Rent

Hayes Theatre Co, October 13

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The production of Rent currently playing at the Hayes Theatre Co sold out before opening. As announced last night at the Hayes’ Coming Soon launch for the first half of 2016, the show will have a three-week return season from March 29.

The rock musical with music, book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson – who died on the eve of its 1996 off-Broadway opening – quickly gained a cult following. It won a Pulitzer Prize, moved to Broadway and then onto the world, including Sydney where a production played at the Theatre Royal in 1998.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La boheme, Rent is set in Manhattan in the early 1990s and centres on a group of impoverished young artists and misfits who are struggling to survive as gentrification makes rents unaffordable and AIDS takes its devastating toll.

The musical is an explosion of passion, anger, sorrow, frustration and defiant joy.

Produced here by Highway Run Productions (Toby Francis and Lauren Peters) in association with the Hayes, helmed by first-time director Shaun Rennie and performed by a strong cast of 14, the production certainly pulses with youthful energy but it often feels over-busy, particularly in the first act.

That’s partly to do with the musical itself, which has a rather loose, disparate structure, following a number of different characters through several interconnecting story lines.

Central to the group are Mark (Stephen Madsen), a middle-class, would-be filmmaker, his roommate Roger (Linden Furnell), a songwriter with HIV and writer’s block whose girlfriend committed suicide, and Mimi (Loren Hunter), a drug addicted club dancer, who also has HIV.

There’s also the cross-dressing, joyously queer, gently caring Angel (Christopher Scalzo) and Collins (Nana Matapule), a gay anarchist professor, who fall for each other, Mark’s former girlfriend Maureen (Laura Bunting) and her new partner Joanne (Casey Donovan), and Benny (Matthew Pearce), a former friend of Mark and Roger who is now their tough landlord.

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

With an ensemble that also includes Denise Devlin, Josh Gardiner, Jack O’Riley, Kirsty Sturgess, Monique Sallé and Chloe Elisabeth Wilson playing various other characters, there’s a lot going on, with important pieces of information often conveyed very briefly in a line or two of song.

Depending on where you sit in the theatre, there are sound issues, with the cast belting it out of the park to be heard over the band, and lyrics often hard to decipher. Rennie doesn’t manage to control the focus completely in the first act and it all feels as if it is coming at you at a million miles an hour, while the actors struggle to create strong, clearly defined characters as they sing full-bore.

Scalzo as Angel and Matapule as Collins, are the most successful at creating truthful characters we care about and their relationship is very much the heart and soul of the first act.

The second act is much more successful across the board. For a start, the musical itself quietens a little and the storylines are given more room to breathe. Furnell really finds his groove as Roger and his relationship with Mimi gains genuine traction. Hunter gives an intense, almost aggressive Mimi but conveys little of her vulnerability until late in the piece, when the production finally becomes moving.

Even in the second act there are times when the production feels unnecessarily busy, as when Collins carries the dying Angel from one table to another during Mimi and Roger’s song Without You, for seemingly little reason, which just proves distracting.

Then there’s the sign language, which Rennie and choreographer Andy Dexterity use periodically during the production. Many people have loved this element but I couldn’t help feeling it looks like an exercise used in the rehearsal room to explore the characters’ emotions, and probably should have stayed there. For me, it feels imposed rather than organic – though others clearly experienced it differently.

However, there is also much to enjoy. Rennie starts the second act in an unexpected way – a delightful, clever touch – and there’s lots of powerful singing.

Donovan and Bunting raised the roof on opening night with Take Me or Leave Me and Matapule delivers a lovely version of I’ll Cover You but all the performers all have their moment vocally.

Lauren Peters’ sparse, stripped back set – essentially a bare room with exposed bricks, a few props, and a metal mesh gate in front of the small band (led by musical director Andrew Worboys) – creates the right kind of grungy space, while Georgia Hopkins’ costumes work well.

It’s good to see young producers and a young, first-time director being given the chance to produce work like this and you can’t fault the energy and commitment of the cast. With a little more tightening, honing and focusing the production could really hit home so it’s great that the creative team will have the chance to revisit it early next year.

Rent, Hayes Theatre Co until November 1. Sold out. Return season March 29 – April 17. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

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High Society

Hayes Theatre Co, September 7

Amy Lehpamer and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer, sizzling in red, and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

High Society is set in the palatial home of rich socialites complete with swimming pool: quite a challenge in a 111-seat theatre.

But, true to form, the Hayes Theatre Co production solves it ingeniously. Set designer Lauren Peters has come up with four elegant, moveable arches and a clever reveal for the party scene. Lucetta Stapleton’s 1930s costuming, a few props and some sound effects (Jeremy Silver) are enough to complete the picture, along with Gavan Swift’s lighting.

