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.

5 Questions with Bert LaBonte and Marney McQueen

Bert LaBonte

Bert LaBonte

Marny McQueen: What are the best things about your home town, Geelong?
Bert LaBonte: Being so close to the water, but far enough away from the city.

In what ways do your sons take after you?
Oh look, they’re very sociable and blood cheeky.

Is your wife Amanda happy to be rid of you ¾ of the year while you are on tour?
I can safely say NO! But we make it work when it happens. We call it Team LaBonte!

Which have you been most proud of in your entire performing life?
I’d probably say Foley from An Officer And A Gentleman because I created the role in an original musical. Oh, and I might’ve won a few awards for it too.

What advice would you give other actors regarding working with a diva like me?
Just smile, breathe and think of home time.

Marney McQueen

Marney McQueen

Bert LaBonte: Other than me, which other leading man/men have you found inspirational to work with?
Marney McQueen: Tony Sheldon in Priscilla, he never missed a show, and even in rehearsals he always gave it 150%. I loved working with Andrew McFarlane, mostly because I was able to live out a childhood crush developed over many years of Playschool watching, and I learned many lessons about making sure you enjoy yourself while you are working from Bob Hornery. But my most inspirational leading man was the incomparable Garry MacDonald. In my comedy shows I work alongside an exceptional theatrical animal, Mark Jones, who I could not do cabaret without.

What is your favourite role you’ve played in your career to date?
At school, John Proctor in The Crucible. I went to an all girls’ school.

How do you find being a mum with little ones in this industry helps you as a performer?
It certainly helps you focus in your job while you are at work, you become more efficient. Although in this show you can tap into the immense pool of emotions that little people unleash within you.

If you weren’t a performer what would you be doing with your life?
I love this question. I studied commerce at the University of Melbourne, but I don’t think I would’ve pursued a career in that department. I think I’d be a real estate agent, which is basically being an actor, yeah?

What’s your favourite thing to do away from work?
Go swimming at the Coogee Women’s Pool.

Bert LaBonte and Marney McQueen can both be seen in Dream Lover the musical.
Dates: from 22 September, 2016
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre

Review: The Sound Of Music (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Dec 13 – Jan 17, 2015
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Russel Crouse, Howard Lindsay
Director: Jeremy Sams
Cast: Johanna Allen, Lorraine Bayly, Eleanor Blythman, Du Toit Bredenkamp, Nakita Clarke, Savannah Clarke, Cameron Daddo, Jacqueline Dark, Philip Dodd, Louis Fontaine, Erica Giles, David James, Stefanie Jones, Amy Lehpamer, Dominica Matthews, Jude Padden-Row, Marina Prior, Madison Russo
Images by James Morgan

Theatre review
The Sound Of Music premièred on Broadway in 1959, which makes it a reasonable assumption that most of us had grown up with songs from the iconic musical, figuring prominently in each of our own musical education. Maria brought music to the Von Trapps, and also to lives of millions. Our familiarity with the songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece is quite unparalleled, and although some of the show’s dialogue has long become archaic, its power over our cultural consciousness is second to none.

This manifestation for an Australian touring production is a straightforward one that presents no surprises. The text is unchanged, and all the trappings of a commercial musical are delivered efficiently. Sets transform with military precision, lighting evolves endlessly to take us through every mood change, and the last note to every song decides whether or not its audience should applaud. Everything is thoroughly refined, and the experience is orchestrated to a measured and mechanical perfection, but a cast in live theatre of course, will always be susceptible to some variation, even in the most immovable of productions like this one.

In the role of Maria is Amy Lehpamer, who delivers an impossibly flawless rendition of one of the most popular musical characters of all time. There is no denying the fact that viewers will gauge any actor taking on the part against the legendary film version, but Lehpamer easily meets our expectations, with deeply impressive technical abilities and a presence so warm that every last punter in the nosebleed section cannot help but be won over. She is glorious from prologue to curtain call, with an effortlessness that only a true star of the stage can portray. Similarly fabulous is Jacqueline Dark, whose Mother Abbess is simultaneously commanding and endearing, memorable for her astoundingly powerful singing in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Cameron Daddo’s vocals are thankfully adequate, and while not a scene-stealing performance, his work as Captain Georg von Trapp is often believable and surprisingly moving, aided by a cast of enchanting youngsters who play his children with irresistible cuteness and brilliant conviction.

