Review: In The Heights (Hayes Theatre / Blue Saint Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 16 – Apr 15, 2018
Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book: Quiara Alegria Hudes
Director: Luke Joslin
Cast: Marty Alix, Libby Asciak, Ana Maria Belo, Samantha Bruzzese, Will Centurion, Margi de Ferranti, Ryan Gonzalez, Monique Montez, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji, Alexander Palacio, Michelle Rozario, Luisa Scrofani, Stephen Tannos, Richard Valdez, Olivia Vasquez
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
At the far north of Manhattan lies the Washington Heights neighbourhood, populated by a predominantly Dominican-American community, living and pursuing the American Dream. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical In The Heights appeared in 2005, featuring an almost entirely Latinx cast of characters, with music heavily influenced by styles and rhythms of Latin America, along with a generous measure of Miranda’s now signature incorporation of rap. It is a story of aspiration and struggle, with the immigrant experience placed respectfully, at its centre. Although culturally specific in its explorations, In The Heights is broad in appeal, and proves to be readily received by audiences in Australia, where an ascendant history of migration has shaped the identities of us all.

Musical Director Lucy Bermingham’s marvellous interpretation of the score, brings us a vitality rarely encountered at our theatres. Exciting, soulful and wonderfully refreshing, the show is an unequivocal treat for the ears. A formidably well-rehearsed band plays the work with astonishing brilliance; contributions by drummer Emma Ford and percussionist Alysa Portelli are particularly invaluable in sweeping us away from our dreary humdrum. Choreography by Amy Campbell is ferociously riveting. Her use of space and bodies, has us dazzled and thrilled, and dancers Samantha Bruzzese and Michelle Rozario are simply unforgettable with their athletic glamour.

Ryan Gonzalez is the powerhouse leading man, impressive at all the facets required of a musical performer. His Usnavi is a warm, charismatic and persuasive character, whose narrative moves us purely because of the talents displayed on stage by Gonzalez. Whether singing, rapping, dancing or acting, we devour all that he offers up so thoroughly flawlessly. Also very successful are Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji and Luisa Scrofani, both strong in voice and presence, spectacular in their respective roles. Marty Alix and Richard Valdez leave excellent impressions in smaller parts, with musical and comic abilities clearly eclipsing the actual scope of what had been stipulated. Director Luke Joslin’s achievements with In The Heights are rich and very gratifying. Together with an accomplished team of designers, he has brought us a big, brash musical that stands for something more than entertainment.

Art has the capacity to talk about power in our worlds, with absolute truth and honesty. The predicament of the underprivileged must be conveyed to all, especially to those who do not wish to hear it. The nature of how we structure communities, in the daily expansion of what we consider to be meritorious, must always be questioned, and within that, the problem of how we exclude and exploit peoples, must be continually interrogated. We can no longer hold on to ignorant conceptions of living in stagnant societies. In this new era of advanced technology and accelerating warfare, the movement of people will only intensify, and our ability to extend justice and equity is the greatest test to our humanity. |

Review: DNA (Last One Standing Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 15 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Alex Beauman, Jeremi Campese, Holly Fraser, James Fraser, Jess-Belle Keogh, Alex Malone, Bardiya McKinnon, Liam Nunan, Millie Samuels, Jane Watt, Emm Wiseman
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
A group of teenagers get themselves in deep trouble, but instead of seeking help from adults or officials, their instinct leads them to the alpha male of their pack. Phil is the strong silent type, the intense young man always looking to be deep in thought. He takes on the role of top dog with supreme confidence, and everyone else does as they are told, but we quickly discover this designation to be a case of style over substance. Dennis Kelly’s DNA examines our attraction to masculinity, and its socialised associations with authority and legitimacy.

The play is curiously plotted, with the narrative of a murder mystery interrupted by scenes of Phil with Leah, a girlfriend perhaps, desperate for his attention, but whom he is determined to ignore and belittle. Juxtaposing scenes of urgency with those frankly tedious two-hander moments, may not be dramatically effective, but Kelly’s dialogue is refreshing, with his use of UK vernacular especially fascinating to Australian ears.

The couple is played by Bardiya McKinnon and Millie Samuels, both actors demonstrating a satisfying level of concentration, but unable to turn their characters likeable. There are many colourful personalities in DNA, although not conventionally appealing, and certainly not uplifting or inspiring types that draw us in. It is however, an honest tale that reveals darker shades of our humanity, and director Claudia Barrie makes sure that pertinent meanings of the piece, are conveyed with power and clarity. The big cast features some strong players, and they keep us attentive, even when their youthful folly threatens us with characteristic dreariness.

Sean Van Doornum’s sound design is noteworthy for introducing a wide range of tense ambiences to the space. Along with Liam O’Keefe’s lights and Ella Butler’s set, the production impresses with its polish, although the show’s overall result can be slightly underwhelming. DNA is a cautionary tale, and it does bear repeating, that humans are often very stupid creatures. Allowing us to see ourselves at our worst, is a gift that is almost unique to what art can achieve. How we proceed from having observed our deficiencies, is important, but never ascertainable at the point of conclusion when we consume a work.

