Wonderful Town

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, May 8

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Virginia Gay and Georgina Walker who played sisters Ruth and Eileen in Wonderful Town. Photo: supplied

I didn’t see the semi-staged concert version of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing at the Sydney Opera House in November – the first collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre – but I heard good things.

I was, however, lucky enough to catch the second of two performances of Wonderful Town, their second collaboration– and what a complete delight it was.

Wonderful Town is an effervescent, light-hearted musical comedy featuring a joyous, melodic score by Leonard Bernstein. Written in six weeks in 1953 (nine years after Bernstein’s first musical On the Town), it mixes classical, popular and jazz musical styles, including the electric, syncopated Wrong Note Jazz, which foreshadowed West Side Story three years later.

The show had its roots in a series of short stories written by author/journalist Ruth McKenney published in the New Yorker magazine about her experiences and the colourful characters she and her sister Eileen met when they lived in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. These evolved into a book in 1938 called My Sister Eileen, which was made into a film starring Rosalind Russell.

The musical, Wonderful Town, features a well-structured book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and neat, witty lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It opened on Broadway in 1953, also starring Rosalind Russell, and won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. A good, old-fashioned musical comedy, it has such charm that it’s surprising it’s so little known.

Set in the 1930s, it focuses on two sisters who leave a backwater in Ohio for the bright lights and broader horizons of New York. Ruth, who is hoping to become a writer, is smart, strong and protective of her younger sister Eileen yet awkward when it comes to men. Eileen, who has men falling at her feet, dreams of being a performer.

Jason Langley directs with great clarity on a minimal set (a few flats, the odd table and chair). Designer Brendan Hay has added plenty of colour and period style with his costuming including elegant frocks for the ladies and some natty, patterned trousers for the men.

Dean Vince has done a great job with the choreography which ranges from a hilarious Irish jig (complete with a wash of green lighting) to a conga and some snazzy jazz moves.

Virginia Gay is an absolute star as Ruth. She has such a perfect feel for this style of musical comedy, caressing the tunes with lovely, smooth vocals and landing all the humour with immaculate timing . She brings the house down with Ruth’s comic song 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man, a very funny but pointed number that you can imagine others picking up to perform in cabaret. Acting wise she captures Ruth’s intelligence, independent spirit and sardonic sense of humour as well as her lack of confidence with men

Newcomer Georgina Walker, who recently graduated from WAAPA, has a nice bright soprano and a perky presence as Eileen. Making her professional mainstage debut in Wonderful Town, she shows great promise.

Scott Irwin shows his versatility in several roles including Bob Barker, the assistant editor who falls for Ruth without realising it at first, and their landlord Mr Appopulous, a self-regarding, pompous artist. A fine singer and actor, Irwin is the perfect foil to Gay as the decent Bob and sings numbers such as “It’s Love” and “Quiet Girl” with an effortless charm.

Aside from Gay and Walker, all the cast – which also includes Scott Morris, Dean Vince, Nicholas Starte, Megan Wilding and Beth Daly – play several parts There is one hilarious moment where Irwin walks off stage as one character and comes straight back on as another to the delight of the audience. Conductor Brett Weymark even plays a cameo role as nightclub owner Speedy Valenti from the podium.

The choir, sitting in the choir stalls and boxes on either side of the stage, are all dressed in their own outfits of red, black and white. Langley involves them in the action by having them do some bopping, arm-waving choreography from their seats. He also has a few of them come on stage in crowd scenes which is a bit messy but it does generate a lovely sense of community involvement.

The orchestra plays with exuberant gusto under Weymark, serving up an exciting big band sound, and there are plenty of ear-worms in the score most notably the gorgeous, lilting It’s Love – in fact, half the audience seemed to be singing It’s Love as they left the theatre, big smiles on their faces.

This kind of collaboration between Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Squabbalogic is a great initiative, giving us the opportunity to see a rarely performed musical in a semi-staged production with an orchestra, a large choir and a top cast (performing off book).

