The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 13 at 12 noon

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is a gorgeous little stage production for children aged one to seven that captivates with its clear storytelling, its fresh, bright design and its simple but inventive staging.

Based on four pictures books by Eric Carle, including his iconic bestseller The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the show has been three years in the making.

Australian Jonathan Worsley, who is the creator and co-producer, approached Carle “several years ago, several times”, visiting the American author and illustrator at his Massachusetts studio with a series of sketches to convince him that he would put a faithful version of Carle’s books on stage.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the popular hook for audiences but it is too short to stage without expanding it so Worsley instead suggested using three of Carle’s other books as well: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse and The Very Lonely Firefly. Having won Carle’s approval, Worsley approached New York’s Puppet Kitchen to bring the sketches to three-dimensional life.

The Puppet Kitchen has done a sensational job in creating 75 puppets, using similar materials and techniques to Carle so that they really do look like his distinctive, hand-painted collage illustrations, and move well on stage.

On top of that, children can see the puppeteers and how the puppets are manipulated, which adds to the joyous sense of creativity that the show engenders.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show had its world premiere at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta as part of the Sydney Festival and from here tours to Melbourne, Brisbane, Penrith, Queanbeyan and Newcastle.

Director Naomi Edwards builds the show beautifully, creating an arc that leads organically to the highly anticipated caterpillar. James Browne has designed a white set that looks as if it is made up of several giant, blank books on which the various stories can be “written”. It’s the perfect backdrop for the stories to burst into colourful life via the puppets and their manipulators, with the help of a few simple projections, a couple of props and one or two little pieces of scenery.

Costume designer Andrea Espinoza has the four puppeteers (Gavin Clarke, Dannielle Jackson, Justine Warner and Drew Wilson) in white dungarees and tee shirts to throw the focus on the puppets, while The Artist wears an outfit to match the book. The puppets, meanwhile, are a pure delight, with lovely work from movement director Samantha Chester in choreographing their manipulation. The music by Nate Edmondson and Stephen Baker, and Nicholas Rayment’s lighting are also pitch-perfect.

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

Each of the four stories makes clever use of simple repetition. The show begins with The Artist who ”paints” several colourful animals including a blue horse, a yellow cow, an orange elephant and a poker-dotted donkey. A white canvas on a white easel is quickly spun around and the painting appears as if by magic.

“How did they do that?” asked the little boy next to me, mouth open. After watching intently as The Artist did a similar thing several times, he shouted: “that’s how they did it” and proceeded to explain excitedly to his mother. Bless.

We then go underwater for Mister Seahorse in which a rainbow-coloured, sparkly seahorse takes care of his wife’s eggs, until they hatch, meeting other male fish along the way who do the same – a sweet tale about role and responsibility.

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

From there we head into the dark of the night for the story of The Very Lonely Firefly who mistakes various lights for fellow fireflies until he finally finds his tribe (a tale of belonging). This leads naturally to the appearance of the moon and the story of the caterpillar, who eats and eats and eats before making a cocoon from which he emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

Children in the audience were clearly waiting for the caterpillar but it’s testament to the show that it kept their attention in the lead-up to his appearance.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

It was an inspired idea to adapt the book, given its massive popularity around the world, and Worsley’s production does it justice. The show will doubtless tour here, there and everywhere for many years to come.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show plays in Parramatta until January 18 then tours to Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel, March 23 – April 2; Brisbane’s Round House Theatre, July 13 – 19; The Q Theatre, Penrith, September 24 – 26; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 30 – October 4; Newcastle’s Civic Theatre, October 9 – 10.

Full details: www.hungrycaterpillarshow.com

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Beyond Desire

Hayes Theatre Co, November 26

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

In development off-and-on for 25 years, the musical Beyond Desire finally has its world premiere at the Hayes Theatre Co. It’s by no means an unqualified success but the music is lovely, with potential for further development of the show as a whole.

Written by Neil Rutherford (book and lyrics) and Kieran Drury (music), Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery inspired by Hamlet, with elements of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and a healthy dash of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.

There’s also a cute Mousetrap-like coda in which the cast ask you – in song – not to reveal the mystery. To be honest, it’s fairly easy to guess what’s going on in the first act and though the show takes a few more surprising twists and turns in the second, not all are convincing.

Beyond Desire is essentially an entertainment: a melodrama lightly laced with serious themes including class and forbidden love.

Set in 1910, Anthony (Blake Bowden) is holidaying in Italy having just graduated from university when he receives a telegram from his mother Louise (Chloe Dallimore). His father Edward (Phillip Lowe) has been found dead in a London hotel room.

