Saturday, 28 May 2016

Nailed It! - Mackenzie-Spencer & Strano (26 May 2016)

Downstairs at the Maj is a wonderfully intimate venue that is perfect for the sort of cabaret stylings performer Andrew Strano presents. Highly personable and engaging, his tales and songs (written with Loclan Mackenzie-Spencer) about relationships, Harry Potter, and the vagaries of air travel are like having a conversation in your lounge room with a good friend; the kind of friend who occasionally bursts into song. Oh, and wears a sparkly jacket that would make Liberace envious.

The relaxed, conversational air was given added weight by the presence of his Aunty seated in prime position near the stage. Her smile throughout the show was as warm as her nephew’s casual banter. In Mackenzie-Spencer’s absence Strano was accompanied by Rainer Pollard on piano. His playing was quite marvellous and the two were in impressive sync after only three rehearsals.

Strano has a fine voice and the songs were examinations of relationships and love, most with a quirky twist and an explanatory introduction. The subject matter is instantly relatable and presented in relaxed fashion with plenty of eye contact and casual interaction that draws you in and, well, makes you feel right at home.

The best of the songs was an exploration of what happens when you ignore that warning light on the dash of your car. This, of course, was a metaphor for the care and attention it takes to maintain a relationship, a fact that perhaps didn’t need to be overtly stated at the end. Babies, flowers and twin sisters also form the basis for songs with Kristen Stewart given pride of place in a plea about difficult breakups.

The hassle of air travel and waiting around in airports for delayed flights was a negative turned into a positive. Those shared experiences with a partner can strengthen a relationship even though they can be stressful at the time. Cleverly, the songs describe such universal situations that the name of, for example, any low budget airline can be changed to fit the country of performance. Laker Airlines became Tiger Air; Frankston became Northbridge for another song and, after audience suggestions, the Armadale railway line proved the perfect substitute in the love letter to Harry Potter and Hogwarts.

An unexpected amusing moment came after a riff about unemotional Germans. A stereotype that was refuted by, you guessed it, an audience member from Germany. It’s testament to the convivial atmosphere Strano created that no lasting offence was caused as he charmed his way out of potential trouble. 

Charming he was and this was a most pleasant hour to start the cabaret season at His Majesty’s. The final performance is on Saturday 28th at 7.30pm Downstairs at the Maj.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Wicked - Stray Cats Theatre Company & Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (21 May 2016)

It was interesting to watch the response to the announcement last year that the amateur rights to Wicked had been made available. In many quarters there was much excitement that a beloved show was now able to be performed by community theatre groups around the country. This was matched by a healthy scepticism that it could be given justice with all the technical and vocal demands. A professional production had also been recently staged in Perth at the Crown Theatre with the incomparable Jemma Rix as Elphaba and Suzie Mathers as Glinda (who has now joined the West End cast). A tough act to follow.

It was not surprising that Stray Cats Theatre Company was to be the first to mount the production in WA. Director Karen Francis had access to a suitable venue – the Boardwalk Theatre in Mandurah – and had demonstrated the ability to consistently mount large scale, crowd pleasing musicals. Still, having seen the show in Melbourne in 2014 and last year in Perth, I was intrigued how Francis was going to tackle any number of challenges with the staging of such a dizzifyingly complex production.

Any doubts I had were soon put to rest as I walked into the theatre. There was indeed a dragon perched above the stage which came to life as the opening notes were played. The familiar cogs and clock design was apparent in the wings and along the railing to the orchestra pit. The map of Oz was projected onto a scrim. 

As the show progressed there was clever use of scrims, various backdrops, and lighting to facilitate scene transitions. The Bubble Galinda descends on during the opening scene was well rendered and the Wizard’s big talking head was impressively done. Most satisfying was that the first act showstopper, Defying Gravity, where Elphaba rises above Ozians and the audience alike was effectively recreated. Sure, there wasn’t the whizzbangery of its professional forebear but proficient and clever stagecraft and design made for a most credible substitute. My immediate impression was that a lot of time, thought, skill and resources had gone into the construction of the show. That was most appreciated.

