Britney Spears: The Cabaret

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

It ain’t hard to parody Britney Spears given the many train-wreck moments in her life. The genius in Christie Whelan Browne’s Britney Spears: The Cabaret is the way the laughs are accompanied by an unexpected humanity, compassion and pathos.

Written and directed by Dean Bryant, the script brilliantly satirises the price of fame. Tracing Spears’ career from Disney mouseketeer to pop princess to shaven-headed emotional wreck, it includes all the headline-grabbing moments but without over-egging them. So, while the show fizzes with hilarious one-liners it also hits home with a surprising emotional truth.

Beginning in comic fashion, with Britney Jean Spears portrayed as ditsy, naïve and none-too-bright but endearingly self-deprecating, the show becomes sadder and sadder as her life falls apart.

Taught to feel guilty from a young age by a pushy stage mother when she didn’t land work, betrayed by boyfriends who boasted and spent her money, committed to a pysch ward by her father who took control of her money, losing custody of her children, Spears has endured much.

“Sometimes I feel the only people who love me are the paps,” says Whelan Browne-as-Britney.

Musical director and accompanist Mathew Frank has rearranged all the hit songs as cabaret numbers for solo piano – and they work astonishingly well. It opens with a manic, waltz-like version of Circus. There’s a jazzy Oops! I Did I Again and a darker, Weimar-esque Baby One More Time, while Womanizer explodes with a Broadway-like belt.

The musically spare arrangements put a focus on the lyrics, which fit seamlessly within the structure of the show, cleverly illuminating Spears’ life (even though she didn’t write most of them).

Wearing a little black dress, the gorgeous Whelan Browne is sublime. Her comic timing is immaculate and she sings superbly, while totally inhabiting the role. The show has been around since 2009 and the emotional depth she now brings to it is even more moving than ever.

It ends with heartbreaking versions of I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman and Everytime. Hilarious yet terribly poignant, Britney Spears: The Cabaret is a stunning show. What’s more, it sits perfectly in the intimate Hayes Theatre. Don’t miss it.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until September 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

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

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

 

 

Verity Hunt-Ballard interview

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Last time Verity Hunt-Ballard performed in Sydney she flew over the heads of the audience as Mary Poppins in Cameron Mackintosh’s sumptuous, award-winning production.

Now, she is taking on another starring role – as Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity – but this time in a gritty, intimate production.

The show has been chosen to launch the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the former Darlinghurst Theatre in Potts Point into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret. The exciting initiative looks set to shake up musical theatre in Sydney.

With only 115 seats and audiences sitting up close, “there will be nowhere to hide”, says Hunt-Ballard with a laugh.

“The last role I played was in 2000-seat theatres, which is a different discipline in a way, a different way of storytelling. (Sweet Charity) is really a play with music essentially, not like going to your big budget musicals – which are wonderful obviously, I’m a huge fan of them – but this is different and kind of unique. It’s really exciting to me because I haven’t done a small piece for many years.”

After Mary Poppins ended, Hunt-Ballard – whose other credits include Jersey Boys and The Rocky Horror Show – took a break from musicals to recover from the demanding two-year run.

“It was such a huge journey for me and ticked a lot of boxes, I guess,” says the softly spoken performer, who had only played supporting roles until then. “It was incredible but really hard yakka doing eight shows a week for two years. But it was a huge learning curve and I’m very, very grateful.”

For the past year – apart from appearing in a short return season of Eddie Perfect’s Shane Warne The Musical – she has been focused on raising her baby daughter with partner Scott Johnson who she met when they were performing together in Jersey Boys. However, Sweet Charity was too special an opportunity to resist.

“When (director) Dean Bryant and (producer) Lisa Campbell ring you and say ‘would you like to play Sweet Charity?’ even with an 11-month baby you say ‘yes’,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“We’re opening a theatre honouring Nancye Hayes who’s a really dear friend of mine and who has been my mentor really. She directed me at WAAPA years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. She calls herself my daughter’s fairy godmother. So all the stars aligned and I thought, ‘I’ll just have to take this job’. We’ve just moved to Melbourne but my darling Scott said, ‘OK, we’ll go back.’”

With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon, Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1966 in a production directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon as Charity.

Other actors to have played the title role include Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 film and Nancye Hayes in the original 1967 Australian production.

