Hispanic Attack!

Hayes Theatre Co, June 26

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Ryan Gonzalez as his comic alter-ego….. Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: supplied

Ryan Gonzalez, Spanish singer/dancer and leading man of telenovela, is a superstar all over the Latin world – and in parts of South Korea – but he is yet to crack it in the English-speaking world thanks to his one-time friend, now sworn enemy, Ricky Martin.

In Australia for first time, he was to have performed at the Sydney Cricket Ground but due to a rather mysterious ticketing mix-up the venue was suddenly unavailable (guess who had the dates) and so rather than disappoint his fans, he decides to unleash his “hispanic attack” at the rather smaller Hayes Theatre Co.

Ryan Gonzalez is the comic creation of his real-life musical theatre performer namesake, whose credits include Strictly Ballroom, King Kong, Legally Blonde, Violet and the forthcoming Kinky Boots. He is currently dancing in Opera Australia’s new production of Carmen at the Sydney Opera House.

In his first cabaret show Hispanic Attack!, written and directed by Richard Carroll, Gonzalez unleashes the ultimate hip-swivelling Latin lothario, who loves the ladies almost as much as himself, keeping count of his virgin conquests with the number of ruffles on his unbuttoned shirt.

Telling the story of his life from humble beginnings as the only son in a family of 18 children (dutifully naming all 17 sisters), Gonzalez takes us through his life from his discovery on a children’s television talent show, to stardom in a boyband with Ricky Martin, whose subsequent betrayal has left him eternally embittered despite performing at the Eurovision Song Contest three times.

The real Gonzalez is a fabulous dancer and a strong singer and actor. He fully inhabits his self-obsessed comic alter-ego, sustaining the heavy accent and character with oodles of pizzazz. Accompanied by musical director Conrad Hamill on keys, the soundtrack to the show includes hits by the likes of Gloria Estefan, Santana, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and even his nemesis Ricky Martin.

Having starred in a production of The Phantom of the Opera with Christine Aguilera, who was supposed to appear but has gone the same way as the SCG booking, there’s also a very funny version of All I Ask of You in which he sings Christine in a soaring pop voice and Raoul in a traditional musical theatre tenor (even though he says he played the Phantom, but no matter).

Amy Campbell’s Latin-inspired choreography gives him the chance to make the most of his mobile hips and fleetest of feet and he struts his stuff with consummate flair, throwing in the splits for good measure.

The show explodes at a similar pitch throughout and many of the jokes centre around his gyrating groin, but Gonzalez plays the stereotype to the hilt with such infectious good humour, it’s a great deal of fun.

Todd McKenney: What a Life!

Todd McKenney pr image May 2015

Todd McKenney. Photo: supplied

Todd McKenney is not one to sit around waiting for work. If he’s not in a musical or on television, he produces things for himself. And with three stage shows on the go, he is becoming quite the entrepreneur.

“I’ve got a big mortgage, I have to,” he says with a big laugh.

“That’s the problem with buying a big house, it comes with a big mortgage. It does motivate me to keep getting out there but I am also single. I’ve got my dogs and I’ve got my career. I don’t have a partner. I don’t have any real distractions. If I’m not (working) I’m just sitting at home. And I love (performing) so why not do it?

“I do think it’s a double edged thing,” he adds. “Because I work so much I don’t get out to meet people but then if I had a partner I don’t think I’d work as much – so I don’t know if I really want one or not. It’s a cliché but I’m pretty much married to my work.”

McKenney’s latest show What a Life! premieres at Glen Street Theatre in Belrose on July 7 and then tours to Dapto, Campbelltown, Bankstown and Rooty Hill, with performances in Melbourne at the end of the year.

Although it celebrates his 30 years in showbiz, McKenney says that it won’t be a chronological survey of his career. “I don’t want it to be a musical theatre show. I want it to be artists and music from whatever genre that have influenced me growing up. Every single song has had a big impact on me,” he says.

