Thursday, 25 June 2015

How We Ruined MacArthur's Markers - Ludicrous Displays (24 June 2015)

One of the exciting things about independent theatre in Perth at the moment is that there are new emerging creative teams that are young, ambitious, and staging challenging work. They are surrounded by a troupe of regular performers such as the case with Ludicrous Displays that appears to have its origins at UWA. Members of the production team, cast and band have worked together recently in varying combinations on productions such as the musicals Spring Awakening and Assassins, as well as The Importance of Being Earnest. Here, however, not only are they presenting an original musical comedy but a revival of said show! I understand this is a pared down version of the original incarnation with more emphasis on comedy and a smaller cast number with the chorus removed.

There may be nothing more challenging in the performing arts than writing musical theatre, in this instance a 90 minute one act musical comedy. Last year I saw a couple of (good) productions that were billed as musicals but felt more like plays with songs. There is a crucial difference and How We Ruined MacArthur’s Markers certainly is a musical with the songs moving the narrative forward and informing the story. In the early going though the songs felt like they were striving to be too clever with overly elaborate word play and rhyming patterns. This meant that they were not, as Sondheim himself made mocking reference to in Merrily We Roll Along, “humma-mamumma-mamum-mable melodies”. Once this settled down the show found a nice groove and was much stronger after the mechanics of the set-up.

The story itself was a little hazy for mine as I wasn’t entirely clear on motivations and backstory but the decision to de-emphasise the drama and push the comedy meant it kind of gets away with it. In essence, the Patriarch has died leaving his eldest son Marcus (James Cohen) in charge of a business that sells pens. Unbeknownst to that heir he has a brother Felix (Ben Thomas) who still lives with their mother who is dying of *cough cough* The Cancer. He applies for a job at the company but doesn’t reveal his true identity while charged with saving it from demise and falling for the Head of R&D, Erica (Amy Fortnum). Marcus has a close relationship with his financial advisor Lewis (Sven Ironside) while loathing his mother Lillian (Olivia Everett). All the while company lawyer Alexandra (Madeline Crofts) amuses herself with booze and writing severance agreements. Ultimately plans are hatched and plots are gleefully foiled.

It’s told in flashback with Crofts’ boozy lawyer giving a wry, almost film noir style commentary on events as she immediately breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience. It’s a jaunty performance that is snarky and funny as the lawyer becomes increasingly drunk at a bar recounting the tale. Crofts also has an excellent voice as she demonstrated in Spring Awakening and her showpiece number More Fun That Way as she extols the virtues of booze is a highlight.

The other standout is Ironside playing the loyal and protective advisor who is wary of Felix typified by his number Head Down. He has some funny moments but it is in the more dramatic aspects that he excels. Cohen has perhaps the most unforgiving role as the son who fails to live up to his father’s business acumen and is unaware of who Felix really is. I never really understood the venom he directs towards his mother but Cohen has a strong moment in the second ballad of the show after his own personal epiphany. Thomas, who was impressive as Algernon in Earnest, displays a very good singing voice but is essentially playing the straight man role (and mummy’s boy) and he does this with unadorned, ahem, earnestness.

Fortnum gives Erica a bubbly persona that is a nice counterpoint to Alexandra’s cynicism and she has the strongest song with the ballad Just A Little, itself a catchphrase that is paid off nicely. Everett continues to impress with her comedic talents playing another off-kilter character in the supposedly *cough cough* cancer-ridden mother who manipulates her son and anyone who gets in her way. The conceit is that she’s playing a much older character but her showpiece You’re Fired is feisty and sassy. The band of Benjamin Hogan (keyboard), Scott Collison (reed), Gwyneth Gardiner (bass) and Rosie Taylor (drums) under the baton of Jackson Griggs plays the jazz influenced score well though there were times they were a little too loud for the unmiked singers.    

This started a little slowly but had a certain charm with some genuinely funny moments and, when not trying to over-impress with lyrical dexterity, good songs. How We Ruined MacArthur’s Markers is playing in the studio at the Subiaco Arts Centre until 27 June. Book and Lyrics by Thomas Owen and Cal Silberstein with Music by Jackson Griggs, it is directed by Owen and stars Ben Thomas, James Cohen, Amy Fortnum, Olivia Everett, Sven Ironside, and Madeline Crofts. 

