Review: Herringbone (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 18 – Feb 2, 2019
Playwright: Tom Cone
Music: Skip Kennon
Lyrics: Ellen Fitzhugh
Directors: Jay James-Moody, Michael Ralph
Cast: Jay James-Moody
Images by David Hooley

Theatre review
It was 1929, at the dawn of the Great Depression when eight-year-old George was assigned to be star of the stage, and bread winner at home. Billed as “a vaudevillian ghost story”, Tom Cone’s Herringbone tells the fantastical tale of George’s possession by a poltergeist named Lou who returns, determined to resume his prematurely terminated acting career. Wonderfully imaginative, with a flamboyant and quirky sensibility that transports us to realms of fascinating awe, the show also includes songs in a nostalgic style inspired by the era, all of them full of charm, certain to delight.

Jay James-Moody alone plays all ten of Herringbone‘s different characters, enthralling for the entire 90-minute duration. We witness superhuman talent, along with extraordinary skill and conviction, as the consummate storyteller takes us to the farthest reaches of what theatrical magic can achieve. His technical abilities prove as moving as the palpable love he has for the art form, so clearly discernible on this stage. James-Moody (who also co-directs) allows himself to be completely vulnerable, so that we can come in contact not only with the humanity of the piece, but also the staggeringly delicate nature of live performance. Creating theatre, especially at this intimate scale, is to fly without a safety net, and when we see the work soaring, the inspiration that it provides is incomparable.

Choreography by co-director Michael Ralph is thoroughly inventive, with a jubilant spirit that makes the experience an uplifting one (in spite of its dark themes). Adding to the visual splendour is Benjamin Brockman’s lights, extravagantly conceived to deliver luscious and dramatic imagery, much of which lingers on well after curtain call. Three musicians, Natalya Aynsley, Amanda Jenkins and Tom McCracken, electrify the space with their passionate interpretations of the score, having us impressed by their detailed and tight performance, no doubt due in large part to musical direction by Benjamin Kiehne.

Musical theatre is big business, and as such, much of what we see can tend to be predictable and formulaic. Even if there is undeniable professionalism on display, all the money in the world can never guarantee that our soul is touched by a production. Commerce is always risk averse, and by the same token, it can often be fearful of ingenuity and all things ephemeral, ingredients that great art can never do without. Herringbone has a little bit to say about how we care for children, but it is the very application of artistry, and the collaboration of disciplines, that makes this show so exquisite.

Review: Grey Gardens (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 12, 2015
Book: Doug Wright
Music: Scott Frankel
Lyrics: Michael Korie
Director: Jay James-Moody
Cast: Sienna Arnold, Caitlin Berry, Maggie Blinco, Kelly Callaghan, Beth Daly, Blake Erickson, Sian Fuller, Jenna Keenan, Simon McLachlan, Russell Newman, Timothy Springs
Images by Michael Francis

Theatre review
The legendary Edies made their way into public consciousness through the now classic Maysles documentary film of 1975, Grey Gardens. It was an instant hit, but unlike many documentaries that seem to lose relevance beyond the time of their emergence, this is a story that has captivated every subsequent generation. The last decade especially has been particularly illustrious for the mother-daughter pairing, with the Maysles releasing a second documentary about the same subjects on home video, along with a prominent feature film by HBO, and a Broadway musical paying tribute to the famous eccentrics.

The musical commences in the heyday of Grey Gardens, a time when glitzy parties at the East Hamptons property saw the rich and important mingle, and where social status was the greatest of currencies. It is soon revealed however, that all is not well in the Beale household. Big Edie has been abandoned by a philandering husband, and finds herself left with nothing but the mansion and a daughter desperate to be married off to a Kennedy. In Act Two, we return thirty-three years later to discover the two women in their famous dilapidation. We are bewildered by their spectacular descent from glory to squalor, and the failure of the Edies to explain the predicament only makes us more intrigued.

Their allure is beautifully encapsulated by the writing. Larger than life personalities, frightful circumstances, piercing humour and cruel social realities; all the best ingredients of the beloved documentary have made their way into the musical. There is an abundance of wit for endless amusement and enjoyable tunes that have us entranced, inspired by the stranger than fiction characters and their delightfully curious ways.

