You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

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Sheridan Harbridge, Laura Murphy, Mike Whalley, Andy Dexterity, Nat Jobe and Ben Gerrard. Photo: Noni Carroll

First staged off-Broadway in 1967, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is based on Charles M. Schulz’s legendary, long-running comic strip Peanuts with its group of anxious children and their beagle Snoopy, whose imaginary life includes being a World War I flying ace.

The musical comedy charts a day in the life of Charlie Brown told through a series of vignettes with catchy songs by Clark Gesner and Andrew Lippa (brought to perky life by musical director Michael Tyack and his four-piece band).

In keeping with the simplicity of Schulz’s drawings, Georgia Hopkins has designed a minimal set consisting of several drapes and a few set pieces including Schroeder’s piano, Snoopy’s kennel and a bench, while her costumes are instantly recognisable. Hugh Hamilton’s lighting brings plenty of colour to the simple staging.

Deftly directed by Shaun Rennie, the production boasts a cast of gifted comic actors who capture the wry, bittersweet humour of the piece so that it is charming but not too cutesy.

Interestingly, the York Theater Company experimented with a production, that ran off-Broadway in June, featuring relatively young children who had professional stage experience, some of them on Broadway. It led the New York Times to conclude that “this is a more demanding musical than you might remember” and that “there is a fair amount of complexity in these seemingly simple characters, which is why Charlie Brown is best when performed by adults, or at least by high school students.”

The adults in this Hayes Theatre Co production certainly find the emotional nuances in the characters.

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Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

At the heart of the show, Mike Whalley may not have the strongest singing voice but he is endearing as the lovable loser Charlie Brown. At times you want to hug him but his Charlie is no sad sack. Along with his loneliness and awkwardness, Whalley conveys Charlie’s resilient hope and droll self-awareness.

Sheridan Harbridge is hilarious as the forceful, super-crabby Lucy. Laura Murphy brings just the right heightened energy to Charlie’s indignant, stroppy younger sister Sally and her song My New Philosophy is a musical highlight.

Ben Gerrard as the smart, lisping, blanket-carrying Linus and Nat Jobe as the Beethoven-loving Schroeder are also spot on. Andy Dexterity (who does a terrific job as choreographer) stepped in late as Snoopy and does a commendable job though he still has more to find in his two big numbers.

Unfolding in a similar vein throughout, there are no great dramatic surprises but the musical is funny and gently touching. Children will find it accessible but the stronger appeal is the sense of nostalgia for adults looking back on childhood.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until July 30. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 9

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The Detective’s Handbook

Hayes Theatre Co, April 27

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Rob Johnson and Justin Smith. Photo: Clare Hawley

Writing a new musical is a massive undertaking, generally requiring a huge investment of time and money. Australian musicals with an original score are pretty thin on the ground and so in 2010 the New Musicals Australia (NMA) program was established to address this.

During a two-year period, 13 new works went through various stages of development under NMA. In 2015, the Hayes Theatre Co – hub for some of the most exciting musical theatre in Sydney at the moment – took over the initiative, with funding from the Australia Council.

From 60 submissions, eight musicals were selected for “snapshot presentations”. From these, one was chosen for further development via workshops with industry mentors, leading to a full production.

The Detective’s Handbook is the first musical from the scheme to be produced at the Hayes. It’s a fun show and though it may not be the next great Australian musical – in its current form, anyway – it does herald the arrival of an exciting young writing team with plenty of talent.

With book and lyrics by 26-year old Ian Ferrington and music by 22-year Olga Solar, who recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, The Detective’s Handbook pays loving homage to the detective novel and film noir.

Set in 1950s Chicago, Frank Thompson (Justin Smith), a hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective, is called into the station one Sunday morning to investigate the murder of two cops in a factory on the seedy side of town. To his irritation, he is paired with Jimmy Hartman, a church-going rookie who likes to do things by the book – The Detective’s Handbook that is, in two volumes. With only a matchbox for a clue, they begin their investigation encountering the inevitable femme fatales along the way.

What differentiates The Detective’s Handbook is that some of the lyrics are rapped over a jazz score. Ferrington certainly has a punchy way with words and his book and lyrics are full of puns, one-liners and some brilliantly clever internal rhyming structures. Even if it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, it’s inventive and immensely enjoyable. The rapping style is primarily given to the cynical Frank, while the bright-eyed Jimmy gets to sing in a more melodic musical theatre style.

Solar’s jazzy score is also very clever, with a sound that nods to the period but also feel modern, with references ranging from Scott Joplin to Sondheim. The intricate underscoring and the lively melodies are attractive even if none of the songs are wildly memorable – on one listening anyway. A number about femme fatales sung by Sheridan Harbridge is the most obvious crowd-pleaser.

So, musically and lyrically, there is much to enjoy about the show. But, given that the tropes of the genre are so well known, the plot could do with some thickening and a more surprising twist, while the characters could be developed more. Though it only runs 80 minutes without interval, two-thirds of the way through, it feels as if the show is losing steam, despite some terrific performances.