“It’s a really mixed bag of material. There’s some Peter Allen, of course, but not much of it. There is everything from The Andrews Sisters to Bette Midler, Tom Jones, Prince – all the music that I grew up with – and a medley from Cabaret so it’s musical theatre meets pop meets nostalgia meets Peter Allen.”

The former hoofer has decided to dust off his tap shoes for a rendition of I Got Rhythm to end Act I. “I put them on and clopped around my lounge room making sure my feet still know what to do – and they did.  My dogs were looking at me thinking, ‘what the heck?’ But that was when I got the biggest wave of nostalgia. I haven’t choreographed tap dancing for myself in 25 years,” he says.

The show will end with a Peter Allen mega-medley. “I think I’d by lynched if I didn’t do Peter Allen. But I want to try and do slightly different arrangements of things and some songs that aren’t in the Peter Allen show,” he says.

His other shows include the popular Todd McKenney Sings Peter Allen, performed with his band and backing vocalists (which arrives at Penrith Panthers on July 1 and Mittagong RSL on July 2) and The Piano Sessions, a more intimate show touring regional NSW from September, which he describes as a cross-between the Peter Allen show and What a Life!

In September, McKenney also plans to launch a series of Sunday afternoon “in conversations” at the Ensemble Theatre where he is patron, at which he will interview a musical theatre performer and intersperse their chat with songs.

As he says: “I’m not short of an idea!”

What a Life! plays at Glen St Theatre, Belrose, July 7 – 9. Bookings: 02 9975 1455. Touring details: www.toddmckenney.com.au

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 26

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

The Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Hyde Park North, January 8

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Meow Meow in her Little Mermaid cabaret. Photo: Prudence Upton

This show is about happiness, says cabaret diva Meow Meow, perched on a rock singing Black’s Wonderful Life while fighting back sobs.

In fact, Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (which follows her Little Match Girl cabaret) is more about the fraught search for happiness and love.

Meow Meow is the alter ego of Melissa Madden Gray: a postmodern, Weimar-infused, “kamikaze” cabaret artist with bombshell looks, a whirlwind stage presence, sultry vocals and a saucy sense of humour.

As you’d expect, this is no straightforward telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark tale about the mermaid who endures agonising pain in her new feet in order to be with the Prince she saved from the sea, only for him to marry someone else.

Playing as part of the Sydney Festival, it’s no Disney version either but something idiosyncratically Meow Meow’s.

Many of her trademark tropes are there: the hilarious, throwaway one-liners, the need for adoration, the crowd surfing and the passive aggressive dealings with the audience. Here, however, she seems gentler than in the past. Just don’t get in her light.

Add a sex doll dressed like her, plastic body parts representing previous relationships who might make the ideal partner when combined, flippers, bubbles and a Prince from her subconscious (actor Chris Ryan in sparkly outfit with scallop shell codpiece) and you have some idea of the comic mayhem.

Ryan also makes a surprise entry in more blokey attire and gives a beautiful rendition of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea).

Underpinning it all are piercing riffs on love, desire, obsession, sacrifice and the state of the world with references ranging from the frivolous to the highly sophisticated.

Accompanied by The Siren Effect Orchestra under musical director Jethro Woodward, the show includes some wonderful songs, most of them originals by the likes of Iain Grandage, Megan Washington, Kate Miller-Heidke and Amanda Palmer. What’s more, Meow Meow has a gorgeous smoky voice – except perhaps when singing in dolphin – and mines the emotional depth in the lyrics.

Unobtrusively directed by Michael Kantor, with set and costumes by Anna Cordingley and lighting by Paul Jackson, the 70-minute show is outrageously entertaining with provocative themes beneath the surface, all delivered in classic Meow Meow fashion.

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid plays until January 23. Bookings: www.sydneyfestival.org.au/meow or 1300 856 876

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 17

Rumour Has It

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 5

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Naomi Price as Adele in Rumour Has It.