The anti-Nazi story in The Sound Of Music provides a gravity that helps set it apart from the often excessively frivolous quality of its genre. It is ironic that the entirety of its very large cast is of Caucasian appearance, but the show’s message is unambiguous. We think about the meaning of freedom, and its primary importance in any life. We think about the magic that comes from great music and great art, and how our humanity cannot be divorced from the wonderful capacity of song that brings hope to the darkest of days. When things are not going well, we can find ourselves caged in by fear, but it is our human ability to imagine something better that gives us resilience and ingenuity. In our weakest moments, the simplest of lyrics will lift us up; “Follow ev’ry rainbow till you find your dream.”

Review: Anything Goes (Opera Australia / Gordon Frost Organisation)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Sep 5 – Oct 11, 2015
Music and Lyrics: Cole Porter
Book: Guy Bolton & P.G. Wodehouse, Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, Timothy Crouse, John Weidman
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Gerry Connolly, Carmen Duncan, Bartholomew John, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak, Claire Lyon, Todd McKenney, Caroline O’Connor, Alex Rathgeber
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Cole Porter’s songs are amongst the most familiar in the Western world, and Anything Goes boasts a whole raft of evergreen hits, all taking pride of place in the musical. Originally staged in 1934, the show has been revived many times, along with film versions in 1936 and 1956 and a television special in 1954. Porter’s music is unquestionably delightful and quite irresistible. The wit of his lyrics, and catchiness of his melodies were perfect for stage and screen during his active years from the 1920’s until his final TV score in 1958 for Aladdin. This latest rendering of Anything Goes is a nostalgic gem that brings back all that is wonderful of the era, and adapts it to contemporary tastes. Direction by Dean Bryant is snappy and bold, but the production is always mindful of the conservative American climate that it re-enacts and never allows itself to get vulgar, although moments of bawdy humour are plentiful and extremely well-received. Where there are forbidden fruits, the idea of “anything goes” can take hold anywhere, and Bryant’s less is more approach pays off. By being only slightly naughty, he makes us laugh from beginning to end, tapping into a sense of old-fashioned cheekiness that still works.

Anything Goes features an ensemble cast, with many small (and very lightweight) narratives held together by the conceit of a classic cruise liner setting. We do not usually expect definitive stars for this variety of show, but Caroline O’Connor’s presence clearly dominates. Her skill, energy and seasoned pizazz, together with supreme confidence and splendid comic timing, ensures that her talent is a cut above the rest and that her every appearance jolts the crowd into spasms of irrepressible excitement. Also fantastic are the young lovebirds, Claire Lyon and Alex Rathgeber, both with impeccable voices beautifully suited to the genre, and each with physical disciplines that let the depiction of their characters be believable, charming, and terribly romantic. Their rendition of De-Lovely is a show-stopper with demanding choreography by Andrew Hallsworth executed with tremendous flair and exquisite sentimentality, bringing to the show a sophistication that exceeds all expectations. Supporting players are effective comedians but less gratifying in their respective musical numbers, most of which appear in Act II, and causing an unfortunate dip in energy as the show attempts to reach its climatic conclusion.

Designers of the show must be lauded for a lavish production that looks outstanding in its refinement and elegance. Even though visual elements are probably derivative and significantly inspired by previous incarnations, costumes by Dale Ferguson are a treat to behold and a genuine highlight. Ferguson’s set, along with Matt Scott’s lights, are as dynamic and intelligent as they come. Every movement on stage occurs flawlessly, and our eyes shift effortlessly under the spell of their technical wizardry. Placement of the orchestra in the elevated centre stage is a genius touch that recalls big band formations of the past, and contributes to a wonderful acoustic dimension impressively balanced by Michael Waters on sound design.

The title might be Anything Goes, but nothing is left to chance. There is little logic in the stories and characters we see (and its occasional racial humour will undeniably offend some), but everything on the stage is measured to utmost precision. It is professional theatre at its strongest, and will provide benchmarks on many aspects of performing arts, in Australia and worldwide. Musicals are not the best at advancing a society’s politics and civilisation, and it rarely reveals rare truths of the human condition, but a work of this standard will inspire greatness in many forms. A night of sheer entertainment might not move mountains, but where we can find meaning, is the way it helps us see that mere mortals are the ones to make miracles happen.

Review: Legends! (Gordon Frost / Theatre Royal)

781198-f461dc9e-0993-11e5-8dc7-b0c4f7af3b6c[1]Venue: Theatre Royal (Sydney NSW), Jun 18 – Jul 5, 2015
Playwright: James Kirkwood
Director: Christopher Renshaw
Cast: Maxwell Caulfield, David Denis, Leah Howard, Phillip Lowe, Hayley Mills, Juliet Mills

Theatre review
James Kirkwood’s 1987 comedy Legends! is about screen sirens wrestling with the fact that time can be unkind, and that parts of us are considered over-the-hill before we are ready to acknowledge their demise. The script is only 28 years old, but it feels more dated than the characters it portrays. Many of the jokes are tired, and its inclusion of African-Americans only as servants and strippers is clearly inappropriate for today’s milieu. All the personalities are simplistic, and although we recognise them on the level of stereotypes, they are not affecting beyond anything archaic and predictable.

