Avenue Q

Enmore Theatre, July 2

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod. Photo: supplied

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod, with Julia Dray and Nicholas Richard operating Nicky. Photo: supplied

Avenue Q opened at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre with little fanfare in the mainstream media. Presented by first-time producer Luke Westley and his associate Natasha Sparrow for LCW, I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s terrific – every bit as accomplished and enjoyable as the acclaimed commercial production seen in Sydney in 2009.

With book and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, the musical premiered off-Broadway in March 2003, before moving to Broadway later that year where it won three Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Performed by actors with Muppet-like puppets, the show pays homage to the children’s television show Sesame Street, while cheekily sending up its politically correct, rosy optimism with perky songs like It Sucks To Be Me, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, Schadenfreude and The Internet Is For Porn.

With some colourful language, references to porn, and puppets getting drunk and having vigorous sex, it’s definitely not for children. But for all its naughtiness, it’s very sweet with a big heart. More than a decade since premiering, it still feels fresh and topical, with Gary Coleman the only really dated element beyond a reference to a mixed-tape.

The story centres on Princeton (Matthew Predny), an arts graduate who arrives in Avenue Q in a downbeat New York neighbourhood looking for his Purpose in life. There he meets among others kindergarten teacher Kate Monster (Madeleine Jones), porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (Nicholas Richard), closeted gay Republican investment banker Rod (Predny), and former child star Gary Coleman (Shauntelle Benjamin), who is now the superintendent of the housing block.

It’s far from Easy Street as characters wrestle with unemployment, homelessness, heartbreak and their sexuality.

With a score full of perky tunes, a clever book and savvy, witty lyrics, Avenue Q zips along in thoroughly entertaining fashion while its celebration of friendship and its simple message – that, sure, life sometimes sucks but that’s OK – sends you home uplifted.

Jo Turner directs a very nifty, polished production. Cat Raven’s set with its row of apartment housing, and small set pieces that are moved quickly into place for various interior scenes, works a treat.

The musical features three human characters and 12 puppet characters, operated by clearly visible actors. Turner has gathered an excellent cast, all sing of whom sing strongly and get the balance between comedy and emotion, as well as flesh and fur, just right as they manipulate and interact with the puppets. (Props to puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne).

Madeleine Jones, who recently played the Girl in the musical Once, is lovely as the good-hearted, wistful Kate Monster and plays the predatory Lucy T Slut with plenty of vampish va va voom. Recent NIDA graduate Matthew Predny also exudes plenty of presence as the naïve, immature Princeton and the camp, sexually repressed Rod.

Nicholas Richard unleashes a fruity baritone as Trekkie and Rod’s slovenly but understanding roommate Nicky. Rowena Vilar is extremely funny as Japanese therapist Christmas Eve (a human character) and Justin Smith gives a warmly engaging performance as her fiancé Brian, an unsuccessful stand-up comic.

There are also strong performances from Shauntelle Benjamin as Gary Coleman, Julia Dray and Owen Little as the Bad Idea Bears, and Kimberley Hodgson and Riley Sutton in smaller roles.

Musical director Shannon Brown heads the seven-strong band, keeping things bouncing along nicely. All in all, a great little production, that charms in equal parts, fun and heart.

Avenue Q plays at the Enmore Theatre until July 18. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849

Tim Minchin: Part II

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

When Tim Minchin played to adoring, sell-out crowds on the steps of the Sydney Opera House Forecourt in February, he included a song called Seeing You, from Groundhog Day, the new musical he is currently working on.

He has also performed the song at London’s Hyde Park and various other gigs. As a first-taste introduction to Groundhog Day, the gentle, lilting, country ballad is excitingly promising.

“It’s a bit weird because it’s the final song in the whole musical so it doesn’t really give you the tone of what’s gone on before,” says Minchin.

Groundhog Day follows in the wake of the phenomenal success of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda the Musical for which Minchin wrote music and lyrics.

It’s based on the brilliant 1993 film: a comedy classic scripted by Danny Rubin and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Rubin himself is writing the book, Minchin is writing music and lyrics, and Matthew Warchus, who helmed Matilda, is directing.

The show will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year as part of Warchus’s inaugural season as artistic director, prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

Writing on his blog, when news of the project leaked last year, Minchin described the plot in his inimitable way: “For the handful of you who’ve never seen the film (philistines!), Groundhog Day is about a cantankerous weatherman who is sent to a small town to do a weather report, and gets stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over again until – eventually – he figures out how to be less of a miserable, egotistical git. It’s about selflessness and acceptance and love and time and life and death and all that good stuff.”

Minchin says that their stage adaptation will be “instantly recognisable and utterly different”.

“The narrative is very similar but tonally it’s completely different. You can’t make the character of Phil like Bill Murray – by which I mean the Bill Murray-ness of that character would not allow him to sing. It can’t be Bill Murray. It has to be a slightly more standard Scroogian character,” he says.

“And also you can’t write a piece of theatre – or I don’t want to in 2015 – with a woman as passive as Andie MacDowell. You take the opportunity to write a stronger woman whose influence is more profound and who has her own sense of humour. Andie was very charming in that movie but we need to know more about her.

“In musicals – just like in Matilda – you want to know more. You can’t maintain a distance in a musical and that’s why you have to consider very seriously which texts you do. Is going into their head – which is what a musical does because they sing their feelings – is going into their head going to help us?

“And if you are going into their head, how do you make sure the character doesn’t become mawkish and over demonstrative? That’s the problem with Matilda and Miss Honey (in Matilda). Miss Honey isn’t a demonstrative person so how do you get her to sing? That’s why I made her sing about her house, which is her singing about herself by not singing about herself. Those sorts of solutions are what musical theatre writers have always done but Groundhog Day is a particular challenge like that because you’ve got to keep it funny and witty and dry.”