Naomi Price has been performing Rumour Has It, her cabaret show about Adele, to considerable acclaim since premiering it in Queensland in late 2012.

With the boost in profile she has enjoyed as a finalist in The Voice 2015, she has been filling the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, performing eight shows over four days (January 3 ­– 6). The chart-topping success of Adele’s recently released album 25 can’t have hurt the show’s appeal either.

Price is certainly a talented performer. She has a good range of textures to her voice and a strong vocal technique. She also has a confident ease on stage, a robust sense of humour and is quick off the mark when bantering with the audience – the majority of whom clearly loved the show.

So why was I less enthusiastic than most of those around me?

What Price doesn’t have – or doesn’t convey in Rumour Has It – is Adele’s soul. She sings the much-loved hits (Chasing Pavements, Rolling in the Deep, Someone Like You and the Academy Award-winning Skyfall among others) well, but she doesn’t touch you emotionally the way Adele does.

Adele is a hard act to follow, of course, but when you come on stage dressed like her, talking like her and as her, and singing her songs pretty much the way she does, the comparison is inevitable. And when it comes to connecting with the lyrics, Price is no Adele.

My favourite biographical cabaret shows include Christie Whelan Browne’s hilariously funny yet heartbreakingly poignant Britney Spears: The Cabaret and Michael Griffiths’ In Vogue: The Songs of Madonna and Sweet Dreams: The Songs of Annie Lennox (all three written by Dean Bryant).

Both Whelan Browne and Griffiths used the first person (though Griffiths made no attempt to impersonate Madonna or Lennox) and reinterpreted the songs using strikingly different new arrangements. Crucially, both offered a fascinating insight into the artists they were representing using their songs to comment on their life and creativity as well as themes such as celebrity.

Price – sporting a red wig and padded outfits to give her a little extra ampleness – gives us a much more straightforward representation of Adele. The show, co-written with Adam Brunes, offers a fairly bare bones synopsis of her life from working class lass in Tottenham to one of today’s biggest soul divas. Any time Price seems about to give us some genuine insight, she tends to veer off into a joke.

She’s clearly a terrific mimic (she does a hilarious send-up of Celine Dion) and she nails Adele’s accent and colourful turn-of-phrase, though makes her more consistently potty-mouthed than Adele actually is. And while Adele is famously forthright and candid, there’s a humility to her that doesn’t quite come across here. Instead, the focus is more on a brassy feistiness.

Performing with a four-piece band under the musical direction of exceptional guitarist Jason McGregor plus three backing vocalists including Price’s partner Luke Kennedy, runner up on The Voice 2013, the show is impressive musically. It looks good too, simply but stylishly staged with a galaxy of hanging lampshades.

In a tongue-in-cheek riff on reality TV shows, Price shows what good comic chops she has, and I found myself wishing she was doing her own cabaret and just including some Adele material in it.

But for me, Rumour Has It feels too much like mimicry, minus Adele’s extraordinary soulfulness. And without a great deal of insight into what makes Adele the artist she is, I was left feeling that something was missing. But for many of the audience, Price clearly gives them exactly what they want.

Rumour Has It has two final shows at the Sydney Opera House today at 5pm and 8pm.

2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over the 167 productions (theatre, musicals, dance, opera and cabaret) I saw in 2015, there was some terrific mainstage theatre but it was in the independent sector this year that many of my real highlights occurred. There were some outstanding performances across both, including a number of unforgettable solo turns.

As for musicals, the commercial scene was generally much more impressive than last year, thanks to a couple of exceptional productions, while independent musical theatre continued to thrive led by the invaluable Hayes Theatre Co. Not only did the Hayes shine a light on many little known shows and talented, emerging performers but it also provided the opportunity for several impressive directorial debuts.

So, here goes with my personal highlights for the year.

