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

Swings

“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

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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

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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

CarRhodesFaust

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.

 

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Matilda The Musical

Lyric Theatre, August 20

Matilda's "revolting children". Photo: James Morgan

Matilda’s “revolting children”. Photo: James Morgan

Her philistine parents consider her “a jumped-up little germ” and “a good case for population control”. To her monstrous headmistress Miss Trunchbull she’s “a maggot” like all children.

But a brave, book-loving, five-year old genius called Matilda Wormwood has been winning the hearts and minds of musical theatre audiences in London, New York and beyond, not to mention rave reviews and umpteen awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, the hotly anticipated Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda The Musical, which premiered in 2010, has finally arrived in Sydney, triumphantly weaving such a powerful spell it has us rejoicing with its “revolting children”.

Written by Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Matilda is one of the most thrilling new musicals of recent years: a show that isn’t afraid to be dark, sophisticated or smart, while at the same time pulsing with a gloriously funny streak of child-like, anarchic naughtiness.

There is a perfect synthesis between Kelly’s book and Minchin’s lyrics, both brilliant, which share a similar cheeky irreverence and wickedly clever wit but which also touch the heart without becoming sentimental.

The opening number, Miracle, instantly illustrates how wonderfully well Kelly and Minchin have been able to work together, setting the show up perfectly. Not only do we have Dahl’s tart observation about how most parents think their own children are little angels but a flashback to Matilda’s birth and a quick summation of her less than rosy situation. Interwoven through one song, it’s a very clever opening.

Celebrating the joy and solace of books as well as the power of words and the imagination, Kelly has added a new narrative strand to the show in which Matilda tells a story about an escapologist and an acrobat.

This beautifully staged tale (which uses dolls and shadow puppetry as well as actors) proves magically prophetic, filling out Miss Honey’s story and revealing Matilda’s yearning for loving parents without spelling it out.

Minchin’s charmingly offbeat, catchy songs are refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores we hear in contemporary musical theatre. Highlights include the bittersweet “When I Grow” in which the children sail out over the audience on swings, the uplifting, bolshie “Revolting Children” and the moving ballad “My House”, exquisitely sung by Elise McCann.

"When I Grow Up". Photo: James Morgan

“When I Grow Up”. Photo: James Morgan

Matthew Warchus’s superlative production (staged here by associate director Nik Ashton) is a total delight. Rob Howell’s ingenious design integrates alphabet tiles and building blocks throughout the set. He has a wonderful way with colour, contrasting the garishly bright home and costumes of the Wormwoods with the forbidding grey of the school, while the drag costume he gives Miss Trunchbull with hunched shoulders and pendulous bosom is both terrifying and a hoot.

Peter Darling’s energetic choreography, which draws on kickboxing and karate, has the spot-on feel of kids stomping in the playground. His routine for School Song – in which two school boys (played here by adults) leap around in fleet-footed fashion up and down the school gate as alphabet blocks are pushed into place through the metal grille – is breathtaking. The kids powering downstage during “Revolting Children” is exhilarating.

The show makes huge demands on its child actors, particularly the young girl playing Matilda. Bella Thomas (aged 11) who starred on opening night (in a role she shares with Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin) is extraordinary, giving Matilda a touchingly solemn yet feisty, determined demeanour. Her singing voice, meanwhile, is strong, true and clear.

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing "Quiet". Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing “Quiet”. Photo: James Morgan

But all the children are great, as are the adult cast. James Millar is sensational as the dreaded Miss Trunchbull, deploying an alarming bosom and killer comic timing to perfection. He marries an almost psychopathic stillness with sudden, throwaway jauntiness in a way that is both hilarious and frightening.

Elisa McCann is radiant as Matilda’s kind, put-upon teacher Miss Honey, Daniel Frederiksen and Marika Aubrey are very funny as Matilda’s appalling parents and Cle Morgan exudes oodles of exuberant warmth as the librarian Mrs Phelps.

Appealing to both adults and children, Matilda is a gem of a show with a wonderful heart and message about standing up to bullies and fighting for what is right. It’s also a love letter to joy of words. Pure magic.

Matilda The Musical is now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 23

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

Independent Music Theatre: creating a new home for small-scale musicals and cabaret in Sydney

The Independent Music Theatre team. Left to right: Lisa Campbell, David Campbell, Neil Gooding, Michael Huxley, Richard Carroll, Simone Parrott, Michelle Guthrie, Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns

The Independent Music Theatre team. Left to right: Lisa Campbell, David Campbell, Neil Gooding, Michael Huxley, Richard Carroll, Simone Parrott, Michelle Guthrie, Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns

Yesterday’s announcement that a new, not-for-profit consortium of producers and organisations called Independent Music Theatre (IMT) is to run the Reginald Murphy Hall in Potts Point as a home for small-scale music theatre and cabaret has my heart singing.