This was reinforced by the attention to detail in other elements – the trademark Stray Cats large ensemble was beautifully costumed with a wide range of colourful and quirky outfits; the lighting design took full advantage of the rig at MPAC that no other community theatre venue would be able to match; and the 19 piece orchestra, again of a scale and composition most would fail to accommodate, was excellent under conductor David Hicks. The sound balance was good, and the clarity of the lead vocals was especially strong. There was a little bit of microphone crackle on the odd occasion from secondary characters in movement but the sound design and execution was otherwise very good.

Of course, Wicked relies on the performance of its two leads and in Kimberley Harris (Elphaba) and Lisa Taylor (Glinda) the show had a winning combination that not only sang well but gave strong acting performances. Taylor played the annoyingly bubbly and over confident Glinda with deft comic timing and infectious enthusiasm. Her rendition of Popular was a highlight. Harris brought great acting chops to the ultimate outsider in Elphaba and belted out Defying Gravity in terrific style while being wistful in the softer I’m Not That Girl. They worked well together – Harris’s intensity bouncing off Taylor’s comic shtick – but it’s in the quieter moments where the rivalry turns to friendship that they are most convincing.

The male leads didn’t fare quite as well. Joshua Towns was a lanky and handsome Fiyero but Dancing Through Life lacked flair and felt more mechanical than anything. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see the complete transition from shallow rebel to committed ally of Elphaba. The storm that ravaged Perth caused a showstopper of its own as the power went out halfway through the second act. Erik Bunch played Dr. Dillamond for laughs and was prone to telegraphing every phrase with grandiose hand gestures. This undercut any sense of pathos for the character. The Wizard himself, Peter Sydney-Smith, also had a tendency to overplay to the audience especially during Wonderful which jarred next to the focus displayed by Harris in that sequence.

Of the other characters, Alyssa Burton, played the larger-than-life Madame Morrible with style while Cassandra Power came into her own as Nessarose at the start of the second act as her now Governess goes through a raft of emotions from being able to walk to reconnecting with Boq to ultimately losing him due to her own impulsiveness. It teetered on being overwrought but ultimately was a strong emotional sequence. Boq himself, played by Braeden Geuer, was a likable presence though the estrangement from Nessarose caught me a little by surprise this time round.

Mother Nature unfortunately had the last word as it proved more powerful than any stage magic. The power outage caused a premature end to the matinee and led to the evening show being cancelled. In response, an extra show was announced for 10am on Sunday for those ticket holders who missed the full show or evening performance.

While I wasn’t able to avail myself of this opportunity what I saw and heard up until that point was a good production of the mega-hit musical. It handled the technical challenges in style and featured two strong performances in the lead roles. It played to Francis’ strengths – big set-pieces with a large ensemble; and was well played by the orchestra. It was refreshing to see the skill on display across all departments to bring such a production to life which is testament to the talent pool in Perth. 

Friday, 13 May 2016

The Gothics Trilogy Launch - Nexus Theatre, Murdoch Theatre Company, From The Hip Productions & Second Chance Theatre (11 May 2016)

Dracula. The Mummy. Frankenstein’s Monster.

All are iconic characters with a rich history in literature, movies, and the performing arts. They have scared and fascinated generations as far back as the novels of Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley and, in Dracula’s case, myth and legend long before that. Now they are familiar figures in Hollywood movies and on the small screen.

Each will feature in separate plays to be performed in a three week window in July. Two will utilise an originally written script, The Mummy Rises by Tim Brain and Frankenstein by Scott McArdle (adapted from the Shelley novel), while Dracula’s text is nearly a century old. Each will be produced by a separate theatre company based at or originating from Murdoch University – Murdoch Theatre Company, From The Hip Productions, and Second Chance Theatre.

Murdoch is a key incubator of theatrical talent in Perth, notable for having multiple theatre companies operating on campus. Over the last couple of years I’ve attended predominantly newly written work as students hone their skills across a range of disciplines from playwriting to performance and all technical aspects.

