Marina Prior: A Prior Engagement

Hayes Theatre Co, June 6

Who knew that a long, gold, beaded gown could be a health and safety issue in a cabaret show?

Marina Prior found herself in a slightly slippery situation in her cabaret show A Prior Engagement: An Intimate Evening with Marina Prior when she sat on a stool to play guitar and promptly slid off, having to perch rather cautiously from then on. A shiny stool is like ice, it transpires, when you sit on it in a beaded dress. Needless to say, she handled the situation with amused aplomb and grace.

Tracing her 30-year career, Prior mixes it up in A Prior Engagement performing folksy pop and Gaelic songs (her heritage is Irish and Scottish) as well as musical theatre numbers.

Prior was famously a student and regular busker when she saw an advertisement for open auditions for a production of The Pirates of Penzance and landed the role of Mabel. Since then, she has never looked back, going on to roles in umpteen musicals including the original Australian productions of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, as well as West Side Story, Mary Poppins and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among countless others.

Recently, she was seen in a Sydney Theatre Company/Melbourne Theatre Company co-production of Jumpy, a comedy by British playwright April De Angelis, and said that later this year she will be in another big show, which she couldn’t name. She did say, however, that one of the songs she would sing during the night was a hint. My guess is that an audience sing-along to Eidelweiss was the clue. (The cast of the new Australian production of The Sound of Music is to be announced tomorrow).

The rest of her eclectic set included Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair (on which she played guitar), Adelaide’s Lament from Guys and Dolls and Before I Gaze at You from Camelot.

She also gave a beautiful rendition of The Music of the Night, originally written for Christine Daae, apparently, then reworked for the Phantom when Andrew Lloyd Webber decided he needed another song.

Along the way, she told some gently amusing anecdotes including one about the challenge of performing opposite a very grouchy Richard Harris in Camelot when she was just 20 and still very inexperienced.

She finished the night with Auld Lang Syne and the Italian popoperatic number Con te partior (Time to Say Goodbye).

Accompanied on piano by David Cameron (her musical director for 24 years), as well as three ladies on strings, her husband, performer Grant Piro, also popped up now and again as a wry stagehand.

Prior’s lush soprano is still a beautiful instrument, her voice soaring on The Music of the Night and Time to Say Goodbye. With an effortless ease, grace and elegance on stage, she exudes genuine star quality.

An audience of adoring fans – many of whom who had clearly followed her career since day dot – gave her a rapturous standing ovation, clearly relishing the opportunity to see her up close in such an intimate setting.

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Phil Scott: Reviewing the Situation

Hayes Theatre Co, June 4

Phil Scott plays Lionel Bart. Photo: supplied

Phil Scott plays Lionel Bart. Photo: supplied

Phil Scott is in fine form in his new cabaret show Reviewing the Situation about celebrated British composer Lionel Bart, best known for his musical Oliver!

It’s a fairly straightforward bio-cabaret but extremely well written by Scott and Terence O’Connell (who also directs) and engagingly performed.

Bart’s story is an entertaining and, at times, sad one: a rags-to-riches-and-back-again tale as Bart (born Lionel Begleiter) rises from humble beginnings in the East End to fame and fortune.

Living in a 27-room “fun palace” in Chelsea, he rubs shoulders with the likes of Noel Coward, Judy Garland, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Rudolph Nureyev among others. But he squanders his fortune through poor decision-making and profligate spending, while drink and drugs take a toll on his health and career.

In Reviewing the Situation, we find him living alone in a small flat about a laundrette in Acton, a bottle of gin at the ready as he looks back over his career and what brought him so low.

Taking on Bart’s cockney accent, Scott creates an endearing character with a ready wit, who sees how and where it all went wrong but accepts the situation without bitterness. The story of a lover who fleeced him but got off scot-free because Bart was still in the closet so didn’t dare report the incident is particularly poignant.

Not surprisingly, Scott sings quite a few songs from Oliver! but also includes numbers from Bart’s other shows Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Blitz!. He also performs songs such as Living Doll, which he wrote for Cliff Richard’s first film Serious Charge, From Russia With Love composed for the James Bond film, and Little White Bull, which he wrote for Tommy Steele’s film Tommy the Torreador (I had no idea).

His personal story is cleverly woven through the songs – the way he uses As Long As He Needs Me while talking about his relationships works extremely well, for example.

Scott’s wizardry on the piano is a genuine delight as his fingers fly effortlessly across the keys bringing Bart’s simple melodies to jaunty life.

All in all, a thoroughly entertaining show.

Reviewing the Situation plays as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season until June 6, at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival from June 18 – 20, and then at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 24 & 25.

