Man of La Mancha

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 28

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and Ross Chisari. Photo: Michael Francis

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

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

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

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

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

Tony Sheldon and company. Photo: Michael Francis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 24 at 2pm

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adele Parkinson as Kim. Photo: Amelia Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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