When the key creatives – John King, Tim Brain, and Scott McArdle - decided to tackle such an ambitious undertaking as the Gothics Trilogy they had the combined resources, talent and goodwill of three companies to call on under the umbrella of the Nexus Theatre. Given the task at hand, this was expanded to include alumni and staff. It’s an impressive collaboration that includes some 30 performers and 40 crew members of which 50 are alumni and current students. 

The launch on Wednesday afternoon introduced the creative teams, showcased costumes and props, and featured some of the actors from each production as well as a rough cut trailer and behind the scenes documentary footage. There was a Q&A after the formal presentation before we mingled with actors and crew and checked out various design and costume elements on display.

A few things quickly became apparent.

The passion of not only the key creatives but everyone involved from cast members (who were in costume and, in one instance, special effects makeup) to the design team. For many there is a personal connection either to the original texts or inspiration from particular iterations of these characters especially in film.

The idea was born out of the notion of bringing horror back to the stage and genuinely trying to unsettle and scare an audience. Some of the props certainly had an air of authenticity that will be interesting to see come to life on stage.

A respect for the literary origins and what has come before. This has all the hallmarks of being meticulously researched with great care and attention given to all aspects. It is an ambitious and audacious project to mount three large productions in quick succession but everyone is going into it with eyes wide open.

While these are essentially horror stories there was a lot of talk about the human aspects and accessibility of the scripts with credible human interactions. Gothic stories also have elements of romance and in The Mummy Rises’ case we’re told to expect a bad ass feminist heroine!

The scale of the effort required. For example, some 70 costumes have to be sourced and/or made and from the garb the actors were wearing they have a discernible Victorian era flavour.

Finally, not to be lost in all of this, there was a real sense of fun as well. These are huge, larger than life characters and while there will be dark elements there was an air of relish at trying to provide scares and thrills.

The Nexus Theatre is a good sized venue for this. Not too big to lose a sense of intimacy that will allow for the creation of a creepy atmosphere.

It was a well thought out launch that whet the appetite for some theatrical mayhem come July. Tickets went on sale Friday the 13th (of course). There are even package deals that will save you 30% if you want to see all three plays.

Details for each production are in the links below:

Dracula, 7-9 July, Directed by John King from a script by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderstone.

The Mummy Rises, 14-16 July, Written and directed by Tim Brain.

Frankenstein, 21-23 July, Written and directed by Scott McArdle.

I for one am a big fan of the Vampire myth and have been increasingly dismayed watching them become fashion accessories for angst driven teenagers in movies and television. I’m looking forward to a little bite being put back into my horror. These three plays look like they might just do the trick!  

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Flatpack Life - University Dramatic Society (3 May 2016)

Have you ever wandered through a large Scandinavian furniture store with a gnawing sense that something sinister was happening behind the plastic insert tab a into slot b facades? What the general public and Dan Brown have failed to realise is that conspiracies run far deeper than Opus Dei. Yes, the greatest force for evil throughout history has been the ever present tentacles of Mobler, a company so named to avoid inevitable lawsuits from the folks at Ikea who are really touchy about their all pervasive criminal past. To keep prices low and dominate the market worldwide Mobler has secretly been smuggling the most exotic and dangerous substance known to man into Australia. Yes, that’s right, fruit.  

Wait, what... fruit? You heard me. Not being an economist I’m not sure how that works but stay with me here...

Into this viper’s den of deceit, the innocent Bjorn, fresh off the plane from Sweden, arrives with dreams of meeting the public’s low cost, pre-packaged furnishing demands while indulging in really good meatballs. I mean the kind of meatballs that make you forget your name (foreshadowing a key plot point so, um, spoiler alert!). He immediately falls for an AFL loving, ballsy customs agent due to the demands of the plot – did I mention the bio security threat of fruit smuggling? Together they... well, he uncovers an illicit shipment of foodstuffs which, in true corporate fashion, leads to a promotion to keep him silent. Except that his conscience then gets the better of him and he tries to leave. Meanwhile our battery toting, nipple frying heroine and love of his life, Rhonda investigates the disappearance of her comic sidekick Beatrice who has stumbled across the truth. Eventually our heroes are saved, evil empires toppled, and meatballs consumed with gusto.

