Review: Tick, Tick… Boom! (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 20 – 26, 2023
Book: Jonathan Larson
Lyrics: Jonathan Larson
Music: Jonathan Larson
Director: Tyran Parke
Cast: Sheridan Adams, Finn Alexander, Hamish Johnston, Elenoa Rokobaro, Hugh Sheridan
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review

Jon’s thirtieth birthday is fast approaching, and his anxiety is on overdrive. An artist living and working in New York, his career has yet to take off, even though everyone seems to heap praise on his song writing. Tick, Tick… Boom! is a semi-autobiographical work by Jonathan Larson, first performed in 1990, just six years before his untimely death, at the very young age of 35. Larson’s greatest success finally came with the musical Rent, but he never saw the warm reception of opening night, having passed away just the day before its first preview.

Tick, Tick… Boom! was never conceived for large venues. This staging, directed by Tyran Parke, is based on an adaptation by David Auburn that expanded the work from Larson’s original solo format, and its current iteration in a 2,000 seater auditorium, demonstrates unfavourably the intimate nature of the musical. The drama never grips, and the songs rarely soar. We feel energies dissipating long before they reach us, from a stage that often looks too subdued, and too far away.

Christina Smith’s scenic design encloses the action on the centre third of the proscenium, which helps to concentrate focus, but which also restricts movement, in a way that makes the show look monotonous. Lights by Matt Scott, although adept at providing appropriate illumination, does not deliver much more than its essential functions. Musical direction by Kohan van Sambeeck, while able to imbue some intensity to the plot, is let down by sound engineering that keeps the band distant, and much of their efforts withdrawn and contained within the stage area.

Leading man Hugh Sheridan, while not lacking in verve, has a voice that is excessively raspy and strained, unable to allow his audience to connect with the songs, and therefore losing the essence and soul of his character Jon. Performer Elenoa Rokobaro is the saving grace of the production, confident and delightful in all of her roles, especially memorable in her showstopping tune, “Come to Your Senses”, taking the opportunity very late in the piece, to remind us of the magic, that theatre is capable of.

Artists do not create work in vacuums. It is fundamental to any art practice, that communication between creator and audience is a matter of consideration, but there always comes a point where one can care too much. Jon cares too much, about what people think, not only in relation to his work as a writer of songs and musicals, but also as a man struggling in a contemporary epoch, defined by envy and competition. It is a shame that we have manufactured a world, in which few artists are able to be content simply with the joy of creation, where most are made to involve themselves with an endless barrage of peripheral interferences, that fuel professional jealousy and gratuitous aspiration. Jon is good at what he loves, but it is a real shame that everywhere he seeks affirmation, seems to make him think, that he is not enough.

Review: Hairspray (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Feb 5 – Apr 2, 2023
Book: Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell (based on the film by John Waters)
Lyrics: Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Music: Marc Shaiman
Director: Jack O’Brien
Cast: Brianna Bishop, Rhonda Burchmore, Ayanda Dladla, Mackenzie Dunn, Bobby Fox, Todd Goddard, Asabi Goodman, Shane Jacobson, Sean Johnston, Javon King, Donna Lee, Todd McKenney, Carmel Rodrigues
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review

Tracy is a big girl, and because it is 1962, she was never meant to appear on TV. When Corny Collins looks past conventions to recognise Tracy’s talents and casts her on his variety show, Tracy quickly uses her new platform to instigate change on national television, by forcing the integration of Black and white Americans on screen. Whether one sees Hairspray as yet another “white saviour” narrative, or a story that is about true allyship, the musical’s feelgood charm is hard to deny. Characters and the story from John Waters’ original 1988 film are colourful and adorable. Songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman from this 2002 Broadway creation are irresistibly soulful. Perfect in so many ways, this is a show that is likely to keep returning for generations to come.