The 1998 stage musical is based on the 1956 film High Society starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story. It has a very funny script by Arthur Kopit and songs by Cole Porter, some of which were in the movie, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Well, Did you Evah! and True Love, along with others of his that weren’t. Not all the lyrics relate as well as they might to the situation but overall it works a treat.

It’s the eve of Tracy Lord’s wedding to the rather pompous, dull George Kittredge. However, her younger sister Dinah is determined that Tracy remarry her first husband CK Dexter Haven, who turns up unexpectedly with a pair of reporters from Spy Magazine, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie.

Helen Dallimore directs with a sure, light touch, telling the story with great clarity, while Cameron Mitchell’s choreography suits the period. In another ingenious touch, Dallimore uses a quartet led by musical director Daryl Wallis whose jazzy arrangements of the score work brilliantly.

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer positively glows as Tracy: glamorous, tough and very funny when drunk, her singing, acting and dancing all perfectly pitched. Virginia Gay is sensational as Liz, who is quietly in love with Mike. Her comic timing is impeccable, her performance is full of delicious, surprising little details (the way she hesitates to articulate the word ‘you’ when singing “All I want is you” in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? just one of many) and she knows exactly how to deliver the songs.

Bobby Fox convincingly conveys Mike’s gradual softening as he falls for Tracy in a charismatic performance, while Bert LaBonté is an understated, rather melancholic Dexter whose charm grows on you.

Along the rest of the exceptionally strong cast, there are well judged comic performance from Scott Irwin as George, Jessica Whitfield as Dinah and Laurence Coy as the lecherous uncle Willy, while Delia Hannah is lovely as Tracy’s mother. All in all, divine.

High Society plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 3. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 13

Hayes Theatre Co – coming soon in 2015

A week ago, the Hayes Theatre Co had its twice-yearly Coming Soon event at which they announced their program for the second half of this year. Although the company has only been in existence for 18 months, we’ve come to expect the Hayes to give a good launch – and so they did.

Hosted by David Campbell, one of the producers running the venue, the evening began with a lively video montage telling the Hayes story to date. Dedicated to the presentation of independent musical theatre and cabaret, it certainly illustrated what a great start the-little-venue-that-could has had.

Blasting off with Sweet Charity and The Drowsy Chaperone, other productions have included Blood Brothers, Miracle City, LoveBites, Next to Normal, new musicals Beyond Desire and Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You and the current production of Dogfight, as well as a cabaret festival and several Month of Sundays cabaret seasons. It hasn’t all been an unmitigated success but it’s been an exciting ride with some sensational high points, proving beyond doubt that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

So what do they have in store for us for the rest of the year?

Cabaret Season 2015

Running from June 1 – 28, this year’s cabaret season includes 17 acts by artists including Marina Prior, Phil Scott, Amanda Harrison, Rob Mills, Tyran Parke, Mitchell Butel, Josie Lane and Damien Leith among others.

It begins on June 1 with Australiana: A Celebration of Australian Musical Theatre directed by Genevieve Lemon with Max Lambert as musical director. Featuring performers such as Nancye Hayes, Christy Sullivan and Patrice Tipoki, the concert will raise funds for the presentation of a new musical in November as part of the New Musicals Australia program, now being run by the Hayes.

The cast recording of Luckiest Productions’ acclaimed Miracle City, recorded at the Hayes, will be launched that night.

Phil Scott gave us a taste of his new cabaret show Reviewing the Situation, which he has written with Terence O’Connell and which he will perform as part of the cabaret season. Telling the story of Lionel Bart, composer of the musical Oliver! the character and concept would seem to be right in the pocket for Scott and one of the shows to look out for.

Akio!

The Hayes will host its first children’s show when it presents Blue Theatre Company’s Akio! – the story of a shy, young boy who is bullied at school and escapes by immersing himself in video games. Things get strange when he and Harumi, the girl of his dreams, are sucked into a video game. Akio! plays on July 4 & 5.

Heathers

Jaz Flowers sings Dead Girl Walking from Heathers

Jaz Flowers sings Dead Girl Walking from Heathers. Photo: Noni Carroll

Trevor Ashley was on hand to discuss Heathers The Musical, which he will direct with a cast including Lucy Maunder and Jaz Flowers. A rock musical by Lawrence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy based on the cult 1988 film, Heathers opened off-Broadway last year. It tells the deliciously dark story of Veronica Sawyer, a brainy, beautiful, teenage misfit who manages to become part of The Heathers, a powerful clique of popular girls all named Heather at Westerberg High School. When Veronica falls in love with new kid J.D. and Heather Chandler, leader of the Heathers pack, says she will ruin Veronica’s social life, there will be hell to pay.

The New York Times described the show as a “rowdy, guilty-pleasure musical”. Ashley’s production for the Hayes is the first time the musical has been staged outside the US. Flowers raised the roof at the launch with her blistering rendition of the number Dead Girl Walking. Heathers plays July 19 – August 9.

Masterclass

A hit in Melbourne, Left Bauer Productions brings its acclaimed production of Terence McNally’s renowned play Masterclass to the Hayes. Inspired by Maria Callas’ 1971 visit to New York’s Juilliard School of Music, the production stars Maria Mercedes, who recently won a Green Room Award for her portrayal of Callas. The cast also includes Blake Bowden who sang Recondita Armonia from the opera Tosca at the launch. Fast becoming a regular at the Hayes, Campbell quipped: “we’re not going to let him go until he gets it right!”

Masterclass plays August 12 – 30.

High Society

Amy Lehpamer sings I'll Be All Right from High Society

Amy Lehpamer sings It’s All Right With Me  from High Society. Photo: Noni Carroll

The Hayes Theatre Co will present Cole Porter’s classic musical High Society. It’s the first show presented solely by the Hayes rather than with one of the production companies involved with the theatre, or an external producer. Richard Carroll will serve as producer.

Amy Lehpamer will play Tracy Lord, the gorgeous, privileged but coolly pretentious young socialite, whose swelegant wedding plans are thrown into disarray when her ex-husband turns up as well as a pesky, undercover, tabloid reporter. Directed by Helen Dallimore, the cast will also include Bert LaBonte, Bobby Fox and Virginia Gay – or “Amy Lephamer, Bert LaBonte, Bobby Le Fox and Virginia Le Gay” as they will be known for the production, joked Dallimore.

Singing It’s All Right With Me, Lehpamer – who is on an incredible roll right now – showed why she’s been cast as Tracy Lord.

High Society plays from September 4.

Rent

Highway Run Productions (Toby Francis and Lauren Peters) will present Jonathan Larson’s rock musical Rent in association with the Hayes. Loosely based on La boheme, Rent is set in New York City’s East Village, over the course of a year in the early 1990s, where a group of impoverished artist friends struggle to live, love and create under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic The cast of Dogfight performed the song Seasons of Love from the show and set spines tingling.

Rent plays October 8 – November 1.

Violet

Mitchell Butel will direct the musical Violet with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Jeanine Tesori, which he described as his favourite Broadway show of the last 10 years. A road movie of a musical, it is based on a short story by Doris Betts called The Ugliest Pilgrim about a young, disfigured woman who embarks on a bus journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma to find the preacher she believes can heal her. The production will star Samantha Dodemaide who sang the numbers All to Pieces and Lay Down Your Head.

Violet plays November 2 – December 20.

I Might Take My Shirt Off

As part of A Month of Sundays, Dash Kruck will perform his cabaret show I Might Take My Shirt Off, which premiered at the Brisbane Powerhouse in February. Featuring original songs by Kruck and composer Chris Perren, Kruck performed a short extract from the show. He plays Lionel, a timid flooring salesman and cabaret virgin struggling to cope with a relationship break-up, who finds himself on stage when his German therapist Grizelda pushes him into doing a cabaret show as a way to express himself. On the basis of the launch taster, it’s a very funny evening.

I Might Take My Shirt Off plays on September 20 & 27 and on October 11.

Neglected Musicals

Nicholas Hammond and David Campbell discuss Neglected Musicals' Dear World

Nicholas Hammond and David Campbell discuss Neglected Musicals’ Dear World. Photo: Noni Carroll

Neglected Musicals will present Jerry Herman’s Dear World, directed by Nicholas Hammond. Based on Jean Giraudoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot, Hammond described the 1969 musical as “25 years ahead of its time”. The Broadway production, he said, was over-produced; as a small production, he believes it works a dream. The staged reading will feature Genevieve Lemon and Simon Burke, with Max Lambert as musical director. Dear World will be presented on August 3.

It was also announced that the Hayes has launched TALK through its website, which consists of regular podcasts and a series of editorials by Daily Review arts writer/reviewer Ben Neutze about musical theatre and cabaret.

All up, it’s an impressive line-up from one of the exciting companies in town.

