We Will Rock You

Lyric Theatre, May 5

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Jaz Flowers, Thern Reynolds, Erin Clare and Gareth Keegan. Photo: Jeff Busby

With its pumping score of flamboyant, theatrical 1970s hit songs by Queen, audiences have always embraced We Will Rock You, ignoring savage reviews when it premiered in London in 2002 to keep it running there for 12 years. It has now played to over 16 million people in 28 countries (though it’s never made it to Broadway).

First staged in Australia in 2003, the comic jukebox musical is back in a newly revised version – and not only does the production rock its socks off but the lightweight plot, while as unashamedly silly as ever, has a fresh currency in this social media-addicted age.

Written by Ben Elton, We Will Rock You is set in a dystopian future where individuality, creativity and live music are banned. A group of Bohemians, who worship at the shrine of Freddie Mercury in the ruins of a Hard Rock Café, set out to find the legendary hidden axe that will rescue rock ‘n’ roll and save the world.

With the advent of downloadable music, smart phones, Twitter and Facebook, We Will Rock You has proved rather prescient. Elton (who also directs) has added new references to social media and the iPlanet (as the earth is now known) where everyone lives online – all of which resonates today and feels pretty ‘now’.

It doesn’t pay to think too hard about the plot though. If rock music is banned, how come Killer Queen (Casey Donovan), the evil CEO of the ruling Globalsoft Corporation, and her minions still belt out rock anthems, for starters? But if you abandon that kind of logic and just go with the flow the plot carries you along.

Elton has packed his book with zesty one-liners and a litany of cute pop references from Justin Bieber to The Wiggles, as well as a nod to King Arthur and Excalibur. The Bohemians have chosen names from rock legends but have frequently got the gender wrong – so Jaz Flowers is called Oz after Ozzy Osbourne and Thern Reynolds is Britney after Britney Spears. There is the mysterious vid-DAY-o tappy (video tape) and a statue of Mercury with laser eyes, all of which is corny fun, prompting plenty of laughter.

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Erin Clare and Gareth Keegan. Photo: Jeff Busby

But you still need a killer cast with dynamite vocals and the ability to pitch their performance with just the right knowing, tongue-in-cheek vibe to pull it off – and it gets it here.

As Galileo Figaro, The Dreamer who hears quotes from pop and rock lyrics in his head, Gareth Keegan has a nice, low-key charm and a good strong rock tenor voice that suits the songs. By the time he got to the vocally exposing Bohemian Rhapsody (included as the show’s encore) on opening night, his voice was tired but other than that he proved to be on the money.

Erin Clare is wonderfully sassy as the feisty Scaramouche, who is nobody’s “chick” but teams up with Galileo. Her comic timing has plenty of punch and she really nails her songs with gorgeous, soaring vocals.

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Casey Donvan as Killer Queen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Donovan is a vocal powerhouse and every inch the badass villain as Killer Queen, with a new confidence about her as an actor. A couple of the numbers begin a little low for her, notably Another One Bites the Dust, and the sound design could have done more to help, but as soon as she moves out of that lower register she is sensational.

Flowers and Reynolds, resplendent in ratty kilt with bulging guns, are both fierce as rather goofy Bohemians Oz and Brit, with Flowers owning a moving version of No-One But You (Only the Good Die Young). Brian Mannix brings plenty of cheeky dry humour to the unreconstructed old rocker Buddy Holly and the Crickets, while Simon Russell is suitably oily as Killer Queen’s henchman Khasoggi, played like a villain in an Austen Powers movie with a touch of Sasha Baron Cohen about him.

Arlene Phillips’ choreography is inventive and witty with 1970s moves and grooves, and is sharply danced by the ensemble. Tim Goodchild’s costumes are alive with umpteen pop and rock references, while the red hot band does a brilliant job under musical director David Skelton.

Yes, the plot is silly but the music is as glam-fab as ever and the cast deliver; if you go with the flow, the show will rock you.

We Will Rock You plays at the Lyric Theatre until June 26. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

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

Disgraced

Wharf 1, April 21

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Sachin Joab as Amir. Photo: Prudence Upton

There were audible gasps among the opening night audience several times during the Sydney Theatre Company’s gripping production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced.

 First staged in New York in 2012 and then produced on Broadway last year, Disgraced is a well-made American play clearly crafted to debate certain issues but it feels urgent and timely prompting plenty of discussion in the foyer afterwards around its provocative themes.

Set now, Amir Kapoor (Sachin Joab) is a successful New York corporate lawyer who puts in the hard yards as he aims for promotion at the Jewish firm he works for. He has denounced his Islamic faith, describing the Koran as “one very long hate mail letter to humanity” and is somewhat vague about his background, saying his parents were born in India though the area they come from is now in Pakistan.

Happily married to Emily (Sophie Ross), an artist with a particular interest in Islamic art, and living in a swanky Upper East Side apartment, life looks pretty rosy.

But when Emily and Amir’s nephew Hussein (Shiv Palekar) – or Abe as he prefers to be known – push him to represent an imam imprisoned for raising funds for Hamas, the consequences are far-reaching.

