The Lysicrates Prize

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Botanic Garden, January 30

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney after Premier Mike Baird announced the winner of the first Lysicrates Prize.From left:  Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden. From left: Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, NSW Premier Mike Baird, and John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

The inaugural Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting was to have taken place in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden on the Band Lawn near the replica of the original Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that gives the competition its name.

It would have been a lovely spot for such an event. However, torrential rain earlier in the week left the grass too wet for the seating stand, so the play readings took place in Verbrugghen Hall. Guests then walked down to the lawn for the announcement of the prizewinner by NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The Lysicrates Prize calls for Australian playwrights to submit the first act of a new play. The three short-listed submissions are given a rehearsed play-reading in front of an invited audience. What sets this Prize apart from any other Australian playwriting award is that the audience decides the winner – as happened in Ancient Greece. The prize is a $12,500 commission from Griffin Theatre Company, with the runners-up receiving $1000 each.

The three finalists for the inaugural 2015 Lysicrates Prize were Steve Rodgers, Lally Katz and Justin Fleming, with Rodgers awarded the prize for his play Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.

It all began early in 2014 when John and Patricia Azarias, the founders of the Prize, took a walk through the Botanic Garden.

John Azarias loves Hellenic culture and had seen the original monument in Athens. On that particular day, as he and his wife approached the sandstone replica (commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin), they were struck by how eroded it was becoming. He decided then and there to raise the funds for its restoration in readiness for the Botanic Garden’s bicentenary in 2016.

The original monument was built by a rich sponsor (or choregoi) called Lysicrates to celebrate the winning play at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 334 BC, as was the tradition during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The monument has a frieze featuring Dionysus, the god of theatre. In a nice little link, the name ‘Sydney’ is an English version of the French ‘St Denis’, which in turn is a Gallic version of ‘St Dionysius’ – as John explained in his welcoming speech.

Patricia suggested that they also establish a theatre competition associated with the monument as a way to celebrate its restoration. They approached Lee Lewis at Griffin Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the performance of Australian plays, who agreed to run the competition. With some assistance from the NSW Government, along with additional funds raised by John, and the support of the Royal Botanic Garden, they were off.

For the first Lysicrates Prize, an audience made up of Griffin supporters and subscribers, politicians and theatre industry folk gathered at the Conservatorium to watch readings (rehearsed over three days) of the three short-listed plays.

Entering the auditorium, audience members were each given a gold coin with which to cast our vote in large pottery urns.

Rodgers’ Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam is adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novella and is a haunting story of suffocating love, grief and loss, and a family so close that the parents made an extreme decision when their young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia; a decision their son will struggle to understand.

Darren Yap – who approached Rodgers in the first place about a stage adaptation – directed the extract, which was performed by Jennifer Hagan, Anthony Harkin, Natalie O’Donnell, Rodgers himself and Govinda Röser-Finch.

The emotional scenario and complex moral dilemma posed clearly struck a chord with the audience.

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Rodgers said of his win: “Jesus Wants me For a Sunbeam isn’t a play yet. It’s just a bunch of scenes and ideas adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novel. But because of The Lysicrates Prize, we now get the chance to develop it into a truly important new Australian play. I’m over the moon.

“Philanthropy of this kind in Australia isn’t common, so obviously I’m more than thrilled. This play is about family and explores a kind of love that in one moment you’re completely in sympathy with, and the next, you’re reeling away from in horror. The Lysicrates Prize gives us the chance, to hopefully unleash all that familial complexity on an audience.”

The evening began with Lally Katz’s Fortune, directed by Kate Gaul and performed by Briallen Clarke, Anni Finsterer, Sean Hawkins and Russell Kiefel.

The black comedy is set in a seedy hotel in the US where the woman who owns it has asked a psychic with a crystal ball to tell her about a man who spent time in one of the rooms. The Romany fortune-teller is pregnant and she and her cowboy boyfriend desperately need money to start a new life on his father’s land. Meanwhile, two men who have just lost their Wall Street jobs in the GFC are waiting to book into the hotel: one of them has been around the block, the other is a young Australian who had only just joined the company. It’s an intriguing set-up, the characters are all fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The night wound up with Justin Fleming’s The Savvy Women, another of his rollicking, contemporary Australian adaptations of Molière, following his success with Tartuffe and The School for Wives.

