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

Review: Muriel’s Wedding (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 6, 2017 – Jan 27, 2018
Book: PJ Hogan
Music & lyrics: Kate Miller-Heidke, Keir Nuttall (with songs by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA)
Director: Simon Phillips
Choreographer: Andrew Hallsworth
Musical Director: Isaac Hayward
Cast: Annie Aitken, Prue Bell, Ben Bennett, Briallen Clarke, Justine Clarke, Hilary Cole, Tony Cogin, Helen Dallimore, Dave Eastgate, Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Jaime Hadwen, Sheridan Harbridge, Mark Hill, Madeleine Jones, Caroline Kaspar, Adrian Li Donni, Luigi Lucente, Stephen Madsen, Maggie McKenna, Kenneth Moraleda, Laura Murphy, David Ouch, Tom Sharah, Connor Sweeney, Gary Sweet, Aaron Tsindos, Michael Whalley, Christie Whelan Browne
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Like legions of girls through the ages, Muriel was brought up to believe that life is incomplete without a man. It is a fallacy so deeply ingrained into our consciousness, that many are never able to outgrow the absurd notion, that marriage is required as a fundamental validation of our very being. In PJ Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding, we see a young woman responding to her subjugation; it is a coming-of-age story, an underdog story, and a feminist proclamation. Once a much-loved feature film, now 23 years later, it returns to prominence in the guise of a dazzling new stage musical.

Genuinely funny, and irresistibly moving, Muriel’s Wedding is an unequivocal triumph. Original songs by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall are brilliantly conceived, telling the story of an everygirl, by rigorously combining the many facets of Muriel’s universe. Her thoughts, desires and emotions, along with the people and places that attempt to define her, and the symbolic cultural emblems of her epoch that she cannot escape (including her tremendous affection for ABBA); all are present in the songs that passionately depict her narrative of emancipation, and that envelope us with a remarkable sense of immediacy and pertinence, to have us hopelessly invested.

Direction by Simon Phillips and choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, conspire to deliver an unabashedly sentimental journey, taking us through a seamless blend of happy and sad moments that constitute all of Muriel’s bittersweet experiences. We never lose sight of the gravity so essential and universal in her painful story, but every episode of false hope and disappointment, brims marvellously with theatrical hilarity. This is Australian humour at its best, ironic and self-effacing. Supporting players Michael Whalley (as brother Perry) and Christie Whelan Browne (as arch nemesis Tania Degano) create some very sharp comedy, and we greet each of their appearances with rapturous laughter. These are ugly images of who we are, but there is no denying the authenticity of what we see, and the embarrassing social dysfunctions that they embody.

Maggie McKenna exceeds every unrealistic expectation, in taking on the role of our all-new singing Muriel. The performer is quite simply perfect for the part, with a glorious voice that drives each lyric powerfully into our minds, an extraordinary quotient of charisma that disarms and opens wide our jaded hearts, and an incredible likeness with our memory of the old film version that has proven unshakeable. The more we fall in love with the protagonist, the more we can enjoy the show, and on this occasion, McKenna has us head over heels, completely bowled over. No less wonderful, is Madeleine Jones as Rhonda, bestie and catalyst for Muriel’s self-discovery. Jones is a strong, gutsy presence, who brings in full force, the rebellious spirit crucial to Muriel’s awakening. The two make a formidable pair, invulnerably tight in harmony and chemistry, for a portrayal of a resplendent friendship that lucky ones will find deeply familiar.

There are a small number of forgivable flaws in the production, including the earless casting of Muriel’s father, a strangely flat set design involving the Sydney harbour bridge, and early portions of the book that seem to require a cursory knowledge of the film. These aside, the artistic accomplishments here are significant and monumental, not least of which, are costumes by designer Gabriela Tylesova, who draws joyful inspiration from the original, and from the work of fashion notables like Viktor & Rolf, Roberto Cavalli and Camilla Franks. Straddling opposing ends of glamour, from kitsch to exquisite, for a visual sensibility informed by a derivative and hodgepodge aesthetic, that our colonised nation is never able to rid of.