Okay, so the original Book by Matt Dixon and Ralph Thompson doesn’t make a lick of sense and it all descends into James Bond spoof-style silliness with over-the-top villains, smarmy henchmen, more ocker sheilas than an episode of Kath & Kim, and a bland hero wearing sandals and knee high socks. Despite this there are some genuinely funny moments due to a couple of pivotal performances and the sheer absurdity of it all.

The songs, lyrics also by Dixon and Thompson, aren’t particularly memorable and the singing talent on display is relatively weak. A key issue on opening night was the poor sound balance that made the often-times trying to be too clever lyrics difficult to be heard. The Music by Jackson Griggs is a mix of muzak style musings befitting the setting and an almost cabaret lounge feel at times. It is well played by a five piece band including Griggs on keyboard and conductor Ben Hogan on organ. The most effective number was a rap-like interrogation of a hapless smuggler.

There is a twenty strong ensemble that begin the show with the title song, customer greeting smiles firmly fixed in place. The song is reprised two more times including the ending which is quite amusing as we learn the fate of all the characters. Otherwise they felt woefully under-utilised except for one moment when Bjorn tries to leave Mobler and is encircled by the ensemble blocking his path and ultimately engulfing him. I would have liked to have seen more of this direct involvement in the action to add movement, colour, and scale. If you’re going for the absurd do it big and with a flourish!

The show is stolen by Harry Goodlet as the elderly Magnus and especially Erin Craddock as Beatrice. The former creates an unintended highlight after a prop malfunction during a song and dance number. Thinking fast on his feet Goodlet uses the mishap to hilarious effect. There was also a sense of unpredictability about his performance that added to the laughs. I was never quite sure what he was going to do.

Craddock is flat out funny from the get go. Her wise-cracking custom officer sidekick with mean girl attitude and a fondness for “inter-textual references” that range from Grease to Reservoir Dogs steals every scene she is in.  

Nina Heymanson gets to vamp it up as the corporate villain while her henchman Sven played by Nicholas Morlet is amusingly creepy. Emily Gale brings a perkiness to faithful employee Boghild and Lewis Buchanan is effective as a corporate middle-management buffoon (we all know the type).

In the lead roles, Lucy Rossen portrays Rhonda with a straight ahead, no frills earnestness that works well in combination with Craddock’s showier Beatrice; while Caleb Donaldson inhabits the naive Bjorn with a pretty boy blandness that suited a character with pretty much no agency in driving the narrative forward.

This is sporadically very funny but the deeper we went into the production the more it felt like a sketch revue show than a cohesive musical. Directed by Rupert Williamson with Musical Direction by Ben Hogan, The Flatpack Life is on at the Dolphin Theatre on the UWA campus until 7 May

Sunday, 1 May 2016

A View From The Bridge - WAAPA (30 April 2016)

Respect. Pride. Honour. What it means to be a man. The man. In the family. In the neighbourhood. In an insulated world where work is scarce and masculinity paramount. Where your name and reputation mean everything. To lose that is to lose everything.

A View From The Bridge follows last year’s WAAPA production of another Arthur Miller play, All My Sons. The depth of insight in Miller’s writing about the male condition is exemplary and in the character of Eddie finds a subject who is undone by his own misconceptions and anxieties about his responsibilities as a man. It is a tragedy of Eddie’s own making which heightens the devastating conclusion.  
The setting is a waterfront neighbourhood of early 50s Brooklyn. Longshoreman Eddie (Giuseppe Rotondella) works on the docks and lives in an apartment with his wife Beatrice (Elle Mickel) and beautiful 17 year old niece Catherine (Brittany Santariga). He is overly protective of “Catie” and reluctantly acquiesces to allow her to take a job as a stenographer at a plumbing company.

