The Nick Enright Songbook

Eternity Playhouse, March 29

The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press

The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press

Last night, I tore myself away from the Cricket World Cup Final (tough call) to attend the launch of The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press. Hosted by Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the Eternity Playhouse, it was a lovely, warm event with performances and fond reminiscences from several of his collaborators and former students, among other artists.

As well as a playwright and screenwriter, Enright ­– who died 12 years ago today – collaborated on many Australian musicals. The best known is The Boy From Oz for which he wrote the book but he was also a gifted lyricist.

The publication brings together 50 of the best songs from ten musicals for which he wrote the lyrics, with music by five composers. These include The Venetian Twins, Variations and Summer Rain written with composer Terence Clarke, Buckley’s! with Glenn Henrich, Orlando Rourke with Alan John, The Betrothed, Mary Bryant and The Good Fight with David King, and Miracle City with Max Lambert.

Miracle City was produced last year by the Hayes Theatre Co, winning two Sydney Theatre Awards: Best Performance by a Female Actor in a musical for Blazey Best and Best Musical Direction for Lambert. A cast recording is on the way and Currency Press is publishing the show’s book.

The Nick Enright Songbook also includes two numbers from On the Wallaby – Enright’s play with music – one of which has music by Enright himself, and a cabaret song written with Lambert. Composer and academic Peter Wyllie Johnson edited the book and wrote the commemorative foreword.

Ian Enright introduced last night’s launch, recalling that his brother wrote 13 musicals and 250 songs.

Clarke, Lambert and Henrich were on hand to chat about their different ways of working with Enright and to play several of their songs, while performers including Jay James-Moody, Genevieve Lemon, Margi de Ferranti and Anthony Harkin among others sang a selection of them.

Lemon said that she had recently been to a school concert and hoped that school libraries will acquire or be given the book so that the school children are able to discover and sing some of his songs at such events.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir performed a beautifully arranged version of Sail Away from Mary Bryant, which was very moving, and Eddie Perfect, who was taught by Enright at WAAPA, sang a number he wrote (in 15 minutes between lectures) called Someone Like You as a tribute to Enright immediately after being told of his death.

The evening was a reminder of what an intelligent, skilled, sensitive and witty lyricist Enright was.

The foyer bar at the Eternity Playhouse is called Nick’s, named after Enright. The Enright Family is supporting Darlinghurst Theatre Company to stage three Enright plays over three years. The partnership began last year with a production of Daylight Saving and continues this year with Good Works.

Ian Enright said last night that he’d like to see one of Enright’s musicals being staged there. Let’s hope.

The Nick Enright Songbook (RRP $49.94) retails from all good bookstores and online at www.currency.com.au

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The Lysicrates Prize

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Botanic Garden, January 30

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney after Premier Mike Baird announced the winner of the first Lysicrates Prize.From left:  Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden. From left: Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, NSW Premier Mike Baird, and John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

The inaugural Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting was to have taken place in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden on the Band Lawn near the replica of the original Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that gives the competition its name.

It would have been a lovely spot for such an event. However, torrential rain earlier in the week left the grass too wet for the seating stand, so the play readings took place in Verbrugghen Hall. Guests then walked down to the lawn for the announcement of the prizewinner by NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The Lysicrates Prize calls for Australian playwrights to submit the first act of a new play. The three short-listed submissions are given a rehearsed play-reading in front of an invited audience. What sets this Prize apart from any other Australian playwriting award is that the audience decides the winner – as happened in Ancient Greece. The prize is a $12,500 commission from Griffin Theatre Company, with the runners-up receiving $1000 each.

The three finalists for the inaugural 2015 Lysicrates Prize were Steve Rodgers, Lally Katz and Justin Fleming, with Rodgers awarded the prize for his play Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.

It all began early in 2014 when John and Patricia Azarias, the founders of the Prize, took a walk through the Botanic Garden.

John Azarias loves Hellenic culture and had seen the original monument in Athens. On that particular day, as he and his wife approached the sandstone replica (commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin), they were struck by how eroded it was becoming. He decided then and there to raise the funds for its restoration in readiness for the Botanic Garden’s bicentenary in 2016.

The original monument was built by a rich sponsor (or choregoi) called Lysicrates to celebrate the winning play at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 334 BC, as was the tradition during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The monument has a frieze featuring Dionysus, the god of theatre. In a nice little link, the name ‘Sydney’ is an English version of the French ‘St Denis’, which in turn is a Gallic version of ‘St Dionysius’ – as John explained in his welcoming speech.

