The Detective’s Handbook

Hayes Theatre Co, April 27

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Rob Johnson and Justin Smith. Photo: Clare Hawley

Writing a new musical is a massive undertaking, generally requiring a huge investment of time and money. Australian musicals with an original score are pretty thin on the ground and so in 2010 the New Musicals Australia (NMA) program was established to address this.

During a two-year period, 13 new works went through various stages of development under NMA. In 2015, the Hayes Theatre Co – hub for some of the most exciting musical theatre in Sydney at the moment – took over the initiative, with funding from the Australia Council.

From 60 submissions, eight musicals were selected for “snapshot presentations”. From these, one was chosen for further development via workshops with industry mentors, leading to a full production.

The Detective’s Handbook is the first musical from the scheme to be produced at the Hayes. It’s a fun show and though it may not be the next great Australian musical – in its current form, anyway – it does herald the arrival of an exciting young writing team with plenty of talent.

With book and lyrics by 26-year old Ian Ferrington and music by 22-year Olga Solar, who recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, The Detective’s Handbook pays loving homage to the detective novel and film noir.

Set in 1950s Chicago, Frank Thompson (Justin Smith), a hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective, is called into the station one Sunday morning to investigate the murder of two cops in a factory on the seedy side of town. To his irritation, he is paired with Jimmy Hartman, a church-going rookie who likes to do things by the book – The Detective’s Handbook that is, in two volumes. With only a matchbox for a clue, they begin their investigation encountering the inevitable femme fatales along the way.

What differentiates The Detective’s Handbook is that some of the lyrics are rapped over a jazz score. Ferrington certainly has a punchy way with words and his book and lyrics are full of puns, one-liners and some brilliantly clever internal rhyming structures. Even if it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, it’s inventive and immensely enjoyable. The rapping style is primarily given to the cynical Frank, while the bright-eyed Jimmy gets to sing in a more melodic musical theatre style.

Solar’s jazzy score is also very clever, with a sound that nods to the period but also feel modern, with references ranging from Scott Joplin to Sondheim. The intricate underscoring and the lively melodies are attractive even if none of the songs are wildly memorable – on one listening anyway. A number about femme fatales sung by Sheridan Harbridge is the most obvious crowd-pleaser.

So, musically and lyrically, there is much to enjoy about the show. But, given that the tropes of the genre are so well known, the plot could do with some thickening and a more surprising twist, while the characters could be developed more. Though it only runs 80 minutes without interval, two-thirds of the way through, it feels as if the show is losing steam, despite some terrific performances.

Produced by Neil Gooding, the Hayes has done the show proud.  After a slightly slow start, Jonathan Biggins keeps things rollicking along. James Browne’s flexible black and white set works well both in practical terms and as a nod to film noir and the chalk outlining of dead bodies, while his costuming adds colour and underpins character types. Sian James-Holland’s lighting plays with noirish shadows most effectively.

Smith and Johnson complement each other well as the ‘odd couple’ cops. Smith exudes just the right amount of crumpled, jaded cynicism and handles the rap rhythms with a natural, easy confidence, while Johnson’s naïve, puppy dog eagerness is pitched to perfection.

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Tony Cogin and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Clare Hawley

Harbridge is sensational as three women all called Maria: the sexy, efficient secretary to the Chief of Police, a helpful café owner, and a rather formidable mortician. Her quick changes between the three characters are skilfully handled – hilariously so at the end when two of them are in the same scene.

Lara Mulcahy is very funny as yet another Maria, who owns a Polish delicatessen and runs a matchmaking service on the side, and paired with Christopher Horsey as a couple of cheery, dim-witted cops.

Horsey, who is also the choreographer, has overseen an amusing number in which he and Mulcahy move from typewriting to tap dancing, though a later tap routine feels like filler. Tony Cogin completes the well-chosen cast as the ineffectual Irish Chief of Police.

Musical director Michael Tyack leads a fine jazz quartet and sound designer Jeremy Silver balances the amplification well.

Currently The Detective’s Handbook feels slight but is still lots of fun. Most importantly, it shines a light on two very talented writers in Ferrington and Solar, giving them an opportunity to develop the show and their skill base with the likes of Biggins, Tyack, musical consultant Phil Scott and dramaturg Christie Evangelisto.

The chance for them to see The Detective’s Handbook up and running in front of an audience is invaluable experience and will hopefully encourage them to write another musical.

The Detective’s Handbook plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

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Avenue Q

Enmore Theatre, July 2

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod. Photo: supplied

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod, with Julia Dray and Nicholas Richard operating Nicky. Photo: supplied

Avenue Q opened at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre with little fanfare in the mainstream media. Presented by first-time producer Luke Westley and his associate Natasha Sparrow for LCW, I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s terrific – every bit as accomplished and enjoyable as the acclaimed commercial production seen in Sydney in 2009.

With book and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, the musical premiered off-Broadway in March 2003, before moving to Broadway later that year where it won three Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Performed by actors with Muppet-like puppets, the show pays homage to the children’s television show Sesame Street, while cheekily sending up its politically correct, rosy optimism with perky songs like It Sucks To Be Me, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, Schadenfreude and The Internet Is For Porn.

With some colourful language, references to porn, and puppets getting drunk and having vigorous sex, it’s definitely not for children. But for all its naughtiness, it’s very sweet with a big heart. More than a decade since premiering, it still feels fresh and topical, with Gary Coleman the only really dated element beyond a reference to a mixed-tape.

The story centres on Princeton (Matthew Predny), an arts graduate who arrives in Avenue Q in a downbeat New York neighbourhood looking for his Purpose in life. There he meets among others kindergarten teacher Kate Monster (Madeleine Jones), porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (Nicholas Richard), closeted gay Republican investment banker Rod (Predny), and former child star Gary Coleman (Shauntelle Benjamin), who is now the superintendent of the housing block.

It’s far from Easy Street as characters wrestle with unemployment, homelessness, heartbreak and their sexuality.

With a score full of perky tunes, a clever book and savvy, witty lyrics, Avenue Q zips along in thoroughly entertaining fashion while its celebration of friendship and its simple message – that, sure, life sometimes sucks but that’s OK – sends you home uplifted.

Jo Turner directs a very nifty, polished production. Cat Raven’s set with its row of apartment housing, and small set pieces that are moved quickly into place for various interior scenes, works a treat.

The musical features three human characters and 12 puppet characters, operated by clearly visible actors. Turner has gathered an excellent cast, all sing of whom sing strongly and get the balance between comedy and emotion, as well as flesh and fur, just right as they manipulate and interact with the puppets. (Props to puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne).

Madeleine Jones, who recently played the Girl in the musical Once, is lovely as the good-hearted, wistful Kate Monster and plays the predatory Lucy T Slut with plenty of vampish va va voom. Recent NIDA graduate Matthew Predny also exudes plenty of presence as the naïve, immature Princeton and the camp, sexually repressed Rod.

Nicholas Richard unleashes a fruity baritone as Trekkie and Rod’s slovenly but understanding roommate Nicky. Rowena Vilar is extremely funny as Japanese therapist Christmas Eve (a human character) and Justin Smith gives a warmly engaging performance as her fiancé Brian, an unsuccessful stand-up comic.

There are also strong performances from Shauntelle Benjamin as Gary Coleman, Julia Dray and Owen Little as the Bad Idea Bears, and Kimberley Hodgson and Riley Sutton in smaller roles.

Musical director Shannon Brown heads the seven-strong band, keeping things bouncing along nicely. All in all, a great little production, that charms in equal parts, fun and heart.

Avenue Q plays at the Enmore Theatre until July 18. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849

The Winter’s Tale

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Shakespeare’s rarely performed play The Winter’s Tale is tragic and terrible in the first half, fantastical in the second, moving in fairytale fashion from jealousy and cruelty to love and forgiveness. Because of the stylistic disparity, it’s often considered one of his “problem” plays.

Out of the blue, for the flimsiest of reasons, a suddenly jealous King Leontes of Sicily (Myles Pollard) wrongly accuses his wife Hermione (Helen Thomson) of adultery with his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Dorian Nkono).

Leontes imprisons Hermione and orders that their newborn daughter Perdita be abandoned. His young son Prince Mamillius (Rory Potter) and Hermione both die of heartbreak.

In the second half, set sixteen years later, order is magically restored and the characters are reconciled.

In this new production for Bell Shakespeare Company, director John Bell focuses his interpretation around Mamillius, presenting the play from the boy’s perspective. So, the first half is what really happens and the second half is what the boy – now a spiritual observer – wishes had happened and conjures with magic wand in hand.

It’s an interesting, intelligent idea, which Bell is able to explore without altering the text. He merely reallocates a few lines to Mamillius (the reading of the Delphic oracle and the description of Perdita’s reunion with Leontes, told using hand puppets).

However, the production doesn’t totally work, somewhat diminishing the horror of Leontes’ actions at the beginning and detracting a little from the moving reconciliation at the end.

The entire play is set in a child’s bedroom – though Stephen Curtis’s set looks more like a pretty nursery than a boy’s room with diaphanous white curtains, a wicker basinet for the impending baby, a white bunk bed on stilts, and a large mobile with stars and other pretty knick-knacks as well as a few macabre ones (a naked baby doll, a skeletal forearm) foreshadowing things to come. There are also a few boys’ toys (castle, lego, dinosaur, teddy bear) and a dress-up box.

Many scenes in the first act sit oddly in such a setting. Some of the audience laughed on opening night when Leontes sat on a toddler’s chair holding a toy sword as he pronounced his awful judgment on Hermione. It did make him seem somewhat crazed – which works on one level – but we should have been shuddering not laughing. Pollard was not able to cut through and bring quite enough menace to the situation.

Most of the second half is set in Bohemia, which is here given a kind of 60s hippy-trippy vibe, with the plot, colourful costumes and special effects emerging as if from Mamillius’s imagination and dress-up box.

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

There are some lovely moments. The famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” is cleverly done – one of several neat effects using shadows – and Matthew Marshall’s many-hued lighting also adds lots of colour, emphasising mood swings.

There are a few changes to the mobile and some vibrantly bright costumes – but the idea of moving from cold, hard reality to Mamillius’s dream-world might have been more effective if the transformation in the set had been a little more dramatic perhaps.

Though the second half exudes a sense of joyousness, it labours under too much comedy that no longer strikes a chord today and does start to drag. (The production runs for three hours).

The acting is a little mixed. Pollard’s light voice and Aussie inflections don’t bring sufficient weight to the difficult role of Leontes and he isn’t totally convincing in either his fury or his anguish.

Thomson is moving as Hermione and Michelle Doake is in commanding form as Hermione’s fiercely loyal friend Paulina, delivering the language with great clarity. Both are also very funny as shepherdesses.

Meanwhile, at the heart of the production 13-year old Potter (who shares the role with Otis Pavlovich) gives yet another wonderfully subtle, touching performance as Mamillius, remarkable for one so young.

The Winter’s Tale runs until March 29. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 9