When two brothers, Marco (Joel Davies) and Rodolpho (Rory O’Keeffe) are taken in by Eddie after being smuggled into the US by ship from an impoverished Italy, fractures begin to appear. Catie falls for the charming Rodolpho which so disturbs Eddie that he seeks the advice of lawyer Alfieri (Lachlan Ruffy). He claims “something ain’t right” about the blonde Italian who sings, helps Catie make a dress, wants to visit Broadway, and shows other ‘effeminate’ traits. Eddie thinks Rodolpho is on the scam so he can stay in the country and become a citizen but deeper, more troubling reasons emerge as to the true source of Eddie’s anxiety.

He begins to persecute Rodolpho which alienates his wife, his niece, and brings him into conflict with Marco. Eddie escalates matters out of his control when Catie is determined to marry Rodolpho. The result of his unthinkable betrayal so incenses Marco that the two men are bound together by the strictures of disputed honour on a destructive trajectory neither can abandon. Like All My Sons, the play slowly simmers and ratchets up the tension until it all explodes in a powerhouse finale.

Rotondella as Eddie gives one of the finest performances I have seen at WAAPA in the last few years. There are so many layers revealed from the forthright, cocksure man’s man who is confident in his position and status to the slow unravelling of that certainty as Eddie’s pre-eminence is questioned by all around him. The sense of discomfort he displays as Eddie tries to vocalise his disgust of Rodolpho to Alfieri – clutching his hat so tightly he almost mangles it as he rotates the brim over and over. The sheer anguish he bellows as Eddie is bent over double at the realisation of what he has done and its horrible ramifications. There is a calculated moment of machismo as he teaches Rodolpho to box, putting the young Italian in his place with sharp authority and a gleam in the eye. This is matched by the dismay Rotondella allows Eddie as Marco silently threatens him with a true display of strength. Then there’s the ending where the actor cuts loose with all the pent up bile and anger of self-loathing, masked in the name of reclaiming respect. From start to finish it is a riveting performance.

It is followed very closely by Santariga as Catherine, playing a 17 year old on the cusp of womanhood. She inhabits Catie with an innocence that belies her beauty as the young girl is unaware of the impact of how she dresses and behaves around the men in the neighbourhood. Santariga exhibits a girlish enthusiasm as she scampers around the apartment keen to please her Uncle and Aunty while pouting at setbacks and pleading for her independence. The immediate infatuation she shows with Rodolpho is nicely portrayed as is the growing strength as the young girl matures into a woman with marriage on the horizon and the need to find her own way. The complex relationship with Eddie is handled with assurance as is the exuberance of first love with Rodolpho.

O’Keeffe plays Rodolpho with a joyous disregard of the judgements swirling around about the character’s sexuality and motives. His suitor is charming and an idealist which is a nice counterpoint to the hardnosed realism of the docks. It’s an engaging portrayal. By comparison the powerfully built Davies is almost a silence presence, his Marco slow to talk and to act but when he does it is with notable brutishness.

Mickel portrays Eddie’s wife as a pragmatist and voice of reason within the household. Her Beatrice effectively stands up to Eddie and gives Catie maternal advice which becomes more insistent as the true nature of the situation dawns on the character. Exhibiting a fine comic sensibility in previous WAAPA productions, it was refreshing to see Mickel tackle a dramatic role which she imbued with moments of humour and humanity. Finally, of the principal cast, Ruffy plays Alfieri who is both lawyer and narrator. He adds style - at one point in top and tails - and a lovely singing voice as he croons Paper Doll which becomes increasingly manic to reflect the shifting dynamics of certain relationships on the stage below him.

The set itself was quite sparse with a small kitchen table and chairs in the middle; a large backdrop with a circular cut-out that was lit with different colours and used for actors to pose in silhouette; and a feature I didn’t like – Eddie’s chair on the edge of the thrust facing away from the audience. This meant for a section of the viewers, key moments were unseen with Rotondella’s back to them. The lighting was also a little hit and miss – the silhouettes were effective but too many times scenes were lit with actors in partial shadow or dimness.

These are minor quibbles as this is a fine dramatic production with excellent performances that builds to a compelling conclusion. Directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait, A View From The Bridge is on at The Roundhouse Theatre until 5 May.