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

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“When I Grow Up” in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

 Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly took the irreverent genius of Roald Dahl and made it sing on stage in Matilda The Musical, one of the most original and exciting new musicals in ages. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is an inspired piece of theatre and the Australian cast did it proud, thrilling adults and “maggots” alike. James Millar was a hoot as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull and Elise McCann was a quietly radiant Miss Honey, while the four young girls who played Matilda – Molly Barwick, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin – did a fine job, as did all the children in the cast.

Les Misérables

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne season and stormed the barricades once more. Stellar turns by Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert gave the production a profound emotional power and Kerrie Anne Greenland made a powerhouse professional debut as Eponine.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the film of The Sound of Music is indelibly imprinted in most people’s mind. But Amy Lehpamer made the role her own with a sensational performance that confirms she is, without question, one of the stars of Australian musical theatre.

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and child cast in The Sound of Music (c) James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and the child cast in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

Lehpamer has been riding a wave for a while now, and showing what an incredibly versatile performer she is. This year alone she has played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (one of the few good things in a horribly glib production, with Craig McLachlan giving a shamelessly indulgent performance as the hammiest, least sexy Frank N Furter I’ve ever seen), followed by the glamorous Tracy Lord in High Society and now Maria in The Sound of Music. Coming after lovely performances as Christine Colgate in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Lehpamer shows she has got the lot.

This revival of The Sound of Music is a scaled-back version of one first seen at London’s Palladium in 2006 and while some of the sets look less than lavish – the hills are hardly rolling in the opening scene – it’s still a lovely production. Jacqui Dark’s humane portrayal of the Mother Abbess and soaring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is another highlight.

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

Once again, some fabulous indie musicals emanated from the Hayes. Leader of the pack for me, by a whisker, was Violet, closely followed by Heathers, Dogfight and High Society, while Man of La Mancha was a high in a patchy year for Squabbalogic.

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Mitchell Butel made a brilliant directorial debut at the helm of Violet. He displayed a sure, sensitive touch, keeping the action flowing, the different time frames clear, and the focus where it needed to be.

He also drew truthful, beautifully delineated performances from a well-chosen cast led by Samantha Dodemaide, who glowed as Violet, a young woman who crosses the US by bus hoping that a televangelist will heal a disfiguring scar on her face. Everything about the production was spot-on ensuring that the sweet, gently charming musical knocked you for six emotionally without ever becoming corny.

Heathers the Musical

 Trevor Ashley also directed his first musical this year at the Hayes, and showed that he too has got what it takes. His high-energy production of Heathers the Musical leapt off the stage at you and he pitched the dark, camp comedy just right. Jaz Flowers brought a surprising depth to Veronica while belting the hell out of her songs, Lucy Maunder was very funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler and there were impressive debuts from Stephen Madsen as the psychopathic, James Dean-like J.D. and Lauren McKenna as the bullied Martha and loopy, New Age teacher Ms Fleming.

Dogfight

 Like Violet, Dogfight is a sweet, tender little musical though it spins around a vile prank, causing some to find the show misogynistic. Director Neil Gooding handled this sensitively, clearly showing why the young marines are so full of pumped-up machismo. Hilary Cole as the gauche young waitress Rose and Luigi Lucente as Eddie, the marine who tricks her then falls for her, moved me to tears.

High Society

High Society got a mixed response but I very much liked Helen Dallimore’s production ingeniously staged by Lauren Peters in the tiny Hayes. Daryl Wallis’s jazz quartet arrangements worked a treat, Amy Lehpamer shone as Tracy, while Virginia Gay gave one of the musical theatre performances of the year as Liz, the newspaper photographer quietly in love with her colleague Mike (Bobby Fox). Her performance was full of lovely, surprising little details, her comic timing was immaculate and she knew exactly how to deliver Cole Porter’s songs.

