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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Triassic Parq

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, June 19

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson and Monique Salle as T-Rex 2 and 1. Photo: Michael Francis

You can’t fault the timing: Squabbalogic is staging the musical Triassic Parq (“no, not that other park because we don’t want to get sued”) just as the newly released film Jurassic World is doing a roaring business at the box office, generating plenty of dino talk.

And you can’t really fault the production. But despite the best efforts of everyone involved, Triassic Parq is only sporadically diverting. Yes, it’s sweet and it’s fun, with a catchy, tuneful pop rock score (by Marshall Pailet) and occasionally witty lyrics and book (Pailet, Bryce Norbitz and Steve Wargo) but overall it feels like a mildly amusing, over-extended sketch.

The musical is a comic riff on Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film in which, as you’ll probably recall, scientists clone dinosaurs for a theme park using dino DNA and some frog to complete the DNA chain. All the dinosaurs are female to prevent breeding, but that little bit of frog causes one hell of a problem, allowing the dinosaurs to change sex in order to reproduce and ensure the survival of the species.

Triassic Parq tells the story from the dinosaurs’ point of view. Life for the “Lab” worshipping dinosaur community is thrown into chaos when T-Rex 2 (Adèle Parkinson) suddenly sprouts a penis. Meanwhile, the Velociraptor of Innocence (Rob Johnson) finds her way over the electric fence in search of answers. Bumping into T-Rex 2 outside the park, they work out what a “dick stick” is for, sending T-Rex 2’s bestie T-Rex 1 (Monique Sallé) into a jealous, rampaging rage.

The Velociraptor of Faith (Blake Erickson) – a dino with secrets – is forced to question his trust in “Lab” when the delicious goats the deity normally supplies suddenly stop appearing. And then the exiled Velociraptor of Science (Keira Daley) returns. Completing the dino cast are the mute Mimeosaurus (Crystal Hegedis) and the Pianosaurus (musical director Mark Chamberlain).

Themes of love, religion, science and gender underpin the silliness but it’s all pretty lightweight: fluff and nonsense being the prevailing tone.

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

The Triassic Parq company. Photo: Michael Francis

Jay James-Moody directs with his usual verve and the production has a bright, chirpy aesthetic. Neil Shotter’s clever set uses towering electric fences, which open up, and a few pot plants to create the park and the jungle outside, with lighting by Mikey Rice. Elizabeth Franklin has designed cute costumes pairing contemporary street clothes with sparkly dino feet sporting padded claws, make-up and a fair bit of bling.

The cast throw themselves into it with hugely committed performances. The singing is excellent and they perform Dean Vince’s tongue-in-cheek choreography with gusto.

Erickson gives a hilarious impersonation of Morgan Freeman before being quickly eaten, Johnson finds just the right level of innocence as the questing dino who is a little different to the rest, while Sallé and Parkinson also shine. In fact, the performances are terrific across the board. But all their exuberance can’t disguise the thinness of the show.

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson and Crystal Hegedis. Photo: Michael Francis

Triassic Parq won Best Musical at the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival. You can’t help wondering what the competition was like. Squabbalogic have done their darndest with it, but in the end it’s fun without being that funny and hard to get excited about.

Triassic Parq runs at the Seymour Centre until July 4. Bookings: www.seymour.com or 02 9351 7944

Sondheim on Sondheim

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

Stephen Sondheim on screen and the company. Photo: Michael Francis

In 1994, New York magazine ran a cover story about Stephen Sondheim, which asked “Is Stephen Sondheim God?” (Not in the headline as suggested here, apparently, but in the table of contents. No matter.)

Is he God? Hell yes. In musical theatre terms the man’s a genius.

Hence the self-deprecating, comic song God, which James Lapine coaxed him to write for Sondheim on Sondheim in which he pokes fun at being worshipped and at his (ill-deserved) reputation for writing art songs without heart or melodies.

Lapine conceived and directed Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the revered composer/lyricist. Originally produced on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, it combines specially recorded interviews with Sondheim and archival footage with live performances of numbers from many of his musicals, along with some songs that didn’t end up making the cut.

The show is now being staged in Sydney by independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic, whose growing reputation jumped to the next level recently with superb productions of Carrie and The Drowsy Chaperone.

No wonder expectations were high for this, their latest production.

Sondheim on Sondheim is a winning concept but it needs exceptional performers to really make it fly. Act I doesn’t quite cut it here but it comes good in Act II.

The interviews with Sondheim are a constant delight. It’s thrilling to hear him talk so articulately about why he likes to write for neurotic people, the difference between poetry and lyrics, why A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum went through three different opening numbers, along with personal things like his fraught relationship with his mother, a touching admission he would love to have had children, and the fact that he didn’t have a committed relationship until he was 60.

Sondheim tragics will know most of it already but it’s fascinating stuff. And it’s intriguing to see not just the recent interviews but others from across six decades of his life.

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Debora Krizak in Ah, But Underneath written for Follies, with Dean Vince, Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson and Phillip Lowe. Photo: Michael Francis

Mind you, it sets up a real challenge for the performers. Rather than being presented chronologically or show by show, Sondheim on Sondheim jumps around, choosing songs in response to the interview clip (though the segues into the musical numbers aren’t always seamless). It’s hard to invest the songs with the same emotional depth when they’re performed out of context and the show moves at such pace that it’s doubly difficult for the performers to move between characters and emotional states convincingly.

On top of that, we have heard Sondheim’s material interpreted by any number of people at the very top of their game not only in the musicals but in countless cabaret shows and charity concerts. We know how extraordinary the songs can be.