The police rule it a suicide but Anthony is suspicious, particularly since Louise marries Edward’s former business partner George (Tony Cogin) shortly afterwards. What’s more, George figures prominently in Edward’s will.

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Together with his university friend James (Ross Hannaford) – who has arrived at the behest of Louise – the melancholic, angry Anthony sets out to discover what really happened.

Making up the household are the housekeeper Mrs Milson (Nancye Hayes) who makes sure she knows everyone’s business, her daughter Emily (Christy Sullivan) who is a maid, and a manservant Syd (David Bulters).

The music, which combines an Edwardian feel with contemporary resonances (Sondheim, Wildhorn, Schonberg & Boublil), is beautiful and emotive. The arrangements for piano, violin, cello, harp, clarinet and horn are lush and sensitively performed by the six-piece band led by musical director Peter Rutherford.

The lyrics, however, are uneven, verging on workmanlike at times, rarely revealing psychological depth. For the most part, the characters sing about the situation they’re in, without adding a great deal more to what we already know.

A poignant duet between Emily and James about their respective love for Anthony is one of the exceptions and a highlight.

Having chosen to present an Edwardian melodrama, Rutherford could have had more fun with the genre and also sharpened the book to build more tension in a show that revolves around deception and secrets. Instead, it’s a bit of an uneasy mix, with audiences not quite sure at times whether they are meant to be laughing or taking it all very seriously.

Rutherford also directs. In fact, his hand is all over the production. Take a good look at the names of the set designer (Luther Forinder) and orchestrator (Leon Ferrithurd).

The costuming is excellent (presumably borrowed as there is no costume design credit). The set isn’t wildly attractive but it works OK in the small space, quickly reforming into various configurations for different settings – though with the band sitting behind, it does all look rather cramped. The lighting meanwhile (Nicholas Rayment) is somewhat heavy-handed.

The production boasts impressive performances from the entire cast. The singing is terrific – though the sound is over-amplified. And the underscoring is sometimes distracting, making it difficult to hear dialogue.

Hayes is outstanding as Mrs Milson, understanding the melodrama style instinctively and bringing just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek fun to her portrayal. It’s a hugely enjoyable, precisely judged comic performance – and a delight to see her making her debut in the theatre that has been named in her honour.

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

She is matched by a winning performance from Sullivan as the young maid Emily, which feels truthful and heartfelt (accent and all), while Bowden is in glorious voice as Anthony. But all the cast have their moments.

Despite the flaws, I still found the show entertaining. It’s refreshing to be taken into a different kind of musical world to the ones we have been seeing on our stages of late. The tone could do with finessing and some tightening would sharpen it (it runs around two hours and 45 minutes including interval) but there is potential for further work.

The theatre program, presented as a 1910 London newspaper, is a nice little touch.

Beyond Desire runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until December 14. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

 

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 30

 

All My Sons

Eternity Playhouse, November 5

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Darlinghurst Theatre Company has christened the new Eternity Playhouse with Arthur Miller’s first commercially successful play, the gut-wrenching All My Sons from 1947 – and both the venue and the production have come up trumps.

The sensitive conversion of the newly restored Baptist Tabernacle, a 126-year old, heritage-listed building in Burton Street, Darlinghurst features a spacious timber foyer and a beautifully appointed 200-seat theatre with excellent sight lines and acoustics. It all feels fresh and welcoming, while original features such as the ornate ceiling and stained glass windows add to the venue’s charm.

Miller’s tightly plotted play resonates powerfully in the intimate space. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Joe Keller (Marshall Napier) and his wife Kate (Toni Scanlan) are living a life of suffocating denial.

Convicted for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft engine parts from his factory, which caused the death of 21 pilots during the war, Joe was subsequently exonerated leaving his business partner Steve to take the rap. Kate, meanwhile, clings to hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot, is still alive despite having been missing for three years.

A sense of tragedy hangs over the play from the beginning, as Joe and Kate’s other son Chris (Andrew Henry) invites Larry’s former sweetheart Anne (Meredith Penman) to stay, hoping to marry her. Anne, who grew up next door, is Steve’s daughter.

When Anne’s brother George (Anthony Gooley) arrives, having just visited their father in jail, dark secrets are revealed leaving no possibility of a happy outcome for any of them.

Unlike many of the auteur, re-imagined productions of classics that we have seen in Sydney of late, Iain Sinclair directs a traditional production set in the period and using American accents, but it is fluent, well paced and beautifully performed, unfolding with the inexorable undertow of Greek tragedy.

