Sunday, 24 December 2017

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2017 - Musicals & Cabaret

I was almost tempted to expand this category to include concerts. I decided against it but I would like to acknowledge the two shows that prompted the thought. Those are Megan Washington’s excellent concert at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre with the WAAPA Jazz students; and the 30 Year Anniversary Concert by Defying Gravity which was equally memorable.

This year I had the pleasure of seeing two of the top ten shows with my parents – one was their Christmas gift; the other for Mum’s birthday. Glad I chose well! There was one musical that didn’t make the list but that’s because it’s still a first draft script. Yet Summer of Our Lives by Tyler Jacob Jones and Robert Woods promises to one day live up to their enormous talent in the comedy musical field. The reading/singing as part of Black Swan State Theatre Company's Emerging Writers Group was very good indeed.

But without further ado, here are the shows that did make the list…

1. La Soiree – La Soiree Australia

Captain Frodo and the English Gents are the leaders of a super-hero ensemble that would whip The Avengers anytime, anywhere, in any Spiegeltent you care to name. With new acts added to the already impressive roster this is world class cabaret fare that returns as my number one show for the year.

“The show is perhaps at its best when it goes vertical - McCann's poledance routine is fast becoming legendary; aerialist Katharine Arnold was stunning on the rope in more ways than one; Bret Pfister is coolly efficient and precise on the suspended hoop; and the English Gents reign supreme, this time with a new tower of strength to accompany McCann.”

2. Best Bits – WAAPA

It’s unusual for a retrospective show to make it this high on an annual best of list. However, I did not laugh harder or for longer all year than I did during this generous two hour revue of the graduating musical theatre students’ time at WAAPA.

“It is the usual custom for the graduating students to 'take the piss' out of their major 2nd and 3rd year productions during Best Bits. But this cohort has many gifted comic performers and as a collective they have impeccable timing and mischievous sense of humour. The send-ups of Rent, Heathers, 42nd Street, and Chicago were exceptional…”

3. Once We Lived Here – The Blue Room Theatre & Western Sky Theatre

The aim of Western Sky Theatre to mount shows for performers with WA connections to return to Perth for is laudable. The fact that director Andrew Baker was able to wrangle a quality cast and crew to put on such an exceptional show in only three weeks is nothing short of a miracle. To do so in The Blue Room Theatre was another first. Quality all round.

“There is a truthfulness here that is commendable and while emotionally fraught, resonates with authenticity. There are no easy victories, no glib story beats. This heightens the joy we experience when these characters find even the smallest moment of happiness or deliver the briefest of smiles. The humour is distinctively Australian, at times laugh out loud hilarious, and a coping mechanism for the ever present harsh realities of country life.”

4. 42nd Street – WAAPA

WAAPA’s mid-year musical at the Regal Theatre has become a must-see for musical theatre fans. The last two years have featured more contemporary productions catering to a younger audience. This year though WAAPA changed course and reverted to an old style classic and toes couldn’t have been tapping any faster with joy.

“There is perhaps nothing more exhilarating at the theatre than witnessing a mass tapdancing routine. I confess I'm sucker for it and here you don't get one, or two, or three, you get several tightly choreographed explosions of movement, colour and straight up, unabashed enthusiasm. It's a joy to watch.”

5. The Threepenny Opera – WAAPA

The Edith Spiegeltent. A legendary show that is the forebear of the modern musical. A vintage combination for any musical theatre performer. ‘Hold my beer’ as the meme says these days as the graduating acting students decided to muscle in on the MT’s turf like a gang of Macheath’s vagabonds. And the results were wonderful.

“Initially I had thought the prototypical musical was an odd choice for the acting cohort given the vocal demands, but it turns out be an inspired one. It suits the group personality of this graduating class like a 'fancy glove'. As one audience member put it after the show, "they owned the space".

6. Singin’ in the Rain – Crown Theatre

Speaking of legendary, the stage adaptation of the movie classic – I’m not going to say it, I’m definitely not going to say it made a spl-- was another old-fashioned style show that was aided immensely by the irrepressible performance of Jack Chambers as Cosmo Brown and the technical feat of staging the famous title number.

“Jack Chambers… stole the show in a brilliant comic performance as Cosmo Brown. It was a thrill to also see recent WAAPA graduate Lyndon Watts crush his feature number Beautiful Girl. The orchestra was exceptional.

7. Wrong Direction presented by Christopher Dean

A glorious pisstake of the boyband phenomenon undertaken with great style and mischievous intent. The talent on display was top notch as a couple of straight forward covers amply demonstrated. It was the deliciously wicked original songs, however, that had the audience amped up for more in the intimate Ellington space.

“This is a high energy, full on parody, raunchy as all get out explosion of boy band harmonies, dance moves, and unforgettable lyrics. Trust me, there are lyrics you will never forget.”

8. Heathers the Musical – WAAPA

Another stage adaptation, this time of a movie cult classic that is gloriously perverse in its own right. A high energy rock musical score along with several over-the-top characters and an explosive ending made this a fun first up outing in 2017 for the graduating class.

“It's dark subject matter but the surface level presentation is infectious rock music with subversive lyrics; a riot of colour in staging, lighting, costuming, and rear screen projections; and exuberant choreography befitting the age of its characters. It's a fun show with energy and black humour to burn.”

9. Chicago – Koorliny Arts Centre

Bringing all the sass and sexiness, Koorliny started their year with a rollicking version of the Kander & Ebb classic. Opening out the wings and having the full orchestra along the back wall made this a visual and aural delight with a fabulous performance by Elethea Sartorelli as Velma.

“It's fair to say Kander & Ebb's classic is one of my favourite musicals - great songs, great music, sexy, slinky and sassy with that other musical theatre giant Bob Fosse adding his unmistakable stamp. It's a pleasure to report then that today's sold out matinee was a real treat and a fine start to Koorliny's community theatre season.”

10. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – WAAPA

The second years debuted in their first standalone musical with this quirky exploration of a notorious American president. Jackson, portrayed more as a rock star than a politician, was played with great swagger by Jarrod Griffiths in a full-on performance.

“The show started to click for me during the number Illness As Metaphor where Jackson (Jarrod Griffiths) and his soon to be wife Rachel (Stacey Thomsett) cut and bleed each other as a demonstration of their love. It's a metaphor, get it? From then on I settled into the, more often than not, outrageous retelling of Jackson's life and political career.”

Female Performer of the Year – Mackenzie Dunn

Dunn showcased true triple threat talent as the lead in 42nd Street, singing, dancing, and acting her way to deserved accolades. It was a notably assured performance at a large venue that augurs well for her future. Not only that, Dunn was memorable in Heathers the Musical as Ms Fleming and one of the leading conspirators in the hilarity of Best Bits.

Male Performer of the Year – Jack Chambers

A tour de force comic performance in Singin’ in the Rain was eye catching to say the least. Exceptional physical comedy, timing, and sheer chutzpah made Chambers a clear crowd favourite and driving force of this stage adaptation of a legendary movie.

Special Mentions:

Taryn Ryan

Ryan’s performance in Once We Lived Here grounded the whole production and, most impressively, she handled the emotional range required in the fractured timeline narrative expertly. It’s also a delight to hear Ryan sing after several non-musical roles this year.

Wrong Direction

The faux boyband made up of Chris Wilcox, Jason Arrow, Cameron Steens, and Ben Gillespie in their Perth iteration. All with incredible voices that led to the kind of harmonies you would expect… but not the lyrics you would normally sing along to! Great stage presence and knew how to work a crowd.

Elethea Sartorelli

Set the tone for Chicago right from the get go with the cast and orchestra following her lead. Had several excellent set piece scenes and a highlight with fellow recent Finley Award winner Rachel Monamy in their duet of Class.

Monique Warren

An energetic and feisty performance in Heathers the Musical where Warren sang superbly and looked fabulous in the colourful costuming as she played the role made famous by Winona Ryder in the movie.

Jarrod Griffiths

Brought plenty of attitude and swagger to the role of Andrew Jackson and was hardly ever off stage in a full-throated performance. Sang the rock style numbers well and displayed good acting chops especially when the show took an infrequent serious interlude.

That’s it for another year. Thank you to everyone who made these and all the many other shows come to life. Have a great festive season and see you as a professional audience member next year!