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Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Man of La Mancha

Jay James-Moody’s inventive, low-tech staging of Man of La Mancha was a highlight of Squabbalogic’s 2015 season. Set entirely in a prison dungeon (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay), the gritting reimagining brought new life and emotion to the somewhat hoary old musical. Having the cast play various musical instruments also worked well. At the heart of the production, Tony Sheldon’s Cervantes was dignified, frail and very moving.

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

 The Norwegian Epic, a cruise liner sailing around the Mediterranean, is known for its entertainment and is currently staging terrific productions of Priscilla and Burn the Floor in its 750-seat theatre. Priscilla stars several Australians among its international cast. Rohan Seinor is sublime as Bernadette bringing enormous warmth, humanity and wit to the role, while Joe Dinn anchors the show as an endearing Tick. I must declare that I went to see my son Tom Sharah, who is a very sassy Miss Understanding. Staged by Australians (director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, costume designer Tim Chappel) it’s a sparkling production – Priscilla, Queen of the Ocean!

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh in After Dinner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company began the year with a pitch-perfect production of Andrew Bovell’s excruciatingly funny yet tender comedy After Dinner, set in a 1980s pub bistro. Alicia Clements’ set was spot-on down to the icky carpet and yellowing tiles on the wall, while her costumes were 1980s fashion at its hilarious worst. Imara Savage directed a superb cast who had you laughing uproariously yet feeling for the sad, loner characters.

The Present

2015 was Andrew Upton’s last year as artistic director of STC (though he has programmed the 2016 season, which incoming artistic director Jonathan Church will caretake). The Present was a wonderful parting gift. Adapted by Upton from Chekhov’s early, sprawling play Platonov but set in the mid-1990s with the main protagonists now in their mid-40s rather than their 20s, the blistering production was awash with yearning, regret and frustration – as well as plenty of gun shots. Helmed by Irish director John Crowley, there were superb performances all round from the top-notch ensemble cast, which included Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh giving the performance of his career.

Endgame

 Upton also directed an engrossing production of Beckett’s bleak but surprisingly funny absurdist play Endgame for STC. Staged on an imposing, monumental set by Nick Schlieper that reeked of foreboding (beautifully lit by Schlieper too), Hugo Weaving gave a masterful performance as Hamm, mesmerising with the dynamic range of his voice. Dark and difficult but thrilling stuff.

Suddenly Last Summer

Also at STC, Kip Williams directed a highly inventive production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which synthesised live performance and video more completely than we have seen previously on the Sydney stage. Not everyone was convinced but after a slow start, I found the production worked its magic to deliver an intense telling of the surreal, dreamlike play. Among a strong cast, Eryn Jean Norvill was exquisite as Catharine who is administered the “truth drug” to reveal the details of her cousin’s terrible death.

Ivanov

Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack got the balance between comedy and despair just right when he directed his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, set in contemporary Russia. Ewen Leslie was compelling as the self-loathing Ivanov but all the cast gave a very human account of people struggling to get by in a society obsessed with self and money. They sang with great vitality too in a production full of music.

My Zinc Bed

Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s incoming artistic director, helmed an elegant production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, an intriguing play of ideas centring on addiction and driven by Hare’s heightened use of language. Sean Taylor was magnificent as the suave, Mephistophelian Victor, hinting at the emptiness within.

The Tempest

For his final production as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago, John Bell directed a lyrical production of The Tempest, staging the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and deft lightness. Matthew Backer was spellbinding as the spirit Ariel, his singing evoking the magic in the isle.

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

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Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

 Iain Sinclair directed a beautiful, understated production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Sport for Jove that felt utterly truthful. Andrew Henry as the simple-minded Lennie, a gentle giant unaware of his own strength, and Anthony Gooley as his loyal friend George broke your heart. The off-stage shooting of the dog reduced some to tears too.