Review: The Wolves (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 14 – Apr 14, 2018
Playwright: Sarah DeLappe
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Brenna Harding, Emma Harvie, Sarah Meacham, Sofia Nolan, Michelle Ny, Cece Peters, Zoe Terakes, Nikita Waldron, Nadia Zwecker
Image by John Marmaras

Theatre review
Nine American girls, approaching the end of their teenage years, are in a soccer team together, warming up their bodies and figuring out their place, both on the field and in the larger world. Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is no preachy melodrama about burgeoning womanhood. These characters may have seen little by virtue of their youth, but they all demonstrate wisdom and strength; each of their lives are richly established, not to provide some kind of tense narrative drive, but to foster, through the theatrical form, a modern social conception of our young and all the promise that they bear.

Director Jessica Arthur uses fragments of insight granted by the text, to manufacture on stage, quite marvellously, a dynamic experience that is relentlessly engaging, and unexpectedly powerful. We are only ever offered glimpses into each personality, but find ourselves forming emotional attachments as the show progresses, falling in love with all of their idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities. Unlike traditional, namely, patriarchal forms of storytelling, no protagonists and antagonists are necessary here, and for its 90-minute duration, we are intrigued, thrilled and fulfilled. The show is frequently very funny, and the poignancy it eventually inscribes, is stunning.

Performances are nothing short of brilliant. The cohesion and closeness of the cast is extraordinary, generating a warm joyful glow, palpable and wonderful, for all to share within the intimacy of the auditorium. Beautifully well-rehearsed, the actors deliver the play’s short and sharp dialogue with admirable precision and astounding nuance, precipitating meaning with impact and efficiency. The many sequences that feature legitimate sporting ability and fitness, are quite sensational, and thoroughly impressive.

Right in this moment, young people in the USA are fighting to force changes to gun control. They have galvanised in spectacular fashion and are out in droves, propelled by passion and idealism. The girls in The Wolves are no doubt part of that pack. Smart, fearless and loud, they discern the truth, along with the bullshit, and are now refusing to acquiesce where they do know better. We care for our young, but in that mode of protection, we often underestimate them. There is in fact, much to learn from the The Wolves, even if just a reminder of that youthful spirit, capable of achieving anything.

Review: Rudy & Cuthbert (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 13 – 17, 2018
Creators: Toby Blome, Zelman Cressey-Gladwin
Director: Ellen Cressey
Cast: Toby Blome, Zelman Cressey-Gladwin
Image by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
We should be thankful when artists know their strengths and give us only what they do best. Two young men appear on stage, admitting that their intentions of staging Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men have not quite come to fruition. Instead, they perform a work of physical comedy, telling a charming love story; not only of the very special connection between these two innocents, but also of their shared passion for art and performance.

The trials and tribulations of putting on a show, provide Rudy & Cuthbert the context for their eponymous presentation. Toby Blome and Zelman Cressey-Gladwin play the quirky pair, in a traditional style that recalls all the famous duos from film and television history, with an emphasis on disciplines most associated with mimes and clowns. Both are excellent in their chosen field, but it is the chemistry between the two that is emphatically superb. They make magic happen, leaving us dumbfounded by their seamless union.

Ellen Cressey’s direction gives Rudy & Cuthbert a tenderness, that prevents the show from being a mere showcase for skill and cleverness. The element of emotion gives meaning to the humour being created so precisely, and the laughter that ensues is as much about being tickled, as it is about being moved. We live in extremely cynical times, and antidotes for hardened hearts are hard to come by. Rudy & Cuthbert is not the trendiest bit of theatre, but it is certainly the sweetest remedy for some very trying times.

Review: One Way Mirror (Blood Moon Theatre)

Venue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Mar 14 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Matthew Abotomey, Alison Benstead, Angus Evans, Sylvia Keays, Sonya Kerr, Mark Langham, Linda Nicholls-Gidley, Ash Sakha, Sheree Zellner

Theatre review
In the living of each day, humans use their mental and physical capacities for an endless variety of reasons, but whether conscious or unconscious, it is always a pursuit that involves us engaging with something quite mysterious. Nobody can know for certain, the purpose of being here, but we all participate in the project of figuring it out, whether we like it or not.

Paul Gilchrist’s One Way Mirror, involves a group of American actors in the 1960’s, hired to work with scientists conducting experiments to determine the nature of human conformity. Within this conflated microcosm of art and science, we observe all the individuals in a process of uncovering truths, whatever a truth might be.

It is a philosophical work, vast in its scope and therefore challenging for those who need a greater sense of certainty to hang on to. Gilchrist’s point of course, is that none of this can be certain, and to fabricate a narrative that is convenient and secure, would contradict its central interest, which is to arrive at some sort of knowledge about this thing we vaguely understand to be, and that we name, the truth.