Performer Carmel Rodrigues is completely delightful as Tracy Turnblad, full of vibrancy as the spirited teen. Her legendary mother Edna is played by Shane Jacobson, who although never really convinces as the divine maternal figure, impresses with his vocal prowess. Scene-stealer Javon King’s immense talent and unequivocal star quality, only makes us want the part of schoolfriend Seaweed to be much bigger, even though he is in no way an insignificant element of the show. Asabi Goodman as Motormouth Maybelle, may require a bolder sense of confidence, but her solo rendition of  “I Know Where I’ve Been” is certainly accomplished, and an important statement about the unfaltering efforts of Black activists, even when their white counterparts claim the limelight.

It should come as no surprise that Tracy is a good feminist. The fact that she faces prejudice every day, from inhabiting a physicality deemed contemptible by so many, could only mean that she must understand the deficiencies of how things are run. Tracy knows also, that it is not only one’s size that could be weaponised against people. We see her fighting for Black rights, because injustice is simply injustice, no matter how it manifests. Good feminists must continue to hold the door open, once they have entered the room, and they must never forget that no one is to be left behind.

Review: Cinderella (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Oct 24, 2022 – Jan 29, 2023
New Book: Douglas Carter Beane
Lyrics and Original Book: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
Director: Mark Brokaw
Cast: Daniel Belle, Bianca Bruce, Tina Bursill, Josh Gardiner, Shubshri Kandiah, Nicholas Hammond, Ainsley Melham, Matilda Moran, Silvia Paladino
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s exquisite songs for Cinderella were originally written for a 1957 television broadcast, and had taken more than half a century, to reach the Broadway stage. This 2013 adaptation with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, transposes the old tale for the contemporary stage, carefully incorporating updates and modifications, to make Cinderella palatable for twenty-first century sensibilities. The amalgamation of the classic score with a modernised narrative, proves a delightful opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with the most familiar of stories, only with a lot less misogyny.

Our poor girl Cinderella is no longer incapacitated and desperate. She is now well-read, smart, intuitive, and maybe even a little ambitious. Performed by Shubshri Kandiah, she is also hugely endearing, and incredibly graceful. God forbid, she might even be a little feisty. Aside from this surprisingly refreshing take on the famous character, Kandiah’s singing and dancing are resplendent, effortlessly transporting us to somewhere magical, and wonderfully innocent.

Prince Topher too has become more human. Given charming humour by the dashing Ainsley Melham, who matches in performance ability with Kandiah; the two look to be a pair made in heaven. Their chemistry is the stuff dreams are made of, and we want their union to succeed as much as they themselves do. Also very impressive is Silvie Paladino, who brings incredible skill and a delicious campness to the unforgettable role of Fairy Godmother. Paladino’s presence is so strong, as is her voice, that she makes her enormous dresses seem a natural fit.

The excellent transformation that occurs in this newer Cinderella, is not that the pauper becomes the princess, but that young girls can now see a version of the heroine being valued for all the right things. The aspiration is no longer just to marry well, but to become intelligent, resilient, kind and generous. This should always be the lesson to teach our young, should we decide to keep telling this story for centuries to come.

Review: Mary Poppins (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), May 15 – Sep 4, 2022
Book: Julian Fellowes (based on stories by P.L. Travers and the Disney film)
Original Music and Lyrics: Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman
New Songs and Additional Music: George Stiles
New Songs and Additional Lyrics: Anthony Drewe
Director: Richard Eyre
Cast: Stefanie Jones, Jack Chambers, Tom Wren, Lucy Maunder, Mia Honeysett, Finn Walsham, Nancye Hayes, Hannah Waterman, Robert Grubb, Chelsea Plumley, Gareth Isaac
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Time and again, obscene amounts of money are thrown at turning legendary films into live musicals, but rarely do they meet the public’s expectations. Mary Poppins however is an unequivocal success story, not only able to live up to the loving memory that many have retained of the original, it uses its magical themes to advance the theatrical arts, especially in terms of special visual effects.

We watch the fantastical world in Disney’s 1964 film come to vibrant life, right before our eyes, complete with gravity defying performers and hallucinatory scenery. All the trickery is wonderfully amusing of course, but the show never lets these gimmicks get in the way of storytelling, which thankfully remains central to the extravagant production.