Produced by Neil Gooding, the Hayes has done the show proud.  After a slightly slow start, Jonathan Biggins keeps things rollicking along. James Browne’s flexible black and white set works well both in practical terms and as a nod to film noir and the chalk outlining of dead bodies, while his costuming adds colour and underpins character types. Sian James-Holland’s lighting plays with noirish shadows most effectively.

Smith and Johnson complement each other well as the ‘odd couple’ cops. Smith exudes just the right amount of crumpled, jaded cynicism and handles the rap rhythms with a natural, easy confidence, while Johnson’s naïve, puppy dog eagerness is pitched to perfection.

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Tony Cogin and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Clare Hawley

Harbridge is sensational as three women all called Maria: the sexy, efficient secretary to the Chief of Police, a helpful café owner, and a rather formidable mortician. Her quick changes between the three characters are skilfully handled – hilariously so at the end when two of them are in the same scene.

Lara Mulcahy is very funny as yet another Maria, who owns a Polish delicatessen and runs a matchmaking service on the side, and paired with Christopher Horsey as a couple of cheery, dim-witted cops.

Horsey, who is also the choreographer, has overseen an amusing number in which he and Mulcahy move from typewriting to tap dancing, though a later tap routine feels like filler. Tony Cogin completes the well-chosen cast as the ineffectual Irish Chief of Police.

Musical director Michael Tyack leads a fine jazz quartet and sound designer Jeremy Silver balances the amplification well.

Currently The Detective’s Handbook feels slight but is still lots of fun. Most importantly, it shines a light on two very talented writers in Ferrington and Solar, giving them an opportunity to develop the show and their skill base with the likes of Biggins, Tyack, musical consultant Phil Scott and dramaturg Christie Evangelisto.

The chance for them to see The Detective’s Handbook up and running in front of an audience is invaluable experience and will hopefully encourage them to write another musical.

The Detective’s Handbook plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Defying Gravity

Theatre Royal, February 13

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Sutton Foster and Aaaron Tveit in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

 

It sounded pretty special on paper but high expectations were far exceeded in Defying Gravity, an electrifying concert featuring the songs of Stephen Schwartz that sent me home walking on air.

Produced by Enda Markey, the show was beautifully crafted in every respect and the love that swelled from the audience was well and truly deserved.

For starters there was the stellar cast: two of Broadway’s hottest stars Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit, West End star Joanna Ampil, Australia’s own David Harris and Helen Dallimore, as well as Broadway legend Betty Buckley making a guest appearance in the second act. They were all wonderful but Foster and Tveit completely blew me away. The chance to see them on the Sydney stage was a gift.

The meaty program was extremely well put-together featuring songs both very well known and less familiar including numbers from Schwartz’s musicals Pippin, Godspell, The Magic Show, Children of Eden, The Baker’s Wife and, of course, Wicked, along with numbers from Disney animated films such as Pocahontas, Enchanted and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on which he collaborated as lyricist with composer Alan Menken.

There was a good mixture of solos, duets and group numbers and lovely changes of pace from roof-raising numbers performed with the magnificent 15-piece band under conductor Guy Simpson to moments of quiet restraint such as Foster’s spellbinding rendition of When You Believe from The Prince of Egypt with solo guitar (Daniel Maher) and Cold Enough to Snow from the movie Life With Mikey movingly sung by Tveit accompanied on piano by Michael Tyack.

The choice of songs clearly illustrated Schwartz’s skill as a songwriter: a fine lyricist able to tell a story succinctly in song and convey a strong sense of character, emotion and empathy, as well as a catchy tunesmith.

Trent Suidgeest’s stage design was simple but had enough sparkle for the occasion with hanging strings of silver flakes as well as silver dusting the stage. Smoothly directed by Andrew Pole, the choreography of the performers on and off stage (as well as in several songs) was deft, as was their linking material, while the inclusion of comments from Schwartz on screen added insight to his career and process including his songwriting mantra: “Just tell the truth and make it rhyme”.

It was fascinating to see how the number The Wizard and I from Wicked gradually evolved from a song initially entitled Making Good.

The band was excellent and the sound was terrific (System Sound, Julian Spink and David Tonion).

Defying Gravity: The Songs Of Stephen Schwartz

David Harris, Helen Dallimore, Stephen Schwartz, Aaron Tveit, Betty Buckley, Sutton Foster and Joanna Ampil in Defying Gravity. Photo: Robert Catto

And then there were the performers. Sutton Foster, whose many Broadway credits include Millie Dilmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and the title role in Violet, has a voice to die for: bright, clear, silvery and soaring. She can belt to the heavens as she showed with Defying Gravity, which had the audience on their feet screaming, or rein it right back in heartbreaking fashion as with I’m Not That Girl.