Things start to come apart when Amir and Emily have a dinner party for Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine), a Jewish curator who is considering including Emily’s work in a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and his African-American wife Jory (Paula Arundell) who is a colleague of Amir’s at the law firm.

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Sachin Palekar, Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dinner party is a well-worn dramatic device and naturally articulate arguments flow. But Akhtar has written well-rounded, believable characters and they are the kind of people who would have such passionate, intelligent, political debates, so it remains convincing even if you are aware of the dramatic set-up. What’s more, Aktar throws some provocative sentiments, sudden eruptions of drama and surprise twists into the mix that jolt and shock you.

Nothing is black and white as the play raises complex questions about identity, race, religion, prejudice, radicalisation and what it is to be a Muslim man living in the West. Amir may have turned his back on Islam but some of the views he has grown up with prove more difficult to dislodge.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s stunning design brilliantly evokes Amir and Emily’s swish apartment full of art and chic designer furniture, while Sarah Goodes’ superb direction gradually ratchets up the tension as she draws compelling performances from her excellent cast. Some have disliked the way she has the cast change the set but for me it worked fine; the way Amir slowly clears the dinner table is actually very poignant.

Joab has plenty of film and television credits but is making his stage debut as Amir– which surely says something about casting in this country – and gives an impressive performance moving believably from suave confidence to explosive behaviour that surprises even him and then a shattering sense of loss. The primal moan he emits when he realises the ramifications of all that has happened is harrowing.

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Sachin Joab and Shiv Palekar. Photo: Prudence Upton

Ross also colours her character’s emotional arc convincingly as she gradually realises what she has unwittingly triggered. Her interest in the history of Islam is conveyed with girlish enthusiasm initially and her pain and anger later in the piece feels very real.

Arundell brings plenty of sparky attack and zing to the piece as the smart, plain-speaking Jory, eliciting many laughs. Hazeldine finds the humour, passion and rather self-regarding arrogance in Isaac and Palekar makes a strong impression as Abe, whose attitude to his heritage changes through the course of the play.

Running a tight 90 minutes, Disgraced in a knotty play, engrossing play that raises plenty of pressing, topical questions and shows that there are no easy answers.

Disgraced runs at Wharf I until June 4. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 24

Spring Awakening

ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf, April 29

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The cast of Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

When you cast convincingly young performers in a musical about teenagers, the trade-off is the relative inexperience of the cast – one of the reasons Squabbalogic’s recent production of The Original Grease struggled to really take off.

But under the guiding hand of director Mitchell Butel, the raw, youthful energy that his young cast brings to this ATYP production of the musical Spring Awakening outweighs any lack of experience, making for an altogether more satisfying production than the one staged by Sydney Theatre Company in 2010.

With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, Spring Awakening is based on the controversial 1891 play of the same name by German playwright Frank Wedekind. After premiering off-Broadway in 2006, it transferred to Broadway where it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical.

The musical retains the 19th century setting but uses a contemporary indie rock score that moves from wistful, melodic ballads to punky anthems like The Bitch of Living and Totally F**ked. Set in a repressive world where parents, teachers and other authority figures consider any talk of sex disgusting, the curious, hormonal, angst-ridden teenagers are wilfully kept in ignorance of the facts of life – with tragic results. In such a society, parents are so concerned with what others think that they are prepared to sacrifice their children’s welfare for the sake of appearances.

Spring Awakening goes to dark places including sexual and domestic abuse, abortion, self-harm and suicide.

Though things have certainly progressed since Wedekind’s day, the recent debate surrounding the “Safe Schools” initiative to broaden sexual education shows how much conservatism still persists today. At the very top of the show, Butel brings the cast onto stage accessing social media mobile phones as a nod in this direction, but from there the production sticks to the period.

The musical focusses primarily on three teenagers: the intelligent, confident, rebellious Melchior (James Raggatt), the naïve, inquisitive Wendla (Jessica Rookeward), and the troubled misfit Moritz (Josh McElroy) who is tortured by wet dreams and a fear of failure at school, particularly given his cold, bullying father. Around them, cameo stories of other school friends amplify the world of the play.

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Jessica Rookeward as Wendla and James Raggatt as Melchior. Photo: Tracey Schramm

This is only the second musical Butel has directed, following his award-winning production of Violet for the Hayes Theatre Co and Blue Saint Productions last year, and once again he proves to have a sure and sensitive touch, drawing heartfelt, affecting performances from his young cast. The singing is a bit uneven but despite this the production is very powerful. It rocks when it needs to and also lands the quieter, emotional moments.

Staged on a simple set designed by Simon Greer, with a grid floor, a few square stools, and the band on a platform at the back, Butel uses the space brilliantly, keeping the focus sharp and true in scenes featuring just a few characters. For the ensemble numbers, he has the cast surge onto stage and perform with a furious energy that explodes in the intimate space.

The way the production moves between the two is handled with a keen sense of rhythm, supported by Amy Campbell’s inventive, punchy choreography. Greer’s costuming is excellent, as is the moody lighting by Damien Cooper and Ross Graham and Lucy Bermingham’s tight musical direction.