It is a tremendously lavish presentation, one that urges us to see that no expense is spared, yet it is the ingenuity and inventiveness behind these incredible vistas that truly impress. Also satisfying is the music, some of which are from the 58 year-old film, and some created for the 2004 Broadway premiere. Even at varying degrees of familiarity, every song is engrossing, able to hold us captive and entertained for nearly three hours of spectacular pleasure.

Performer Stefanie Jones is radiant in the eponymous role, completely at ease with the highly technical requirements of this challenging part. Her discipline and precision put us at ease, as we lose ourselves in all the bedazzling and rambunctious action. Playing Bert the chimney sweep, is the enchanting Jack Chambers, whose agility and exuberance steal the show. Completely unperturbed even when tap dancing upside down and metres above, Chambers’ infectious joy on stage reels us in, and has us luxuriating in every blissful moment he offers.

Bringing heart and soul to the production are Tom Wren and Lucy Maunder, as Mr and Mrs Banks. Both performers prove adept at portraying more tender aspects of the story, and it is that poignancy they deliver, that earns our emotional investment. The Banks children are played by Mia Honeysett and Finn Walsham, who demonstrate a remarkable commitment and professionalism that belie their ages. Their work is consistently compelling, and both prove to be highly accomplished in each of their demanding roles.

The nanny Mary Poppins comes into the lives of the Banks family, and then swiftly departs. So much of what we experience on this plane, is transitory, In Mary Poppins the musical, we see merriment and sadness, along with success and hardship. We have to take the good with the bad, for without the contrast of one against the other, what we treasure most will not be able to reveal its true lustre. Knowing that life will never be forever smooth-sailing, keeps us humble, and knowing that troubles come to an end, is a reassurance that forever bears repeating.

Review: North By Northwest (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 9 – Apr 3, 2022
Adaptation: Carolyn Burns
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: David Campbell, Amber McMahon, Bert Labonté, Genevieve Lemon, Berynn Schwerdt, Dorje Swallow, Kaeng Chan, Lachlan Woods, Nicholas Bell, Sharon Millerchip, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Wadih Dona 
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece involves espionage, mistaken identities, and an innocent fugitive on the run. It is however, not the story of North by Northwest that is responsible for it being regarded as one of cinematic history’s greatest instalments, but Hitchcock’s virtuosic manipulation of form, that had made the film a monumental achievement.

Transposing to the stage, a movie experience known for its visual trickery, is a formidable task. and this 2015 creation, by director Simon Philips and writer Carolyn Burns, is certainly ambitious. With a heavy reliance on video projections throughout the production (designed by Josh Burns), this theatrical reinvention of North by Northwest begins very much like a tribute to the great Hitchcock, with a tone of reverence that almost drowns out the parodic quality, of both the original and the intentions of this new iteration.

An abrupt shift occurs midway, when the humour becomes decidedly more pronounced. The show gets gradually funnier, as things get more farcical. The pastiche of North by Northwest can range from the very clever to the slightly misguided, but by its second half, the hilarity is undeniable.

Set design by Philips and Nick Schlieper feels more an object of function than of beauty, although Schlieper’s very dynamic lights are definitely an aesthetic pleasure. Together with Esther Marie Hayes’ costumes and Ian McDonald’s soundscapes (based on Bernard Herrmann’s original soundtrack compositions), design aspects of the staging take us back, effectively and pleasurably, to a much more elegant time.

Performer David Campbell is characteristically brimming with charisma, and demonstrates admirable agility for the physical requirements of playing a version of Roger Thornhill without the benefit of close ups, but he never quite delivers the nostalgic sensibilities that we crave. Memories of Cary Grant’s unrivalled suavity remains out of reach.

Leading lady Amber McMahon however is every bit the Hitchcockian femme fatale. As Eve Kendall, she is enigmatic and alluring, but also strangely believable, in this heightened revision of an iconic story and its archetypes. The supporting cast playfully tackle an endless number of small parts, along with manufacturing comically awkward visual gags for the video element. The energy that they emanate, in all their hustle and bustle, is invaluable in sustaining our attention.

