Review: Billy Elliot (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Oct 10 – Dec 15, 2019
Music: Elton John
Book and Lyrics: Lee Hall
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kelley Abbey, Gabrielle Daggar, Vivien Davies, Danielle Everett, Robert Grubb, Drew Livingston, Jamie Rogers, Justin Smith, Aaron Smyth, James Sonnemann, Dean Vince
Images by James D. Morgan

Theatre review
An eleven-year-old boy from the North-East of England decides to learn ballet. Billy Elliot takes place in the mid 80’s with County Durham in the throes of the devastating coal miners’ strike, and Billy’s decision to dance could not seem more flippant or extravagant. There is of course, the additional concern that ballet is a wholly inappropriate activity for any male person, especially in regards a small boy during his formative years. The fragility of masculinity is a central theme in the musical; machismo and gayness are delicate subjects in virtually all our societies, hardly spoken about until the notion of manhood finds itself severely threatened. Billy’s simple act of ditching boxing for ballet, causes more than a slight kerfuffle, thereby exposing our culture for its toxic attitudes around gender roles.

Not quite as moving as the 2000 film, but certainly no less entertaining, Billy Elliot is a sumptuous delight on the live stage. All its visual aspects are marvellously rendered, from scenic design, lighting, costumes, to choreography, there is brilliance everywhere we look. Music by Elton John, with book and lyrics by Lee Hall, tell the story with humour and elegance. Its depictions of childhood are particularly charming. Billy and his friends are allowed to be playful and rambunctious, their more than occasional use of mild profanity presents an innocence that feels resonantly, and unusually, authentic.

Performer Jamie Rogers proves himself technically accomplished in the title role, with countless pirouettes and chaînés turns keeping us amazed and thrilled. Billy’s best friend Michael is played by James Sonnemann, a hugely charismatic actor whose precise comic timing has us eating out of his hand, at every appearance. Gabrielle Daggar is another child star who delivers the laughs, very endearing as the mischievous Debbie. The grown-ups too are excellent, in this quintessential work about art and its challenges. Billy’s father is given effervescent life by Justin Smith, and Kelley Abbey’s idiosyncratic warmth as dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson makes convincing, this unexpected and unlikely tale from the English working class.

It is an appealing thought that one’s station in life could be illusory, but the truth is that few of us can transcend barriers, to become something more than has been assigned. Humans may be capable of infinite things, but cultural restrictions are just as real as those natural potentialities. Immense and immeasurable forces abound, that tell us what we cannot do, and it takes superhuman ability to recognise the truth, and surmount social constructs. Defiance is hard, but without it, autonomy can only be elusive.

wwww.billyelliotthemusical.com.au

Review: Fangirls (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 12 – Nov 10, 2019
Book, Music & Lyrics: Yve Blake
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Aydan, Yve Blake, Kimberley Hodgson, Chika Ikogwe, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Sharon Millerchip
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Edna is head over heels in love with Harry, except Harry is miles away in the UK, and a member of a boy band oblivious to Edna’s existence. Yve Blake’s Fangirls details the experience shared by many, ever since the advent of pop music in the middle of the twentieth century, where teenagers develop crushes on stars the intensity of which can often be overwhelming. They had fainted at Beatles concerts in the 60’s, thrown panties at Tom Jones in the 70’s, and now they write fan fiction as a manifestation of their fantasies, and a declaration of love, to share with vast communities of like-minded youth.

Fiction and reality however, become dangerously blurred in Fangirls, as Edna’s obsession grows completely out of hand. It is admittedly surprising, that what seems to be a pedestrian premise for a show, would emerge being the foundation for one of the cleverest and most entertaining musicals to grace our stages. Its dialogue is inexhaustibly witty, partnered by songs that are as inventive as they are powerful, with a plot structure that casts a hypnotic spell over our heads and hearts. Proving that storytelling does not always require subject matter that obviously resonate, Fangirls enthrals with its colourful yet authentic characters, who navigate the modern world in a way that can be thought of as peculiar, but also unequivocally essential in our understanding of humanity. Perhaps it is precisely in these instances of insanity, that we can locate our true nature.