Directed by Gale Edwards, and performed by Andrea Demetriades, Morgan Powell, Fiona Press and Christopher Stollery, it began with two sisters vying for one man, their parents arguing over which daughter should prevail, and the mother’s sacking of the maid for her massacre of the English language. Fleming’s clever, witty rhymes drew much laughter, especially the maid’s bogan utterings.

Having the audience choose is a different way of commissioning a play these days. The proof will be in the production. But you’d have to say it was an impressive, well-chosen short list. All three extracts were entertaining and showed significant potential; hopefully we will get to see productions of them all in the fullness of time.

Club Swizzle

The Studio, Sydney Opera House, January 21

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

As you enter the Sydney Opera House Studio for Club Swizzle, the place is abuzz. People are sitting drinking at a large central, rather elegant bar (which serves pretty expensive drinks though there’s a cheaper bar at the back of the room), friendly waiters and ushers are whizzing around, and entertainer Murray Hill is moving through the crowd chatting.

Then in a snappy piece of choreography the bar is quickly transformed into a performance space, getting the show off to a terrific start.

The concept (by Brett Haylock) of a cabaret-vaudeville show set in a late-night bar is fabulous, as is the production’s set-up. The show itself feels a little undercooked but it’s early days and is bound to develop.

Club Swizzle has more of an old-fashioned vaudeville vibe than its cheekier predecessors La Clique and La Soirée.

Hill, a New York drag king, acts as the MC. His tagline is “the man who puts the ‘king’ back in f#*king funny”. I didn’t actually find him particularly funny but he’s a warm presence with a nice, easy rapport with the audience.

The line-up also includes Movin’ Melvin Brown, an old-school vaudevillian from America who croons and tap dances, Russian circus artist Valerie Murzak who does sexy contortion and balancing on a giant mirror ball and aerial silks, Finnish dancer Anna de Carvalho who performs on a swinging aerial pole, and Australian ‘kamikaze’ diva Meow Meow who sings three numbers. (Ali McGregor replaces Meow Meow in February).

The backbone of the show though are The Swizzle Boys, four acrobats (Tom Flanagan, Joren Dawson, Daniel Catlow and Ben Lewis) who do the lion’s share of the performing.

Dressed as waiters, they certainly work hard for their money, performing numerous acts (balancing, Chinese pole, ropes, teeterboard, hoop diving) with oodles of exuberant enthusiasm, often with drinks in hand. The house band, Mikey and the Nightcaps, are also hot and add to the pumping vibe.

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Club Swizzle could do with a bit more variety – entertaining though they are, The Swizzle Boys are rather too ubiquitous – and a little more originality among some of the acts. There have been so many shows of this ilk (La Clique, La Soirée, Empire, Limbo to name just a few) in recent years that there’s little here we haven’t seen before.

I also missed the whacky, screamingly funny humour of acts like Captain Frodo squeezing himself through a tennis racquet or oddball comedy-magician Carl-Einar Hackner from La Clique/La Soirée.

It was an audience participation routine when two people are pulled from the crowd to do a pole dance-off that brought the house down on opening night, with Sunrise producer Michael Pell and The Voice contestant Lionel Cole hilariously giving it their all.

As Haylock has noted in interviews, a late-night bar is the natural, anarchic habitat for a various colourful characters. As it stands, a few more eccentric personalities and a bit more of a sense of chaos would give Club Swizzle more zing. But it’s still a lot of fun and got a huge response from the audience.

Club Swizzle plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 15

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 25

Mystery Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 24 at 2pm

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

It’s a measure of the respect Squabbalogic now commands that it can sell out two performances at the Reginald Theatre without audiences having a clue what it is they are going to see.