In the story, the same scenes keep playing out, with the weatherman Phil gradually responding differently each time he relives a moment. Asked whether the music will repeat with gradual transformations, Minchin says not.

“Music reflects your protagonist’s state of mind. You could take the same music and put different angles on it but I realised early on that it’s not the songs repeating – because songs repeating is not unconventional. It’s dialogue and action repeating which is where the magic is in theatre. You have a complex series of events that are exactly the same. That’s like a magic trick; that’s awesome.”

Minchin says the songs will have a more poppy feel than Matilda. “It’s less Dahly. There are songs you could play on the radio. Anyway, it’s such an exciting challenge. I just hope we don’t fuck it up.”

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Minchin is currently alternating between writing the songs for Groundhog Day and the songs for Larrikins, an animated DreamWorks movie scheduled for release in 2018, which he is also directing.

Set in the Australian outback, Larrikins centres on an anxious little bilby called Perry and a kangaroo called Red.

“The kangaroo is hard-edged and unemotional, thinks everything is a bit of a joke, hates authority and all that good Aussie stuff – though it’s very important to me that the movie moves us beyond that,” says Minchin.

“Perry is an OCD, hyper-controlling, very fearful, very kind little dude compulsively stacking berries all the time. They go on this massive road journey together and Perry has to learn to be brave and Red has to learn to be more caring. It all sounds quite twee but it’s actually very funny. There are lots of laughs in it. The term Larrikin is used, but its definition is actually only obliquely discussed. We never clearly define it, that’s part of the charm of the word – it’s kind of ambiguous.”

“It’s an Australian story and I’m writing very much as an Australian writing about Australia,” adds Minchin.

As you’d expect, he will be making some political points along the way. There’s a song called Proper Aussie, for example. “It’s sung by Howard the crocodile, who is a bureaucratic bully in charge of a bit of river that our heroes have to cross. He sees his job as preventing ‘non-native species’ from spreading. It’s quite fun because we get to talk about fauna issues as well as xenophobia,” says Minchin.

On top of all his composing, Minchin has managed to find time to take to the stage himself in recent years. In 2012/13 he turned in a sensational performance as Judas in an arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which toured around the UK and Australia.

In 2013, he also co-starred with long-time mate Toby Schmitz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company. On screen, he has just been seen as the odious Smasher Sullivan in the ABC’s acclaimed mini-series The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s novel about the early days of Australian colonisation.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

He’s keen to do some more acting. However, he’s unlikely to have time for much theatre in the immediate future, given the demands of Groundhog Day and Larrikins.

“I want to act more but I think it’s more likely to be a few eps on a TV series or a cameo role in a film,” he says. “I’m interested in film and TV now. It’s all weird and a slightly sitty-around industry but it’s great to be a part of something, to do these little scenes and then see it all put together.”

Then there are his solo shows. He had 10,000 people across two nights eating out of the palm of his hand when he performed at the Sydney Opera House in February but, again, it’s a challenge to find the time.

“I think I can do it all,” he says. “I just need to manage my time and not lose my mojo. Comedy is a game of fearlessness and you’ve got to do it lots to stay fearless. I kind of had a wobble last year when I first went back after two years of not doing a solo show. I found it hard. I’d forgotten that you can’t just wander up. You’ve got to get your chops back up. It’s not something that comes with no work, the fast lyrics and all that stuff. But it’s worked out all right.”

Minchin, his wife Sarah and their two young children Violet and Caspar now live in Los Angeles after a decade in London, where his fame had reached the point that he was recognised pretty much wherever he went.

“LA was a lot about the film (Larrikins) and a lot about knowing that I had to leave London one day because it was just getting harder and harder. And also about coming home (to Australia) eventually. So LA is meant to be a stepping stone,” he says.

It was while he was living in Coogee during the STC season of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he decided he wanted his kids to grow up in Australia.

“The Larrikins thing was initially a songwriting gig then they said, ‘would you like to direct it?’ So I said to Sarah, ‘maybe this is our window out.’ It was awful leaving London. It was really, really hard, for Sarah particularly, but LA is kind of fun. We’ve met some really great people. You can drive around in your car. It’s a bit more like living in Perth. (Our house) is not a big place but it’s got a comparatively big garden with a pool and our kids haven’t been sick since moving there.

“People in America don’t really know me apart from Californication (the US TV series in which he played a coked-up rock star) though I was stoked that Spielberg and those people know exactly who I am. That’s their job to know who everyone is, and I am directing a movie for Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“So I’ve been shocked to realise it’s a perfect balance. I don’t get recognised in the street but the people who matter are keeping an eye on me. I sit in my room all day with a piano and when the kids come home I’m there. That’s why we moved to LA. And we can go to the shops and no one cares.”

Tim Minchin: Part 1

In a wide-ranging interview with Tim Minchin, he discusses the ins-and-outs of writing Matilda, Groundhog Day, Larrkins, acting and his move to LA: so much that I’m breaking it into two parts.

The second part, coming soon, will focus on Groundhog Day, Larrikins and his move to Los Angeles. In this first part, he talks about his encounter with a (fictional) little girl called Matilda.

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney's Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

When the Royal Shakespeare Company was looking for someone to write the songs for their musical of Matilda, director Matthew Warchus went to see one of Tim Minchin’s solo shows in London.

As Minchin tells it, by the show’s end Warchus had decided that he wasn’t right for the job. Then as an encore, Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, his beautiful, heartfelt song to his baby daughter Violet about Christmas, family and love, and Warchus changed his mind.

