Little Shop of Horrors

Hayes Theatre Co, February 23

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Tyler Coppin as Mr Mushnik and Brent Hill as Seymour (with Audrey II). Photo: Jeff Busby

The Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the scene in February 2014 with a brilliantly re-imagined production of Sweet Charity. Two years later, the same creative team, led by director Dean Bryant, has reunited to stage Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s 1982 cult musical Little Shop of Horrors.

Naturally, expectations were high but this pitch-perfect production (from Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions) exceeds them.

Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 black-and-white schlock-horror film, Menken has described Little Shop of Horrors as “a merry little musical romp about how greed will end the world”.

Set in the early 1960s, a downtrodden, dorky florist’s assistant on Skid Row called Seymour Krelborn dreams of a better life and winning the love of his equally put-upon co-worker Audrey, who is dating a sadistic dentist.

When Seymour discovers a strange plant, which he calls Audrey II, fame and fortune follow. But the plant needs human blood to survive and its appetite just keeps growing. Seymour must decide how and whether to keep feeding it.

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Esther Hannaford as Audrey, Brent Hill as  Seymour and Audrey II. Photo: Jeff Busby

With a wonderfully catchy score drawing on 1960s rock and doo-wop, a tight plot and razor-sharp lyrics, Little Shop has long been a crowd-pleaser. But Bryant’s superb production gives the show a fresh heart and dark edge that could hardly be bettered, balancing the show’s spoofy comedy and gritty themes perfectly.

Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny but we never lose sight of the fact that the plant feeds on greed and self-interest (even if it comes from a heartfelt, innocent place) as well as human flesh. It is also a metaphor for every fear about being invaded and consumed whether by aliens or migrants, communism or capitalism, anything we might consider threatening.

Owen Phillips’ superb, off-kilter set with its drab florist shop and clever projections on a front curtain embodies an inspired surprise in the way it plays with colour, while the plant itself is a series of remarkable, ever-bigger puppets by Sydney-based company Erth Visual & Physical Inc., eventually taking over most of the stage. When the plant gets its teeth into a full, meaty meal, it’s so well choreographed it’s stomach-turningly convincing.

Tim Chappel’s costuming is gorgeously kitsch, and Andrew Hallsworth’s witty choreography is sensational, ranging from a modern take on 1960s girl group moves to a hilarious Russian/Jewish folk dance with squatting kicks and turns for “Mushnik and Son”. Brought to vibrant, heightened life by Ross Graham’s lighting, the production is an eye-popping visual delight.

Musically the production is terrific too, performed by a five-piece offstage band led by musical director Andrew Worboys. At times, in a minor quibble, the sound is a bit loud for the tiny Hayes but that won’t be an issue when the production goes into larger venues on its national tour.

Bryant has cast the show beautifully. As Seymour and Audrey, two lost souls who briefly glimpse happiness, Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford give the production an aching heart.

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Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

Hill is totally endearing as Seymour. In an intriguing move, Bryant has Hill voice the plant too, which opens up Seymour’s relationship with Audrey II to various interpretations. It means that Hill sings an extraordinary duet with himself in “Feed Me (Git It)”. It’s hugely demanding technically but Hill does it so superbly (a vocal tour de force) you don’t even realise he’s doing it initially.

Hannaford is exquisite as the ditsy Audrey, conveying her vulnerability and painful lack of self-esteem. Her comic timing is impeccable and her ravishing voice shimmers with emotion whether it’s gently caressing a ballad or soaring into the stratosphere. “Suddenly Seymour”, which she sings with Hill is a spine-tingling musical highlight.

Ellen Greene, who played Audrey in the original production and Frank Oz’s 1986 film, famously gave the character a girlish, breathy voice complete with lisp. Hannaford’s accent is less pronounced than that (mercifully) but mixes an Eastern European tinge into the New York drawl, which works well.

Scott Johnson is hilarious as the psychopathic dentist who gets high on nitrous oxide while inflicting pain, giving him a knowing swagger. Tyler Coppin is also very funny as the mercenary, unmensch Mr Mushnik.

