary Cabaret (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 30 – Aug 3, 2019
Music: Chelsea Needham
Lyrics: Ang Collins
Director: Andrew McInnes
Cast: Monika Pieprzyk, Amelia Campbell, Tom Matthews, Jacob Mclean, Jack Richardson, Kieran Clancy-Lowe
Images by Zac Jay

Theatre review
Three Martians have landed, in a spaceship called Incel 9, because apparently, earth girls are easy. The male of that species have had to travel an enormous distance, after women on Mars had wised up to their misogynistic nonsense. Earthlings however, are being protected by Space Cops, who in Mars: An Interplanetary Cabaret, happen to be two women impervious to the sleazy tricks of pickup artists. Written by Ang Collins and Chelsea Needham, this fun-filled work features kooky characters and humorous songs, for a surprisingly wholesome style of entertainment that often feels like a contemporary take on the pantomime form. A show about dirty boys with no dirty jokes, Mars is a remarkably refreshing experience.

Directed by Andrew McInnes, the comedy balances flamboyance with irony, allowing its very broad approach to communicate at somewhat unexpected levels of nuance. The visual style is appropriately lo-fi, with Lucy McCullough’s production design and Tom Houghton’s lights, establishing a lot of playful charm to keep us engaged. Some of the singing is of questionable quality, but the cast is likeable, and they present a well-rehearsed staging that impresses with its verve and spirit of inventiveness. Tom Matthews and Jack Richardson are the more disciplined performers of the group, able to contribute a sheen of professionalism with their vocal and physical polish, although the general lack of refinement remains a major component of Mars‘ appeal.

It is appropriate for our current political climate, to talk as though men are from Mars, women are from, well, Earth. A new generation of feminists have declared that poor behaviour is not acceptable, and that the toxic culture of “boys will be boys” must be changed. We talk of the young as being overly fragile, but it is evident that they are on a mission to make the world a kinder place, that people should not be required to have the fortitude to put up with all manner of bullshit. We should no longer have to laugh along with “casually racist” jokes, just as we should no longer fabricate any reason to blame victims of sexual assault. Those who find this shift in codes of conduct frustrating, are on the wrong side of history.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Catch Me If You Can (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Jul 19 – Aug 18, 2019
Book: Terrance McNally
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman
Director: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Jordan Angelides, Simon Burke, Jessica Di Costa, Jarood Draper, Tim Draxl, Joel Houwen, Penny Martin, Heather McInerney, Monique Salle, Jake Speer, Erica Stubbs, Riley Sutton, Stacey Thompson
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
It is the incredible but true story of Frank Abagnale, the young con man who pulled outlandish stunts in the middle of the previous century, and succeeded for years at evading authorities. One of the most notorious impostors of the time, made legendary by Steve Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, Abagnale was able to pass himself off as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer (amongst other things) and in the process expose the fallibility of American systems, along with the nature of the privilege that is bestowed upon white men. If you look and sound a certain way, you could get away with anything.

Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s songs for this musical rendition are consistently enjoyable and appropriately colourful with a swinging sixties vibe, but although cohesive as a whole, Terrance McNally’s book seems to make for a experience that is surprisingly low on stakes and therefore lacking in tension. Cameron Mitchell’s work as director and choreographer is energetic, able to hold our attention for the duration, although a lacklustre set design does make for a production that often appears vacant and unexciting.

Leading man Jake Speer sings his songs immaculately, a precise performer who brings great conviction to his part. As a crook however, Speer is too vanilla, lacking in mischief for a role that is entirely about perversion. The show is stolen by Tim Draxl, who plays FBI agent Hanratty with exceptional charisma, bringing much needed pizzazz to the strangely disengaging plot. Simon Burke and Penny Martin play the parents, both adorable in their quirky manifestations. Burke’s chemistry with Speer is particularly endearing, for father-and-son scenes remarkable in their authenticity.

It is true that we are all capable of doing bad, and the domino effect that ensues, from lies and other misdeeds, are certainly a phenomenon familiar to many. Frank Abagnale started on a slippery slope that saw him commit years to being a fraud, and we see him waiting to be caught, as though the brakes can only be pushed by an external entity. Self-destruction is a cruel mistress. Like an addiction that we feel powerless over, it tells us that we can stop it at any time, knowing that we will never find the wherewithal to turn over a new leaf that easily.

www.hayestheatre.com.au | www.laurenpetersdesign.com

Review: Once (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Jun 26 – Aug 4, 2019
Book: Enda Walsh
Music & Lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Director: Richard Carroll
Cast: Joe Accaria, Stefanie Caccamo, Cameron Daddo, Victoria Falconer, Toby Francis, Conrad Hamill, Drew Livingston, Abe Mitchell, Rupert Reid, Alec Steedman, Joanna Weinberg
Images by Robert Catto
Theatre review
Guy meets girl, and girl decides to spend all her days helping insecure guy fulfil his dreams. Once is only about a decade old, but already feels like a story from an archaic era. The musical is however not unappealing, with an avalanche of beautiful melodies, and the now famous concept of having its cast double up as musicians for the show’s entirety. It is quite a spectacle, watching eleven performers playing instruments, singing and acting. Entertainment value for Once is predictably high, even with all of its unrelenting cliches.

