Hispanic Attack!

Hayes Theatre Co, June 26

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Ryan Gonzalez as his comic alter-ego….. Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: supplied

Ryan Gonzalez, Spanish singer/dancer and leading man of telenovela, is a superstar all over the Latin world – and in parts of South Korea – but he is yet to crack it in the English-speaking world thanks to his one-time friend, now sworn enemy, Ricky Martin.

In Australia for first time, he was to have performed at the Sydney Cricket Ground but due to a rather mysterious ticketing mix-up the venue was suddenly unavailable (guess who had the dates) and so rather than disappoint his fans, he decides to unleash his “hispanic attack” at the rather smaller Hayes Theatre Co.

Ryan Gonzalez is the comic creation of his real-life musical theatre performer namesake, whose credits include Strictly Ballroom, King Kong, Legally Blonde, Violet and the forthcoming Kinky Boots. He is currently dancing in Opera Australia’s new production of Carmen at the Sydney Opera House.

In his first cabaret show Hispanic Attack!, written and directed by Richard Carroll, Gonzalez unleashes the ultimate hip-swivelling Latin lothario, who loves the ladies almost as much as himself, keeping count of his virgin conquests with the number of ruffles on his unbuttoned shirt.

Telling the story of his life from humble beginnings as the only son in a family of 18 children (dutifully naming all 17 sisters), Gonzalez takes us through his life from his discovery on a children’s television talent show, to stardom in a boyband with Ricky Martin, whose subsequent betrayal has left him eternally embittered despite performing at the Eurovision Song Contest three times.

The real Gonzalez is a fabulous dancer and a strong singer and actor. He fully inhabits his self-obsessed comic alter-ego, sustaining the heavy accent and character with oodles of pizzazz. Accompanied by musical director Conrad Hamill on keys, the soundtrack to the show includes hits by the likes of Gloria Estefan, Santana, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and even his nemesis Ricky Martin.

Having starred in a production of The Phantom of the Opera with Christine Aguilera, who was supposed to appear but has gone the same way as the SCG booking, there’s also a very funny version of All I Ask of You in which he sings Christine in a soaring pop voice and Raoul in a traditional musical theatre tenor (even though he says he played the Phantom, but no matter).

Amy Campbell’s Latin-inspired choreography gives him the chance to make the most of his mobile hips and fleetest of feet and he struts his stuff with consummate flair, throwing in the splits for good measure.

The show explodes at a similar pitch throughout and many of the jokes centre around his gyrating groin, but Gonzalez plays the stereotype to the hilt with such infectious good humour, it’s a great deal of fun.

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Violet

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide and the cast of Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Hayes Theatre Co, December 2

Violet is a lovely little musical with a gentle charm that gets under the skin. Before you know it, you’ve been knocked for six.

Written by composer Jeanine Tesori (who won Best Musical and Best Original Score for Fun Home at this year’s Tony Awards) and writer Brian Crawley, it is based on a short story by Doris Bett called The Ugliest Pilgrim.

The show premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and had a short season on Broadway last year with Sutton Foster as Violet. But it couldn’t have been given a more loving production than it gets here, produced by Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes, and directed by Mitchell Butel.

Set in 1964, Violet tells the story of a young woman (Samantha Dodemaide) who takes a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping that a televangelist can heal a disfiguring scar on her face, gained 12 years earlier when the blade flew from her father’s axe.

En route, she meets two soldiers – the cocky Monty (Steve Danielsen) and the kindly Flick (Barry Conrad) who as an African American understands what it’s like to be a misfit. The two buddies take her under their wing and fall for her.

Tesori’s music includes gospel, country, blues, soul, folk as well as ballads and soaring anthems in a more traditional musical theatre style. It’s a gorgeous score, with the songs emerging organically from the story and the characters.

Butel makes a very impressive directorial debut. For starters, his casting is excellent and he draws clearly delineated, truthful performances from the actors. He keeps the action moving fluidly at a perfect pace, and he knows exactly how to put the focus where it needs to be.

Simon Greer’s non-naturalistic set is a clever, evocative space, which Butel uses extremely well, with great support from the rest of the creative team (lighting by Ross Graham, costumes by Lucetta Stapleton and choreography by Amy Campbell).

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

With her expressive face and voice, Dodemaide gives a radiant performance as Violet, capturing her prickly exterior and inner vulnerability. She manages to make the character’s deluded naivety believable and has a lovely, shy smile that lights up the stage.

Luisa Scrofani and Damien Bermingham are moving in flashback scenes between the young Violet and her father. Danielsen and Conrad give warm, appealing, believable performances as Monty and Flick, Dash Kruck nails the charlatan preacher, while Genevieve Lemon is a scene-stealer as an old Lady on the bus and a Memphis lady of the night.