Together with Neglected Musicals – who are already doing a great job of presenting small-scale rehearsed readings of rarely seen musicals, performed book in hand at the intimate Hayes Theatre Co – it’s a very welcome addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

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The Original Grease

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, April 8

GreaseCompany

Members of the company of The Original Grease with Brendan Xavier as Danny and Emily Hart as Sandy centre. Photo: Michael Francis, Francis Fotography

“Before Grease was the word, it was raw, raunchy and risqué,” writes director Jay James-Moody in the theatre program for The Original Grease.

As the title suggests, The Original Grease is at attempt to return the popular musical to the grittier, edgier show that it was when it premiered in 1971 in Chicago at the 300-seat Kingston Mines Theatre, a disused tram shed.

In fact, it’s not strictly that original 1971 production but a hybrid version, reconstructed by Jim Jacobs (who originally wrote Grease with Warren Casey) and director PJ Parapelli for the American Theatre Company, who staged it in Chicago in 2010. Warmly received, James-Moody chased the rights for years.

It’s very interesting to see where the show came from and how it has changed over the years, particularly in the wake of the 1978 film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John when the sharper edges were knocked off it, the swearing toned down and the whole thing made more family-friendly. Those changes, along with the perky new songs that were added, made their way into subsequent stage productions and Grease evolved from something small and grungy to a more sanitised, bubblegum, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

However, historical interest aside, this production by indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic never really flies. In part that’s the production itself and in part it’s the inexperience of the youthful cast that James-Moody has gathered, not helped by the lack of punchy rock ‘n’ roll oomph to many of the songs.

The score assembled for The Original Grease predominantly features songs from the 1971 Chicago production, some of them little known, such as a comic number for Patty Simcox called Yeeughh! and Miss Lynch’s In My Day, both cut prior to the show going to Broadway in 1972.

There are also a few numbers that didn’t even make it to the 1971 Chicago debut and an underwhelming song for Danny called How Big I’m Gonna Be, written for the 2010 version from chords and lyrics that Jacobs and Casey sketched long ago.

The songs written for the film have all been removed. So, no Summer Nights, Sandy, Hopelessly Devoted or You’re the One That I Want. Nor will you hear the song Grease as you know it but a different one with the same title, while Kenickie sings Alone at the Drive In Movie rather than Danny.

It’s fascinating to hear the beginnings of Summer Nights in Foster Beach (the number it replaced) and likewise All Choked Up, which made way for You’re the One That I Want. But you can see why numbers were changed. There aren’t any lost musical gems here.

Grease1

Timothy Shead, Aaron Robuck, Brendan Xavier, Doron Chester, Temujin Tera, Jason Mobbs-Green. Photo: Michael Francis, Francis Fotography

Drawing on Jacobs’ own experience, Grease was originally about teenagers from the tough, working class suburbs of Chicago. There are scenes showing them roaming the streets at night, trying to get a homeless man to buy them booze, with a police officer forever on their case (shades of West Side Story), while their conversations include more swearing, sexist and racist comments, and slang than in later versions of the show.

You certainly get more of a sense of teenagers from the rough side of town but essentially it’s the same story as the one we know. It’s more of an ensemble piece though. Sandy and Danny are less fore-grounded, even though their story still tops and tails the show, and there’s a lot more dialogue.

James-Moody has assembled a cast of young performers, not long out of their teens. Brendan Xavier who plays Danny Zuko is 18. Where most productions cast older, their youthfulness adds a level of authenticity. However, their inexperience as performers shows. They certainly perform with energy though it’s often unfocussed and lines are sometimes hard to hear, while more acting nuance is needed to carry the dialogue scenes.

As for the musical arrangements, there’s little raw 1950s rock ‘n’ roll edge to the songs and without that punch the show doesn’t lift with the musical numbers. Even Born to Hand Jive doesn’t really rock. And with the six-piece band conducted by Benjamin Kiehne sitting centre-stage, it seems a lost opportunity not to have them looking (and playing) like 1950s rockers.

James-Moody’s production is modestly staged on a minimal, gritty set (designed by Georgia Hopkins) with a metal platform and a few tyres, which works well enough. There are some lovely touches like the inventive way James-Moody has the boys create Greased Lightning with a few bits and bobs including a car fender and a steering wheel. But much of the staging feels messy, while a moment of nudity just feels awkward. Brendan Hay’s costuming is pretty spot-on and adds plenty of colour, even if some of the girl’s outfits feels a little risqué for the 50s.

