Defying Gravity

Theatre Royal, February 13

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Sutton Foster and Aaaron Tveit in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

 

It sounded pretty special on paper but high expectations were far exceeded in Defying Gravity, an electrifying concert featuring the songs of Stephen Schwartz that sent me home walking on air.

Produced by Enda Markey, the show was beautifully crafted in every respect and the love that swelled from the audience was well and truly deserved.

For starters there was the stellar cast: two of Broadway’s hottest stars Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit, West End star Joanna Ampil, Australia’s own David Harris and Helen Dallimore, as well as Broadway legend Betty Buckley making a guest appearance in the second act. They were all wonderful but Foster and Tveit completely blew me away. The chance to see them on the Sydney stage was a gift.

The meaty program was extremely well put-together featuring songs both very well known and less familiar including numbers from Schwartz’s musicals Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show, Children of Eden, The Baker’s Wife and, of course, Wicked, along with numbers from Disney animated films such as Pocahontas, Enchanted and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on which he collaborated as lyricist with composer Alan Menken.

There was a good mixture of solos, duets and group numbers and lovely changes of pace from roof-raising numbers performed with the magnificent 15-piece band under conductor Guy Simpson to moments of quiet restraint such as Foster’s spellbinding rendition of When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt with solo guitar (Daniel Maher) and Cold Enough to Snow from the movie Life With Mikey movingly sung by Tveit accompanied on piano by Michael Tyack.

The choice of songs clearly illustrated Schwartz’s skill as a songwriter: a fine lyricist able to tell a story succinctly in song and convey a strong sense of character, emotion and empathy, as well as a catchy tunesmith.

Trent Suidgeest’s stage design was simple but had enough sparkle for the occasion with hanging strings of silver flakes as well as silver dusting the stage. Smoothly directed by Andrew Pole, the choreography of the performers on and off stage (as well as in several songs) was deft, as was their linking material, while the inclusion of comments from Schwartz on screen added insight to his career and process including his songwriting mantra: “Just tell the truth and make it rhyme”.

It was fascinating to see how the number The Wizard and I from Wicked gradually evolved from a song initially entitled Making Good.

The band was excellent and the sound was terrific (System Sound, Julian Spink and David Tonion).

Defying Gravity: The Songs Of Stephen Schwartz

David Harris, Helen Dallimore, Stephen Schwartz, Aaron Tveit, Betty Buckley, Sutton Foster and Joanna Ampil in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

And then there were the performers. Sutton Foster, whose many Broadway credits include Millie Dilmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and the title role in Violet, has a voice to die for: bright, clear, silvery and soaring. She can belt to the heavens as she showed with Defying Gravity, which had the audience on their feet screaming, or rein it right back in heartbreaking fashion as with I’m Not That Girl.

Tveit was also sensational. Star of Broadway shows Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal, he played Enjolras in the 2012 movie of Les Miserables and Danny Zuko in the recent Fox Grease: Live. His lovely, light tenor soars effortlessly, he charms with a cheeky smile and twinkle in the eye, and he has a great sense of comedy. He knocked it out of the park with Proud Lady from The Baker’s Wife and hammed it up delightfully in All From the Best from Godspell with David Harris.

Harris was also in fine voice. Known here for his performances in shows including Miss Saigon and Legally Blonde, he is now based in New York. Exuding a natural ease on stage, he gave a beautiful rendition of Corner of the Sky from Pippin and got a huge response from the audience with the sexy duet Endless Delights, performed with Helen Dallimore.

Dallimore, who originated the role of Glinda in the London production of Wicked and whose credits in Australia include Blood Brothers and Legally Blonde, showed her comic chops with Endless Delights, Popular from Wicked and It’s An Art, a song by a waitress from the musical Working.

Joanna Ampil, who has a lovely soprano voice, charmed with songs including Lion Tamer from The Magic Show, That’s How You Know from Enchanted and, most particularly, Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas.

Betty Buckley performed three songs in the second act: No Time At All from Pippin, in which she starred for several years, as well as Chanson and the gorgeous Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife, bringing the audience to their feet. Schwartz actually wrote The Baker’s Wife with Buckley in mind but despite six auditions she didn’t land the role – a disappointment so devastating it consumed her for years as she explains with wry humour.

The show ended with Schwartz taking to the stage to perform Day By Day with the full company – an uplifting and touching end to an incredibly special event, which once again had the audience on their feet.

Earlier in the day, I saw Schwartz in conversation with Leigh Sales, a terrific interview about his career and craft, which only added to my appreciation of the concert.

All in all, a big thanks to Enda Markey for producing Defying Gravity. It was a little slice of musical theatre heaven. Pure bliss!