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Angelique Cassimatis, Chloe Zuel and Josie Lane. Photo: Jeff Busby

As the sassy girl-group Greek chorus, Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel each have a fierce individual presence and voice while harmonising tightly, raising the roof.

Bryant brings it all together in a production that is dazzlingly entertaining, creepy in a comical kind of way and yet tough enough to get under your skin and keep you pondering it long after the lights have gone down. Utterly brilliant.

Little Shop of Horrors plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 19. It then tours to Adelaide Festival Centre from April 20 – 29; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne from May 4– 12; Canberra Theatre Centre from May 25 – 29; QPAC, Brisbane from June 1 – 9; Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney from July 20 – 24; His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth from August 4 – 7.

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 28

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Ladies in Black

Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Melbourne, February 4

Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Christen O’Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Enchanting. That’s the word you keep hearing when people discuss the new Australian musical Ladies in Black – and enchanting it is.

It’s wonderful to see an Australian musical that succeeds so well as a show, feels distinctively Australian and strikes such a chord with audiences. What’s more, unlike hit musicals Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Boy From Oz, which use existing songs, Ladies in Black has an original score written by Tim Finn.

It was Finn who initiated the project, having had his interest piqued in writing a musical after a dozen of his pop songs were used in Poor Boy, a 2009 play with music by Matt Cameron. Finn approached Simon Phillips, the director of Poor Boy, who quickly became interested in the idea of Ladies in Black and agreed to direct it, bringing his wife Carolyn Burns on board to write the book, which is adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black.

Regular Phillips collaborator Gabriela Tylesova was enlisted to design set and costumes, Guy Simpson joined the team as orchestrator and musical supervisor, with Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer and David Walters as lighting designer. Together, they proved to be a match made in heaven and the results are a true delight.

Produced by Queensland Theatre Company, Ladies in Black premiered in Brisbane in November and was then presented by Melbourne Theatre Company in Melbourne, where it opened in January and runs until February 27.

Set in Sydney in the 1950s, it tells the coming-of-age story of high school leaver Lisa Miles; a story which embodies the changing role and status of women in Australia at that time. It’s also about a city and a country on the cusp of becoming cosmopolitan thanks to the influx of European immigrants or “continentals” as the Australian characters call them.

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Christen O’Leary as Magda and Sarah Morrison as Lisa. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Lisa, who is super-bright, wants to go to university if she gets the high grades anticipated. Her mother is supportive but her working class father won’t have a bar of it. As he sees it, a secretarial course is more than enough education for a woman; he’s already been generous in letting her stay on at school.

Over the Christmas holidays, Lisa gets a job at Goodes, Sydney’s most prestigious department store (a thinly disguised David Jones). Naïve and mousey when she starts, her horizons are rapidly expanded by the two women she assists in Ladies Cocktail Frocks, Patty and Fay, and particularly by the enigmatic Magda, a Hungarian refugee, who oversees the more exclusive attire in Model Gowns.

Magda takes a shine to Lisa and invites her home to meet her husband Stefan, where Lisa is excited by the chance to taste different food, discuss literature, dance and glimpse a far more bohemian, cultured, passionate lifestyle.

Woven through this narrative are the stories of Patty, who desperately wants a child but whose husband walks out on her when the infertility problem seems to be his, and Fay, a lively young woman with a past who would dearly love to settle down but who can’t find a man who wants more than a brief fling.

Burns’ book skilfully juggles the various stories and while it doesn’t go into great depth, the characters are well enough drawn and so beautifully performed that we believe in them, warm to them and care about them all.

In a succinct piece of storytelling, we also meet the lonely, kindly Miss Jacobs, whose fiancée was killed during the First World War. In a few brief moments we learn enough about her to be very moved by a short scene showing her at Christmas.

Finn’s music, which ranges in style from country ballads to soaring romantic odes to comedy numbers, is charmingly melodic. There isn’t a big 11 o’clock number, which wouldn’t go astray. Instead, the show ends with a reprisal of a song called “Tomorrow Becomes Today”.

The lyrics, also written by Finn, are sharp and witty, drawing on the Australian vernacular to great comic effect in numbers including the show-stopper “He’s a Bastard”, which gets a huge response. Fay’s song “I Just Kissed a Continental” is also joyously uplifting.