The Aliens

In Annie Baker’s The Aliens, about a couple of slackers in their 30s who take a younger man under their wing, not much seems to happen but plenty bubbles away beneath the surface. Craig Baldwin’s direction, Hugh O’Connor’s design and the performances by Ben Wood, Jeremy Waters and James Bell made for a deeply affecting piece of theatre.

The Aliens was just one of several memorable productions staged at the Old Fitz. It was great to see the tiny pub theatre in Woolloomooloo flying high again under Red Line Productions. There was a focus on male issues and casts in their 2015 program, which they have acknowledged and plan to address in 2016, as has Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the wake of debate about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre.

Cock

Red Line Productions presented a taut production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively named play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman. Shane Bosher’s production, staged on a gleaming white stage, crackled with tension, with Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway turning in particularly fine performances.

The Dapto Chaser

Mary Rachel Brown’s keenly observed play The Dapto Chaser, presented as part of Griffin Independent, is an unflinching, extremely funny yet poignant look at the world of greyhound racing through the story of one struggling family. Glynn Nicholas’s production felt utterly authentic and the way the family’s dog Boy Named Sue was evoked through mime and panting noises was just brilliant.

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

Thomas Campbell gave a tour de force performance as the disturbed evangelistic Thomas Magill in Enda Walsh’s demanding play Misterman in a superb production directed by Kate Gaul at the Old Fitz.

Kate Cole was remarkable in the Red Stitch Actors Theatre production of Grounded by George Brant, playing a ‘top gun’ fighter pilot who finds herself flying drones after she has a child and struggling to deal with the schism between operating in a war zone one moment then driving home to family life. Extraordinary theatre.

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin turned in a riveting performance as Stella Goldschlag, a blonde Jewish woman living in Berlin during World War II who worked for the Gestapo, in Gail Louw’s unsettling, provocative play Blonde Poison directed by Jennifer Hagan at the Old Fitz.

Amanda Muggleton charmed audiences at the Ensemble with an exuberant, generous, comic performance in Roger Hall’s highly entertaining play The Book Club about a bored housewife looking to spice up her life. Muggleton was in her element as she conjured all the women in the book group as well as other characters.

Ben Gerrard also slipped effortlessly between a number of characters and accents as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived the Nazis, giving a lovely subtle performance in Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife directed by Shaun Rennie at the Old Fitz.

Jeanette Cronin gave a very lively impression of Bette Davis in Queen Bette, which she devised with director/producer Peter Mountford, capturing her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence while taking us through her life at the Old 505 Theatre.

Irish actor Olwen Fouréré gave an astonishingly expressive performance, physically and vocally, in Riverrun, her adaptation of James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult Finnegan’s Wake with its own language, at Sydney Theatre Company.

CABARET

My pick of the cabaret shows I saw this year are:

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

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Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

An outrageously funny, sweet, ballsy and, yes, provocative, piece by a little dynamo-of-a-performer who is, as she puts it, of an “Asian persuasion”. Taking us through her life and career, Lane was hysterically funny but had serious points to make about prejudice and narrow-minded casting.

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

A cleverly written and structured piece (co-written by Scott and director Terence O’Connell) taking us through the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of British composer Lionel Bart. Scott embodied the Cockney Bart brilliantly and gee did his fingers fly across the piano keys.

Tim Freedman’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout Me

Looking suitably shambolic, Freedman took us into the mind and musical world of the enigmatic, self-destructive Harry Nilsson. Co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell, the show felt convincingly conversational in tone, while Freedman deployed his own innate charm in a winning bio-cabaret.

OPERA

 Faust

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Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Faust. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

 Sir David McVicar’s production is impressive in its own right but it was the central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes that made the Opera Australia production so exciting.

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression with her radiant performance as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – confirmed her extraordinary talent. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing had a sweet, luscious beauty and was full of emotion. She is also a strong actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. Towards the end of 2015, Car made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Micaela in Carmen, followed by a return to Tatyana, receiving rave reviews. A rising star indeed.

