Wonderful Town

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, May 8

WT Promo-90

Virginia Gay and Georgina Walker who played sisters Ruth and Eileen in Wonderful Town. Photo: supplied

I didn’t see the semi-staged concert version of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing at the Sydney Opera House in November – the first collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre – but I heard good things.

I was, however, lucky enough to catch the second of two performances of Wonderful Town, their second collaboration– and what a complete delight it was.

Wonderful Town is an effervescent, light-hearted musical comedy featuring a joyous, melodic score by Leonard Bernstein. Written in six weeks in 1953 (nine years after Bernstein’s first musical On the Town), it mixes classical, popular and jazz musical styles, including the electric, syncopated Wrong Note Jazz, which foreshadowed West Side Story three years later.

The show had its roots in a series of short stories written by author/journalist Ruth McKenney published in the New Yorker magazine about her experiences and the colourful characters she and her sister Eileen met when they lived in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. These evolved into a book in 1938 called My Sister Eileen, which was made into a film starring Rosalind Russell.

The musical, Wonderful Town, features a well-structured book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and neat, witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It opened on Broadway in 1953, also starring Rosalind Russell, and won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. A good, old-fashioned musical comedy, it has such charm that it’s surprising it’s so little known.

Set in the 1930s, it focuses on two sisters who leave a backwater in Ohio for the bright lights and broader horizons of New York. Ruth, who is hoping to become a writer, is smart, strong and protective of her younger sister Eileen yet awkward when it comes to men. Eileen, who has men falling at her feet, dreams of being a performer.

Jason Langley directs with great clarity on a minimal set (a few flats, the odd table and chair). Designer Brendan Hay has added plenty of colour and period style with his costuming including elegant frocks for the ladies and some natty, patterned trousers for the men.

Dean Vince has done a great job with the choreography which ranges from a hilarious Irish jig (complete with a wash of green lighting) to a conga and some snazzy jazz moves.

Virginia Gay is an absolute star as Ruth. She has such a perfect feel for this style of musical comedy, caressing the tunes with lovely, smooth vocals and landing all the humour with immaculate timing . She brings the house down with Ruth’s comic song 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man, a very funny but pointed number that you can imagine others picking up to perform in cabaret. Acting wise she captures Ruth’s intelligence, independent spirit and sardonic sense of humour as well as her lack of confidence with men

Newcomer Georgina Walker, who recently graduated from WAAPA, has a nice bright soprano and a perky presence as Eileen. Making her professional mainstage debut in Wonderful Town, she shows great promise.

Scott Irwin shows his versatility in several roles including Bob Barker, the assistant editor who falls for Ruth without realising it at first, and their landlord Mr Appopulous, a self-regarding, pompous artist. A fine singer and actor, Irwin is the perfect foil to Gay as the decent Bob and sings numbers such as “It’s Love” and “Quiet Girl” with an effortless charm.

Aside from Gay and Walker, all the cast – which also includes Scott Morris, Dean Vince, Nicholas Starte, Megan Wilding and Beth Daly – play several parts There is one hilarious moment where Irwin walks off stage as one character and comes straight back on as another to the delight of the audience. Conductor Brett Weymark even plays a cameo role as nightclub owner Speedy Valenti from the podium.

The choir, sitting in the choir stalls and boxes on either side of the stage, are all dressed in their own outfits of red, black and white. Langley involves them in the action by having them do some bopping, arm-waving choreography from their seats. He also has a few of them come on stage in crowd scenes which is a bit messy but it does generate a lovely sense of community involvement.

The orchestra plays with exuberant gusto under Weymark, serving up an exciting big band sound, and there are plenty of ear-worms in the score most notably the gorgeous, lilting It’s Love – in fact, half the audience seemed to be singing It’s Love as they left the theatre, big smiles on their faces.

This kind of collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic is a great initiative, giving us the opportunity to see a rarely performed musical in a semi-staged production with an orchestra, a large choir and a top cast (performing off book).

Together with Neglected Musicals – who are already doing a great job of presenting small-scale rehearsed readings of rarely seen musicals, performed book in hand at the intimate Hayes Theatre Co – it’s a very welcome addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

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Triassic Parq

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, June 19

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

You can’t fault the timing: Squabbalogic is staging the musical Triassic Parq (“no, not that other park because we don’t want to get sued”) just as the newly released film Jurassic World is doing a roaring business at the box office, generating plenty of dino talk.

And you can’t really fault the production. But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, Triassic Parq is only sporadically diverting. Yes, it’s sweet and it’s fun, with a catchy, tuneful pop rock score (by Marshall Pailet) and occasionally witty lyrics and book (Pailet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo) but overall it feels like a mildly amusing, over-extended sketch.

The musical is a comic riff on Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film in which, as you’ll probably recall, scientists clone dinosaurs for a theme park using dino DNA and some frog to complete the DNA chain. All the dinosaurs are female to prevent breeding, but that little bit of frog causes one hell of a problem, allowing the dinosaurs to change sex in order to reproduce and ensure the survival of the species.

Triassic Parq tells the story from the dinosaurs’ point of view. Life for the “Lab” worshipping dinosaur community is thrown into chaos when T-Rex 2 (Adèle Parkinson) suddenly sprouts a penis. Meanwhile, the Velociraptor of Innocence (Rob Johnson) finds her way over the electric fence in search of answers. Bumping into T-Rex 2 outside the park, they work out what a “dick stick” is for, sending T-Rex 2’s bestie T-Rex 1 (Monique Sallé) into a jealous, rampaging rage.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Blake Erickson) – a dino with secrets – is forced to question his trust in “Lab” when the delicious goats the deity normally supplies suddenly stop appearing. And then the exiled Velociraptor of Science (Keira Daley) returns. Completing the dino cast are the mute Mimeosaurus (Crystal Hegedis) and the Pianosaurus (musical director Mark Chamberlain).