Performed by a six-piece band led by musical director David Young, the thoroughly engaging score has been given some lovely arrangements by Simpson.

Phillips, whose musical theatre credits include Priscilla, Love Never Dies and The Drowsy Chaperone among others, directs with consummate flair, keeping the action moving swiftly and seamlessly, aided by the three stage revolves incorporated into Tylesova’s design. Together with Hallsworth’s choreography, all the moments land from poignant moments of quiet drama to the exuberant showpieces.The only scene that feels under-staged (because of cast size and logistics) is Magda’s New Year’s Eve party where Magda essentially narrates what happens (including Lisa meeting a young man) and we just see silhouettes of people dancing.

Tylesova’s set features several Perspex pillars to suggest the elegance of Goodes, along with various props from clothing racks to tables and chairs, which appear quickly for the different settings. Her costumes are just gorgeous from glamorous gowns to colourful cotton frocks to 1950s beachwear.

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Kate Cole and Lucy Maunder (front); Naomi Price, Deidre Rubenstein and Christen O’Leary (behind). Photo: Rob Maccoll

The cast is uniformly terrific – and given that the musical is primarily about women, it’s wonderful to see such a large, strong female cast. Sarah Morrison convincingly portrays Lisa’s gradual blossoming from shy, gauche youngster to confident young woman ready to face a brave new world. And, yes, she wears glasses initially which are later removed – a well-worn trick but one that works.

Lucy Maunder brings a luminosity and vulnerability to Patty, subtly conveying her confusion and heartache when her husband leaves. Naomi Price is wonderfully vivacious as Fay, and has us all rooting for her to find love. Christen O’Leary brings just the right level of exoticism to Magda, while the warm, loving, playful relationship she has with her Hungarian husband is delightfully evoked by her and Greg Stone.

Deidre Rubenstein gives a touching performance as the lonely Miss Jacobs, Carita Farrer Spencer conveys a quiet strength as Lisa’s mother, while Kate Cole and the very funny Kathryn McIntyre, both impress in double roles.

As the men in the women’s lives, Stone is excellent, giving two very different performances as Lisa’s disciplinarian, working class father and Magda’s loving, supportive husband. Bobby Fox is heartwarmingly charming as Rudi, another young Hungarian refugee and friend of Magda’s, and gets to dazzle with some fancy footwork, while Andrew Broadbent captures the emotional repression of Patty’s “bastard” Aussie husband Frank, later revealing the shame and hidden pain he is struggling with.

While tackling themes including the cultural cringe, sexism and xenophobic attitudes to refugees, Ladies in Black doesn’t dig that deep in its exploration of the era and has a light, almost fairytale feel to it. Nonetheless, the issues are still strongly felt and we care about all the characters. It’s a beguiling, joyous show and sent me home floating on air. Hopefully someone will bring it to Sydney – it certainly deserves to be more widely seen.

Ladies in Black plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until February 27. Bookings: www.mtc.com.au or 03 8688 0800

2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

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

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

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

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

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

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

Les Misérables

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

The Sound of Music

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

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

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

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

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

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

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

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

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

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

Heathers the Musical

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

Dogfight

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

High Society

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

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

Man of La Mancha

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

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

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

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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

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

The Present

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

Endgame

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

Suddenly Last Summer

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

Ivanov

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

My Zinc Bed

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

The Tempest

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

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

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Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

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

The Aliens

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

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

Cock

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

The Dapto Chaser

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

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

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

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

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

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

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

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

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

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

CABARET

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

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

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Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

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

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

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

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

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

OPERA

 Faust

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

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

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

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

DANCE

Frame of Mind

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

The Sleeping Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

 Conform

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

Departures

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

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

RISING STARS

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

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

 

Little Shop of Horrors is Back for More Blood

Brent Hill will play Seymour and Esther Hannaford will play Audrey in the new Hayes Theatre Co production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: supplied

Brent Hill will play Seymour and Esther Hannaford will play Audrey in the new Hayes Theatre Co production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: supplied

In February 2014, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto Sydney’s musical theatre scene with a brilliantly re-imagined, award-winning production of Sweet Charity, which later had a return season at the Sydney Opera House and then toured.