Muriel’s Wedding is the greatest Australian musical yet. Full of character and inventiveness, it is unceasingly entertaining whilst capturing so much of who we are, and who we wish to become. More than a successful reboot of a modern classic, it brings together some of our biggest talents, for the birth of something that feels new and important, having arisen from adventurous negotiations of what is usually a restrictive art form. It is a big day, and we are more beautiful than we had ever been.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Miracle City (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 12 – 29, 2017
Books & Lyrics: Nick Enright
Music & Concept: Max Lambert
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Missy Higgins, Josie Lane, Lara Mulcahy, Gus Murray, Liam Nunan, Anthony Phelan, Kelly Rode, Jessica Vickers
Image by Branco Gaica

Theatre review
The Truswells are American televangelists who make commerce out of religion, by commodifying faith and targeting herds of desperate souls. They put on a weekly TV show, promising inspiration, redemption and salvation, in exchange for cash from their loyal viewers. Behind the scenes however, the family is going broke, as they try unsuccessfully to fulfil ambitions of expanding their operations.

Miracle City depicts an absurd slice of life, but the production is rarely funny. The plot trudges along, offering no surprises and only few instances of amusement. In the absence of humour, we search instead for poignancy, which disappointingly and quite bewilderingly, never arrives. It is fortunate then, that the show features excellent singing and a pleasing score of Christian gospel music.

The cast works hard, with leading lady Kellie Rode bringing a valuable sense of vibrancy and polish to the show. Gus Murray cuts an imposing figure as Reverend Truswell, but it is a portrayal that seems insufficiently sinister in this tale of crushed dreams and broken morals. A trio of choristers provide some stunning powerhouse vocals that lift the mood, thankfully, at very regular intervals. Missy Higgins, Josie Lane and Lara Mulcahy play subsidiary characters, but their voices are the highlight of a musical that is otherwise strangely passionless.

We pay businesses to satisfy our needs, but we want them to be transparent in our dealings. Religion can give a lot to individuals, but the magic that they perform, often relies on obfuscation and mystery. We need to be in touch with the sacred, but we do not wish for access to the venerable be contingent on trade. Those who peddle in the divine, are therefore deceptive and hypocritical, whether on trash TV or in our more hallowed institutions.

www.thetheatredivision.com

Review: Beautiful The Carole King Musical (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 17 , 2017 – Jan 21, 2018
Book: Douglas McGrath
Music & Lyrics: Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil
Director: Marc Bruni
Cast: Jason Arrow, Stephanie Caccamo, Doron Chester, Barry Conrad, Andrew Cook, Marcus Corowa, Julia Dray, Akina Edmonds, Esther Hannaford, Amy Lehpamer, Cameron Macdonald, Nana Matapule, Mike McLeish, Lorinda Merrypor, Joseph Naim, Ruva Ngwenya, Josh Piterman, Naomi Price, Rebecca Selley, Sean Sinclair, Angelina Thomson, Mat Verevis, Anne Wood, Chloé Zuel
Image by Joan Marcus

Theatre review
It was 1958 when 16 year-old Carole King sold her first song to Dimension Records, thus beginning her career as a trailblazing female of the music industry. Featuring her hits, and others of the era, Beautiful the musical charts King’s early years as a songwriter, depicting personal and professional challenges that had come her way, as she evolved into the legendary figure we have come to know.

Douglas McGrath’s book is tender, gently but effectively sentimental, and memorable for its surprising humour. The soulful songs are arresting, with an immediacy of appeal derived from the unabashedly catchy style of 3-minute hit factories typical of the time. Powerfully nostalgic, there is no other way to respond to the music than to gush with excitement, at the beginning of each familiar tune.

Esther Hannaford is deeply endearing in the lead role, effortlessly sassy but with a startling quality of earthy humility that closely approximates our impression of the woman herself. Hannaford’s voice is scintillating in ballads and in numbers that convert easily to the musical theatre format, but grittier fare like “Natural Woman” and “I Feel The Earth Move” expose the rift in genres that remains to be ameliorated.

It is a large and talented cast, with moments of brilliance emerging from each member, to our immense delight, as the show progresses. Beautiful is a simple story, but rich with theatrical pleasures. Director Marc Bruni’s creation seems always to be perfectly gauged. It fulfils predictable requirements of a conventional Broadway show, but is fundamentally elegant in all its approaches. There are bells and whistles everywhere we look, but nothing ever goes overboard.

It is not a regular occurrence on stage, that a tale is told of a woman who reaches great heights of success, without her having to make enemies, or to lose integrity. Beautiful is about women making it in showbusiness, without demeaning themselves or anybody else. The show is unquestionably enjoyable, and it delivers all the frivolous fun one asks of the format, but its quiet representation of a sovereign womanhood, is the reason for our elation.

wwww.beautifulmusical.com.au

Review: Assassins (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Sep 16 – Oct 22, 2017
Book: John Weidman
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Laura Bunting, David Campbell, Connor Crawford, Martin Crewes, Kate Cole, Bobby Fox, Hannah Fredericksen, Jason Kos, Rob McDougall, Maxwell Simon, Justin Smith
Images by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
Australia does not believe in capital punishment, and we certainly never condone murder under any circumstance, but this principled conception of the world relies entirely, on a justice system that convinces us of its adequacy. If men in high places get off scot-free after committing egregious acts of immorality, we begin to think in terms of vigilantism. In Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, a congregation of women and men remembered for the dubious accolade of having attempted to shoot and kill American presidents, are gathered for a history lesson, that talks about the phenomenon of political assassinations, and the meanings it represents in our modern democracies.

It is a great joy to be able to take pleasure in a work of musical theatre, that is not frivolously romantic, or twee, or excessively sentimental with its concerns. Some might argue that its topic is of particular relevance in 2017, but Assassins is thematically pertinent as long as our governments are a thing of contention, and for true democracy to exist, that sense of discordant anxiety must surely be ever-present. Whether or not the leader is to your tastes, there will always be a substantial portion of the population that is against them, if we are to uphold the fundamental doctrines surrounding our shared understanding of freedom.

Brilliantly conceived for the Sydney stage by director Dean Bryant, who balances spectacle with nuance, to deliver a show that is as entertaining as it is meaningful. In perpetual and harmonious motion, Bryant and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, have created a sophisticated interpretation of Assassins, that addresses the genre’s need to tease and dazzle, whilst maintaining an air of gravity to proceedings. The production is a visual delight. Alicia Clements’ set and Ross Graham’s lights continually steal the show, with surprises that unfurl through every scene, splendid and ravishing from beginning to end.

An impressive ensemble takes charge of the material. Although not evenly skilled, their spirited cohesion makes for a performance that is firmly captivating. David Campbell is compelling as John Wilkes Booth, the man responsible for Lincoln’s death. Fabulously gifted in voice, and delicately studied with his acting, Campbell may not be a leading man on this occasion, but proves himself to be the unequivocal star of Assassins. Justin Smith’s marvellous acting chops too, make a fascinating Samuel Byck, the all too familiar loony who would very likely be a regular caller on talkback radio if alive today. Also memorable, is Martin Crewes, whose passionate singing and radiant presence, are reliable, as always, for adding vibrancy to the presentation.

There is always a temptation to imagine a world suddenly better, after a terrible tyrant is killed, but history has proven time and time again, that the removal of a head, does not automatically bring peace to the body politic. If there is anything worth celebrating about our Western democracies, it is our ability to argue for the greater good to prevail. As long as our conscience leads the way, harm can be minimised, but by the same token, the imperfections of our societies will remain salient. Murder can be sweet revenge, but it solves nothing, serving only to prolong the torment of injustice.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Melba (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Aug 11 – Sep 9, 2017
Book & Lyrics: Nicholas Christo
Music: Johannes Luebbers
Director: Wayne Harrison
Cast: Annie Aitken, Michael Beckley, Caitlin Berry, Andrew Cutcliffe, Blake Erickson, Genevieve Lemon, Emma Matthews, Adam Rennie, Samuel Skuthorp
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Nellie Melba was the first Australian musician to have achieved international stardom, a legendary figure whose story provides inspiration not only to artists who dream of making it big, but also for women everywhere who know how it is to be told to tame their ambitions. She became wife and mother early in life, as was de rigueur in late nineteenth century, and in the musical Melba, we see her struggle to acquire the independence necessary for professional success. A fabulous selection of classical arias are inserted into a new work of musical theatre, with book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo, and music by Johannes Luebbers.

