2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

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Grease review

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Grease premiered in 1971, it was a show with attitude that took a rough, raunchy look back at 1950s teenagers and celebrated the music of the era. Over the years, particularly with the advent of the much-loved film, the edges have been knocked off it and it’s become much less gritty.

This latest incarnation, which originated in the UK with direction by David Gilmore and choreography by Arlene Phillips, could do with a bit more of that original grunt.

Restaged by Jason Capewell and Charlotte Bull, the production feels a tad too slick for its own good and somewhat heartless. It needs to trust the moments more and find the truth in them to connect you better with the characters. As it is, you don’t really care about them.

Lucy Maunder’s Rizzo is a notable exception. She really owns the role of the snarky, cynical leader of the Pink Ladies and her moving rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is an emotional and musical highlight.

The production begins, somewhat strangely, with a sing-along of We Go Together led by Miss Lynch (Val Lehman) while the students of Rydell High enter via the auditorium. In my experience, sing-alongs are never terribly popular with audiences at the best of times – let alone at the top of a musical. Here it is forced and awkward.

After that slow start, much of Act I feels a bit flat. Though the cast performs energetically and the show rocks along (almost too frenetically at times) it all feels a bit hollow and the songs don’t really get things pumping the way you’re willing them to.

The production picks up with Greased Lightin’ led by Stephen Mahy as Kenickie but it’s not until Todd McKenney’s appearance as Teen Angel that the show hits its groove. Resplendent in a gleaming white suit studded with rhinestones, a silver waistcoat, silver boots and white blonde wig that makes him look like a cross between Liberace and a cheesy Elvis, it’s a literally glittering turn. It may be unashamedly over-the-top but McKenney exudes the charisma, star power and fun that the show needs at that point to really lift: definitely another production highlight.

Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett are both likeable as Danny and Sandy. Mills’ voice has grown in recent years and he brings his winning, cheeky charm to the character, while Scarlett has a lovely voice, which soars with crystal clarity in Hopelessly Devoted to You. However, there’s little chemistry between them.

Other characters among the Rydell High students are less well delineated and get somewhat lost in the mix, particularly the boys, with a couple of songs getting hardly any response from the opening night audience.

Bert Newton may be a much-loved Australian celebrity and cast for that reason but he is far too old to play DJ Vince Fontaine – something that becomes wince-makingly obvious when he is called on to flirt with Marty (Karla Tonkich) – and his accent comes and goes. As Johnny Casino, Anthony Callea puts a contemporary pop spin on Born to Hand Jive instead of the original 1950s rhythm and blues rockabilly style – and something is lost.

The set is relatively modest though it does the job and the colourful costumes work well but the choreography could do with a sharper 1950s vibe and edge.

The story itself is so simple it doesn’t bear much analysis. The teenagers’ problems come and go very quickly, while the ending has always sent a somewhat mixed message with Sandy transforming herself into a bad girl to get her guy. But it’s always been that way and when everything is hitting the mark it doesn’t matter. Here, it is somewhat exposed.

Nonetheless, the songs are great and so familiar that the audience laps them up. (They certainly did in Brisbane where the show sold out before coming to Sydney). Promoted as “the number one party musical”, this production of Grease is fun but it’s hardly electrifyin’.

Grease plays at the Lyric Theatre until December 8 then at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, January 2 – February 9.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 20

Todd McKenney’s Centre Stage Tours: interview

Todd McKenney

Todd McKenney

Todd McKenney is used to being centre stage. Now the musical theatre performer who has starred in shows including The Boy From Oz, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – the Musical, Crazy for You and Annie among many others, is organising a series of personally guided theatre tours, which will give others the chance to join him there – if only after the curtain has fallen.

Todd McKenney’s Centre Stage Tours will kick off during the Sydney leg of the forthcoming tour of Grease – in which he plays Teen Angel – when he will take people backstage after the show, ending up on stage for photographs with himself and other cast members.

He is also opening up his beautiful, spacious home on Sydney’s Upper North Shore for high tea soirées at which guests will wander his lovely garden then gather around his piano for a relaxed private performance.

The first soirée on August 4, at which he will perform with Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore, sold out within a matter of hours after he chatted about it on radio with Alan Jones. However, there are still some tickets available for his first theatre tours. Some of the proceeds from the tours will go to the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia.

The idea began during a conversation with his friends Julie and Chris Walker, co-owners of several Sydney restaurants including Berta in Surry Hills.

“They said, ‘have you ever thought of taking groups to Broadway and the West End?’” recalls McKenney. “I thought about it more and more and said to Julie, ‘why don’t you run it with me?’ So we looked at putting it together and decided to start closer to home where we have the contacts.”

John Frost, the producer of Grease, and the Lyric Theatre, where the show is playing in Sydney, both loved the idea. “The Lyric are giving us private champagne rooms as the guests arrive, all sorts of stuff. We have had two travel agents contact us now so we are meeting them. It’s just taken off,” says McKenney.

The first tours on offer are dinner-theatre tours on October 25 and November 1 when a group of 30 will dine at Berta, which offers modern Italian cuisine, then go by private coach back to the theatre for pre-show champagne. After seeing they show, McKenney will take them on a backstage tour. There are also sip-a-soda tours on December 1 and 8 after the matinee with an optional meal.

The reason McKenney is able to dine with guests before the show is that as Teen Angel he only sings one song in the second act – however, he plans to dazzle, literally.

“They asked what I wanted to wear and I said, ‘I want to blind them,’ says McKenney with a laugh.

“If I’ve only got one number I want to hit that stage like a human mirror ball so I’ve got a costume covered in Swarovski crystals with silver aviators, a big white quiff and silver crocodile skin boots, which I’ve just had made. So it’s going to be a good look. I’m going to make an impact.”

Into the future, McKenney is performing in another musical for Frost next year, which is yet to be announced. He has also put in a couple of requests.

“There are a couple of shows I really, really want to do before I can’t do them. One of them is Barnum,” he says. “I’m desperate to do Barnum so I rang Frosty one day and he and I have been talking about that for the future. I don’t know if he’s got it.

“It’s a role I’ve always wanted to play. I love the music, I love the character, I love the story. He’s a showman but he’s got a dark side and I get to do acrobatic tricks. It’s an itch which I haven’t been able to scratch – and it’s my Mum’s favourite musical.”

Meanwhile, Dancing with the Stars – where McKenney has made his mark as the “nasty” judge – is set to return to Channel Seven for its 13th season. The line-up has not yet been announced but McKenney is keen to return.

Dancing with the Stars and The Boy From Oz changed my life,” he says. “As long as they keep running it and asking me back, I’ll be there.”

Tour information and bookings: toddmckenneyscentrestagetours.com.au or Julie 0411 424 010.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 14.