Hayes Theatre Co – coming soon in 2015

A week ago, the Hayes Theatre Co had its twice-yearly Coming Soon event at which they announced their program for the second half of this year. Although the company has only been in existence for 18 months, we’ve come to expect the Hayes to give a good launch – and so they did.

Hosted by David Campbell, one of the producers running the venue, the evening began with a lively video montage telling the Hayes story to date. Dedicated to the presentation of independent musical theatre and cabaret, it certainly illustrated what a great start the-little-venue-that-could has had.

Blasting off with Sweet Charity and The Drowsy Chaperone, other productions have included Blood Brothers, Miracle City, LoveBites, Next to Normal, new musicals Beyond Desire and Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You and the current production of Dogfight, as well as a cabaret festival and several Month of Sundays cabaret seasons. It hasn’t all been an unmitigated success but it’s been an exciting ride with some sensational high points, proving beyond doubt that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

So what do they have in store for us for the rest of the year?

Cabaret Season 2015

Running from June 1 – 28, this year’s cabaret season includes 17 acts by artists including Marina Prior, Phil Scott, Amanda Harrison, Rob Mills, Tyran Parke, Mitchell Butel, Josie Lane and Damien Leith among others.

It begins on June 1 with Australiana: A Celebration of Australian Musical Theatre directed by Genevieve Lemon with Max Lambert as musical director. Featuring performers such as Nancye Hayes, Christy Sullivan and Patrice Tipoki, the concert will raise funds for the presentation of a new musical in November as part of the New Musicals Australia program, now being run by the Hayes.

The cast recording of Luckiest Productions’ acclaimed Miracle City, recorded at the Hayes, will be launched that night.

Phil Scott gave us a taste of his new cabaret show Reviewing the Situation, which he has written with Terence O’Connell and which he will perform as part of the cabaret season. Telling the story of Lionel Bart, composer of the musical Oliver! the character and concept would seem to be right in the pocket for Scott and one of the shows to look out for.

Akio!

The Hayes will host its first children’s show when it presents Blue Theatre Company’s Akio! – the story of a shy, young boy who is bullied at school and escapes by immersing himself in video games. Things get strange when he and Harumi, the girl of his dreams, are sucked into a video game. Akio! plays on July 4 & 5.

Heathers

Jaz Flowers sings Dead Girl Walking from Heathers

Jaz Flowers sings Dead Girl Walking from Heathers. Photo: Noni Carroll

Trevor Ashley was on hand to discuss Heathers The Musical, which he will direct with a cast including Lucy Maunder and Jaz Flowers. A rock musical by Lawrence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy based on the cult 1988 film, Heathers opened off-Broadway last year. It tells the deliciously dark story of Veronica Sawyer, a brainy, beautiful, teenage misfit who manages to become part of The Heathers, a powerful clique of popular girls all named Heather at Westerberg High School. When Veronica falls in love with new kid J.D. and Heather Chandler, leader of the Heathers pack, says she will ruin Veronica’s social life, there will be hell to pay.

The New York Times described the show as a “rowdy, guilty-pleasure musical”. Ashley’s production for the Hayes is the first time the musical has been staged outside the US. Flowers raised the roof at the launch with her blistering rendition of the number Dead Girl Walking. Heathers plays July 19 – August 9.

Masterclass

A hit in Melbourne, Left Bauer Productions brings its acclaimed production of Terence McNally’s renowned play Masterclass to the Hayes. Inspired by Maria Callas’ 1971 visit to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, the production stars Maria Mercedes, who recently won a Green Room Award for her portrayal of Callas. The cast also includes Blake Bowden who sang Recondita Armonia from the opera Tosca at the launch. Fast becoming a regular at the Hayes, Campbell quipped: “we’re not going to let him go until he gets it right!”

Masterclass plays August 12 – 30.

High Society

Amy Lehpamer sings I'll Be All Right from High Society

Amy Lehpamer sings It’s All Right With Me  from High Society. Photo: Noni Carroll

The Hayes Theatre Co will present Cole Porter’s classic musical High Society. It’s the first show presented solely by the Hayes rather than with one of the production companies involved with the theatre, or an external producer. Richard Carroll will serve as producer.

Amy Lehpamer will play Tracy Lord, the gorgeous, privileged but coolly pretentious young socialite, whose swelegant wedding plans are thrown into disarray when her ex-husband turns up as well as a pesky, undercover, tabloid reporter. Directed by Helen Dallimore, the cast will also include Bert LaBonte, Bobby Fox and Virginia Gay – or “Amy Lephamer, Bert LaBonte, Bobby Le Fox and Virginia Le Gay” as they will be known for the production, joked Dallimore.