The songs are performed marvellously under Jay James-Moody’s direction. Every musical number is conceived with flair, creativity and nuance, utilising the cast’s considerable talents to great effect. Sequences between songs are less successfully realised, with chemistry between performers faltering in the absence of choreography and singing. The production suffers from an overall lack of precision and polish, but it is a show with spirit, buoyed by Beth Daly’s astonishing portrayal of middle-aged Little Edie. Breathtakingly accurate re-enactments of iconic film moments and a thorough understanding of her character’s traits, allow Daly to create a theatrical marvel that is deeply endearing and incredibly impressive. The effect her Little Edie has on us, is little different from what the real McCoy delivers in the original film. We are shocked, confused, saddened but powerfully moved by her extraordinary story. Maggie Blinco and Caitlin Berry play the other Edies (at different ages), both accomplished and compelling with their respective interpretations. Blake Erickson is memorable in the supporting role of George Gould Strong, providing a dramatic but subtly comical performance, accentuated by a remarkable singing voice that never fails to seize our attention.

The production is ambitious with its visual elements but does not quite hit the mark. Lighting design by the inventive Benjamin Brockman is heavily relied upon to depict time and spacial shifts in the presence of a domineering yet inflexible set. Costumes are charming when imitating the documentary’s looks, but they fall short at delivering the extravagant decadence necessary in Act One. On a brighter note, the show’s sound design by Jessica James-Moody and music direction by Hayden Barltrop are executed with great fervour and brilliant sensitivity. The aural landscape of the show is the chief element that takes us through every step of the plot, and it does so thoughtfully, with an effortless elegance.

What the Edies represent, is the notion of freedom, or more accurately the lack thereof. Grey Gardens insists that we consider how the women had arrived at their disappointing state of affairs, and through that discussion, to go on and think about issues of personal volition, kinship and the consequences of forsaken responsibilities. Big Edie’s father, husband and sons had all but discarded our protagonists, and what we encounter is the harsh truth of what remained. We wish that the Edies had been stronger and more resourceful, but the irrefutable fact is that they were deserted and destroyed. We all have a right to live the lives we dream, but we are also bound by the people who need us. We can simply walk away, but the price to pay can sometimes be too great.

5 Questions with Caitlin Berry and Beth Daly

Caitlin Berry

Caitlin Berry

Beth Daly: What movie would Little Edie star in if she were around today?
Caitlin Berry: Edie would be the most sensuous Bond girl you’ve ever seen! She would also star in the opening credit song; lots of daring silhouettes.

Edie is very eccentric, what is your most eccentric quality?
She is indeed. Caitlin is not as eccentric, but I’d say I have the loudest laugh at a party and I like to count tiles when I’m in a bathroom. I also (stupidly) get superstitious around show time; no new shoes on the table, or saying “the Scottish play” backstage.

How did you create your younger version of Edie when there is no documented footage?
When Edie was filmed in the 1975 documentary, she was still very childlike and playful. I don’t think her youthful energy ever lessened. I can only imagine it was more intense when she was 24. I researched the era very well, and made sure I took note of the times Edie spoke about her younger years. Drew Barrymore also does a great interpretation of Little Edie in the HBO series, which I used as a reference too, when imagining my own Edie.

What draws you to Grey Gardens the musical?
This musical is so beautifully written. The music captures the era and the writing serves the women very well. It’s very special to be part of something that is based on real life events. Their story is stranger than fiction, and deserves to be told.

What’s your favourite thing about working with Beth?
Beth is a hoot. She is very warm and funny in rehearsals. We share the same dorky characteristics, and can both poke fun of ourselves with ease. My favourite thing about working with Beth is also that it’s never happened before! Beth and I have known each other for many years and had always hoped there would be a day we could share the stage!

Beth Daly

Beth Daly

Caitlin Berry: What bits of Beth can we see shine through Little Edie?
Beth Daly: My marching skills definitely – I was Physical Culture champion girl for 7 years running. Finally I get to use it! And I think I can be just as cute as Edie.

