Saturday, 26 December 2015

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2015 - Musicals & Cabaret

It was an outstanding year for musicals and cabaret in 2015. From big touring productions such as Les Miserables and Wicked to the continued excellence of WAAPA's world class music theatre course there have been many tremendous shows. This has been supported by independent companies such as Stray Cats Theatre Company and Fresh Bred Productions who are mounting big productions catering to different audiences. Black Swan even got in on the act this year with the rock musical Next to Normal and the Regal Theatre continues to host a range of productions.

This made finalising the list quite difficult but here is my Top Ten for 2015:

1. Urinetown (WAAPA)
I adored this show. From the moment it opened the satirical tone had me in its clutches and the ferocious choreography sealed the deal. Outstanding.

"What a thrill to have a show grab you by the throat from the opening moments and not let go until the cast is taking well deserved bows. This is a spectacular production of a very funny and irreverent musical and I have to say, it knocked my socks off."

2. Les Miserables (Crown Theatre)
What more can be said about the fabulous Les Mis? Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee headline a stellar cast, half of its number including Gleeson having graduated from WAAPA. 

"For rousing songs and sheer theatrical spectacle Les Miserables is hard to beat and this production has quality in every department."

3. Legally Blonde (WAAPA)
Such a colourful, energetic and joyous production, this showcased a fabulous graduating class to full effect.

"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."

4. Next To Normal (Black Swan State Theatre Company)
I finally discovered that there is an orchestra pit at the Heath Ledger Theatre. And that Rachael Beck is a star. 

"Next to Normal stands out for the fact that its subject matter is challenging and under-serviced, certainly in musical theatre form. It demands that the acting from the performers is as good, if not better, than the singing requirements. The cast here deliver in spades with a potent mix of excellent songs, a great score, and a fully formed narrative arc for its central character that is as harrowing as it is gut wrenching."

The cast of Les Miserables doing a concert singing some of their favourite musical theatre songs? This only confirmed that the talent of that cast, top to bottom, is outstanding in a wonderfully entertaining evening. 

"Take the cast of Les Miserables, half of whom are WAAPA graduates; their musical director Geoffrey Castles along with four other members of the orchestra; throw in a little star power with event patron Ben Elton; add the enthusiasm and organisational skills of Eponine herself (Kerrie Anne Greenland) and you end up with what can only be described as a spectacular fundraising concert at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre. The sheer magnitude of talent on display was breathtaking."

6. Assassins (Midnite Youth Theatre Company)
Staged in the intimate studio space at the Subiaco Arts Centre I loved the full tilt approach to this most audacious of concepts for a musical. 

"What I loved about this production is that all involved attacked it with total commitment and absolute ferocity. There is incredible intensity in the darker hued characters that is matched by some standout comic performances as this rogues’ gallery improbably comes together, ultimately, in a wonderfully written sequence, to convince one of their confreres to commit perhaps the most famous assassination in American history."

Another Sondheim and this one was beautifully sung and played at the palatial Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre. 

"... this is a fine production of a tremendous piece of musical theatre. I understand months of preparation and rehearsal have gone into making this show a reality and it shows. Congratulations to all involved on taking a risk with such a huge undertaking for independent theatre and pulling it off."

8. Point and Shoot: Farewell Show (Holland St Productions)
After touring the production on the eastern seaboard to further acclaim, this farewell show before heading to Brighton was so tightly executed that it couldn't help but make its way to this list.

"It would be fair to say that after witnessing the show for a second time that it is my favourite piece of original content generated out of Perth (in all formats) for quite some time."

9. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Stray Cats Theatre & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre)
Completing a trilogy of big family friendly musicals after Oliver! and Mary Poppins this was an entertaining and fun show that exhibits all of director Karen Francis' signature traits - crowd pleasing, big casts, visually sumptuous and well performed.

"If one of the roles of community theatre is to engage with and entertain its local residents then these productions are among the finest examples we have in the state. Usually a run will only be four to five shows over one weekend but they are always well attended and sit comfortably in the spacious Performing Arts Centre."

10. Spring Awakening (Fresh Bred Productions)
Immediately after the completion of the show I went home and bought the original cast recording which has been on high rotation ever since. An outstanding collection of songs well sung in one of the most surprising adaptations to a rock musical ever.