Tickets to Squabbalogic’s first Mystery Musical were snapped up fast, raising $10,000 for the company, as the company’s artistic director Jay James-Moody told us in his welcome speech before the start of the show. He also revealed that the independent company has applied for funding for the first time.

Anyway, everyone was clearly delighted to be contributing to the cause and was fascinated to see what musical the Squabb team had chosen for the company’s first blind-date show.

With the promised theatre program not being handed out until interval, it wasn’t until the first chords sounded and the cast burst into song that we discovered it was…..(drum roll) Bye Bye Birdie. It was a surprise choice in some ways, as Squabbalogic tends to produce recent musicals we would otherwise be unlikely to see. (Though in another unusual move they are producing Man of La Mancha next month).

The 1960 show with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams is pure musical comedy. I have never seen it on stage. In fact, I didn’t really know the show beyond some of the more famous songs like Put On a Happy Face and A Lot Of Livin’ To Do. So the chance to see it at all was great, and then to see it done so well – with just three days rehearsal – was the cream on the cake. I have to say it was a delightful way to spend an afternoon and everyone in the audience seemed to leave with a big smile on their face.

James-Moody starred, directed and “sort of choreographed” as he put it in the program – though in his welcoming remarks he did acknowledge the help of the cast and Nancye Hayes with the choreography.

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

He had assembled a terrific group of performers – Johanna Allen, Blake Erickson, Mikey Hart, Nancye Hayes, Jessica James-Moody, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Rob Johnson, Josie Lane, Michele Lansdown, Adele Parkinson, Garry Scale and Rowan Witt – and cast the show exceptionally well.

Their ranks were bolstered by an ensemble of 15 enthusiastic, talented graduates and students from the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) as the show’s teenagers.

Bye Bye Birdie is an affectionate satire, inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the army in 1957. It has plenty of catchy songs, a strong book full of big laughs (which plugs into the growing generation gap between teenagers and their parents), and an old-fashioned, feel-good exuberance about it.

Adele Parkinson as Kim. Photo: Amelia Burns

Adele Parkinson as Kim with Jessica James-Moody and Romy Watson. Photo: Amelia Burns

In a nutshell, the show is set in 1958. Agent/songwriter Albert Peterson, who is already in debt, hears that rock and roll star Conrad Birdie has been drafted.

Albert’s secretary and long-suffering sweetheart Rose Alvarez, comes up with a publicity stunt to bring in some bucks. Albert will write a new song called “One Last Kiss” for Conrad, who will sing it and kiss one of his thousands of fans (picked at random) as he departs. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Then, says Rosie, Albert will be able to wind up his business, marry her and become an English teacher (as he has been promising for yonks).

Throw in Albert’s domineering, interfering mother, who does all she can to prevent him marrying Rosie, Kim’s disapproving family and jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody, along with hordes of screaming, swooning fans, and things naturally go pear-shaped.

It’s a hoot that the happy ending has Albert agreeing to walk away from New York and showbiz and head instead for the tiny town of Pumpkin Falls, Iowa to teach English and Domestic Science, with Rose as his wife. Hard to make that outcome fly as a happy ending these days!

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

As with Neglected Musicals’ rehearsed readings, the cast performed with book in hand. But the standard of performance was remarkable given such little rehearsal time. James-Moody as Albert, Josie Lane as Rosie, Adèle Parkinson as Kim and Nancye Hayes as Albert’s mother were all sensational, performing with just the right, light comic touch. But kudos to the entire cast, each of whom did a fantastic job. Praise too to musical director Hayden Barltrop on keys.

Even without being fully staged, Bye Bye Birdie was a delightful, thoroughly satisfying performance that gave audiences a welcome chance to experience a classic musical comedy. I look forward to the next Mystery Musical with great anticipation.

As for Squabbalogic, which just this week won four 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards for its glorious production of The Drowsy Chaperone, the company just seems to go from strength to strength. Let’s hope funding follows.

Puncture

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 23 at 2pm

A scene from Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

A scene from Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

Given a brief season as part of the 2015 Sydney Festival, Puncture is such a lovely show that it begs to be brought back and seen more widely.