Directed by Richard Carroll, the production is thoroughly sentimental, to emphasise the romantic nature of the central relationship, although it does seem to diminish the potential for greater humour through the plot. Set design by Hugh O’Connor elegantly transforms the stage into a very believable Irish pub, with Peter Rubie’s lights bringing a dusty melancholia to proceedings. Remarkable work by sound engineer Dylan Robinson translates all the live music into honey for our ears, making the sounds of Once a truly memorable feature.

Lead performers Stephanie Caccamo and Toby Francis are exceptional singers, both deeply impressive with their renditions of these saccharine show tunes; we are left wanting to hear their voices forever. Their acting however is rarely convincing, with chemistry between the two a conspicuous absence. Charisma is compensated by several of its supporting performers, most notably, Victoria Falconer and Drew Livingstone, who create adorable characters that try to bring a sense of effervescence to the stage. On occasions where movement director Amy Campbell has the opportunity to work her magic, everything comes to life, but those moments are few, in this frequently sombre presentation.

Once allows us to celebrate the extraordinary talent of those who live amongst us. There is so much that our artists are capable of, if only they have all the platforms necessary to demonstrate what they do best. When we first meet the protagonist, he had all but given up hope of finding an audience for his wonderful songwriting. This is sadly an all too common truth for so many. Humans are creative by nature, but the way we live today, so often negates those capacities, in favour of conventional systems that require the repression and impediment of our best tendencies. Artists need self-belief, and they need to be supported, especially when the going gets tough, as it invariably does.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com

Review: Sweeney Todd (Life Like Company)

Venue: Darling Harbour Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 13 – 16, 2019
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Theresa Borg
Cast: Anton Berezin, Debra Byrne, Michael Falzon, Jonathan Hickey, Genevieve Kingsford, Owen McCredie, Gina Riley, Daniel Sumegi, Anthony Warlow
Image by Ben Fon

Theatre review
Stephen Sondheim has under his belt, countless celebrated works, and Sweeney Todd is amongst his most popular. It is masterfully crafted, with ample humour and drama to accompany some sensational songs, all guaranteed to please, and to secure bums on seats. The story is macabre, involving a crestfallen old barber trying to murder his way to salvation, and in the process victims are turned into pie fillings fed to an unknowing public. There is meaningful symbolism that could be deciphered, but depending on the quality of a presentation, as on any theatrical occasion, we might prefer to enjoy only the surface, to revel in its song and dance, and ignore any possibility of deeper resonances.

Theresa Borg’s direction may not inspire an experience that is particularly contemplative, but what she assembles is a professional staging showcasing a splendid piece of writing that proves itself virtually fail-safe. Its star Anthony Warlow is certainly a bankable resource, demonstrating his own infallibility, along with an immense likeability, that simply does not allow us to regard anything he offers as less than magical. In the midst of mediocrity, Warlow’s talent is still an exquisite beacon. Mrs. Lovett the baker is played by television icon Gina Riley, whose comedy chops justifies her shared top billing with theatre veteran Warlow; her vibrancy is the saving grace in a presentation needlessly, and strangely, safe and predictable. Genevieve Kingsford and Owen McCredie are the young lovebirds Johanna and Anthony, both performers suitably beautiful in appearance and in voice, able to provide a believable sense of romance to their scenes.

Vanessa Scammell serves as musical director, bringing considerable spirit to proceedings but as a whole, the production never really feels much more than a rudimentary effort. Mrs. Lovett’s customers love her pies. Their satisfaction with her product does not require any explanation about ingredients or methods. Likewise, when art is effective, one is tempted not to ask how things are put together, we simply indulge in the wonder that it delivers, allowing the mystery to wash over us, a transcendental moment likely to be diminished when deconstructed and understood. When art is less than enchanting however, it is perhaps wise to investigate failures, but always remembering to question why anyone should think that they deserve better.

www.lifelikecompany.com

Review: American Psycho (BB Arts & Two Doors Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 10 – Jun 9, 2019
Book: Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis)
Music & Lyrics: Duncan Sheik
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Blake Appelqvist, Erin Clare, Shannon Dooley, Ben Gerrard, Eric James Gravolin, Amy Hack, Loren Hunter, Julian Kuo, Kristina McNamara, Liam Nunan, Daniel Raso
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Bret Easton Ellis’ seminal 1991 novel American Psycho encapsulates a kind of sickness that had emerged from 1980’s capitalism. The story of exemplary yuppie Patrick Bateman was a wild indictment of Western culture at the time, one obsessed with prestige and facade, centred around the mythical Wall Street model of success. Evil personified, he served as an icon of all that had hitherto gone wrong, a monster materialising not from supernatural realms, but borne out of economic reality. The book’s detailed and extreme violence sparked great outrage, but the unassailable truths behind Ellis’ extravagant depictions, have made it a classic that remains pertinent three decades on.