It is now 7 years since this work of theatre first appeared in Melbourne, and it seems already to have  been superseded slightly by technocultural advancements. The increased reliance of multi-screens in everyday life, and the proliferation of drone technology, are but two examples of how quickly our senses have grown in sophistication. The simplicity of video in this rendition of North by Northwest, although a fundamental aspect, can seem too quaint and slightly twee. The majesty of Hitchcock’s 63-year-old original persists however, and being able to recall those sensations at this live event, is a real thrill.

Review: Pippin (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 24, 2020 – Jan 31, 2021
Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Roger O. Hirson
Director: Diane Paulus
Cast: Leslie Bell, Simon Burke, Euan Doidge, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Lucy Maunder, Gabrielle McClinton, Ainsley Melham, Ryan Yeates
Images by Brian Geach

Theatre review
More than being Prince of the Franks, Pippin is the prince of despair. He is the son of an ambitious and ruthless king, but what Pippin wants for himself, cannot be found in following anyone’s footsteps but his own. Although not the most memorable in terms of songs and characters, the 1972 musical by Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz, is delightfully conceived, featuring an integration of philosophy with circus disciplines, that proves evergreen and quite irresistible.

This twenty-first century version, choreographed by Chet Walker in the legendary style of Bob Fosse, is sensual and captivating as ever, with a level of sophistication that makes the experience an consistently pleasurable one. Direction by Diane Paulus is somewhat emotionally distant, but the visual splendour she manifests is quite a thing to behold.

Performer Ainsley Melham is very likeable in the titular role, not the strongest voice for a stage of this magnitude, but certainly a big presence with a palpable warmth that keeps us firmly on his character’s side. Gabrielle McClinton is striking and highly impressive as Leading Player, a ringmaster of sorts, delivering a portrayal that is precise, unyieldingly energetic and brilliantly nuanced.

Simon Burke and Leslie Bell are full of charm as Pippin’s royal parents, whilst Euan Doidge’s camp rendition of Prince Lewis is an unforgettable crowd-pleaser. Also humorous is Lucy Maunder, who plays love interest Catherine, remarkably timed and splendidly confident with the quirky comedy that she brings. Above all, the chorus is life of the party, many of whom are circus folk adept at keeping us awe-struck with physical feats that never fail to get our jaws hitting the ground. It is theatre as spectacle, and at an especially difficult time, an antidote we desperately need to help lift our spirits.

Review: War Horse (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Feb 15 – Mar 15, 2020
Playwright: Nick Stafford (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo)
Director: Marianne Elliott, Tom Morris
Images by Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Andrew Tauber

Theatre review
Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse features the life story of a horse named Joey, and his friendship with Albert, the young man with whom he shares an unbreakable bond. Sold off to a cavalry in World War I, Joey spends the wilderness years in hard toil, whilst Albert pines for his mate as he too, struggles in the trenches. Adapted by Nick Stafford, this stage version is cleverly balanced, to deliver both pathos and amusement, allowing a theatrical audience to indulge in an evening of nostalgic escapism.

War Horse is the paragon of immaculate stagecraft. All technical faculties are rendered in extraordinary ways, for a show best described as magical, from start to end. The very prerequisite of bringing to life a lead character that is not human, but a magnificent beast, means that all the tools for make belief, are activated in the most inventive and dynamic ways. The audacious and oversized puppetry involved in telling Joey’s story, is central to the enjoyment of the production, with up to six persons employed to animate one creature, often with multiple horses sharing the stage, for images that will stay with the viewer for years to come.

Although stridently sentimental, the show is not always a moving experience. It is however, endlessly fascinating, with a multitude of mechanical devices employed to tell an emotional story. Some may find themselves swept away with the innocent love portrayed in the piece, but most will be hopelessly captivated by the sheer ambition of the staging. Its scale is overwhelming, and the pleasure of feeling awestruck should never be underestimated.

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.