The rest of the ensemble – Katie Elle Reeve, Linden Furnell, Ryan Gonzalez and Elenoa Rokobaro – all play their part beautifully and between them unleash some powerhouse vocals, while Musical Director Lucy Bermingham leads a tight six-piece band.

The lyrics in the opening number are a little hard to hear with everyone singing so loudly, but after that the sound (sound design by Jeremy Silver) is as good as I’ve heard it at the Hayes.

Violet is a simple, optimistic piece about self-acceptance and forgiveness. The ending won’t surprise but it touches the heart without being sentimental or corny.

Violet is at the Hayes until December 20. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 29

Strictly Ballroom the Musical

Lyric Theatre, April 12

Cristina D'Agostino and Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cristina D’Agostino and Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: Jeff Busby

There’s a dazzling image at the start of Strictly Ballroom the Musical of the dancers standing silhouetted in a line across the back of the stage. As they start to move forwards, the lights come up on them in their sensational, sparkling costumes and the heart races.

You can feel a shiver of excitement in the audience and the collective hope that Baz Luhrmann has managed to turn his beloved, uplifting 1992 film about daring to be true to yourself into an equally successful musical.

Luhrmann does deliver an enjoyable show but, frustratingly, Strictly Ballroom never truly soars.

The buzz begins as soon as the audience spots the shiny, coloured covers on the theatre seats inside the auditorium. It’s a measure of their willingness, indeed eagerness to embrace the musical that they enter with such gusto into the pre-show audience participation routine, led by DJ JJ Silvers (Mark Owen-Taylor), which has them barracking for dance couples wearing costumes to match the coloured section in which they are sitting.

From there, the story of rebellious dancer Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey) and wallflower beginner Fran (Phoebe Panaretos), who blossoms as his partner, has been translated to the stage in straightforward fashion without being re-imagined afresh.

Most problematically, the score is a real mish-mash. Granted, the key songs from the film (“Time After Time”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and “Love Is In The Air”) need to be there; the audience would be disappointed if they weren’t.

But around those, Luhrmann and his team have added some largely unmemorable new numbers (some with a pop feel, one influenced by Les Mis) and put lyrics to Strauss’s Blue Danube and the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, which comes across as a cheap move.

With the exception of Eddie Perfect’s rousing, Russian-inflected “Dance to Win” for Barry Fife (Robert Grubb) the songs rarely deepen character, heighten emotion or advance the plot as they do in a good musical, while the lyrics are at best ordinary.

“Time After Time”, which Scott and Fran sing under the Coca-Cola sign, comes closest to transporting us – again you start to feel your heart race, your spine tingle – but Luhrmann interrupts it with cuts to Scott’s father Doug (Drew Forsythe) in the studio below and the mood is broken.

Several important choreographic moments also fail to take flight. Scott’s first big solo dance, when he expresses his frustration and desire to dance his own steps, hardly dazzles with unorthodox choreography. What’s more, cast members wheel four large mirrors around him. You expect there to be a thrilling interplay of reflections, but no. For the most part, they just block your view.

Scott and Fran’s climactic dance also falls a bit flat. It’s the exciting paso doble led by Fran’s father (Fernando Mira) that emerges as the dance highlight. In a way, that’s as it should be for it’s here that Scott encounters genuinely passionate dancing from the heart, but it shouldn’t eclipse Scott and Fran’s final, defiant routine.

Catherine Martin’s glittering costumes are stunning though, a real triumph. Everything that could possibly glitter does from gorgeous dresses with layers of floating tulle to itsy-bitsy sequined numbers to sparkly jumpsuits for the boys.

Martin’s sets also work well. Various sections are wheeled around by the cast, in a whirling dance of their own, to create different settings – though there are times when Luhrmann has them spinning more than is necessary.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

In the central roles, newcomer Phoebe Panaretos is lovely as Fran. She has a sweet voice and a truthfulness that makes for some of the most moving moments, while Thomas Lacey has an appealing presence as Scott. He has a light voice but he dances well, though he could with a bit more fire in the belly and a sharper, sexier swagger.

An experienced cast does a fine job in the fairly broadly drawn supporting roles. Everyone does their bit but standouts include Heather Mitchell, who does a superb job in finding some emotional nuance as Scott’s pushy, highly strung mother, Robert Grubb, who is an entertainingly large, comically malevolent presence as the conniving Barry Fife, Drew Forsythe, who is amusingly dorky as Scott’s timid, put-upon father and Natalie Gamsu, who brings passion and welcome powerful vocals as Fran’s grandmother. The ensemble is also terrific.

As it stands, Strictly Ballroom has enough going for it to be a crowd-pleaser – by all reports audience are lapping it up – but it could be so much more. Hopefully Luhrmann will develop it further.

Strictly Ballroom is at the Lyric Theatre until July 6. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20