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2017 - Plays

Here we are again. Another year gone. Another year full of theatrical treats. Yes, I know I said I wouldn’t be reviewing in 2017. But as some predicted, late in the year, the bug bit and I was back to writing full reviews instead of snippets. Three of those became among the most viewed ever on the blog which is gratifying. However, I didn’t see anywhere near the record number of productions from last year. Though over 50 wasn’t a bad effort all things considered. The main ‘thing’ being eight drafts of a feature film screenplay which is coming along nicely.

Back to theatre and it was a solid year for plays. My reduced attendance level meant I mainly stuck to the major hubs – WAAPA, Black Swan, The Blue Room, and Fringe. But there was much to like amongst those offerings. I was pleased to have been asked to retrospectively adjudicate the 2015 & 2016 Best New Work and Independent Production for the PAWA Awards. Enticements to be an adjudicator next year for both PAWA and the ITA were tempting but hopefully 2018 is the year my screenplay goes into production so I declined.

Enough with the preamble, here now my Top Ten plays and performers of the year…

1. Bali – The Last Great Hunt

The continued adventures of Jimmy and Corgan who we first saw in FAG/STAG was immensely entertaining, moving, and thought provoking. Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs are consummate storytellers and this sees them at the top of their very considerable game.

“On the surface this is a witty comedy but like its predecessor the control of tone is exceptional with exquisite observation, raw emotion that is earned, and sequences… that are gut punch effective. Fowler and Isaacs have an immensely likable rapport and as writer/performers have total command of the material. The audience can be belly laughing one moment to pin drop silent the next.”

2. Momentum – WAAPA

I had no expectations going into this self-devised piece using the Moment Work technique introduced by visiting director Andy Paris. What I experienced was emotionally raw and honest with a great sense of theatricality in the blank canvas that is the Enright Studio.

“In its shape and construction Momentum is reminiscent of Love and Information, currently being performed by the 3rd years. However, there is an emotional authenticity and rawness here that is compelling in its honesty. The whole troupe have shared insights into pivotal moments in their lives and it's this vulnerability and generosity that makes Momentum a remarkable work.”

3. An Almost Perfect Thing - The Blue Room Theatre & Gabrielle Metcalf

A terrific example of what happens when you match an excellent script with a first-rate cast in this engrossing psychological thriller.

“An exceptional script performed with precision and emotional depth by a stellar cast of Daisy Coyle, Nick Maclaine, and Andrew Hale.”

4. Present Laughter – WAAPA

WAAPA brings more than a touch of class from all its departments to this suitably witty Noel Coward penned tale. From set and costume design to performance this was an elegant treat.

“I had a great time with this Noel Coward comedy - witty and elegant this featured a handsome set, was stylishly costumed, briskly paced, with many wonderful performances by the third years.”

5. Coma Land – Black Swan State Theatre Company & Performing Lines WA

Fast becoming my favourite local playwright, Will O’Mahony’s gift for dialogue is often exhilarating. That it is usually deployed in the service of stories that have bitter-sweet emotional cores and intriguing premises makes his love for language even more potent.

“The cast embrace the material - an exploration of loss, letting go, chasing perfection, and the expectations of parents and their children - within the framework of characters inhabiting this fantastical space while in a coma.”

6. The One by Jeffrey Jay Fowler - Whiskey & Boots

A cracking two-hander from Jeffrey Jay Fowler that featured superb performances from Georgia King and Mark Storen.

“First rate performances by Georgia King and Mark Storen; the former in a layered portrayal that incorporated a level of warmth I hadn't seen from her before; the latter with an almost wide-eyed naivety that slowly turns into a hard-earned epiphany. There is an ease and believability to the characters' relationship that is compelling.”

7. When He Gets That Way by Ann Marie Healy

Another two-hander from Fringe that was witty and sly, again featuring two standout performances. Everything you could want amongst the often brash madness of the festival.

“Let's not beat around the bush - this is my gem of Fringe to date. Beautifully written script - witty, clever, literate, sly - given great service by two terrific performances courtesy of Lisa Louttit and Taryn Ryan.”

8. The Twits – Spare Parts Puppet Theatre

The season doesn’t start until early January and Spare Parts asked for reviews to be held until the New Year. That being said, I wish my 6-year-old niece was over here from Canberra because I would take her to this in a heartbeat. Full review to be posted on 2 January.

“This is an enjoyable production that children and adults alike will love. Full of colour and movement; humour and a positive message, it will be a summer hit for Spare Parts Puppet Theatre.”

9. The Lighthouse Girl – Black Swan State Theatre Company

A companion piece to playwright Hellie Turner’s own The Dreaming Hill, this is a beautifully crafted, old fashioned style tale that generates enormous empathy from the star making performance of Daisy Coyle.

“Coyle is joined by a crack cast of newcomers and stage veterans. The play itself feels very much a throwback to old-fashioned storytelling with its own guileless charms. We know what awaits the troops steaming off to war and portents of doom are therefore flickering beats instead of heavy-handed assaults.”

10. Windmill Baby - WAAPA

Featuring a superb set and lighting design as well as a warm and generous central performance this was a late year delight.

“At a smidge over an hour in length this was charming storytelling even in its moments of sorrow, anchored by Richards’ warm delivery and that fabulous set. A most pleasurable evening of theatre presented by the Aboriginal Performance students.”

Female Performer of the Year – Daisy Coyle

The Curtin University graduate announced herself as one to watch with last year’s Project Xan. A promise she more than lived up to in 2017 as the eponymous lead of The Lighthouse Girl and with a layered performance in An Almost Perfect Thing. Coyle has the ability to project youthful innocence and vulnerability that served her well in the Black Swan production but also a darker persona that made her character so intriguing at the Blue Room. There is an emotional honesty to Coyle’s acting that is compelling.

Male Performer of the Year – Jeffrey Jay Fowler

Performer is a misnomer here though Fowler was excellent reprising his character from FAG/STAG in Bali. He is one of the premier playwrights in WA as The One and Bali (with Chris Isaacs) demonstrated in 2017. Also, as a member of independent powerhouse The Last Great Hunt, an associate director for Black Swan State Theatre Company and Director of New Writing for their Emerging Writers Group, Fowler dominated the local theatre scene this year.

Special Mentions:

Martin Quinn

I must confess I wasn’t quite sure about Quinn in his second year at WAAPA. The plummy voiced actor tended to stand out from his fellow students with a more theatrical style that didn’t quite gel for me. He turned me right around in 2017 with a couple of roles that suited him perfectly – the lead in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter that he excelled at and as Mister Peachum in The Threepenny Opera which, spoiler alert, may make an appearance in another list today.

Georgia King

My 2014 Female Performer of the Year, King returns to my end of year lists with a stellar performance in The One that was as full tilt and ego-less as I’ve come to expect but also showcased a softer side that added yet another layer.

Lisa Louttit

A wonderfully calibrated comic performance in the gem of a show from Fringe, When He Gets That Way. Louttit embraced the sharp writing with aplomb.

Ben Sutton

Brilliant comic timing accentuated what, on the surface, could have been a ridiculous role, that of a talking panda in Will O’Mahony’s Coma Land. Yet added gravitas as well in a memorable performance.

Sam Corlett

In the true ensemble piece Momentum from WAAPA’s second year actors, Corlett made an immediate impression with a fierce, no holds barred performance.

Up next, the Top Ten Musicals & Cabaret of 2017... 

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Perilous Adventures of the Postman - Hayman Theatre Company (9 December 2017)

As technology plays an ever more pervasive role in our lives, the prevalence of social media and its impact on human interaction has become a favourite topic for dramatists. This is especially the case for younger generations who are living through the explosion in apps and devices that demand more and more of their attention. How is this wiring our brains differently? How is it affecting relationships and communities and, significantly, the individual who may be better connected but as a result more isolated?

Writer/director Damon Lockwood has taken these concerns and extrapolated them out to the year 2020 where social media is the dominant form of interaction. All other institutions and social norms have decayed, most notably the status of the humble post office, the most anachronistic of services in a fully digital world.

Lockwood pushes the premise to absurd extremes as the main generator of the comedy in this near future world. Young people's heads are forever buried in their mobile devices. Eye contact is shunned as almost unnatural. Older technologies, if recognised, have taken on an aura of archaeological artefacts – the landline, the fax machine, the pre-smartphone mobile, and books. There are even workshops that encourage people to try and interact in person. They are largely unsuccessful. Mating rituals are conducted via apps and online platforms. Shopping is largely automated.

