Dogfight

Hayes Theatre Co, May 6

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

The musical Dogfight begins with a nasty, humiliating prank but turns into a sweet, tender show where redemptive love trumps misogyny.

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) together with Peter Duchan (book), Dogfight premiered off-Broadway in 2012. It now makes its Australian premiere with a stunning production directed and produced by Neil Gooding in association with Hayes Theatre Co.

Based on a little-known 1991 film starring River Phoenix, with screenplay by Bob Comfort, Dogfight begins in 1967 with a blank-faced, clearly traumatised young marine called Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) on a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco.

His memories take us back to 1963 when he and his two best mates – Boland (Toby Francis) and Bernstein (Rowan Witt) – spent a rowdy night on the town in San Francisco before being shipped out to Vietnam the following morning.

Swaggeringly macho, with just 13 weeks training under their belt, they naively believe they are going to storm into battle and return heroes. Their attitude to women is as aggressive as their attitude to war.

They decide to celebrate their last night on home soil with a “dogfight”, a vile “Jarhead” tradition whereby they compete to see who can bring the ugliest woman to a party. Each puts money into a pot; the winner takes all.

At the heart of the show are Eddie and Rose Fenny (Hilary Cole), the shy, awkward, guitar-playing waitress he picks up at a diner and takes to the party, then unexpectedly falls for.

Duchan has created a strong narrative structure from which the songs emerge naturally. Ranging from testosterone-powered rock numbers to lilting, wistful melodies, it’s an appealing, catchy score. Some of the songs have a folksy feel, with Rose foreshadowing the hippie era, while her number “Nothing Short of Wonderful” has something of a Sondheim influence.

James Browne and Georgia Hopkins have designed an economical set backed by a gauzy “brick wall” scrim featuring an enormous image of Cole’s face through which we glimpse the terrific six-piece band led by musical director Isaac Hayward. Four large diner seats are moved around into various configurations for the different locations. Effectively lit by Ross Graham and Alex Berlage, it’s a flexible space in which Gooding keeps the tightly choreographed action flowing freely: yet another clever design solution for the tiny 111-seat venue.

Cole is beguiling as Rose. She is naturally very pretty but manages to convince us of Rose’s vulnerability and gaucheness (helped by Elizabeth Franklin’s excellent costuming) as well as her strength, spirit and humour, while her pure, shining voice suits the character’s innocence perfectly.

Lucente is equally impressive as Eddie, conveying the turmoil of emotion coiled beneath the tough, terse exterior in a beautifully understated performance that moves from bravado to brokenness. There is great chemistry between the two of them, and both moved me to tears.

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Among the strong ensemble cast of 11, Francis radiates Boland’s pumped-up, bone-headed machismo, while Witt gives a very convincing portrayal of the geeky Bernstein, who gets high on the general macho posturing and snaps at one point in a surprisingly brutal moment.

Johanna Allen brings powerhouse vocals to the role of the brassy hooker Marcy, another of the so-called “dogs”, while Mark Simpson takes on a number of very different roles with chameleon ease.

Dogfight portrays abhorrent macho behaviour, which the writers neither condone nor judge, but they make it clear that this is the culture that the young marines have grown up in and been shaped by: a culture, which dehumanises women as much as the enemy they are off to fight, but also knocks the soul out of the young men themselves.

When the musical played in London last year, some slammed it for its ugly misogyny, but the writers undercut this with the central love story, which is sweet, sad and genuinely moving. Our sympathies, meanwhile, are clearly with the women in the show, who are strong, funny and forgiving.

This production captures all that nuance most touchingly. Once again, the Hayes Theatre proves to be a leading light in Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Dogfight plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 31. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 10

Advertisements

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black

Hayes Theatre, April 8

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black. Photo: supplied

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black. Photo: supplied

We hear her voice first, a lovely sweet sound in the darkness, then the lights come up on Lucy Maunder perched on a stool looking effortlessly gorgeous in a little black dress.

One of the younger leading ladies of Australian musical theatre, Maunder is back in Sydney with her cabaret show spun around the Irving Berlin songbook.

Given Berlin’s prodigious output there are umpteen classic songs to choose from and Maunder gives us a wonderful selection ranging from ragtime to ballads to comedy numbers. Among others, she performs Puttin’ On the Ritz, Blue Skies, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Cheek to Cheek, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, and What’ll I Do along with other less well-known songs such as Yiddisha Nightingale and Mr Monotony. It’s a great reminder of what an superb songwriter Berlin was.