“He was thinking, ‘no’ and then he went, ‘oh, there’s another dimension’. I’m so glad. Can you imagine? It’s made such a profound impact on my life, this musical, and my whole career,” says Minchin.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book, Matilda the Musical has proved a phenomenal success. It won a record seven Olivier Awards in London and four Tony Awards on Broadway, where the New York Times described it as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

The Australian production begins previewing in Sydney on July 28. Minchin, who grew up in Perth, will be at the official opening on August 20 and says it feels “genuinely special” to be bringing the show home to Australia.

The feeling is reciprocated. Matilda is probably the most hotly anticipated musical of the year in Sydney where the love affair with Minchin continues to grow. Tickets were snapped up in next to no time when he played two sold-out shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February. He held the ecstatic audience in the palm of his hand, with more than a few tears during White Wine in the Sun. His own mascara seemed to run a bit too.

And when he came to Sydney last October for the launch of Matilda, Destination NSW took the opportunity to honour the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll nerd” with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Jacki Weaver and John Bell.

Minchin was a star before Matilda. A comedy songwriter with trademark ratty hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and bare feet, his genius for combining pithy, witty, pointed lyrics with catchy tunes had already won him such a cult following that he could fill arenas for his solo shows and front symphony orchestras in concert halls.

But Matilda has made him a superstar, in demand around the world. He is now writing songs for a musical based on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, also directed by Warchus, which will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

He is also the songwriter and director for an animated DreamWorks movie called Larrikins, set in Australia, scheduled for release in 2018. There’s a film of Matilda the Musical in the pipeline too.

“Without Matilda, I could have gone more down the path that people who get known for comedy go on but this has taken me back to what I was doing as a kid. I wrote loads of music for the theatre in my late teens and early 20s,” says Minchin.

“Then I started getting a couple of roles in plays and I moved to Melbourne and then I got frustrated because no one would take any notice of me and so I started doing comedy. But even at the beginning of my comedy career I was writing musical scores.”

In 2004, he wrote the songs for This Blasted Earth, a Christmas musical written with Travis Cotton and Toby Schmitz, which played at Sydney’s 40-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo. In 2005, he and Kate Mulvany wrote Somewhere, a musical about Penrith for the opening of the Q Theatre. That same year, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“It does strike me as really amazing that (working on Matilda is so similar to) what I was doing 10 years ago,” he says munching on jelly snakes to keep himself awake as he battles raging jetlag.

“I listen back to those songs I wrote for the Old Fitz show and the songs from Somewhere and there are definitely songs in the Penrith musical that are as good as anything in Matilda. There was no change in tools; there was just a change in status, in who was asking me to write for them.”

Funnily enough, in a now famous anecdote, while he was writing music for theatre shows in Perth, Minchin – who is mad Dahl fan from way back – enquired about getting the stage rights for a musical of Matilda. When Dahl’s estate asked for a sample of his score, he panicked and dropped the idea.

“It’s a great story. It doesn’t sound very believable but it’s true,” he says.

Matilda tells the tale of a smart, book-loving little girl who uses intelligence, imagination, courage and magic to defy her mean parents and vicious, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

As Minchin puts it: “The show’s about a tiny person starting a revolution to overthrow the oppressors.”

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Minchin’s songs are absolutely brilliant: funny, bolshie, poignant and refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores of contemporary musical theatre. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of anyone else more suited to the task. His intelligence, irreverence, wit and heart seem such a perfect match for Dahl.

Matilda feels a particular way. It doesn’t just feel like me, it feels like me interpreting Dahl,” he says. “There’s an angularity to the opening and this semi-tonal thing going on. The dominant movement through the whole thing is a semi-tonal shift with all these crunchy harmonics. In musical theatre, it’s usually big shifts and fourths, not semi-tones. But I do think Matilda has an aesthetic that seems to work.”

You might think the first thing Minchin would have done after being commissioned by the RSC was to pick up Dahl’s novel again, but no. Instead, he looked to the show’s book by writer Dennis Kelly.

“I never went back and re-read the book because I decided Dennis’s adaptation was my source text,” says Minchin. “I didn’t re-read all my Dahl. I just had an utterly convinced sense that I knew what Dahl-ness was and I knew his themes. Obviously there’s that cheeky little tip-of-the hat to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes: ‘We are revolting children, Living in revolting times, We sing revolting songs, Using revolting rhymes…’ (Hooley-dooley, Tim Minchin is singing for me). I was taking from all Dahl’s work without even knowing I was doing it really.”

When Minchin came on board, Kelly had already been working on Matilda for a year.

“He had a script adaptation and he said, ‘I’ve (marked) some places where I think there might be songs, I’ve even written a few lyrics,’” recalls Minchin. “And I said, ‘you can’t give me any lyrics or song titles. I just want “song here, question mark” and we’ll discuss what you think they might be about, because you might have a great idea but how will I know if I have a better one if that gets in my head?’

“So he gave me a script with no songs and Matthew (Warchus) and me and Chris Nightingale, the orchestrator, who was in from the very beginning, and Dennis just talked and talked and talked. Your most pretentious, in-depth tutorial in an English Literature of a university got nowhere near the level of textural analysis that we were doing!

“I went away and broke it down and put songs in different colours representing different styles, so if it was a chorus number it was this colour and if it was a solo number it was another colour and all that sort of thing, which kind of mapped it. I didn’t start writing songs until we had a really strong map.”

Hard though it is to believe now, Minchin reveals that at one point they considered making Matilda a non-singing character.

“Early on, Matilda had no songs. I couldn’t work out how to make her sing, weirdly, because she’s so quiet. Then I wrote Quiet,” he says.