Amongst the eyes down, thumbs blazing digital morass is a beacon of the pre-digital age, now hopelessly redundant, the postman himself, played by, curiously for a student production, Curtin lecturer Philip Miolin. Regarded as a pervert (due to his predilection for actual human contact) by our gaggle of social media mad youngsters he lives on the fringes until the world faces an horrendous cataclysm too heinous to contemplate…

The online world is switched OFF in a massive failure of servers.

Much screaming ensues. In fact, in the close quarters of the Studio space at the Blue Room, a deafening amount of screaming. How can one live in a world without the internet; without social media; without the ability to cyber-stalk potential partners? Quelle horreur!

The postman is summoned by a Mad Max obsessed Postal executive who puts the General in Postmaster General, Ben Strong played with scene chewing relish by Taylor Beilby. It seems the world’s last letter is in his possession and must be delivered to a man whose life may be in danger across a now dystopian landscape of bereft youngsters.

So anachronistic is the concept of a letter even the production staff forgot that such a vessel requires a stamp (not to mention a story beat that requires a youngster to drop what looked like a $10 note, surely an abstraction for that age group now let alone in 2020) … but I digress. What follows next is a bizarre series of encounters that seem more like individual skits than a coherent narrative through line. Granted, it is a difficult task to give a cast of fifteen actors sufficient stage time but some of the characters are marginal at best. There was one long monologue from a character that came from nowhere, raved on about some implausible scenario then vanished in a burst of B-grade villainous laughter never to be seen again.

It seems the Postman is such a good chap that he can’t but help people who, coincidentally, come across his path. There is a lot of convenient plotting that felt more lazy than inspired in the general wackiness of what was going on. Ultimately the Postman reaches his destination where there is a surprise reveal which is problematic as Miolin’s age versus that of a presumptive love interest is significant.

The humour is very broad and mostly slapstick with a lot of one-note reactions to the modern versus old technologies. I found it sporadically funny with some inventive delivery of props and a crazy showdown between the Postman and his natural enemy, the pet dog.

The actors who fared best for me were Lauren Beeton as Heather who was allowed a more naturalistic reign as one of the online lovers; Beilby who delivered a full-on assault as Ben Strong; Joanna Tu who was amusingly officious as the Workshop Leader, and later as a somewhat confused Kiwi cartographer; and Bianca Roose proved a quiet presence playing a character not held in thrall by technology. Samuel Ireland had his moments as the other half of the lovers though he lapsed into the preponderance of shouting that befell a lot of characters. It certainly is not a subtle comedy. Maddy Mullins played audience favourite Workshop Girl though this was more through sympathy as the character’s earnest attempts at inclusion are constantly rebuffed.

Designer Rhiannon Walker has eschewed the usual darker tones of the Blue Room providing an all-white set including panels on which images are occasionally projected. These establish locations, for example the library or the post office though I was surprised they weren’t used for the ‘travelling montage’.

While this style of comedy wasn’t my cup of pixels, many in the audience, especially of contemporary age to the performers, seemed to be having a good time with it all.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Roald Dahl's The Twits - Spare Parts Puppet Theatre (6 December 2017)

I have a confession to make.

Yes, that’s right, I have, gasp, a beard. And in the world of Roald Dahl, on whose book the play is adapted, that would seem to be an impeachable offence.

It used to turn ginger (thanks Dad!), now it goes grey (thanks aging!). Sigh. To my knowledge, however, I have never discovered condiments, the leftovers from last night’s Chinese, or fish heads ensnared in it… though there was that one time when I… ahem… let’s move onto the show…

And the lovely couple, The Twits.

Mister Twit is also cursed with facial hair, clearly a sign of sinister character and intent. Mrs Twit is simply ugly. Nasty thoughts will do that to a person. Together they are an odious pairing who like nothing more than playing pranks on each other… and eating bird pie. The key ingredient of bird pie is, of course, freshly caught birds, trapped on the branches of the tree in the Twits’ backyard that have been liberally daubed in glue.

This causes much distress to Muggle-Wump, a monkey also trapped, in this instance, by the cage Mister Twit keeps him in. Muggle-Wump tries to warn the birds but not being fluent in any avian dialects his pleas fall on deaf little bird ears. Until the arrival of the Roly-Poly Bird from far-flung climes who acts like a universal translator saving the birds from future baking disasters.

Enraged, The Twits escalate matters by bringing a gun to a pie fight only to find their comeuppance at the hands (and, I guess, talons) of Muggle-Wump and the Roly-Poly Bird.

In many ways it is a dark tale, however, the ingenious manner by which The Twits are defeated is both satisfying and a positive message to stand up for yourself against the nasty people of the world (and beard wearers obviously). There were many children in attendance and they were rapt with the antics of The Twits.

In this they are well served by the impressive physical performances of Geordie Crawley (Mister Twit and the Roly-Poly Bird) and Jessica Harlond-Kenny (Mrs Twit and Muggle-Wump) who throw themselves around the stage. Exaggerated movement and facial expressions, silly accents and songs, and the use of all kinds of sound effects make for a robust piece of theatre. This is enhanced by the colourful masks, puppets, clever props and set design that bring the world of The Twits to life. There is also a bold lighting design to complement all these elements.

The tree is a clump of different lengths of plastic pipes and conduits from which the various props and accessories hang. The masks for the couple are amusingly distorted – Mister Twit with beard full of food; Mrs Twit with her glass eye that has a mind of its own. All the other characters are given distinctive looks and traits making this a real tour de force for the two actors. They’ll earn their keep during the season in January as temperatures rise.

The story itself is simply constructed. The first sequence is all about how The Twits try to outdo each other with their pranks. This establishes the off-beat tone, outlandish characters, and sets up elements for the couple’s downfall. The story then switches perspective to Muggle-Wump and the Roly-Poly Bird who work together to save the birds then plot to enact the ultimate prank on The Twits. The tale is fast-paced and engaging, and at around an hour in length, keeps the attention of the children. But there’s plenty for the adults to enjoy as well with some sly one-liners that harken to contemporary events and issues.

This is an enjoyable production that children and adults alike will love. Full of colour and movement; humour and a positive message, it will be a summer hit for Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. As we discovered after the show it also presages the beginning of a gloriously ambitious 2018 season for the theatre company.

The Twits is directed by Michael Barlow, co-created by Humphrey Bower and Barlow based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, and stars Geordie Crawley and Jessica Harlond-Kenny. The designer/puppet maker is Leon Handroff with Lighting design by Rhiannon Petersen. The Twits runs from 8-27 January at 1 Short Street Fremantle.

Take your children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, the neighbour’s kids… they’ll have a blast.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Windmill Baby - WAAPA (20 November 2017)

For a venue that is difficult to light, boy oh boy, when they get it right it is a sight to see in my favourite theatre in Perth, The Roundhouse on the ECU Mount Lawley campus. The abandoned cattle station of yore comes to life as memories, both joyful and tragic, are re-enacted in the harsh glare of the desert sun or softer hues of evening relief. At one point audience members on my right visibly jumped as the elements were brought vividly into existence with lighting and sound. Excellent work by lighting and sound designers Jackson McKay and Ella Portwine respectively.

The set itself, designed by Kara Rousseau, is glorious – all corrugated iron with the windmill looming over everything, a water tank, the back verandah to the homestead and an old-fashioned washing line. Curiously though, the featured structure of the title is more a silent observer, oft referred to but mostly ignored by the characters that are summoned by the storytelling gifts of Old May May (Abby Richards).

It is the verandah that is the more potent symbol as the boundary between the privileged station owners - Boss (Quaid Cooper) and his Missus (Nomi Haji-Ahmad) – and the indigenous station hands who do all the hard, manual labour. That one of those hands, the crippled Wunman (Jye Skinner) dares to cross into that space is the catalyst for most of the tragedy that follows.

But there is also, and predominantly, great warmth and humour in the storytelling driven by the wonderfully generous performance by Richards as the older woman who revisits the setting of her youth. It’s like sitting down to hear a great yarn full of diversions, episodic tales, reminiscences, and self-deprecating humour. There’s even some bawdy moments thrown in, mainly to do with Malvern (Lachlan Stokes), the once beau in May May’s life. Then there’s a charming strand about a half-dingo dog and a poodle that is thematically on point but also laugh out loud funny.

