Sunday, 23 November 2014

Extra Ordinary People - Second Chance Theatre (22 November 2014)

The presence of superhero themed entertainment, especially movies, has been all pervading in recent years as Hollywood unveils, reboots, and rehashes multi-billion dollar franchises with increasing fervour. These stories are far more sophisticated than I recall in my childhood - I am from the generation of comic books which have now been superseded by the far more ‘respectable’ (and thematically dense and generally darker) graphic novel. It’s interesting then to see what impact this has had on a generation immersed in tales of (mostly) good versus (mainly) evil where a dizzying array of filmmaking talent and special effect wizardry makes the most outrageous of superhero powers possible.

Fascinatingly, one answer to that question is an original superhero comedy musical, written and directed by graduating Murdoch University student, Scott McArdle. Even more so when it becomes very clear that this is, in fact, an anti-superhero comedy musical. To say that McArdle’s last student production is ambitious would be an understatement of heroic proportions – a two hour and fifteen minute running time, a twenty-one strong cast, an equally large production team, a nine piece band, all original songs and a thematically cohesive Book that dissects superhero mythology with laser-like precision.

The story in short, a barista called Polly decides to take a stand against the protector of Destiny City, the invincible Captain Astonishing, whose battles with The Destroyer claim innocent lives and disempower the local citizenry. Polly enlists the support of a couple of comic book geeks, a scientist, and an ex-cop, and holds a public protest to disastrous results while dodging the attention of secret agents and falling masonry from rooftop battles atop skyscrapers. Captain Astonishing has problems of his own, mainly of the slowly going out of his mind variety and indeed ends up living long enough to become the villain.

McArdle is steeped in superhero lore and there are plenty of in-jokes and references throughout as well as all the tropes and twists one would expect in such a tale – secret underground laboratories, shadowy government organisations, an indestructible superhero with an equally powerful nemesis, secret identities, and a climactic final confrontation. But unlike Man of Steel (nicely bitch slapped) the city still stands at the end as ordinary citizens regain a sense of purpose with the removal of a god-like figure to protect them. The most telling line is tagged with the “with great power comes great responsibility…” – “… and with no power comes choice.” While crime rates are at an all-time low and coffee remains readily accessible, the people of Destiny City are an unhappy lot, powerless in the face of the titanic struggle supposedly being waged on their behalf. Purpose, choice and destiny are within their grasp if only they would seize the opportunity and stand up to Astonishing. Polly is the catalyst for this revolution as the superhero becomes the enemy and ordinary people battle the extraordinary… with a little help from the wonders of science.

Shannon Rogers is excellent as Polly and gives a nicely grounded performance as the mayhem swirls around her. Rogers has a pleasant singing voice but it’s the acting chops here that are crucial as she essentially plays the moral anchor to the story even when things don’t go according to plan and Polly’s own secrets are revealed. She also has a deft touch with the physical comedy elements and occasional droll one liner. A demanding lead role that sees her battered from pillar to skyscraper rooftop with the bruises to prove it.

James Hynson gives an engaging performance as the ‘Einstein’ of Polly’s mock-resistance group and his character plays a pivotal role in coming up with the Plan B that saves the city. Rogers and Hynson work well together and, again, he gets moments of comedy but also imbues the scientist a strong moral conscience that gives Polly an additional nudge when required.

Second Chance Theatre regular, Emily David plays the fired cop, Stacy, with snarling intensity and has a little Ethel Merman going on with her singing which was a nice counterpoint to the other vocal talent. Then there are two pairs of comic foils – the superhero loving nerds Kirby and Frankie (Justin Crossley and Sophie Braham) who are all geek enthusiasm though clearly (and amusingly) delineated between different fandoms. Crossley has a nice dramatic moment when Kirby takes Polly and Stanley to task over discussing – spoiler alert – Frankie’s death as an abstraction whereas he actually knew her as a real person. The other pairing is secret agents Philson and Rodgers (Andrew Dawson and Launce Ronzan) who come from the Keystone Cops school of homeland security and are very good with a series of hijinks and pratfalls as they eventually bumble their way to the city’s defence. In smaller roles, Joel Sammels made the role of Polly’s Boss memorable, as did Rachel Doulton with the insistent Landlord.

This leaves one key character - Captain Astonishing himself. He makes an appearance at the end of the First Act though, of course, he’s been right under our noses the whole time. Played with relish by Sven Ironside with a jawline to die for and a costume maybe not to, he adds a real sense of unpredictability and energy. This is totally in keeping with the character’s mental disintegration and in service of the plot but it was more than that. Ironside’s first big number where he proclaims he will do things “my way” had the sort of energy and attack that the earlier songs lacked. That’s not to say they weren’t good but I had a sense that the musical performances were almost too careful and a little safe. Here, Ironside throws himself at the number and it elevates the material. The same could be said of the fine set piece extolling the virtues of science that had some Chicago-style pizazz and was playfully handled by the ensemble.

