Ghost the Musical

Theatre Royal, March 18 & 19

Ghostwheel

Rob Mills and Jemma Rix as Sam and Molly. Photo: Jeff Busby

Based on the hugely popular 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical has a lot to live up to – but happily it has been translated to the stage with plenty of whiz-bang flair. It’s certainly not the greatest musical ever written but it’s great entertainment.

Adapting his own Academy Award-winning screenplay, Bruce Joel Rubin sticks fairly faithfully to the film with a few minor changes to the supernatural love story-cum-thriller.

High-flying banker Sam Wheat (Rob Mills) and his sculptor girlfriend Molly Jensen (Jemma Rix) have just moved into their dream loft apartment in Brooklyn. Returning home from a romantic dinner, Sam is killed in a street mugging but finds himself trapped between this world and the next as he tries to save Molly from mortal danger.

Directed by Matthew Warchus (Matilda the Musical), the production creates a tangible sense of the gritty New York world where the story is set. The show has a cinematic feel, not just in its use of Jon Driscoll’s dynamic video projections – which help establish the different locations and support a number of the illusions including the subway scene – but in the way Warchus keeps the action flowing swiftly and seamlessly.

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve does an ingenious job of creating spectacular supernatural effects on stage, from Sam passing through a solid door to departed souls being whisked to heaven or hell.

Having Sam in a white shirt under pale blue lighting, with a slight reverb on his voice, works well to differentiate him from the living characters. Bobby Aitken’s sound effects heighten the supernatural aspect, while Hugh Vanstone’s coloured, rock concert lighting is also integral to the visual wizardry.

And, yes, the iconic pottery wheel scene with its wet, slippery clay is there but at a different point in the story when Sam is already dead. It’s much less erotic, which is a sensible, tasteful decision, but the scene is so short you can sense disappointment from the audience.

The book and lyrics are humdrum at times and the pop rock score by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and heavyweight producer Glen Ballard isn’t wildly memorable. Nor do the songs always move the action forward. However, they are catchy enough, while the best – such as Molly’s lyrical ballads With You and Nothing Stops Another Day – have lovely melodies. The Righteous Brothers’ iconic Unchained Melody from the film is used effectively as a motif through the show.

Too often, Ashley Wallen’s uninspiring choreography looks as if the ensemble members are dancers in a music video clip rather than their movement supporting and adding to the scene. However, the physical language used for Sam as he starts to negotiate the world as a ghost is cleverly done. Accompanied by swooshing sound effects that seem to slice the air, the movement creates a believable illusion of Sam passing through bodies and being unable to grip objects. Mills, David Denis as the subway poltergeist and David Roberts as Carl all handle the physicality convincingly as they are thrown around in supernatural fight scenes.

GHOST3

Wendy Mae Brown and ensemble cast. Photo: Jeff Busby

The musical really takes off with the appearance of Oda Mae Brown, the phony psychic who is astonished to discover she can hear Sam. British actor Wendy Mae Brown almost puts Whoopi Goldberg in the shade with her larger-than-life, sassy, gloriously comic characterisation. She has a rich, honey-smooth voice, nails every comic moment and raises the roof with her gospel-infused numbers.

Rob Mills and Jemma Rix have a nice rapport and work well together vocally. Rix conveys Molly’s heartache without becoming soppy and her voice is gorgeous whether she’s unleashing a powerhouse belt or touching the heart with a pop ballad.

Mills has always been hugely likeable on stage but here he matches it with a performance that delivers dramatically and emotionally. We share his frustration and his shock at Carl’s betrayal, while his grief and love for Molly feel real. His singing is also stronger than ever, and he really rocks his big number I Had a Life.

David Roberts plays Carl with just the right mix of easy charm and ruthlessness without overdoing it in a strongly acted performance. Ross Chisari is suitably thuggish as hood-for-hire Willie Lopez and David Denis exudes plenty of agro as the hip-hop subway ghost.

For all its flaws, Ghost the Musical is cleverly staged and extremely entertaining. It sweeps you up in its story-telling and while the flashy staging ramps up the wow factor, the emotional story still shines through. Clearly some remained untouched but to my surprise I was in tears at the end, and I wasn’t alone.

Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal until May 14. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au 136 100

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 20

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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

Grease review

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Grease premiered in 1971, it was a show with attitude that took a rough, raunchy look back at 1950s teenagers and celebrated the music of the era. Over the years, particularly with the advent of the much-loved film, the edges have been knocked off it and it’s become much less gritty.

This latest incarnation, which originated in the UK with direction by David Gilmore and choreography by Arlene Phillips, could do with a bit more of that original grunt.

Restaged by Jason Capewell and Charlotte Bull, the production feels a tad too slick for its own good and somewhat heartless. It needs to trust the moments more and find the truth in them to connect you better with the characters. As it is, you don’t really care about them.

Lucy Maunder’s Rizzo is a notable exception. She really owns the role of the snarky, cynical leader of the Pink Ladies and her moving rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is an emotional and musical highlight.

The production begins, somewhat strangely, with a sing-along of We Go Together led by Miss Lynch (Val Lehman) while the students of Rydell High enter via the auditorium. In my experience, sing-alongs are never terribly popular with audiences at the best of times – let alone at the top of a musical. Here it is forced and awkward.

After that slow start, much of Act I feels a bit flat. Though the cast performs energetically and the show rocks along (almost too frenetically at times) it all feels a bit hollow and the songs don’t really get things pumping the way you’re willing them to.

The production picks up with Greased Lightin’ led by Stephen Mahy as Kenickie but it’s not until Todd McKenney’s appearance as Teen Angel that the show hits its groove. Resplendent in a gleaming white suit studded with rhinestones, a silver waistcoat, silver boots and white blonde wig that makes him look like a cross between Liberace and a cheesy Elvis, it’s a literally glittering turn. It may be unashamedly over-the-top but McKenney exudes the charisma, star power and fun that the show needs at that point to really lift: definitely another production highlight.

Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett are both likeable as Danny and Sandy. Mills’ voice has grown in recent years and he brings his winning, cheeky charm to the character, while Scarlett has a lovely voice, which soars with crystal clarity in Hopelessly Devoted to You. However, there’s little chemistry between them.

Other characters among the Rydell High students are less well delineated and get somewhat lost in the mix, particularly the boys, with a couple of songs getting hardly any response from the opening night audience.

Bert Newton may be a much-loved Australian celebrity and cast for that reason but he is far too old to play DJ Vince Fontaine – something that becomes wince-makingly obvious when he is called on to flirt with Marty (Karla Tonkich) – and his accent comes and goes. As Johnny Casino, Anthony Callea puts a contemporary pop spin on Born to Hand Jive instead of the original 1950s rhythm and blues rockabilly style – and something is lost.

The set is relatively modest though it does the job and the colourful costumes work well but the choreography could do with a sharper 1950s vibe and edge.

The story itself is so simple it doesn’t bear much analysis. The teenagers’ problems come and go very quickly, while the ending has always sent a somewhat mixed message with Sandy transforming herself into a bad girl to get her guy. But it’s always been that way and when everything is hitting the mark it doesn’t matter. Here, it is somewhat exposed.

Nonetheless, the songs are great and so familiar that the audience laps them up. (They certainly did in Brisbane where the show sold out before coming to Sydney). Promoted as “the number one party musical”, this production of Grease is fun but it’s hardly electrifyin’.

Grease plays at the Lyric Theatre until December 8 then at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, January 2 – February 9.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 20