Raggatt’s Melchior (the charismatic boy all the girls fancy and to whom Moritz turns) is less an obviously dashing figure and more a smart, mature character who initially appears far more able to survive than his classmates. It’s a strong performance, and Raggatt (a recent NIDA graduate) plumbs the tragedy of Melchior’s downfall and heartbreak.

As Wendla, Rookeward convincingly portrays a girl on the cusp of womanhood, aware of her changing body but still genuinely naïve, and she sings with a lovely, clear voice.

McElroy gives a compelling, intuitive performance as Moritz, which seems to pour untrammelled straight from his gut and heart; one that keeps you transfixed whenever he is on stage. Alex Malone’s Ilse combines youthfulness with a quiet maturity beyond her years, while Patrick Diggins is unsettlingly funny as the cocky, gay Hanschen, played here like a forerunner to the Hitler Youth. Richard Sydenham and Thomasin Litchfield take on all the adult figures, most of them grim.

All in all, though there are times when you are aware that this is youth theatre, Butel has worked wonders with his young cast, helming a production that really rocks and at the same time moves you with the authenticity of its raw emotion.

Spring Awakening plays at the ATYP Studio, The Wharf until May 14. Evenings are sold out but there are tickets available for mid-week matinees. Bookings: http://www.atyp.com.au

The Detective’s Handbook

Hayes Theatre Co, April 27

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Rob Johnson and Justin Smith. Photo: Clare Hawley

Writing a new musical is a massive undertaking, generally requiring a huge investment of time and money. Australian musicals with an original score are pretty thin on the ground and so in 2010 the New Musicals Australia (NMA) program was established to address this.

During a two-year period, 13 new works went through various stages of development under NMA. In 2015, the Hayes Theatre Co – hub for some of the most exciting musical theatre in Sydney at the moment – took over the initiative, with funding from the Australia Council.

From 60 submissions, eight musicals were selected for “snapshot presentations”. From these, one was chosen for further development via workshops with industry mentors, leading to a full production.

The Detective’s Handbook is the first musical from the scheme to be produced at the Hayes. It’s a fun show and though it may not be the next great Australian musical – in its current form, anyway – it does herald the arrival of an exciting young writing team with plenty of talent.

With book and lyrics by 26-year old Ian Ferrington and music by 22-year Olga Solar, who recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, The Detective’s Handbook pays loving homage to the detective novel and film noir.

Set in 1950s Chicago, Frank Thompson (Justin Smith), a hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective, is called into the station one Sunday morning to investigate the murder of two cops in a factory on the seedy side of town. To his irritation, he is paired with Jimmy Hartman, a church-going rookie who likes to do things by the book – The Detective’s Handbook that is, in two volumes. With only a matchbox for a clue, they begin their investigation encountering the inevitable femme fatales along the way.

What differentiates The Detective’s Handbook is that some of the lyrics are rapped over a jazz score. Ferrington certainly has a punchy way with words and his book and lyrics are full of puns, one-liners and some brilliantly clever internal rhyming structures. Even if it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, it’s inventive and immensely enjoyable. The rapping style is primarily given to the cynical Frank, while the bright-eyed Jimmy gets to sing in a more melodic musical theatre style.

Solar’s jazzy score is also very clever, with a sound that nods to the period but also feel modern, with references ranging from Scott Joplin to Sondheim. The intricate underscoring and the lively melodies are attractive even if none of the songs are wildly memorable – on one listening anyway. A number about femme fatales sung by Sheridan Harbridge is the most obvious crowd-pleaser.

So, musically and lyrically, there is much to enjoy about the show. But, given that the tropes of the genre are so well known, the plot could do with some thickening and a more surprising twist, while the characters could be developed more. Though it only runs 80 minutes without interval, two-thirds of the way through, it feels as if the show is losing steam, despite some terrific performances.

Produced by Neil Gooding, the Hayes has done the show proud.  After a slightly slow start, Jonathan Biggins keeps things rollicking along. James Browne’s flexible black and white set works well both in practical terms and as a nod to film noir and the chalk outlining of dead bodies, while his costuming adds colour and underpins character types. Sian James-Holland’s lighting plays with noirish shadows most effectively.

Smith and Johnson complement each other well as the ‘odd couple’ cops. Smith exudes just the right amount of crumpled, jaded cynicism and handles the rap rhythms with a natural, easy confidence, while Johnson’s naïve, puppy dog eagerness is pitched to perfection.

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Tony Cogin and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Clare Hawley

Harbridge is sensational as three women all called Maria: the sexy, efficient secretary to the Chief of Police, a helpful café owner, and a rather formidable mortician. Her quick changes between the three characters are skilfully handled – hilariously so at the end when two of them are in the same scene.

Lara Mulcahy is very funny as yet another Maria, who owns a Polish delicatessen and runs a matchmaking service on the side, and paired with Christopher Horsey as a couple of cheery, dim-witted cops.

Horsey, who is also the choreographer, has overseen an amusing number in which he and Mulcahy move from typewriting to tap dancing, though a later tap routine feels like filler. Tony Cogin completes the well-chosen cast as the ineffectual Irish Chief of Police.

Musical director Michael Tyack leads a fine jazz quartet and sound designer Jeremy Silver balances the amplification well.

