Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Blithe Spirit - Black Swan State Theatre Company (20 July 2015)

There was ectoplasmic presence a plenty at the second preview of Noel Coward’s astral comedy Blithe Spirit. Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler promised us a once in a lifetime experience as he peeked out from behind the sumptuous red curtain to inform us that Madame Arcati as played by Roz Hammond had been struck ill. He was proven correct in many ways. Alison van Reeken after only one read through of the script and one rehearsal all but stole the show giving a wonderfully physical performance as the clairvoyant even with script in hand.

Normally those three words – script in hand – send a shudder down the spine but here it was as impressive a feat of acting as you’ll see given the circumstances. Afterwards Fowler admitted it was quite a different interpretation of the character but for me it gave the show a jolt of unpredictability as the other actors reacted to van Reeken’s spontaneous and oft hilarious antics.

The set was superbly appointed with the Condomine home well represented with portraits, period furniture, gramophone, and large French doors, stage left. It also revealed some cleverly executed secrets later in the play to great effect. At first though the cavernous space posed somewhat of a problem with plenty of echo and a lot of the opening dialogue faint and a little indistinct. The projection improved certainly with the introduction of van Reeken and Michael Loney (Dr. Bradman) but eventually across the board as all the actors warmed to the task.

It was a bit of a tentative start but the play really found a rhythm in the scene between Charles (Adam Booth) and Ruth Condomine (Adriane Daff) the morning after the séance that summons Charles’ dead first wife Elvira (Jo Morris). The rat-a-tat-tat dialogue as the two exchange arch comments based on Ruth’s misunderstanding of her husband’s retorts to the ghostly Elvira ups the energy and pacing dramatically. There is a similar exchange in the second half between Charles and Elvira that equally pops and fizzes with wonderfully written and delivered verbal venom and dexterity.
Booth, Hetherington & Daff - Gary Marsh Photography

Booth was very good as the writer who initially is only interested in researching jargon for his latest novel, never inclined to believe Madame Arcati’s talents. His arc from disbelief to concern about his mental state on seeing Elvira to embracing and then enjoying the fun and games of the situation to finally exasperation and alarm was well calibrated. Morris plays Elvira with an almost childish glee and impetuousness as she beguiles Charles and infuriates Ruth. Dressed entirely in white with deathly pale makeup and powdered white hair she is a restless spirit as she glides around the stage barefoot.

Daff’s Ruth was very formal, rigid and quite glacial and she was at her best when allowing the character’s urbane façade to slip as frustration and bitchiness emerged. It was a performance that only became stronger the longer the play went. Ella Hetherington (Edith) committed to her character’s running gag that was quite literally a running gag until the maid takes on much greater significance in the second half. Loney and Michelle Fornasier (Mrs. Bradman) lent good support with their own running gag over the doctor’s reluctant refusal of various nightcaps.

Fornasier, Booth, Daff & Loney -
Gary Marsh Photography
The lighting design by Jon Buswell, especially in representing different times of day, was very good and Ash Gibson Greig provided fun and creepy musical interludes as the curtains were closed as the stage was reset between scenes.

It is quite a long play and the second half was much tighter than the first but that should shake out over the run and as van Reeken is integrated into the cast after a hugely impressive last minute debut. 

Written by Noel Coward and Directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler, Blithe Spirit stars Adam Booth, Adriane Daff, Michelle Fornasier, Alison Van Reeken, Ella Hetherington, Michael Loney and Jo Morris and is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 9 August.  

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Anything Goes - Princess Theatre, Melbourne (17 July 2015)

This show goes to prove that you simply can’t beat the classics. Sheer class from top to bottom, prow to stern, starboard to port, pick your own nautical analogy. From the timeless music and lyrics of Cole Porter to the stunning tap sequence that closes the first act to an array of superb performances this was simply brilliant.    

