The Fantasticks

Hayes Theatre Co, January 13

Laurence Coy, Jonathan Hickey, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Garry Scale The Fantasticks (c) Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Jonathan Hickey, Bobbie-Jean Henning and Garry Scale. Photo: Marnya Rothe

The Fantasticks is, rather remarkably, the world’s longest-running musical having played continuously off-Broadway for 42 years from 1960. On top of that, a 2006 revival is still running in New York. How much of its current appeal is to do with the caché of its lengthy run in the manner of The Mousetrap, who knows, but the musical clearly has to have something going for it.

The original London season and a 2010 West End revival didn’t do good business. Nonetheless, it’s still performed all over the world.

I have never seen it on stage but I have spoken to some who have, I’ve heard cast recordings and have read about it. It seems to me a curious choice in this day and age as the musical – a whimsically cutesy commedia dell’arte-style fable – is pretty twee and dated. Directing the show for Wooden Horse Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, Helen Dallimore has taken out the commedia and given the darker elements in the show a stronger focus in order to try to make it resonate today. But in doing so, she has put the balance of the musical out of whack and lost some of the whimsical, homespun charm, which was clearly so much part of its original appeal.

Dallimore has also made a very strange – I would say ill-considered – decision to use the original version of a song about abduction, which includes the word “rape” around 40 times when an alternative version exists – more of which later.

With music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones (not the pop star), The Fantasticks tells a simple allegorical tale. Two single fathers living next door to each other pretend to feud. They build a wall between their houses and forbid their children (20-year old Matt and 16-year old Luisa) to see each other in the hope that reverse psychology will prevail and their offspring will fall in love and marry.

The fathers even set up a mock abduction, with Matt fighting off the supposed bandits to rescue his young love. The ruse works but the young lovers soon become bored with each other. Matt sets off like the prodigal son to see the world leaving Luisa behind to make her own discoveries. Eventually they are reunited having learned that in order to truly love and appreciate what you have, you have to have experienced some of the cruelties of the world. “Without a hurt the heart is hollow” as El Gallo, the enigmatic narrator figure who leads them on their journey to self-discovery, sings in the show’s most famous song Try to Remember.

The songs have tuneful melodies and poetic lyrics but few of them are especially memorable except Try to Remember and the romantic ballad Soon It’s Gonna Rain.

The score was originally performed by a sextet including harp and piano. Musical directors Glenn Moorhouse and Hayden Baltrop have rearranged it for electric guitar and electric keyboard to give it a rockier, grittier, more modern edge. It works for some of it but there’s no room in Dallimore’s darker, more menacing vision of El Gallo for Martin Crewes to sing the opening number Try to Remember in the usual crooning fashion. Instead, he sings it in a harsh, threatening manner, which doesn’t really suit his voice or the song. That’s no reflection on Crewes, who I thought was superb in the show.

Because Dallimore has taken a darker approach to El Gallo, but not pushed this further elsewhere in the musical, it makes for some awkward jumps in style. The two comic duets for the fathers feel really old-school in comparison. Meanwhile, the romantic ballads between the two young lovers, though well sung by newcomers Bobbie-Jean Henning and Jonathan Hickey, don’t quite soar as much as they might.

Then there’s the problematic “rape” song “It Depends on What You Pay”. The fathers enlist El Gallo to orchestrate the pretend abduction of Luisa. Though El Gallo makes clear that he is using the word “rape” in the classical context of “abduction”, it’s still a very loaded word and the original song in which El Gallo and the two fathers sing jauntily of “the Venetian Rape”, “the Gothic Rape”, “the Drunken Rape” and numerous other rapes now feels offensive, insensitive and very uncomfortable.

Aware of this, productions routinely replace the word “rape” with “abduction” or “raid” and in 1990 Schmidt and Jones wrote an alternative song called “Abductions”– so why Dallimore chose to go with the original is bemusing.

Bobbie-Jean Henning and Martin Crewes in The Fantasticks (c) Marnya Rothe

Bobbie-Jean Henning and Martin Crewes. Photo: Marnya Rothe

For all that, there are things to enjoy in the production. Crewes brings a dark menace and sexy charisma to the role of El Gallo but also manages to balance this with a sense of mystery and ineffable wisdom, suggesting a figure both devilish and god-like. A fine actor and singer, he is a strong presence throughout.

Garry Scale and Laurence Coy double as the fathers and two elderly travelling players (originally played by four actors) and both turn in strong comic performances. Scale’s portrayal of the doddery actor Henry is a particular delight. As the young lovers, Henning and Hickey sing attractively and exude a youthful innocence. But in making them a little more knowing and self-absorbed, they aren’t quite as endearingly naïve as they might be.