Other memorable productions in OA’s 2015 season included the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s Don Carlos with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo; and McVicar’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna and Nicole Car as the Countess.

DANCE

Frame of Mind

Only six companies in the world have been allowed to perform William Forsythe’s sublime contemporary dance classic Quintett – and Sydney Dance Company showed why they are one of the chosen few. Paired with a moving new work by Rafael Bonachela called Frame of Mind, this thrilling double bill was contemporary dance at its most exhilarating.

The Sleeping Beauty

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jeff Busby_0

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

 Lavishly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, The Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is breathtakingly beautiful.

Created by artistic director David McAllister, it’s a very traditional production with McAllister retaining key passages of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and devised linking material in a similar classical style.

The storytelling is crystal clear, with elements incorporated from other versions, but the production feels a bit safe at times with room for more dramatic tension between the forces of good and evil. Visually though, it’s a triumph. Tylesova’s sumptuous sets feature baroque and rococo elements, while her costumes use an intoxicating range of colour and feature some of the prettiest tutus imaginable. Lana Jones as Aurora, Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Amber Scott as the Lilac Fairy all shone at the Sydney opening, while Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo lit up the stage as the Bluebird and Princess Florine.

 Conform

 At Sydney Dance Company’s showcase of emerging choreographers New Breed, Kristina Chan’s Conform was an exciting highlight. A punchy piece about masculinity, it has its own distinctive choreographic voice and plenty to say. Chan is already a thrilling dancer. I can’t wait to see her next choreographic venture.

Departures

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Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Ross Philip and Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Australian Dance Artists (Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Norman Hall) collaborated again with eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth on a new production called Departures. Part-performance, part-installation, with live music, it was a fascinating ride into a strange world full of stunning visual imagery and evocative choreography. Magical.

RISING STARS

Amy Lehpamer (see The Sound of Music), Nicole Car (see Faust) and Kristina Chan (see above) are all rising stars with talent to burn. Add to that list Australian Ballet dancer Benedicte Bemet. Few were surprised when Bemet won the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Still only 21 and a coryphée, she is already dancing lead roles for the Australian Ballet like Clara in The Nutcracker. She made her debut recently as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and apparently the audience went wild, giving her a standing ovation after the Rose Adagio and at the final curtain. I predict a big future.

That’s it folks! There are so many other things I enjoyed during 2015 – too many to include here. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of happy theatre-going in 2016.

 

Asian Provocateur

Hayes Theatre Co, June 26

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane is a gorgeous, bubbly, warm, fabulously fierce little dynamo, both on stage and off – and her new cabaret show Asian Provocateur is all of those things and more.

Premiering as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season, it’s outrageously funny, sweet and ballsy. In drawing on anecdotes from her life and career, the show is not only irresistibly entertaining but has serious things to say about discrimination, without ever labouring the point.

Lane is of an “Asian persuasion” as she puts it. Her mother is from The Philippines and her father is from Footscray – making her too Asian to have many friends at primary school but not Asian enough for certain roles (or so she suspects in some instances). Apparently that’s why she didn’t get an audition for The King And I.

On the other hand, she has been prone to typecasting, though her career extends beyond that with credits in musicals such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Sydney Theatre Company, Into the Woods for Victorian Opera and, most recently, Miracle City at the Hayes.

For Asian Provocateur, she makes a dramatic entrance in a sparkly kimono with an ornate headpiece, then tosses the extravagant outfit aside to reveal a sassy little red and gold cheongsam.

With her musical director Mathew Frank providing excellent accompaniment on the piano, she sings a selection of songs with an Asian connotation from shows including Flower Drum Song, The King And I, South Pacific, Chess, The Mikado and Miss Saigon, as well as numbers such as Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love For You. Frank also sings Pretty Lady from Pacific Overtures while she changes frocks later in the show.

