Not a Launch: Hayes Theatre Co 2015

Hayes Theatre Co, September 29

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“It’s not a launch,” said David Campbell. “It’s just a release of information.”

Whatever it was, it was a great way to introduce the Hayes Theatre Co’s program for the first half of 2015 with performers on hand to sing numbers from the shows featured, and to give us a preview of the final shows for 2014.

British director Neil Rutherford introduced Beyond Desire, the new musical for which he has written book and lyrics, with music by Kieran Drury, which will play at the Hayes from November 21 to December 13.

Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery, inspired in part by E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, which Rutherford described as “Downton Abbey meets Hamlet”. It will feature contemporary music inspired by the period, with influences of Elgar and Debussy. The score will be performed by a six-piece orchestra.

Nancye Hayes, who plays a housekeeper, sang an amusing number about family secrets, in costume complete with a tray of tea and sandwiches. It will be the first time Hayes has performed at the venue named after her. After that performance, I can’t wait.

The 2015 season begins in January with a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal by Geelong’s Doorstep Arts (January 8 – February 1). Introduced by the company’s founding director Darylin Ramondo, the production will feature Natalie O’Donnell as Diana, the suburban mother with worsening bipolar disorder and delusional episodes.

The cast will also include Alex Rathgeber and Anthony Harkin. O’Donnell performed I Miss the Mountains in which Diana sings about missing the dizzy heights of her non-medicated state.

In February, Enda Markey produces Blood Brothers (see related feature) with a fabulous cast led by Helen Dallimore, Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox. Running February 6 – March 8, Dallimore gave a taste of things to come with a medley of Easy Terms and Tell Me It’s Not True.

In May, Neil Gooding presents Dogfight with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duncan, all still in their 20s.

Based on the 1991 film starring River Phoenix, it tells the edgy story of three young men on their way to Vietnam who attend a “dogfight” the night before they leave at which they compete to bring the ugliest date, out of which emerges an unusual love story.

The show premiered off-Broadway to generally good reviews in 2012 and was staged at London’s Southwark Theatre in August to more mixed reviews.

Johanna Allen, who will play the prostitute Marcie, sang a number called Pretty Funny, performed in the show by the leading lady Rose. Dogfight runs May 1– 31. Gooding said that Pasek & Paul will hopefully come to Australia towards the end of the season and conduct some workshops and masterclasses.

Meanwhile, Miracle City by Max Lambert and the late Nick Enright plays at the Hayes from October 17 to November 16. The keenly anticipated revival of the musical, which had a brief work-in-progress season at Sydney Theatre Company in 1996, will be a brand new show directed by Darren Yap.

Described by Campbell as “a shitload of fun”, Miracle City is inspired by US televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Bakker. Telling the story of the Truswell family, it is set in real time during a live-to-air evangelical television show.

Blazey Best, Mike McLeish, Hilary Cole and Cameron Holmes who play the Truswell family performed the song Miracle City, a very funny, jaunty, gospel hoedown in which they sing about the Christian theme park they are building. The song was the first they wrote, said Lambert, but didn’t make it into the original show.

It was a spectacular way to end the evening and a fantastic teaser for Miracle City.

Sweet Charity, the Hayes’ inaugural, sellout production, which won three Helpmann Awards, will tour in 2015. A Canberra season has already been announced for February with other dates to be confirmed.

Details can be found at www.hayestheatre.com.au

The Last Confession

Theatre Royal, September 24

David Suchet and the cast of The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

David Suchet and the cast of The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

In 1978, Pope John Paul I died just 33 days into his papacy. When it emerged that on the eve of his death, he had told several cardinals hostile to his planned reforms that he was removing them from Rome, there were suspicions of foul play.

The mystery has all the makings of a fascinating drama but The Last Confession by Roger Crane, an American lawyer and first-time playwright, is a rather stolid, old-fashioned play, which only fires intermittently.

The main draw-card is that it stars David Suchet (of Poirot fame) – and he doesn’t disappoint.

Suchet plays Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who engineers the election of his friend Cardinal Albino Luciani to the papacy and then suffers a crisis of faith after his death.

Directed by Jonathan Church on William Dudley’s grandiose set, the play starts slowly, with a long stretch of un-dramatic dialogue taking an age to set things up. It only comes to life when Luciani becomes Pope and locks horns with intransigent, conservative members of the Roman Curia.

Benelli’s investigation into the Pope’s death in Act II is also lively. But the play frequently gets bogged down in long, wordy debates.

Fortunately the international cast of 20 are all extremely good. Suchet is a charismatic presence and uses his rich, velvety voice to great effect in a powerful, if slightly mannered, performance.