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Sutton Foster Defies Gravity in Sydney

Sutton Foster discusses coming to Sydney for the Stephen Schwartz concert Defying Gravity, the scars she drew on for her Tony Award-nominated performance in Violet, musicals Hamilton and Fun Home, dream roles and playing younger in Younger

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Broadway star Sutton Foster. Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

 

When producer Enda Markey approached Broadway star Sutton Foster about performing in Sydney, his timing couldn’t have been better. Foster had just agreed to teach musical theatre masterclasses at a summer school in New Zealand.

“So basically the reason I’m going (to Sydney) is because I was already going to be here,” she says on the phone from Christchurch. “I’ve never been to Australia and I’m so super-excited.”

The two-time Tony Award winner (for her performances as Millie Dilmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002 and Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes in 2011) will headline a concert called Defying Gravity, featuring the songs of composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz whose credits include the musicals Wicked, Godspell and Pippin among others, as well as lyrics for the Disney films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.

The impressive line-up also features Broadway legend Betty Buckley (Sunset Boulevard), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras in the 2012 Les Miserables movie and Danny Zuko in Fox’s Grease Live), West End star Joanna Ampil (Miss Saigon) and Australians David Harris (Miss Saigon, Legally Blonde) and Helen Dallimore (Legally Blonde, Glinda in the West End production of Wicked).

“Aaron and I have never worked together, we just know each other through the business, the same with Betty. We know each other through mutual friends so I’m looking forward to working with both of them on this,” says Foster.

Schwartz meanwhile is a good friend but Foster has never been in one of his shows, though she has performed songs of his including Defying Gravity in concert. “I’ve worked on some of his material but some of the songs that I’m going to be singing are songs I’ve never sung before so it’s brand new material (for me) so I’m super-excited. I’ve been working on the material while I’ve been here in Christchurch. I’ve been looking back into his catalogue and it’s really exciting,” she says.

Schwartz will attend the three concerts at Sydney’s Theatre Royal this Friday and Saturday and also do an onstage “in conversation” interview with Leigh Sales at midday on Saturday.

“That adds another level of pressure,” says Foster with a laugh, “but it will be fun to have him there. I think it’s going to be a great evening.”

Performing in concert is “a different sort of expression” to performing in a musical, says Foster.

“I don’t have to paint myself green! And you are allowed to take songs a little out of context and personalise things a little bit, which I enjoy. As an audience member, you hope to see a little bit of the character but you also get to learn a little bit about me as well, hopefully. I can bring a little bit more of myself to the songs. I try to do that anyway but in a concert setting I like to take things a little bit out of the expected from what you might see on stage.”

Sutton Foster - photo credit Laura Marie Duncan

Sutton Foster. Photo: Laura Marie Duncan

Foster was born in Statesboro, Georgia and raised in Troy, Michigan. She began dance classes at age four and at ten was “dragged” (as she has put it in previous interviews) by her mother to audition for a local production of Annie, landing the title role.

She made her Broadway debut as an understudy for Sandy in Grease in 1996. Her big break came in one of those fabulous showbiz twists of fate. Offered a role in Les Misérables on Broadway (she had been understudying Eponine) or an ensemble track in a new musical adapted from the 1967 movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, she chose the latter in which she would also understudy the title role of Millie Dilmount.

When the show was struggling during its try-out season at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Foster was plucked from the ensemble to replace the leading lady. She subsequently played the role on Broadway, won a Tony Award and a star was born.

Foster has now performed in 11 Broadway shows, won two Tonys and also received Tony nominations for her performances as Jo March in Little Women, Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical and, most recently in 2014, the title role in Violet.

The New York Times described her portrayal of Violet as “a career-defining performance”.

Known for her bright, silvery voice, her sunny smile, her goofy comic skills and red-hot tap dancing, Violet showed a different side of Foster.

Written by composer Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Shrek The Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and writer Brian Crawley, Violet is based on a short story by Doris Bett called The Ugliest Pilgrim about a young woman who takes a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping that a televangelist can heal a disfiguring scar on her face, gained 12 years earlier when the blade flew from her father’s axe.

“It was definitely the most emotional thing I’ve ever done and the most vulnerable and exposed character I’ve ever played,” says Foster.

“It’s fascinating to see friends and colleagues and audience members who would come backstage who were so moved by it. Everyone can relate to her story. We all have scars: some you can see, some you can’t. I related to her. I don’t have physical scars but I definitely have scars from my upbringing and (the show is about) how we overcome them and how we learn to love ourselves scars and all. The show for me became incredibly healing. I was able to overcome personal things – that’s when theatre and the arts is at its best when it can change you. I felt changed by playing that character.”