Now, as revealed in today’s Sunday Telegraph, the same creative team is reuniting almost exactly two years later to stage a production of Little Shop of Horrors, produced by Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions.

Dean Bryant will direct with musical direction by Andrew Worboys, choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, set design by Owen Phillips, costume design by Tim Chappel, lighting design by Ross Graham and sound design by Jeremy Silver.

The kooky musical about a man-eating plant will open at the Hayes in February then tour nationally.

“We had so much fun (on Sweet Charity),” says Lisa Campbell of Luckiest Productions.

“We were very fortunate that Sweet Charity got the life that it did and I’m very proud of what the creative team produced. It was a very special time. It’s not that we’re trying to rebottle that but the team worked so incredibly well together it makes sense to jump back on the bus and do another one.”

A national tour has already been locked in for logistical reasons, says Campbell: “With the amount of musicals in the market over the next year or so it would have been very difficult to wait and see how the Hayes season went and hope for a transfer and extension afterwards so we had to think about it in those terms. We also decided that if we were going to be able to do the show that we wanted, we needed to have enough venues to support it as we wanted the plant to be as spectacular as possible.”

Little Shop of Horrors was written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who went on to co-write the songs for Disney’s animated films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. (The Disney musical of Aladdin opens in Sydney next August). Little Shop premiered off-off Broadway in 1982 then ran off-Broadway for five years.

Set in the early 1960s, Seymour Krelborn is a hapless, meek florist’s assistant on Skid Row, who dreams of a better life and winning the love of his co-worker Audrey. When he discovers a strange plant, which he calls Audrey II, fame and fortune follow. But as Audrey II grows, so does its appetite for human flesh.

Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 film, Menken has described the musical as “a merry little musical romp about how greed will end the world.”

The catchy score is composed in the style of 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown with songs including Feed Me, Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That’s Green.

“I think the music is spectacular and I think the story is tragic and beautiful and hilarious. When we got to the Hayes, it was one of the first things that I thought deserved to be on that stage and would suit it,” says Campbell.

The new Hayes production features a top-notch cast with Brent Hill (Rock of Ages, Once) as Seymour, Esther Hannaford (King Kong, Miracle City) as Audrey, Tyler Copin (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as the florist Mr Mushnik and Scott Johnson (Jersey Boys) as Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, along with Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane, Chloe Zuel, Dash Kruck and Kuki Tipoki.

Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford with Audrey II. Photo: supplied

Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford with Audrey II. Photo: supplied

Audrey II is being created by Erth, a theatre company known for its extraordinary puppets in shows such as Dinosaur Zoo. Campbell, who had been aware of their work for several years, went to talk with them 18 months ago.

“I met with Steve Howarth, one of the founders of Erth, and I said, ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware of the musical Little Shop of Horrors but I need somebody to create a man-eating plant.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for 25 years for somebody to ask me to do this,’” says Campbell.

“We have three versions of Audrey II and within each of those there is room for the plant to grow. It’s very exciting.”

The Hayes will unveil the rest of its program for the first half of 2016 at a launch tomorrow night.

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on October 18

TOUR DATES

 Sydney – Hayes Theatre Co from February 18th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE NOW

hayestheatre.com.au or ticketmaster.com.au

Adelaide – Her Majesty’s Theatre from April 20th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE WEDNESDAY 28TH OCTOBER

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Melbourne – Comedy Theatre from May 4th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

ticketmaster.com.au

Canberra – Canberra Theatre from May 25th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE WEDNESDAY 25TH NOVEMBER

canberratheatrecentre.com.au or ticketmaster.com.au

Brisbane – Playhouse Theatre QPAC from June 1st 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

qpac.com.au

Sweet Charity remount

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 16

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sound of Musicals in Australia in 2015

At the 2014 Helpmann Awards, a David and Goliath contest in the musical theatre categories generated the biggest buzz of the night, with observers genuinely intrigued to see how the votes had landed.

For there, alongside the large commercial shows like The King and I, The Rocky Horror Show and Strictly Ballroom, was Sweet Charity: the inaugural production from the newly formed Hayes Theatre Co, which had turned a 110-seat theatre in the Sydney suburb of Potts Point into a dedicated venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret.