Directed by Paige Rattray, the show is a joyful exercise in feminine vivacity, deliciously exuberant as it celebrates the foibles of adolescence that define us all. Fangirls is hilarious, even at its darkest moments, always insisting that we laugh heartily at situations that evoke memories that were once deathly embarrassing, but are now freshly endearing. Music direction by Alice Chance and music production by David Muratore, draw inspiration from recent trends in pop, for a remarkably exciting score replete with energy, surprise and fabulous irony. Leonardo Mickelo’s choreography is similarly accomplished, making every number a visual thrill. Video by David Fleischer and Justin Harrison help depict the new media environment that informs the sensibilities of our youth, but it is Emma Valente’s lighting design that delivers spectacle and atmospheric augmentation, which really get us in the mood.

Edna is triumphantly portrayed by Blake, whose skills in acting, singing and dancing, are quite astonishingly on par with what she achieves as songwriter and playwright. She is simultaneously heartbreaking and comical, persistently nuanced even if the performance is relentlessly extravagant in tone. The mononymous Aydan is thoroughly convincing as the object of desire, a marvellous caricature who is clearly in on the joke. Five extraordinary supporting players in a wide variety of roles, leave us hopelessly thrilled by their impressive talents. Chika Ikogwe is absolutely glorious with the sassy humour and parodic hip hop stylings she brings, in addition to the moments of piercing poignancy she introduces as the less than best friend Jules.

Caroline, the mother at wits end, is played by an impossibly versatile Sharon Millerchip. James Majoos is unforgettable as Saltypringl, and for dialling up the camp factor in all his scintillating representations of gender diversity. Very big laughs are delivered by Kimberley Hodgson, who is brilliantly incisive as the naive Briana, and Ayesha Madon takes every opportunity to tickle us with excessive vocal flourishes, along with multiple absurd appearances as an overzealous ribbon gymnast.

We can give our children everything they need and want, and still have to live with the idea that they will inevitably go out and court trouble. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that when we leave them with nothing to want, is when they would find ways to create havoc. People need to feel in control of their own existences. Adults take it upon themselves to provide every kind of order, so that the young can have peaceful and rewarding lives, but without experiencing chaos and failure, it is hard to imagine that anyone could truly welcome everything that should be cherished. We dread our kids ever having to hit rock bottom, but we know that that is in many ways, absolutely necessary.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.atyp.com.au | www.queenslandtheatre.com.au

Review: Hair (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 3 – 6, 2019
Book & Lyrics: James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Music: Galt MacDermot
Director: Cameron Menzies
Cast: Stefanie Caccamo, Angelique Cassimatis, Emma Hawthorne, Luke Jarvis, Joe Kalou, Julian Kuo, Louis Lucente, Matthew Manahan, Sun Park, Paulini, Keshia Paulse, Callan Purcell, Monique Salle, Hugh Sheridan, Prinnie Stevens, Harris M. Turner,
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Hair debuted 1967, in the middle of the anti-Vietnam war movement. An icon of the peace-loving hippie counterculture era, the musical contains many anti-establishment elements that remain its defining feature, including the incorporation of profanity, illicit drugs, and nudity. It is the story of a New York City bohemian tribe, culminating in tensions that bring strain to the group when it is discovered that a member, Claude is being conscripted.

Act One is an exuberant cornucopia, of mischievously colourful expressions pertaining to ideals and identities of the flower power generation. Director Cameron Menzies and choreographer Amy Campbell manufacture a joyful visit to an optimistic past, enjoyable not only for its nostalgic value but also for an innocence, that proves so moving in the current bitter climate. Act Two turns serious, with the narrative shifting more firmly onto the Vietnam war, but sound engineering, although beautifully optimised for the cast’s vocalisations, does little to enhance diction in the reverb of the auditorium. Without clear enough access to dialogue and lyrics, the drama is unable to resonate. Lighting by Paul Lim on the other hand, is innovative and exciting, and together with James Browne’s spirited work on costumes, the production is a delight for the eyes.

A marvellous ensemble, full of conviction and vigour, gives us a cohesive gang of personalities, remarkably convincing in their depiction of an adopted family affair, powerful with the warmth they emanate. Matthew Manahan is a charming presence as Claude, commendable for the complexity he brings to the role. An imposing Harris M. Turner is the show’s unequivocal scene-stealer, equally impressive whether singing or dancing as Hud, the militant black rights activist. The astonishing Paulini sings some very big notes, reliably bringing the house down at each appearance. The group’s alpha male Berger is played by a tremendously likeable Hugh Sheridan, whose vivacity knows no bounds, even if completely unbelievable as a high school student.

When psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary said half a century ago, to “turn on, tune in, drop out”, many were persuaded by his statement of subversion, and sought an alternative to socioeconomic and political systems that had revealed themselves to be oppressive and unjust. It seems all these years later, we are once again at a breaking point. A new generation, fuelled by the same disillusionment, is now trying to find new answers to old questions. Bell bottoms and patchouli may no longer be en vogue, but we still want peace, equity and a restorative love for mother earth, and with any luck, our efforts will have a permanent impact this time round.

www.sydneyoperahouse.com

Review: Nine (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 5 – 14, 2019
Book: Arthur Kopit
Music & Lyrics: Maury Yeston
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Maddison Burton, Sophia Charters, Phoebe Clark, Kelly Goddard, Ellyn Gwillim, Amy Humphrey, Tayla Jarrett, Tisha Kelemen, Katelin Koprivec, Michele Lansdown, Andy Leonard, Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Sarah Murr, Sophie Perkins, Caitlin Rose, Petronella van Tienen, Megan Walshe
Images by Blake Condon

Theatre review
Guido Contini is caving under pressure, unable to start work on another film, after the failure of his last three efforts. Instead his mind wanders, and in the 1982 musical Nine, we see him obsess over all the women he has loved, as though longing for one of them to turn into a muse and solve his writer’s block. An old-fashioned work, with a male protagonist placed firmly at the centre, surrounded by innumerable women often looking disposable, Nine however still boasts some of the finest melodies in the Broadway canon, with Maury Yeston’s songs remaining as stirring as they had always been.

Director Alexander Andrews assembles all the parts proficiently, and his production bears a level of polish that almost glosses over the regressive nature of its gender representations. Antonio Fernandez’s energetic musical direction, Madison Lee’s imaginative choreography, and James Wallis’ multifaceted lighting design, all combine to deliver an enjoyable, if slightly too traditional, musical extravaganza.

A cast full of conviction, determined to bring vibrancy to the stage, with Andy Leonard in the leading role, offering nuance in his acting, but not quite satisfactory in terms of vocal requirements for several of his songs. The quality of singing is in general slightly disappointing, although it must be noted that the “Folies Bergeres” number is performed with remarkable wit, by Katelin Koprivex as Stephanie and Michele Landsown as La Fleur, both impressive with the vigour they introduce for their memorable scene.

Writing can date, but theatre must always be made for now. Some works need a greater attempt at innovation, so that they can speak more resonantly with audiences of the time, and Nine is certainly an example of how a relic should be updated to match conversations of the day. Many will find it jarring to see so many women on this stage serving no other purpose than to facilitate the narrative of a man in delusion. For many others though, the sheer pleasure of hearing these splendid songs, is more than enough to make up for its political faux pas.

www.littletriangle.com.au

Review: Caroline, Or Change (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Aug 23 – Sep 21, 2019
Book: Tony Kushner
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics: Tony Kushner
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Nkechi Anele, Andrew Cutcliffe, Alexandra Fricot, Amy Hack, Emily Havea, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Genevieve Lemon, Ruva Ngwenya, Elenoa Rokobaro, Elijah Williams and Ryan Yeates
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Caroline works in the basement of the Gellman household, washing and drying clothing in the stifling heat of Louisiana, 1963. Eight year-old Noah Gellman had recently lost his mother, and the Jewish boy is forming a fixation on his African-American cleaning lady, the intensity of which is amplified by his stepmother’s decision to have Caroline keep any money that the child may forget to remove from his pockets, before sending them to get laundered. Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, Or Change is set during the peak of America’s civil rights movement, and although political marches and demonstrations are occurring far away, a distinct sense of resistance is beginning to take hold in the Gellman basement.

The material is poetic, and operatic. Often darkly humorous, Caroline, Or Change is an unconventional musical that does not rely on catchy melodies or cheap sentimentality, to sustain our interest. It intrigues with its powerful narrative, and its two very fascinating central characters. Directed by Mitchell Butel, many of the writing’s deeper resonances can seem lost in the cacophonous renderings of the musical format, but the show’s highly polished look and sound proves seductive, and along with some truly outstanding performances, we are kept absolutely enthralled.

Set design by Simon Greer is wonderfully evocative, and with four tiers of performing space, the small stage is quite miraculously expanded to accommodate the complex spatial requirements of the text. Lights by Alexander Berlage are romantic and lyrical, yet effective in providing dramatic punctuation whenever required. Anthony Lorenz’s sound design is excellent, able to make cohesive, and pleasurable, the multifarious dimensions emanating from singers and instruments.