It’s exciting news given the potential for the company to become an important and much-needed addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Currently known as the Darlinghurst Theatre, the 111-seat venue was home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company from 1999 until this March when the company vacated it to move into the new Eternity Playhouse in East Sydney, opening in November.

Having won the tender from the City of Sydney Council to become the next resident company, IMT will announce a new name for the venue in the coming weeks.

Describing themselves as a “collaborative partnership”, IMT comprises a team of organisations who already have runs on the board producing small-scale musicals and cabaret: Luckiest Productions (David Campbell, Lisa Campbell and Richard Carroll), Neglected Musicals (Michelle Guthrie), Squabbalogic (Jay James-Moody and Jessica Burns, who are soon to stage Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at The Factory in Marrickville), Neil Gooding Productions (who produced the Australian musical The Hatpin by Peter Rutherford and James Millar) and independent producers Michael Huxley and Simone Parrott.

Commercial musicals currently dominate the music theatre scene in Sydney – and there aren’t that many of those each year given the relatively limited audience compared to London or New York.

It’s not that Sydney doesn’t see small-scale, independent musicals but the productions are sporadic and scattered around various venues. Presenting regular shows in one venue will give the work a very useful focus.

Having their own home, where they can support each other, will also give the companies involved a better chance to survive and thrive.

Initially IMT’s audience is likely to be industry-based along with serious musical theatre fans but if the work is good a broader audience will hopefully follow pretty quickly. London’s Menier Chocolate Factory is an obvious model, whose success will doubtless be encouraging for the IMT team.

The chance to see musicals from overseas that would otherwise be unlikely to make it to our shores – whether that be little seen classics or more recent, innovative work – is so important for the development of the artform, as well as for the people who want to make it and perform in it.

Developing new Australian musicals – that most challenging of theatrical beasts – is  something that IMT will hopefully be well placed to undertake in the fullness of time.

It is a small venue but the IMT team are specialists in the field of small-scale music theatre and cabaret and should have the expertise and nous to choose the right shows and make them work in the intimate setting.

Neglected Musicals is already associated with the venue having presented terrific rehearsed readings of nine musicals there including No Way to Treat a Lady, On the Twentieth Century and Variations by Australia’s Terry Clarke and the late Nick Enright.

Stephen Colyer’s Gaiety Theatre (not associated with IMT) has also had success staging musicals there, including Hello Again and Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

The first IMT production is likely to be presented at the start of next year. I can’t wait.

You can find IMT at www.independentmusictheatre.com or follow them on Facebook or Twitter @IMTsydney

Noel and Gertie review

Glen Street Theatre May 22

Noel and Gertie is a delicious, frothy confection of a show that has the sparkle of fine bubbly and a similarly intoxicating effect.

It was devised in 1982 by Sheridan Morley who used the words and music of Noel Coward to tell the story of Coward’s legendary, tempestuous friendship with actor Gertrude Lawrence – his sometime muse for whom he wrote Private Lives.

The show doesn’t break any ground dramatically. Morley tells their story chronologically using a montage of songs and extracts from Coward’s plays, diaries and letters. But when performed as well as it is here by James Millar and Lucy Maunder, it’s a delight.

 

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

The production, deftly directed by Nancye Hayes, has an elegant simplicity. Graham Maclean has designed a simple, Art Deco-inspired set and a gorgeous, slinky, white satin, Molyneux-like gown for Maunder, while Millar wears black tie.

Millar is cut out to play Coward. He looks the part and tosses off Coward’s witticisms effortlessly in a precise, clipped, English accent as if born to it, bringing the house down with his rendition of Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington.

Maunder also gives a lovely performance. Like Millar she is attuned to the sophistication and rhythms of Coward’s writing and sings more beautifully than Lawrence in numbers including Sail Away and Parisian Pierrot.

Together, they have a scintillating chemistry and capture the mischievous, bantering relationship between the two stars.

 

Lucy Maunder and James Millar.  Photo by Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

It’s not easy to perform Coward – and even harder when you’re performing extracts out of context. But the scenes from plays including Private Lives and Blithe Spirit work a treat, while the one from Still Life (which became the film Brief Encounter) is touching. There is still a little more emotional depth and nuance to be found but this will doubtless develop as the show settles in.

Musical director Vincent Colagiuri provides sensitive accompaniment on a grand piano sitting unobtrusively at the back of the stage.

Morley tells us almost nothing about Coward’s private life. There is one passing reference to Graham Payn performing in Tonight at 8.30pm but no mention of the fact that he was Coward’s partner for 30 years. Nor does Morley include the more colourful incidents from Lawrence’s. Watching it you feel you’d like to know more about them.

Nonetheless, in the hands of Millar and Maunder, Noel and Gertie is a stylish, delightful entertainment.

Noel and Gertie plays at Glen Street Theatre until June I then tours nationally to the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5 – 8; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11 – 15; Frankston Arts Centre, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21 – 22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26 – 29; The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, July 2 – 7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, July 12 – 13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16 – 18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; Adelaide Festival Centre, July 23 – 27.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 16.