It tells the story of eternal optimist Charity Hope Valentine, who dreams of being rescued from her job as a hostess in the seedy Fandango Dancehall by love and marriage.

Though she retains an element of innocence about her, Charity is polls removed from the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins.

“I feel, approaching this role, even more equipped having been through the last year emotionally and having to go to really dark places of sleep deprivation,” says Hunt-Ballard. “Not that Charity has children but she is certainly a character that has had to deal with life’s challenges. She’s tough. Full of hope but really tough (and) quite damaged in a way. She suffers rejection so many times but she just keeps going. It’s a story about the human spirit in a way.”

The Hayes Theatre Co production is directed by Dean Bryant whose many musical theatre credits include working as associate director on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical around the world, the world premiere of An Officer and a Gentleman and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He has also directed The Producers, Anything Goes and The Pirates of Penzance for The Production Company in Melbourne.

In 2006, three years after Hunt-Ballard graduated from WAAPA, he directed her in a show he co-wrote with composer Matthew Frank called Virgins, which went to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Longtime friends, Hunt-Ballard is excited to be working with him again.

“Dean’s vision is quite gritty, quite dark and very influenced by Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini film that Sweet Charity was based on, which focuses more on the fact that Charity is a prostitute. She’s not just a dance hall hostess. She really has no skills, no support and she has to do this to survive,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“Our assistant director Valentina Gasbarrino is Italian and she was talking about the Fellini film and what it meant to Rome at that time: the oppression of the working class that he was showing. Dean is really excited that we are performing in the Cross because we really want it to feel like you are stepping into what could be any club (in the area).”

Hunt-Ballard says that the production will be “very physical” with “hip” new musical arrangements by Andrew Worboys and “hot” costumes by Academy Award-winning designer Tim Chappel.

Audiences will watch the show as if they are in the Fandango Ballroom with the characters.

“It’s quite stark,” says Hunt-Ballard. “We will be using minimal props and costume changes will happen on stage. It will take audiences on an emotional trip hopefully – sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes funny and sometimes beautiful.”

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 0498 960 586

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on February 2

Sweet Dreams: Songs by Annie Lennox – review

Slide Lounge, July 1

Michael Griffiths in Sweet Dreams. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Griffiths in Sweet Dreams. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Griffiths’ new cabaret show Sweet Dreams: Songs by Annie Lennox is a cleverly crafted, beautifully performed piece in a similar vein to his previous cabaret hit In Vogue: Songs by Madonna.

Written and directed by Dean Bryant (as was Griffiths’ Madonna show and Christie Whelan Browne’s wonderful Britney Spears: The Cabaret), Sweet Dreams is clearly thoroughly researched, taking us through the life and career of the androgynous-looking, Scottish singer-songwriter who was one half of British synth pop duo the Eurythmics.

But it does so much more than simply trot out biographical details interspersed with songs.

The witty, insightful, linking dialogue gives us an insight into her life and creativity, showing how she channeled her heartache and other experiences into her songs.

Sitting at the piano, looking casually urbane in skinny-fitting trousers, shirt and tartan tie (a nod presumably to Lennox’s Scottish background), Griffiths gives an extraordinary performance that is understated yet passionate.

He speaks in the first person as Lennox but makes no attempt to impersonate her. Likewise, he interprets the songs in his own, musically thrilling way – playing the piano with the same sensitivity that he brings to his singing.

The factual information is combined with personal reflections and witty observations  – all delivered with perfect comic timing. Bryant has also incorporated a couple of gently comic motifs: Griffiths lighting a candle, which he then blows out, waving the smoke away as he tosses the match aside to symbolise putting paid to bad song ideas; and bits of sage advice from Lennox’s father (“As my father would say, Anne Lennox ….”).

All the songs that you’d hope for are there, including Why? Walking on Broken Glass, There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart), Who’s That Girl?, Love is a Stranger and Missionary Man among others.

For Thorn in My Side, Griffiths enlists the audience to do backing vocals – which they do with great enthusiasm.

Sweet Dreams (which premiered last month at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival) is intelligent, compelling cabaret offering a different kind of take on its subject to so many biographical cabaret shows that we see. For 70 minutes, Griffiths holds us in the palm of his hand – an angel playing with our hearts. Catch it if you can.

Sweet Dreams is at fortyfivedownstairs in Melbourne until July 7 as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival and then at Hobart’s City Hall on July 12 & 13 as part of The Festival of Voices.