Currently The Detective’s Handbook feels slight but is still lots of fun. Most importantly, it shines a light on two very talented writers in Ferrington and Solar, giving them an opportunity to develop the show and their skill base with the likes of Biggins, Tyack, musical consultant Phil Scott and dramaturg Christie Evangelisto.

The chance for them to see The Detective’s Handbook up and running in front of an audience is invaluable experience and will hopefully encourage them to write another musical.

The Detective’s Handbook plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

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Heather Mitchell and Josh McConville. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever when he was just 24 but already a star in the making. A comedy of gleefully bad manners, it was a huge hit when it premiered in 1925 despite lukewarm reviews and is still much performed.

Coward’s plays are deceptively difficult to do well. If the actors only give us superficial flamboyance and witticisms, the humour can all too easily fall flat. But Imara Savage has directed a fabulously funny production for Sydney Theatre Company that has a fresh edge and contemporary energy while still retaining a feel of the period.

The play is set in the household of the eccentric Bliss family. Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell) is retired actress, determined to keep performing even if she no longer has a stage. Her husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a novelist and their grown-up children Sorrel (Harriet Dyer) and Simon (Tom Conroy) still live at home, without appearing to work.

All four invite a guest for the weekend without telling each other, thrusting them into a maelstrom of games and idiosyncratic carry-on that leaves their visitors reeling.

Essentially a lightweight comedy, Hay Fever offers the audience a vicarious thrill in experiencing life with such wayward “artistic” types. But it also celebrates bohemian freedom and vitality, and contrasts that with the rather stuffy, conservative mores of “ordinary” people and their concerns about sex and class.

Alicia Clements’ wonderful design isn’t period specific but subtly combines elements from the 1920s with later decades, setting the action in an attractively ramshackle conservatory full of greenery and eccentric touches like a bathtub for a sofa. Only the inclusion of wheelie suitcases and the decision to have Judith lip synch to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black when she offers to sing at the piano sit a little oddly.

Clements’ costumes are also terrific with all the Blisses in a permanent state of semi-undress or dressing gowns and the outfits of the other characters speaking reams about their personalities from the anxious Jackie’s girly cotton frocks and Alice band to the vampy Myra’s stylish couture.

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Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Harriet Dyer and Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Savage’s excellent cast combines wit with truth. Towards the end of the play, some of the performing becomes broadly comic and more farcical but overall the characters all feel very real.

Mitchell is sensational as Judith, a whirling dervish at the heart of the play. Her comic timing is immaculate and she is gloriously funny as she tears up the stage. Llewellyn-Jones is distinguished yet grouchy as the rather self-absorbed David. Dyer plays Sorrel with a contemporary edge as a young woman testing who she is, while Conroy’s Simon affects a nonchalant flamboyance.

Helen Thomson as the chic, sardonic Myra, Alan Dukes as the proper “diplomatist” Richard, Josh McConville as the rather gung-ho sportsman Sandy, and Briallen Clarke as the mousey, nervous Jackie are the perfect foil as the beleaguered guests. Genevieve Lemon is also very funny in a broadly comic portrayal of the exasperated housekeeper.

The Bliss family can become rather unlikeable in productions but Savage avoids that, ensuring that their love for each other comes across as strongly as their hilariously appalling behaviour.

Hay Fever plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

The Peasant Prince

Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, April 9

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Jenevieve Chang, John Gomez and Edric Hong. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company has a reputation for its delightful stage adaptations of children’s books and The Peasant Prince is another charmer.

It tells the true story of Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee Schwin Sing), whose autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer was published in 2003 and subsequently made into an Australian film by director Bruce Beresford. Li also wrote a picture book about his life called The Peasant Prince, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, and it is that version that Monkey Baa’s creative directors Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry have drawn on for their stage adaptation for children aged 6+.

Born in a village in Shandong Province in China, Li was the sixth of seven sons in an impoverished but very loving peasant family. An extraordinary opportunity came knocking when a delegation from Madame Mao arrived in the village looking for talented children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. After initially being overlooked, Li was chosen as one of just 15 children from around the country and at age 10 he left his home for Beijing.

The training was relentlessly tough and Li was terribly homesick, but eventually he found the courage, fortitude and determination to succeed. Selected by Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of Houston Ballet, to go to the US on a cultural exchange, Li defected. After a diplomatic standoff when he was held in the Chinese Embassy, he was eventually released a free man.

Li danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years and was a guest artist around the world. After meeting Australian-born dancer Mary McKendry in London, they married and came to Melbourne in 1995 where he danced with the Australian Ballet. Li is now artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.

The Peasant Prince begins with Li waiting backstage to make his debut in The Nutcracker for Houston Ballet, with his parents in the audience. It then rewinds to tell his story up to that point.

The script by Di Cesare, Eldrige and McGarry is succinct without it ever feeling that it is just ticking off plot points. A story Li loved his father to tell him about a frog acts as a metaphor for what is to come and the writers create many lively little vignettes that speak reams about Li’s life and relationship with his parents and brothers, a dance teacher who encouraged him, and Stevenson.

