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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Strictly Ballroom the Musical

Lyric Theatre, April 12

Cristina D'Agostino and Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cristina D’Agostino and Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: Jeff Busby

There’s a dazzling image at the start of Strictly Ballroom the Musical of the dancers standing silhouetted in a line across the back of the stage. As they start to move forwards, the lights come up on them in their sensational, sparkling costumes and the heart races.

You can feel a shiver of excitement in the audience and the collective hope that Baz Luhrmann has managed to turn his beloved, uplifting 1992 film about daring to be true to yourself into an equally successful musical.

Luhrmann does deliver an enjoyable show but, frustratingly, Strictly Ballroom never truly soars.

The buzz begins as soon as the audience spots the shiny, coloured covers on the theatre seats inside the auditorium. It’s a measure of their willingness, indeed eagerness to embrace the musical that they enter with such gusto into the pre-show audience participation routine, led by DJ JJ Silvers (Mark Owen-Taylor), which has them barracking for dance couples wearing costumes to match the coloured section in which they are sitting.

From there, the story of rebellious dancer Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey) and wallflower beginner Fran (Phoebe Panaretos), who blossoms as his partner, has been translated to the stage in straightforward fashion without being re-imagined afresh.

Most problematically, the score is a real mish-mash. Granted, the key songs from the film (“Time After Time”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and “Love Is In The Air”) need to be there; the audience would be disappointed if they weren’t.

But around those, Luhrmann and his team have added some largely unmemorable new numbers (some with a pop feel, one influenced by Les Mis) and put lyrics to Strauss’s Blue Danube and the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, which comes across as a cheap move.

With the exception of Eddie Perfect’s rousing, Russian-inflected “Dance to Win” for Barry Fife (Robert Grubb) the songs rarely deepen character, heighten emotion or advance the plot as they do in a good musical, while the lyrics are at best ordinary.

“Time After Time”, which Scott and Fran sing under the Coca-Cola sign, comes closest to transporting us – again you start to feel your heart race, your spine tingle – but Luhrmann interrupts it with cuts to Scott’s father Doug (Drew Forsythe) in the studio below and the mood is broken.

Several important choreographic moments also fail to take flight. Scott’s first big solo dance, when he expresses his frustration and desire to dance his own steps, hardly dazzles with unorthodox choreography. What’s more, cast members wheel four large mirrors around him. You expect there to be a thrilling interplay of reflections, but no. For the most part, they just block your view.

Scott and Fran’s climactic dance also falls a bit flat. It’s the exciting paso doble led by Fran’s father (Fernando Mira) that emerges as the dance highlight. In a way, that’s as it should be for it’s here that Scott encounters genuinely passionate dancing from the heart, but it shouldn’t eclipse Scott and Fran’s final, defiant routine.

Catherine Martin’s glittering costumes are stunning though, a real triumph. Everything that could possibly glitter does from gorgeous dresses with layers of floating tulle to itsy-bitsy sequined numbers to sparkly jumpsuits for the boys.

Martin’s sets also work well. Various sections are wheeled around by the cast, in a whirling dance of their own, to create different settings – though there are times when Luhrmann has them spinning more than is necessary.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

In the central roles, newcomer Phoebe Panaretos is lovely as Fran. She has a sweet voice and a truthfulness that makes for some of the most moving moments, while Thomas Lacey has an appealing presence as Scott. He has a light voice but he dances well, though he could with a bit more fire in the belly and a sharper, sexier swagger.

An experienced cast does a fine job in the fairly broadly drawn supporting roles. Everyone does their bit but standouts include Heather Mitchell, who does a superb job in finding some emotional nuance as Scott’s pushy, highly strung mother, Robert Grubb, who is an entertainingly large, comically malevolent presence as the conniving Barry Fife, Drew Forsythe, who is amusingly dorky as Scott’s timid, put-upon father and Natalie Gamsu, who brings passion and welcome powerful vocals as Fran’s grandmother. The ensemble is also terrific.

As it stands, Strictly Ballroom has enough going for it to be a crowd-pleaser – by all reports audience are lapping it up – but it could be so much more. Hopefully Luhrmann will develop it further.