Patricia suggested that they also establish a theatre competition associated with the monument as a way to celebrate its restoration. They approached Lee Lewis at Griffin Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the performance of Australian plays, who agreed to run the competition. With some assistance from the NSW Government, along with additional funds raised by John, and the support of the Royal Botanic Garden, they were off.

For the first Lysicrates Prize, an audience made up of Griffin supporters and subscribers, politicians and theatre industry folk gathered at the Conservatorium to watch readings (rehearsed over three days) of the three short-listed plays.

Entering the auditorium, audience members were each given a gold coin with which to cast our vote in large pottery urns.

Rodgers’ Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam is adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novella and is a haunting story of suffocating love, grief and loss, and a family so close that the parents made an extreme decision when their young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia; a decision their son will struggle to understand.

Darren Yap – who approached Rodgers in the first place about a stage adaptation – directed the extract, which was performed by Jennifer Hagan, Anthony Harkin, Natalie O’Donnell, Rodgers himself and Govinda Röser-Finch.

The emotional scenario and complex moral dilemma posed clearly struck a chord with the audience.

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Rodgers said of his win: “Jesus Wants me For a Sunbeam isn’t a play yet. It’s just a bunch of scenes and ideas adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novel. But because of The Lysicrates Prize, we now get the chance to develop it into a truly important new Australian play. I’m over the moon.

“Philanthropy of this kind in Australia isn’t common, so obviously I’m more than thrilled. This play is about family and explores a kind of love that in one moment you’re completely in sympathy with, and the next, you’re reeling away from in horror. The Lysicrates Prize gives us the chance, to hopefully unleash all that familial complexity on an audience.”

The evening began with Lally Katz’s Fortune, directed by Kate Gaul and performed by Briallen Clarke, Anni Finsterer, Sean Hawkins and Russell Kiefel.

The black comedy is set in a seedy hotel in the US where the woman who owns it has asked a psychic with a crystal ball to tell her about a man who spent time in one of the rooms. The Romany fortune-teller is pregnant and she and her cowboy boyfriend desperately need money to start a new life on his father’s land. Meanwhile, two men who have just lost their Wall Street jobs in the GFC are waiting to book into the hotel: one of them has been around the block, the other is a young Australian who had only just joined the company. It’s an intriguing set-up, the characters are all fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The night wound up with Justin Fleming’s The Savvy Women, another of his rollicking, contemporary Australian adaptations of Molière, following his success with Tartuffe and The School for Wives.

Directed by Gale Edwards, and performed by Andrea Demetriades, Morgan Powell, Fiona Press and Christopher Stollery, it began with two sisters vying for one man, their parents arguing over which daughter should prevail, and the mother’s sacking of the maid for her massacre of the English language. Fleming’s clever, witty rhymes drew much laughter, especially the maid’s bogan utterings.

Having the audience choose is a different way of commissioning a play these days. The proof will be in the production. But you’d have to say it was an impressive, well-chosen short list. All three extracts were entertaining and showed significant potential; hopefully we will get to see productions of them all in the fullness of time.

Next to Normal

Hayes Theatre Co, January 14

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana. Photo: suplied

A musical about manic depression? The brave choice of subject matter was part of Next to Normal’s cachet when it debuted Off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway in 2009, winning three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

For all the kudos, the musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) is a flawed piece – though it is movingly performed in this production from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts.

The story centres on Diana (Natalie O’Donnell), a grief-stricken, suburban mother with bipolar disorder, and the impact this has on her husband Dan (Anthony Harkin), daughter Natalie (Kiane O’Farrell) and son Gabe (Brent Trotter).

It’s a dark show, and could do with a little more light among the shade – though the uplifting ending feels pat and unconvincing given all that has gone before. The way revelations are staggered during the piece, however, is cleverly done, adding punch to the drama.

The lyrics tend too often towards the platitudinous and the way grief is conflated with bipolar disorder feels a bit hazy, the explanation from one of the psychiatrists being that the condition can be triggered by a trauma.

The music ranges from rock to gentle ballads. Some of it works powerfully but at other times it feels somewhat relentless. The show is essentially sung-through and you can’t help feeling that some dialogue scenes would make for tighter, deeper storytelling and give the show more room to breathe.

So, not the greatest musical ever written. However, Darylin Ramondo directs a tight production that moved me more than the previous one I saw.

Her design (conceived with Jolyon James) has a suggestion of the film Dogville about it. Taking its cue from a comment Diana makes about her world being black, white and grey, the set is black with a few boxes and a table, onto which the performers draw their environment and vent their emotions with white chalk: an effective device.