Roberto Aguirre-Sarcasa and Duncan Sheik’s musical version is understandably much more tame in comparison, but thanks to the extraordinary characters and narrative it inherits, the show is still able to captivate, even if Sheik’s original songs are at best mediocre. It must be noted however, that musical direction by Andrew Worboys succeeds masterfully, at elevating these show tunes, turning very average melodies and lyrics into genuinely exciting numbers. Visual design too, is remarkable. Isabel Hudson’s revolving stage and butchers-style strip curtains are high gloss and very sexy, and even though slightly noisy at times, their theatrical effect is truly marvellous. The stage management team, headed by Brooke Verburg must be congratulated for their super smooth execution of mind-boggling logistics, most obviously in terms of performers’ complicated entrances and exits, all flawlessly enacted to quite magical results. Choreographer Yvette Lee demonstrates exceptional attention to detail and a highly sophisticated style, that bring the stage to flamboyant life.

Director Alexander Berlage’s lighting design is suitably sleek, and highly evocative. Along with Mason Browne’s costumes, they establish an aesthetic that is as much about contemporary fashion as it is about the 80’s; alluring, colourful and ostentatious, and ambitious like Patrick. Berlage’s direction of the piece certainly corresponds with his protagonist’s love of the surface. First half is all frothy and camp, a queer interrogation into toxic and hyper masculinity, that sits well within the musical genre. American Psycho‘s notoriety means that we know the tale to be terrifyingly macabre, but the production’s obsession with portraying a vacuous culture, can feel more bubblegum than menacing, although at no point is it ever less than fabulously entertaining. Second half becomes much more satisfying, as things get sinister, as we approach the true horror of the story.

Performer Ben Gerrard may not be entirely convincing as the demonic American, but the intelligent commentary he infuses into every line and lyric, every glance and gesture, ensures a resonance that communicates on levels beyond the obvious. We are repulsed by Patrick, but Gerrard’s charm keeps us attentive. Without a moral to its story, American Psycho is only obscene, and our leading man’s admirable efforts at driving home the message, represents the show’s beacon of integrity. Memorable supporting players include Liam Nunan whose turn as Luis, the closet homosexual, proves to be as comical as it is heartbreaking. Loren Hunter has the unenviable task of playing Jean, the dowdy secretary who falls in love with Patrick, a difficult role that she, quite miraculously, makes believable and empathetic.

Patrick, at twenty-seven, is a big fan of Donald Trump. The role models we choose, are a direct reflection of our values. Unable to see past the superficial glamour of the rich and powerful, Patrick invests his entirety to the pursuit of money and status. Morality is irrelevant. Today, Trump is President. It would be erroneous to imagine that all 63 million who had voted for him are devoid of morality, but these numbers tell a symptom that we would be remiss to ignore. Over the course of time, virtues are constructed, and re-constructed. In 1991, American Psycho controversially appeared as a cautionary tale of sorts. In 2019, the yuppies are nowhere to be seen yet we only have to look in the mirror to wonder, if resistance against greed is always futile.

www.bbartsentertainment.com | www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: The Last Five Years (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 29 – Apr 27, 2019
Writer/Composer: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Elsie Edgerton-Till
Cast: Christian Charisiou, Elise McCann
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Jamie has no idea what he is getting himself into, when asking for Cathy’s hand in marriage. His writing career is going “gangbusters” and girls are throwing themselves at him, but he decides instead to get bogged down by the old ball-and-chain, who is herself a naggy talentless nobody, and who demands too much of her husband. The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown is an ill-advised musical about the disintegration of a relationship, in which misogyny is lavished right from the start, when Cathy is sobbing over her asshole husband moving out.

Things clearly can only get worse as the show progresses, as Jamie’s misplaced resentment becomes all-important, and he sings such charming lyrics as “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy, I will not lose because you can’t win,” and “I could never rescue you, all you ever wanted, but I could never rescue you, no matter how I tried.” The story ends with little resolution, but it does not take prodigious imagination to see Jamie turning to digital incel communities after the separation.

Director Elsie Edgerton-Till may not succeed at glossing over the many gendered affronts, but her production is undeniably polished, able to make the simple two-hander feel confident and dynamic. Daryl Wallis’ musical direction is satisfying in its sophistication, and as pianist, he is particularly memorable in “Climbing Uphill”, with a sense of humour to his accompaniment that almost makes the whining wife’s desperation tolerable. Playing Jamie and Cathy are a couple of incontrovertibly excellent performers; Christian Charisiou and Elise McCann are both charismatic and enormously talented. They explore the material with impressive zeal, bringing to the stage extraordinary vigour and skill, trying to keep us delightfully engaged.

The Last Five Years reminds us that, for all the heartache associated with it, divorce is always a wonderful relief. In the throes of passion, and romantic naivety, we make mistakes, because being human, we never fail to want to make promises to horrible people, or to people who will eventually turn horrible. Love is natural and necessary, but rarely eternal. When time comes to call it quits, the apparatus is available to leave them to rot in their own filth. Cathy does not see it yet, but it is clear to us that although five years were lost, she has dodged one very toxic bullet.

www.ensemble.com.au