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Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

McGarry’s direction, with movement by Danielle Micich, keeps the action moving swiftly on a minimal but very effective set by Michael Hankin featuring David Bergman’s beautiful video designs, which locate scenes as the story moves from the village to a school room to the dance academy and onto Houston. Hankin’s costuming is also very evocative, as is Daryl Wallis’s music.

The early scenes in China work wonderfully well with simple staging effects proving extremely eloquent. There’s a lovely sequence in which Li’s mother uses a blanket in various ways to suggest feeding, washing and drying her son with loving care. At the dance academy, two performers merely hold a pole to create a ballet barre.

The Houston scenes don’t have quite the same flow. A ballet rehearsal feels a little overlong and the coercion Li suffers in the Chinese Embassy doesn’t have the same clarity as the rest of the storytelling; I imagine children will be asking what was happening at that point. But overall it’s beautifully told.

As Li, John Gomez Goodway brings a wide-eyed, open-hearted exuberance and emotional vulnerability to the role that is very endearing. The other three actors – Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong – each play several roles and do an impressive job of slipping quickly between them to create various well-defined characters.

Running around 55 minutes, The Peasant Prince tells an inspiring story about courage, resilience, family love and following your dreams that kept the young audience engaged.

Li Cunxin was at the opening. Asked to make a short speech afterwards, which he hadn’t anticipated, he said he was deeply moved by the production. I imagine that young audiences will be touched, amused and inspired by it too.

The Peasant Prince plays at Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 20 and then tours to 37 Australian venues. See www.monkeybaa.com.au for details.

Aldo Mignone is Happy that the Old Fitz is also a Place to Call Home

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Actor Aldo Mignone. Photo: supplied

Aldo Mignone, who plays Italian dreamboat Gino Poletti in A Place to Call Home, knew that the Australian period drama had a strong fan base but he had no inkling that it was tipped to feature so strongly in this year’s TV Week Logie nominations.

“You know how I found out? I saw in the Sunday Telegraph that (fellow cast members) David (Berry) and Abby (Earl) were in Melbourne for the nominations,” says the handsome young actor with a laugh.

The tipsters were right. A Place to Call Home has five Logie nominations including the viewer-voted Best Drama and the peer-voted Most Outstanding Drama.

“It’s amazing. I’m really proud that we’ve been nominated because we’ve got such a hard-working team. So fingers crossed,” says Mignone.

Set in rural NSW in the 1950s, A Place to Call Home moved to Foxtel last year thanks to fans campaigning to save the show when Network Seven dropped it after two series.

Mignone’s character is the son of Italian farmhands, who marries the beautiful Anna Bligh (Earl) daughter of the wealthy family his parents worked for. At the end of series three their marriage was under strain after Gino’s attempts at winemaking left him in debt. Filming is now underway on the fourth season.

“Things were pretty rough there towards the end,” says Mignone of Gino and Anna’s relationship.

“I’m probably not allowed to say much but (season four) is picking up from there. The marriage almost feel apart there for a second but now we have to rekindle that and tackle the real world: how are we actually going to make a living?”

For the last month, Mignone has also been rehearsing a play called Belleville, directed by Claudia Barrie, which opens at the Old Fitz Theatre on Friday. (The scheduled opening had to be delayed a week when Emily Eskell had to withdraw unexpectedly from the production and was replaced by Taylor Ferguson).

Chatting at the Woolloomooloo pub venue, Mignone admits he wouldn’t normally take on something else while filming but says that he couldn’t resist the chance to perform in Belleville – his first professional stage play.

“I’ve been coming here for quite a while and the work they put on is absolutely amazing. These guys are at the top of their game and I really wanted to be part of what is happening at the Fitz. It’s become quite a little theatre Mecca thanks to Red Line Productions (who currently run the venue),” he says.

Mignone met Barrie when he went to see a friend performing in her powerful production of Philip Ridley’s Shivered last year, also for Mad March Theatre Company.

“She likes a dark play,” laughs Mignone. “She is doing a wonderful job at Mad March Hare Theatre. She’s just a little powerhouse.”

Belleville, by American playwright Amy Herzog, is about young American newlyweds who move to Paris where their fraught relationship quickly begins to unravel.

Mignone, who plays their landlord Alioune, describes it as “an emotional, psychological thriller: this idea of finding happiness and how far one will go, and lie, in order to realise that.

“It’s not a terribly big role but I really wanted to be part of it. I think it’s incredible writing and it really gripped me when I read it. Fortunately I was able to accommodate that with A Place to Call Home.”

Where Gino is an Italian catholic, Alioune is French Muslim – “but that’s not the focus by any means in the play. It’s just his background,” says Mignone.

However, the chance to explore such different characters is what appeals to him about acting: “I like the idea of being caught up in different jobs, different ideas, different cultures for each role. It takes you to different places,” he says.

Born into an Italian family in Adelaide where his father is a doctor and his mother manages his medical practice, Mignone has four older sisters who used to dress him up and put on plays as kids. Later, they would take him to the theatre with them. “I just got caught up in it,” says Mignone, who went to NIDA but left two years into the course.

“There were just some disagreements,” he says. “I think the school is a good school. I think it disciplines you and you learn quite a bit but I was trying to do some outside work and I just wasn’t happy with the way it was handled so I decided to leave. Then I was in limbo for a bit working in hospitality and doing what you can to get by and then fortunately I landed A Place to Call Home.”

