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

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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

JosieLane

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.

 

High Society

Hayes Theatre Co, September 7

Amy Lehpamer and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer, sizzling in red, and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

High Society is set in the palatial home of rich socialites complete with swimming pool: quite a challenge in a 111-seat theatre.

But, true to form, the Hayes Theatre Co production solves it ingeniously. Set designer Lauren Peters has come up with four elegant, moveable arches and a clever reveal for the party scene. Lucetta Stapleton’s 1930s costuming, a few props and some sound effects (Jeremy Silver) are enough to complete the picture, along with Gavan Swift’s lighting.

The 1998 stage musical is based on the 1956 film High Society starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story. It has a very funny script by Arthur Kopit and songs by Cole Porter, some of which were in the movie, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Well, Did you Evah! and True Love, along with others of his that weren’t. Not all the lyrics relate as well as they might to the situation but overall it works a treat.

It’s the eve of Tracy Lord’s wedding to the rather pompous, dull George Kittredge. However, her younger sister Dinah is determined that Tracy remarry her first husband CK Dexter Haven, who turns up unexpectedly with a pair of reporters from Spy Magazine, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie.

Helen Dallimore directs with a sure, light touch, telling the story with great clarity, while Cameron Mitchell’s choreography suits the period. In another ingenious touch, Dallimore uses a quartet led by musical director Daryl Wallis whose jazzy arrangements of the score work brilliantly.

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer positively glows as Tracy: glamorous, tough and very funny when drunk, her singing, acting and dancing all perfectly pitched. Virginia Gay is sensational as Liz, who is quietly in love with Mike. Her comic timing is impeccable, her performance is full of delicious, surprising little details (the way she hesitates to articulate the word ‘you’ when singing “All I want is you” in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? just one of many) and she knows exactly how to deliver the songs.

Bobby Fox convincingly conveys Mike’s gradual softening as he falls for Tracy in a charismatic performance, while Bert LaBonté is an understated, rather melancholic Dexter whose charm grows on you.

Along the rest of the exceptionally strong cast, there are well judged comic performance from Scott Irwin as George, Jessica Whitfield as Dinah and Laurence Coy as the lecherous uncle Willy, while Delia Hannah is lovely as Tracy’s mother. All in all, divine.

High Society plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 3. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 13

Hayes Theatre Co – coming soon in 2015

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

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

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

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

Cabaret Season 2015

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

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

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

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

Akio!

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

Heathers

Jaz Flowers sings Dead Girl Walking from Heathers

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

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

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

Masterclass

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

Masterclass plays August 12 – 30.

High Society

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

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

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

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

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

High Society plays from September 4.

Rent

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

Rent plays October 8 – November 1.

Violet

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

Violet plays November 2 – December 20.

I Might Take My Shirt Off

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

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

Neglected Musicals

Nicholas Hammond and David Campbell discuss Neglected Musicals' Dear World

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Brothers

Hayes Theatre Co, February 10

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blood Brothers, the hit musical by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), premiered in Liverpool in 1983 then ran in London’s West End for 24 years.

Last staged professionally in Sydney in 1994, the show’s reputation and popularity goes before it – so much so that this new, small-scale production, produced by Enda Markey in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, extended its season before it even opened. Days after opening it was almost sold out.

Though there is room to plumb a deeper well of anger and emotion, it’s a lively, well-staged production with some lovely performances.

Set in Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of fraternal twins, separated at birth when their mother Mrs Johnstone can’t afford to keep them both. Persuaded by the well-to-do Mrs Lyons, who she cleans for, to secretly give her one of the babies, the boys grow up on different sides of the track but become best friends without knowing their true relationship. However, the class difference and their love of the same woman have tragic consequences.

Russell wrote the show as a furious response to the growing divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England – something still depressingly relevant. Its great strength is a powerful narrative with an authentic working class voice, while the folk/pop songs have simple, catchy melodies. Russell uses repetition in the score quite effectively though a Marilyn Monroe motif eventually feels over-worked.

Andrew Pole directs on an ingenious set by Anna Gardiner that swings open to reveal interiors, with the tight four-piece band led by Michael Tyack hidden backstage, while her bright costuming brings colour to the dark, depressing world she creates.

Helen Dallimore is a warm, vital Mrs Johnstone. She captures her resilience but could do more to convey the toll taken on her by the terrible knocks and stresses she endures – though her rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True is heartbreaking.

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As the twins, who age from seven to young men, Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden give beautifully judged performances, managing to convey a convincing connection between them, despite being worlds removed.

It’s hard to play children without being gratingly twee, but Fox and Bowden, along with Christy Sullivan who plays their close friend Linda, do a terrific job here.

Fox exudes a knockabout, streetwise energy as Mickey, the youngest of the unruly, poverty-stricken Johnstone brood and his descent into depression is powerfully done. Bowden brings a gentle, earnest sweetness to Edward who is brought up by the posh Lyons family. Both are in great voice, and vocally suited to their characters.

Sullivan shines in a moving performance as Linda, the girl they both love, and the scenes between the three of them have a powerful dramatic and emotional force.

The scenes featuring the well-to-do Lyons played by Bronwyn Mulcahy and Phillip Lyons feel less authentic, though this is in large part to do with these characters being more sketchily written. But all the cast – which also includes Erin James and Jamie Kristian – work together well as a tight ensemble, while Michael Cormick is a suitably ominous presence as the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets, foreshadowing the tragedy like a Greek chorus, and sings with great assurance.

Lyrically and musically, Blood Brothers isn’t the most subtle or sophisticated of musicals but it has a gritty simplicity that goes straight to the heart, leaving many in the opening night audience in tears at the end.

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 15. Bookings: http://www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 15

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

Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

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