2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Not a Launch: Hayes Theatre Co 2015

Hayes Theatre Co, September 29

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“It’s not a launch,” said David Campbell. “It’s just a release of information.”

Whatever it was, it was a great way to introduce the Hayes Theatre Co’s program for the first half of 2015 with performers on hand to sing numbers from the shows featured, and to give us a preview of the final shows for 2014.

British director Neil Rutherford introduced Beyond Desire, the new musical for which he has written book and lyrics, with music by Kieran Drury, which will play at the Hayes from November 21 to December 13.

Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery, inspired in part by E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, which Rutherford described as “Downton Abbey meets Hamlet”. It will feature contemporary music inspired by the period, with influences of Elgar and Debussy. The score will be performed by a six-piece orchestra.

Nancye Hayes, who plays a housekeeper, sang an amusing number about family secrets, in costume complete with a tray of tea and sandwiches. It will be the first time Hayes has performed at the venue named after her. After that performance, I can’t wait.

The 2015 season begins in January with a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal by Geelong’s Doorstep Arts (January 8 – February 1). Introduced by the company’s founding director Darylin Ramondo, the production will feature Natalie O’Donnell as Diana, the suburban mother with worsening bipolar disorder and delusional episodes.

The cast will also include Alex Rathgeber and Anthony Harkin. O’Donnell performed I Miss the Mountains in which Diana sings about missing the dizzy heights of her non-medicated state.

In February, Enda Markey produces Blood Brothers (see related feature) with a fabulous cast led by Helen Dallimore, Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox. Running February 6 – March 8, Dallimore gave a taste of things to come with a medley of Easy Terms and Tell Me It’s Not True.

In May, Neil Gooding presents Dogfight with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duncan, all still in their 20s.

Based on the 1991 film starring River Phoenix, it tells the edgy story of three young men on their way to Vietnam who attend a “dogfight” the night before they leave at which they compete to bring the ugliest date, out of which emerges an unusual love story.

The show premiered off-Broadway to generally good reviews in 2012 and was staged at London’s Southwark Theatre in August to more mixed reviews.

Johanna Allen, who will play the prostitute Marcie, sang a number called Pretty Funny, performed in the show by the leading lady Rose. Dogfight runs May 1– 31. Gooding said that Pasek & Paul will hopefully come to Australia towards the end of the season and conduct some workshops and masterclasses.

Meanwhile, Miracle City by Max Lambert and the late Nick Enright plays at the Hayes from October 17 to November 16. The keenly anticipated revival of the musical, which had a brief work-in-progress season at Sydney Theatre Company in 1996, will be a brand new show directed by Darren Yap.

Described by Campbell as “a shitload of fun”, Miracle City is inspired by US televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Bakker. Telling the story of the Truswell family, it is set in real time during a live-to-air evangelical television show.

Blazey Best, Mike McLeish, Hilary Cole and Cameron Holmes who play the Truswell family performed the song Miracle City, a very funny, jaunty, gospel hoedown in which they sing about the Christian theme park they are building. The song was the first they wrote, said Lambert, but didn’t make it into the original show.

It was a spectacular way to end the evening and a fantastic teaser for Miracle City.

Sweet Charity, the Hayes’ inaugural, sellout production, which won three Helpmann Awards, will tour in 2015. A Canberra season has already been announced for February with other dates to be confirmed.

Details can be found at www.hayestheatre.com.au

Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

LOVEBiTES

Hayes Theatre Co, September 14

Adele Parkinson, Shaun Rennie, Tyran Parke and Kirby Burgess. Photo: Pia Moore

Adele Parkinson, Shaun Rennie, Tyran Parke and Kirby Burgess. Photo: Pia Moore

Peter Rutherford and James Millar’s scintillating song cycle LOVEBiTES premiered in Sydney in 2008, earning a Sydney Theatre Award nomination, and returned the following year as part of the BITE (Best of Independent Theatre) season.

It’s great to see it back in a new production, directed by Troy Alexander for Wooden Horse Productions at Sydney’s dynamic little Hayes Theatre Co.