The piano driven score was good and the band played very well. There was an overall lack of songs for my musical taste with long stretches between numbers at times but those we had were well crafted. The set and lighting design was impressive and set transitions handled swiftly and economically. The show hit its straps in the Second Act and the climax was well handled.

This really was an impressive production on so many levels – the sheer audacity and scope alone is to be applauded but the writing here is well balanced between comedy and darker, more dramatic moments and is thematically compelling as a reaction to the adoration the world of superheroes and their exploits usually receive. My only question mark is that the nominal nemesis, The Destroyer, is only ever referred to in dialogue other than represented as a drawing on the cafĂ© scrim. I never had a real sense that he was a worthy adversary to Astonishing. The songs are good though I think, for a two hour plus running time, there needed to be more of them and with a greater sense of verve in presentation. The ensemble work well and there are amusing walk-on parts and activity happening all the time as we see glimpses into the lives of Destiny City’s citizens.

Written and Directed by Scott McArdle, Music by Nick Choo, Lyrics by McArdle and Choo, with Musical Direction by Glenn Tippett, Extra Ordinary People is a fine way for Second Chance Theatre to end their stint as a student-based theatre company and to cap off a big 2014. I am eager to see what McArdle and his creative collaborators come up with in the New Year.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Big Casino - The Irish Theatre Players (9 November 2014)

Three ducks on the wall. A kitchen table. A squabbling family full of colourful characters. An outsider who throws a spanner in the works. Witty dialogue and various hijinks. Trademarks of a certain style of comedic play writer-director Noel O’Neill specialises in.  Seen earlier in the year with It’s All Greek To Me at the Old Mill and previously with Confetti from Graceland and its sequel Spaghetti and Graceland

Here the family is a bunch of crims from 1960s London comprising Bert (‘The Organiser’) and his two sons, the fiery Alan (‘The Hood’) and Harold (‘The Simpleton’). They’re joined around the ubiquitous O’Neill table setting by family friends Eddie ‘The Gambler’ who is on his last chips with the Big C(ancer), and suave Billy ‘The Jewel’. Yes, you know they’re all crooks because they have nicknames!  

It’s no coincidence that the centrepiece of all these plays is a humble domestic setting as this is where families bicker, fight, share stories, recall fond (or fraught) memories, hide secrets, and generally clash and makeup in an endless series of permutations. It allows for pointed banter and the divulging of exposition as there is a collective emotional knowledge and experience together.  The introduction of an outside force disrupts this self-contained eco-system and we get to watch the ramifications as individuals react in different ways.

The outsider is ‘Susan the Hostage’. Yes, the lads have gone and kidnapped the wife of a wealthy businessman so that they can ransom her off in order to get Eddie to the home of casinos, Monte Carlo, before he says the big adios. As you might imagine, such a harebrained scheme is ripe for complications on multiple fronts before having a happy ending in more ways than one.

Kim Taylor plays Bert and Noel the Playwright not only makes him do most of the heavy lifting with the bulk of the dialogue but Noel the Director foists a lisp on him as well. As he did in It’s All Greek To Me, Taylor provides the play’s bedrock as the patriarchal figure who, here, derides his sons and tries to do the best for his mate, Eddie. David Buckley impresses as the testosterone fuelled Alan who stands up to his father, mocks his brother, and resents Susan’s influence. Cameron Leese in some ways reprises his role from It’s All Greek To Me as the slow-witted one who interjects with innocent humour and is horrified to learn the true fate of his missing cat.

Emilio Evans gives Billy a certain smooth charm as he talks about ‘his Alice’ and his character seems the most sensible of the lot. Noel himself steps in at short notice to play Eddie and anybody who thinks just because you write and direct a piece you can slide easily into a role will be sorely surprised. He finds his feet in the second act and will be more in rhythm in the first with a few more run throughs before the next performance. In fairness, it’s a bloody hard thing to do but Noel is a consummate actor and handled himself admirably given the circumstances.

Then there is Clare Mulchinock as Susan who injects a shot of adrenaline into proceedings in the second act. Far from the demure victim she plays the hostage as feisty and practical with a few surprises along the way. If anything, her ‘unveiling’ at the start of the second act would have been better placed midway through the first. While the banter between the lads is entertaining enough there is an over familiarity to it all and the lack of plot progression means the story is marking time a little. 

Once Susan is let loose in the second half the dynamic changes and this opens up interesting strands and comic potential. Finally, the plot mechanics kick in as there is an awareness of what they’ve really done and what’s needed to fix it and still get Eddie his parting gift. It would have also given more time for Susan’s eventual arc which, while taking an unexpected direction, felt truncated within the confines of only one act.