As for her stories, they pour out at a million miles, exuberant, touching, risqué: everything from eating fish semen to her surprise at being asked to play Power Rangers at school (only because they wanted her to be the Asian Yellow Power Ranger).  She does a hilarious imitation of her wonderfully eccentric mother who constantly imagines the very worst happening to her daughter and isn’t above ringing her at two in the morning with dire warnings.

Along the way, she has a dig at the casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes in The King and I, and Emma Stone as Eurasian character Allison Ng in the movie Aloha.

Then there’s the unfortunate, icky toilet incident which left her with Bali Belly for an entire holiday and her recent visits to a couple of Bangkok nightclubs, one called Super Pussy and another with a live gay sex show. (Yep, the show comes with an 18+ rating).

The thing about Lane is that she has the happy knack of being able to tell stories that are completely out-there without coming across as crass or crude. Instead, her vivacious storytelling is hysterically, endearingly funny. It also feels absolutely natural and truthful as if she is regaling friends at a dinner party. And she certainly makes her point.

On top of that, lordy can she sing. She has a glorious, thrilling voice that is true, clear and strong. She can belt with the best but her vocals are also coloured with emotion from the wistful beauty of Something Wonderful (The King and I) to the heartfelt pain of The Movie in My Mind (Miss Saigon).

The show looks terrific too. James Browne has designed a simple but very effective set with rice paper and bamboo screens (lit with plenty of coloured light) and two large lanterns.

Though it was advertised as running 75 minutes, the show ran for more than 90 minutes on Friday and while it never flags, a little tightening might not go astray. And – call me old-fashioned – but I didn’t think she needed to use the f-word quite so much. It felt out of place somehow.

But consider those the most minor of quibbles. Asian Provocateur is a terrific, spunky cabaret show and deserves to be widely seen.

Kurt

Hayes Theatre Co, June 18

Justin Burford gets on his Kurt Cobain in Kurt. Photo: supplied

Justin Burford gets his Kurt Cobain on in his rock-cabaret show Kurt. Photo: supplied

I’m no Nirvana buff but Justin Burford seems to me to do an amazing job of channeling Kurt Cobain in his rock-cabaret Kurt.

First seen at the 2012 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Burford weaves some carefully chosen words (all of them Cobain’s own, taken from his writings and interviews) through a selection of songs, both the big hits and lesser-known tracks, among them Aneurysm, In Bloom, Come As You Are, Rape Me and, of course, Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Assuming that the audience will have some knowledge of Cobain’s life, Kurt is no Wikipedia-like, A to Z bio-show. Instead, Burford has selected pithy, telling quotes, which capture Cobain’s dry sense of humour and offer an insight into where he and his music came from, the kind of complex man he was, his marriage to Courtney Love, the heroin addiction, his struggle with fame, and how things all got to be too much. At the same time, he maintains an element of enigma.

Burford, the former front man of pop-rock band End of Fashion and star of the musical Rock of Ages, takes on Cobain’s softly spoken voice and captures his grungy look, laid-back demeanour and mannerisms.

As for his singing, he has a great, growling, gravelly rock voice that is perfectly suited to Nirvana’s material and Cobain’s angst-filled, raging vocals.

Performing the show as part of the Hayes Theatre Co’s 2015 cabaret season, Burford is joined by Phil Ceberano on guitar, Nick Sinclair on bass guitar and Ben Isackson on drums – an exceptionally tight rock outfit.

Cobain isn’t your traditional expansive cabaret persona. A self-deprecating, laid-back, almost introverted figure, Burford draws the audience to him rather than reaching out to us. But the band really rips into the music. Kurt is a change of pace to most cabaret shows but still fits under the umbrella of a genre that is an increasingly broad church.

As I said, I’m no Nirvana buff and I didn’t know all the songs as some in the audience clearly did, but the show really takes you into Cobain’s world, offering an insight into his brief but blazingly influential career.

Kurt plays at the Hayes Theatre Co on June 19. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337