Richard O’Callaghan is also a standout as the gentle, humble, morally upright yet determined “people’s Pop” John Paul I who wants to bring the Catholic Church into the 20th century.

The Last Confession offers a peek into the machinations of the Catholic Church and the corrupt power of the Vatican bank. With a shorter, sharper script it could be intriguing.

The Last Confession runs at Sydney’s Theatre Royal until October 12. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

Wicked

Capitol Theatre, September 25

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack.  Photo by Jeff Busby

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack. Photo by Jeff Busby

Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s phenomenally popular musical Wicked is back in Sydney on its 10th anniversary tour – and though the show took time to hit its mark on opening night, the audience still found it “thrillifying”, as audiences have been doing the world over since the show premiered on Broadway in 2003, grossing around $3 billion to date.

For the uninitiated, Wicked is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, telling the story of how two unlikely friends – the green-skinned misfit Elphaba and the perky, popular Galinda – become the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch Glinda.

Act I doesn’t feel as sharp as in the past, skimming along like the song “Dancing Through Life”, almost as if on autopilot at times, without fully landing all the moments. In Act II, however, it settles and finds its heart.

Jemma Rix’s lovely, warm Elphaba is the heart and soul of the show. She gives a dramatically layered performance and sings with a gorgeous tone, bringing a spine-tingling, crystal clear belt to the show-stopping, anthemic “Defying Gravity”.

Lucy Durack returns to the role of Glinda, having starred in the original 2008 Australian production. She appeared to be struggling with some vocal issues on opening night and her voice sounded somewhat scratchy. She also pushed the comedy a bit too hard with inverse results. However, her scenes with Rix in the second act were as touching as ever.

Reg Livermore is wonderful as the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz, bringing nuance, humanity and a winning showmanship to the role, Steve Danielsen is an understated presence as Fiyero, without a great deal of chemistry with Rix, but he sings beautifully, Maggie Kirkpatrick reprises the conniving Madame Morrible with aplomb, and Emily Cascarino and Edward Grey do a good job as Nessarose and Boq.

Wicked tackles serious themes about oppression, tolerance, propaganda and fear mongering, which strike a real chord right now. But it’s the “swankified” spectacle of the lavish set and costumes, the catchy, soaring melodies, and the uplifting “girl power” sisterhood between Elphaba and Glinda that have won it such a huge following. The production may have lost a little of its sparkle but the Sydney opening night audience was clearly delighted in the main, leaping to their feet at the end and roaring their approval.

Wicked is at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until January 30. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

Still Awake Still!

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, September 23, 2014

Carolyn Connor, Renato Vacirca and Dan Witton. Photo: supplied

Carolyn Connors, Renato Vacirca and Dan Witton. Photo: supplied

Miss Ivory Ticklefinger (Carolyn Connors) glides serenely onto the stage pulling her piano stool like a dog on a lead.

Dressed in a long red gown, with a pile of orange hair, she is the Queen of Sleep, renowned for her ability to draw children into dreamland. After warming up her voice and using a little magic to uncover her piano, unleash her mirror ball and turn on the lamp by her piano, she begins to sing a lullaby.

But today she is having no luck. The children in the audience just won’t go to sleep. And then the piano lid starts to move. Is there a bear in there? Then out hops Bass Boy (Dan Witton) followed not long after by Rhythm Boy (Renato Vacirca). Before long they have the maracas out and, well, sleep becomes ever more unlikely.

Still Awake Still! is inspired by the picture book and accompanying CD by Australian author Elizabeth Honey and composer Sue Johnson – though it is not an adaptation of it.

The first stage show produced by Jump Leads, Still Awake Still! premiered in Melbourne in 2011 and had a successful US tour earlier this year. It’s now touring through Australia, playing in Sydney this week as part of the Sydney Children’s Festival.

Directed by Jessica Wilson, who devised it with the collaborating artists, Still Awake Still! is a sweet, gently surreal show for children aged 4+ that celebrates music, creativity, playfulness and the power of the imagination.

The comedy routines involving the two men – who are reminiscent of the mayhem-inducing Thing 1 and Thing 2 in Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, with a touch of the Marx Brothers – have a Chaplinesque feel.

The actors talk in gobbledygook but with enough recognisable words for it to be clear what they are saying, while the music ranges from Chopin and Beethoven to jazz and ragtime with all three performers playing the piano and Witton playing bass.

Admonished by a disembodied voice for failing to send the children to sleep, Miss Ticklefinger is given the sack. Realising that if she can’t beat them she might as well join them, she calls for Bass Boy and Rhythm Boy to return – and amazing things start to appear from the piano.

Carolyn Connors. Photo: supplied

Carolyn Connors. Photo: supplied

Encouraging the children to join her in “singing” ever more surprises from beneath its lid, the show ends in a spirit of play. And guess what? Well that would be telling.