Hugh O’Connor’s set is simple but reasonably effective: a grassy lawn studded with flowers and white gauzy curtains through which we see a red Exit sign (presumably indicating the outside world, I’m not sure) though Christopher Page’s lighting does it no favours.

In the original, a mute actor played the wall. Dallimore has done away with this – and we are easily able to imagine it. But to then see the actors walking quite happily through the imaginary wall is a bit weird. There’s a terrific moment, however, with Moorhouse appearing from behind the gauze curtain to play guitar centrestage as the wall is rebuilt, which is a lovely touch.

The Hayes has become known as a venue where inventive productions have brought fresh life to well-known musicals and introduced audiences to lesser-known ones so there was much interest in how The Fantasticks would be reimagined for today. It’s great to see an emerging director like Dallimore prepared to take a risk with a show like this. Unfortunately, this time around the experiment hasn’t been that successful. This production never really finds its groove and it’s hard to see why the musical itself ever had such appeal.

The Fantasticks plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until January 31. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

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Man of La Mancha

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 28

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

Independent company Squabbalogic is known for its inventive productions of little seen, contemporary musicals. It now presents a brilliantly re-imagined staging of a hoary, 50-year old classic: Man of La Mancha.

Written as a play-within-a play, author/actor/tax collector Miguel de Cervantes is imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition. When his fellow inmates subject him to a mock trial of their own, Cervantes tells them the story of Alonso Quijana, a crazed gentleman who believes he is Don Quixote, a knight-errant on a quest to better the world.

Director Jay James-Moody and his terrific design team (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay, lighting by Benjamin Brockman, sound by Jessica James-Moody) set their gritty production entirely in a dark, dingy prison dungeon (as the first production was originally staged before being expanded and romanticised).

We never forget that this is Cervantes mustering the prisoners to help tell his tale, but the performances are so beautifully delineated that we experience and embrace both layers of the storytelling at the same time. The prisoners are as well characterised as the roles they then take on in Don Quixote’s world.

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

The lo-fi staging is simple, with a few benches rearranged for different scenes, yet it’s also beautifully detailed from the horse costumes to the kinks in Don Quixote’s sword after his tilting at windmills. The staging makes clever use of the intimate theatre, including the balcony around it, to engender an oppressive atmosphere (heightened by the sound of clanking and screams) but allies that with a rudely vigorous performance style.

Hay’s costuming is a convincing combination of the grubbily makeshift and the more colourful outfits that Cervantes might well have had in his theatre trunk, adding an element of sexiness among the squalor.

Also heightening the DIY feel is the decision to have the actors play the score on a range of instruments, led by musical director Paul Geddes on piano.

At the heart of an excellent ensemble, Tony Sheldon gives a stellar performance. He is suave as Cervantes and dignified, gentle and frail as Quixote, his rendition of The Impossible Dream speaking to us afresh and tearing at the heartstrings. It’s a revelation after umpteen bombastic versions sung out of context with little sense of the song’s true meaning.

Marika Aubrey, Ross Chisari and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Michael Francis

Marika Aubrey, Ross Chisari and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Michael Francis

Marika Aubrey is a spunky Aldonza, the abused barmaid and part-time tart in whom Quixote sees beauty as his honoured Lady Dulcinea. Aubrey brilliantly captures the tough, cynical carapace Aldonza has built for self-protection and then touchingly conveys the new hope she gradually, briefly allows herself to feel in Quixote’s eyes. The final scene between her and Sheldon is incredibly moving and inexpressibly sad. Aubrey is also impressive vocally and raises the roof with the song Aldonza.

Ross Chisari is endearing as Quixote’s chirpy sidekick Sancho Panza and his choreography suits the production’s aesthetic. Glenn Hill is in fine voice as the padre, as is Stephen Anderson as Alonso’s housekeeper. Joanna Weinberg lends weight to the antagonistic roles of the prison prosecutor and Dr Carrasco, who wants to marry Alonso’s niece but is worried about being associated with a madman, while James-Moody turns in a memorable comic cameo as the barber.

Stephen Anderson, Glenn Hill and Courtney Glass. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Anderson, Glenn Hill and Courtney Glass. Photo: Michael Francis

However, credit is due to all the performers: Hayden Barltrop (who is there primarily as a musician on clarinet, keys and bassoon), Reece Budin, Laurence Coy, Courtney Glass, Hay (who performs as well designing the costumes), Rob Johnson, Shondelle Pratt, Kyle Sapsford and Richard Woodhouse (whose guitar playing is gorgeous on Little Bird).

