2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

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Kristin Chenoweth & Idina Menzel reviews

Kristin Chenoweth in Concert

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 17

Idina Menzel with the Sydney Symphony

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 27

The opportunity to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel perform at the Sydney Opera House just 10 days apart was heaven on a stick for Sydney musical theatre lovers – particularly fans of Wicked, some of whom doubtless saw the pair co-star in the Broadway production; Chenoweth as the bubbly good witch Glinda and Menzel as the green-skinned Elphaba.

They both seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing at the world famous venue – and the adoring audience returned their enthusiasm tenfold, giving each a sustained standing ovation, while Chenoweth was also met with one.

Both divas are blessed with an amazing set of pipes and gave “epic” concerts, as my plus-one put it, that required a huge, powerhouse sing. But never having seen either of them live before, it was fascinating to compare their different styles.

Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth

The petite Chenoweth – all 4’11” of her  – is vivaciousness personified, exuding megawatts of gleaming Broadway pizzazz.

The evening began with a montage of images from across her starry career on a huge screen hanging over the stage. Changing outfits twice, her mike stand was blinged-up in the second act to match her sparkling high heels, radiant smile and sassy, shiny stage presence.

Backed by her long-time friend and musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and an 11-piece band, Chenoweth’s clarion-clear voice is a remarkable instrument: equally powerful right across her entire register and across genres from country and gospel to Broadway and disco.

The audience went berserk when she sang Popular from Wicked, which she had fun with by singing sections in German and Japanese, while her renditions of Bring Him Home from Les Misérables and Kander and Ebb’s My Colouring Book were spine-tingling.

During her Australian concerts, Chenoweth has been inviting an audience member to sing For Good with her; in Sydney, that honour went to Australia’s own Glinda Lucy Durack, with Chenoweth taking Elphaba’s part.

It was clear Durack was totally taken by surprised and hadn’t rehearsed the number. “I’ve lived my whole life as a B grade version of you,” she said. But though obviously overwhelmed, she kept it together in one of the most touching moments of the concert.

Besides musical theatre numbers, Chenoweth did a tribute to Dolly Parton, an 1845 anthem Hard Times Come Again No More by Stephen Foster and a gospel number, quipping: “If you believe in Jesus, this is for you; if not it’s only four minutes….. Shalom!”

She talked about her faith as a Christian – albeit a controversial one given her support for same-sex marriage – and her charity work. At one point she showed us a sweet, personal video she sent to her father on Father’s Day and gave us a glimpse into her shoe closet, which rivals Imelda Marcos’s.

At times, the tone became a little sentimental and schmaltzy in that all-American way. Her three back-up singers, who occasionally dueted with her, seemed somewhat inexperienced and an Avenue Q skit sat oddly.

But no matter. Chenoweth’s enthusiasm is infectious and endearing, she’s very funny, and her voice is glorious. The audience couldn’t have loved her more if they tried and left exhilarated.

Idina Menzel. Photo by Robin Wong.

Idina Menzel. Photo by Robin Wong.

Menzel was more low-key, laid-back and earthy but no less winning. Barefoot and wearing a long, lacy, slightly boho black dress tied at the waist, she stalked the stage as she chatted to the audience. A Jewish girl from Queens, New York who began her career singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, she displayed a dry sense of humour and an occasional potty-mouth.

She is clearly blissed out to be a mother to her young son with husband Taye Diggs, who she met when they performed together in Rent (in which she created the role of Maureen). Motherhood, she said, has allowed her to tap into greater depths of emotion.

Performing with the Sydney Symphony, conducted by Vanessa Scammell, and several American musicians she had brought with her, Menzel appeared to the strains of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which quickly morphed into The Wizard and I – to a roar of approval from the audience.

As at Chenoweth’s concert, the musical theatre numbers got the biggest response from the audience, among them Don’t Rain on My Parade and a beautiful rendition of Somewhere – her “favourite song ever”.

She gave moving tributes to Marvin Hamlisch, who became a close friend of hers, singing At the Ballet and What I Did for Love from A Chorus Line, and also Jonathan Larson who died just before the first preview of Rent.

Four lucky audience members got to sing Take Me Or Leave Me with her – including a little girl, aged around five, whose mother put her up for it. Menzel dealt kindly with the child and invited them to go backstage afterwards.

Other numbers included a moving rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, an effective mash-up of Cole Porter’s Love for Sale and Sting’s Roxanne and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face – the first number she did on Glee – commiserating tongue-in-cheek with the musicians of the orchestra for having to perform such fare.

Though performing with a symphony orchestra, the evening felt surprisingly intimate.

She had the audience holding their collective breath when she ended the concert with an acappella version of For Good, then wrapped things up with the obligatory Defying Gravity.

It may not be the best she’s ever sung it (she had been coughing a little, drinking lots of water and sucked a lozenge at one point) but it was still amazing.

Once again, the audience left on a high. While Chenoweth delivers pizzazz in spades, Menzel perhaps taps into the heart a little more. But both were stunning. Heaven.