“That’s not quite true. She had a song in the second act where Quiet is now, which is just as she is about to do magic for the first time. It had this big rumbling build-up to ‘Magical! but we all went, ‘that’s not right’ so when we did the first workshop we just discarded it. She had no songs at that point and we were considering the possibility that she might not have songs; that the world revolves around her and she is a still force.

“There was another character called Hortensia who had two big songs, Revolting Children and another called Now That She’s Gone when Trunchbull leaves. It’s a really funny song but it didn’t belong in the musical and nor did Hortensia so she got dissolved and we gave her spirit to Matilda so she can sing, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – the language of rebellion.”

One of the most well-known and popular songs in the show is the sweet When I Grow Up. The idea behind it came from one of Minchin’s own childhood memories.

“I remember promising myself I would never open the farm gate. We used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm and you would always climb over the gate or flip over the gate. I’d watch the oldies fiddle with the (padlock) and I would go: ‘I hope I never have to walk through gates. Gates are to be hurdled,’” he says.

“That idea of looking at things as a child and promising yourself that as an adult you’ll do all the things you think are awesome as a child (is the idea behind the song). It’s somehow sad because you are so wrong. Or maybe you were right. That’s the point. Dahl would say that we forget that kids have the wisdom. We’re sad as adults because we don’t climb trees and eat sweets and wake up with the sun. That’s where all the melancholy comes from in that.

“As you can tell when I talk about these things, I tend to go, ‘oh, here’s an idea and if I do that….’ That’s how I find my way into things. There’s a lot of emotion to be got out of thinking your way into it. But I think having young kids really allowed that.”

Asked if he does still leap the gate, he grimaces a bit. “No. I’m a bit sore these days. But when I run I have a compulsion to jump up on picnic tables. I’m like an old shitty Parkour runner.”

When I Grow Up is the first non-narrative song Minchin wrote for the show. “It’s a reflective piece, although in the musical Miss Honey sings the last verse about being brave enough to fight the creatures, which gives you a hint of what’s to come,” he says.

When I Grow Up always sat outside the piece and one of the ways it doesn’t now is because I took the whole thing and wrote a new tune over the chord structure and that’s Naughty. It’s basically the same song. Naughty and When I Grow Up are almost identical harmonically and that’s why they go from one to the other in the mash-up (at the end).”

Thinking back on the robust working relationship between him and Kelly, as Matilda gradually took shape, Minchin laughs with genuine pleasure.

“He’d never written a musical before. We tugged and pulled and pushed for the whole writing period. We didn’t know each other very well early on and Matthew would sit there quietly letting us fight it out. Then he’d say one sentence and we’d go, ‘right’. He’s such a genius and so quiet. But we’d all make each other laugh all the time.

“Dennis Kelly is now one of my favourite humans on the planet,” adds Minchin. “We’re from very different backgrounds and we approach art in a different way. I don’t know but perhaps if you write something like this and it goes so well, you are bonded by a very positive experience. As the time went on, I just fell in love with him. He’s such a brilliant guy.”

Matilda plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from July 28. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267

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

Triassic Parq

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, June 19

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

You can’t fault the timing: Squabbalogic is staging the musical Triassic Parq (“no, not that other park because we don’t want to get sued”) just as the newly released film Jurassic World is doing a roaring business at the box office, generating plenty of dino talk.

And you can’t really fault the production. But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, Triassic Parq is only sporadically diverting. Yes, it’s sweet and it’s fun, with a catchy, tuneful pop rock score (by Marshall Pailet) and occasionally witty lyrics and book (Pailet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo) but overall it feels like a mildly amusing, over-extended sketch.

The musical is a comic riff on Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film in which, as you’ll probably recall, scientists clone dinosaurs for a theme park using dino DNA and some frog to complete the DNA chain. All the dinosaurs are female to prevent breeding, but that little bit of frog causes one hell of a problem, allowing the dinosaurs to change sex in order to reproduce and ensure the survival of the species.

Triassic Parq tells the story from the dinosaurs’ point of view. Life for the “Lab” worshipping dinosaur community is thrown into chaos when T-Rex 2 (Adèle Parkinson) suddenly sprouts a penis. Meanwhile, the Velociraptor of Innocence (Rob Johnson) finds her way over the electric fence in search of answers. Bumping into T-Rex 2 outside the park, they work out what a “dick stick” is for, sending T-Rex 2’s bestie T-Rex 1 (Monique Sallé) into a jealous, rampaging rage.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Blake Erickson) – a dino with secrets – is forced to question his trust in “Lab” when the delicious goats the deity normally supplies suddenly stop appearing. And then the exiled Velociraptor of Science (Keira Daley) returns. Completing the dino cast are the mute Mimeosaurus (Crystal Hegedis) and the Pianosaurus (musical director Mark Chamberlain).

Themes of love, religion, science and gender underpin the silliness but it’s all pretty lightweight: fluff and nonsense being the prevailing tone.

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

Jay James-Moody directs with his usual verve and the production has a bright, chirpy aesthetic. Neil Shotter’s clever set uses towering electric fences, which open up, and a few pot plants to create the park and the jungle outside, with lighting by Mikey Rice. Elizabeth Franklin has designed cute costumes pairing contemporary street clothes with sparkly dino feet sporting padded claws, make-up and a fair bit of bling.

The cast throw themselves into it with hugely committed performances. The singing is excellent and they perform Dean Vince’s tongue-in-cheek choreography with gusto.

Erickson gives a hilarious impersonation of Morgan Freeman before being quickly eaten, Johnson finds just the right level of innocence as the questing dino who is a little different to the rest, while Sallé and Parkinson also shine. In fact, the performances are terrific across the board. But all their exuberance can’t disguise the thinness of the show.

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Triassic Parq won Best Musical at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. You can’t help wondering what the competition was like. Squabbalogic have done their darndest with it, but in the end it’s fun without being that funny and hard to get excited about.

Triassic Parq runs at the Seymour Centre until July 4. Bookings: www.seymour.com or 02 9351 7944

B-Girl

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, June 9

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

B-Girl begins in silence with a jumpy young woman sitting nervously at a kitchen table. Suddenly musical chords crash and roar and iOTA appears silhouetted in blue light: an androgynous, glam-rock god in all his strutting glory. Talk about an entrance.

Since bursting onto the theatre scene in 2006, iOTA has established himself as a bona fide star with gender-bending performances in the cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his concept show Smoke & Mirrors, and the Rocky Horror Show.

You can certainly see why director Craig Ilott (who collaborated with him on Hedwig and Smoke & Mirrors) might come up with the idea of a show, featuring iOTA as a fantasy glam-rocker.

As you’d expect, he’s phenomenal: sexy, enigmatic, commanding attention whenever he’s on stage. However, the show itself is a strange hybrid between a concept album and a theatre work, with a clunky structure and flimsy plot.

Co-written by Ilott and iOTA, with original songs by iOTA, B-Girl is about troubled young woman called Rachel (Blazey Best), who uses music to escape the grim reality of life with an abusive husband (Ashley Lyons). Dreaming up the glam-rocking Clifford North (iOTA), he gradually becomes more than just a figment of her imagination, giving her the strength to pack her bags and leave.

Nicholas Dare’s set design is pure rock concert, with the band on stage, a walkway over their heads, and a back wall of LED lights. Matt Marshall’s stunning lighting and the sound levels are equally rock ‘n’ roll.

A standard lamp and a table and chairs on the corners of the stage represent Rachel’s home. However, the domestic scenes feel sketchily simplistic and aren’t convincingly integrated into the show. You find yourself wanting more of Clifford instead – so much so you can’t help wondering whether it would be better if he had just told a similar story about abuse, domination and freedom through song alone in a solo show.

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

That’s no disrespect to Best (who also performed with iOTA in Hedwig). Though her character isn’t given much dramatic complexity, she brings a powerful emotional rawness and strong vocals to the part, while Lyons is suitably menacing in the thankless role of her violent husband.

But it’s iOTA’s show. Costumed by Heather Cairns, he is a vision in electric blue Lycra with platform boots, feathers and silver sequins. You can’t take your eyes off him. And his voice is better than ever.

He’s written some sensational songs, ranging from dirty, thrusting rock to soulful ballads and he sings the hell out of them, powering in rock mode one minute then the next, caressing gentle melodies in heart-breaking fashion. Backed by a fierce four-piece band, led by Joe Accaria on drums, the show really fires musically.

So, B-Girl is a strangely mixed experience, let down by some under-developed dramaturgy. However, iOTA’s fans won’t be disappointed by his electrifying performance.

B-Girl plays until June 21. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 14

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

Dogfight

Hayes Theatre Co, May 6

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

The musical Dogfight begins with a nasty, humiliating prank but turns into a sweet, tender show where redemptive love trumps misogyny.

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) together with Peter Duchan (book), Dogfight premiered off-Broadway in 2012. It now makes its Australian premiere with a stunning production directed and produced by Neil Gooding in association with Hayes Theatre Co.

Based on a little-known 1991 film starring River Phoenix, with screenplay by Bob Comfort, Dogfight begins in 1967 with a blank-faced, clearly traumatised young marine called Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) on a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco.

His memories take us back to 1963 when he and his two best mates – Boland (Toby Francis) and Bernstein (Rowan Witt) – spent a rowdy night on the town in San Francisco before being shipped out to Vietnam the following morning.

Swaggeringly macho, with just 13 weeks training under their belt, they naively believe they are going to storm into battle and return heroes. Their attitude to women is as aggressive as their attitude to war.

They decide to celebrate their last night on home soil with a “dogfight”, a vile “Jarhead” tradition whereby they compete to see who can bring the ugliest woman to a party. Each puts money into a pot; the winner takes all.

At the heart of the show are Eddie and Rose Fenny (Hilary Cole), the shy, awkward, guitar-playing waitress he picks up at a diner and takes to the party, then unexpectedly falls for.

Duchan has created a strong narrative structure from which the songs emerge naturally. Ranging from testosterone-powered rock numbers to lilting, wistful melodies, it’s an appealing, catchy score. Some of the songs have a folksy feel, with Rose foreshadowing the hippie era, while her number “Nothing Short of Wonderful” has something of a Sondheim influence.

James Browne and Georgia Hopkins have designed an economical set backed by a gauzy “brick wall” scrim featuring an enormous image of Cole’s face through which we glimpse the terrific six-piece band led by musical director Isaac Hayward. Four large diner seats are moved around into various configurations for the different locations. Effectively lit by Ross Graham and Alex Berlage, it’s a flexible space in which Gooding keeps the tightly choreographed action flowing freely: yet another clever design solution for the tiny 111-seat venue.

Cole is beguiling as Rose. She is naturally very pretty but manages to convince us of Rose’s vulnerability and gaucheness (helped by Elizabeth Franklin’s excellent costuming) as well as her strength, spirit and humour, while her pure, shining voice suits the character’s innocence perfectly.

Lucente is equally impressive as Eddie, conveying the turmoil of emotion coiled beneath the tough, terse exterior in a beautifully understated performance that moves from bravado to brokenness. There is great chemistry between the two of them, and both moved me to tears.

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Among the strong ensemble cast of 11, Francis radiates Boland’s pumped-up, bone-headed machismo, while Witt gives a very convincing portrayal of the geeky Bernstein, who gets high on the general macho posturing and snaps at one point in a surprisingly brutal moment.