I must mention that the Irish Club goes out of its way to create a really good atmosphere with a roulette table, fabulous raffle prizes, and a generous spread at intermission. The members and staff are all enthusiastic and friendly which added to the Sunday matinee experience.

If you enjoy fast talking crims, a little black humour, and a bawdy ending you’ll enjoy The Big Casino which is on at the Irish Club in Subiaco until 15 November. The play is written and directed by Noel O’Neill, starring Kim Taylor, David Buckley, Emilio Evans, Cameron Leese, Clare Mulchinock and that man O’Neill. He’s everywhere!

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Cinderella - Koorliny Arts Centre (4 November 2014)

If the object of the story is to find Cinderella then the glass slipper fits snugly with the casting of Madeleine Shaw in the title role. The headline news out of Tuesday night’s final dress rehearsal down at the Koorliny Arts Centre is that the petite performer has a wonderful singing voice and a confidence that comes with it. Of course, no production is bigger than any single person but with Shaw director Ryan Taaffe has a bona fide star anchoring the show. That alone should guarantee a successful season for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the famous fairy tale but this is such a charming, family friendly effort that it will please children and parents alike.

Cast opposite Shaw in the role of Prince Christopher is Daniel Nixon who comes into his own in the second act (as did the show as a whole) especially with Ten Minutes Ago and Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? The ball is the strongest sequence and Shaw and Nixon work well together as the fledgling romance flourishes before being cruelly cut short.

Speaking of cruel, Tammy Miller gives a strong performance as the Stepmother doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the first act as the familiar tale kicks into gear. She is joined in this by Stacey Hollings and Grace Dennis-Sayer as the sisters who vie for the Prince’s attention and provide a lot of the comic relief. Dennis-Sayer in particular gives Joy a robust physicality with a most impressive snort. They have some nice pratfalls as they battle each other while being in thrall to their conniving mother.

Shelley Whiteaker is the Fairy Godmother who kicks off the tale and provides that little piece of magic that turns Cinderella from browbeaten servant girl to beautiful princess. The transformation is indeed magical with an ingenious piece of costuming design that was most impressive. Vocally Whiteaker is strongest in her final number at the end of the show. Indeed, most of the singers seemed a little tentative but that should shake itself out as they get into a rhythm over the run.

Of the other secondary characters, Mark Thompson provides additional comic relief as the Prince’s confidant Lionel while David Major and Pamela Ogborne play the King and Queen. Ashleigh Riley is an almost ethereal presence as the “Dove” that guides Cinderella at key moments and the children playing the four mice and a cat are delightful. There is also an ensemble of some 16 additional performers across all ages for the market and balls scenes.

The set is quite simple with minimal transitions as most of the action is either at the Stepmother’s house, the markets, or the palace/ballroom. The 13-piece band is located stage left fully visible to the audience and played well under the direction of Krispin Maesalu.

The first act moved a little slow but again, that should tighten with more performances and the energy levels will go up a notch with a bigger audience than simply me. The production certainly found a better rhythm in a second half that doesn’t outstay its welcome and has a crowd-pleasing happy ending and perhaps the stronger musical numbers. If anything, the show plays to its strength any time Madeleine Shaw has a featured number and there is a nice balance with the fairy tale romance, broad comedy, and an old-fashioned charm that is hard to resist.

Directed by Ryan Taaffe with Musical Direction by Krispin Maesalu and Choreography by Allen Blachford, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella opens at the Koorliny Arts Centre Thursday 6 November and runs until 15 November.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

WAAPA Showcase - Perth (3 November 2014)

At the end of the musical theatre section of Monday night’s Showcase the screen at the rear of the stage showed all the performers in a line, looking fabulous and in high spirits. As the camera pans across them it stops abruptly and 2014’s graduating class all look over their shoulder… at a Centrelink sign. It received a big laugh from the audience but there’s a sobering message underneath the humour. Things are about to get real and the stakes are high. On Saturday 18 actors and 20 MT performers will leave for the eastern states and two Showcase performances, one in Melbourne, one in Sydney. Agents and professional careers await. 

On the evidence of this performance the prospects are very good that all of them will find representation and be gracing our screens, both small and large, and stages throughout the world for years to come.

This gives me a moment of pause as I can’t possibly do justice to an evening that featured 21 pieces for the actors with another 23 musical theatre acts after intermission. However, I have decided to give general impressions and then list some of my personal highlights. Others will be making far more significant determinations in the coming days so my apologies in advance for the omissions. Let me say this though, it has been an absolute pleasure watching both classes throughout the year and this special Showcase performance for the Friends of the Academy was a fitting send off. I look forward to seeing your work in the coming years.

Okay, enough first act exposition! The evening was held at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre and I was fortunate to have a seat in the front row. The acting class was up first and their program was a mix of showreel scenes played on the big screen and live performances. The other aspect for both classes was individually filmed introductions for each actor/performer that were quirky and amusing to give a real sense of personality.    

