Review: In The Heights (Hayes Theatre / Blue Saint Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 16 – Apr 15, 2018
Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book: Quiara Alegria Hudes
Director: Luke Joslin
Cast: Marty Alix, Libby Asciak, Ana Maria Belo, Samantha Bruzzese, Will Centurion, Margi de Ferranti, Ryan Gonzalez, Monique Montez, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji, Alexander Palacio, Michelle Rozario, Luisa Scrofani, Stephen Tannos, Richard Valdez, Olivia Vasquez
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
At the far north of Manhattan lies the Washington Heights neighbourhood, populated by a predominantly Dominican-American community, living and pursuing the American Dream. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical In The Heights appeared in 2005, featuring an almost entirely Latinx cast of characters, with music heavily influenced by styles and rhythms of Latin America, along with a generous measure of Miranda’s now signature incorporation of rap. It is a story of aspiration and struggle, with the immigrant experience placed respectfully, at its centre. Although culturally specific in its explorations, In The Heights is broad in appeal, and proves to be readily received by audiences in Australia, where an ascendant history of migration has shaped the identities of us all.

Musical Director Lucy Bermingham’s marvellous interpretation of the score, brings us a vitality rarely encountered at our theatres. Exciting, soulful and wonderfully refreshing, the show is an unequivocal treat for the ears. A formidably well-rehearsed band plays the work with astonishing brilliance; contributions by drummer Emma Ford and percussionist Alysa Portelli are particularly invaluable in sweeping us away from our dreary humdrum. Choreography by Amy Campbell is ferociously riveting. Her use of space and bodies, has us dazzled and thrilled, and dancers Samantha Bruzzese and Michelle Rozario are simply unforgettable with their athletic glamour.

Ryan Gonzalez is the powerhouse leading man, impressive at all the facets required of a musical performer. His Usnavi is a warm, charismatic and persuasive character, whose narrative moves us purely because of the talents displayed on stage by Gonzalez. Whether singing, rapping, dancing or acting, we devour all that he offers up so thoroughly flawlessly. Also very successful are Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji and Luisa Scrofani, both strong in voice and presence, spectacular in their respective roles. Marty Alix and Richard Valdez leave excellent impressions in smaller parts, with musical and comic abilities clearly eclipsing the actual scope of what had been stipulated. Director Luke Joslin’s achievements with In The Heights are rich and very gratifying. Together with an accomplished team of designers, he has brought us a big, brash musical that stands for something more than entertainment.

Art has the capacity to talk about power in our worlds, with absolute truth and honesty. The predicament of the underprivileged must be conveyed to all, especially to those who do not wish to hear it. The nature of how we structure communities, in the daily expansion of what we consider to be meritorious, must always be questioned, and within that, the problem of how we exclude and exploit peoples, must be continually interrogated. We can no longer hold on to ignorant conceptions of living in stagnant societies. In this new era of advanced technology and accelerating warfare, the movement of people will only intensify, and our ability to extend justice and equity is the greatest test to our humanity.

www.hayestheatre.com.au | www.bluesaint.com.au

Review: Merrily We Roll Along (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 7 – 24, 2018
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Embla Bishop, Phoebe Clark, Blake Condon, Tiegan Denina, Caitlin Rose Harris, Patrick Howard, Tayla Jarrett, Katelin Koprivec, Jesse Layt, Victoria Luxton, Michael McPhee, Matilda Moran, Shannen Sarstedt, Zach Selmes, Richard Woodhouse, Victoria Zerbst
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the most straightforward rags to riches story, told backwards. Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along commences at the point where its protagonist has attained considerable professional success, but whose personal relationships are all falling apart. Observing the story unfold in reverse order, we discover little that is surprising, although Sondheim’s songs remain characteristically enchanting. The musical was first presented on Broadway in 1981, lasting only 16 performances, after 52 previews.

Director Alexander Andrews introduces an appropriate pizzazz to the production, working with a very exuberant cast for a standard of singing befitting the often tricky compositions. Leading man Patrick Howard gives his character Frank a strong presence, and a commanding voice, but lackadaisical costume design diminishes the personality transformations that the actor tries to portray. His besties are played by Zach Selmes and Victoria Zerbst, both accomplished and persuasive with what they wish to achieve. Shannen Sarstedt leaves a strong impression as first wife Beth, able to convey depths of emotion as well as unexpected dimension, for one of Merrily‘s many cardboard characters.

The two musicians, Conrad Hamill and Antonio Fernandez prove themselves reliably versatile and efficient in providing accompaniment for the entire duration, but the very small band can sometimes deliver underwhelming results. Similarly, visual design in terms of sets and costumes, are insufficiently ambitious, and the staging struggles to live up to Sondheim and George Furth’s quite grand piece of writing. Nothing however, can take away from the sheer delight of the master’s songs, all of which are sung with gusto and precision, and this for his legions of fans, is plenty.

www.littletriangle.com.au

Review: The Book Of Mormon (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), from Feb 27, 2018
Book, Music & Lyrics: Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, Matt Stone
Directors: Casey Nicholaw, Trey Parker
Cast: Ryan Bondy, Andrew Broadbent, A.J. Holmes, Bert LaBonté, Zahra Newman, Augustin Aziz Tchantcho, Rowan Witt
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
The best musical of all time, can only ever be a determination based on subjective assessment, but The Book Of Mormon is very possibly the funniest and cleverest, most unique iteration of a show in the Broadway musical genre, to have graced the stage. Two young men are dispatched from America to Uganda, to spread the word of their Mormon church. It is a simple story, but the layers of meaning that it explores are manifold and deeply trenchant.

From issues regarding religion’s inescapably oppressive nature, to the severe problem of poverty in developing nations, The Book Of Mormon is relentlessly, if subliminally, disturbing. It delivers big laughs at every turn, through an absurd sense of outrageous humour (the kind that is nothing less than exquisite, if shared by the right audience), but it is the savage evaluation of our humanity, and its pointed castigation demanding we do better, that provides impetus for its narrative drive.

The jokes are marvellously extreme, its songs are irresistibly charming and delightful, and everything is put together with extraordinary daring and finesse. There are elements that will likely offend sensibilities of those targeted by the pricey entrance fee, but the show is careful to couple soft with hard, tender with caustic, to make its lessons digestible. It ultimately retreats deftly into kumbaya territory, able to appease audiences of all persuasions.

Performed by a terrifically exuberant cast (and a fabulous orchestra headed by musical director David Young), this Sydney production is everything one could wish for, in a night of sensational, intelligent and thrillingly bawdy entertainment. The ensemble is given ample opportunity to showcase their talents, and they all rise to the occasion, as a group and as individuals, to present a work impressive with both its precision and nuance.

Ryan Bondy as Elder Price is suitably dazzling, all sharp moves and sonorous tenor, bringing youthful idealism to glorious life. Elder Cunningham is played by A.J. Holmes who charms the pants off of everyone, with splendid timing and inexhaustible zeal. The eminently memorable Zahra Newman gives us a Nabulungi so full of spirit, and so perfectly sung, that she shifts focus away from the Mormon boys to a greater story of international economic injustice.

No work of art can solve world hunger, but in The Book Of Mormon‘s tale of the haves and the have-nots, our culpability is clear. The West has always looked abroad for resources to pilfer, but we do little to mend the devastation that is inevitably left behind. Missionaries from our churches go with the best of intentions, trying to do what they can to bring relief to those who suffer, imposing belief systems on foreign lands that have thus far proven only to be inadequate. Thoughts and prayers can do wonders, but the miracles we wish to see the most, require real sacrifice.

wwww.bookofmormonmusical.com.au

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