Review: Saturday Night Fever (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 27 – Jun 2, 2019
Book: Robert Stigwood, in collaboration with Bill Oakes (based on the film by Nik Cohn)
Director: Karen Johnson Mortimer
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Natalie Conway, Paulini Curuenavuli, Euan Doidge, Bobby Fox, Melanie Hawkins, Marcia Hines, Stephen Mahy, Nana Matapule, Ryan Morgan, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji
Images by Heidi Victoria

Theatre review
The plot was always flimsy in Saturday Night Fever, but all its music and dance sequences have made it an unequivocal icon of the disco era. With a soundtrack album that has sold over 45 million copies worldwide, its songs and their accompanying decadent style, proceeded to define entertainment in the immediate years after its 1977 release, and continue to retain significant cultural cache for generations thereafter. This live theatre version first appeared 1998 in the West End, predictably stirring with the deeply familiar and seductive song list, and this 2019 rendition is similarly appealing.

Accepting that the story is largely irrelevant to how one should enjoy the piece, song and dance is then allowed to become the focus. Choreography by Malik Le Nost is exhilarating, and faithfully nostalgic. Paul Herbert’s orchestrations amplify the pizzazz and schmaltz that the audience adores. We want the big productions to never end, but alas, several extended scenes that attempt to deliver drama, or at least some sense of narrative, only prove themselves to be unsought distractions that bring the energy down, along with our excitement, between the genuinely gratifying episodes of discotheque fabulosity.

Leading man Euan Doidge is a very average actor in the role of Tony Manero, but thankfully shows himself to be a sensational dancer, and doubtless for many an audience member, a real looker. Even with the completely disco-erroneous short haircut and tight trousers, Doidge is a breathtaking specimen who almost has us forgiving everything. His dance partner is the impossibly perfect Melanie Hawkins, who makes every one of Stephanie Mangano’s entrances look like an angel descending from above. Club DJ Monty is played by the thoroughly engaging Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji, who absolutely shines in the supporting role, with timing and moves that have us eating out of his palm. All the hits are sung marvellously, mainly by a fantastic group of four (Natalie Conway, Paulini Curuenavuli, Bobby Fox and Nana Matapule), but there is no denying the superstar power of Marcia Hines, who is called upon to inspire awe with each of her brief appearances.

Saturday Night Fever tries to give us more than what we bargain for, where it should know better its own strengths. Like legendary party animals of the late 70’s and their penchant for amphetamines and cocaine, we come to the show as hedonists with no time for emotion. Between bumps of pleasure, we have to endure moments of tedium, but we stay for the duration, because we know exactly what the next peak is going to bring.

Review: Peter Pan Goes Wrong (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Feb 13 – Mar 3, 2019
Playwrights: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Director: Adam Meggido
Cast: Adam Dunn, Connor Crawford, Luke Joslin, Jordan Prosser, Jay Laga’aia, Francine Cain, George Kemp, Tammy Weller, Darcy Brown, Teagan Wouters
Images by David Watson

Theatre review
A sequel of sorts to The Play That Goes Wrong, with the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society this time taking on the boy who wouldn’t grow up, Peter Pan Goes Wrong once again sees a stage production fall to absolute pieces, in the hands of some very unskilled and unprofessional theatre makers. This time with a bigger budget, thanks to a substantial donation from the uncle of an overzealous actor, the set is much more involved, complete with flight rigs, making it virtually impossible for anything to go according to plan.

Cleverly conceived, and thoroughly inventive with its jokes, Peter Pan Goes Wrong is harmless family fun that delivers some very big laughs. Even on occasions when its humour misses the mark, Adam Meggido’s direction imbues the show with a rowdiness that ensures we are kept energised and attentive to its relentless shenanigans. The cast is wonderfully precise and enthusiastic, with an impressive agility in their bodies and minds, determined to amuse and entertain. Performers George Kemp and Tammy Weller are particularly memorable with their extraordinary exuberance, both impeccable in their respective embodiment of deeply flawed characters.

As it had been with The Play That Goes Wrong, it is the production’s technical aspects that truly astonish. Countless cues, all unimaginably complicated are executed to splendid perfection, in what could be considered a show that pays tribute to those who work tirelessly backstage. It is often what lies beyond the surface that is of greatest value, and in Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Stage Manager Stef Lindwall and her team are unequivocal stars.