Sweet Charity, which sold out within three days after rapturous reviews, received eight Helpmann nominations and won three for its director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and leading lady Verity Hunt-Ballard.

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

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar in Sweet Charity. Photo: supplied

The production returns this week, opening at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse Theatre on Friday for a three-week season then touring to Canberra, Wollongong and Melbourne.

“I am thrilled that this tiny little show is getting a bigger life,” says Bryant. “It was a magical time for all of us, and we never could have seen that it would have the impact and get the response that it did. I’m very keen for people to see what we did, and especially to see Verity’s brilliant performance.”

Bryant says that the 2015 revival will have “the same spirit as the original but be refitted and possibly redesigned into the larger venues that it will play. It’s not about replicating it, but remembering what the engine of the original production was and finding out how to do that in a new venue.”

Bryant is one of Australia’s busiest young musical theatre directors. He is the worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and has directed The Producers, Anything Goes and, late last year, La Cage Aux Folles for The Production Company in Melbourne.

This year, he helms his biggest production to date: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which he believes has “a perfectly conceived script and a brilliant score”.

Opera Australia is co-producing the show with John Frost, following their successful collaborations on South Pacific and The King and I.

It was Todd McKenney who initiated the production, telling Frost he’d love to reprise the role of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, which he played for The Production Company.

“I thought, ‘good idea, it’s time for a revival’ and I thought Dean had done such a great job of it. I asked if he’d like to do it, though I said, ‘I don’t want it to be a copy of what The Production Company did,’” says Frost.

The production stars Caroline O’Connor as Reno Sweeney alongside McKenney, Alex Rathgeber, Debora Krizak, Wayne Scott Kermond, Claire Lyon, Carmen Duncan and (controversially) Alan Jones in the small role of the ship’s captain.

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O'Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O’Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The basic structure of the set has been imported from a New Zealand production but designer Dale Ferguson is refurbishing it, making significant change and changes to create a new look. Ferguson will also design the costumes.

Hallsworth will do the choreography as he did for The Production Company version but the production will be new.

“We have a mostly new principal cast, it will be a fresh ensemble, there are new designers on board and we’re in different venues,” says Bryant. “As far as I’m concerned we’ll build it as if we’ve never done the show before, but we happen to have the knowledge of the previous production stored in our memory banks.

“There was one delicious part of Andrew’s choreography in the title number that HAS to make its way back into the show, but otherwise we’ll build the ship from scratch.”

Matilda the Musical with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australia’s own Tim Minchin is one of the year’s most keenly anticipated shows.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Described by the New York Times as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain”, Matilda was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company who premiered it at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010. In 2011, it transferred to the West End winning rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards. A Broadway production opened in 2013 to ecstatic reviews and won four Tony Awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, it tells the story of Matilda Wormwood, a precocious, book-loving child with a ghastly family and a brutally evil headmistress, who stands up to injustice and prevails against the odds, with a little help from her telekinetic powers.

The RSC will present the show in Australia with several producers including Australian-based Louise Withers whose other credits include Billy Elliot the Musical.

The cast will be announced in April. “We are auditioning between November and February. When you are dealing with this many children you can’t audition too early as they grow up too fast,” says Withers.

There are a total of 29 children across three casts. “We had 52 children in Billy Elliot so 29 is OK,” she adds sanguinely.

Withers emphasises that the show is not just for children. “It ticks the box for every age group from six to 76. A lot of adults today were Roald Dahl devotees growing up. They are now parents reading the books to their children. It jumps generations in the same way as The Lion King.”

Some believe that Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, where the production opens in August, is too large for the show.

“Obviously it’s a different size to the London theatre. Theatres in London and New York tend to be smaller. But the design will be developed to help bring the eye in, and the show is full of life and energy so I’m sure it will fill the space,” says Withers.

Sydney will also host the Australian premiere of Here Lies Love, which will be presented as a centerpiece of the Vivid Sydney festival. An immersive disco musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, the show had its first outing at the 2006 Adelaide Festival where it was presented in a concert version. The fully-fledged show premiered in New York in 2013 and recently had a sell-out London season produced by the National Theatre.