Strictly Ballroom is at the Lyric Theatre until July 6. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20

Helpmann Awards

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sydney Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of The Secret River was the big winner at the 2013 Helpmann Awards, receiving six awards from 11 nominations including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Neil Armfield) and Best New Australian Work.

Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel was a popular choice at last night’s ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Eddie Perfect and Christie Whelan Browne.

However, the musical category has caused a fair amount of discussion on social media, with some believing that South Pacific was unjustly snubbed.

King Kong – the new musical from Global Creatures – had been portrayed in some sections of the media as the main rival to The Secret River in terms of its potential to sweep the awards.

But it was Legally Blonde that took out the main awards in the musicals category, winning five from eight nominations including Best Musical (over South Pacific, The Addams Family and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Best Direction and Best Choreography in a Musical (Jerry Mitchell) and performing awards for Lucy Durack and Helen Dallimore.

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tellingly, King Kong was not nominated for Best Musical or Best Direction of a Musical – and rightly so, I would suggest, for a show that most critics agree needs more work on its book.

However, King Kong picked up four design awards (though Marius de Vries’ original music lost out to Iain Grandage’s for The Secret River.)

The show was also given a special award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement for the design, creation and operation of King Kong – the creature. Apparently there was genuine discussion at one point as to whether King Kong himself could actually be nominated as best performer. He is certainly truly extraordinary but since he is a puppet, common sense prevailed.

Technically King Kong was not eligible for consideration at this year’s awards since it had its opening night on June 15 after the cut-off date of May 31. However, the rules allow for late inclusions in “exceptional circumstances” and given the relatively weak field of musicals over the last year, the decision to include it was presumably made to bolster the field.

For my money, Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific – presented by Opera Australia in association with John Frost – was the best musical of the year. Of course, that’s a subjective view, however, it did win Best Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards over Legally Blonde, Love Never Dies and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There’s also the question of whether a revival should be judged against a new musical, let alone a new Australian musical, and whether we should be giving Best Musical awards anyway to shows that are carbon copies of overseas productions, regardless of how well we perform them. (We could still give awards for performances in a musical).

Among the four nominees for Best Musical this year, only John Frost’s Forum (seen in Melbourne) was a new production created in Australia.

The Helpmann Awards have always been a curious beast. Trying to create live entertainment awards with a national reach in such a vast country where few voters have seen all the nominations in any given category is always going to be a challenge with the inevitable oddities and anomalies occurring as a result. (People can only vote in a category if they have seen at least two nominations.)

There is probably more chance of voters having seen all the nominations in the musicals category than any other as most of them tour nationally – as Legally Blonde and South Pacific did.

There seemed to be a few curious omissions among the nominations this year. With no disrespect to any of the nominated performers, it seemed strange, for example, that none of the cast of South Pacific were nominated despite the production being up for Best Musical.

Such oversights have happened before (remember when Cate Blanchett failed to gain a nomination for her stellar performance in A Streetcar Named Desire).

For me there were one or two others this year but it is inappropriate to name names when, again, these things are so subjective.

Partly I’m sure that this is the result of trying to ensure a broad geographical spread of nominations (though there are always complaints that Sydney and Melbourne are over-represented) and partly because it is the producers who put forward the nominations in the first place, paying a $50 fee per entry.

You can’t help thinking that there must be at least some element of strategy as to who and what a producer nominates in order to raise the profile of a show or a performer.

I have also always found it odd that the Helpmanns give awards for Best International Contemporary Concert. This year Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Wrecking Ball won over Coldplay, Barry Gibb and Tedeschi Trucks Band & Trombone Shorty. Doubtless the producing team and their staff work extremely hard to make these tours happen but surely the Helpmann Awards should be about honouring and supporting Australian entertainment.

Among other major awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Male Actor in a Musical for Forum, Colin Friels won Best Male Actor in a Play for Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman, Alison Bell (who had two nominations in the one category) won Best Female Actor in a Play for Hedda Gabler at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Opera Australia’s Salome won four opera awards, while Bangarra Dance Theatre collected two.

With 43 categories, it was a loooong night running around four hours. The entertainment helped maintain interest notably Tim Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” from Matilda the Musical, and performances by the casts of Grease and Hot Shoe Shuffle, among others.

For a full list of awards go to: www.helpmannawards.com.au

Disclaimer: Jo Litson is one of the industry voters for the Helpmann Awards.