As Old May May’s memories take hold, Young May May, played with great expressiveness by Marlanie Haerewa, proves to be the ideal foil. The cutting between past and present is well crafted and enchanting to watch. Serena-May Brown as Sally, apart from being a dab hand on the ukulele, also brings a decency to her role as a rival for Malvern’s interest. She has a featured moment pulling an audience member up on stage to tell a story to that ends in a surprise gift.

Stokes is amusingly naïve when it comes to the female attention Malvern receives and I confess I missed his presence somewhat in the latter stages. Skinner gives Wunman a sly sense of humour as well as providing physical comedy by way of navigating his crippled limbs. His fate felt somewhat anti-climactic though given the fault-lines his relationship with Missus causes.

Cooper has perhaps the most onerous task playing the callous station owner who thinks little of his workers and perhaps even less of his wife. The retribution for crossing racial divides is harsh and unforgiving. Haji-Ahmad radiates a sense of propriety and goodness as the Missus in opposition to her husband’s cruelty.

Torika Forrester seems to act somewhat as a portent of doom as Aunty Darbella while Umima Shah-Munro rounds out the cast as Wunman’s Mum and in ensemble moments. Like with all great tales there’s some singing, a little dancing, and even a bit of puppetry. Director Eva Grace Mullaley uses the full extent of the thrust stage well letting the characters of the past swirl around her central storyteller.

At a smidge over an hour in length this was charming storytelling even in its moments of sorrow, anchored by Richards’ warm delivery and that fabulous set. A most pleasurable evening of theatre presented by the Aboriginal Performance students.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Stepping Out - Koorliny Arts Centre (18 November 2017)

Many moons ago, towards the end of my career as a manager for a large national company in Sydney, one of the few times of solace was a weekly screenwriting class in Bondi. In those couple of hours, talking about movies and writing, all thoughts of personal and professional worries were held in abeyance. It ultimately led me to resigning and returning home to Perth to pursue my creative dreams. But that's another story.

In Stepping Out seven women from diverse backgrounds and a sole male attend regular tapdance classes to escape all manner of domestic disharmony or their own personal demons. In essence the play is an extended choreography session with hints at the dysfunction outside the walls of the studio that drives these people here. There is also the inevitable clash of personalities as pressure builds on learning they will be performing in front of an audience for the first time at a charity event.

It's a familiar arc - tyro performers race against time to prepare for an event where public humiliation lurks yet somehow pull it all together to triumph. The trick here is to show people tapping badly for the majority of the production before the razzle dazzle of the ending.

And razzle dazzle it does. Choreographer Allen Blachford has taken a true ensemble of actors, some of whom have never tapped before in their lives, and crafted a credible character trajectory from enthusiastic novices (though some characters less than others) to competent tappers. It's a surefire crowd pleaser when all the stumbling and bumbling turns into a polished routine.

In this Hannah Harn is Blachford's surrogate as Mavis, the tap instructor. Harn's Mavis shows glimpses of true ability as she puts the class through its paces while dealing with surly pianist Glenda (Lucy Eyre) who provides arch comments and hurt feelings as appropriate. Harn clearly has the dancing chops and features heavily in the showpiece numbers at the end. I wasn't quite as convinced when Mavis is required to turn bitchy as complications arise over the routine for the charity event. There is also a revelation that didn't quite land and was quickly forgotten.

Indeed, a lot of threads are left hanging in the personal lives of these women and the introverted Geoffrey (played with great understatement by David Gardette). Dilemmas are set up but never truly tackled or resolved. The play seems to be saying you can have your moment in the spotlight no matter what demons await in the darkness.

The character most afflicted by this is Andy whose unseen husband looms large in crippling her self-esteem. Casey Edwards inhabits the character with stark rigidness - hunched shoulders, arms stiff by her sides with hands frozen. Edwards' work with Gardette is a quiet highlight as Andy tentatively reaches out to make a truthful human connection. The character is also, in many ways, the moral compass of the tale with her petition regarding the local park and a well earned outburst.

If Andy is quiet then there are more than a few characters who go large in counterpoint beginning with the fastidious newcomer Vera. Claire Matthews gives Vera a colurful persona, all fussy and strutting, with a knack for the well meaning dagger to the heart as self-censorship isn't Vera's strong suit. Costume designer Lynne Leeder adds to the peacock allure dressing Matthews in outrageously bold outfits that she pulls off with panache. The well-judged performance is the engine room for most of the friction within the class.

Chief adversary is Anita Telkamp's straight-shooting Sylvia who, by comparison, has a bogan twang which she wields with cutting one-liner retorts. Telkamp's comic timing and delivery are very good here. The costuming reinforces the difference between the two women with Sylvia looking more at home in Tap Dogs than shopping at Man-doo-ra Forum.

Then there's Maxine as played by Rachel Monamy, a character who always seems to be on the hustle selling outfits to the group and (eventually) providing the costumes for the charity event whilst dealing with her step-son "Wonderboy". I liked that the style of humour for each character was in a different spectrum. Monamy's more a conversational style here; Eyre's pointed and gruff; Matthews' sly and demeaning; Telkamp's dry and cutting.

The cast is rounded out by Stacey Holling's Lynne who has more confidence in her tap ability and a nice personality to boot; Jenny Lawrence's Dorothy who was a little nervous and fidgety about the whole thing; and Nontuthuzelo Mqwati who had some telling lines in response to being the 'ethnic' of the group as Rose.

There is a lot of good physical comedy as well as they all come to terms at having to tap with sticks AND bowler hats. A running - well, actually, tripping gag with Gardette whose earnest attempts at being out front as the only male are a delight.

The audience was enthusiastic with much appreciation of set-pieces. The final tap routines went down a treat though there were a few moments in the lead up that dragged a little as the focus shifted to oblique mentions of the world outside the studio. That those set-ups weren't paid off or resolved left me with the uneasy feeling that these women's triumph was but temporary. Given recent revelations in the world of comedy, news broadcasting, and Hollywood, perhaps, sadly, an all too true outcome.

Overall though I laughed throughout and had a good time with this. The ending was well earned and executed with style as director Geoffrey Leeder showcased the ensemble to full effect.

Friday, 3 November 2017

WAAPA Showcase (3 November 2017)

From Stephen Sondheim to David Mamet; Kander & Ebb to Peter Shaffer; Jason Robert Brown to Patrick Marber... you're unlikely to see as diverse a selection of acting excerpts and musical theatre numbers in two hours as you do at WAAPA's annual Showcase.

The W.A.A.P.A. Friends Of The Academy Showcase night is one of my favourite dates on the Perth theatre calendar as we get to say goodbye and celebrate the graduating musical theatre and acting students. I actually find it inspirational to witness the talent on display after three gruelling years of study and knowing that this marks the transition point from student to professional career.

As always that talent is across the board excellent. Congratulations to each and every one of you and all the best for your future endeavours and careers.

If I may offer a limited selection of favourites from the night...

Acting Showreel scenes:

A delightfully quirky scene featuring Katherine Pearson as an unusual theatre patron encountering Martin Quinn's somewhat bewildered director after the premiere of his play.

Spider-Man meets Catwoman in a very well written scene that highlighted the talents of Jack Scott and Laura McDonald with a nice array of emotions and underlying message. The writing was so perfectly suited to the actors' strengths I was delighted to discover Scott himself had written it.

Acting scenes:

An oft encountered pairing who have excellent onstage chemistry, Roy Joseph and Laura McDonald, in an excerpt from John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. I loved the physicality of the scene, their accent work, and the clear, crisp action changes. Many other scenes saw blocking where the actors were too far apart in key dramatic and/or emotional moments. Here, Joseph and McDonald were literally in each other's face which heightened the potency of the scene. 

Sasha Simon's fierce performance playing opposite Mitchell Bourke in a scene from People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan. The focus is squarely on Simon as her character fights for help on her own terms. A smart decision therefore to have Bourke (who sets the table nicely) sitting angled away from the audience so that she was featured.

Musical Theatre numbers:

One of my absolute joys at the theatre is being surprised. That is often the case when someone who maybe hasn't been featured as much in the last couple of years blows you away in a jaw-on-the-floor moment. Here it was Chloe Bremner's performance of Behind These Walls which was superb.

Finn Alexander taking a song written for a female character - Sondheim's Losing My Mind from Follies - and making it his own in an exquisite performance. Brave choice, excellent execution that paid off in spades.

I have to also mention the musical accompaniment on piano from WAAPA's own Kohan van Sambeeck that was a non-stop, hour long tour de force.