Caroline O’Connor was an absolute powerhouse as Reno Sweeney. What I liked most about her performance was that she wasn’t afraid to take the mickey out of herself. It was a fun turn with a real glimmer of mischief in the eyes. That and the fact O’Connor can hoof it with the best of them as the title number emphatically demonstrated, and belt out a number like Blow, Gabriel, Blow with such power and precision. Her comedic skills were also impressive with the double act of Friendship with the outstanding Wayne Scott Kermond a highlight.

Kermond was a real driving force bringing flair and charm to the gangster Moonface Martin as well as the Irish Father he disguises himself as on-board the SS American. Yes, there are plenty of hijinks as another interloper, stockbroker Billy Crocker (Alex Rathgeber) is mistaken for the gangster while trying to win the heart of socialite Hope Harcourt (Claire Lyon) who is to be married to Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Todd McKenney). The story is fast-paced, witty and very funny as schemes are hatched and foiled leading to a most amusing wedding sequence to end the show.

McKenney was another one who threw caution to the wind and was fabulously goofy as Evelyn. The Gypsy In Me was a camp masterclass that was irresistibly funny. Rathgeber was a handsome and likeable Billy with a superb singing voice that he displayed in so many classic songs – You’re The Top, Easy To Love, It’s De-Lovely, and All Through the Night. The gorgeous Lyon was nicely matched with him and shone on her own during Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye. Understudy Samantha Leigh Dodemaide made for a flighty and sexy Erma with her showpiece number Buddie Beware another highlight.

Gerry Connolly provided lots of droll humour with Carmen Duncan a welcome presence as Hope’s mother. I believe it was another understudy, David Spencer, who played Billy’s boss, Elisha Whitney, who had several well executed comic scenes. Then there was the ensemble that added so much colour and movement and were superb in the massed tap assault of Anything Goes that will probably be the most spectacular sequence I’ll see on a stage all year. Led by O’Connor it was an ecstatic close to the first act.

The set was on two levels with the band upstairs behind the depiction of the prow of the ship. On the bottom level the middle section allowed for individual sets such as cabins to be slid into place and it was all slickly done with multiple entry and exit points that accentuated the slapstick nature of a lot of the material.

The 16 piece orchestra was superb under Musical Director/Conductor Peter Casey and the sound design at the Princess Theatre was immaculate. And how can you beat the music and songs of Cole Porter? It is a roster of amazing numbers and the first act in its construction and execution is musical theatre at its absolute pinnacle.

During this trip I enjoyed Strictly Ballroom and The Lion King has a touch of magic about it but Anything Goes, for me, blows both of those shows out of the water. It elegantly demonstrates what happens when you put a first rate cast in a well written show with a world class score and timeless songs. Sensational.  

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Lion King - Regent Theatre, Melbourne (16 July 2015)

Apparently I am the only person in the Pridelands to have never seen The Lion King movie much to the consternation of film colleagues and friends alike. Therefore as an act of contrition it was necessary to obtain a front row seat to the theatrical stage adaptation. What unfolded was a true spectacle with inventive costuming, puppetry, and head masks the star attraction. Combined with many inspired performances and an African infused soundscape this was, in many ways, a magical piece of musical theatre.

It all gets off to a spectacular start with Circle of Life introducing us to the animals of the savannah. And what a gloriously creative depiction it was as the performers came down the aisles and onto the stage. An elephant paused right next to me as its operators lifted it slightly to navigate the stairs. The cheetah was a supreme combination of performer and fully functional puppet and the giraffes were equally impressive. It was all a riot of colour and movement with the well-known song signifying the birth of lion cub Simba.  

We are then introduced to his father Mufasa (Scott Maurice) who is King of the Pridelands, and Simba’s uncle Scar (Josh Quong Tart) who is less than impressed about being bumped down another rung on the line of succession. Scar plots the overthrow of Mufasa to become king while a young Simba is banished after thinking himself responsible for his father’s eventual death/murder during a wildebeest stampede. It doesn’t take much to work out what the trajectory of the story is as a fully grown Simba (Nick Afoa) returns to claim his rightful place on the throne or, in this case, Pride Rock. Along the way we meet many memorable characters, especially the comedic foils Zazu (Cameron Goodall), the meerkat Timon (Jamie McGregor) and malodorous warthog Pumbaa (Benn Welford); but also the wonderfully spiritual and cheeky baboon Rafiki played superbly on the night by understudy Tarisai Vushe.