The children in the audience particularly liked it when Miss Ticklefinger shone her torch at them and discovered they were still awake, as well as the most frenetic carry-on. But there was wonder too at the disgorging piano and consternation from the little boy behind me when the mirror ball plummeted. “What’s happened to the disco?” he asked. Sweet.

Still Awake Still! plays at the Seymour Centre until September 27 then plays several dates in Victoria. Bookings and information: http://www.stillawakestilltours.net

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs

Hayes Theatre Co, September 21

Joanna Weinberg. Photo: supplied

Joanna Weinberg. Photo: supplied

Joanna Weinberg’s new cabaret show Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs takes a quirky idea about addiction and really runs with it.

She has created a character from a fictional Eastern European country, with a thick accent to match, who has had a yen for blood ever since her detested nanny met an unfortunate, squishy end.

She doesn’t drink it like your common-or-garden vampire, but she can sniff out someone’s blood group at hundred paces, likes to bathe in it and finds sex boring without it. She works as a nurse for obvious reasons. A black comedy with a blood-red heart, the show explores her life with this unusual addiction and her battle to overcome it.

Weinberg performs original songs alongside numbers like Tom Lehrer’s The Masochism Tango and Queen’s Killer Queen. She has a lovely voice and plays the accordion for most of the numbers, with an occasional sortie to keyboard and drums, while Mark Ginsburg plays soprano sax, guitar and, at one point, a knife and knife sharpener.

Though the melodies and lyrics of the first few numbers are catchy and clever, musically it becomes a bit samey and not many of the songs are terribly memorable. Weinberg could have made more of The Masochism Tango, for example, which she performs seated and in a similar manner to the other songs.

Weinberg is a talented comic performer, and the character she creates is vividly realised and engaging. However, the story didn’t hold my interest for that length of time (it runs an hour and a quarter).

Directed by Lisa Freshwater, the show unfolds at a similar pitch and in a similar vein throughout, then rather peters out at the end. It’s a fun idea but a bit more dramatic light and shade and some bigger laughs wouldn’t go astray.

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs plays at the Hayes Theatre Co on Sunday September 28. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Other Desert Cities

Ensemble Theatre, September 13

Deborah Kennedy, Ken Shorter and Lisa Gormley.   Photo: Clare Hawley

Deborah Kennedy, Ken Shorter and Lisa Gormley. Photo: Clare Hawley

A Wyeth family reunion may not be quite as ferociously venomous as the Westons’ gathering in Tracy Letts’ blisteringly funny August: Osage County, but it ain’t far behind.

Other Desert Cities by American playwright Jon Robin Baitz – which was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play – pitches five members of the Wyeth family into a reunion from hell.

It’s Christmas Eve, 2004 in the Palm Springs home of proud Republican couple Lyman Wyeth (Ken Shorter) and his wife Polly (Deborah Kennedy). Lyman is a former Hollywood actor, known for his dramatic death scenes, who became a US ambassador. Polly used to be a Hollywood scriptwriter with her alcoholic sister Silda Grauman (Diana McLean), who is now living with them and trying Polly’s patience.

The Wyeth’s two left-leaning children Brook (Lisa Gormley) and Trip (Stephen Multari) arrive for the holidays. Trip is a reality television producer and fairly easy come, easy go. But the passionate Brook, who has struggled back from severe depression, comes bearing an explosive gift: the manuscript of a memoir in which she addresses the story of her brother Henry, a political activist who killed himself after being involved with a failed bombing.

The incident has already driven Lyman and Polly into their desert exile and Brook’s book is the last thing they want published.

Baitz’s vividly drawn characters are all fiercely articulate, and political and personal arguments fly but the play is so well written we never feel we are watching a staged debate.

Directing the play for the Ensemble Theatre, Mark Kilmurry helms a fine production that keeps you enthralled, wondering what on earth will come tumbling out of the closet, as the ground keeps shifting.

Kilmurry is well served by his cast. Kennedy is in her element as the redoubtable Polly who stands her ground no matter what, delivering the razor-sharp, witheringly witty lines with killer timing. Gormley captures Brook’s fragility and desperate need to hold onto her newly found sense of balance through the publication of her book, while McLean gradually reveals more layers to the wisecracking Silda. Shorter and Multari complete the taut ensemble with persuasive performances.

Ailsa Paterson’s set seems just a little too tastelessly ugly for such high-fliers though it works well on a practical level.

Other Desert Cities is a fairly conventional play, using a well-worn conceit, but it’s extremely well written and so well performed that it makes for a sizzling piece of theatre.

Other Desert Cities runs at the Ensemble Theatre until October 18. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644