Coral Mercer-Jones is a standout as Rizzo and her soulful rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is a musical highlight. Matilda Moran is a hoot as a goofy Patty, Daniella Mirels is a vulnerable Frenchy, the beauty school dropout, and Stephanie Priest is sweetly funny as Jan – with a cute, touching scene between Jan and Jason Mobbs-Green as Roger (“Rump”) when they surprise themselves by hooking up.

The Original Grease is a great opportunity to get a sense of how Grease began and how it has changed over the years. It’s reasonably enjoyable but the production never really soars and as it ambles along it starts to feel long and increasingly flat. As a friend said: “it’s interesting historically but it’s not a version I’d want to see again.”

The Original Grease plays at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre until May 7. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

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

Mystery Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, January 24 at 2pm

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

Cast of Bye Bye Birdie. Photo: Amelia Burns

It’s a measure of the respect Squabbalogic now commands that it can sell out two performances at the Reginald Theatre without audiences having a clue what it is they are going to see.

Tickets to Squabbalogic’s first Mystery Musical were snapped up fast, raising $10,000 for the company, as the company’s artistic director Jay James-Moody told us in his welcome speech before the start of the show. He also revealed that the independent company has applied for funding for the first time.

Anyway, everyone was clearly delighted to be contributing to the cause and was fascinated to see what musical the Squabb team had chosen for the company’s first blind-date show.

With the promised theatre program not being handed out until interval, it wasn’t until the first chords sounded and the cast burst into song that we discovered it was…..(drum roll) Bye Bye Birdie. It was a surprise choice in some ways, as Squabbalogic tends to produce recent musicals we would otherwise be unlikely to see. (Though in another unusual move they are producing Man of La Mancha next month).

The 1960 show with book by Michael Stewart, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams is pure musical comedy. I have never seen it on stage. In fact, I didn’t really know the show beyond some of the more famous songs like Put On a Happy Face and A Lot Of Livin’ To Do. So the chance to see it at all was great, and then to see it done so well – with just three days rehearsal – was the cream on the cake. I have to say it was a delightful way to spend an afternoon and everyone in the audience seemed to leave with a big smile on their face.

James-Moody starred, directed and “sort of choreographed” as he put it in the program – though in his welcoming remarks he did acknowledge the help of the cast and Nancye Hayes with the choreography.

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

Nancye Hayes as Mrs Peterson and Jay James-Moody as Albert. Photo: Amelia Burns

He had assembled a terrific group of performers – Johanna Allen, Blake Erickson, Mikey Hart, Nancye Hayes, Jessica James-Moody, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Rob Johnson, Josie Lane, Michele Lansdown, Adele Parkinson, Garry Scale and Rowan Witt – and cast the show exceptionally well.

Their ranks were bolstered by an ensemble of 15 enthusiastic, talented graduates and students from the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) as the show’s teenagers.

Bye Bye Birdie is an affectionate satire, inspired by Elvis Presley being drafted into the army in 1957. It has plenty of catchy songs, a strong book full of big laughs (which plugs into the growing generation gap between teenagers and their parents), and an old-fashioned, feel-good exuberance about it.

Adele Parkinson as Kim. Photo: Amelia Burns

Adele Parkinson as Kim with Jessica James-Moody and Romy Watson. Photo: Amelia Burns

In a nutshell, the show is set in 1958. Agent/songwriter Albert Peterson, who is already in debt, hears that rock and roll star Conrad Birdie has been drafted.

Albert’s secretary and long-suffering sweetheart Rose Alvarez, comes up with a publicity stunt to bring in some bucks. Albert will write a new song called “One Last Kiss” for Conrad, who will sing it and kiss one of his thousands of fans (picked at random) as he departs. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio. Then, says Rosie, Albert will be able to wind up his business, marry her and become an English teacher (as he has been promising for yonks).

Throw in Albert’s domineering, interfering mother, who does all she can to prevent him marrying Rosie, Kim’s disapproving family and jealous boyfriend Hugo Peabody, along with hordes of screaming, swooning fans, and things naturally go pear-shaped.