"Matching the musicians was the vocal talent on display. This really was a strong cast from a singing perspective – the featured vocalists excelled and were given tremendous support from the ensemble."

Female Performer of the Year - Rachael Beck
Not only was Beck's singing excellent, it was her acting that really impressed in Next To Normal. She commanded the stage throughout but worked so well with the rest of the cast to bring a complex arc to life.

Male Performers of the Year - Simon Gleeson
A towering performance in the role of Jean Valjean and his Bring Him Home almost had me in tears. Again. Damn it!

Special Mentions:

Elethea Sartorelli - Excelled as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd with Cockney accent in place, and a real energy to her performance that threatened to steal the show.

Megan Kozak - A powerhouse turn in Urinetown was matched by an equally impressive performance as Brooke in Legally Blonde

Jacob Dibb - Another performance from Urinetown that was compelling. Dibb showcased a terrific voice and played Bobby Strong with a straight ahead earnestness that worked so well.

Madeline Crofts - A standout in Spring Awakening as Wendla Bergmann, Crofts also popped up as Johanna in Sweeney Todd and perhaps most impressively gave a hilarious and feisty performance in the original musical How We Ruined MacArthur's Markers.  

Kate Thomas - Thomas sank her teeth into the star role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. She looked fantastic in Elle's signature outfits and sang beautifully in an assured performance. 

That's it for 2015. Hope everyone had a great Christmas and I look forward to seeing you all at the theatre in the new year! 

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2015 - Plays

One of the most pleasing aspects of this year's list of top ten plays is that it features original writing by five local playwrights - Tiffany Barton (Metalhead), Scott McArdle (Between Solar Systems), Tyler Jacob Jones (F**k Decaf), Will O'Mahony (The Mars Project), and Gita Bezard (In A Bony Embrace) with another entry by Australian playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer. That is an outstanding crop of talent that augurs well for the future of locally generated stories. And what a diverse mix of entries we have this year ranging from searing dramas to witty observational comedies to a genre rarely seen on stage, science fiction. It also includes a genuine out of the box surprise that demonstrates the power of theatre to heal and transform.

The Top Ten:

1. Venus in Fur (Black Swan State Theatre Company)
The year started with a bang as this two-hander introduced 2014 WAAPA graduate Felicity McKay to the world in a brilliant professional debut.

"Venus in Fur is a cleverly written play that allows two talented actors to inhabit multiple personas in a provocative, insightful and funny exploration of a subject matter many consider taboo. It is a great start to the theatre season and the upcoming Fringe Festival of which it’s a part."

2. A Midsummer Night's Dream (Acacia Prison & The Actors Workshop)
A stunning theatrical experience that saw prisoners tackle Shakespeare's beloved comedy under the tutelage of Nichola Renton. An event that will not be quickly forgotten by all involved.

"These men, almost all with no previous acting experience of any kind, flung themselves at this with energy, with style, with commitment, and with their own sense of humour and spirit. It was raw, it was powerful, and it was bloody well funny as all get out."

3. All My Sons (WAAPA)
The intimate Roundhouse Theatre provided the perfect venue for the powerful Arthur Miller play, grounded by Brittany Morel superbly playing a woman three times her age.

"This is a carefully and expertly constructed play that really packs a wallop. I admit I was quite moved by the breadth of the Greek-like tragedy that unfolds. It is very well acted with Morel’s performance in particular a highlight."

4. Metalhead (Creative Collaborations)
I caught this play on a night when the entire cast was "on" and what a treat it was to see them go hammer and tongs at each other in such a harrowing drama.

"... I liked that this was a full tilt performance in every aspect – writing, performance, and staging. This was in your face and unapologetically brutal in spots. There were moments when the audience sat in stunned collective silence as the tension built."

5. Macbeth (WAAPA)
A modern interpretation of the Shakespeare classic that was an excellent showcase of all the disciplines WAAPA trains their students in, not only performance but the many departments that make a production come to life.

"All these elements gave the production great atmosphere and allowed for seamless scene transitions - this fairly hummed along. Having said that there were times, especially involving the witches, where there was a languid, at times hypnotic pace within a scene that was mesmerising."