It was through his sister Louisa, who is also an actor, that he was cast as Gino. As luck would have it, Louisa – who performed in Mortido with Colin Friels at Belvoir last year and now lives in Los Angeles – was assisting at auditions for A Place to Call Home.

“At the time I didn’t have an agent and she said, ‘you should definitely see my brother for this role’. It was like, ‘Lou, thank you so much, that’s amazing.’ I was really so nervous. I had to sing this opera song and I’m a terrible singer but it got me the role,” says Mignone.

Whether A Place to Call Home goes into a fifth season remains to be seen. “People are talking in an excited way that it’s going so well so I wouldn’t be surprised if we did go ahead with a fifth season,” says Mignone, “but you never know until you are there on set filming.”

Belleville, Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo, April 20 – May 12. Bookings: oldfitztheatre.com/belleville

 A version of this story ran in the Daily Telegraph on April 15

 

The Original Grease

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, April 8

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Members of the company of The Original Grease with Brendan Xavier as Danny and Emily Hart as Sandy centre. Photo: Michael Francis, Francis Fotography

“Before Grease was the word, it was raw, raunchy and risqué,” writes director Jay James-Moody in the theatre program for The Original Grease.

As the title suggests, The Original Grease is at attempt to return the popular musical to the grittier, edgier show that it was when it premiered in 1971 in Chicago at the 300-seat Kingston Mines Theatre, a disused tram shed.

In fact, it’s not strictly that original 1971 production but a hybrid version, reconstructed by Jim Jacobs (who originally wrote Grease with Warren Casey) and director PJ Parapelli for the American Theatre Company, who staged it in Chicago in 2010. Warmly received, James-Moody chased the rights for years.

It’s very interesting to see where the show came from and how it has changed over the years, particularly in the wake of the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John when the sharper edges were knocked off it, the swearing toned down and the whole thing made more family-friendly. Those changes, along with the perky new songs that were added, made their way into subsequent stage productions and Grease evolved from something small and grungy to a more sanitised, bubblegum, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

However, historical interest aside, this production by indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic never really flies. In part that’s the production itself and in part it’s the inexperience of the youthful cast that James-Moody has gathered, not helped by the lack of punchy rock ‘n’ roll oomph to many of the songs.

The score assembled for The Original Grease predominantly features songs from the 1971 Chicago production, some of them little known, such as a comic number for Patty Simcox called Yeeughh! and Miss Lynch’s In My Day, both cut prior to the show going to Broadway in 1972.

There are also a few numbers that didn’t even make it to the 1971 Chicago debut and an underwhelming song for Danny called How Big I’m Gonna Be, written for the 2010 version from chords and lyrics that Jacobs and Casey sketched long ago.

The songs written for the film have all been removed. So, no Summer Nights, Sandy, Hopelessly Devoted or You’re the One That I Want. Nor will you hear the song Grease as you know it but a different one with the same title, while Kenickie sings Alone at the Drive In Movie rather than Danny.

It’s fascinating to hear the beginnings of Summer Nights in Foster Beach (the number it replaced) and likewise All Choked Up, which made way for You’re the One That I Want. But you can see why numbers were changed. There aren’t any lost musical gems here.

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Timothy Shead, Aaron Robuck, Brendan Xavier, Doron Chester, Temujin Tera, Jason Mobbs-Green. Photo: Michael Francis, Francis Fotography

Drawing on Jacobs’ own experience, Grease was originally about teenagers from the tough, working class suburbs of Chicago. There are scenes showing them roaming the streets at night, trying to get a homeless man to buy them booze, with a police officer forever on their case (shades of West Side Story), while their conversations include more swearing, sexist and racist comments, and slang than in later versions of the show.

You certainly get more of a sense of teenagers from the rough side of town but essentially it’s the same story as the one we know. It’s more of an ensemble piece though. Sandy and Danny are less fore-grounded, even though their story still tops and tails the show, and there’s a lot more dialogue.

James-Moody has assembled a cast of young performers, not long out of their teens. Brendan Xavier who plays Danny Zuko is 18. Where most productions cast older, their youthfulness adds a level of authenticity. However, their inexperience as performers shows. They certainly perform with energy though it’s often unfocussed and lines are sometimes hard to hear, while more acting nuance is needed to carry the dialogue scenes.

As for the musical arrangements, there’s little raw 1950s rock ‘n’ roll edge to the songs and without that punch the show doesn’t lift with the musical numbers. Even Born to Hand Jive doesn’t really rock. And with the six-piece band conducted by Benjamin Kiehne sitting centre-stage, it seems a lost opportunity not to have them looking (and playing) like 1950s rockers.

James-Moody’s production is modestly staged on a minimal, gritty set (designed by Georgia Hopkins) with a metal platform and a few tyres, which works well enough. There are some lovely touches like the inventive way James-Moody has the boys create Greased Lightning with a few bits and bobs including a car fender and a steering wheel. But much of the staging feels messy, while a moment of nudity just feels awkward. Brendan Hay’s costuming is pretty spot-on and adds plenty of colour, even if some of the girl’s outfits feels a little risqué for the 50s.