The show features an intentionally fractured plot structure, with scenes differing in ideas and styles, some more appealing than others. Actor Matthew Abotomey is an intriguing presence in early sections, playing various subjects under institutionalised interrogation, intense and compelling with what he brings to the stage. Alison Benstead and Ash Sakha play young lovers, demonstrating good chemistry but also impressive with their diligence and focus as individuals.

Various storylines weave through the plot of One Way Mirror, but they come and go quickly, as though to evade our grasp. We wish to know these personalities better, because it feels natural to want to get to the bottom of things. Our curiosity is instead, turned outside in. One Way Mirror makes it vital that we examine for ourselves, that concept of truth, whether it be a matter of instinctual resonance, or rational meaningfulness, or enduring legacy, or whatever else one might find fulfilling. The conclusion is inexhaustible, and the journey inevitable. |

Review: Merrily We Roll Along (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 7 – 24, 2018
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Embla Bishop, Phoebe Clark, Blake Condon, Tiegan Denina, Caitlin Rose Harris, Patrick Howard, Tayla Jarrett, Katelin Koprivec, Jesse Layt, Victoria Luxton, Michael McPhee, Matilda Moran, Shannen Sarstedt, Zach Selmes, Richard Woodhouse, Victoria Zerbst
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the most straightforward rags to riches story, told backwards. Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along commences at the point where its protagonist has attained considerable professional success, but whose personal relationships are all falling apart. Observing the story unfold in reverse order, we discover little that is surprising, although Sondheim’s songs remain characteristically enchanting. The musical was first presented on Broadway in 1981, lasting only 16 performances, after 52 previews.

Director Alexander Andrews introduces an appropriate pizzazz to the production, working with a very exuberant cast for a standard of singing befitting the often tricky compositions. Leading man Patrick Howard gives his character Frank a strong presence, and a commanding voice, but lackadaisical costume design diminishes the personality transformations that the actor tries to portray. His besties are played by Zach Selmes and Victoria Zerbst, both accomplished and persuasive with what they wish to achieve. Shannen Sarstedt leaves a strong impression as first wife Beth, able to convey depths of emotion as well as unexpected dimension, for one of Merrily‘s many cardboard characters.

The two musicians, Conrad Hamill and Antonio Fernandez prove themselves reliably versatile and efficient in providing accompaniment for the entire duration, but the very small band can sometimes deliver underwhelming results. Similarly, visual design in terms of sets and costumes, are insufficiently ambitious, and the staging struggles to live up to Sondheim and George Furth’s quite grand piece of writing. Nothing however, can take away from the sheer delight of the master’s songs, all of which are sung with gusto and precision, and this for his legions of fans, is plenty.

Review: The Shifting Heart (White Box Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Mar 8 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Richard Beynon
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Laurence Coy, Lucas Linehan, Dina Panozzo, Tony Poli, Di Smith, David Soncin, Ariadne Sgouros
Image by Danielle Lyonne

Theatre review
It is Christmas time 1956, and the Bianchi home in Melbourne is bustling with activity. The family is getting excited about the festivities ahead, occupying themselves with the frenzied yet mundane business of the Australian summer. We soon discover, however, that beneath the Bianchis’ attempts to go about their normal lives, they have to contend with the social stigma of being recent immigrants to a land where strange and cruel attitudes prevail, about which people are deserving, and not deserving, of being here.

Richard Benyon’s 61 year-old play The Shifting Heart is concerned with a peculiar brand of racism that we undertake, whereby earlier immigrants persecute later immigrants, whilst Indigenous peoples are routinely neglected. The Bianchis discover that although legally permitted to settle here, many do not extend them a welcome. Benyon portrays the family trying to get on with life the best they can, amidst the unjust obstacles heaved at them every day.

It is a sensitive piece of writing, offering insights that remain pertinent; a valuable study of how racial prejudice operates in societies like ours, with an ever evolving racial composition. As a work of drama though, scenes of emotional vigour seem to occur few and far between, and its manufacture of tension tends to be overly understated.

Directed by Kim Hardwick, the production is a persuasive one. We may not be heavily invested in its personalities, but their stories are certainly believable. Isabel Hudson’s set and costumes, along with Martin Kinnane’s lights, are beautifully evocative, affecting our imagination with flair and efficiency.

Dina Panozzo and Tony Poli, as Momma and Poppa Bianchi, bring chemistry and warmth to the stage, both effective in transporting us to another time of our shameful history. David Soncin leaves a strong impression as Gino Bianchi, the gregarious and passionate young Italian-Australian determined to live unhampered by prejudice. Their neighbour Leila Pratt is played by the very likeable Di Smith, relied upon to deliver much needed humour, and effervescence, in this weighty observation of Australian life.

There is no denying that humans everywhere cannot help but create difference, seemingly for the purpose of baseless discrimination. Bigotry is not natural to our children but somehow, a need to hate is developed as we mature, and whether it pertains to race or to other arbitrary features, we learn to feel good about ourselves by exerting power over others. This is ubiquitous, but we must never think it irreversible.