A collection of songs about lurve, the show shines a light on seven very different relationships. In Act I we see each couple meet and fall for each other. In Act II we discover how things turned out.

Amongst them are a florist and her admirer Poppy, two men who meet at a book group, a mile-high liaison between a Hollywood star and an airhostess, and a wedding that leads to a three-way marriage. There’s also the hilarious story of a malfunctioning loo that nearly scuppers a perfect match, which pays tribute to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (“attend the tale of Annie Pluck”).

In just two songs per couple – sung by one of the pair in the first act, and then by the other person in the second – Millar deftly conveys story and character. His lyrics are beautifully observed, finding humour, joy, passion and heartbreak in all manner of ordinary situations.

Rutherford’s catchy music ranges from musical theatre pastiche to perky pop to tender ballads. In its previous incarnation, the show was performed with solo piano. Here a four-piece band led by Steven Kreamer (hidden backstage) move confidently between the different styles.

The sound mix was a little uneven at the performance I saw, with the music dominating the vocals at times, particularly in the up-tempo numbers, but it settled as the show progressed.

Performed by just four people, LOVEBiTES certainly showcases the vocal and dramatic versatility of its cast and is well served here by a terrific line-up: Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adèle Parkinson and Shaun Rennie.

They are all impressive but the two ladies are knockouts. Burgess has been in musicals including An Officer and a Gentleman, Hairspray and Grease in which she played the role of Rizzo in Perth recently. Parkinson was in Squabbalogic’s production of Carrie and understudied the role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Both show their star quality here and if they aren’t playing lead roles in major musicals soon I’ll eat my review.

Lauren Peters has created a slick, effective set design featuring two small revolves on a shiny black stage, which keep the scene changes moving quickly, while Becky-Dee Trevenen does a great job with the costuming. Ellen Simpson’s energetic choreography also works well in the tiny space.

Memory can be deceptive but having seen both the previous productions, I’m not sure this one tears at the heartstrings quite as much, though Parkinson’s exquisite rendition of Give it to the Breeze had me weeping.

Overall though, this is a fine production of a beautiful little show and well worth a look.

LOVEBiTES is at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 5. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Britney Spears: The Cabaret

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

It ain’t hard to parody Britney Spears given the many train-wreck moments in her life. The genius in Christie Whelan Browne’s Britney Spears: The Cabaret is the way the laughs are accompanied by an unexpected humanity, compassion and pathos.

Written and directed by Dean Bryant, the script brilliantly satirises the price of fame. Tracing Spears’ career from Disney mouseketeer to pop princess to shaven-headed emotional wreck, it includes all the headline-grabbing moments but without over-egging them. So, while the show fizzes with hilarious one-liners it also hits home with a surprising emotional truth.

Beginning in comic fashion, with Britney Jean Spears portrayed as ditsy, naïve and none-too-bright but endearingly self-deprecating, the show becomes sadder and sadder as her life falls apart.

Taught to feel guilty from a young age by a pushy stage mother when she didn’t land work, betrayed by boyfriends who boasted and spent her money, committed to a pysch ward by her father who took control of her money, losing custody of her children, Spears has endured much.

“Sometimes I feel the only people who love me are the paps,” says Whelan Browne-as-Britney.

Musical director and accompanist Mathew Frank has rearranged all the hit songs as cabaret numbers for solo piano – and they work astonishingly well. It opens with a manic, waltz-like version of Circus. There’s a jazzy Oops! I Did I Again and a darker, Weimar-esque Baby One More Time, while Womanizer explodes with a Broadway-like belt.

The musically spare arrangements put a focus on the lyrics, which fit seamlessly within the structure of the show, cleverly illuminating Spears’ life (even though she didn’t write most of them).

Wearing a little black dress, the gorgeous Whelan Browne is sublime. Her comic timing is immaculate and she sings superbly, while totally inhabiting the role. The show has been around since 2009 and the emotional depth she now brings to it is even more moving than ever.