The inventive staging has the actors performing on platforms and moving catwalks, creating a club-like environment in which the audience is forced to keep moving, while video projections mix historical footage with live simulcasts.

The Australian production will be staged in The Millennium, a purpose-built, pop-up venue in Barangaroo.

From London’s West End comes Thriller Live, which celebrates the music and career of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. The national tour began in Perth in December. The show opens in Brisbane this week then tours to Melbourne and Sydney with short seasons in each. (There is an interview with the show’s creator Adrian Grant on this blog).

In September, The Lion King became the top-selling musical, indeed entertainment, of all time taking $6.2 billion worldwide since it opened on Broadway in 1997. After doing roaring business in Sydney this year, the production opens in Melbourne in February.

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical also moves to Melbourne where it plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre from this Saturday after premiering to mixed reviews in Sydney.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

“As with any brand new production we’re taking the opportunity of trimming and tightening the show,” says Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures and producer of the musical. “Since opening we have shortened the running time, restaged Time After Time, added a new opening number and given greater clarity to the story telling and staging.”

Meanwhile, the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables, with brand new staging, starts the year in Perth and then moves to Sydney in March, after a successful Melbourne season in 2014.

Other musicals, which continue touring into 2015 include Grease (which runs at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre until January 30), Wicked and The Rocky Horror Show, all produced in Australia by Frost.

Wicked closes in Sydney on January 30. Suzie Mathers takes over the role of Glinda from Lucy Durack (who is expecting her first baby) for the Brisbane season from February 12 and then Perth in May. Simon Gallaher takes on the role of the Wizard.

Craig McLachlan reprises the role of Frank N Furter in the Sydney season of The Rocky Horror Show, which begins its run on April 11, with Bert Newton stepping into the role of the Narrator. Other cast changes will be announced soon. The show then returns to Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in June.

Sadly, Once, which Frost produced with Melbourne Theatre Company, will not tour despite wonderful reviews. It plays in Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until February 8.

Though not strictly a musical in the way it uses (or fails to use) songs, Frost is also producing a 10th anniversary tour of Dirty Dancing, which began life in Australia in 2004 before spending five years in the West End. Starring Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phelan, it received mixed reviews when it opened in Sydney recently. The Sydney season winds up on February 22 then moves to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

There have been persistent rumours that Frost will also produce The Sound of Music in 2015 though nothing is yet confirmed. Stay tuned.

Though Frost candidly admits that he isn’t terribly keen on producing new musicals, he does have one in the pipeline: Dream Lover about Bobby Darin, which was to have opened late in the year but will now probably open in 2016.

“I don’t really enjoy doing new musicals, they’re too hard for me,” says Frost, whose productions of An Officer and A Gentleman and Doctor Zhivago struggled at the box office.

“Whilst I will do them and we are going to do (Dream Lover), I get more kicks out of doing these big, brassy entertainments like (Anything Goes). Musicals are so expensive and to raise the money for them (is hard). That is just the way this country is. If you haven’t got a Tony Award or an Olivier Award attached to a show (investors) look at you as if you’re a freak.”

Written by Michael-John Howson and Frank Howson, Dream Lover has had two workshops and a substantial amount of script development. Simon Phillips will direct the production once he and the right-sized theatre become available. “I didn’t really want to put it into a 2000-seat theatre,” says Frost.

Phillips will also direct a new musical for Queensland Theatre Company called Ladies in Black. Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Woman in Black, it has a book by Carolyn Burns and music and lyrics by Tim Finn.

Set in Sydney, during the 1950s and 60s, Ladies in Black centres on Lisa, a bright-eyed, bookish school leaver whose life is transformed when she joins the sales staff in the city’s most prestigious department store. The production stars Christen O’Leary.

Other subsidised companies to feature musicals in their seasons include Melbourne Theatre Company, which is staging a “boutique musical” called What Rhymes With Cars And Girls, by Aidan Fennessy, a contemporary love story with songs from Tim Rogers’ first solo album, and Victorian Opera, which is presenting Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role, following productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.

Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company will also stage its first musical for many years and its first American musical: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal about a suburban mother with bipolar disorder. Opening in November, it will star Rachael Beck and Brendan Hanson.

“It won three Tony Awards from 11 nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama so it was an obvious one for us to dip our toe into the water with,” says artistic director Kate Cherry.

Cherry says that she is “really hoping in the future to do one musical a year. I love the form but I tend to be interested in more off-beat musicals. I’m fascinated at how musicals can allow us to talk about really difficult subjects yet enjoy ourselves at the same time.”

Meanwhile, the Hayes Theatre Co is currently staging an acclaimed production of Next to Normal from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts with Natalie O’Donnell in the central role of Diana.

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts' Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts’ Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Other productions coming up at the Hayes include Blood Brothers in February and, in May, Dogfight based on the 1991 film of the same name about three young soldiers on a final bender before they leave for Vietnam.

These and other independent productions around the country by smaller companies such as Squabbalogic in Sydney (which presents Man of La Mancha with Tony Sheldon from February 25 and Triassic Parq in June), Magnormos in Melbourne and Harvest Rain in Brisbane will add immeasurably to the musical theatre ecology.

News that the Hayes has relaunched New Musicals Australia, an initiative dedicated to the development and production of original music theatre, is especially welcome for Australian musical theatre writers.

A version of this story appeared in The Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, February 13

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Walking into the tiny theatre at Potts Point you are thrust straight into the world of Sweet Charity. A red neon sign reads “Girls, Girls, Girls”, the band is vamping, and the sexily clad ladies at the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works are already on stage, enticing men from the audience to dance with them.

It’s the perfect start to a fabulous production of the 1966 musical (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon), brilliantly re-imagined by director Dean Bryant for the times and the intimate venue.

Produced by Luckiest Productions and Neil Gooding Productions, Sweet Charity is the first production for the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the venue (formerly known as the Darlinghurst Theatre) into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret.

Sweet Charity tells the story of a dance hall hostess with a heart of gold looking for love in all the wrong places. With its episodic structure, it’s not the greatest musical ever written, merely following Charity as she is dumped by a louse called Charlie, encounters suave Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, and becomes engaged to neurotic accountant Oscar. But it’s joyous, funny and touching with some great songs including “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “The Rhythm of Life”.

Bryant has given the show a dirtier, grittier edge that makes it feel more current. It’s a small theatre for a musical but Bryant stages it ingeniously on Owen Phillips’s simple, grungy set (a few costume racks and some chairs), making inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors. Ross Graham’s moody lighting is also impressive.

A small, sharp band, led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keyboards, sits at the back of the stage and there’s a cast of 12 but the production rarely feels squashed.

Occasionally you sense the dance routines longing to break out as in Bob Fosse’s famous, original choreography. However, Andrew Hallsworth has done a fantastic job of choreographing distinctive, tight little movements and routines, while his twist on the Rich Man’s Frug, with surrealistic costumes by Academy Award-winner Tim Chappel, works a treat.

The terrific new musical arrangements by Worboys (who also plays Fandango owner Herman) and Chappel’s witty, sexy costumes (with wigs by Ben Moir) heighten the edgy vibe perfectly.

In her little, red, lacy dress, Verity Hunt-Ballard is gorgeous as Charity, capturing her kookiness, sweetness, sunny optimism and vulnerability. In a production this gritty, Charity might perhaps have been a little more “shop soiled” but it’s a radiant, endearing performance; sensationally sung, danced and acted, with knockout comic timing.

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

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

Martin Crewes plays Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar and delineates them with wonderfully detailed performances, making us care about the dorky Oscar as well as Charity.

Debora Krizak is also a standout, doubling as Nickie, Charity’s hard-bitten friend at the Fandango Ballroom, and Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend (here with an English accent). My date for the evening didn’t realise they were the same performer. But the entire ensemble is on song.

Having begun with the stage buzzing, the production ends in poignant fashion with Charity alone on an empty stage: a powerful conclusion to a fresh, thrilling production.

Sweet Charity announces the arrival of an exciting new musical theatre initiative in Sydney in emphatic fashion. It has set the benchmark high. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A slightly edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16