The character introductions and setup is handled well but here’s the thing – in the early going I just wasn’t feeling it. The visuals were impressive and it was interesting that the set design was quite sparse with the use of a lot of scrims and lighting effects to allow the costumes and puppets to shine. But I felt at arm’s length from the story, more admiring these superb components and stagecraft rather than having any emotional connection.

Then we get to the Elephant Graveyard (which was a fantastic piece of set design) and the hyenas played by Ruvarashe Ngwenya, Joseph Naim and Andre Jewson who threaten young Simba and his female friend Nala*. Not only were the hyena puppets well realised but the performances added a real shot of adrenaline to proceedings. Their featured number Chow Down upped the energy levels and from there on I was hooked. It presaged the beginning of one of the best sequences in the show as it is quickly followed by They Live In You where Mufasa bonds with freshly rescued Simba, and Be Prepared as Scar enlists the hyenas to reveal his ultimate scheme for royal ascension.

The first act ends with the crowd pleasing Hakuna Matata and it’s a really interesting tonal shift from the darker Machiavellian plotting to the slapstick of Timon and Pumbaa. The second act begins with the joyous One by One from the whole ensemble where the African music and singing is utterly infectious. The Madness of King Scar includes a hilarious bitch slap of a certain song (that I personally can’t stand) from Frozen that was perfectly executed and ensured the biggest laugh of the night. By now adult Simba and Nala (Josslynn Hlenti) have been introduced and they have perhaps the strongest brace of songs with Shadowland (Hlenti) and Endless Night (Afoa) vocal highlights. I was a little disappointed in Can You Feel The Love Tonight and it feels awkwardly placed with the childhood friends not long reunited and now we’re immediately into full on romantic overtones. However, Vushe’s singing was superb as exemplified in the reprise of He Lives in You.

The action sequence of the climax was a little muddled and the wildebeest stampede of the first act also felt more functional than inspired with the representation of the gorge quite clunky. Overall though the singing was superb and the orchestra was in cracking form. Curiously, percussionists were stationed in the boxes on both sides of the theatre which gave the soundscape an unusual feel. The puppet work of particularly Goodall and McGregor was exemplary as was the humour they provided both verbally and physically. Josh Quong Tart was a marvellously conniving and snide Scar while Maurice gave Mufasa quiet dignity and strength. Afoa was a strong physical presence as the adult Simba while Hlenti was excellent as the feisty Nala. The standout though was Vushe’s Rafiki whose soaring voice and cheeky performance added so much character to the show.

There is no doubt this is a visually inventive and superbly staged show with plenty of family friendly humour to leaven the darker moments of the story. The mood and atmosphere created by the outstanding costumes and puppetry as well as the lighting and African musical flourishes are memorable. It took me a little while to connect on an emotional level with the production but once I did it was a real treat.

The Lion King is directed by Julie Taymor with Music and Lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice, and Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi and is on at the Regent Theatre until 1 November.

*The child actors in these two roles are rotated through a selection of four performers each so apologies for not knowing specifically who was on. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Strictly Ballroom The Musical - Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne (15 July 2015)

After the success of last year’s trip to Melbourne to see three big musicals I decided to do it all again this year with Strictly Ballroom the first cab off the rank. This time I was in the front row at Her Majesty’s Theatre, just across the aisle from the centre block so I was in a prime position. The show exhibited all the strengths and eccentricities of its creative driving forces – sumptuous costumes and set design by multiple Oscar winner Catherine Martin and the joyous, over the top, at times tacky, but nothing less than entertaining flourishes of her husband, one Baz Luhrmann. It looked fantastic, sounded great with the orchestra (Musical Director Daniel Edmonds) playing the pastiche of styles and mix of original numbers and pop classics very well, and was superbly lit by Hugh Vanstone.