Directed by Patrick Nolan with choreography by Kathryn Puie and musical direction by Elizabeth Scott, it is the result of a fruitful collaboration between Legs on the Wall, Form Dance Projects (which fosters dance culture in Western Sydney) and Vox, a vocal ensemble from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.

For the Festival, it was performed on the stage of Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre with the fire curtain down, a bank of seating at one end and percussionist Bree Van Reyk and pianist Luke Byrne at the other.

The show starts almost subliminally. Faint, shadowy images of dancing figures appear on the two sidewalls of the space (video design by Mic Gruchy). A young woman (Kristina Chan) wanders onto the stage, joined not long after by a young man (Joshua Thomson). Their eyes meet, he moves over to her, then another young man intervenes and drags her away.

The space fills up with young people while choral voices singing the word “Hello” fill the air. Couples form and reform, attractions, arguments and passions flare, as the performers move through various dance forms: courtly, folksy, line dancing, the waltz and the tango, leading eventually to a mosh pit-like frenzy.

There is also aerial work with performers flying through the air, and asoprano (Charlotte Campbell) sings while sitting on an aerial hoop. Not only does she look as relaxed as all get-out, but she then throws in a few confident ‘hoop moves’ on her descent.

The gorgeous choral music by composer Stefan Gregory is seductively eclectic ranging from the baroque to a version of Madonna’s Like a Virgin and is beautifully sung by the choir who are mostly positioned near the musicians but now and again move through the dancers and interact with them.

Chan and Thomson – both acclaimed contemporary dancers – are compelling as the young lovers at the heart of the piece. They lead a strong company that also includes Jay Bailey, Cloé Fournier, Anna Healey, Kei Iishi, Billy Keohavong, Rob McCredie, Hayley Raw, Michael Smith, Stephen Williams and Jessica Wong.

All of them perform with enormous energy and an exciting, high-octane physicality, the sweat literally dripping from them, while managing to project individual personalities at the same time.

Praise too to Mel Page for her colourful costuming and Damien Cooper for his lighting.

The piece (which runs for 60 minutes) ends with the choir singing “I love you” as the dancers move towards the audience, inviting some of them up to dance. I, like many, am terrified of the thought of getting up on stage, and I can’t dance, but I was one of the ones invited and have to say it was a lovely moment (thanks Billy!) and a heart-warming, uplifting conclusion.

Puncture is described as embracing “the risk and ritual of intimacy on a dance floor”. It is a beautiful, moving work about human connection and all the emotions that swirl around that. Let’s hope it returns.

Puncture has its final performance at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta at 2pm today.

A Simple Space

The Aurora, Festival Village, Hyde Park North, January 13

Flying high in A Simple Space. Photo: Prudence Upton

Flying high in A Simple Space. Photo: Prudence Upton

The Sydney Festival has once again created a lively hub at Hyde Park North with its Festival Village set-up, which has been expanded this year to accommodate the crowds.

There are two Spiegeltents in place, with The Aurora home to two circus shows – A Simple Space and LIMBO – running through the Festival.

LIMBO is back after a sellout season at last year’s Festival. It didn’t feel quite so tightly paced on opening night as it did in 2014 but it’s still a terrific, seductive show (see my review from last year).

A Simple Space by Adelaide-based company Gravity & Other Myths is a much more raw but thoroughly charming show. It features a company of seven acrobats – five men (Triton Tunis-Mitchell, Lachlan Binns, Martin Schreiber, Jacob Randell, Daniel Liddiard) and two women (Jascha Boyce and Rhiannon Cave-Walker) – along with a musician (Elliot Zoerner) who provides a driving percussion score and, at one point, steps into the limelight to become a human drum machine.

In terms of aesthetic, A Simple Space is certainly true to its title. It’s circus at the other end of the spectrum from the slick, mega-produced spectacle of Cirque du Soleil. There’s no set, minimal props and basic costuming (lads in jeans and T-shirts, ladies in white shorts and black tops). It’s a decidedly glitz-free zone.

