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

Swings

“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.

Gay

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.

 

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Matilda The Musical

Lyric Theatre, August 20

Matilda's "revolting children". Photo: James Morgan

Matilda’s “revolting children”. Photo: James Morgan

Her philistine parents consider her “a jumped-up little germ” and “a good case for population control”. To her monstrous headmistress Miss Trunchbull she’s “a maggot” like all children.

But a brave, book-loving, five-year old genius called Matilda Wormwood has been winning the hearts and minds of musical theatre audiences in London, New York and beyond, not to mention rave reviews and umpteen awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, the hotly anticipated Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda The Musical, which premiered in 2010, has finally arrived in Sydney, triumphantly weaving such a powerful spell it has us rejoicing with its “revolting children”.

Written by Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Matilda is one of the most thrilling new musicals of recent years: a show that isn’t afraid to be dark, sophisticated or smart, while at the same time pulsing with a gloriously funny streak of child-like, anarchic naughtiness.

There is a perfect synthesis between Kelly’s book and Minchin’s lyrics, both brilliant, which share a similar cheeky irreverence and wickedly clever wit but which also touch the heart without becoming sentimental.

The opening number, Miracle, instantly illustrates how wonderfully well Kelly and Minchin have been able to work together, setting the show up perfectly. Not only do we have Dahl’s tart observation about how most parents think their own children are little angels but a flashback to Matilda’s birth and a quick summation of her less than rosy situation. Interwoven through one song, it’s a very clever opening.

Celebrating the joy and solace of books as well as the power of words and the imagination, Kelly has added a new narrative strand to the show in which Matilda tells a story about an escapologist and an acrobat.

This beautifully staged tale (which uses dolls and shadow puppetry as well as actors) proves magically prophetic, filling out Miss Honey’s story and revealing Matilda’s yearning for loving parents without spelling it out.

Minchin’s charmingly offbeat, catchy songs are refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores we hear in contemporary musical theatre. Highlights include the bittersweet “When I Grow” in which the children sail out over the audience on swings, the uplifting, bolshie “Revolting Children” and the moving ballad “My House”, exquisitely sung by Elise McCann.

"When I Grow Up". Photo: James Morgan

“When I Grow Up”. Photo: James Morgan

Matthew Warchus’s superlative production (staged here by associate director Nik Ashton) is a total delight. Rob Howell’s ingenious design integrates alphabet tiles and building blocks throughout the set. He has a wonderful way with colour, contrasting the garishly bright home and costumes of the Wormwoods with the forbidding grey of the school, while the drag costume he gives Miss Trunchbull with hunched shoulders and pendulous bosom is both terrifying and a hoot.

Peter Darling’s energetic choreography, which draws on kickboxing and karate, has the spot-on feel of kids stomping in the playground. His routine for School Song – in which two school boys (played here by adults) leap around in fleet-footed fashion up and down the school gate as alphabet blocks are pushed into place through the metal grille – is breathtaking. The kids powering downstage during “Revolting Children” is exhilarating.

The show makes huge demands on its child actors, particularly the young girl playing Matilda. Bella Thomas (aged 11) who starred on opening night (in a role she shares with Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin) is extraordinary, giving Matilda a touchingly solemn yet feisty, determined demeanour. Her singing voice, meanwhile, is strong, true and clear.

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing "Quiet". Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing “Quiet”. Photo: James Morgan

But all the children are great, as are the adult cast. James Millar is sensational as the dreaded Miss Trunchbull, deploying an alarming bosom and killer comic timing to perfection. He marries an almost psychopathic stillness with sudden, throwaway jauntiness in a way that is both hilarious and frightening.

Elisa McCann is radiant as Matilda’s kind, put-upon teacher Miss Honey, Daniel Frederiksen and Marika Aubrey are very funny as Matilda’s appalling parents and Cle Morgan exudes oodles of exuberant warmth as the librarian Mrs Phelps.

Appealing to both adults and children, Matilda is a gem of a show with a wonderful heart and message about standing up to bullies and fighting for what is right. It’s also a love letter to joy of words. Pure magic.

Matilda The Musical is now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 23

Everybody Loves Lucy

Hayes Theatre Co, March 22

Elise McCann.  Photo: supplied

Elise McCann. Photo: supplied

Elise McCann is a real delight in Everybody Loves Lucy, her cabaret show about Lucille Ball, giving a beautifully pitched, thoroughly engaging performance, which sees her shining brighter than the show itself.

