The Fantasticks

Hayes Theatre Co, January 13

Laurence Coy, Jonathan Hickey, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Garry Scale The Fantasticks (c) Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Jonathan Hickey, Bobbie-Jean Henning and Garry Scale. Photo: Marnya Rothe

The Fantasticks is, rather remarkably, the world’s longest-running musical having played continuously off-Broadway for 42 years from 1960. On top of that, a 2006 revival is still running in New York. How much of its current appeal is to do with the caché of its lengthy run in the manner of The Mousetrap, who knows, but the musical clearly has to have something going for it.

The original London season and a 2010 West End revival didn’t do good business. Nonetheless, it’s still performed all over the world.

I have never seen it on stage but I have spoken to some who have, I’ve heard cast recordings and have read about it. It seems to me a curious choice in this day and age as the musical – a whimsically cutesy commedia dell’arte-style fable – is pretty twee and dated. Directing the show for Wooden Horse Productions in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, Helen Dallimore has taken out the commedia and given the darker elements in the show a stronger focus in order to try to make it resonate today. But in doing so, she has put the balance of the musical out of whack and lost some of the whimsical, homespun charm, which was clearly so much part of its original appeal.

Dallimore has also made a very strange – I would say ill-considered – decision to use the original version of a song about abduction, which includes the word “rape” around 40 times when an alternative version exists – more of which later.

With music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones (not the pop star), The Fantasticks tells a simple allegorical tale. Two single fathers living next door to each other pretend to feud. They build a wall between their houses and forbid their children (20-year old Matt and 16-year old Luisa) to see each other in the hope that reverse psychology will prevail and their offspring will fall in love and marry.

The fathers even set up a mock abduction, with Matt fighting off the supposed bandits to rescue his young love. The ruse works but the young lovers soon become bored with each other. Matt sets off like the prodigal son to see the world leaving Luisa behind to make her own discoveries. Eventually they are reunited having learned that in order to truly love and appreciate what you have, you have to have experienced some of the cruelties of the world. “Without a hurt the heart is hollow” as El Gallo, the enigmatic narrator figure who leads them on their journey to self-discovery, sings in the show’s most famous song Try to Remember.

The songs have tuneful melodies and poetic lyrics but few of them are especially memorable except Try to Remember and the romantic ballad Soon It’s Gonna Rain.

The score was originally performed by a sextet including harp and piano. Musical directors Glenn Moorhouse and Hayden Baltrop have rearranged it for electric guitar and electric keyboard to give it a rockier, grittier, more modern edge. It works for some of it but there’s no room in Dallimore’s darker, more menacing vision of El Gallo for Martin Crewes to sing the opening number Try to Remember in the usual crooning fashion. Instead, he sings it in a harsh, threatening manner, which doesn’t really suit his voice or the song. That’s no reflection on Crewes, who I thought was superb in the show.

Because Dallimore has taken a darker approach to El Gallo, but not pushed this further elsewhere in the musical, it makes for some awkward jumps in style. The two comic duets for the fathers feel really old-school in comparison. Meanwhile, the romantic ballads between the two young lovers, though well sung by newcomers Bobbie-Jean Henning and Jonathan Hickey, don’t quite soar as much as they might.

Then there’s the problematic “rape” song “It Depends on What You Pay”. The fathers enlist El Gallo to orchestrate the pretend abduction of Luisa. Though El Gallo makes clear that he is using the word “rape” in the classical context of “abduction”, it’s still a very loaded word and the original song in which El Gallo and the two fathers sing jauntily of “the Venetian Rape”, “the Gothic Rape”, “the Drunken Rape” and numerous other rapes now feels offensive, insensitive and very uncomfortable.

Aware of this, productions routinely replace the word “rape” with “abduction” or “raid” and in 1990 Schmidt and Jones wrote an alternative song called “Abductions”– so why Dallimore chose to go with the original is bemusing.