Scanlan breaks your heart as the desperate, deluded, at times feverish Kate who dares not admit the possibility that her son is dead, while Napier convincingly conveys the gruff bonhomie covering a dark, gnawing secret.

Henry excels as the open-hearted Chris who longs to step out of Larry’s blighted shadow and live his own life, while Gooley ramps up the energy with a bristling anger as George.

On opening night, Penman brought a sparkling warmth to the role of Anne, but due to a major television opportunity has since been replaced by Anna Houston.

In the supporting roles, Sinclair (who plays a doctor as well as directing), Mary Rachel Brown, Briallen Clarke and Robin Goldworthy all acquit themselves admirably.

Luke Ede’s set works well enough and is subtly lit by Nicholas Rayment. Occasionally Nate Edmondson’s music feels a little too overtly manipulative emotionally as in a film score, particularly in the climactic scenes when it is distracting and unnecessary, but that’s a minor quibble.

Performed with an intense honesty, Miller’s timeless story about the link between commerce and war, and self-interest in the name of the family, still rings devastatingly true in this stirring production.

All My Sons runs at the Eternity Playhouse until December 1

 An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 10

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Theatre Royal, Sydney, October 24

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a complete delight from start to finish: a joyous night of perfectly cast, laugh-out-loud musical comedy.

Based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the show is set in the French Riviera where two conmen – the suave, sophisticated Lawrence Jameson and the younger, brasher Freddy Benson – compete to swindle $50,000 from a soap heiress called Christine Colgate. The loser must leave town.

Jeffrey Lane’s book and David Yazbeck’s catchy, melodic songs are deliciously witty and full of double entendres as well as occasional outright bawdiness, all of which inspire genuine, giddy mirth. There is also some priceless playing with the fourth wall (“Did I miss a scene?” asks Lawrence at one point) along with other meta-theatrical in-jokes including references to the musicals Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady.

Lane’s book cleverly builds the comedy, which becomes ever more farcical as the two scam artists spin their web of deceit in the hope of ensnaring their target. In the hands of this fine cast every comic moment is mined for all it’s worth, without it ever becoming heavy-handed.

Tony Sheldon makes a triumphant homecoming in the role of Lawrence, returning especially to play the part from the US where he is now based after his Tony Award-nominated performance in the Broadway production of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert. With his twinkly, dimply charm and immaculate comic timing, Sheldon is a natural for the debonair, charismatic Lawrence. He nails every laugh and makes the most of the opportunity to use several ludicrously funny accents.

It’s a consummate performance, matched by Matt Hetherington who is the perfect foil as the vulgar upstart Freddy. Hetherington’s unrestrained physical comedy and whacky slapstick is inspired – particularly when he is playing Lawrence’s supposed loony, sex-mad brother Ruprecht. He is also in great voice.

Hetherington played Freddy with great success for The Production Company in Melbourne in 2009 and was offered it in a US touring production but was unable to accept as his working visa was about to run out. Now we see why; he’s brilliant.

Together he and Sheldon are dream casting, managing to make the two scoundrels a hugely likeable odd couple despite their dubious trade.

Amy Lehpamer, who hasn’t been seen in Sydney since Rock of Ages never got here, is gorgeous as the kind, pretty, clumsy Christine Colgate (who is also not quite what she seems) and sings superbly. Katrina Retallick is downright hilarious as Jolene Oakes, a crass lass from an oil-rich family in Oklahoma, who is determined to marry Lawrence and take him home to the ranch.

In a romantic sub-plot, Anne Wood is very funny as a droll, swinging American divorcée, who having been duped by Lawrence becomes romantically involved with his side-kick, the Chief of Police played by John Wood. Wood’s questionable French accent wanders between Europe and Australia, but he plays the character with understated charm.

Having cast the production in exemplary fashion (the ensemble is also terrific), Roger Hodgman’s excellent direction puts the focus firmly on the performers in a production that is deliciously light on its feet. There’s a modest but attractive, flexible set by Michael Hankin, elegant, colourful costumes by Teresa Negroponte, beautiful lighting by Nicholas Rayment and appealing choreography by Dana Jolly, while musical director Guy Simpson conducts the 18-piece orchestra with panache.

All in all, it’s a superb production of a hugely entertaining show that exudes the charm of classic musical theatre, and is oodles of fun.

Hats off to producers James Anthony Productions and George Youakim. It’s their first big production and they deserve to have a massive hit on their hands.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels runs at the Theatre Royal until December 8.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on October 27.