WAAPA Grads Say Thanks (22 June 2015)

A great advantage to having one of the world’s best training academies in our own back yard is that big touring productions such as Les Miserables and Wicked are invariably chock full of WAAPA alumni. Those graduates are generous in giving back to the institution that played a critical role in shaping their professional careers. We saw this earlier in the year with the Les Mis cast holding a Music Theatre Showstoppers concert at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre. On Monday night it was the turn of other performers from the storied Academy including many from the Wicked cast currently playing at the Crown Theatre.

Hosted by Lisa McCune and John O’Hara with Musical Direction and piano accompaniment by Kohan van Sambeeck (himself a recent graduate) it was an entertaining evening with an eclectic mix of songs and some nice surprises along the way. Sondheim is always a favourite at such affairs and so it proved with an early Medley and a couple of songs from Into The Woods.

An unmiked Lisa McCune kicked things off playing a sixteen and a half year old at her WAAPA audition singing Think of Me from Phantom of the Opera. It was a key theme of the night as McCune and O’Hara would periodically share their own and ask their colleagues to recount memories from those formative years at the Mount Lawley campus. There were some funny anecdotes but also the inspiration of having such luminaries as Hugh Jackman and Cate Blanchett talk to students along the way. It was all very relaxed and informal with McCune and O’Hara warm and engaging.

Highlights from the evening included that Sondheim medley where the whole ensemble gave us excerpts from songs such as Everybody’s Got the Right, Send in the Clowns, Being Alive and Johanna. The other medley – Somewhere - arranged by David King and featuring songs from The Wizard of Oz, An American Tale and West Side Story was beautifully sung by Katie McKee, Jennifer Peers, and Tom Handley as the lyrics weaved together in impressive style. 
A favourite of mine, The I Love You Song from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, brought a smile as Edward Grey, Sophie Wright and Katie McKee gave a joyous version. Alexander Lewis and Brendan Hanson played up to the wonderful Agony and McCune herself launched into the lyrically stunning On The Steps Of The Palace to complete the Into the Woods double. Sophie Wright again and John O’Hara got their Freddy Mercury on with a soaring rendition of Who Wants To Live Forever from We Will Rock You while Matthew Lee Robinson and Jennifer Peers enjoyed the cheeky inclusion of The Song That Goes Like This from the hilarious Monty Python musical Spamalot.

Suzie Mathers, currently playing Glinda in Wicked, had excelled in the snippet of Send in the Clowns and was prominent again with Alexander Lewis in the duet Falling Into You (The Bridges of Madison County). The evening finished with a nice touch as the third year musical theatre students coming off the superb Legally Blonde ventured on stage for the penultimate number and then the second and first years joined them and their illustrious predecessors for You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel. As with the Les Mis concert there was a real sense of passing on the baton to the next generation of upcoming musical theatre stars.

An enjoyable evening of light banter, wonderful singing and excellent piano work, WAAPA Grads Say Thanks was a one off concert as part of 2015 Music Theatre Educator’s Alliance Conference (a coup for WAAPA as it’s the first time it’s been held in the southern hemisphere). It starred Lisa Adam, Edward Grey, Tom Handley, Brendan Hanson, Glen Hogstrom, Alexander Lewis, Suzie Mathers, Lisa McCune, Katie McKee, John O’Hara, Jennifer Peers, Matthew Lee Robinson, and Sophie Wright; directed by Edward Grey with Musical Direction by Kohan van Sambeeck.  

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Legally Blonde The Musical - WAAPA (13 June 2015)

What a trajectory! From 2014’s unexpected gem Children of Eden in the confines of the black box Enright Studio to blowing the roof off the intimate Roundhouse Theatre earlier this year with the superlative Urinetown; this graduating class has moved into the spacious Regal Theatre nary missing a beat. They have done so with no small assistance from their second year colleagues and the many other departments that go into making a high energy spectacle such as Legally Blonde really fly. And oh my goodness, how it flies!

WAAPA’s mid-year musical theatre production has become a highlight of the Perth theatre calendar as they throw their considerable talent and resources – performers, musicians, set designers, costume designers, production department and many others into crafting a professional level experience both for its students and the audience. The results here, as with last year’s West Side Story, are impressive and wildly entertaining.