Director Jay James-Moody has assembled a strong cast – Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Monique Sallé, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – but the songs don’t always sit completely in the pocket for all of them vocally.

In Act I, they perform with great energy. The performances are solid but the songs rarely soar or touch you emotionally, while Sallé’s choreography feels over busy at times. But Act II fares better.

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson. Photo:  Michael Francis

Monique Salle, Rob Johnson and Blake Erickson in Opening Doors from Merrily We Roll Along. Photo: Michael Francis

Highlights for me include Krizak’s Smile, Girls, in which she brings just the right razzle-dazzle to a number cut from Gypsy; Opening Doors about young, would-be songwriters at the start of their career from Merrily We Roll Along performed by Erickson, Johnson and Sallé; Franklin Shepherd Inc. also from Merrily given a suitably manic performance by Johnson; Epiphany from Sweeney Todd sung by Phillip Lowe; and Children Will Listen performed by the Company.

The set by James-Moody works a treat. Suspended strings of scrunched up manuscript paper, like rejected versions of songs, create a backdrop through which we glimpse the eight-piece orchestra led by Hayden Barltrop.

On stage, there are eight square black stools and tiny tables, which are moved around in different configurations. It’s simple but effective.

The show assumes, I think, that the audience will have at least some knowledge of and love for Sondheim. For those not familiar with his musicals it’s a lot to get your head around (it runs for over two-and-a-half hours) but it certainly showcases his dazzling versatility and the extraordinary wealth of his body of work.

There were a couple of clunky moments from the band on opening night and the sound mix was a bit loud at times but overall it’s impressive musically.

Sondheim on Sondheim takes time to ignite and the songs are always as spine-tinglingly moving or poignant as they can be but there’s much to enjoy in it. For a small indie company it’s quite an achievement. I’m not sure it plays to Squabbalogic’s strengths in the way that many of their previous shows have done but it’s still worth seeing.

Sondheim on Sondheim plays at the Seymour Centre until October 18. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

Carrie the Musical

Seymour Centre, Sydney, November 15

Hilary Cole as Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

Hilary Cole as a bloodied Carrie. Photo: Michael Francis

How wonderful to finally have the chance to see Carrie the Musical – that most infamous of Broadway flops.

Based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel and Brian de Palma’s 1976 movie, it opened on Broadway in 1988 where it survived just 16 previews and five performances. It comes to Sydney now in the reworked version seen off-Broadway in 2012 thanks to independent musical theatre company Squabbalogic.

Not only is praise due to Squabbalogic for staging the musical here for the first time but they have timed it well given the release this week of Kimberly Peirce’s film remake.

As most would know, the story centres on Carrie, a teenage misfit with a fanatically religious mother who is bullied remorselessly at school. Life isn’t much better at home, particularly when her mother discovers that Carrie has begun menstruating and treats it like the proverbial ‘curse’ from God.

Discovering that she has telekinetic powers, Carrie eventually takes terrible revenge when the bullying turns decidedly nasty at the high school prom.

It would be so easy to camp it up but director Jay James-Moody has played it straight, directing a terrific production, complete with litres of blood, that hones in on genuine emotion and human drama wherever he can find it.

Despite the rewrite, the musical – with music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford and book by Lawrence D. Cohen – hasn’t ironed out all its problems. The book doesn’t have a great deal of emotional and psychological depth, while the new framing device, which has nice girl Sue  (the sole survivor from the prom) telling the story in flashback via interrogation, feels clunky and unnecessary.  The lyrics, meanwhile, too often veer to the obvious.

The songs are catchy and the score rocks along, though the number in which the kind, sympathetic teacher Miss Gardner urges Carrie to open herself up to love (“Unsuspecting Hearts”) feels inappropriate and unlikely – particularly with intercut dialogue like “Listen to me, you have beautiful eyes.”

Having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed the show and felt for Carrie – here movingly portrayed by Hilary Cole in a very impressive Sydney debut.

Set in a burnt out gym, with tattered drapes adding a spooky feel, Sean Minahan’s set creates just the right atmosphere, while the telekinetic effects are nicely done.

James-Moody directs with a great deal of assurance and love, establishing a convincingly teenage vibe with his young, enthusiastic cast.

The most powerful scenes (and this is to do with the writing) are between Carrie and her mother Margaret – here superbly performed by Cole and Margi de Ferranti.

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole. Photo: Michael Francis

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole. Photo: Michael Francis

Cole is a real find. Petite and pretty, she makes a very believable transformation from dowdy outcast in baggy clothes– her shoulders hunched, her eyes constantly downcast – to blossoming Prom Queen. Her pure voice is lovely and she sings from the soul, really connecting to the lyrics so that your heart goes out to her.

De Ferranti is in fine form vocally and dramatically as Carrie’s bitter, fanatical mother, giving her a crazed air. Beneath Margaret’s avenging fear and Carrie’s desperate need to escape, the two of them convincing portray the needy love between them.

Adèle Parkinson is also lovely as all-American-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Sue, with strong support from Prudence Holloway as bad girl Chris, Toby Francis as her too-easily led, loser boyfriend Billy, Rob Johnson as good guy Tommy, Garry Scale as wry teacher Mr Stephens and Bridget Keating as Miss Gardner, along with the rest of the ensemble (Tim Dal Cortivo, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Andy Johnston, Monique Sallé, Zach Smith and Maryann Wright).

Musical director Mark Chamberlain leads a sharp, eight-piece band, seated in the balcony above the stage.

Despite the show’s shortcomings, Squabbalogic once again give us a smart, high-energy, engaging production of a rarely seen musical that musical theatre aficionados won’t want to miss.

Carrie the Musical runs at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until November 30. Bookings: 9351 7940