Themes of love, religion, science and gender underpin the silliness but it’s all pretty lightweight: fluff and nonsense being the prevailing tone.

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

Jay James-Moody directs with his usual verve and the production has a bright, chirpy aesthetic. Neil Shotter’s clever set uses towering electric fences, which open up, and a few pot plants to create the park and the jungle outside, with lighting by Mikey Rice. Elizabeth Franklin has designed cute costumes pairing contemporary street clothes with sparkly dino feet sporting padded claws, make-up and a fair bit of bling.

The cast throw themselves into it with hugely committed performances. The singing is excellent and they perform Dean Vince’s tongue-in-cheek choreography with gusto.

Erickson gives a hilarious impersonation of Morgan Freeman before being quickly eaten, Johnson finds just the right level of innocence as the questing dino who is a little different to the rest, while Sallé and Parkinson also shine. In fact, the performances are terrific across the board. But all their exuberance can’t disguise the thinness of the show.

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Triassic Parq won Best Musical at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. You can’t help wondering what the competition was like. Squabbalogic have done their darndest with it, but in the end it’s fun without being that funny and hard to get excited about.

Triassic Parq runs at the Seymour Centre until July 4. Bookings: www.seymour.com or 02 9351 7944

Sondheim on Sondheim

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

In 1994, New York magazine ran a cover story about Stephen Sondheim, which asked “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” (Not in the headline as suggested here, apparently, but in the table of contents. No matter.)

Is he God? Hell yes. In musical theatre terms the man’s a genius.

Hence the self-deprecating, comic song God, which James Lapine coaxed him to write for Sondheim on Sondheim in which he pokes fun at being worshipped and at his (ill-deserved) reputation for writing art songs without heart or melodies.

Lapine conceived and directed Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the revered composer/lyricist. Originally produced on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, it combines specially recorded interviews with Sondheim and archival footage with live performances of numbers from many of his musicals, along with some songs that didn’t end up making the cut.

The show is now being staged in Sydney by independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic, whose growing reputation jumped to the next level recently with superb productions of Carrie and The Drowsy Chaperone.

No wonder expectations were high for this, their latest production.

Sondheim on Sondheim is a winning concept but it needs exceptional performers to really make it fly. Act I doesn’t quite cut it here but it comes good in Act II.

The interviews with Sondheim are a constant delight. It’s thrilling to hear him talk so articulately about why he likes to write for neurotic people, the difference between poetry and lyrics, why A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through three different opening numbers, along with personal things like his fraught relationship with his mother, a touching admission he would love to have had children, and the fact that he didn’t have a committed relationship until he was 60.

Sondheim tragics will know most of it already but it’s fascinating stuff. And it’s intriguing to see not just the recent interviews but others from across six decades of his life.

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Mind you, it sets up a real challenge for the performers. Rather than being presented chronologically or show by show, Sondheim on Sondheim jumps around, choosing songs in response to the interview clip (though the segues into the musical numbers aren’t always seamless). It’s hard to invest the songs with the same emotional depth when they’re performed out of context and the show moves at such pace that it’s doubly difficult for the performers to move between characters and emotional states convincingly.

On top of that, we have heard Sondheim’s material interpreted by any number of people at the very top of their game not only in the musicals but in countless cabaret shows and charity concerts. We know how extraordinary the songs can be.

Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a strong cast – Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Monique Sallé, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – but the songs don’t always sit completely in the pocket for all of them vocally.

In Act I, they perform with great energy. The performances are solid but the songs rarely soar or touch you emotionally, while Sallé’s choreography feels over busy at times. But Act II fares better.

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson. Photo:  Michael Francis

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson in Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along. Photo: Michael Francis

Highlights for me include Krizak’s Smile, Girls, in which she brings just the right razzle-dazzle to a number cut from Gypsy; Opening Doors about young, would-be songwriters at the start of their career from Merrily We Roll Along performed by Erickson, Johnson and Sallé; Franklin Shepherd Inc. also from Merrily given a suitably manic performance by Johnson; Epiphany from Sweeney Todd sung by Phillip Lowe; and Children Will Listen performed by the Company.

The set by James-Moody works a treat. Suspended strings of scrunched up manuscript paper, like rejected versions of songs, create a backdrop through which we glimpse the eight-piece orchestra led by Hayden Barltrop.

On stage, there are eight square black stools and tiny tables, which are moved around in different configurations. It’s simple but effective.

The show assumes, I think, that the audience will have at least some knowledge of and love for Sondheim. For those not familiar with his musicals it’s a lot to get your head around (it runs for over two-and-a-half hours) but it certainly showcases his dazzling versatility and the extraordinary wealth of his body of work.

There were a couple of clunky moments from the band on opening night and the sound mix was a bit loud at times but overall it’s impressive musically.

Sondheim on Sondheim takes time to ignite and the songs are always as spine-tinglingly moving or poignant as they can be but there’s much to enjoy in it. For a small indie company it’s quite an achievement. I’m not sure it plays to Squabbalogic’s strengths in the way that many of their previous shows have done but it’s still worth seeing.

Sondheim on Sondheim plays at the Seymour Centre until October 18. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944