In the days to come agents and managers and talent scouts and all sorts of other people will make decisons based on what they see at the final Showcase in Perth tomorrow night and then in Sydney and Melbourne. On the evidence of tonight I look forward to reading of agent signings and then casting announcements, both screen and stage, from here on in.  

Friday, 27 October 2017

Once We Lived Here - The Blue Room Theatre & Western Sky Theatre (25 October 2017)

At the question and answer session following the Wednesday night performance Ryan Dawson (who plays Burke) and Megan Kozak (Lecy) indicated how difficult it is to sing with their natural Australian twang. They explained that most musicals are delivered with either an American or leastways neutral accent given the predominance of the US as a generator of this type of entertainment. How refreshing then to hear the unique sounds and vernacular of a homegrown Aussie musical no matter how difficult to maintain. There are lyrics and rhymes in Once We Lived Here that you wouldn’t hear created anywhere else in the world. For that alone this is a notable entry in the modern musical canon.

But the show is much more than that. The setting is utterly Australian – the country farm and its inhabitants battling the elements and themselves to eke out a living. In many ways it reminded me of the Spare Parts Puppet Theatre production simply called Farm from a couple of years ago. Life is bloody tough on the land. Families toil for generations in conditions that would make the average city dweller blanch. There is a fierce loyalty and bond to that land and to each other. Those loyalties are constantly tested and this is where we get to the heart of the musical. 

Times are tough for the McPherson clan. The sheep farm is failing as is the health of the matriarch Claire (Sharon Kiely). Oldest daughter Amy (Taryn Ryan) has managed the farm ever since the death of her father some eight years earlier. Amy's siblings Lecy (Kozak) and Shaun (Joshua Firman) return to the property to be with Claire in what may be her final days. Former farmhand Burke (Dawson) also arrives at 'Emoh Ruo' though his motives are questioned by Amy. Hard earned truths and tragedy ensue as these five distinctly drawn characters interact in the furnace of the drought afflicted environment and competing memories of their shared history. Events of the past are revisited. Revelations made. Futures put in flux.

There is a truthfulness here that is commendable and while emotionally fraught, resonates with authenticity. There are no easy victories, no glib story beats. This heightens the joy we experience when these characters find even the smallest moment of happiness or deliver the briefest of smiles. The humour is distinctively Australian, at times laugh out loud hilarious, and a coping mechanism for the ever present harsh realities of country life.

Behind all this there is a spirit that infuses the musical that strikes me as quite special given it is counter-intuitive to what could be perceived as the general bleakness of the premise. It celebrates the strength and resilience of these characters and of those who choose to makes sacrifices, personal, professional and emotional, to work in the country. The love between siblings, and between a mother and her children, also rings out loud and clear. It's an impressive and ever present energy. 

The Book, Music and Lyrics are by Matthew Frank and Dean Bryant who, as was remarked at the QandA, are country lads. The structure involves cutting between two timelines - the present and eight years early when a key event shaped who these people have become. I admit, I was a little disoriented when the first 'flashback' occurred but once I keyed into the device it was fine. In this I was aided by the lighting design and notable change in performances - Shaun, for example, is only 13 years old in the flashbacks.

I very much liked that Frank and Bryant found a simple yet creative way to deal with exposition in the early going as Lecy uses a handheld camcorder to capture her feelings on returning to the farm and to interview her siblings. It works because it reveals so much about Lecy, the materialistic girl who fled to the bright lights of the city. It also sets up the family dynamics as the others react to her posturing. 

The music, beautifully played by the three piece band of (Musical Director) Joshua Haines on piano, Harry Love (guitar) and Luis Santos (double bass) in a room off to one side, is evocative and perfectly balanced with the vocals. So much texture is created here. The songs move the story forward and give us character insights aplenty. There's wonderful use of reprises to buttress emotional beats and recurring motifs for each character. Highlights include Ryan's Gotta Fix The Pump and As Far As The Eye Can See, Firman's haunting The Shearing Shed, and the moving The Leaves of Summer. Then there's the showstopper We Like It That Way that opens the second half in hysterical fashion. The cast sang superbly in the small space.

The dramatic heft of the Book means that the five performers have to show off some serious acting chops to go along with the impressive vocal talent. Foremost in this is Ryan who plays the practical, responsible daughter who, in many ways, is the replacement for the father that is so sorely missed. Ryan, one of the brightest stars in Perth's independent theatre scene, is simply terrific. There is a sequence where her character Amy finally lets all the bottled up emotions explode into life to quickly cut to a moment of happiness in the past which is just as swiftly undercut back in the present. The emotional range on display in a maybe 5-6 minute sequence is extraordinary.

By contrast, Kozak imbues younger sister Lecy with self-absorbed snark, and overt flirtatiousness when it comes to Burke. There is a certain desperation that bubbles under all this which becomes clearer in the second half. I'm a big fan of the off-beat comic energy Kozak brings to her performances and director Andrew Baker utilises it well here never letting it verge into caricature. 

Joshua Firman does incredibly well with a tricky role - as the larrikin 13 year old who grows up to be the cruising-through-life Shaun with a gnawing sense of emptiness that festers. Firman has charm to burn so it's intriguing to see the restraint deployed in the present day sequences. He nails the cheeky, boyish enthusiasm of We Like It That Way and his work with Dawson in Guitar Lesson is excellent. Firman also has such a joyous singing style when let loose that is a pleasure to experience.

I had not come across Kiely or Dawson before but both round out an excellent cast. The former oozes maternal love and protection as Claire, never allowing the character to be defeated by either her illness or the past. It is a performance of great integrity and decency that anchors the production. Likewise, Dawson's Burke is a voice of reason amongst the emotional tumult. His character is a multi-faceted link to the McPherson children that sees him display fatherly concern towards Shaun; care for Lecy whilst rebuffing her advances; and notably a tenderness mixed with some tough love towards Amy. Again, he gives the character an aura of down to earth decency.

Props to Andrew Baker and fledgling company Western Sky Theatre for staging a two hour Aussie musical at The Blue Room and assembling such a talented cast, band and production team (shout outs to Rhiannon Walker for the rustic set design and costumes and Katrina Johnston for the lighting design). His intention is to mount productions that attract talent that is either from WA or trained here. If this opening salvo is any indication we are in for many excellent productions. 

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Bali - The Last Great Hunt (18 October 2017)

You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye - Glenn Frey & Don Henley.

Those lyrics from the Eagles song The Last Resort floated across my consciousness during a bravura sequence in this preview where Chris Isaacs's character describes the sights of an unexpected road detour in Bali. I won't spoil the impact by providing further details other than saying it offers a telling commentary on our relationship with the popular island destination and its effect. 

Indeed, only a cursory summary of the plot of Bali will be given here as the joy is in the consummate storytelling which needs to be experienced firsthand. To wit, this is the continued adventures of Jimmy (Jeffrey Jay Fowler) and Corgan (Isaacs) who we first met in the award winning FAG/STAG in 2015. This time Corgan's mum is holding her 60th birthday celebration week in Bali and the lads are along for the ride. Each show signs of reluctance though for completely different reasons. 

On the surface this is a witty comedy but like its predecessor the control of tone is exceptional with exquisite observation, raw emotion that is earned, and sequences like the above that are gut punch effective. Fowler and Isaacs have an immensely likable rapport and as writer/performers have total command of the material. The audience can be belly laughing one moment to pin drop silent the next. That roller coaster emotional journey for the characters and the audience is an outstanding feature of both plays. 

Many of the same techniques from FAG/STAG are used - contradictory points of view in the retelling as the two characters recount moments quite differently. Often for comic effect; critically for deeper insight into who they are, how they perceive the world, and why. The actors are again seated on stools with a table in between where there are a variety of drinks. The other significant prop is the ubiquitous mobile phone (I seem to learn of a new app from Jimmy's character every play!). 

It is a deliberately sparse set. The world is created by the vivid writing and delivery, Scott McArdle's lighting design, and Nathan Jamieson's subtle sound design. I love the level of authenticity in the script with such fine detail not only in describing the Bali locales but also in the well rounded characters and their interactions. I have a complete picture of, for example, Corgan's mum in my head without her ever appearing onstage. Set-ups are paid off handsomely and the parallel revelations for both characters are emotionally true and, particularly in Jimmy's case, devastating. 