Johanna Allen brings powerhouse vocals to the role of the brassy hooker Marcy, another of the so-called “dogs”, while Mark Simpson takes on a number of very different roles with chameleon ease.

Dogfight portrays abhorrent macho behaviour, which the writers neither condone nor judge, but they make it clear that this is the culture that the young marines have grown up in and been shaped by: a culture, which dehumanises women as much as the enemy they are off to fight, but also knocks the soul out of the young men themselves.

When the musical played in London last year, some slammed it for its ugly misogyny, but the writers undercut this with the central love story, which is sweet, sad and genuinely moving. Our sympathies, meanwhile, are clearly with the women in the show, who are strong, funny and forgiving.

This production captures all that nuance most touchingly. Once again, the Hayes Theatre proves to be a leading light in Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Dogfight plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 31. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 10

The Rocky Horror Show

Lyric Theatre, April 15

Amy Lehpamer, Stephen Mahy and Craig McLachlan. Photo: Brian Geach

Amy Lehpamer, Stephen Mahy and Craig McLachlan. Photo: Brian Geach

It was great when it all began….. The Rocky Horror Show started life as a small, gritty production whose outrageous parody of 1940s to 1970s B-grade sci-fi and horror films felt genuinely subversive, shocking and theatrically groundbreaking.

Australian director Jim Sharman and designer Brian Thomson had a great deal of input in helping Richard O’Brien (who wrote book, music and lyrics) create the aesthetic. They were also instrumental in expanding, developing and guiding the show from an experimental production Upstairs at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1973 to the Chelsea Classic Cinema on the Kings Road and from there to world, taking it to the screen too as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Over the years, the musical has become lighter, brighter and tamer: an anodyne parody of itself. These days it’s called Richard O’Brien’s Rocky Horror Show and so much of the edgy strangeness that made it a cult in the first place has been lost along the way.

While it is never going to shock in the way that it originally did, I’m sure there is a stripped-back, darker, dirtier, sexier production, closer to its roots, just longing to do the timewarp in Australia. Gale Edwards tried in 2008 with a (fairly glossy) production starring iOTA, but though it had a lot of going for it, it still didn’t manage to capture the danger of the original. (Apparently O’Brien and the British producers disliked some of what she had done and insisted on last minute changes).

For this 40th anniversary production, which originated as a UK tour, Christopher Luscombe directs one of the loudest, most colourful, glib productions yet. Gliding across the surface of the show, it’s a cartoon-like, bubblegum, party version verging on pantomime.

Hugh Durrant has designed a flexible set framed by rolls of film. The bottom right corner of the ruched front curtain is slightly torn, but that’s about it for any kind of grubbiness. Instead, the perky aesthetic is established right up front with a cartoon car for Brad and Janet and a cartoon castle, with comical Phantoms poking their heads out from behind it. There’s a fairly opulent interior for “the Frankenstein place” and some sci-fi looking gizmos for the science lab.

Sue Blane has reworked her original costumes to make them brighter, cleaner and sparklier, which work well within the world created.

The cast of Rocky Horror. Photo: Brian Geach

The cast of Rocky Horror. Photo: Brian Geach

Craig McLachlan is a forceful presence as Frank-N-Furter, a role for which he first donned the fishnets in 1992 – but not in the way Frank should be. He goes for broke, strutting his stuff to the max but all too often his shameless mugging goes a step too far.

He frequently breaks the fourth wall. Most Frank-N-Furthers interact with the audience but not to the degree that McLachlan does. So many of his winks, leers and suggestive gestures are overdone that it becomes hammy and his comical antics during the seduction of Brad and Janet are plain tacky.

Frank should be irresistibly sexy, crazed and dangerous. McLachlan’s Frank is none of these things. Instead he plays the role for laughs.

As the squeaky clean Brad and Janet, Amy Lehpamer and Stephen Mahy give nicely centred performances that help keep things real amid the frenzy. Lehpamer’s Janet evolves dramatically and vocally over the course of the show, to match the character’s growth, and both sing strongly.

Angelique Cassimatis is a spunky dynamo as Columbia, shining in the role. Jayde Westaby gets the show off to a great start as the usherette, Kristian Lavercombe brings a soaring rock voice to a rather manic Riff Raff, and Bert Newton as the Narrator is, well, Bert Newton.

The production has little heart or teeth, and if you didn’t know the story – such as it is – some of it could well be lost in the frenetic carry-on, with the ending coming somewhat out of nowhere. Nonetheless, the show has been selling out around the country and many in the Sydney opening night audience embraced as it as pure fun. It is fun  – but there is so much more to Rocky Horror than that.

The Rocky Horror Show plays at the Lyric Theatre until June 7. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 19

 

Hayden Tee interview

Hayden Tee (left) with fellow Les Mis cast members Patrice Tapoki (Fantine) and Simon Gleeson (Valjean). Photo: supplied

Hayden Tee (seated) with fellow Les Mis cast members Patrice Tipoki (Fantine) and Simon Gleeson (Valjean). Photo: supplied

In early 2013, Hayden Tee was in Pittsburgh performing in a musical called 1776, playing a strutting landowner with a chilling song extolling the slave trade. The US tour of Cameron Macintosh’s new production of Les Misérables happened to be in town at the same time and unbeknown to Tee someone from the company saw his performance.

Out of the blue, Macintosh’s London office asked him to record videos of him singing Stars from Les Mis and his song from 1776. Several auditions later, both online and in person in Australia, Tee landed the prize role of Javert in the Australian production, for which he has won rave reviews.

After six months in Melbourne and two in Perth, the production is currently playing in Sydney. Chatting in his dressing room at the Capitol Theatre, Tee is great company. He’s never been happier, he says, and he certainly exudes a tangible feeling of excitement, bonhomie and wellbeing.