Coral Mercer-Jones is a standout as Rizzo and her soulful rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is a musical highlight. Matilda Moran is a hoot as a goofy Patty, Daniella Mirels is a vulnerable Frenchy, the beauty school dropout, and Stephanie Priest is sweetly funny as Jan – with a cute, touching scene between Jan and Jason Mobbs-Green as Roger (“Rump”) when they surprise themselves by hooking up.

The Original Grease is a great opportunity to get a sense of how Grease began and how it has changed over the years. It’s reasonably enjoyable but the production never really soars and as it ambles along it starts to feel long and increasingly flat. As a friend said: “it’s interesting historically but it’s not a version I’d want to see again.”

The Original Grease plays at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until May 7. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

King Charles III

Roslyn Packer Theatre, April 2

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Robert Powell as Charles and Tim Treloar as the Prime Minister, Mr Evans. Photo: Prudence Upton

Queen Elizabeth II is dead. Long live King Charles III – or maybe not.

Unlike the Queen, who never meddled in affairs of State, Charles hasn’t even made it to his coronation when he astonishes the Prime Minister by refusing to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press. With neither Charles nor Parliament prepared to budge, a constitutional crisis looms. Before long there’s unrest on the street and a tank parked outside Buckingham Palace.

So begins Mike Bartlett’s fascinating play 2014 King Charles III. Directed by Rupert Goold for London’s Almeida Theatre, it has had hugely successful seasons in the West End and on Broadway. Now a British company led by Robert Powell as Charles, which has been touring the play around the UK, is in Sydney with a finely honed production.

Set in the near future, King Charles III has the ring of one of Shakespeare’s history plays with Charles as a tragic figure: a principled man with a conscience but also a yen to hold more sway than a mere figurehead.

The Duchess of Cambridge, meanwhile, is well aware of the monarchy as a brand, its strength measured in column inches.

There are numerous Shakespearean echoes through the play with references to Lear, Henry IV, Macbeth Richard II and Hamlet. Bartlett has even written most of it in blank verse (apart from scenes featuring Prince Harry and his commoner girlfriend Jess, a Republican arts student from a working class background) using the iambic pentameter as Shakespeare did.

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Lucy Phelps as Jess and Rupert Glaves as Prince Harry. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

It’s a clever, daring concept, which Bartlett has pulled off with considerable skill and wit. The language is actually very accessible, so much so you almost forget that it’s verse at times, while the inclusion of contemporary words and phrases is often very funny.

Though there’s certainly a comic frisson in first meeting the Royal characters – Charles, Camilla, William, Kate, Harry and a certain family ghost proffering conflicting prophecies – the play is by no means a parody. The characters are presented as real and Bartlett canvasses serious issues regarding the role and value (if any) of the Royal Family, the power of the media, and the impact of a rapidly changing society on the mindset of its people.

However, a small section of the opening night audience seemed determined to see the play in superficial terms and laugh at everything, upsetting the rhythm and tension of certain scenes.

What the play doesn’t generate is a great deal of emotional connection. Charles’ fate is unexpectedly moving and Harry’s misgivings and confusion about his role in life are touchingly understandable but mostly it’s a cerebral affair.

Designer Tom Scutt sets the action on a raised dais surrounded by a bare brick wall with darkened doors and a frieze of blurry faces suggesting the populace beyond the palace walls. Using minimal props, Goold stages the action with elegant simplicity. Stylised touches such as the choral singing and the use of Guy Fawkes masks in a street riot are strikingly effective. Only the scenes with the ghost feel unconvincingly staged.

Jocelyn Pook’s score adds plenty of atmosphere, and captures a sense of past and present with music ranging from the opening Requiem to pulsing minimalist chords.

Powell is marvellous as Charles, portraying a dignified but conflicted man driven by an uneasy mix of idealism and frustration after his long wait to become king. As the play unfolds, he also displays a slightly manic attachment to the power of the monarch, while his sense of betrayal is keenly felt.

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Robert Powell as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Will and Kate. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton do a wonderful job of capturing the clean-cut, photogenic glamour of Kate and Will, before revealing a steely strategic nous.

In a comic sub-plot reminiscent of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, Harry is portrayed as a disconsolate, troubled figure unsure of his role in life. Dressed in hoodie and jeans, Rupert Glaves conveys a surly passion and vulnerability as he contemplates life with a commoner, rather than the affable ease that the real ginger-headed Prince projects, while Lucy Phelps is a spirited Jess.

Carolyn Pickles is very funny as Camilla, urging her man to stand firm while displaying little understanding of what is unfolding. Tim Treloar is excellent as the Welsh Prime Minister, who is not a million miles from former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, while Giles Taylor exudes a born-to-the-manor confidence as the Tory opposition leader.

King Charles III is excitingly adventurous theatre in the way is plays with form. It also ignites healthy debate. With the Republican issue still unresolved in Australia, the foyer was full of heated discussions afterwards.

King Charles III plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 30. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 1

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Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo: Daniel Boud

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake ranges from the ordinary to the sublime, but with Amber Scott giving a divine performance as Odette/Odile, sensitively partnered by Adam Bull as Prince Siegfried, this Australian Ballet revival is ultimately a very satisfying experience.