It ends with heartbreaking versions of I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman and Everytime. Hilarious yet terribly poignant, Britney Spears: The Cabaret is a stunning show. What’s more, it sits perfectly in the intimate Hayes Theatre. Don’t miss it.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until September 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 24

Mario

Hayes Theatre Co, July 9

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

The new cabaret show Mario, conceived and performed by Phil Scott and Blake Bowden, takes a fairly straightforward biographical approach to the life of Mario Lanza, lacing the narrative with much of the music he was famous for singing.

With his glorious romantic tenor voice, the Brooklyn-born American-Italian was a 1950s superstar. He could have sung at the Met but chose to stay at MGM, where he had become a silver screen heartthrob, in order to play his hero in The Great Carouso.

Lanza’s career blazed brightly – but fizzled out just as quickly. He over-indulged in food and drink, and threw his weight around on set, getting himself sacked from MGM’s The Student Prince. He died aged 38, probably from a pulmonary embolism – though there were rumours the mafia had bumped him off.

Written by Scott and directed by Chris Parker, the show takes a linear, chronological approach. Given the 70-minute time constraint, it fairly hurtles through Lanza’s life: his discovery, rocketing career, marriage, the war and his demise.

Some things like his many affairs are dealt with in a phrase or two, while cheeky jump cuts help pack it all in. A brief war scene is followed by the comment, “Well, now that the war’s over” (or words to that effect). And on we go.

Scott’s script is well-written but is a fairly superficial skimming over Lanza’s life with just enough information to link the musical numbers.

Although Bowden doesn’t have quite the same dark, passionate, Italianate sound as Lanza, he does have a lovely tenor voice and sings the material beautifully, moving effortlessly between numbers including Granada, Your tiny hand is frozen from La Boheme, Nessun Dorma, We’ll Meet Again, The Loveliest Night of the Year, and the drinking song from The Student Prince.

Lanza’s growing girth, so frequently referred to, is left to our imagination – (Bowden is a lithe, trim figure) – and a padded jacket or some such costuming might not go astray.

Scott accompanies him brilliantly on piano, with his usual panache. He also plays a cavalcade of characters including a singing teacher, Louis B. Mayer, a personal trainer and a mafia hit man, lending the piece an extra theatricality.

If you know about Lanza, there’s nothing terribly surprising here in terms of the story or the way it is told. But for many in the opening night audience it was clearly a wonderful nostalgia trip. For those who don’t know about Lanza, it’s an entertaining introduction to a legendary performer who died all too young, that may well send them in search of more information.

Mario plays at the Hayes Theatre Co tonight and tomorrow at 6.30pm. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

David Campbell Sings John Bucchino

Hayes Theatre Co, June 18

John Bucchino and David Campbell. Photo: Sam Bratby

John Bucchino and David Campbell. Photo: Sam Bratby

David Campbell and renowned songwriter John Bucchino met in New York 17 years ago. Friends ever since, their ease with each other shows in their new cabaret show David Campbell Sings John Bucchino currently playing as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season.

In the intimate setting of the tiny theatre, with Bucchino on piano, they perform songs from across Bucchino’s career, from the heartfelt “Grateful” to the jazzy “Puddle of Love” to a number from the DreamWorks animated film Joseph: King of Dreams.

They’re beautiful songs with lovely, sophisticated melodies and lyrics in which Bucchino wears his heart on his sleeve. Many have a theatrical feel and a strong sense of storytelling. They may not be widely known but they are accessible.

Campbell sings most of them though Bucchino does a few himself, while Bucchino has the lion’s share of the patter as he talks (delightfully) about how the two met, his career and the inspiration for the numbers (often love and loss). Campbell chips in with the odd witty comment and bit of banter but for the most part stands respectfully to one side when Bucchino chats.

When it comes to the musical numbers, Campbell is in fine voice, singing with supreme control and beauty, and connecting to the lyrics with great sensitivity. Highlights include his dramatic performance of “I Stayed” from Bucchino’s 2008 Broadway musical A Catered Affair  – how good it would be to see him back on stage in a musical – and a moving version of Learn How to Say Goodbye, as well as Bucchino singing songs like Unexpressed.

The chance to get so up close and personal with the composer and hear his songs performed by such a superb interpreter makes this a special show.

David Campbell sings John Bucchino is at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 28 and at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta on June 29

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 22