Bobbie-Jean Henning and Martin Crewes in The Fantasticks (c) Marnya Rothe

Bobbie-Jean Henning and Martin Crewes. Photo: Marnya Rothe

For all that, there are things to enjoy in the production. Crewes brings a dark menace and sexy charisma to the role of El Gallo but also manages to balance this with a sense of mystery and ineffable wisdom, suggesting a figure both devilish and god-like. A fine actor and singer, he is a strong presence throughout.

Garry Scale and Laurence Coy double as the fathers and two elderly travelling players (originally played by four actors) and both turn in strong comic performances. Scale’s portrayal of the doddery actor Henry is a particular delight. As the young lovers, Henning and Hickey sing attractively and exude a youthful innocence. But in making them a little more knowing and self-absorbed, they aren’t quite as endearingly naïve as they might be.

Hugh O’Connor’s set is simple but reasonably effective: a grassy lawn studded with flowers and white gauzy curtains through which we see a red Exit sign (presumably indicating the outside world, I’m not sure) though Christopher Page’s lighting does it no favours.

In the original, a mute actor played the wall. Dallimore has done away with this – and we are easily able to imagine it. But to then see the actors walking quite happily through the imaginary wall is a bit weird. There’s a terrific moment, however, with Moorhouse appearing from behind the gauze curtain to play guitar centrestage as the wall is rebuilt, which is a lovely touch.

The Hayes has become known as a venue where inventive productions have brought fresh life to well-known musicals and introduced audiences to lesser-known ones so there was much interest in how The Fantasticks would be reimagined for today. It’s great to see an emerging director like Dallimore prepared to take a risk with a show like this. Unfortunately, this time around the experiment hasn’t been that successful. This production never really finds its groove and it’s hard to see why the musical itself ever had such appeal.

The Fantasticks plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until January 31. 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

Of Mice and Men

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 16

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Iain Sinclair has directed a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Men and Men for Sport for Jove that feels heartbreakingly truthful.

Steinbeck himself adapted the play from his classic 1937 novella set during the Depression. Two itinerant ranch workers George Milton (Anthony Gooley) and Lennie Small (Andrew Henry) have been roaming California looking for work. To keep them going, George inspires Lennie with the dream that one day they will buy their own property (from some elderly folk he knows) where they will keep a few animals including Lennie’s longed-for fluffy rabbits.

The trouble is that Lennie is a bit soft in the head. A gentle-minded giant who doesn’t know his own strength, he keeps petting small animals to death. Arriving at a farm, George tells Lennie to say nothing, keep his head down and do what he says in the hope that they will be left alone and all will be well. And Lennie so wants to do the right thing but when situations conspire against him, he just can’t help himself.

Sinclair has directed a beautiful, understated production that unfolds at an unhurried pace, while still building the feeling of inexorable tragedy. It is a clear, empathic reading that strikes at the heart, while the play feels as timely as ever given the vast numbers of displaced, disenfranchised, struggling people the world over.

Michael Hankin’s set design – a wooden slatted wall, four long wooden poles and a dirt floor with wood chips, along with basic wooden beds, tables and crates – feels just right, while Sian James-Holland’s lighting creates changing moods and captures the passing of time.

Sinclair has cast it perfectly – right down to the poor old dog, which is taken out and shot because it is stinking up the place. It’s a tense moment as we wait, seemingly for ages, to hear the shot – foreshadowing things to come.

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Henry gives an unforgettable performance as Lennie. He is a tall man and naturally slim but he stacked on around 20 kilos for the role. It certainly gives him a sense of bulkiness, emphasised by the way he stands very squarely and solidly when still, feet planted apart, and lumbers around the stage in his dirty overalls.

He also captures Lennie’s naivety beautifully with a slightly bemused expression. When something delights him, he gives this childish little jump of joy accompanied by a beatific smile. At times, it’s almost unbearably touching, knowing what’s coming.

Gooley balances him perfectly as the loyal, steady George who battles constant frustration but stands by Lennie through thick and thin. The two of them really do convey the feeling of a long-standing relationship and of great love.

They are surrounded by an impressive ensemble: Christopher Stollery as Slim, a decent man with natural authority, Laurence Coy as Candy, an old-timer who has lost one hand and who allows himself to dream of a better future with George and Lennie, John McNeil as the bullish Carlson, Tom Stokes as the young, inexperienced Whit, Andre de Vanny as the boss’s aggressive son Curley, Anna Houston as Curley’s unhappy wife, Terry Serio as the Boss (who also plays some guitar blues), and Charles Allen as the segregated black worker Crooks.

Running around two hours and forty minutes including interval, the production keeps you gripped throughout. As it moves to its shattering conclusion you can feel people holding their breath. On the night I saw it there was a long silence at the end – a mark, I think, of how deeply affected people were.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Seymour Centre until August 1. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

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

The Young Tycoons

Eternity Playhouse, May 20

Edmund Lembke-Hogan and Andrew Cutcliffe. Photo: Noni Carroll

Edmund Lembke-Hogan and Andrew Cutcliffe. Photo: Noni Carroll

A smash hit in 2005 and 2006, Darlinghurst Theatre Company is reviving CJ Johnson’s gleefully corrosive satire at its new venue.

Subtitled “a ruthless comedy”, The Young Tycoons is set in 2003 as two aging Australian media moguls start to hand over control of their empires to their sons.

The warring families are fictionalised, of course, but no prizes for guessing who they’re modeled on.

The fathers and their heirs are a study in contrasts. The bullying, potty-mouthed Ted Vogler (Laurence Coy), now focused primarily on television, is a high roller, loves cricket and has a dodgy heart, not helped when his “knucklehead” son Kim (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) loses a billion in a bad investment.

Liam Warburton (John Turnbull), who dominates the nation’s newspapers, is cool, pragmatic and US-based, while his suave son Trevor (Andrew Cutcliffe) is Ivy League educated.

Then there are the son’s girlfriends (Paige Gardiner and Gabrielle Scawthorn), a business journo from an opposition broadsheet (James Lugton) who has them in his sights, Liam’s long-serving, right-hand-man Donald (Terry Serio), and Kim’s personal assistant/press secretary (Briallen Clarke).

It’s a world where wives are picked as if part of a business deal – though the women in the play are no pushovers.

Johnson’s script unfolds over numerous short scenes not unlike a TV drama but director Michael Pigott keeps things moving snappily on Katja Handt’s excellent, sparse set with its curving plywood wall, helped by Murray Jackson’s jazzy music.

The writing is robust with plenty of laughs. Act I takes a little time to hit its stride but the play ramps up in Act II when there is more punchy drama between the characters.

Johnson decided not to update the play but has added a few new references (Grange, Barangaroo), while a punch-up was apparently included just days before the James Packer-David Gyngell street brawl.

Lembke-Hogan is outstanding as the pugnacious, not-so-smart Kim, revealing flickers of self-doubt as he tries to assert himself with blinkered, puppy-dog impulsiveness. Serio is also excellent as the veteran newspaperman who finds himself becoming collateral damage, while Turnbull and Coy contrast each other nicely as the two rival media barons. But all the cast are terrific and deserve praise.

Johnson doesn’t depart too far from reality so there are few real surprises, particularly since this era has been much picked over of late on TV. However, the play plugs into Australia’s continuing fascination with its business heavyweights offering an entertaining, fly-on-the-wall look at the lives of the filthy rich and very powerful.

The Young Tycoons runs until June 15. Bookings: 02 8356 9987 or www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 25

The Removalists; Happiness reviews

There are two David Williamson plays running in Sydney at the moment – The Removalists from early in his career and a new play, Happiness, which has just premiered at the Ensemble Theatre.

They make a study in contrasts. The Removalists is a reminder of what a tough, terrific playwright Williamson has been in his time and why this particular play is considered a classic of Australian theatre. In recent years, however, his plays have become somewhat formulaic: pick a topical subject, find the characters to debate it on stage, and stir in some laughs. Happiness is all this – and one of Williamson’s least convincing plays.