Sitting at such close quarters, we see the sweat and straining muscles, we hear the hard breathing, which all adds to the enjoyable homespun feel.

The vibe is rough-and-ready playful; the performers seem to be having as much fun as we are. They begin with a line-up along the back of the stage – to which they revert at the end of each act.

The show opens with something akin to a drama trust exercise in which they all move around the stage, yelling “falling” as one of them drops and is caught just before crashing – with a comic moment to cap it off.

There are all kinds of impressive balancing acts along with a very funny strip-skipping routine, balloon-moulding, a strong-woman act in which the two ladies each lift a man from the audience to see who can hold them up the longest, and a breath-holding contest.

One of the men solves a Rubik’s Cube while standing on his head. (Someone should get him to duet with Hilary Cole, who solves a Rubik’s Cube while singing in her cabaret show O.C. Diva).

The climax is a routine where the men toss the two women around, throwing them skywards while holding their hands and feet as if airing a blanket, and using them like human skipping ropes.

Overall, it does feel as if  A Simple Space has one or two balancing acts too many (skillful though they are) but even so it’s a really engaging show.

A Simple Space plays in The Aurora as part of Sydney Festival until January 25

Next to Normal

Hayes Theatre Co, January 14

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

A musical about manic depression? The brave choice of subject matter was part of Next to Normal’s cachet when it debuted Off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway in 2009, winning three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

For all the kudos, the musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) is a flawed piece – though it is movingly performed in this production from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts.

The story centres on Diana (Natalie O’Donnell), a grief-stricken, suburban mother with bipolar disorder, and the impact this has on her husband Dan (Anthony Harkin), daughter Natalie (Kiane O’Farrell) and son Gabe (Brent Trotter).

It’s a dark show, and could do with a little more light among the shade – though the uplifting ending feels pat and unconvincing given all that has gone before. The way revelations are staggered during the piece, however, is cleverly done, adding punch to the drama.

The lyrics tend too often towards the platitudinous and the way grief is conflated with bipolar disorder feels a bit hazy, the explanation from one of the psychiatrists being that the condition can be triggered by a trauma.

The music ranges from rock to gentle ballads. Some of it works powerfully but at other times it feels somewhat relentless. The show is essentially sung-through and you can’t help feeling that some dialogue scenes would make for tighter, deeper storytelling and give the show more room to breathe.

So, not the greatest musical ever written. However, Darylin Ramondo directs a tight production that moved me more than the previous one I saw.

Her design (conceived with Jolyon James) has a suggestion of the film Dogville about it. Taking its cue from a comment Diana makes about her world being black, white and grey, the set is black with a few boxes and a table, onto which the performers draw their environment and vent their emotions with white chalk: an effective device.

Ramondo has also cast the production well. O’Donnell – who spent time with a lady suffering with bipolar as part of her research – is heartbreaking as Diana, portraying her pain and confusion as well as her defiant strength. With her petite frame she looks so slight and vulnerable at times, and then suddenly seems to blaze. She brings warmth and humanity to the role and her beautiful rendition of I Miss the Mountains – in which Diana sings of missing the highs and lows of her condition, which are evened out by her meds – is a highlight.

Harkin is also impressive as the stalwart, devoted but conflicted Dan, who is struggling more than he lets on. Clay Roberts brings an endearing playfulness to Henry, the loyal, stoner boyfriend of Natalie, sympathetically played by O’Farrell. Trotter brings powerful vocals to the role of Gabe, though his dark portrayal would benefit from a little more nuance. Alex Rathgeber is also in fine voice as the two doctors.

This is the first production of Next to Normal seen in Sydney (a production planned for the Capitol Theatre in 2012 didn’t happen) and therefore much anticipated. The show itself may not live up to expectations but the production itself makes it well worth a look.

Next to Normal plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until February 1

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 18

Sweet Charity remount

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 16

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

In February last year, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene with a thrilling production of Sweet Charity directed by Dean Bryant and starring Verity Hunt-Ballard.