Full details of the Hayes Theatre Co season can be found on its website: www.hayestheatre.com.au

Love and Death and an American Guitar

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Even if you don’t know the name Jim Steinman, you will almost certainly know many of his songs. He wrote Meatloaf’s epic Bat out of Hell, for starters, along with Total Eclipse of the Heart, Holding Out for a Hero, You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth and It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

In his new cabaret show, Love and Death and an American Guitar, Toby Francis picks up a red Fender Stratocaster and in the guise of Steinman gives voice to his songs, ambitions and frustrations. Chief among the latter are his bitter resentment at Meatloaf getting all the glory (and the money) and his angst at never getting his musical Neverland off the ground.

Francis, who wrote the show, has employed a clever structure in which he has Steinman talk through his ideas for Neverland – a dystopian take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, set in New York, which he is struggling to finish – as if pitching the show to potential producers.

Steinman did, in fact, begin his career in musical theatre, where his credits include writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind and music for Dance of the Vampires. In 1997, he held a workshop of Neverland, three songs from which were picked up by Meatloaf: Bat out of Hell, Heaven Can Wait, and The Formation of the Pack, which was re-titled All Revved Up With No Place to Go.

Francis begins his show with Steinman’s spoken rock song Love and Death and an American Guitar (later recorded as Wasted Youth) and from there launches into Bat Out of Hell.

With occasional support from guest singer Noni McCallum, he rips through many of Steinman’s hits, his rock tenor voice well suited to the material. The dialogue gives us a fascinating taste of Steinman’s career and the musical that Neverland might have been, as well as a keen sense of his disillusionment.

Directed by Neil Gooding with moody projections evoking the world of Neverland by production designer Lauren Peters, the show begs to be performed with a fierce, rocking live band but musical director Andrew Worboys does a good job on piano and synthesizer.

The three-performance season as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season ended on Sunday with Francis going down on bended knee to propose to Peters at the curtain call. What an encore!

The show deserves to make a return – and doubtless will.

Clybourne Park

Ensemble Theatre, March 19

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

There was such interest in Clybourne Park that the Ensemble Theatre production sold out before opening so two performances in Chatswood have been added.

Written by American actor-playwright Bruce Norris, the play arrives in Sydney trailing numerous awards including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play and the 2011 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Expectations were therefore high – and the Ensemble production more than meets them.

The pithy drama straddles 50 years in a Chicago suburb. It begins in 1959. A clearly unhappy couple – the angry, taciturn Russ (Richard Sydenham) and his over-cheery wife Bev (Wendy Strehlow) – is packing up their home with the help of their black maid Francine (Paula Arundell).

Their local preacher (Thomas Campbell) arrives, clearly hoping to have a meaningful conversation with Russ, followed not long after by a neighbour called Karl (Nathan Lovejoy) with his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Briallen Clarke).

Politely outraged that they have sold the property to a “coloured” family at a knock-down price (for reasons revealed later), Karl tries to convince them to change their mind, his appalling bigotry expressed in the nicest way possible.

When Francine’s husband Albert (Cleave Williams) arrives to pick her up, his attempt to help Russ becomes excruciatingly awkward.

The second act is set in 2009. A white couple (Lovejoy and Clarke) has bought the run-down house in the now predominantly Afro-American suburb and wants to rebuild. This time, there are objections from a young, black woman (Arundell) who wants the history of the area to be respected.

Clybourne Park is a provocative play with some truly cringe-making moments, including several rancid jokes. But it is also very funny and sad as it tackles racism, political correctness and real estate, while weaving in grief and post-traumatic stress disorder too.

You’re aware that the play’s neat structure – which has the cast playing two different sets of characters across the two time-frames, some of them related – is well-crafted if not contrived in its balanced halves and set-piece debates. However, it’s so cleverly done and the writing so good that it works.

Tanya Goldberg directs a terrific production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that manages to make the stage look much bigger than usual (a feat that Lauren Peters has pulled off with equal flair for The Drowsy Chaperone currently playing at the tiny Hayes Theatre Co). The way the house is transformed into a graffiti-covered state of disrepair during the interval is very cleverly done.

Goldberg has elicited uniformly strong, utterly truthful performances from her excellent cast who work together as a well-oiled ensemble.

Clybourne Park could easily be set in Sydney, where right now there are plans for public housing in prime, inner-city locations to be sold off by the NSW State Government, despite the long-standing history of the area.

It’s a thought-provoking play that has you squirming at times and underlines with discomforting power that attitudes haven’t changed anywhere near as much as we’d like to think.

Clybourne Park runs at the Ensemble Theatre until April 19 and then at The Concourse Chatswood on April 23 & 24. Bookings: 9929 0644