The set is a dizzying array of trucks and movable components that facilitate such slick and seamless transitions as everything from the law school classroom to Elle’s apartment to ‘the scene of the crime’ are established with precision. As befitting the story and its colourful central character these sets are a glorious confection of bright colours and sleek design. This is enhanced by vibrant lighting and use of back screen projections that really make this a visual feast. Unfortunately there were some technical difficulties and we lost the projections in the second half. After a few moments, however, their absence was hardly noticed such was the infectious energy and sheer pizzazz happening on stage.

The costumes are a riot of colour and style with Kate Thomas as Elle Woods looking simply stunning in a collection of outfits that move from pink to ‘serious’ navy blue and back to pink again as the story progresses. As with any musical the orchestra is a critical component and I’ve witnessed many a show cruelled by a less than stellar effort. Here though, as I’ve come to expect from WAAPA productions, Musical Director/Conductor David King has an exceptional group of musicians at his disposal and they played beautifully. It’s a fun score and their contribution matched the energy and precision on stage. Even though I was sat right behind Mister King the sound balance was spot on and it’s always a pleasure watching the joy and concentration of the musicians up close.

To the performances and Kate Thomas not only looked the part in the lead role of Elle Woods, she was outstanding and received ecstatic applause from both the audience and genuinely appreciative cast mates at final bows. Displaying a lovely singing voice and good comic timing she was in the thick of everything in what is a demanding role. Thomas had great rapport with the rest of the cast but especially Joel Granger as her eventual love interest Emmett and Taryn Ryan as the hilarious hairdressing confidant, Paulette. Fittingly, there is a wonderful moment amongst all the craziness where she is alone on stage and sings the title song with great emotion until Granger joins her. It is a performance that will attract no small attention.

I must confess I didn’t even recognise Ryan until checking the programme at interval. She was fantastic as Paulette bringing a different kind of kooky energy to match Elle’s eccentricities. Her showpiece number Ireland was a highlight as was her ‘bend and snap’ and interaction with the scene stealing Chris Wilcox as Kyle who personified swagger to devastatingly funny effect. Mister Wilcox is perfecting the sly grin after this and his mischievous Officer Lockstock in Urinetown.  

Granger brings an underlying sweetness to Emmett which works well as a counterpoint to Callum Sandercock’s cockier Warner who dumps Elle at the start of the show for not being serious enough. Then there’s Matthew Hyde who is making a habit of being the go to authority figure out of this group having played no less than God in Children of Eden and the evil corporate head in Urinetown. Here he is the feared Professor Callahan but there is always a suaveness to his performances that makes his ‘villains’ somehow more compelling. His Blood in the Water is a case in point as another highlight.

But there are so many.

The show gets off to a brilliant start with Omigod You Guys and the female ensemble was in irresistible form setting the playful tone immediately. They are led by the ‘greek chorus’ of Tayla Jarrett, Heather Manley, and Jess Phillippi who bring attitude and sassiness as the voices in Elle’s head. The extended sequence of What You Want seals the deal as a high energy romp that sends us off to Harvard as the story kicks into gear. There, Matilda Moran plays Warner’s new girlfriend Vivienne with bitchy condescension but has a nice arc of her own as the girls eventually stick together and she becomes an unlikely ally.

Megan Kozak, unobtrusive earlier as Kate (headgear and glasses partially disguising her face), explodes into action after the interval as the fitness queen Brooke Wyndham who is accused of murder and whose trial is the key battleground of the second half. In a town where footballers are venerated for their athletic abilities, Kozak and the full ensemble demonstrate the peak physical condition and discipline required for a show like this in an astonishing Whipped Into Shape. The full-tilt choreography of the mass-coordinated skipping with Kozak still having to belt out a song is scary good. Indeed, the choreography by Lisa O’Dea is superb throughout and once again WAAPA demonstrates that they are training their students to be true triple threats in acting, singing and dancing.

Other highlights include the first half closer So Much Better, and the end of the show with Find My Way/Finale as well as the very funny Gay or European where Jacob Dibb and Daniel Ridolfi have a scene stealing moment. It would be remiss of me not to mention the canine stars Peanut and Winston who were crowd favourites even though Winston did a little improvising all on his own as Rufus!

This show really is why I love going to the theatre – high energy, infectiously joyous, and executed with such talent and style as to demand a smile on your face as you watch it. The buzz as the full house filed out was exceptional. I suspect you may find it difficult to snag a ticket as word of mouth will quickly ensure the show is sold out if it isn’t already but this is definitely recommended as a supremely fun night out at the theatre. 

Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin with a Book by Heather Hach, Legally Blonde The Musical is directed by Jason Langley with Musical Direction by David King and Choreography by Lisa O’Dea and stars WAAPA’s third and second year musical theatre students. It runs until 20 June at the Regal theatre in Subiaco.  

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Allegiance - Clover Creative Productions (11 June 2015)

If the heart on any dramatic endeavour is putting rich characters in opposition to one another as they strive to achieve differing goals then Allegiance is a text book example. The play recreates a private meeting between Winston Churchill, at the time the British Colonial Secretary in charge of Ireland, and Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins to imagine what their conversations might have been as they negotiate the Treaty that will end the Anglo-Irish War of the early 20’s. 

Two men fiercely passionate in their beliefs and seemingly at total loggerheads when first we meet them go hammer and tongs until improbably, miraculously, they come to a compromise. That there are real stakes involved as atrocities are recounted from both men’s vastly differing perspectives heightens the drama even more. It is a volatile stew of elements that gives the play its undoubted power and historical relevance.

It also allows James Hagan (Churchill) and Bryn Coldrick (Collins) to inhabit larger than life figures and imbue them with the gamut of emotions as tempers run high and each battle for control of the encounter and the outcome. Hagan has, in many ways, the showier part as Churchill who is full of bluster and rhetorical flourishes as he initially seeks to put Collins in his place. The gruff voice and dogged demeanour is nicely portrayed by Hagan whose projection is exceptional as befits his reputation as a top vocal coach. Coldrick gives Collins a more thoughtful, troubled air and is aided in this by a couple of short scenes where he reads letters to his beloved back in Ireland. Collins is clearly a reluctant participant but both men’s passion and patriotism is unquestioned.

The acting is at its very best when there is a reversal in the predominant fa├žade – the quieter moments of grief and contemplation Hagan allows Churchill; and the explosions of anger as Coldrick lets loose Collins' outrage. These are compelling as they give us insight into both's complexities as they wrestle with such an intractable problem. The play is also at its best when it settles down into exploring the shared humanity of two people who couldn’t possibly have come from (and represent) more fundamentally different points of view – the privileged British Imperialist versus the working class Irish revolutionary.

At the beginning of the play, however, a device is used to convey an abudance of exposition whereby Churchill is dictating to a secretary (Maggie Meyer) and even later when he and Collins first meet there are a lot of dates and events imparted. While the historian in me appreciated the information to get up to speed with the facts it was a little clunky as it felt like the writing was designed for the audience and not organic to the sort of conversations these characters might have. It’s when, especially in a long sequence at the start of the second half, that the men talk about personal experiences – their childhoods and fathers and living in each other’s country for periods of time – that there is a greater ring of truth and this works well.

It’s also critical to the establishment of fledgling trust and understanding so that they can come to their eventual agreement. That breakthrough pivots on a critical scene after boisterous renditions of battle poems and shared tales where Churchill confesses to losing his youngest child. Hagan shows us the cracks of grief and Coldrick responds as the two foes unite in the undoubted tragedy of such a young loss of life. I would have liked Hagan to have perhaps stayed more muted after this as he rebounds to full effect perhaps a tad too quickly but it was a strong turning point. The story itself is wrapped up somewhat conveniently shortly thereafter but it does allow for the sombre coda as we learn that in many ways the agreement cost Collins his life.

As well as Meyer, Kim Taylor adds moments of interruption as Churchill’s manservant with some gentle byplay of haughtiness versus Collins’ scepticism at all the trappings. This is best represented when Churchill offers him a hand-rolled Havana cigar and Collins replies that he would prefer a cigarette. It was a lovely encapsulation of their differences. 

This is a fascinating and well-acted two hander that director Noel O’Neill has staged quite simply to allow the force of the character’s personalities and arguments to take the spotlight. Many a time I heard a whispered ‘well said’ or murmurs of approval amongst the audience at the Irish Club, a venue no doubt guaranteed to bring passionate observers of what was a pivotal period in Irish history. 

Written by Mary Kenny, Directed by Noel O'Neill and starring James Hagan, Bryn Coldrick, Maggie Meyer and Kim Taylor there is one more performance, 7pm Saturday June 13 at the Irish Club in Subiaco.