Elenoa Rokobaro brings her phenomenal voice to Caroline, with a quality of singing that is impressive by any barometer of assessment. Her creation is an appropriately stoic personality, who gradually unravels, for a sophisticated and dignified depiction of resilient blackness. Ryan Yeates is a compelling Noah, technically precise but also emotionally authentic, almost effortless in his passionate expressions of a child discovering the harsh realities of existence. Rose, the stepmother, is played by an exuberant Amy Hack, whose faultless comedy is hugely gratifying, in this otherwise despondent tale. Ruva Ngwenya is a scene-stealer in her various parts, whether presenting herself as soul chanteuse or opera diva, we revel in all that she delivers.

The show ends on a note of hope, with Caroline looking to the future for solace and salvation. More than 50 years have past, and although there is comfort to be found in the strides that have no doubt been taken, there is clearly a long way yet to go, before Martin Luther King’s dream can be fully realised. In the progress towards equality, there are always those who will fight back against what is right. It seems today, that those who are wrong, are gaining momentum in their deplorable efforts to bring regression to how our lives are structured. The Gellmans look on the surface to be good people, but their inability and refusal to make things better for their wider community, is a problem that many of us have inherited and continue to persist with.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Chicago (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Aug 20 – Oct 20, 2019
Music: Fred Ebb, John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb, John Kander
Book: Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, John Kander
Director: Walter Robbie
Cast: Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Amy Berrisford, Tom Burlinson, Alinta Chidzey, Andrew Cook, Todd Dewberry, Rodney Dobson, Samantha Dodemaide, Casey Donovan, Mitchell Fistrovic, J. Furtado, Ben Gillespie, Chaska Halliday, Travis Khan, Hayley Martin, Kristina McNamara, Joe Meldrum, Tom New, Jessica Velluci, Romina Villafranca, Rachael Ward, Zachary Webster, Mitchell Woodcock
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Roxie and Velma are in the slammer, but it would appear that they are having a great time, having learned that in America, it pays to kill. Chicago deals with the subject of the celebrity criminal, and the conventional notion that in whatever realm of achievement, no matter how sordid, we insist always only on having one victor, if the parties involved are women. The story may be approaching a hundred years old, but the enduring musical retains its feeling of thorough modernity, thanks in large part to Bob Fosse’s unparalleled choreography (interpreted by Ann Reinking in 1997), giving the show an air of scandalous edginess that is as yet unsurpassed.

This Australian revival, with resident director Karen Johnson Mortimer at its helm, is sophisticated and sexy, an exceedingly accomplished rendition of one of Broadway’s longest running musicals. Beautifully arranged by musical director Daniel Edmonds, the songs of Chicago are once again vibrantly rousing, proving the timelessness of this legendary work.

The ensemble is unequivocally sensational. Each performer delectable, skilful, and incredibly tightly rehearsed, for a presentation that leaves us breathless from the very get go. Roxie Hart is played by a luminous Natalie Bassingthwaighte, who brings a surprising and highly effective humour to the role, marvellous in her ability to elevate the well-worn campness of her material to something quite unexpectedly exquisite. Alinta Chidzey is impressive with the technical proficiency she brings to Velma Kelly, a consummate professional who hits every mark with admirable precision.

Tom Burlinson is slightly less charming than he needs to be, as the unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn, and although able to hold all the notes, Burlinson’s voice is unfortunately quite underwhelming. Rodney Dobson is on the other hand, charisma personified, winning the hearts of every audience member as Roxie’s husband Amos, especially during his much-loved “Mr. Cellophane” number. The part of Mary Sunshine is perfectly sung by J. Furtado, and Casey Donovan is simply divine as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton, replete with superstar quality.

The feuding women come together at the end, after being chewed up and spat out by the patriarchy. Women are told that there is only ever room for one, and so many fight tooth and nail to get to the top, forgetting that a hierarchy will always require the subjugation of entire populations, and that no woman is allowed to stay eternally supreme in accordance with this mode of doing things. Competition may be healthy, but whenever we are made to betray the sisterhood, we must remind ourselves that much as we are seduced by the feeling of attaining personal gain, the real beneficiaries of the system is never us.

www.chicagothemusical.com.au

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