The original material is delightful, with scandalous details in Melba’s story providing an unexpected sense of titillation to proceedings. Director Wayne Harrison keeps us invested in the show’s characters and narratives, for a production that captivates at every point. Design elements however, are generally underwhelming, with set and costumes requiring greater imagination and boldness, for a more accurate approximation of our fantasies, of the diva and her circles.

Performers Annie Aitken and Emma Matthews share the eponymous role, each bringing to the stage, their phenomenal talents and abilities. It is a strong concept, to have disparate disciplines, opera and musical theatre, represented in this quite unique format for Melba, but it is not always a seamless blend in its efforts to accommodate two physical manifestations of the same personality. Nonetheless, the magnificent quality of singing in the show is sufficient to remedy most of its shortcomings. Also noteworthy is Andrew Cutcliffe who successfully turns us against the forsaken husband Charlie. His creation of a persuasive villain for the piece, is efficacious, and impressive.

In its efforts to keep the memory of our heroine, dignified and noble, Melba can often feel compromising in how it portrays her humanity. The picture it delivers is unbelievably pristine, and the drama is subsequently more gently rendered than is perhaps desired. We need people to look up to, especially trailblazers who show us that the impossible can be done, but it is important that we understand that flaws and foibles are what we have in common, especially when the magic they possess can seem so unattainable to mere mortals.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Velvet (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 20, 2017
Director and creator: Craig Ilott
Musical director: Joe Accaria
Choreographer: Lucas Newland
Cast: Joe Accaria, Kaylah Attard, Emma Goh, Marcia Hines, Mirko Köckenberger, Rechelle Mansour, Tom Oliver, Craig Reid, Stephen Williams

Theatre review
The show begins when a young man appears on stage with luggage. Dressed as a Jehovah’s Witness, or maybe a Mormon, the wide-eyed innocent finds himself in a new city, and we imagine that he encounters disco for the first time. This would mean that the action takes place in the late 1970s, when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the charts, and in New York, the notorious night club Studio 54 was the epicentre of society and culture. Craig Ilott’s Velvet is essentially a variety show, an homage to the era of the hustle, the afro and cocaine. All is light and frothy, with the protagonist’s journey offering a vague sense of narrative, that holds everything together.

At the centre is a slew of hits, unforgettable songs that defined a generation, marvellously reassembled and executed by musical director Joe Accaria, who ensures that their sparkly appeal is always accompanied by a deep appreciation for the soul and funk roots of these dance-floor stompers. Living legend Marcia Hines plays the diva with effortless grace, trusting that her exceptional voice to take us away from daily humdrum to her realm of sequinned ethereality. Leading man Tom Oliver works harder to prove himself, in archetypal musical theatre style, energetic and earnest in his efforts to reach out to everyone in attendance. Acrobats and circus performers provide excellent spectacle and thrills, each of them accomplished and beautiful. The production relies heavily on two very versatile talents Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour, to maintain its effervescence but later sections require more surprises, perhaps in the form of bigger costumes or additional dancers, to sustain our enthusiasm.

Colours of the rainbow flag make more than a few appearances. We cannot be sure if our boy comes out as gay, but he certainly does come out of his shell in the process. Disco may be about debauchery and hedonism, but we remember it also, for the liberation it inspires and represents, even today. At its best, disco is uplifting while it keeps us feeling dirty. It makes us think of sex as salvation, and creates a space where heaven and hell can meet to reveal so much that is dichotomous about being human.

www.velvettheshow.com