Singing It’s All Right With Me, Lehpamer – who is on an incredible roll right now – showed why she’s been cast as Tracy Lord.

High Society plays from September 4.

Rent

Highway Run Productions (Toby Francis and Lauren Peters) will present Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent in association with the Hayes. Loosely based on La boheme, Rent is set in New York City’s East Village, over the course of a year in the early 1990s, where a group of impoverished artist friends struggle to live, love and create under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic The cast of Dogfight performed the song Seasons of Love from the show and set spines tingling.

Rent plays October 8 – November 1.

Violet

Mitchell Butel will direct the musical Violet with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori, which he described as his favourite Broadway show of the last 10 years. A road movie of a musical, it is based on a short story by Doris Betts called The Ugliest Pilgrim about a young, disfigured woman who embarks on a bus journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma to find the preacher she believes can heal her. The production will star Samantha Dodemaide who sang the numbers All to Pieces and Lay Down Your Head.

Violet plays November 2 – December 20.

I Might Take My Shirt Off

As part of A Month of Sundays, Dash Kruck will perform his cabaret show I Might Take My Shirt Off, which premiered at the Brisbane Powerhouse in February. Featuring original songs by Kruck and composer Chris Perren, Kruck performed a short extract from the show. He plays Lionel, a timid flooring salesman and cabaret virgin struggling to cope with a relationship break-up, who finds himself on stage when his German therapist Grizelda pushes him into doing a cabaret show as a way to express himself. On the basis of the launch taster, it’s a very funny evening.

I Might Take My Shirt Off plays on September 20 & 27 and on October 11.

Neglected Musicals

Nicholas Hammond and David Campbell discuss Neglected Musicals' Dear World

Nicholas Hammond and David Campbell discuss Neglected Musicals’ Dear World. Photo: Noni Carroll

Neglected Musicals will present Jerry Herman’s Dear World, directed by Nicholas Hammond. Based on Jean Giraudoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot, Hammond described the 1969 musical as “25 years ahead of its time”. The Broadway production, he said, was over-produced; as a small production, he believes it works a dream. The staged reading will feature Genevieve Lemon and Simon Burke, with Max Lambert as musical director. Dear World will be presented on August 3.

It was also announced that the Hayes has launched TALK through its website, which consists of regular podcasts and a series of editorials by Daily Review arts writer/reviewer Ben Neutze about musical theatre and cabaret.

All up, it’s an impressive line-up from one of the exciting companies in town.

Full details of the Hayes Theatre Co season can be found on its website: www.hayestheatre.com.au

Everybody’ Talkin’ ’bout me

Hayes Theatre, April 14

Tim Freedman as Harry Nilsson. Photo: supplied

Tim Freedman as Harry Nilsson. Photo: supplied

Tim Freedman’s show Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout me, about Harry Nilsson, is one of the best bio-cabarets I’ve seen in a long time.

Looking shaggily shambolic in beard, dressing gown (like the one Nilsson wore on the cover of his 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson) and flat-cap, with a glass of cognac at the ready, Freedman takes us into the mind and musical world of the man he considers “a mercurial songwriter and a sublime singer”.

Nilsson, who was famously described by John Lennon and Paul McCartney as their “favourite American group”, was something of an enigma. Despite his huge success as a recording artist, Nilsson never toured and hardly ever played live. In the studio, however, he was prolific, making 18 albums between 1966 and 1980 until his hard-living took its toll. After that, he recorded virtually nothing until his death in 1994 from heart failure, aged just 52.

In Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout me, we find Nilsson in his songwriting den late at night. He’s 50, with two years left to live. His third wife and children are asleep upstairs and he’s trying to ration his alcohol intake with the help of an alarm clock.

Rather than trotting out an animated Wikipedia entry, the script – co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell – feels convincingly conversational. It’s full of fascinating reminiscences, reflections and anecdotes out of which the songs emerge organically without feeling shoe-horned, while the segues also flow with natural ease.

There are lots of great stories: his Brooklyn upbringing, his mathematical brain, his self-destructive streak, his hell-raising with Lennon and Keith Moon and the recording of Nilsson sings Newman among them.

Freedman – an acclaimed singer-songwriter with a lovely voice himself, best known as the  frontman of The Whitlams – inhabits the character, capturing his weathered demeanour and manner. Deploying his own quiet, effortless charisma, he gives a laconic, gently wry performance that has you leaning in to hear Nilsson’s story.