The showreel scenes were directed by Andrew Lewis himself and looked terrific. My favourite was a beautifully nuanced piece between Holly Dyroff and Aleks Mikic who conveyed the subtext between their housemate characters superbly. Felicity McKay and Jane Watt had a fun scene that went in an unexpected direction involving a bathtub and, well, let’s just say, unusual interruptions. Joel Horwood and Harriet Davies were in a lovely ‘walk and talk’ scene that was understated and quite philosophical. What struck me through all the filmed scenes was the natural screen presence the actors had with Adam Sollis, Alexis Lane, Liam Maguire, Alex Malone and Emma Diaz also impressing.

Of the live pieces, Jane Watt gave a memorable performance as an over-eager participant in a fox hunt (Decadence); Holly Dyroff started proceedings with a bang in a scene from Venus in Furs with Jonny Hawkins; while Henry Hammersla and Felicity McKay attacked an excerpt from Enron in great style. There were a couple of 'classics’ thrown in with Stephanie Tsindos and Emma Diaz giving a new take on The Odd Couple while Joel Horwood and Alex Malone had fun with some Woody Allen style neuroses from Annie Hall. Aleks Mikic gave a really physical turn with a piece called Road. The riskiest act was written and performed by Adam Sollis and Jonny Hawkins who had a little fun with the whole showcase concept in a performance piece called We Are Acting that was amusing and clever.

Then it was all over. Friends and family were waiting in the foyer and there was a sense of relief and excitement. I congratulated those unencumbered by well-wishers and had a brief chat with Jonny who is always generous with his time.

Next up was the musical theatre class and there was a real Chicago vibe going on from Suzie Melloy featuring in Roxie to Jessica Voivenel’s Can’t Do It Alone and ensemble work to Overture/All That Jazz, Cell Block Tango and Hot Honey Rag. That suited me just fine! Sondheim also had a work out with Sophie Cheeseman giving a wonderfully moving rendition of Not A Day Goes By and Ben Adams reprising his star turn in Merrily We Roll Along with Franklin Shepard Inc. Daniel Berini was very strong with Finishing the Hat and Ashleigh Rubenach charming as she sang On The Steps of The Palace from Into the Woods.

Other highlights included William Groucutt’s crowd pleasing Boyband which is such a well-executed showcase of his talents. Similarly, Max Bimbi’s The Plane (is Going Down) always gets a laugh but is a demanding piece that he does very well. Rounding out the quirky quotient was Nick Eynaud’s To Excess which features quite disturbing lyrics if you stop to think about it but is presented with such goofy charm that we laugh anyway.

Perhaps my favourite piece was Lyndon Watts’ Le Jazz Hot, a stirring exhibition of his singing and dancing skills. It was very slick and yes, very hot. Du Toit Bredenkamp gave a stirring rendition of The Streets of Dublin then there was Rebecca Hetherington’s powerful No One Will Bruise where she didn’t miss a beat with the only blemish on the night – the woman next to me whose mobile starting ringing - come on people, it’s not that fucking difficult, turn the damn thing off or put it on silent! I very much liked Shannen Alyce’s With You and Sophie Stokes ended the evening with a terrific performance of On My Way. I should also mention the excellent work on piano by Kohan van Sambeeck while Groucutt and Bredenkamp provided occasional musical assistance.

Afterwards I had conversations with Suzie, Ashleigh, Sophie, Daniel, Nick, and Rebecca and again what strikes me is how generous they are with their time and how genuinely lovely they are. Interestingly, many expressed how much more nervous they were performing in front of their peers that afternoon. For many this is also their last week in Perth so it is a massive time of change and future prospects.

In all, an excellent night with some two hours of entertainment that is the culmination of three years of hard work, talent, and dedication that I can only but admire.

To the acting class of Julio Cesar, Harriet Davies, Emma Diaz, Holly Dyroff, Alexander Frank, Henry Hammersla, Jonny Hawkins, Joel Horwood, Alexis Lane, Liam Maguire, Alex Malone, Kristy Marillier, Felicity McKay, Aleks Mikic, Harry Richardson, Adam Sollis, Stephanie Tsindos, and Jane Watt; and the musical theatre class of Ben Adams, Shannen Alyce, Daniel Berini, Max Bimbi, Du Toit Bredenkamp, Eloise Cassidy, Sophie Cheeseman, Nick Eynaud, William Groucutt, Rebecca Hetherington, Miranda Macpherson, Stephen Madsen, Suzie Melloy, Ashleigh Rubenach, Sophie Stokes, Jack Van Staveren, Jessica Voivenel, Lyndon Watts, Patrick Whitbread, and Chloe Wilson I wish you all the best for the eastern states’ Showcases and your future careers!

Shows reviewed from this year: