Violet

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide and the cast of Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Hayes Theatre Co, December 2

Violet is a lovely little musical with a gentle charm that gets under the skin. Before you know it, you’ve been knocked for six.

Written by composer Jeanine Tesori (who won Best Musical and Best Original Score for Fun Home at this year’s Tony Awards) and writer Brian Crawley, it is based on a short story by Doris Bett called The Ugliest Pilgrim.

The show premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and had a short season on Broadway last year with Sutton Foster as Violet. But it couldn’t have been given a more loving production than it gets here, produced by Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes, and directed by Mitchell Butel.

Set in 1964, Violet tells the story of a young woman (Samantha Dodemaide) who takes a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping that a televangelist can heal a disfiguring scar on her face, gained 12 years earlier when the blade flew from her father’s axe.

En route, she meets two soldiers – the cocky Monty (Steve Danielsen) and the kindly Flick (Barry Conrad) who as an African American understands what it’s like to be a misfit. The two buddies take her under their wing and fall for her.

Tesori’s music includes gospel, country, blues, soul, folk as well as ballads and soaring anthems in a more traditional musical theatre style. It’s a gorgeous score, with the songs emerging organically from the story and the characters.

Butel makes a very impressive directorial debut. For starters, his casting is excellent and he draws clearly delineated, truthful performances from the actors. He keeps the action moving fluidly at a perfect pace, and he knows exactly how to put the focus where it needs to be.

Simon Greer’s non-naturalistic set is a clever, evocative space, which Butel uses extremely well, with great support from the rest of the creative team (lighting by Ross Graham, costumes by Lucetta Stapleton and choreography by Amy Campbell).

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

With her expressive face and voice, Dodemaide gives a radiant performance as Violet, capturing her prickly exterior and inner vulnerability. She manages to make the character’s deluded naivety believable and has a lovely, shy smile that lights up the stage.

Luisa Scrofani and Damien Bermingham are moving in flashback scenes between the young Violet and her father. Danielsen and Conrad give warm, appealing, believable performances as Monty and Flick, Dash Kruck nails the charlatan preacher, while Genevieve Lemon is a scene-stealer as an old Lady on the bus and a Memphis lady of the night.

The rest of the ensemble – Katie Elle Reeve, Linden Furnell, Ryan Gonzalez and Elenoa Rokobaro – all play their part beautifully and between them unleash some powerhouse vocals, while Musical Director Lucy Bermingham leads a tight six-piece band.

The lyrics in the opening number are a little hard to hear with everyone singing so loudly, but after that the sound (sound design by Jeremy Silver) is as good as I’ve heard it at the Hayes.

Violet is a simple, optimistic piece about self-acceptance and forgiveness. The ending won’t surprise but it touches the heart without being sentimental or corny.

Violet is at the Hayes until December 20. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 29

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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