While not wanting to go into too much detail, Foster says: “I had a rough relationship with my mom. It was hard and it was something I had to face as an adult and something that I needed to come to terms with and forgive her. It’s all complicated. In a weird way with Violet, her father hits her with an axe and it’s pretty cut and dry – he doesn’t do it on purpose, it was an accident.

“My mom only knew what she knew. She did the best she could raising my brother (performer Hunter Foster) and I, and we all had to come to terms with it and allowing it to be OK. I always joke it’s a bottle of bourbon and a whole day to go into all the details of it but all that stuff was very useful (in playing the role).”

(In 2014, Foster told The Los Angeles Times: “For a long time, my career and what I wanted to be as an actor was fueled by her – to please her and make her proud of me.”)

Foster may just be being polite but she sounds genuinely thrilled to hear that Sydney audiences recently had the chance to see a small-scale production of Violet because performer Samantha Dodemaide was so blown away by the show and Foster’s performance in it when she saw it on Broadway that she returned to Australia wanting to play the role.

The production, by Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, played at the Hayes in December and won Best Independent Production of a Musical at the 2015 Sydney Theatre Awards. It now has a season at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel (March 3 – 20).

Asked about the buzz that Hamilton – Lin Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about Founding American Father Alexander Hamilton featuring a racially diverse cast – is generating on Broadway, Foster says: “It’s worthy of all the buzz. I’ve seen it twice. I saw it off-Broadway before it opened and then I saw it right before it opened on Broadway and it’s exciting. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve seen for a long time.

“I will say personally that two of the most exciting pieces of music that I’ve experienced are running simultaneously, which are Fun Home – which won the Tony Award last year – and Hamilton. I think they are both groundbreakers.”

(Fun Home is a musical adaptation by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori of Alison Bechdel’s memoir about a young lesbian woman discovering her sexuality, and about her relationship with her gay father).

“There’s a song in Hamilton about how lucky we are to be alive right now and I feel that way about how lucky I am to be alive right now when so many exciting things are happening in musical theatre: exciting voices and risks, which are groundbreaking (in terms of) race and sexuality, really making statements that I think are so important. It’s really awesome,” says Foster.

As for dream roles, she says: “I’m a huge fan of new work so I would say that hopefully the dream role hasn’t even been written yet. But there are certain iconic roles. Some day I’d love to play Mama Rose in Gypsy. It doesn’t matter where it is, it doesn’t have to be on Broadway, it could be anywhere, it’s just a role I’d love to do. Also, Charity in Sweet Charity or the Baker’s Wife in Into the Woods. Those are probably my top three, I guess.”

In recent years, Foster has made a move into television appearing in Bunheads and now the US series Younger, in which she plays a 40-year old single mother, desperate for work, who pretends to be 26 in order to land a job with a publisher. She begins shooting series three in June.

“It’s a really nice change of pace,” she says of working in television. “I’ve been amazingly lucky – I say that as I knock on wood – to have worked in the theatre for 23 years, which is awesome. It’s all I ever wanted to do. So to learn something new and explore a whole new way of communicating and telling stories, and learning how to be on a television set as an older person – I’ll be 41 in March – is exciting. To be in the midst of my life and trying new things is exciting.”

Foster herself is married to screenwriter Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven) having previously been married to Christian Borle (Smash, Something Rotten!).

Asked how she feels about aging, she says she hadn’t really thought about it until doing press for Younger when everyone asked her about it.

“I completely understand because the show is about ageism and navigating that in the work place. Being a performer I haven’t experienced that yet. Maybe that will happen but I feel more content and happier now than I’ve ever been. I’ve no desire to go backwards. I’m very much looking forward to what’s ahead.”

So no botox or plastic surgery? “Never say never but I guess I feel right now I want to age gracefully and naturally. I’m a pretty natural gal so I can’t imagine (it). I don’t like the idea of anything fake. I try to live a pretty authentic life and I think that goes for my face as well. So for now, I’m embracing the wrinkles and everything else that’s happening and hopefully I can remain youthful from within.”

Defying Gravity, Theatre Royal, February 12 at 8pm & February 13 at 3pm and 8pm. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

 A version of this story appeared in the Daily Telegraph on February 11

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

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

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“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

STC_AfterDinner_PhotoBrettBoardman_BP_9294

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

OfMice

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.

 

High Society

Hayes Theatre Co, September 7

Amy Lehpamer and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer, sizzling in red, and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

High Society is set in the palatial home of rich socialites complete with swimming pool: quite a challenge in a 111-seat theatre.

But, true to form, the Hayes Theatre Co production solves it ingeniously. Set designer Lauren Peters has come up with four elegant, moveable arches and a clever reveal for the party scene. Lucetta Stapleton’s 1930s costuming, a few props and some sound effects (Jeremy Silver) are enough to complete the picture, along with Gavan Swift’s lighting.