Smartly, they are on a raised platform as the angle of the raked seating in the Subiaco Arts Centre Studio isn't always ideal for the best viewing experience. It shouldn't be a problem here and the intimate space is perfect for this style of storytelling. There is an honesty that is compelling - in the depiction of male friendship; sex and sexuality; consumerism; casual racism; western world entitlement; homophobia; drugs; and the crucial events in our past that shape us. It's also damn funny precisely because there is so much we recognise that resonates with us.

As a bonus, Bali includes perhaps the most impassioned defence of a (not very good, sorry Corgan) Hollywood movie that you are ever likely to hear. It's these surprising beats and unexpected turns that make this feel so real. The other thing is, I damn well like these characters!

This is not only a worthy companion piece to the terrific FAG/STAG but perhaps even better. The offshore setting allows Fowler and Isaacs to explore varied aspects of their characters and expose new vulnerabilities and strengths. It's a wonderfully written, performed, and staged piece of theatre. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - WAAPA (16 October 2017)

Ah, musical theatre, what a great educational resource you are! My knowledge of American presidents has grown exponentially over the past few years due to Assassins (Midnite Youth Theatre Company, 2015) with its clutch of dead and almost dead presidents (as English Bob says mockingly in the movie Unforgiven, "Now, a president... well I mean... why not shoot a president?"), Clinton: The Musical (Black Swan State Theatre Company, 2016), the ubiquitous Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton: An American Musical, and now, the second year's first standalone musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

The American obsession with the office of the presidency, its inhabitants, and their legacies is perhaps an odd cultural phenomenon as seen through Australian eyes but one ripe for creative interpretation and reimagining. The four shows above use, respectively, a carnival sideshow setting; an actual split personality; the language of rap; and here, the world of a self-absorbed emo rockstar.

I admit, it took me a while to zero in on the tone of this production. In its opening salvoes it is spectacularly politically incorrect particularly towards the Native American Indians. This had me squirming more than a little. Jackson, a former general, founder of the Democratic Party, and a populist president (1829-37) is a polarising figure in presidential debate mainly due to his treatment of the native tribes and his support of slavery. The 'bloody' moniker is not unearned.

The comparisons to the current incumbent are, to be frank, scarily prescient. Especially when you consider this was written a decade before Donald Trump's ascendancy. Jackson, the 7th president, wanted to overthrow the system run by 'corrupt aristocrats' and, as was shown here, fiercely for American nationalism and bitterly opposed to the English, Spanish, and Native American Indians, forcibly resettling the latter westwards. He was the Trump of his day... with much better dialogue.

The show started to click for me during the number Illness As Metaphor where Jackson (Jarrod Griffiths) and his soon to be wife Rachel (Stacey Thomsett) cut and bleed each other as a demonstration of their love. It's a metaphor, get it? From then on I settled into the, more often than not, outrageous retelling of Jackson's life and political career.

Not only is this a pungent satire on the crass nature of political populism but a pointed commentary on musical theatre tropes as well. In an inspired moment Jackson starts to sing about his feelings on losing his first bid for president - a classic musical theatre technique to allow us insight into a character's emotional state - only to be interrupted by several of his political rivals vocalising their own feelings over the top of him. This is followed by a 'montage' like sequence to show the passage of time, again skewering more conventional narrative devices.

Indeed, all sorts of devices are thrown at the wall to see what sticks starting with the rear wall of The Roundhouse Theatre itself. This was plastered with posters and photos of many former presidents including Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, JFK. The path to the highest office in the land isn't perhaps so different for any president after all. There's even a weirdly complementary song to Hamilton's The Room Where It Happens with The Corrupt Bargain as behind closed doors shenanigans lead to Jackson being bilked of the presidency at his first attempt.

Other deliberately off-kilter choices for the period included the crippled Storyteller (Amy Fortnum) riding around on a motorised scooter; the Bandleader (Josh Reckless) wearing a Ramones t-shirt; the use of a modern day phone/intercom on the presidential desk, and even a disco ball makes an appearance. Once I latched onto the "all bets are off" nature of the production these elements, while raising an eyebrow, actually worked reasonably well.

The four piece band (Craig Dalton on Keyboard, Tom Purdy - Guitar, Ty Barwick - Bass, and Liam Hickey on Drums) is at the back of the stage with a microphone set up to replicate, in several songs, a concert feel for featured singers. The band is, again improbably, part of the action as Jackson declares them to be his Cabinet. They played well, especially the more upbeat bass and guitar driven numbers.

The conceit of President as Rock-Star-In-Chief is given a wonderful workout by Griffiths who dominates proceedings. He is rarely off stage, is charismatic and belligerent in equal measure, and sings well with appropriate swagger. There was also a lot to like to about his acting, notably in the, admittedly rare, serious moments such as when he confronts the Native American Black Fox (Jarrod Draper) about further compromises and betrayals of his people.

Others to shine: Fortnum as the cheerful provider of historical facts even when deprived of her scooter and having to haul herself across the stage; Thomsett gives a lovely rendition of The Great Compromise as Rachel forces her husband to choose between politics and their marriage; Josh Reckless who comes to the fore in the last third as the Bandleader particularly with Second Nature and leading the finale; Jessica Clancy as the Announcer who is like the political pundit of the day (and interesting that there are no less than three characters who provide overt narration); Prudence Daniel who featured with the deceptively sweet sounding yet rancorous Ten Little Indians; and Todd Peydo (John Quincy Adams), Elise Muley early as Frederick, and Imogen Howe all caught the eye in lesser roles/the ensemble.

It's a wild kind of show that runs for 90 minutes with no interval. It lost some of its bite and energy during the second half as Jackson assumes the presidency. There are too many sequences with citizens asked for their opinion on issues of the day to demonstrate he is a man of the people. The point is well taken and didn't need repeating before they turn on him. I did like, however, the choreography that was, at times, reminiscent of the all out assault of 2015's Urinetown.

Finally, special mention to the young actress who played Lyncoya in a delightful portrayal that was an audience favourite.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Threepenny Opera - WAAPA (14 October 2017)

Attitude. The very best productions have it. Clearly discernible, unapologetic, and totally embraced by all involved. The third year acting students bring it in spades with what turns out to be a perfect ending to their formal training at WAAPA. There is a cockiness and surety here that is undeniable.

Initially I had thought the prototypical musical was an odd choice for the acting cohort given the vocal demands but it turns out be an inspired one. It suits the group personality of this graduating class like a 'fancy glove'. As one audience member put it after the show, "they owned the space".

And what a glorious space it is.

This is why you make the Edith Spiegeltent a permanent addition to the performance venues on the ECU Mount Lawley campus. For productions exactly like this. The atmosphere and sense of history adds immeasurably to the aura of a classic piece of theatre. So much so that visiting director Craig Ilott dispenses with the need for set decoration with the exception of, as Roy Joseph's messenger amusingly put it, "these fucking mannequins". The two of which were totally extraneous to proceedings anyway.

Instead, the 8 piece band, conducted by visiting graduate Kohan van Sambeeck, is nestled at the rear of the tent with a thrust-like stage jutting into the centre of the space. In a smart move, the audience is situated within the inner circle of the spiegeltent so there are no cluttered sight lines. We're right on top of the action. Or, as I discovered, the action is occasionally right on top of us!

The outer circle and booths were the province of our players. This gives the production an immersive quality for the audience as characters prowl and cavort around us with multiple entry and egress points to and from the stage. There is the feeling of a fully formed world that exists beyond the strictures of the performance space. A colourful, bawdy, exotic world full of villains and dames; vagabonds and, well, to put it indelicately, ladies of dubious reputation. But something more as well - as if we're transported in time to how The Threepenny Opera might have been experienced in decades gone by.

In a simple device the setting of scenes was left to characters wielding cardboard signs (and to our imaginations). I must say the furniture was ever so fancy in the stables of my mind's eye! But more than that, a sense of time and place was evoked by make-up and costuming. The use of white face paint for all; the women provocatively attired; the men all singlets with smart pants and braces; not to mention a range of beggar chic that would make Oliver Twist blush.

Most impressive of all the performers were, as another audience member put it, "balls to the wall" in their characterisations. This was a chance to 'go big' and they lapped it up. In another smart move actors were mingling with the audience before the show started; being cheeky, friendly, inviting. It set the tone - that attitude - of the production right from the get go. A relaxed confidence that you couldn't help but feel and respond to. Thank you Laura McDonald, Sasha Simon, and Katherine Pearson for the chats.