Ball began her career on Broadway, played some small roles in Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s and then, together with her Cuban musician husband Desi Arnaz (with whom she eloped in 1940), changed the face of television comedy with her seminal sitcom I Love Lucy.

Running for six years from 1951 and then a further three years in various incarnations under titles including The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, I Love Lucy was the most popular TV show in the US at one point.

An astute businesswoman behind the scenes, Ball became the first woman to run a major television studio in 1962. Meanwhile, early in her career, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigated her links to communism.

It’s too big a life to fit into a one-hour cabaret so McCann and co-writer Richard Carroll have sensibly focused on the I Love Lucy years.

Set in the TV studio, Everybody Loves Lucy avoids using a narrative voice to tell us about her career (a common device in cabaret and often a clunky one). Instead the show traces the development of the pioneering sitcom through various vignettes and a series of comedy sketches.

In one scene, we see Ball negotiate her way to becoming the first woman to appear on screen pregnant – or “expecting” as conservative television executives preferred to put it.

The show also goes behind-the-scenes where the pressures on Ball’s marriage and family life (she and Arnaz had two children she saw little of) were such that as soon as the sitcoms with Arnaz ended in 1960, she filed for divorce.

Without actually impersonating Ball, McCann captures a vivid sense of the famously ditzy, redheaded housewife Ball portrayed on screen, nailing her zany brand of vaudevillian comedy with its clown-like physicality. She also conveys a strong sense of the era.

Her comic timing is spot-on throughout. Some of the skits are funnier than others – mainly because much of the humour is now so dated – but she is hilarious in a sketch promoting a health tonic with a mouthful-of-a-name, which becomes increasingly unpronounceable as she takes swigs of the alcohol-laced concoction.

McCann also plays a housewife, in frilly apron, who is a huge fan of I Love Lucy. It’s a clever way to indicate the huge following the show had, as well as its impact, particularly on women, with the housewife beginning to think that maybe she too could take on some part-time work.

Musical director Nigel Ubrihien (sporting a dreadful black wig) does a good job of characterising Arnaz and also voices other characters including the studio executives from the piano.

Ball was no singer and there are few songs associated with her, so McCann and Ubrihien have chosen a series of numbers from the era to relate to moments in the show including Be a Clown at the beginning and Make Someone Happy, which is used as something of a theme through the show. Though McCann sings beautifully, the songs aren’t terribly memorable on the whole or particularly moving.

The show itself breezes along but often feels rather cursory, touching on topics, ticking off moments, but without really mining the drama in them. So much is dealt with so quickly that there’s not a great deal of insight into Ball as a person and emotional moments don’t land as strongly as they might.

The show assumes some knowledge of Ball; if you didn’t know anything about her, or had never seen I Love Lucy, I’m not sure that you would fully appreciate her impact as a comedienne.

Director Helen Dallimore stages the show well, using a dressing table on one side for the backstage scenes, and an armchair, table and lamp on the other for the housewife’s. Tim Chappel has designed a dress that transforms itself in an instant with a flap that drops to become an apron, and Christopher Horsey’s choreography suits the style and era.

Though Everybody Loves Lucy feels underwritten at times, McCann is a wonderful draw-card, giving a very enjoyable performance that confirms her considerable talent. I can’t wait to see her as Miss Honey in Tim Minchin’s musical Matilda, opening in Sydney in August.

Everybody Loves Lucy runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 28. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Falsettos

Eternity Playhouse, February 11

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

William Finn’s Falsettos is an intelligent, witty, tender musical. However, the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production has so much stage business going on that it takes a fair amount of time before it finally hits its mark and draws you in emotionally.

With witty lyrics and a beautiful, eclectic score by Finn, who also co-wrote the book with James Lapine, the economical, sung-through show consists of two one-act musicals written a decade apart.

The first act, March of the Falsettos, which premiered in 1981, is set in New York in 1979 against the backdrop of gay liberation. The second act Falsettoland, which premiered in 1991, is set in 1981 when “something bad” – later identified as the deadly AIDS virus – was beginning to ravage the gay community. They were combined as Falsettos in 1992. Two decades on, the times may be different but Falsettos still feels relevant and moving.