He has done his dressing room up as a kind of home away from home for the next few months with a pink wall, red sofas, coffee table, lamp, photographs and several soft toys from fans including a Jabear (a small bear dressed as Javert) and a penguin.

New Zealand-born Tee began his career in Australia after studying at NIDA but moved to the US five years ago where his credits include the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods in Atlanta, Freddy in My Fair Lady in Boston, Arthur in Camelot and Rutledge in 1776 in Pittsburgh and, most recently, Jack in a new musical called Being Earnest in San Francisco.

However, he leapt at the opportunity to return to Australia to play Javert, the implacable policeman who hunts reformed convict Jean Valjean (played by Simon Gleeson) across the years.

“I moved to America because I wanted to do new musicals and be the first to sing a song. But I got there are realised that in order to do that you’ve actually got to do a lot of crap, you know what I mean,” he says with a chuckle.

“The good ones come along very seldomly. In workshops it’s an amazing process but it takes time to hone something so it’s really nice to come here now for Les Mis. I think it’s absolutely my favourite role that I’ve ever played. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time,” says Tee, who in 2005 played the young, love-struck student Marius in London’s West End.

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Tee sees Javert as more of “an antagonist” than a villain. “I’ve grown up with these characters, Marius at 25 and now Javert at 35. I love Javert. He’s not a villain. He’s written in such a way that he’s just a man doing what he thinks is right. I have to walk out there every night firmly believing that he’s the hero and he is trying to get Valjean off the streets to protect people,” he says.

“Javert doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean meets the Bishop and has a real life change. He doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean finds a new reason to live in this girl he looks after. When he finally sees an element of that in the sewers where he’s got Marius and he says, ‘let me go, the boy’s done nothing wrong’, that’s when the whole thing starts to fall apart for him.

“(The character) is so well written, it’s so multi-layered. I’m openly gay and very different to Javert so it’s personally rewarding to prove to myself and others that I can inhabit the particular type of masculinity required for a role like this,” adds Tee.

Born in a small New Zealand town called Maungaturoto (population around 800), Tee (who turns 35 in June) began acting in his teens.

“There was a very strong theatre group in the village where I grew up. My stepfather and mother and little brother are now involved. That’s where I started. I remember I was very shy growing up and my Nana thought it would be a good idea to boost my confidence by sending me along to the Otamatea repertory theatre – and it did.”

Mind you, he never suspected then that it could become a career. “People including myself didn’t think it was possible that you could get paid for doing that. My Dad now can’t quite get his head around the fact that it’s professional theatre. I think he still thinks I have a job and it’s kind of what I do on the side.”

He does, in fact, have another job that he has done between acting gigs and, for a while, alongside his theatre career: fashion make-up – though one suspects there won’t be much time for that in the coming years.

“I love fashion,” says Tee. “In New York I spend so much money on clothes. I feel a little bit guilty but I’ll just have to wear them now. That’s the world I got into in New York more because I’m a make-up artist as well. I designed 14 shows for fashion week in New York in February last year. For years I tried to keep them very separate and would never talk about the make-up stuff if I was acting and vice versa. I guess as I’m getting older, I think, ‘who cares?’”

Tee was first introduced to Les Misérables by his stepfather. “He was courting my mother and to get in my good books he bought me the video of the 10th anniversary production of Les Mis and I watched that on repeat until it fell apart. I didn’t know the show. I watched it and went, ‘oh my god, this is amazing.’ I just loved it.”

The original production famously used a revolving stage. This 25th anniversary production has replaced that with a stunning new staging, which includes projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself.

Tee, who knew the original staging intimately after his stint as Marius, describes it as “new and fresh. It’s almost like an homage to the original but at the same time it’s very different. I thought it might be a bit more scaled down but I think it’s actually more epic.

“I think getting rid of the revolve has really exploded the whole thing out in many directions. I love the new lighting and the new orchestrations. I think it’s much more epic in general. The new projections are beautiful. I think you really feel you are stepping into Victor Hugo’s version of Les Mis, the way he envisaged it.”

Tee has read Hugo’s epic 1862 novel on which the musical is based three times now – the first time when he played Marius and twice in preparation for this current production – and says that Hugo uses a lot of animal imagery, describing Javert as a tiger.

“I initially thought he’s a bit of a wolf. He’s very dark but wolves hunt in packs. After I read that I went and watched a few tiger documentaries. They are very still but when they go, they are decisive, and they are lone hunters. They are very solitary animals, which is absolutely what Javert is,” says Tee.

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee.

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee. Photo: Matt Murphy

“I don’t think anyone knows him. He keeps up an absolutely façade. He was born to a gypsy prostitute mother and a convict father and I think he’s trying to hide that so people don’t know where he comes from. He has this kind of posh upper-class exterior but there are certain moments when he lets that animal inside him out, and the only that really triggers that in his life is this dude called Jean Valejan.

“I’m so lucky to have Gleeson. He’s such a generous beautiful man. And he’s so present (as a performer). He’s an absolute gift to work with.”

Some people have said to Tee that he’s too young for the role. “But Philip Quast was 29 when he started. I’m actually older than Philip was,” he says.

A “huge fanboy” of Quast, who played the role in the original Australian production, Tee had to pinch himself when he was asked to sing Lily’s Eyes from The Secret Garden with Quast at a fund-raising concert for the Hayes Theatre Co.

“He’s such an amazing man and such an amazing performer. I feel the pressure of his legacy and the way he did the role. I don’t want to copy him. We spent the whole day together (rehearsing at the Hayes). Philip brought in this truncheon for me to look at that he made himself (for Javert) and gave me lots of little tips that I came back and shared with my two understudies as well.”