To top that all off there were many fine singing voices with Natasha Vickery (Polly Peachum), Skye Beker (Lucy Brown) and Katherine Pearson (Jenny Diver) excelling in this regard with notable contributions from Rhianna McCourt who belted out Ballad of Sexual Dependency with savage contempt and, of course, the notorious Macheath, Jake Fryer-Hornsby, who acquitted himself well with the challenging lead vocal role.

This is generally described as a 'play with music' so there is ample opportunity to show off the acting chops. With such a rogue's gallery of characters to inhabit this provided all sorts of treats. Kudos to Macheath's henchmen - Charles Alexander, Kingsley O'Connor, Elliott Giarola and Mitchell Bourke - who provided a touch of menace, more than a dash of comic relief, and worked together well especially during the stables sequence.

McCourt and the booming-of-voice Martin Quinn, as Celia and J.J. Peachum, were the Thenardiers of their time in an immensely enjoyable double act. I loved the swagger McCourt gave Celia and Quinn, as Present Laughter also demonstrated, plays pompous rogue with aplomb. Vickery added lovely touches to perhaps the only virtuous character of the lot such as fussing over the decorum of her surroundings - carefully brushing dirt off the steps leading to the stage before sitting for example. She also has a stand out moment singing Pirate Jenny.

Fryer-Hornsby gets to show the greatest range, imbuing his Mack the Knife with an almost cavalier attitude that crumbles when the hangman's noose beckons. I wasn't as convinced about the character's reputation as a ladies man but there is charm here and he worked well with Jack Scott's Tiger Brown, especially during the Canon Song, a fun demonstration of male camaraderie. Scott plays the police chief with a sense of haplessness that I later learned was partly modelled on Inspector Lestrade from the BBC's Sherlock.

Then there's Roy Joseph who delivers the play's infamous Deus Ex Regina as I like to call it. The Queen herself, on her coronation day no less, ensures that crime does indeed pay. Joseph, following the constant breaking of the fourth wall throughout the production, plays up to the silliness of the reversal in a gloriously over-the-top declaration that had some of his fellow cast members struggling to hold back laughter. Nice assist from Mitchell Bourke with equine inspired antics. 

In all, a marvellous production that had me leaving the magical world of the spiegeltent behind with a smile humming what else but Mack The Knife.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

First Date: Broadway's Musical Comedy - Blak Yak Theatre (23 September 2017)

Director Lorna Mackie has a knack for bringing quirky, lesser known musicals such as 2014's The Great American Trailer Park Musical, 2015's Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, and last year's Bad Girls to Perth's community theatre stages. First Date fits comfortably into that tradition; a funny look at the pitfalls, embarrassments, and epiphanies of the blind date. Not only that, Blak Yak being a theatre company without a permanent home often comes up with interesting alternative venues for their shows. In this case the Shenton Park Community Centre which proved quite the intimate locale. As an aside, it was amusing to see a portrait of a much younger Queen Elizabeth II hanging high above the onstage antics. Perhaps Her Majesty would have approved and hankered for a burger.

Mackie also attracts the cream of Perth's community theatre performers with several here having lead role experience - Tom Hutton, Cassie Skinner, Helen Kerr, Therese Cruise, and reigning Finley Award Winner for Best Male Musical Performer Mitch Lawrence; the first four of whom were also in Bad Girls. Joining the cast were Arianne Westcott-King, James Hynson, and Jason Nettle.

In essence this is a two-hander - guy meets girl at a restaurant on a first date - that is surrounded by a colourful group of real and imagined characters. In some ways it felt like a musical version of 90's sitcom Herman's Head with a comic sensibility that reminded me of Spamalot (Aaron is Jewish, Casey is decidedly not) and there was even a little Avenue Q thrown in with an unexpected 'cameo'.

Hutton is the awkward BDV (blind date virgin) Aaron and Skinner's 'serial dater' Casey is all sass and confidence. On the surface. Over the course of drinks and a meal they get to learn more about each other with the help of the wait staff, reincarnations of mothers and grandmas, intrusions by imagined best friends, sisters, ex-lovers, and, in the modern age, technology itself.

This gives plenty of opportunity for the ensemble to shine in several funny set-pieces but the success of the production rests on the interaction between Aaron and Casey. In this I was impressed with the acting of both Hutton and Skinner who bounced off each other nicely, displayed good comic timing, and gave layers of doubt and vulnerability to their characters amongst the observational comedy and, at times, sheer shtick. Not to mention sporting credible American accents and the ability to freeze mid-ingestion of a pickle.

It's an odd musical in that the songs are liberally shared around with the two leads not often given prominence. Skinner does get a featured moment with the first act closer Safer which she belts out to great effect. The five piece band was nestled alongside one wall right next to the audience. Indeed I was about a metre or so from the keyboards in my second row seat. The sound balance, on the whole, was very good and I was delighted that the drums were suitably muted. Several musicals staged at venues without a pit have been cruelled by overpowering drum work.

The wireless microphones were occasionally problematic with Nettle suffering the most in this regard. The poor pickup often left him singing unamplified but he showed great composure (and style) in soldiering on. The intimate nature of the venue meant that nothing too much was lost though the rapid-fire lyrics were sometimes difficult to follow.

Of the supporting cast Mitch Lawrence was excellent as Aaron's best friend Gabe with faux indignation and 'bro advice' turned to high. Helen Kerr plays the ex that Aaron must get over with "I'm too good for you" insouciance though it's her appearance as Google - yes, the search engine itself - that cracked me up during a role call of social media in The World Wide Web is Forever.

James Hynson is a scene stealer as The Waiter (and accomplice for the guest cameo) with his I'd Order Love kicking off the second act in style. Arianne Westcott-King had a twinkle about her as Casey's hectoring sister Lauren and was light on her feet with a little tap for good measure. Therese Cruise adds colour as a drunk at the bar and as the Jewish Grandmother from Hell in the Pythonesque The Girl For You while Jason Nettle plays the over-the-top gay friend Reggie with swagger.

As I often find with comedy musicals there is always a more serious or tender song that stands out from the frivolity and here it's Hutton and Kerr (as Aaron's mother) singing The Things I Never Said which was a standout. Hutton also has a featured moment in the second act with In Love With You.

Mackie at the start of the show encouraged the audience to hoot and holler throughout and it's that kind of musical. Funny, over-the-top, but with some perceptive insights into the dating game and strong performances all round. A fun night.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Best Bits - WAAPA (17 September 2017)

Simply wow!

I haven't had as much fun in a theatre all year as I did with the graduating musical theatre students' final production before Showcase. I certainly haven't laughed as hard or as consistently at anything else, theatre or otherwise, for quite some time.

It is the usual custom for the graduating students to 'take the piss' out of their major 2nd and 3rd year productions during Best Bits. But this cohort has many gifted comic performers and as a collective they have impeccable timing and mischievous sense of humour. The send-ups of Rent, Heathers, 42nd Street, and Chicago were exceptional and there were even a few sly Bring It On references interspersed throughout the program. What is most impressive amongst the inspired satire is an understanding of the weaknesses in story or structure or character that is ripe for the picking.

It also reminds us of the many tremendous performances we've witnessed over the last two years. Most notably Kelsi Boyden in Rent; Monique Warren in Heathers; Mackenzie Dunn in 42 Street; and Boyden again with Jenna Curran in Chicago. Looking back it has been a strong slate of musicals with compelling female characters.

That's not to say the male students have been any less stellar as Finn Alexander (Today 4 U from Rent), Nick Errol (Freeze Your Brain from Heathers); and Luke Haberecht leading the charge in reminding us of the glorious tap dancing from 42 Street demonstrated.

This wasn't solely about making us laugh however. In a generous program that stretched over two hours there were plenty of opportunities for the students to show off their acting and singing skills. Dance, other than the tap from 42nd Street, wasn't as featured.

I liked that a lot of the songs had a lead-in requiring the performers to display their acting chops. The second half also included many more serious pieces to give a sense of emotional range. Indeed, it was an eclectic selection of songs from a remarkably varied smorgasbord of musicals. I was even teased with a snippet from Hamilton. Brief, all too brief!

The two standout moments in this section were -

A beautiful rendition of Falling Slowly from Once by David Cuny (also on guitar) and Monique Warren (on piano). Extra points for difficulty as Cuny dealt with an unexpected broken guitar strap mid-song; and

A powerhouse vocal performance by Cameron Steens of Dust and Ashes from Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. The company adding backing vocals from the upper walkway elevated this further.