It tells the story of Marvin (Tamlyn Henderson), a Jewish father who leaves his wife Trina (Katrina Retallick) and young son Jason (Anthony Garcia on opening night) for a gay man called Whizzer (Ben Hall). However, Marvin wants it all and tries to create a tight knit family with all of them living together. The tensions send Trina off to see Marvin’s shrink Mendel (Stephen Anderson) who she ends up marrying, further complicating the web of relationships.

The second act, in which Jason’s Bar Mitzvah looms, also introduces Marvin’s lesbian neighbours Dr Charlotte (Margi de Ferranti) and Cordelia (Elise McCann).

As Frank Rich so eloquently put it in his New York Times review, the show is not just about Marvin but “about all its people together, a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.”

As anticipated, the new Eternity Playhouse proves a lovely space for a small-scale musical. The 200-seat venue is intimate enough for the show to be performed without amplification – and therefore with just a piano. Gez Xavier Mansfield’s set has co-musical director Nigel Ubrihien sitting at a grand piano in an alcove built into the back wall of the set, which works a treat – as does Ubrihien’s sensitive accompaniment.

The rest of the set consists of large wooden, coffin-shaped boxes, which may have been chosen to help with the acoustics but make for some fairly clunky scene changing as the cast drags them around.

More problematic is the barrage of stage business from director Stephen Colyer. The first act in particular is so busy, tricksy and over-choreographed that it distracts from the songs and diminishes our emotional connection with the characters.

For the very funny opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, the actors appear in matching grey pants, white shirts and Groucho Marx-like false noses. Later there’s a blow-up doll, which feels tacky, particularly when Jason is handling it. Retallick wears a steel mesh basket on her head while singing “Trina’s Song”. Quite why she also lines up six kitchen sponges I’m not sure. (The reason for the cast carrying their scores for the opening number and briefly later when Whizzer is ill also eluded me).

For Trina’s big, show-stopping number “I’m Breaking Down” Retallick has to do a workout routine on an aerobic stepper. She still got a well-deserved, rousing response but, as in numerous other instances during the show, it felt that the choreography was competing with the song.

Even Jason’s poignant little musical interludes are accompanied by a distracting pattern of hand movements.

A moment of stillness towards the end of Act I comes as blessed relief. Marvin and Jason sit facing each other. Without moving, Henderson focuses on his son and sings the touching lullaby-like “Father to Son” and for the first time the emotion feels real.

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

The second act is a big improvement despite masks with clown noses. Instead of the matching grey and white outfits, the characters appear in colourful costumes that help define their characters and the stage business isn’t so relentless – though why, oh why, in the middle of Marvin’s beautiful love ballad “What More Can I Say”, movingly sung by Henderson to a sleeping Whizzer, does Colyer have him take a pee?

Overall, however, the second act hits its moments. The ensemble number “The Baseball Game” in which the extended family goes to watch “Jewish boys who can’t play baseball play baseball” is very funny and snappily performed. The quartet “Unlikely Lovers” is also a poignant moment, impressively sung by Henderson, Hall, De Ferranti and McCann. And even though the ending of the musical is a little sentimental, Colyer shows more restraint here and allows the material to speak for itself with touching results.

The cast works extremely hard and all have their moment. Retallick captures Trina’s zesty vim and neuroses with an exuberant performance, her renowned comic chops as sure as ever. Henderson does a good job of conveying Marvin’s arc from self-absorption to a more mature appreciation of family and love, becoming ever more engaging as the show progresses, while Anderson brings a kooky warmth to the role of Mendel.

But on opening night it was 13-year old Garcia who all but stole the show, handling Jason’s conflicted emotions superbly well for his age, singing securely and exuding an effortless ease and sense of timing on stage.

There’s no doubting Colyer’s love for the show in which he has found “inspiration, encouragement and consolation” as he writes in the theatre program. Perhaps it’s because of his passion for it that he has tried to do too much with it at times.

Sydney hasn’t seen a professional staging of Falsettos since the wonderful Sydney Theatre Company version in 1994. (The New Theatre also staged a production in 2004, which I didn’t see). Musical theatre aficiandos will therefore be excited at the chance to see it now. It is a beautiful little show and despite my reservations about this production, there’s more than enough in it that’s enjoyable to make it well worth seeing.

Falsettos plays at the Eternity Playhouse until March 16 as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Bookings: darlinghursttheatre.com