There’s no disguising Man of La Mancha’s creakiness. The book (Dale Wasserman) and lyrics (Joe Darion) are clunky at times, while Mitch Leigh’s Spanish-influenced music can feel samey and rather dirge-like. Despite all of that, Squabbalogic gives us an exciting, inspiring and genuinely moving piece of theatre. Recommended.

Man of La Mancha plays at the Seymour Centre until March 21. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 8

Mystery Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 24 at 2pm

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

It’s a measure of the respect Squabbalogic now commands that it can sell out two performances at the Reginald Theatre without audiences having a clue what it is they are going to see.

Tickets to Squabbalogic’s first Mystery Musical were snapped up fast, raising $10,000 for the company, as the company’s artistic director Jay James-Moody told us in his welcome speech before the start of the show. He also revealed that the independent company has applied for funding for the first time.

Anyway, everyone was clearly delighted to be contributing to the cause and was fascinated to see what musical the Squabb team had chosen for the company’s first blind-date show.

With the promised theatre program not being handed out until interval, it wasn’t until the first chords sounded and the cast burst into song that we discovered it was…..(drum roll) Bye Bye Birdie. It was a surprise choice in some ways, as Squabbalogic tends to produce recent musicals we would otherwise be unlikely to see. (Though in another unusual move they are producing Man of La Mancha next month).

The 1960 show with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams is pure musical comedy. I have never seen it on stage. In fact, I didn’t really know the show beyond some of the more famous songs like Put On a Happy Face and A Lot Of Livin’ To Do. So the chance to see it at all was great, and then to see it done so well – with just three days rehearsal – was the cream on the cake. I have to say it was a delightful way to spend an afternoon and everyone in the audience seemed to leave with a big smile on their face.

James-Moody starred, directed and “sort of choreographed” as he put it in the program – though in his welcoming remarks he did acknowledge the help of the cast and Nancye Hayes with the choreography.

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

He had assembled a terrific group of performers – Johanna Allen, Blake Erickson, Mikey Hart, Nancye Hayes, Jessica James-Moody, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Rob Johnson, Josie Lane, Michele Lansdown, Adele Parkinson, Garry Scale and Rowan Witt – and cast the show exceptionally well.

Their ranks were bolstered by an ensemble of 15 enthusiastic, talented graduates and students from the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) as the show’s teenagers.

Bye Bye Birdie is an affectionate satire, inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the army in 1957. It has plenty of catchy songs, a strong book full of big laughs (which plugs into the growing generation gap between teenagers and their parents), and an old-fashioned, feel-good exuberance about it.

Adele Parkinson as Kim. Photo: Amelia Burns

Adele Parkinson as Kim with Jessica James-Moody and Romy Watson. Photo: Amelia Burns

In a nutshell, the show is set in 1958. Agent/songwriter Albert Peterson, who is already in debt, hears that rock and roll star Conrad Birdie has been drafted.

Albert’s secretary and long-suffering sweetheart Rose Alvarez, comes up with a publicity stunt to bring in some bucks. Albert will write a new song called “One Last Kiss” for Conrad, who will sing it and kiss one of his thousands of fans (picked at random) as he departs. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Then, says Rosie, Albert will be able to wind up his business, marry her and become an English teacher (as he has been promising for yonks).

Throw in Albert’s domineering, interfering mother, who does all she can to prevent him marrying Rosie, Kim’s disapproving family and jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody, along with hordes of screaming, swooning fans, and things naturally go pear-shaped.

It’s a hoot that the happy ending has Albert agreeing to walk away from New York and showbiz and head instead for the tiny town of Pumpkin Falls, Iowa to teach English and Domestic Science, with Rose as his wife. Hard to make that outcome fly as a happy ending these days!

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

As with Neglected Musicals’ rehearsed readings, the cast performed with book in hand. But the standard of performance was remarkable given such little rehearsal time. James-Moody as Albert, Josie Lane as Rosie, Adèle Parkinson as Kim and Nancye Hayes as Albert’s mother were all sensational, performing with just the right, light comic touch. But kudos to the entire cast, each of whom did a fantastic job. Praise too to musical director Hayden Barltrop on keys.

Even without being fully staged, Bye Bye Birdie was a delightful, thoroughly satisfying performance that gave audiences a welcome chance to experience a classic musical comedy. I look forward to the next Mystery Musical with great anticipation.

As for Squabbalogic, which just this week won four 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards for its glorious production of The Drowsy Chaperone, the company just seems to go from strength to strength. Let’s hope funding follows.

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