But there were so many highlights. To name a few:

Luke Haberecht delivering the rapid-fire, tongue twisting lyrics of Cole Porter's Let's Not Talk About Love with aplomb.

The accent work of Meg McKibbin and Daisy Valerio in singing The History of Wrong Guys (Kinky Boots) and I Have Confidence (The Sound of Music) respectively.

Some inspired mania by Joshua White during The Brain from Young Frankenstein.

A deliciously phlegmy (not a term I hope to ever repeat!) If I Were A Rich Man from Fiddler on the Roof by Tom Gustard.

Benjamin Almon Colley bringing The Roundhouse Theatre to enthralled silence with Tomorrow Belongs To Me (Cabaret).

A lovely, authentic moment between Bailey Dunnage and Daisy Valerio as the former sang World Inside A Frame (Bridges of Madison County).

A couple of real character numbers written by Sondheim - Jenna Curran's scathingly delivered The Ladies Who Lunch (Company) and Mackenzie Dunn effortlessly handling the black humour of Worst Pies in London (Sweeney Todd).

During the show costumes and props, once they were used, were placed in large wicker baskets and suitcases. The symbolic packing up after three long years. Final bows were quite emotional but the applause was enthusiastic and well earned.

See you on the other side in a few months time on stages here, over east, and who knows, maybe throughout the world. As Alexander Hamilton would say... just you wait...

Hit Parade: Defying Gravity Turns 30! - WAAPA's Defying Gravity & Guest Performers (16 September 2017)

Three words immediately spring to mind after witnessing a rousing matinee perfomance of the WAAPA percussion students, returning alumni, and special guests:

Inspiration. Joyous. Family.

The last was mentioned by two of the students - Nanna Faulkner and Pavan Hari - at the post show interview held by the Friends of the Academy.

It's clear this is a tightknit group by the way they interacted on stage and even listening to some of the banter in the interval. That extended to returning graduates Joshua Webster & Catherine Betts (the duo that performs under the moniker Kaboom Percussion), Marcus Perrozzi, and Ian Robbie who were all given raucous acknowledgements.

Then there's Tim White, the Head of Percussion at WAAPA, who shares genuine enthusiasm and passion for the music and his students. Faulkner admitted she has called him 'dad' more than once and it's not difficult to see why as White exudes such a genial nature.

The joy was equally evident - the zeal with which students, alumni, and guests alike performed was writ large on their faces. The big grins, the concentration, the relief, the shouts and hollers.

And what joyous music it is - from full on aural assaults of massed drumming to melodic original compositions to delicate reinterpretations of Bach on the marimba, the diversity was astonishing. Inspiration was what I felt as a result. The talent, eye-hand coordination, the creativity and invention, the timing and synchronisation. Amazing. 

Inspiration for all of us - students, staff, and audience - came by way of world renowned percussionist Kuniko Kato. She was clearly revered by the students after spending a fortnight giving master classes as part of the thirty year anniversary celebrations. The three pieces she performed - the multi-percussion Rebounds, the atmospheric Fratres inspired by the chanting of monks in ancient times, and the aforementioned Bach cello suites were mesmerising but all in completely different ways. The first was a robustly physical piece that became increasingly complex in its drumming patterns; Fratres was a multi-layered exercise in mood; and the combination of Bach and marimba demonstrated the sheer beauty of music.

Other highlights:

The smile of relief from graduating student Laura Harris and reception from her fellow students as Harris completed the first piece of the afternoon in style. She also showed great composure during Fratres when it seemed there was a technical malfunction and she changed to another vibraphone with minimal disruption.

The flourish with which Tom Robertson finished the jaunty Log Cabin Blues on xylophone which he crushed in a dazzling display.

You will never see a bigger grin than Pavan Hari's as his world premiere composition Dark Lotus was met with rapturous applause. His piece not only incorporated vibraphone and other percussion instruments but also cello and violin. Not content with that, two dancers complemented the beauty of the music with the beauty of the human body in motion.

Tim White giving the first head of percussion, Gary France, a warm hug after France led the perfomance of Bonham, an ode to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham.

When you not only hear music but you feel it - the sheer waves of sonic vibration during another world premiere - alumnus Marcus Perrozzi's Momentum on taiko drums; and the massed drumming of the whole company led by another alumnus Iain Robbie celebrating the rhythms and traditional sounds of Papua New Guinea and the south-west Pacific. The frenetic attack of the latter was punctuated by a snapped drum stick sailing over Robbie's shoulder.

A captivating and inspirational couple of hours followed by birthday cake in the lobby (it was yummy too!). Happy 30th anniversary Defying Gravity. 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Radio Active - WAAPA (14 September 2017)

A terrific showcase for the vocal and musical talent amongst the now 200 strong cohort of contemporary music students. A fun time for the audience with an eclectic mix of songs from artists as varied as Toto to Beyonce. But an early highlight puts this all in context. Mia Matthiessen gave an excellent performance of the haunting Grandma's Hands by WAAPA alumna Meg Mac who is currently on a national tour with a hit album riding high in the iTunes charts. That's where the bar is set for these students - the possibility, one day, of a recording contract, album sales, hit singles, national tours and beyond. Heady stuff.

The musicianship of the band with rotating members was excellent. The vocal talent of the singers was uniformly outstanding. The stagecraft and how to work an audience, for many, is still a work in progress though there were a couple of natural performers in Zain Awan and Nicholette Chew. We also gained a brief insight into the personality of and inspiration for many of the singers as they introduced songs by their colleagues.

The first set was dominated by female vocalists with the second half leaning a little more to the male singers. Both sets were very good and I should mention the other students who make a night like this work - sound and lighting design, stage management, and the oft unsung arts managment front of house.

My other highlights:

Beyonce's Halo by the remarkable Ritchell Lim with backing vocals by the WAAPA Gospel Choir.

A blistering rendition of Justin Timberlake's Cry Me A River by Zain Awan, both vocally and in sheer style.

A moving version of Sia's Chandelier by Lani Melrose who proved a crowd favourite with a down to earth enthusiasm for her craft and the evening.

The band rocked out to Detroit with Cameron Hayes prominent on lead guitar.

Katie Reid presented an extraordinary arrangement of Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill using her voice to lay down and layer a live 'backing track' of increasing complexity.

James MacCallum flashed rock star credentials with Allen Stone's Satisfaction, again with the band kicking into full on rock mode.

Nicholette Chew brought the pizazz and the pipes for Beyonce's Daddy's Lessons.

Radio Active is a rare synthesis of audience and performers' enjoyment and is a great couple of hours to spend with possibly tomorrow's stars, standards from the past, and hits from the present.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Choice Cuts - WAAPA (9 September 2017)

A greatest hits 2015-2017 megamix to help raise money for the upcoming showcases and to celebrate three years of studies coming to an end.

In that spirit of learning here's what I gleaned from this hour long revue...

In what surely will become the industry standard, Martin Quinn's pre-show announcement to the audience did more than merely remind me to check my landline, but filled me with confidence that in case of an emergency ECU's multitude of physicians would save me.

Quinn later explained, whilst disguised as a Noel Coward character, the latest state of the art theory in how to write a play. Apparently it involves a basket, a river, and a 7 day wait. Revolutionary.

Corpsing is a skill best taught in a safe, supportive environment such as The Roundhouse Theatre. Mitchell Bourke, Roy Joseph, and Katherine Pearson excelled under extreme provocation; baskets, hats, melodies and all.

If you're not doing Shakespeare with rap are you even doing Shakespeare at all?

Why hand someone a business card when you can surprise them with a hat instead as Jack Scott so ably demonstrated.

One cannot truly experience their first kiss without a little one hit wonder pop embellishment. Even if you're a doomed Jewish girl.

Stephen King has it all wrong. Clowns aren't scary at all. Unless you get dragged onstage pre-show and asked if you have a "tight 5 minutes".

The lyrics of Mack the Knife, suitably altered, prove a fitting send off for this graduating class. Until, you know, their last show in October, The Threepenny Opera.

This was a fun, breezy, hour long restrospective and the chemistry of this group is very strong. It's a really good graduating class.

It was also witnessed by, unless I'm mistaken, Perth girl Katherine Langford who might have ended up on this very stage if not for successfully auditioning for the show that has made her a star, 13 Reasons Why.