The show had quite a long first half with two expertly crafted sequences and another standout scene and was much stronger than the second half which lacked narrative propulsion. The finale ensured the audience went home happy though with the massed cast singing the by now iconic Love Is In The Air and inviting audience members on stage to dance/shuffle with them.

The story is a simple one – Scott Hastings longs to win a major dance competition but wants to do so using his own steps much to the horror of his dance partner who dumps him, his family and the establishment headed up by Barry Fife. In steps dorky beginner Fran who becomes Scott’s partner and with the assistance of her passionate family they become a force to be reckoned with.

Thomas Lacey was terrific as Scott, nowhere more so than in a tremendous early set piece, Shooting Star where he is on stage alone practising dance moves. No backdrops, no set, simply lit up in the darkness. In that moment he commanded the stage and I was unsure what he going to do which gave it a real edge. Then he bursts into song and frenetic dance as movable mirrors reflected his moves and alternatively become transparent to reveal other male dancers mimicking his steps. Beautifully lit, the sweat was flying off him in a short, sharp, stunning sequence.

Phoebe Panaretos was a likeable Fran and while her dancing wasn’t as strong she had a wonderful singing voice that was first revealed in the beautifully constructed Time After Time sequence. The well-known Cyndi Lauper song was used to great effect. Firstly, as Scott recites the lyrics to an awkward Fran while going through a set of dance moves and then comes to full life on the rooftop, hills hoist and all, as they burst into song with the cast down below giving added punch. It teased then built and built until it was classic Luhrmann as he combined song and dance to emphasis a major turning point in the story. Fran’s transformation from dorky beginner to potential serious dance partner was pure Baz with that unabashedly joyful and romantic style he also used on the rooftops of Paris in Moulin Rouge!

The second sequence that was even more impressive was the one that ended the first half – A Life Lived in Fear where Abuela (Natalie Gamsu) and Rico (Fernando Mira) show Scott the true meaning of how to dance with passion. Gamsu and Mira were outstanding; the former a commanding presence as Fran’s grandmother, the latter with crisp authority in the dance moves. Again, the sequence builds slowly beat by beat until the majority of the company join in to deliver a devastatingly good climax of movement, music and vocals.

Herein lies the problem with the show – nothing in the second half delivers anything even close to these highpoints in the first half. In fact, for the majority of its length, the second half spins its wheel with a complete lack of narrative propulsion. We know the trajectory of the story and the end of the first act has us primed for that climax. Yet it is delayed by the use of some fleetingly fun audience participation as two people are pulled up on stage at the restart; to a dream sequence as Barry Fife (a charming ‘villain’ as played by Robert Grubb) frets about ‘new steps’; to a long flashback sequence featuring Darren Gilshenan as Scott’s dad. Not that these aren’t funny and without charm but they are tangential to the main narrative and mean that the show’s greatest assets, Lacey and Panaretos are sidelined for large chunks.

The climax when it finally comes is also disappointing. Unlike those earlier sequences that were such beautifully constructed and executed examples of storytelling, this is full of colour and movement as the couples dance off but is unfocussed which diffuses the drama and the stakes. It kind of happens in a burst of energy and then it’s over. The finale rallies to deliver the crowd pleasing John Paul Young song with the audience invited on stage. Props also to the three cast members who belted out a reprise of Love Is A Leap Of Faith as the stage was cleared and the curtain closed.

It was an entertaining spectacle and I did laugh a lot but that second half is very problematic in its current configuration. Special mention to Heather Mitchell who gave a hilariously over-the-top performance as Scott’s mum Shirley and to the stunning Nadia Coote who exemplified the excellent dancing and gorgeous costuming as Tina Sparkle.     

Directed by Baz Luhrmann, Book by Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, Original Score and Arrangements by Elliott Wheeler, Set and Costume Designer Catherine Martin.