Saturday, 21 September 2013

Curtains - Playlovers (21 September 2013)

When the supremely untalented star of Robbin’ Hood of the Old West is murdered during her opening night curtain call, Lt. Frank Cioffi must save the show and solve the case – without getting killed!

This sleuthing business seems to be an exhausting task. What with all those suspects and a show that still has to be staged. Sleuthing whilst singing and dancing? Truly remarkable!

Let me say right off the bat that I loved this. Sometimes you go to the theatre for thought provoking drama, maybe to see something experimental or the work of a new playwright. Sometimes you get a rollicking, entertaining ride that is flat out enjoyable from start to finish. The latter was certainly the case tonight at Playlovers production of Curtains.

Billed as a "musical comedy whodunnit", the show has an immediate pedigree with the presence of Kander and Ebb in the credits. There were, indeed, moments of dialogue and music, even story beats that reminded me very much of Chicago. Then there was an odd [I named a play here that might give the game away so I have redacted it] vibe in the latter stages but we'll get to that later.

This is a big, bold, sassy musical with great songs, big set pieces and is genuinely funny. For an independent theatre company to tackle such a huge production (26 cast and a 10 piece orchestra) is wildly ambitious. To pull it off in such style is to be absolutely applauded. Great also to see a full house on the night a local football team was dominating the conversation around town.

The story revolves around the murder of the presumptive yet untalented star that no-one likes (an amusing cameo by the director!) of a new show opening in Boston that all involved hope will make it to Broadway. The cast are "sequestered" within the theatre as a police detective struggles to solve the crime whilst falling for one of the show's lesser stars; advising on how to make the production threatened by poor reviews better; oh, and dealing with the murder of other cast and crew members along the way.

It plays with the isolated murder-mystery trope but also amusingly comments on the myriad of issues faced when mounting a large musical production. The show within a show device plays out nicely with numbers reworked and reprised as part of the race against time to garner a more favourable review from a nasty Bostonian critic.

I apologise in advance for not mentioning the whole cast but they were uniformly excellent. Of the main performers:

Tyler Jones plays Lieutenant Frank Cioffi and he was fantastic in a role that had a LOT of very precise, rapid paced dialogue. He handled it with aplomb and was the standout from the moment Cioffi makes his introduction.

Claire Taylor plays Nikki Harris who "has her fingerprints over everything" and is the attention of Cioffi's romantic affections. They have a lovely dance number in the second act and Taylor plays Nikki with an endearing mix of ditziness and innocence.

Therese Cruise is the lyricist who assumes leading lady status after the murder of unpopular star Jessica Cranshaw. Sporting the strongest singing voice, Cruise has several great numbers, the highlight being the "Wide Open Spaces" finale. Her character is involved in the second love story here, playing off Tom Hutton whose character is her songwriting partner and estranged husband. They have a touching moment in "Thinking of Him/I Miss the Music (Reprise)" in the second act.

Other standouts are Helen Carey as the producer Carmen Bernstein who has a hard-headed approach to the theatre business ("It's A Business") and daughter Bambi played by Tamara Woolrych. Why does she call herself Bambi? The answer says a lot about the mother-daughter relationship and Woolrych threads the needle between bitchiness and disappointment as her character tries to prove her worth in the large shadow cast by her mother. Speaking of bitchiness, David Nelson as the director has a grand old time slinging insults the way of all and sundry to hilarious effect.

The set is simple but effective. The costumes are great with the added razzle-dazzle of typical showgirl flourishes. The orchestra was at times a little too loud for the singing but otherwise was in good form. The choreography took total advantage of the large space and the show was full of movement, never slowing down for an instance.

The story gets a little convoluted and silly deep in the second act as twists are revealed and revelations made but by that stage I was well and truly sold and having a great time with this. So I forgave the few quibbles I had with such plot machinations which reminded me of the aforementioned play that I didn't aforemention. The cast had insisted in the closing number bad things could happen to anybody who revealed the murderer! So I'm not even risking an obtuse reference!