The 1998 stage musical is based on the 1956 film High Society starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story. It has a very funny script by Arthur Kopit and songs by Cole Porter, some of which were in the movie, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Well, Did you Evah! and True Love, along with others of his that weren’t. Not all the lyrics relate as well as they might to the situation but overall it works a treat.

It’s the eve of Tracy Lord’s wedding to the rather pompous, dull George Kittredge. However, her younger sister Dinah is determined that Tracy remarry her first husband CK Dexter Haven, who turns up unexpectedly with a pair of reporters from Spy Magazine, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie.

Helen Dallimore directs with a sure, light touch, telling the story with great clarity, while Cameron Mitchell’s choreography suits the period. In another ingenious touch, Dallimore uses a quartet led by musical director Daryl Wallis whose jazzy arrangements of the score work brilliantly.

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer positively glows as Tracy: glamorous, tough and very funny when drunk, her singing, acting and dancing all perfectly pitched. Virginia Gay is sensational as Liz, who is quietly in love with Mike. Her comic timing is impeccable, her performance is full of delicious, surprising little details (the way she hesitates to articulate the word ‘you’ when singing “All I want is you” in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? just one of many) and she knows exactly how to deliver the songs.

Bobby Fox convincingly conveys Mike’s gradual softening as he falls for Tracy in a charismatic performance, while Bert LaBonté is an understated, rather melancholic Dexter whose charm grows on you.

Along the rest of the exceptionally strong cast, there are well judged comic performance from Scott Irwin as George, Jessica Whitfield as Dinah and Laurence Coy as the lecherous uncle Willy, while Delia Hannah is lovely as Tracy’s mother. All in all, divine.

High Society plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 3. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 13

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

Blood Brothers

Hayes Theatre Co, February 10

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blood Brothers, the hit musical by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), premiered in Liverpool in 1983 then ran in London’s West End for 24 years.

Last staged professionally in Sydney in 1994, the show’s reputation and popularity goes before it – so much so that this new, small-scale production, produced by Enda Markey in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, extended its season before it even opened. Days after opening it was almost sold out.

Though there is room to plumb a deeper well of anger and emotion, it’s a lively, well-staged production with some lovely performances.

Set in Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of fraternal twins, separated at birth when their mother Mrs Johnstone can’t afford to keep them both. Persuaded by the well-to-do Mrs Lyons, who she cleans for, to secretly give her one of the babies, the boys grow up on different sides of the track but become best friends without knowing their true relationship. However, the class difference and their love of the same woman have tragic consequences.

Russell wrote the show as a furious response to the growing divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England – something still depressingly relevant. Its great strength is a powerful narrative with an authentic working class voice, while the folk/pop songs have simple, catchy melodies. Russell uses repetition in the score quite effectively though a Marilyn Monroe motif eventually feels over-worked.

Andrew Pole directs on an ingenious set by Anna Gardiner that swings open to reveal interiors, with the tight four-piece band led by Michael Tyack hidden backstage, while her bright costuming brings colour to the dark, depressing world she creates.

Helen Dallimore is a warm, vital Mrs Johnstone. She captures her resilience but could do more to convey the toll taken on her by the terrible knocks and stresses she endures – though her rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True is heartbreaking.

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As the twins, who age from seven to young men, Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden give beautifully judged performances, managing to convey a convincing connection between them, despite being worlds removed.

It’s hard to play children without being gratingly twee, but Fox and Bowden, along with Christy Sullivan who plays their close friend Linda, do a terrific job here.

Fox exudes a knockabout, streetwise energy as Mickey, the youngest of the unruly, poverty-stricken Johnstone brood and his descent into depression is powerfully done. Bowden brings a gentle, earnest sweetness to Edward who is brought up by the posh Lyons family. Both are in great voice, and vocally suited to their characters.

Sullivan shines in a moving performance as Linda, the girl they both love, and the scenes between the three of them have a powerful dramatic and emotional force.

The scenes featuring the well-to-do Lyons played by Bronwyn Mulcahy and Phillip Lyons feel less authentic, though this is in large part to do with these characters being more sketchily written. But all the cast – which also includes Erin James and Jamie Kristian – work together well as a tight ensemble, while Michael Cormick is a suitably ominous presence as the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets, foreshadowing the tragedy like a Greek chorus, and sings with great assurance.

Lyrically and musically, Blood Brothers isn’t the most subtle or sophisticated of musicals but it has a gritty simplicity that goes straight to the heart, leaving many in the opening night audience in tears at the end.

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 15. Bookings: http://www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 15