6. Those Who Fall In Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon The Ocean Floor (Fringe World)
Delightfully performed, written and staged this was an inventive rumination on how the passage of time affects and informs our memories.

"I can see why Anchors did so well at last year’s Blue Room awards and I am glad I had a chance to see it after missing out on its 2014 run. It has an evocative and poetic script by Finegan Kruckemeyer that was well directed by Adam Mitchell and superbly handled by its cast."

7. Between Solar Systems (Second Chance Theatre)
The professional debut production for writer-director-actor-lighting designer Scott McArdle whose team transformed the Blue Room studio space into the interior of a spaceship to outstanding effect.

"To tackle a woefully under-represented genre for your first professional outing and to pull it off with such style and clarity is nothing short of amazing. Yet it doesn't surprise me in the slightest."

8. F**k Decaf (The Cutting Room Floor)
A well acted two-hander featuring a witty and insightful script by Tyler Jacob Jones that was funny and hugely entertaining in the small Frisk Bar space.

"My inescapable conclusion at the end of the performance was that a smart, well written script in the hands of (two) talented actors is a recipe for an excellent evening of theatre."

9. The Mars Project (WAAPA)
A sprawling original work that had to accommodate some 18 of the graduating acting class, this showcased a love of language that was immensely satisfying and built to a devastating final scene.

"The play started a little slowly but developed into an intriguing concept that really kicked into something quite special when the turning point comes. This was delivered with clinical precision as Harris’ Wren pivots the stakes into the stratosphere with a simple question with awful ramifications."

10. In A Bony Embrace (Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company)
The last play I saw in 2015 and an absolute treat. This was another ensemble piece that was off-beat and funny with a great student cast.

"This was a very well written, acted, directed and presented play with plenty of laughs befitting its sitcom DNA. I have seen plays before that didn’t seem to realise they were actually a sitcom and therefore failed but In A Bony Embrace knows exactly what it is and is expertly executed."

Female Performer of the Year - Felicity McKay
Having only graduated the previous November, McKay burst onto the scene in January with a sassy and bold performance that was utterly compelling as she slid in and out of various personas with consummate skill.

Male Performer of the Year - Clarence Ryan
One of the nicest guys you will ever meet, Ryan's performance in Metalhead was terrifying as he inhabited a character full of coiled anger and aggression. It was a brutally physical portrayal that was haunting.

Special Mentions:

Ben Mortley - While adeptly handling many diverse roles in 'Anchors' it was the heartfelt monologue explaining why his character was only now going on a first date that was a quiet highlight.

Gemma Cavoli - A nuanced performance that builds to another devastating conclusion in the hour long monologue of The List. 

Brittany Morel - The physical representation of a much older woman was excellent as is the change from deluded character to something far more potent. 

Zoe Street - A standout in the at times surreal Melancholy Play, the Curtin University student gave her character a fascinating world weariness that was poetic and languid. 

Elle Harris - As The Mars Project slowly unfolds, Harris becomes the presumptive lead who skillfully handles a complex arc that leads to an emotionally explosive climax.

There you have it. As always, thank you to all the performers, writers, directors, crew, front-of-house, technical and design staff for another excellent year of theatre. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

In A Bony Embrace - Curtin's Performance Studies & Hayman Theatre Company (8 December 2015)

April is breaking up with Sam over breakfast because she simply doesn’t find him funny anymore. Sam doesn’t find this especially funny either as they work in the same office. An office where Harry (presumably short for Harriet) and Danny decide to spontaneously be in love. Except Harry is somewhat more intense about this development than one might expect. An office where Matt is interested in April but isn’t particularly well versed in relationships despite the example of his annoyingly in love housemates, Lila and Gavin. 

Then again, Lila and Gavin’s relationship is headed for prickly territory as a cactus called Calamity comes between them, literally and alliteratively. Meanwhile April is keen to “get back on the horse” despite the reservations of practical colleague Sylvia. Her date with Jaxon, a slick dude who isn’t exactly lacking in confidence, ends in disaster. All the while ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Sally’ pontificate about the universe, love, and death.    