Ramondo has also cast the production well. O’Donnell – who spent time with a lady suffering with bipolar as part of her research – is heartbreaking as Diana, portraying her pain and confusion as well as her defiant strength. With her petite frame she looks so slight and vulnerable at times, and then suddenly seems to blaze. She brings warmth and humanity to the role and her beautiful rendition of I Miss the Mountains – in which Diana sings of missing the highs and lows of her condition, which are evened out by her meds – is a highlight.

Harkin is also impressive as the stalwart, devoted but conflicted Dan, who is struggling more than he lets on. Clay Roberts brings an endearing playfulness to Henry, the loyal, stoner boyfriend of Natalie, sympathetically played by O’Farrell. Trotter brings powerful vocals to the role of Gabe, though his dark portrayal would benefit from a little more nuance. Alex Rathgeber is also in fine voice as the two doctors.

This is the first production of Next to Normal seen in Sydney (a production planned for the Capitol Theatre in 2012 didn’t happen) and therefore much anticipated. The show itself may not live up to expectations but the production itself makes it well worth a look.

Next to Normal plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until February 1

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 18

Not a Launch: Hayes Theatre Co 2015

Hayes Theatre Co, September 29

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“It’s not a launch,” said David Campbell. “It’s just a release of information.”

Whatever it was, it was a great way to introduce the Hayes Theatre Co’s program for the first half of 2015 with performers on hand to sing numbers from the shows featured, and to give us a preview of the final shows for 2014.

British director Neil Rutherford introduced Beyond Desire, the new musical for which he has written book and lyrics, with music by Kieran Drury, which will play at the Hayes from November 21 to December 13.

Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery, inspired in part by E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, which Rutherford described as “Downton Abbey meets Hamlet”. It will feature contemporary music inspired by the period, with influences of Elgar and Debussy. The score will be performed by a six-piece orchestra.

Nancye Hayes, who plays a housekeeper, sang an amusing number about family secrets, in costume complete with a tray of tea and sandwiches. It will be the first time Hayes has performed at the venue named after her. After that performance, I can’t wait.

The 2015 season begins in January with a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal by Geelong’s Doorstep Arts (January 8 – February 1). Introduced by the company’s founding director Darylin Ramondo, the production will feature Natalie O’Donnell as Diana, the suburban mother with worsening bipolar disorder and delusional episodes.

The cast will also include Alex Rathgeber and Anthony Harkin. O’Donnell performed I Miss the Mountains in which Diana sings about missing the dizzy heights of her non-medicated state.

In February, Enda Markey produces Blood Brothers (see related feature) with a fabulous cast led by Helen Dallimore, Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox. Running February 6 – March 8, Dallimore gave a taste of things to come with a medley of Easy Terms and Tell Me It’s Not True.

In May, Neil Gooding presents Dogfight with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duncan, all still in their 20s.

Based on the 1991 film starring River Phoenix, it tells the edgy story of three young men on their way to Vietnam who attend a “dogfight” the night before they leave at which they compete to bring the ugliest date, out of which emerges an unusual love story.

The show premiered off-Broadway to generally good reviews in 2012 and was staged at London’s Southwark Theatre in August to more mixed reviews.

Johanna Allen, who will play the prostitute Marcie, sang a number called Pretty Funny, performed in the show by the leading lady Rose. Dogfight runs May 1– 31. Gooding said that Pasek & Paul will hopefully come to Australia towards the end of the season and conduct some workshops and masterclasses.

Meanwhile, Miracle City by Max Lambert and the late Nick Enright plays at the Hayes from October 17 to November 16. The keenly anticipated revival of the musical, which had a brief work-in-progress season at Sydney Theatre Company in 1996, will be a brand new show directed by Darren Yap.

Described by Campbell as “a shitload of fun”, Miracle City is inspired by US televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Bakker. Telling the story of the Truswell family, it is set in real time during a live-to-air evangelical television show.

Blazey Best, Mike McLeish, Hilary Cole and Cameron Holmes who play the Truswell family performed the song Miracle City, a very funny, jaunty, gospel hoedown in which they sing about the Christian theme park they are building. The song was the first they wrote, said Lambert, but didn’t make it into the original show.

It was a spectacular way to end the evening and a fantastic teaser for Miracle City.

Sweet Charity, the Hayes’ inaugural, sellout production, which won three Helpmann Awards, will tour in 2015. A Canberra season has already been announced for February with other dates to be confirmed.

Details can be found at www.hayestheatre.com.au