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

80 Minutes No Interval

Old Fitz Theatre, March 15

Ryan Johnson in 80 Minutes No Interval - 2 (c) Rupert Reid

Ryan Johnson as the hapless Louis in 80 Minutes No Interval. Photo: Rupert Reid

As it says on the packet, 80 Minutes No Interval runs for 80 minutes without an interval – which would doubtless please Claire, the girlfriend of the play’s hapless anti-hero Louis, who has no great love of theatre, particularly of the lengthy, pretentious variety.

Written and directed by Travis Cotton, and produced by Thread Entertainment in association with Red Line Productions, 80 Minutes No Interval is a ripping black comedy, which turns a satirical gaze on subsidised theatre, theatre critics, publishing, perfectionism and cursed bad luck.

Louis (Ryan Johnson) has an unhappy knack of detonating pretty much everything he touches. An aspiring but so-far failed novelist, he is sacked from his job as a newspaper theatre critic when his editor comes across a small red box robot, which uses algorithms to write better reviews than any mere mortal. Later Louis purports to be making a decent living as a freelance theatre reviewer (which had theatre reviewers chortling).

The kind of diner who would try the patience of the most solicitous waiter, Louis’s restaurant proposal to long-suffering (and clucky) girlfriend Claire (Sheridan Harbridge) is memorable for all the wrong reasons. His parents want him out of their investment property and the publisher who shows an interest in his latest novel– as long as he changes it and wracks up an army of Twitter followers – may not have quite the eye he once had. From there, it just goes from bad to worse.

80 Minutes No Interval rocks along with many laughs on the way (though I didn’t find it as wildly funny as some of the audience around me who roared out loud for much of it). The scene in the restaurant as an OCD Louis tries to order is a gem and Harbridge delivers a monologue, which is comic gold, about all that is wrong with theatre from seven-hour shows with dinner breaks, to Perspex boxes, blue faces and a litany of other clichés (many seen on Sydney stages in recent years).

As for the scene between Louis and the ruthlessly commercial publisher Dan Kurtz (an outrageously funny, outsized turn by Robin Goldsworthy), it’s gross-out hilarious.

Ryan Johnson, Jacob Allan & Sheridan Harbridge in 80 Minutes No Interval (c) Rupert Reid

Ryan Johnson, Jacob Allan and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Rupert Reid

Cotton’s writing has a great deal of comic flair but after a while the play does feel a bit like an over-extended skit with loads of things thrown into the mix, not all of which are followed through or fully come together. However, the show is deftly directed and staged with a set design by Georgia Hopkins, which includes a lovely reveal.

Johnson is the perfect foil to all the comical carry-on, playing things straight with an endearing performance as Louis. The rest of the cast, which also includes Jacob Allan as the admirably restrained waiter and Julia Rorke as a young florist, let rip with performances that knock the comedy out of the park though at times it feels as if they are all doing their own thing rather than responding to what’s happening around them.

A nip and tuck wouldn’t go astray, but 80 Minutes No Interval is often wickedly funny with serious points to make, and clearly tickled many in Tuesday’s packed house.

80 Minutes No Intervals runs at the Old Fitz Theatre until April 9. Bookings: www.oldfitztheatre.com

Independent Music Theatre names venue after Nancye Hayes

As we reveal in today’s Sunday Telegraph, Independent Music Theatre is honouring Australian musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes by renaming the Darlinghurst Theatre after her.

When Hayes first got a call from David Campbell to discuss the idea she was so surprised she didn’t quite believe him.

“It’s something I’m still coming to terms with,” says Hayes. “When David rang me I thought, ‘this call isn’t happening.’ It’s not something you think will happen to you.”

Campbell is one of six producers and independent companies specialising in small-scale musicals and cabaret who have formed a consortium called Independent Music Theatre (IMT).

When the Darlinghurst Theatre Company leaves its Potts Point venue later this year to move to a new home in East Sydney, IMT will take over the theatre and turn it into a home for music theatre and cabaret.

IMT is renaming the 115-seat venue the Hayes Theatre as a tribute to one of our most loved leading ladies whose career in Australian musicals spans 50 years.

When Hayes first started performing in musicals, the leading roles automatically went to imported performers. Together with Jill Perryman and Toni Lamond, Hayes helped change this when at the age of 24 she played Charity in the 1967 J.C. Williamson production of Sweet Charity – one of the first Australian musical theatre performers to receive star billing.

The fact that she lives just around the corner from the Darlinghurst Theatre was the clincher.

“Nancye is a local so she’s the perfect fit,” says Campbell. “She’s still starring in shows like Annie and she also directs and choreographs. I think in this country we often leave it too late to honour people. We should cherish our stars and honour them while they are still living.”

Hayes says she feels “very humble, very proud and very honoured” and believes that an initiative like IMT is “long overdue. There has never been enough (small-scale musicals) for people,” she says.

When it comes to musical theatre, Sydneysiders are used to seeing a handful of big commercial shows each year but not a great deal else, besides amateur productions. Small-scale musicals are produced, but sporadically and at venues all over town.

Presenting them at one, dedicated theatre will shine a light on the work and help “develop audiences and develop the art”, says Campbell. “It will make musicals more accessible. There will be a place where you know you are going to be able to see a musical show at an affordable price.

“It’s like always going to blockbusters and never seeing an arthouse film. If you just go and see all the X-Men films and never see a Woody Allen film then you are not getting the full cinematic experience. We are trying to provide a similar thing (to arthouse films).”

Talented young performer Sheridan Harbridge, who has performed in musicals like My Fair Lady and An Officer and a Gentleman but also writes her own cabaret shows, is excited by the new venue. “Having this space is going to push a lot of artists to experiment a lot more, I think,” she says.

IMT will start producing shows at the Hayes Theatre early next year.

“You won’t come to the Hayes Theatre for great sets, it’s about the shows and the performers,” says Campbell. “But you’ll see productions that are so visceral and exciting you’ll think, ‘why do I need a big set for a show like this?’

“Things like this happen in London and New York all the time. There are places where they create new shows or stage revivals, which then move on (to bigger theatres). It’s important that Sydney has a place like this as well.”

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on August 18