Accompanying himself at a small baby grand, Freedman performs a wide ranging selection of Nilsson’s hit songs, some that he wrote for himself or others, some that he recorded but didn’t write, among them:  Everybody’s Talkin’ from the film Midnight Cowboy (which he didn’t write), his Grammy Award-winning hit Without You, the semi-autobiographical 1941, Coconut, One (Is The Loneliest Number) recorded by Three Dog Night, Cuddly Toy recorded by The Monkees and How About You from the 1991 film The Fisher King.

All in all, it’s a fascinating, gentle, beautifully sung look at an intriguing character. Recommended.

Everybody’s Talkin’‘bout me is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until April 19. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black

Hayes Theatre, April 8

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black. Photo: supplied

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black. Photo: supplied

We hear her voice first, a lovely sweet sound in the darkness, then the lights come up on Lucy Maunder perched on a stool looking effortlessly gorgeous in a little black dress.

One of the younger leading ladies of Australian musical theatre, Maunder is back in Sydney with her cabaret show spun around the Irving Berlin songbook.

Given Berlin’s prodigious output there are umpteen classic songs to choose from and Maunder gives us a wonderful selection ranging from ragtime to ballads to comedy numbers. Among others, she performs Puttin’ On the Ritz, Blue Skies, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Cheek to Cheek, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, and What’ll I Do along with other less well-known songs such as Yiddisha Nightingale and Mr Monotony. It’s a great reminder of what an superb songwriter Berlin was.

With her musical director Isaac Hayward providing skillful, sensitive accompaniment at a Baby Grand, Maunder’s interpretations are respectful, fairly straightforward yet fresh, and beautifully sung.

Getting the biggest applause of the night is a gloriously funny take on I Love a Piano, in which Hayward gets carries away, launching with gusto into an outpouring of classic piano pieces, sidelining Maunder who responds with mock indignation as she waits for him to return to the song.

Nicholas Christo has written the book – and it’s here that the show could arguably benefit from further development. Rather than provide a potted history of Berlin’s life, Christo gives us short, mood grabs, almost word poems at times, which depict the 1920s New York milieu with its speakeasies, honky-tonk palaces and Bowery saloons where Berlin began his career. Maunder also reads out an article by an outraged lady about the moral perils of ragtime, which adds another fun element.

I think it’s great that Christo, Maunder and director Neil Gooding have avoided the much-travelled route of trotting out snatches of biographical information to link the songs. But that said, I found myself wanting to hear something more about the Russian-born, American-Jewish composer/lyricist and the background to his songs, a few more anecdotes, and maybe a bit extra about Maunder’s own connection or thoughts about them to personalise the show more.

Though many have loved the show just as it is, a stronger framework around the songs would make it even better.

Nonetheless, Maunder has a lovely poise and a nice rapport with the audience. She sings beautifully, with versatility and clarity, connecting with the spirit of each song, and she delivers the patter, such as it is, with a light, lively touch.

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black is at the Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney’s Potts Point until April 12

Everybody Loves Lucy

Hayes Theatre Co, March 22

Elise McCann.  Photo: supplied

Elise McCann. Photo: supplied

Elise McCann is a real delight in Everybody Loves Lucy, her cabaret show about Lucille Ball, giving a beautifully pitched, thoroughly engaging performance, which sees her shining brighter than the show itself.

Ball began her career on Broadway, played some small roles in Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s and then, together with her Cuban musician husband Desi Arnaz (with whom she eloped in 1940), changed the face of television comedy with her seminal sitcom I Love Lucy.

Running for six years from 1951 and then a further three years in various incarnations under titles including The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, I Love Lucy was the most popular TV show in the US at one point.

An astute businesswoman behind the scenes, Ball became the first woman to run a major television studio in 1962. Meanwhile, early in her career, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated her links to communism.

It’s too big a life to fit into a one-hour cabaret so McCann and co-writer Richard Carroll have sensibly focused on the I Love Lucy years.

Set in the TV studio, Everybody Loves Lucy avoids using a narrative voice to tell us about her career (a common device in cabaret and often a clunky one). Instead the show traces the development of the pioneering sitcom through various vignettes and a series of comedy sketches.

In one scene, we see Ball negotiate her way to becoming the first woman to appear on screen pregnant – or “expecting” as conservative television executives preferred to put it.

The show also goes behind-the-scenes where the pressures on Ball’s marriage and family life (she and Arnaz had two children she saw little of) were such that as soon as the sitcoms with Arnaz ended in 1960, she filed for divorce.

Without actually impersonating Ball, McCann captures a vivid sense of the famously ditzy, redheaded housewife Ball portrayed on screen, nailing her zany brand of vaudevillian comedy with its clown-like physicality. She also conveys a strong sense of the era.