Directed by Kristen Twynam Perkins with Musical Direction by Belinda Flindell and Choreography by Tammie Anne Rafferty this is definitely one to recommend.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice - Koorliny Arts Centre (15 September 2013)

I made my way to Kwinana for a fast-becoming-regular jaunt down the freeway to the Koorliny Arts Centre, this time to see The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. I find this a most interesting and difficult story in both the incarnations I’ve now seen (play and film). It is an ugly duckling story populated by people who are essentially ugly. That makes it, for me, a challenging watch. The trick then is to unravel my reaction to the characters versus the performance of the actors.

The story is simple enough – the eponymous Little Voice or LV as she is known, fanatically listens to old records in her room and has become an expert impersonator of their vocal styles from Shirley Bassey to Marilyn Monroe and a whole variety in between. Her mother, who is dating a small time talent agent, sees her daughter as a way to a better life; the agent sees LV as a way into the spotlight and the dollars she will bring. They coerce her to perform at Mister Boo’s club. Meanwhile, quietly spoken telephone technician Billy innocently courts LV.

First off, the mother is thoroughly unlikeable and, in many ways, despicable. Full credit then to Judi Johnson who plays such a difficult character with full on gusto. Yes, I was squirming as I find the character’s motivations and actions largely abhorrent but that’s the way Mari Hoff is written. Anything but a total commitment to the character would fall flat. It’s uncomfortable at times but I can’t fault the commitment.

The agent is also problematic. More sleazy than charismatic, his put down of Mari in the latter stages of the play is simply nasty and mean spirited. The lady sitting next to me visibly blanched as he launched that horrid verbal assault. Again, credit to Ian Butcher for tackling another unsavoury character, that of Ray Say.

Hillary Readings provides gentle comic relief as Sadie Mae but even her character is mainly there to reflect the ugly side of Mari.

The structure is also problematic as the first act largely comprises the antics of Mari and Ray with LV very much in the background. We get glimpses of her talent and of the gentle romance that is to unfold but essentially we are immersed in Mari’s tawdry little world.

Then we get to the second act and this is where the play cranks into gear because it finally unleashes the star that is both the character of LV and Breeahn Jones who plays her. This story only works if you believe LV has the amazing talent to sing these standards AS the original performers. Jones shines when given full voice, pun fully intentional. I had not seen her perform before but the programme notes indicate she won 2011’s Best Actress in a Musical at the Finley Awards and she definitely has an excellent and versatile singing voice.

Geoffrey Leeder as Mister Boo moves things along nicely and the club is represented simply as a microphone in front of closed stage curtains with a lighting cue saying Mister Boo’s. This meant Jones was less than two metres away from where I was sitting in the front row and to see her go from reserved, put upon daughter to animated performer was a delight.

Then there is Jack McKenzie as Billy who, in a relatively small but pivotal role, adds genuine sweetness and charm. This is a critical counterpoint to all the crassness that surrounds LV’s world and he pulls it off well.

The set was very good with a split level representing the house – lounge room and kitchen downstairs; LV’s bedroom upstairs. The transitions though felt a bit clunky at times with the opening and closing of the stage curtains by hand when going to the club or outside the house.

Overall I enjoyed this but it is a story with many characters that are hard to warm to. Even LV’s eventual castigation of her mother, while earned, verges on being mean spirited itself. The singing, however, is excellent and the underlying love story paid off nicely.

Directed by Ian Cross.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Guys - Classic Works (5 September 2013)

One of the hallmarks of great writing is authenticity - of character, of time, of place.

"The Guys", a play about a New York Fire Captain who meets a journalist in the aftermath of 911 to help write the eulogies of the men he lost, is great writing because it not only gives a fascinating insight into the microcosm of a NYC fire station but also in the wider context of the city itself and the ripple effects of that horrid tragedy.

The events of September 11, 2001 loom large over the play but it is full of humour and celebrates not heroes but humans. Ordinary people doing their job on an extraordinary day.

Beautifully performed by Adam T Perkins and Anna Bennetts, directed by Paula Koops and written by Anne Nelson who Anna met recently in New York, this is a wonderful portrayal of a cross section of first responders that day.

Memorable, funny, and moving. Above all, utterly authentic.

This is the first time this play has been performed in Australia. It is on at a newly created black box theatre in West Leederville. Most definitely a must see.