Tveit was also sensational. Star of Broadway shows Catch Me If You Can and Next to Normal, he played Enjolras in the 2012 movie of Les Miserables and Danny Zuko in the recent Fox Grease: Live. His lovely, light tenor soars effortlessly, he charms with a cheeky smile and twinkle in the eye, and he has a great sense of comedy. He knocked it out of the park with Proud Lady from The Baker’s Wife and hammed it up delightfully in All From the Best from Godspell with David Harris.

Harris was also in fine voice. Known here for his performances in shows including Miss Saigon and Legally Blonde, he is now based in New York. Exuding a natural ease on stage, he gave a beautiful rendition of Corner of the Sky from Pippin and got a huge response from the audience with the sexy duet Endless Delights, performed with Helen Dallimore.

Dallimore, who originated the role of Glinda in the London production of Wicked and whose credits in Australia include Blood Brothers and Legally Blonde, showed her comic chops with Endless Delights, Popular from Wicked and It’s An Art, a song by a waitress from the musical Working.

Joanna Ampil, who has a lovely soprano voice, charmed with songs including Lion Tamer from The Magic Show, That’s How You Know from Enchanted and, most particularly, Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas.

Betty Buckley performed three songs in the second act: No Time At All from Pippin, in which she starred for several years, as well as Chanson and the gorgeous Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife, bringing the audience to their feet. Schwartz actually wrote The Baker’s Wife with Buckley in mind but despite six auditions she didn’t land the role – a disappointment so devastating it consumed her for years as she explains with wry humour.

The show ended with Schwartz taking to the stage to perform Day By Day with the full company – an uplifting and touching end to an incredibly special event, which once again had the audience on their feet.

Earlier in the day, I saw Schwartz in conversation with Leigh Sales, a terrific interview about his career and craft, which only added to my appreciation of the concert.

All in all, a big thanks to Enda Markey for producing Defying Gravity. It was a little slice of musical theatre heaven. Pure bliss!

Blood Brothers

Hayes Theatre Co, February 10

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blake Bowden, Bobby Fox and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blood Brothers, the hit musical by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), premiered in Liverpool in 1983 then ran in London’s West End for 24 years.

Last staged professionally in Sydney in 1994, the show’s reputation and popularity goes before it – so much so that this new, small-scale production, produced by Enda Markey in association with the Hayes Theatre Co, extended its season before it even opened. Days after opening it was almost sold out.

Though there is room to plumb a deeper well of anger and emotion, it’s a lively, well-staged production with some lovely performances.

Set in Liverpool, Blood Brothers tells the story of fraternal twins, separated at birth when their mother Mrs Johnstone can’t afford to keep them both. Persuaded by the well-to-do Mrs Lyons, who she cleans for, to secretly give her one of the babies, the boys grow up on different sides of the track but become best friends without knowing their true relationship. However, the class difference and their love of the same woman have tragic consequences.

Russell wrote the show as a furious response to the growing divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England – something still depressingly relevant. Its great strength is a powerful narrative with an authentic working class voice, while the folk/pop songs have simple, catchy melodies. Russell uses repetition in the score quite effectively though a Marilyn Monroe motif eventually feels over-worked.

Andrew Pole directs on an ingenious set by Anna Gardiner that swings open to reveal interiors, with the tight four-piece band led by Michael Tyack hidden backstage, while her bright costuming brings colour to the dark, depressing world she creates.

Helen Dallimore is a warm, vital Mrs Johnstone. She captures her resilience but could do more to convey the toll taken on her by the terrible knocks and stresses she endures – though her rendition of Tell Me It’s Not True is heartbreaking.

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Christy Sullivan, Erin James, Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Jamie Kristian. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

As the twins, who age from seven to young men, Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden give beautifully judged performances, managing to convey a convincing connection between them, despite being worlds removed.

It’s hard to play children without being gratingly twee, but Fox and Bowden, along with Christy Sullivan who plays their close friend Linda, do a terrific job here.

Fox exudes a knockabout, streetwise energy as Mickey, the youngest of the unruly, poverty-stricken Johnstone brood and his descent into depression is powerfully done. Bowden brings a gentle, earnest sweetness to Edward who is brought up by the posh Lyons family. Both are in great voice, and vocally suited to their characters.

Sullivan shines in a moving performance as Linda, the girl they both love, and the scenes between the three of them have a powerful dramatic and emotional force.

The scenes featuring the well-to-do Lyons played by Bronwyn Mulcahy and Phillip Lyons feel less authentic, though this is in large part to do with these characters being more sketchily written. But all the cast – which also includes Erin James and Jamie Kristian – work together well as a tight ensemble, while Michael Cormick is a suitably ominous presence as the narrator who speaks in rhyming couplets, foreshadowing the tragedy like a Greek chorus, and sings with great assurance.

Lyrically and musically, Blood Brothers isn’t the most subtle or sophisticated of musicals but it has a gritty simplicity that goes straight to the heart, leaving many in the opening night audience in tears at the end.

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until March 15. Bookings: http://www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 15

Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28