What clothing label would Edie pioneer in this era, and why?
No doubt recycled clothes re-invented. And she would have an absolutely fabulous line of capes for the staunch woman!

How do you get your head around playing two different characters? What helps you get into each one?
I love that each women is so physically and vocally different. So I walk around as each one saying a key phrase for each. For Edith: “Sing… me? Twist my arm, blackmail me, threaten my very life, and who knows? You might get a verse of something!” For Edie: “I’m extremely organised, I’ve got everything under control, kid.”

What would you say to Little Eddie, if you could?
Let’s put on a cabaret together!

Are these women tragic or heroic?
Both. I feel the depth of the tragedy of what could have been, but I revel in the power of these two women to stay true to themselves and make the best of what comes their way.

Caitlin Berry and Beth Daly are the two Edies in the Grey Gardens musical, by Squabbalogic.
Dates: 18 Nov – 12 Dec, 2015
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Triassic Parq (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

Triassic Parq Company 3   Pic Michael Francis.jpgVenue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Jun 17 – Jul 4, 2015
Book & Lyrics: Marshall Pailet, Bryce Norbitz, Steve Wargo
Music: Marshall Pailet
Director: Jay James-Moody
Cast: Mark Chamberlain, Keira Daley, Blake Erickson, Crystal Hegedis, Rob Johnson, Adèle Parkinson, Monique Sallé
Image by Michael Francis

Theatre review
There are two sides to every fight. In Triassiq Parq, we finally learn the truth about the dinosaurs in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and why they had run amok killing every human in sight, all those 22 years ago. It turns out nature had imposed its own ideas about gender and reproduction on the living exhibits, and along with the subsequent collapse of religion in the neo-Triassic community, all hell breaks loose. Clearly, absurd doesn’t even begin to describe it, but the madness of the contexts proves to work even better in the musical format than in a blockbuster adventure-thriller movie. Sure, there are no frightful moments of computer generated cartoonery here, but the level of hilarity being spawned would rival any attempt at filmic entertainment.

The production is a relentlessly comical one. Even though it takes itself seriously enough to display an impressive standard of professionalism, director Jay James-Moody unearths a great deal of inventiveness to ensure that the show is funny at every step of the way, and with a wicked but sophisticated sense of humour, he prevents the show from ever turning too unsavoury in light of the text’s extravagant silliness. Minor sacrifices are made in terms of the relationships between characters that could have been portrayed with more emotional depth, but it is a small price to pay for the genuine and incessant laughter it is able to manufacture.

Neil Shotter’s brilliant set design achieves an unexpected variety of spacial configurations that help make scene transitions dynamic and cohesive. It is not a lavish construction, but what it delivers is incredibly imaginative and very effective. Also contributing to the show’s success is its 4-piece band, headed by musical director Mark Chamberlain, as well as the work of sound designer Jessica James-Moody. The confidence and liveliness of what they present, along with its ability to coalesce all physical and visual elements on stage into an effervescent whole, is remarkable.

Performances from all members of cast is strong. They are entirely committed and unified in vision, and what they may lack in terms of star quality, they more than make up for with tenacity and skill. Blake Erickson is memorable as the Pastor (and also as Morgan Freeman), with a powerfully versatile voice, and a delightfully camp sensibility that stretches from wincing to wild, perfectly suited to the tone of the show. In the role of the curiously transgender T-Rex 2 is Adèle Parkinson, who attacks with a kind of outrageous abandonment that keeps us captivated at every turn. Parkinson’s singing connects as much as her comedy does, and we find ourselves enamoured with all that she brings to the stage. Leading man Rob Johnson plays the Velociraptor of Innocence, the dinosaur who declares it a beautiful day to be a woman, before disaster strikes. The vibrant and energetic Johnson is a precise, if slightly wooden, performer whose disciplines as a triple-threat serve him well in the part. His presence needs to grow larger for centre stage, but it is a warm one that makes him an easily liked personality.