The ingeniously staged, dirtied-up, gritty take on the 1966 musical had audiences and critics raving (you will find my review on this blog) and three days after opening you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money.

The show went on to win three Helpmanns for Bryant, Hunt-Ballard and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and has nine nominations at the 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards to be presented tomorrow (January 19).

The announcement of a remount at the Sydney Opera House’s 400-seat Playhouse Theatre and then a tour to Canberra, Melbourne and Wollongong generated much excitement. But how would the production – created for the intimacy of the 110- seat Hayes Theatre – fare in a bigger venue?

Well, it has sashayed seamlessly into the Playhouse where it received a rapturous response at Friday’s opening night.

Inevitably you lose some of the intimacy but there are compensations. Hallsworth’s fabulous choreography (with nods to Fosse) has more room to sharpen and breathe for starters. And if anything, the performances seem more detailed than ever as most of the original performers revisit their roles.

The grungy staging is essentially the same: an inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors, a few chairs, a costume rack and a red neon sign at the back saying, “Girls, Girls, Girls” (set design by Owen Phillips).

Tim Chappel has revamped some of the costumes adding extra colour and sparkle to various outfits including the witty, surreal costumes for The Frug, which gives the production a little more visual zing in the larger space.

Hunt-Ballard, who gave a sensational performance last time around as Charity Hope Valentine – the dance hall hostess with a heart of gold who keeps looking for love (and at one point an office job) as a passport to a better life – is more stunning than ever.

She radiates such warmth, such sweet, kooky naivety and such sunny optimism that her Charity is irresistibly endearing. Her comic timing is a knockout but always there is the knowledge that Charity uses ditzy humour to deal with her hurt and pain, as a way to bounce back, until that final, terrible let-down.

Hunt-Ballard inhabits the role completely. She sings superbly, dances well and her acting is sublime. But never do we feel that she is busting out a big song-and-dance number. Always the songs emerge organically from the character and the situation whether it’s the exuberant, show-stopping If My Friends Could See Me Now or Where Am I Going? which she delivers in heartbreaking fashion.

She is beyond divine in the role; it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Charity better.

Bryant brings this kind of truth to every aspect of the production. Character and emotion colour every song. Hey Big Spender erupts with the crowd-pleasing blast you expect but the girls look blank, emotionally shutdown, as they display their wares in the meat-market line-up.

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Hunt-Ballard, Debora Krizak as Nickie and Kate Cole as Helene (two of the other girls from the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works) sing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This it feels as exuberant as ever but tinged with palpable sadness: three feisty women, perilously close to being over the hill, knowing they will probably never escape this life.

Cole is new to the production and she is a great addition to the cast, bringing a real weight to the role of Helene.

Martin Crewes reprises the roles of Charlie, Vittorio Vidal and Oscar and again creates wonderfully delineated characters. His suave Vittorio is particularly strong and he sings Too Many Tomorrows with a lovely, classic Italianate tenor sound, then slides effortlessly into a nerdy, Jerry Lewis-tinged Oscar. In fact, his performance sits better in the larger space than in the tiny Hayes where it felt a tad outsized.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Krizak is once again a delight as the hard-boiled Nickie, nailing her fierce one-liners, and also as Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend.

As at the Hayes, the band – led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keys – sits along the back of the stage but it’s great to see them given more space and visibility. Worboys’ fantastic, funky, electronic orchestrations of the songs are again a winning, driving element of the production.

Bryant integrates the musicians into the production with Kuki Tipoki playing guitar as well as Big Daddy along with several ensemble roles, while Worboys plays Fandango owner Herman.

Original producers Luckiest Productions (Lisa Campbell, David Campbell and Richard Carroll) and Neil Gooding Productions are joined for the tour by Tinderbox Productions (Liza McLean). They should have a huge hit on their hands.

This is one of the most exciting musical theatre productions I’ve seen in a long time: a show given fresh life and raw, gritty currency by a superb creative team and cast. It has made the leap to the larger space in style. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Sydney Opera House until February 8; The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, February 11 – 21; Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, February 25 – March 8; Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, March 11 – 15