As for Russell Crowe’s widely maligned performed in the film: Tee isn’t one to put the boot in.

“I honestly do think that Russell Crowe brought something new to the role I hadn’t seen before, a certain vulnerability. Whether or not that vulnerability was (him thinking) ‘I don’t know if I can hit those notes or not’, there were moments where it really did work, I think, like leading up to the suicide. I liked that part of the film. I could do without his voice but he is amazing actor. And he’s a Kiwi.”

Tee says that the show is attracting hordes of fans, many of whom gather at the stage door after the show, some of them in costume.

“The amount of middle-aged women I have coming dressed as Javert…. I love and adore them but it’s like, what’s with that? This one woman has every costume I have in every scene. It’s just one of those musicals. But they are very, very supportive, I must say.

“We had the same thing when I did it in London 10 years ago now. We had these fans, mostly women, who came like two or three times a week and they always came to the stage door. They had their favourites. There was one in London – Fred her name was – and she hated me. When I left, she bought me a suitcase and said, ‘pack it up’. Others loved me and they would get into fights. Very bizarre.”

Whatever Fred may have thought of Tee’s Marius, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t be blown away by his Javert. He is superb: a commanding, dark presence, who stalks the stage with a contained yet ferocious power and his spine tingling rendition of Stars is one of the highlights of the show.

Asked whether there has been any interest in him playing the role elsewhere, he pauses. “Maybe…” he says with laugh.

You get the impression that he’d be happy to play the role for some time to come.

“I’m happier than I have ever been in my life at the moment,” he says. “I love playing Javert. I love it so much. I feel very lucky. It’s a real pleasure to come to work.”

Les Misérables runs at the Capitol Theatre until July 12. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 558 878

A version of this interview ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 22

Man of La Mancha

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 28

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

Independent company Squabbalogic is known for its inventive productions of little seen, contemporary musicals. It now presents a brilliantly re-imagined staging of a hoary, 50-year old classic: Man of La Mancha.

Written as a play-within-a play, author/actor/tax collector Miguel de Cervantes is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. When his fellow inmates subject him to a mock trial of their own, Cervantes tells them the story of Alonso Quijana, a crazed gentleman who believes he is Don Quixote, a knight-errant on a quest to better the world.

Director Jay James-Moody and his terrific design team (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay, lighting by Benjamin Brockman, sound by Jessica James-Moody) set their gritty production entirely in a dark, dingy prison dungeon (as the first production was originally staged before being expanded and romanticised).

We never forget that this is Cervantes mustering the prisoners to help tell his tale, but the performances are so beautifully delineated that we experience and embrace both layers of the storytelling at the same time. The prisoners are as well characterised as the roles they then take on in Don Quixote’s world.

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

The lo-fi staging is simple, with a few benches rearranged for different scenes, yet it’s also beautifully detailed from the horse costumes to the kinks in Don Quixote’s sword after his tilting at windmills. The staging makes clever use of the intimate theatre, including the balcony around it, to engender an oppressive atmosphere (heightened by the sound of clanking and screams) but allies that with a rudely vigorous performance style.

Hay’s costuming is a convincing combination of the grubbily makeshift and the more colourful outfits that Cervantes might well have had in his theatre trunk, adding an element of sexiness among the squalor.

Also heightening the DIY feel is the decision to have the actors play the score on a range of instruments, led by musical director Paul Geddes on piano.

At the heart of an excellent ensemble, Tony Sheldon gives a stellar performance. He is suave as Cervantes and dignified, gentle and frail as Quixote, his rendition of The Impossible Dream speaking to us afresh and tearing at the heartstrings. It’s a revelation after umpteen bombastic versions sung out of context with little sense of the song’s true meaning.

Marika Aubrey, Ross Chisari and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Michael Francis

Marika Aubrey, Ross Chisari and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Michael Francis

Marika Aubrey is a spunky Aldonza, the abused barmaid and part-time tart in whom Quixote sees beauty as his honoured Lady Dulcinea. Aubrey brilliantly captures the tough, cynical carapace Aldonza has built for self-protection and then touchingly conveys the new hope she gradually, briefly allows herself to feel in Quixote’s eyes. The final scene between her and Sheldon is incredibly moving and inexpressibly sad. Aubrey is also impressive vocally and raises the roof with the song Aldonza.

Ross Chisari is endearing as Quixote’s chirpy sidekick Sancho Panza and his choreography suits the production’s aesthetic. Glenn Hill is in fine voice as the padre, as is Stephen Anderson as Alonso’s housekeeper. Joanna Weinberg lends weight to the antagonistic roles of the prison prosecutor and Dr Carrasco, who wants to marry Alonso’s niece but is worried about being associated with a madman, while James-Moody turns in a memorable comic cameo as the barber.

Stephen Anderson, Glenn Hill and Courtney Glass. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Anderson, Glenn Hill and Courtney Glass. Photo: Michael Francis

However, credit is due to all the performers: Hayden Barltrop (who is there primarily as a musician on clarinet, keys and bassoon), Reece Budin, Laurence Coy, Courtney Glass, Hay (who performs as well designing the costumes), Rob Johnson, Shondelle Pratt, Kyle Sapsford and Richard Woodhouse (whose guitar playing is gorgeous on Little Bird).

There’s no disguising Man of La Mancha’s creakiness. The book (Dale Wasserman) and lyrics (Joe Darion) are clunky at times, while Mitch Leigh’s Spanish-influenced music can feel samey and rather dirge-like. Despite all of that, Squabbalogic gives us an exciting, inspiring and genuinely moving piece of theatre. Recommended.

Man of La Mancha plays at the Seymour Centre until March 21. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 8