There are few things as irritating as a musical that tries to convey deep and meaningful messages, and fails. Triassiq Parq is no such thing. It uses the musical format to bring joy and wonder to an eager crowd desperate to be divorced from reality, who for 90 minutes escapes into a world of childlike stupor in search of something extraordinary and light. Triassiq Parq is clever, mischievous, and dexterously executed. It is everything one could need at trying times.

5 Questions with Blake Erickson and Jay James-Moody

Blake Erickson

Blake Erickson

Jay James-Moody: When you only have three weeks to rehearse a full scale musical, what is your process?
Blake Erickson: Research, research, research. I draw on inspiration from a wide range of sources. Obviously everything begins with the text, but people are complex, so I start to think about the influences on a characters life. When I’ve done that I begin fleshing out a character starting with their voice. Then it’s all up to what happens in a rehearsal room, the wonderful thing is that it’s a different experience every time!

Do you find it easier or more difficult working with collaborators you have a long performing history with?
When you’ve worked with someone before it does take the mystery out of it and you do get to move straight to the work rather than the usual ‘getting to know you’ side of producing a show. That said, there’s nothing I love more than new collaborations. Old friends or new, it’s wonderful to be in a room with like-minded people working toward a common goal. The theatre is a bit magical like that.

How would you say the industry of music theatre has changed in the time you have been involved?
There’s so much more! When I started out less than a decade ago there seemed to be a dearth of new work, small shows, and independent works. That has changed considerably thanks to people taking risks and having the courage to actually create something – be it a venue, a company, a show, a song, a play, even a rehearsal space.

When being tasked with bringing a character named Velociraptor of Faith to life, where do you draw your inspiration?
Religion aside, the concept of ‘faith’ to me suggests an enormous amount of self-confidence and strength. I approached the character looking at performances that have impressed me due to their quiet intensity and power. The work of Frances Conroy, Meryl Streep, and Laura Dern (ironically enough considering her Jurassic Park pedigree) have been particularly influential.

What is the most compelling reason an audience should come and watch Triassic Parq?
When I sat down to read the script for Triassic Parq, it was (and remains) the funniest script I have ever read in my entire life. Now I’ve seen it on stage with these extraordinary performers at the top of their game, it remains the funniest musical I have ever seen in my entire life. How could you resist?

Jay James-Moody

Jay James-Moody

Blake Erickson: When Squabbalogic chooses a show to produce, what most informs your decision?
Jay James-Moody: “Is this something I’m going to want to watch 20 times?” is the primary drive. There are a few other motivations including “I’m desperate to see this and nobody else is going to do it” and “I haven’t seen anything quite like this before.” More selfish reasons are “Is there a part in this for me?”

A lot of actors send you headshots and bios when audition time rolls around, do you have any do’s and don’ts or general advice for those aspiring to work with the company?
If you write me an email and address me as “James”, I tend to frown on that. It’s also telling when we are approached by actors who actually haven’t seen our work. That says a few things. But I never mind someone getting in touch and letting me know they are interested in coming on board. In terms of auditions, I want to meet people who are authentic as people and give me the impression that we will have a good time together for a few weeks and aren’t going to be trouble. Folks who are team players. Your reputation on the grapevine also counts for a lot.

Who in the business would you most like to work with, but haven’t yet had the opportunity?
It’s an incredibly long list, and we have already been very fortunate to have ticked off a number of names. A few names that spring to mind: Michelle Doake, Genevieve Lemon, Sharon Millerchip, Mitchell Butel, Bert La Bonte, Peter Carroll…

What is “Australian musical theatre” to you?
Something that needs and deserve more attention and support – not people decapitating tall poppies with a ride-on lawnmower.

You win $10m on an instant scratchie, what do you do?
Start development on that 500 – 1200 seat theatre Sydney desperately need.