With her musical director Isaac Hayward providing skillful, sensitive accompaniment at a Baby Grand, Maunder’s interpretations are respectful, fairly straightforward yet fresh, and beautifully sung.

Getting the biggest applause of the night is a gloriously funny take on I Love a Piano, in which Hayward gets carries away, launching with gusto into an outpouring of classic piano pieces, sidelining Maunder who responds with mock indignation as she waits for him to return to the song.

Nicholas Christo has written the book – and it’s here that the show could arguably benefit from further development. Rather than provide a potted history of Berlin’s life, Christo gives us short, mood grabs, almost word poems at times, which depict the 1920s New York milieu with its speakeasies, honky-tonk palaces and Bowery saloons where Berlin began his career. Maunder also reads out an article by an outraged lady about the moral perils of ragtime, which adds another fun element.

I think it’s great that Christo, Maunder and director Neil Gooding have avoided the much-travelled route of trotting out snatches of biographical information to link the songs. But that said, I found myself wanting to hear something more about the Russian-born, American-Jewish composer/lyricist and the background to his songs, a few more anecdotes, and maybe a bit extra about Maunder’s own connection or thoughts about them to personalise the show more.

Though many have loved the show just as it is, a stronger framework around the songs would make it even better.

Nonetheless, Maunder has a lovely poise and a nice rapport with the audience. She sings beautifully, with versatility and clarity, connecting with the spirit of each song, and she delivers the patter, such as it is, with a light, lively touch.

Lucy Maunder in Irving Berlin: Songs in the Key of Black is at the Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney’s Potts Point until April 12

Go Your Own Way, the Story of Christine McVie: review

Slide Lounge, June 27

Catherine Alcorn with Marty Hailey and Tamika Stanton. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Catherine Alcorn with Marty Hailey and Tamika Stanton. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Catherine Alcorn made her mark on the Australian cabaret scene with her debut show The Divine Miss Bette, in which she stepped into Bette Midler’s shoes.

Now, for her second offering, Go Your Own Way, the Story of Christine McVie, she takes on “the other woman” in Fleetwood Mac.

Christine McVie is nowhere near as colourful a character as Midler, which gives the show’s writer Diana Simmonds less to play with. The English-born singer/songwriter is apparently living a quiet life in her homeland with her beloved dogs and by all accounts is perfectly happy not to be part of Fleetwood Mac’s current reunion tour – though she herself has said little about it publicly.

There was the tumultuous time the band went through when recording Rumours, during which Christine and husband John McVie were breaking up as were Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, which is naturally dealt with, and a relationship with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.

But overall there’s not a great deal of drama to McVie’s story. Simmonds (who was brought in late) takes a fairly straightforward, chronological approach to the narrative but laces it with some nice, deadpan, throw-away humour and some of the lingo from the 60s and 70s to give it some spice.

She also gives voice to Nicks at one point via backing vocalist Tamika Stanton – an effective device that might perhaps be worth exploring a little more.

Musically, the show is a cracker. The set list of songs (all written or co-written by McVie with the exception of Go Your Own Way by Buckingham) is fantastic: The Chain, Little Lies, As Long as You Follow, Say You Love Me, Over My Head, Don’t Stop, You Make Loving Fun, Oh Daddy, Everywhere, Songbird and, course, Go Your Own Way.

The enduring popularity of Fleetwood Mac’s music (given a boost in 2011 when Glee covered six tracks from Rumours) means that the show will have great appeal to Mac fans and indeed anyone who likes that period of music.

What’s more, Alcorn sings it superbly – arguably better than McVie herself. She has a rich, powerful voice, which she uses with sensitivity and skill, and a big, warm stage presence.

Starting the show in the present day, she removes a tailored jacket, loosens her hair and dons a mauve, fringed and sequined kimono-like jacket to take us back to the start of Christine Perfect’s (as she was born) career, adopting a light English accent and a slightly lower register than normal for the dialogue. A number of rugs thrown onto the stage help lend the space something of a hippie feel.

Alcorn is backed by a terrific three-piece band led by musical director Isaac Hayward on keyboard, with Marty Hailey on guitar and Nick Cecire on drums. Stanton and Hayward provide strong backing vocals.

Having debuted at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and then performed it at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Alcorn will presumably now go her own way with the show – and if she has half the success she has had with The Divine Miss Bette, she’s onto a good thing.

Meanwhile, The Divine Miss Bette has a season at Sydney’s Glen Street Theatre in Belrose from July 23 – 28.