If this sounds like the premise for a sitcom you would be absolutely right. These characters, some more grounded than others, intersect and collide in various ways in familiar settings – the office, the shared house, the club. It is very funny, sharply observed, with some bizarre tangents that fit the sitcom format perfectly. The set is predominantly bright pink but full of bold colours that reminded me of the Ewan McGregor, Renee Zellweger movie Down With Love, itself a homage to the ‘sex comedies’ of the 60s.

The script by Gita Bezard is excellent with several sly writer gags (always guaranteed to hook me), cracking dialogue, and interesting takes on familiar devices – a Greek Chorus that narrates actions that a character isn’t undertaking which is a refreshing change; the ten self-aware characters periodically commenting on the emotional state of their collective while jostling for attention in line; and the one actor (Jessica Nyanda Moyle) playing both parts of the Jimmy/Sally tandem while enigmatically clutching an empty glass jar. I took this variously to represent the universe at one point but also the intangible nature of their love.

The play fairly rattles along with slick direction by Adam Mitchell as he keeps the actors hovering in the wings when not featured in what really is a series vignettes that all weave together. The transitions are like cuts to a new scene as actors rotate into the next sequence effortlessly. The sitcom analogy is an apt one in construction, direction, and pacing. One of the actors even offered afterwards that he was channeling a famous sitcom character for aspects of his role.

Which brings us to the ten actors from Curtin University’s Performance Studies. With such good writing and direction their characters were all distinctively drawn and they brought them to life with impressive craft and great comic timing.

Chelsea Gibson is the confident April who dismisses Sam at the start of the play and who carries the main narrative thread. Gibson gives April a sense of self-worth and purpose even when faced with the obnoxiously ‘superior’ Jaxon, played by Sean Guastavino with cringe worthy precision that was funny and infuriating. She also has the key monologue towards the end of the play that reveals the meaning of the title and shows a tender vulnerability that was compelling.

Alexander Gerrans imbues the dumbstruck Sam with recognisable and escalating fury as he tries to comprehend his girlfriend’s decision to dump him. There is a simmering energy to his performance as the anger unfurls only to be casually batted away by April’s indifference. 

Beth Tremlett and Nathan Whitebrook move from clingy couple to something altogether more interesting as the cactus subplot spins them off into strange territory indeed. Whitebrook’s Gavin has a disturbing infatuation with Calamity that he expresses with serene contentment, genuine concern, and irrational outbursts. This only fuels Tremlett’s Britney Spears loving Lila’s incredulity and refusal to change her ways for a plant. They bounce off each other well and the whole thing spirals out of control as relationships can do over the most ridiculous of things.

Anna Lindstedt is the straight to the point Sylvia who plays the office confidant with no nonsense practicality. Daisy Coyle and Tristan McInnes make a dynamic couple in the throes of first love. Coyle allows Harry to unravel in spectacular fashion ending in a triumphantly over-the-top announcement to colleagues at the bar. McInnes deftly exhibits increasing levels of bemusement over Harry’s antics (as if to say 'she’s craaaaazy!') while still committed to the thought of Danny being in love with her. There was a restraint here that was fascinating.

Jessica Nyanda Moyle’s character is the one that sits outside the main story and whose function seemed more to serve a thematic purpose than narrative one. She manages to express both poignancy and humour while inhabiting dual roles with subtle voice and facial changes.

Then there’s Kane Parker as Matt who is the other half of the equation in the main story thread. His character is treated as a bit of a loser but Parker shows him more as someone lacking in confidence and self-esteem who is merely trying to make a connection. His work with Gibson at the end is a quiet highlight amongst the craziness.   

Love, loneliness and connection are certainly foremost in the minds of all these characters regardless of how bizarre some sequences may be; the cactus as surrogate child one of many subversions of usual expectations. The bold set design and lighting was very good in the intimate space and I very much liked the subtle sound design as well.

This was a very well written, acted, directed and presented play with plenty of laughs befitting its sitcom DNA. I have seen plays before that didn’t seem to realise they were actually a sitcom and therefore failed but In A Bony Embrace knows exactly what it is and is expertly executed. It is a late year surprise and definite highlight to cap off Curtin’s 2015.  It is on at The Blue Room until 12 December.