The Removalists

Bondi Pavilion, May 29

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Written in 1971, The Removalists launched David Williamson’s career, sending a shock of recognition through audiences with its stark, savage portrayal of the ugly side of Australian culture: the open, rampant sexism, in particular.

Forty-two years on, Leland Kean’s terrific production for Rock Surfers Theatre Company still packs a real punch. Blatant sexism certainly isn’t as rife in public life as it was back then, but it ain’t disappeared.

Meanwhile, the themes of police corruption and brutality, abuse of authority, and domestic violence feel just as relevant.

On his first day in the police force, rookie Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan) finds himself under the command of Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy), a lazy, manipulative, sexist bully who prides himself on having never made an arrest in 23 years despite the high crime-rate in his area.

When the confident, well-heeled Kate (Caroline Brazier) and her quieter sister Fiona (Sophie Hensser) report that Fiona’s husband Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta) has been beating her up, the lecherous Simmonds decides they will help her move out while Kenny is at his usual Friday night drinking session. But Kenny returns home early.

Kean has wisely decided to keep the play in its original period, using blasts of 70s Oz rock and Ally Mansell’s drab, dung-coloured set with cheap furniture to create the perfect setting.

With excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Sam Atwell in the comic role of the removalist, Kean’s production feels tough, raw and very real.

Coy’s Simmonds is a man both odious and deeply ordinary. A school group attending the performance I saw remained attentive throughout, while the boys, in particular, seemed shocked by his behaviour, wincing visibly at his sexist remarks and sleazy bottom-patting.

O’Sullivan captures Ross’s naivety and nails the moment he suddenly snaps, Stewart Cotta is a convincingly brutish Kenny yet manages to make us feel something like sympathy when the tables are turned on him, while Brazier and Hensser deliver beautifully detailed, in-depth performances.

Kean’s production strikes just the right balance between humour, menace and violence as it builds tension. We laugh but we also cringe and shudder at a classic Australian play that still rings horribly true.

Bondi Pavilion until June 16.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 2.

Happiness

Ensemble Theatre, May 17

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

In Happiness, David Williamson takes on an interesting, pertinent question: why are Australians seemingly so dissatisfied and unhappy when we have never had it so good? However, the play barely scratches the surface of the idea.

It begins with a lecture by Roland Makepeace (Mark Lee), a professor of psychology who specialises in happiness – or “human wellbeing” as he prefers to put it – which sets up Williamson’s theme.

However, Roland’s own life isn’t exactly overflowing with wellbeing. His hard-drinking wife Hanna (Anne Tenney) is bitter and forever snapping at him, while his daughter Zelda (Erica Lovell) claims to feel suicidal on occasions.

When Roland tries to help Zelda with advice to go out and forgive someone, apologise to someone and do an anonymous good deed, there are all kinds of unintended consequences.

Rounding out the cast are Peter Kowitz as a rich, former lover of Hanna’s, Glenn Hazeldine as the editor of a right-wing newspaper where Zelda is an environmental reporter, and Adriano Cappelletta as two of Zelda’s love interests.

It’s all pretty unconvincing, while Williamson’s trademark ability to deliver cracking one-liners has also deserted him. Some of the audience laughed along now and then but I hardly cracked a smile.

Sandra Bates directs a pedestrian production in which the actors, by and large, do what they can. Hazeldine, Kowitz and Lee deliver the most believable characters, though they are all pretty sketchily written and we don’t particularly care about any of them. It feels very under-developed with more work needed on both the script and the production.

That said, as I left the theatre an elderly gent in front of me, who had clearly enjoyed it said, “Good old Williamson”. What’s more, the production is apparently almost sold out – which goes to show how many fans Williamson still has. It’s just a shame he hasn’t given them something better.

Ensemble Theatre until July 6. Noosa Long Weekend Festival, June 18 & 19.