Her comic timing is spot-on throughout. Some of the skits are funnier than others – mainly because much of the humour is now so dated – but she is hilarious in a sketch promoting a health tonic with a mouthful-of-a-name, which becomes increasingly unpronounceable as she takes swigs of the alcohol-laced concoction.

McCann also plays a housewife, in frilly apron, who is a huge fan of I Love Lucy. It’s a clever way to indicate the huge following the show had, as well as its impact, particularly on women, with the housewife beginning to think that maybe she too could take on some part-time work.

Musical director Nigel Ubrihien (sporting a dreadful black wig) does a good job of characterising Arnaz and also voices other characters including the studio executives from the piano.

Ball was no singer and there are few songs associated with her, so McCann and Ubrihien have chosen a series of numbers from the era to relate to moments in the show including Be a Clown at the beginning and Make Someone Happy, which is used as something of a theme through the show. Though McCann sings beautifully, the songs aren’t terribly memorable on the whole or particularly moving.

The show itself breezes along but often feels rather cursory, touching on topics, ticking off moments, but without really mining the drama in them. So much is dealt with so quickly that there’s not a great deal of insight into Ball as a person and emotional moments don’t land as strongly as they might.

The show assumes some knowledge of Ball; if you didn’t know anything about her, or had never seen I Love Lucy, I’m not sure that you would fully appreciate her impact as a comedienne.

Director Helen Dallimore stages the show well, using a dressing table on one side for the backstage scenes, and an armchair, table and lamp on the other for the housewife’s. Tim Chappel has designed a dress that transforms itself in an instant with a flap that drops to become an apron, and Christopher Horsey’s choreography suits the style and era.

Though Everybody Loves Lucy feels underwritten at times, McCann is a wonderful draw-card, giving a very enjoyable performance that confirms her considerable talent. I can’t wait to see her as Miss Honey in Tim Minchin’s musical Matilda, opening in Sydney in August.

Everybody Loves Lucy runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 28. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Matthew Mitcham’s Twists & Turns

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 26

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham is still in his 20s (about to turn 27 in early March) yet already he has packed an inordinate amount into his short life – from the highs of winning Gold with the highest single-dive score in Olympic history to the lows of depression and drug addiction.

It’s all great grist for the mill in his debut cabaret show Twists & Turns in which he tells his story with disarming honesty.

He begins the show with his ukulele, singing Pink Martini’s Sympathique, one of his mother’s favourite songs. From there he takes us on a journey through his rollercoaster life: a decidedly unorthodox upbringing with an alcoholic single mother, his achievements as a junior world champion on the trampoline leading to diving, his famous Gold Medal win at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his struggle with self-esteem, his descent into depression and drug addiction, and his emergence into the light after realising that he needed help. (He is now training to compete in Rio).

Mitcham came out before he competed at Beijing and has become a gay icon and a role model for many young men. Performing in Sydney as part of the 2015 Mardi Gras festival, the opening night audience took him to their heart from the start and were clearly touched and entertained by his story. It’s fair to say they welcomed seeing him in his bathers too.

Twists & Turns premiered at the 2014 Perth Fringe World festival and has toured widely around Australia.

Directed by Nigel Turner-Carroll, Mitcham is joined on stage by cabaret artist Spanky (Rhys Morgan), in trademark trash-drag with long purple wig, who plays Mitcham’s imaginary childhood friend and gives voice to his inner demons.

Spanky also sings backing vocals along with musical director Jeremy Brennan who did the impressive musical arrangements and provides dynamic accompaniment on piano.

The show features an eclectic selection of well-chosen songs among them Alanis Morrisette’s Perfect, the Spice Girls’ Too Much, New Order’s True Faith and Rufus Wainwright’s Go or Go Ahead.

Mitcham isn’t a natural born showman, telling his stories with a straightforward nonchalance and the kind of even-handed calmness he has doubtless had to develop as a diver. But he has genuine charm, winning you over with his endearing honesty and cheeky, throwaway sense of humour.

Having Spanky there adds a colourful dimension to the show and a trampoline routine gives us a taste of the physical poetry he brings to diving.

As for his singing, Mitcham’s voice has a warm, pleasant tone and he interprets the songs with tangible emotion. In a musical highlight, he sings a haunting version of Nick Cave’s Little Water Song, which is beautifully lit and very touching.

There are a few clunky movements in the show. The opening section with voiceovers by his mother feels a bit awkward as does a bit of audience participation but overall Twists & Turns is an impressive cabaret debut and an inspiring, entertaining show. Well worth a look.

Twists & Turns runs at the Seymour Centre until February 28