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.