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

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The Phantom of the Opera

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, February 6

Erin Clare and Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Erin Clare and Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Approached by Riverside Theatres, Parramatta to produce quality productions of musicals for family audiences at affordable prices, Neil Gooding has found a winning formula with Packemin Productions.

Established in 2010, Packemin stages pro-am productions of major shows (Annie, Hairspray and Beauty and the Beast among others) for a fraction of the budget of the professional productions – and does a terrific job. In just five years, it has built quite a following and reputation.

Under Gooding’s canny leadership, Packemin’s productions feature a handful of professionals in leading roles, alongside a large cast of talented community performers. Staging-wise, the production values are pretty high given the tight budgets, while the tickets cost less than $50.

Packemin’s latest production is The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most phenomenally popular musicals of all time.

Obviously Packemin can’t match the lavish spectacle and superlative production values of the Really Useful/Cameron Macintosh production but they have a damn good shot at it.

A large chandelier does its stuff most effectively, the boat that takes the Phantom and Christine to his subterranean lair glides across the stage through swirling smoke, the rest of the sets are evocative, while the impressive costumes lend plenty of colour. All in all, it looks great.

The cast is led by Ben Mingay as the Phantom. As a bass baritone, the role doesn’t sit naturally in his vocal sweet spot and his voice doesn’t soar in the upper register as others before him have done, but he uses his rich baritone well. He also brings a dark, brooding charisma to the role.

Claudio Sgaramella as Piangi and Johanna Allen as Carlotta. Photo: supplied

Claudio Sgaramella as Piangi and Johanna Allen as Carlotta. Photo: supplied

Johanna Allen is glorious as the flouncing opera diva Carlotta, unleashing a torrent of crocodile tears, pouts and indignant demands. Her comic timing is impeccable and she nails the role vocally.

Erin Clare uses her soprano well as Christine, though could bring a little more innocence to the role initially, while Joshua Keane makes a dashing young Raoul. Christopher Hamilton and Gavin Brightwell are very funny as the opera managers, working together with a lovely ease and assurance, and Michele Lansdown is a suitably dour Madame Giry.

It’s great to see such a large ensemble (around 40) on stage, all of whom perform with great commitment and verve. Musical director Peter Hayward leads a solid 21-strong orchestra.

The opening night audience was enormously enthusiastic and the rest of the season is now sold out. Next up from Packemin, Mary Poppins in July.

Gooding is emphatic that Packemin doesn’t position itself as a rival to the large-scale professional productions, which have budgets a pro-am company like this can only dream of. But Packemin is another lively element in Sydney’s musical theatre scene, and a great success story.

The Phantom of the Opera runs at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta until February 21

 

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.

Not a Launch: Hayes Theatre Co 2015

Hayes Theatre Co, September 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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