Marina Prior: A Prior Engagement

Hayes Theatre Co, June 6

Who knew that a long, gold, beaded gown could be a health and safety issue in a cabaret show?

Marina Prior found herself in a slightly slippery situation in her cabaret show A Prior Engagement: An Intimate Evening with Marina Prior when she sat on a stool to play guitar and promptly slid off, having to perch rather cautiously from then on. A shiny stool is like ice, it transpires, when you sit on it in a beaded dress. Needless to say, she handled the situation with amused aplomb and grace.

Tracing her 30-year career, Prior mixes it up in A Prior Engagement performing folksy pop and Gaelic songs (her heritage is Irish and Scottish) as well as musical theatre numbers.

Prior was famously a student and regular busker when she saw an advertisement for open auditions for a production of The Pirates of Penzance and landed the role of Mabel. Since then, she has never looked back, going on to roles in umpteen musicals including the original Australian productions of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, as well as West Side Story, Mary Poppins and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among countless others.

Recently, she was seen in a Sydney Theatre Company/Melbourne Theatre Company co-production of Jumpy, a comedy by British playwright April De Angelis, and said that later this year she will be in another big show, which she couldn’t name. She did say, however, that one of the songs she would sing during the night was a hint. My guess is that an audience sing-along to Eidelweiss was the clue. (The cast of the new Australian production of The Sound of Music is to be announced tomorrow).

The rest of her eclectic set included Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair (on which she played guitar), Adelaide’s Lament from Guys and Dolls and Before I Gaze at You from Camelot.

She also gave a beautiful rendition of The Music of the Night, originally written for Christine Daae, apparently, then reworked for the Phantom when Andrew Lloyd Webber decided he needed another song.

Along the way, she told some gently amusing anecdotes including one about the challenge of performing opposite a very grouchy Richard Harris in Camelot when she was just 20 and still very inexperienced.

She finished the night with Auld Lang Syne and the Italian popoperatic number Con te partior (Time to Say Goodbye).

Accompanied on piano by David Cameron (her musical director for 24 years), as well as three ladies on strings, her husband, performer Grant Piro, also popped up now and again as a wry stagehand.

Prior’s lush soprano is still a beautiful instrument, her voice soaring on The Music of the Night and Time to Say Goodbye. With an effortless ease, grace and elegance on stage, she exudes genuine star quality.

An audience of adoring fans – many of whom who had clearly followed her career since day dot – gave her a rapturous standing ovation, clearly relishing the opportunity to see her up close in such an intimate setting.

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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

Jumpy

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, March 28

Brenna Harding and Jane Turner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Brenna Harding and Jane Turner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Written by British playwright April De Angelis, Jumpy was a hit in the UK, where it opened at the Royal Court in 2011 then transferred to the West End.

It’s certainly refreshing to see a play where the central protagonist is a 50-year old woman – played here by Kath & Kim’s Jane Turner – and where the themes are mainly women’s issues.

Hilary (Turner) is being buffeted by life. Her job in childhood literacy is on the line due to funding cuts, her marriage is stale, her political idealism seems a thing of the past, and her surly, sexually precocious, 15-year old daughter Tilly (Brenna Harding) is an antagonistic nightmare. Hell, even the furniture seems out to get her during the scene changes in Pamela Rabe’s Melbourne Theatre Company production, now being presented in Sydney by Sydney Theatre Company.

Hilary and her best friend Frances (Marina Prior) take regular solace in a glass or three of savvy blanc, while the single, sex-starved Frances also works up a saucy burlesque act, which she describes it as “post-feminist irony” but which feels pretty desperate (and cringe-making).

Marina Prior, Brenna Harding and David Tredinnick.  Photo: Brett Boardman

Marina Prior, Brenna Harding and David Tredinnick. Photo: Brett Boardman

When Tilly begins sleeping with her boyfriend Josh (Laurence Boxhall), Hilary goes to meet Josh’s steely mother Bea (Caroline Brazier) and more amiable actor father Roland (John Lloyd Fillingham) whose take on the situation is very different. Their marriage is also on the rocks.

Jumpy is a lively, well-written comedy though it makes its themes (marriage, parenting, feminism, the sexualisation of young women and the invisibility of their older counterparts) fairly obvious.

Rabe directs an elegant production on Michael Hankin’s pale wooden, low-ceilinged set, which has the furniture glide on and off as if on a conveyor belt. It’s witty and with so many short, snappy scenes it’s a clever solution. As for having Hilary jump to avoid the scenery in the set changes, I can understand the logic, and many in the audience clearly loved the idea, but I found it a bit of a cheap laugh, making Hilary something of a buffoon, which she absolutely isn’t.

Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are spot-on and it’s all well lit by Matt Scott.

Turner gives a lovely, subtle performance, finding the humour, confusion and poignancy in Hilary’s situation. Harding glowers convincingly as Tilly, though the role is pretty one-dimensional, while Prior is very funny as Frances, as is Brazier as the cold, witheringly brusque Bea.

Tariro Mavondo shines as Tilly’s cheery, working class friend Lyndsey, who finds herself pregnant at 16, but where Tilly is a thunderous dark cloud, Lyndsey exudes sunny optimism despite having so much to contend with.

There are also strong performances from Lloyd Fillingham as the genial but awkward Roland, David Tredinnick as Hilary’s rather ineffectual husband who constantly gives in to Tilly in his anxiety to avoid conflict, Boxhall as Tilly’s monosyllabic boyfriend Josh, and Dylan Watson as Cam, another boy Tilly brings home with unexpected results.

Jumpy is somewhat reminiscent of Alan Ayckbourn or David Williamson in style. It resists tying things up too neatly, with a second act that is darker than the first, but several events feel unlikely, not least the late appearance of a gun, while De Angelis cops out a bit with a soft solution to Tilly’s later situation.

Marina Prior and Jane Turner.  Photo: Brett Boardman

Marina Prior and Jane Turner. Photo: Brett Boardman

However, the challenges Hilary and Frances face and the banter between them ring true, and many will relate to the way the two women feel about aging and our changing society.

In the end Jumpy is a lightweight play but it’s enjoyable and well staged. The chance to see Turner and Prior flex their comic muscles on stage is a particular delight.

Jumpy runs at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 16. Bookings: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 5