Direction of the work by Christopher Renshaw does not seek to invent a new sense of humour in order to update the tone and feel of the text, but his show is nevertheless, tightly paced and energetic. The plot is relayed with clarity and enthusiasm, but its lack of wit is unable to be disguised. It must be noted though, that Justin Nardella’s achievements as designer on the production is remarkable, with set and costumes in particular, conveying a striking glamour that is quite captivating.

Performances by the show’s stars, Hayley and Juliet Mills, are polished and engaging. Their interpretation of dueling has-beens at the centre of the play is not wicked enough for the show to be much more than amusing, but we are impressed by the thoroughness of their professionalism in what is evidently a very well-rehearsed performance. The Mills sisters have gestures and voices that demonstrate their admirable stage expertise, and even though the story being told is not filled with passion, the duo’s dedication and enjoyment of their art are lovely to behold. Also exuberant are supporting actors Leah Howard and David Denis, who contribute significant luster to a very conventional production. Their impulsive and lively approach provides buoyancy to an otherwise contrived style of presentation.

Legends! is an old-fashioned comedy, which is not to say that it will not find an audience. It holds appeal for certain cultural segments, but is perhaps not a popular choice for the rest of us. What is it that makes people laugh is never a certainty, and the rules are never stable. Time and space, along with humour, are constantly in flux, and what was once hilarious can now be tedious. Sylvia and Leatrice might no longer be relevant to today’s movie-going public, but their voice should still persist, even just to tide with the sands of time in anticipation of trends and tastes to return.

5 Questions with Stephen Mahy

stephenmahyWhat is your favourite swear word?
C you next Tuesday.

What are you wearing?
Black Calvin Klein jeans, grey t shirt with the earth on it.

What is love?
Not expecting anything back.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Tequila Mocking Bird in Brisbane. A great theatre and education play. 4 out of 5.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Grease? I think it is.



Stephen Mahy is starring in Grease.
Show dates: From 13 Oct, 2013 (Sydney) & Jan 2, 2014 (Melbourne)
Show venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre & Her Majesty’s Theatre

Grease (Lyric Theatre)

grease1Venue: Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), from Oct 13, 2013
Based on the original by: Jim Jacobs, Warren Casey
Performers: Rob Mills, Gretel Scarlett, Stephen Mahy, Lucy Maunder, Todd McKenney, Bert Newton, Anthony Callea

Theatre review
Grease (1978) is one of Australia’s most loved films of all time. Our relationship with its songs and characters is an intimately familiar one, and this familiarity ensures that the staging of its musical version for Australian audiences is a safe bet. This theatrical presentation is a faithful adaptation of the cinematic version, and aims at providing entertainment and nostalgia, both of which are delivered in dazzling abundance.

Danny Zuko is played by Rob Mills, who has carved a career out of incredible charisma, and an impressive, consistent improvement in his stage craft. Now ten years in the public eye, Mills’ performance in Grease is a turning point in his career. The leading man’s voice is today at its most vibrant and versatile, and while not always known to be a great dancer, he attacks all choreography with gusto and flair, proving himself once and for all to be a formidable player in the musical arena.

Todd McKenney is Teen Angel (the fairy godfather), and steals the show with his only appearance in the eminently memorable “Beauty School Dropout” sequence. McKenney shows himself to be the proverbial Mr Showbiz, all sparkling toothy smiles and nifty footwork. The way his physical prowess owns the stage is mesmerising, and he absolutely exemplifies all we love about musical theatre. Also a stand out is Stephen Mahy who elevates Kenickie from a run-of-the-mill bad boy to one with impressive showmanship and great comic timing. He also happens to be dashingly handsome.

The Sandy in this production is, however, miscast. Gretel Scarlett has a stunning singing voice, but lacks the pop sensibility that is associated with Olivia Newton-John’s legendary recordings. Scarlett is a statuesque beauty and the perfect visual match with her leading man, but her interpretation of the wholesome girl from down under comes across slightly bland. It is bewildering also, that her two key moments (her solo, and her penultimate transformation) are not supported by stronger stage effects for greater dramatics.

The overall excellent cast, along with the brilliant band, and big budget set and costume design, all conspire to materialise a “real life” version of a celluloid dream we have all cherished through the years. The joy Grease represents and all the memories it evokes is invaluable, and much more than what we have come to expect of commercial musical theatre.