Baynes was commissioned to create a new Swan Lake for the company’s 50th anniversary in 2012. Artistic director David McAllister wanted a traditional production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s stunning modern version, created in 2002 for the company’s 40th anniversary, which drew so cleverly on the love triangle between Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles.

 Baynes has retained most of the Act II choreography for the swans from the 1895 Kirov version – and why wouldn’t you; it’s gorgeous and much-loved – as well as the Black Swan pas de deux in Act III. The rest is his.

He has topped and tailed the ballet with an image of Baron von Rothbart on a funeral boat. In the prelude, a melancholy Prince Siegfried, struggling with the responsibilities of his role as his coming-of-age party approaches, recalls his grief as a young boy at his father’s funeral. A boat glides across the back of the stage carrying his father’s body. Baron von Rothbart appears from behind it and fixes his gaze on the Prince.

At the end of the ballet, Rothbart fishes Prince Siegfried’s body from the lake and lifts it onto the boat. The suggestion that Rothbart holds some kind of sway over the royal family, and the Prince in particular, isn’t developed any further though. Baynes does have Rothbart lounge casually in one of the royal thrones during the Act III divertissements but that comes across as pretty unlikely. And it feels strange that we don’t see Rothbart controlling the swans.

The production gets off to a slow start with a rather ordinary Act I. The court is busy preparing for Prince Siegfried’s birthday. Ambassadors present foreign princesses to him in the hope that he will choose one of them to be his wife, while The Duchess and The Countess vie for the Prince’s attention. However, Siegfried can summon little enthusiasm for anything around him and as the act ends, he is drawn to the solitude of the lake. Thus he meets Odette as a result of his melancholy, rather than being in the forest hunting with friends, which is an interesting psychological reading.

Without a great deal of story-telling or dynamic choreography to enliven it, Act I feels rather long and uninspiring. The ballet takes off in Act II with the swans. The corps de ballet were in great form on opening night (less so, at the matinee the following day) and the beautiful, familiar choreography with the dancers in their white and silvery tutus, moving together in perfect synchronicity to create beautiful formations of swans, is as spellbinding as ever.

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Members of the Australian Ballet. Photo: Kate Longley

Most thrilling, however, is Baynes’ own choreography for the swans in Act IV. The way he has them flurry and swirl around the stage, moving apart and then flocking back together as the Prince tries to find Odette among them is absolutely beautiful. Their use of fluttering hands, arms and feet captures the sense of women trapped in swan’s bodies, and Odette’s grief at Siegfried’s betrayal, which has her body just about giving out beneath her, is heart-rending.

It’s a shame that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax with the Prince just running off stage, before being fished out of the water by Rothbart, while Odette is represented by the image of a flying on screen. The fact that she has been freed from Rothbart’s power by the Prince’s sacrifice doesn’t really come across and we feel robbed of that final cathartic, emotional moment.

Designer Hugh Colman has chosen the Edwardian era for the court scenes, with a lovely use of colour in Act III – greens, aquamarines, pinks and purples for the ladies and some vibrant designs for the Spanish dancers and Cossacks, which give the ballet a boost of exuberant energy. The lake meanwhile glitters darkly, moodily lit by Rachel Burke.

On opening night, Amber Scott was everything you want in an Odette/Odile. Her Odette was exquisitely fragile and ethereal. She danced as if there was a little less gravity in the air around her and conveyed emotion with every fibre of her being. The gracefulness of her arms, the undulating flexibility in her back and neck, the delicate, nervous flutter of her feet was utterly captivating.

Her Odile had a similar beauty but bolder strength and the calculated expression on her face conveyed the knowing way she used her charm to trick the Prince. As for her 32 fouettes, she nailed them with a precision that had the audience cheering.

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Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo: Daniel Boud

Adam Bull was a sensitive Prince Siegfried, partnering her beautifully, his towering height compared to hers working to emphasise how much he wanted to protect her. With his long limbs, the small stage doesn’t give him the space to really let fly with his Act III set pieces but he still generated excitement and his performance convinced dramatically.

Benedicte Bemet as the pushy Duchess and Miwako Kubota as The Countess both danced beautifully and created strong characters, as did Rudy Hawkes as the Prince’s friend Benno. Veteran dancers, Gillian Revie as the Queen, Olga Tamara as Siegfried’s nurse and Stephen Heathcote as The Lord Chancellor each created a strong dramatic presence.

Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score is, of course, a perennial pleasure and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra performed it superbly under guest conductor Andrew Mogrelia.

I was lucky enough to see Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo make their debuts as Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile at the matinee the next day. While not yet as heart-breakingly fragile as the experienced Scott, Kondo danced beautifully, capturing Odette’s feeling of entrapment and sorrow, while her Odile exuded confidence without being wildly different to her Odette. Guo conveyed the Prince’s melancholy convincingly and his set pieces in Act III had the dazzling energy and élan that makes him such an exciting dancer. Their emotional connection to the roles will naturally develop, but it was an impressive debut by both.

Swan Lake plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 20. Bookings http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777