It’s a hoot that the happy ending has Albert agreeing to walk away from New York and showbiz and head instead for the tiny town of Pumpkin Falls, Iowa to teach English and Domestic Science, with Rose as his wife. Hard to make that outcome fly as a happy ending these days!

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

Josie Lane as Rosie and Blake Erickson as Maude. Photo: Amelia Burns

As with Neglected Musicals’ rehearsed readings, the cast performed with book in hand. But the standard of performance was remarkable given such little rehearsal time. James-Moody as Albert, Josie Lane as Rosie, Adèle Parkinson as Kim and Nancye Hayes as Albert’s mother were all sensational, performing with just the right, light comic touch. But kudos to the entire cast, each of whom did a fantastic job. Praise too to musical director Hayden Barltrop on keys.

Even without being fully staged, Bye Bye Birdie was a delightful, thoroughly satisfying performance that gave audiences a welcome chance to experience a classic musical comedy. I look forward to the next Mystery Musical with great anticipation.

As for Squabbalogic, which just this week won four 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards for its glorious production of The Drowsy Chaperone, the company just seems to go from strength to strength. Let’s hope funding follows.

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

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: review

Formed in 2006, Squabbalogic is a nifty addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene with its mission to present local premieres of the types of show we wouldn’t be seeing otherwise.

The fact that the company is one of the groups behind Independent Music Theatre, which is taking over the Darlinghurst Theatre and turning it into a home for music theatre and cabaret, is cause for celebration.

Peter Meredith (centre) and the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photo: Michael Francis

Peter Meredith (centre) and the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photo: Michael Francis

The ambitious little indie company is currently staging Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – a rollicking, raucous rock musical by Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), which tells the tale of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States who governed for eight years from 1829.

Nicknamed Old Hickory for his aggressive, no-bullshit style, he was a divisive figure who drove the British and Spanish out of the US, forcibly relocated the Native American Indians (massacring those who refused), took on the banks and positioned himself as a man of the people, forming the Democratic Party.

In the musical – which had a short Broadway season in 2010/11 after moving from off-Broadway – Jackson is presented as a cocky emo rock star, with plenty of charisma but serious flaws. Pragmatic doesn’t begin to describe him. Was he America’s greatest president or an “American Hitler”? asks the musical. Cast your own vote.

Combining rock music, irreverent sketch comedy and political satire, the 90-minute show hurtles along poking fun at narrative storytelling and American conservatism as it puts the boot into ruthless politicking – though it starts to flag a little towards the end as it keeps circling similar terrain.

The music ranges from the catchy, rousing opening number “Populism, Yea, Yea!” to a dark take on “Ten Little Indians”.

Though the writers had the American culture and political climate in their sights, it feels surprisingly relevant to here, particularly the treatment of indigenous people (and suspicion of any outsiders) and the political pandering to polls and public opinion.

Craig Stewart’s appropriately raw, rough-and-ready production, staged in a suitably grungy space, fairly explodes onto stage given the pumped, anarchic energy of the young cast. On one side of the room, next to the auditorium seating, there is an area where the performers have set up camp, lounging around on tatty chairs when not on stage.

The space is festooned with barricade tape and fairy lights that hang from the ceiling along with the odd pair of frilly knickers (set design by Sean Minahan). Other than that the stage is pretty bare. At the back of it sit the smoking band led by musical director Mark Chamberlain.

In tight black jeans, rock god bling and dark eyeliner, Peter Meredith brings just the right charismatic, sexy swagger to the title role and has a strong rock voice. Among the rest of the cast, all of whom play various roles, Jay James-Moody (Squabbalogic’s founding artistic director) is a standout, his comic timing immaculate, while Max Newstead is also impressive.

Some of the singing is pretty patchy and there were sound problems on opening night with mics used inconsistently (or perhaps not working when they should have done). But you can’t fault the rocking conviction of the cast. Overall, it’s an exciting production and a great opportunity to see a relatively little known show. Given the impending Federal election it’s also a neat piece of programming.

Squabbalogic deserves the support of anyone interested in musicals and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson ­­– which should have particular appeal to a young audience – is well worth seeing.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson plays at The Factory Floor, Factory Theatre until September 1