Jay James-Moody is directing Blake Erickson in Triassic Parq a comedy musical involving dinosaurs!
Dates: 17 June – 4 July, 2015
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Man Of La Mancha (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Mar 21, 2015
Book: Dale Wasserman
Lyrics: Joe Darion
Music: Mitch Leigh
Director: Jay James-Moody
Cast: Stephen Anderson, Marika Aubrey, Hayden Barltrop, Reece Budin, Ross Chisari, Laurence Coy, Paul Geddes, Courtney Glass, Brendan Hay, Glenn Hill, Jay James-Moody, Rob Johnson, Shondelle Pratt, Kyle Sapsford, Tony Sheldon, Joanna Weinberg, Richard Woodhouse
Images by Michael Francis

Theatre review
Optimism and delusion can sometimes be different sides of the same coin. In an often dreadful world, having only a realistic mindset can be a debilitating existence. Hope is essential for moving forward, and at certain points in life, the only thing that we can cling to. The darker the days, the braver the dreams, and against the backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, Man Of La Mancha features perhaps the most idealist of all literary characters, Don Quixote.

Jay James-Moody’s direction of the work is dark and desolate. The pessimism underlying the protagonist’s fantastical imaginings overwhelms the stage, and while melancholia can be a beautiful thing, it can also be oppressive. The production is polished and slick, and nothing much seems to be out of place, but the lack of a joyful energy makes for a show that feels monotonous, even though it bears a warm sincerity that can become very moving at crucial points.

Tony Sheldon’s rendition of the principal song “The Impossible Dream” is perfectly delivered, and he shows us what it is that makes a star. Sheldon’s performance is perhaps not sufficiently effervescent in earlier sequences, and the tone of the show is set too grave too early, but the depth that he brings to the role is more than anyone can hope to glean from a commercial musical, and his ability to create quiet moments of profundity is a thing to behold. In the role of Aldonza is Marika Aubrey who provides a much needed vibrancy to the music with her very bright timbre, but her acting does not reach the level of authenticity necessary for her narrative to engage. Much is made of Aldonza’s struggle for goodness, but we never quite believe that story.

More compelling is Ross Chisari whose impressive disciplines in voice and movement stand him in good stead, for a dependably charming performance as Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza. Chisari also serves as choreographer, and his work on that front is equally accomplished. The cast is moved around the stage with meaning and ease, and his efforts at creating colour from gestures and tableau are subtle but highly effective. The creatives do a solid job on the production, making this the best looking show from Squabbalogic thus far. Brendan Hay’s costumes, Simon Greer’s set and Benjamin Brockman’s lights are transportative and aesthetically sophisticated, and even though they are unable to inject greater buoyancy into the dramatics, they achieve great success with its visual imagery.

The dark is meaningless without light. Man Of La Mancha is lovingly crafted, but it does not communicate with enough fluency. It needs to be punchier, with greater dynamic range, so that our emotions can fluctuate with its story. The plot is written so that we come to a powerful conclusion, but what we feel does not match closely enough to what is seen unfolding on the stage. The artists here have dared to dream, and that is important, for as long as the brave lead the way, the rest can follow.

5 Questions with Ross Chisari

rosschisariWhat is your favourite swear word?
Easily, fuck. I say it like people say the word ‘and’ or ‘like’. I think it’s because I’m Italian. It’s basically the first word we learn!

What are you wearing?
Ha, I’m currently wearing Superman boxers from Peter Alexander. If I’m gonna sleep in something, it has to be classy.

What is love?
Love is difficult. It’s difficult to find. It’s difficult to understand. It’s difficult to hold onto. That feeling towards something or someone that makes you defy all logic. It’s what some people dream about, or (like me) it’s what some people spitefully toast to cheap wine and thai take-out!

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The last show I saw was Sweet Charity at the Opera House. It’s a knock-out show. The cast is actually a joke to watch on stage and the music gives you chills. 4.5 stars for sure!!!

Is your new show going to be any good?
Man Of La Mancha is going to be like nothing anyone has ever seen before. It’s got an incredible cast and creative team and the company have the most inspirational, dedicated, hard-working soul as it’s leader (Tony Sheldon) and I have a feeling we’re gonna cause a stir whether people like it or not!!! 😉

Ross Chisari is choreographing and also appearing in Man Of La Mancha, with Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre.
Show dates: 25 Feb – 21 Mar, 2015
Show venue: Seymour Centre