2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over the 167 productions (theatre, musicals, dance, opera and cabaret) I saw in 2015, there was some terrific mainstage theatre but it was in the independent sector this year that many of my real highlights occurred. There were some outstanding performances across both, including a number of unforgettable solo turns.

As for musicals, the commercial scene was generally much more impressive than last year, thanks to a couple of exceptional productions, while independent musical theatre continued to thrive led by the invaluable Hayes Theatre Co. Not only did the Hayes shine a light on many little known shows and talented, emerging performers but it also provided the opportunity for several impressive directorial debuts.

So, here goes with my personal highlights for the year.

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

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“When I Grow Up” in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

 Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly took the irreverent genius of Roald Dahl and made it sing on stage in Matilda The Musical, one of the most original and exciting new musicals in ages. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is an inspired piece of theatre and the Australian cast did it proud, thrilling adults and “maggots” alike. James Millar was a hoot as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull and Elise McCann was a quietly radiant Miss Honey, while the four young girls who played Matilda – Molly Barwick, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin – did a fine job, as did all the children in the cast.

Les Misérables

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne season and stormed the barricades once more. Stellar turns by Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert gave the production a profound emotional power and Kerrie Anne Greenland made a powerhouse professional debut as Eponine.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the film of The Sound of Music is indelibly imprinted in most people’s mind. But Amy Lehpamer made the role her own with a sensational performance that confirms she is, without question, one of the stars of Australian musical theatre.

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and child cast in The Sound of Music (c) James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and the child cast in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

Lehpamer has been riding a wave for a while now, and showing what an incredibly versatile performer she is. This year alone she has played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (one of the few good things in a horribly glib production, with Craig McLachlan giving a shamelessly indulgent performance as the hammiest, least sexy Frank N Furter I’ve ever seen), followed by the glamorous Tracy Lord in High Society and now Maria in The Sound of Music. Coming after lovely performances as Christine Colgate in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Lehpamer shows she has got the lot.

This revival of The Sound of Music is a scaled-back version of one first seen at London’s Palladium in 2006 and while some of the sets look less than lavish – the hills are hardly rolling in the opening scene – it’s still a lovely production. Jacqui Dark’s humane portrayal of the Mother Abbess and soaring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is another highlight.

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

Once again, some fabulous indie musicals emanated from the Hayes. Leader of the pack for me, by a whisker, was Violet, closely followed by Heathers, Dogfight and High Society, while Man of La Mancha was a high in a patchy year for Squabbalogic.

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Mitchell Butel made a brilliant directorial debut at the helm of Violet. He displayed a sure, sensitive touch, keeping the action flowing, the different time frames clear, and the focus where it needed to be.

He also drew truthful, beautifully delineated performances from a well-chosen cast led by Samantha Dodemaide, who glowed as Violet, a young woman who crosses the US by bus hoping that a televangelist will heal a disfiguring scar on her face. Everything about the production was spot-on ensuring that the sweet, gently charming musical knocked you for six emotionally without ever becoming corny.

Heathers the Musical

 Trevor Ashley also directed his first musical this year at the Hayes, and showed that he too has got what it takes. His high-energy production of Heathers the Musical leapt off the stage at you and he pitched the dark, camp comedy just right. Jaz Flowers brought a surprising depth to Veronica while belting the hell out of her songs, Lucy Maunder was very funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler and there were impressive debuts from Stephen Madsen as the psychopathic, James Dean-like J.D. and Lauren McKenna as the bullied Martha and loopy, New Age teacher Ms Fleming.

Dogfight

 Like Violet, Dogfight is a sweet, tender little musical though it spins around a vile prank, causing some to find the show misogynistic. Director Neil Gooding handled this sensitively, clearly showing why the young marines are so full of pumped-up machismo. Hilary Cole as the gauche young waitress Rose and Luigi Lucente as Eddie, the marine who tricks her then falls for her, moved me to tears.

High Society

High Society got a mixed response but I very much liked Helen Dallimore’s production ingeniously staged by Lauren Peters in the tiny Hayes. Daryl Wallis’s jazz quartet arrangements worked a treat, Amy Lehpamer shone as Tracy, while Virginia Gay gave one of the musical theatre performances of the year as Liz, the newspaper photographer quietly in love with her colleague Mike (Bobby Fox). Her performance was full of lovely, surprising little details, her comic timing was immaculate and she knew exactly how to deliver Cole Porter’s songs.

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Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Man of La Mancha

Jay James-Moody’s inventive, low-tech staging of Man of La Mancha was a highlight of Squabbalogic’s 2015 season. Set entirely in a prison dungeon (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay), the gritting reimagining brought new life and emotion to the somewhat hoary old musical. Having the cast play various musical instruments also worked well. At the heart of the production, Tony Sheldon’s Cervantes was dignified, frail and very moving.

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

 The Norwegian Epic, a cruise liner sailing around the Mediterranean, is known for its entertainment and is currently staging terrific productions of Priscilla and Burn the Floor in its 750-seat theatre. Priscilla stars several Australians among its international cast. Rohan Seinor is sublime as Bernadette bringing enormous warmth, humanity and wit to the role, while Joe Dinn anchors the show as an endearing Tick. I must declare that I went to see my son Tom Sharah, who is a very sassy Miss Understanding. Staged by Australians (director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, costume designer Tim Chappel) it’s a sparkling production – Priscilla, Queen of the Ocean!

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh in After Dinner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company began the year with a pitch-perfect production of Andrew Bovell’s excruciatingly funny yet tender comedy After Dinner, set in a 1980s pub bistro. Alicia Clements’ set was spot-on down to the icky carpet and yellowing tiles on the wall, while her costumes were 1980s fashion at its hilarious worst. Imara Savage directed a superb cast who had you laughing uproariously yet feeling for the sad, loner characters.

The Present

2015 was Andrew Upton’s last year as artistic director of STC (though he has programmed the 2016 season, which incoming artistic director Jonathan Church will caretake). The Present was a wonderful parting gift. Adapted by Upton from Chekhov’s early, sprawling play Platonov but set in the mid-1990s with the main protagonists now in their mid-40s rather than their 20s, the blistering production was awash with yearning, regret and frustration – as well as plenty of gun shots. Helmed by Irish director John Crowley, there were superb performances all round from the top-notch ensemble cast, which included Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh giving the performance of his career.

Endgame

 Upton also directed an engrossing production of Beckett’s bleak but surprisingly funny absurdist play Endgame for STC. Staged on an imposing, monumental set by Nick Schlieper that reeked of foreboding (beautifully lit by Schlieper too), Hugo Weaving gave a masterful performance as Hamm, mesmerising with the dynamic range of his voice. Dark and difficult but thrilling stuff.

Suddenly Last Summer

Also at STC, Kip Williams directed a highly inventive production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which synthesised live performance and video more completely than we have seen previously on the Sydney stage. Not everyone was convinced but after a slow start, I found the production worked its magic to deliver an intense telling of the surreal, dreamlike play. Among a strong cast, Eryn Jean Norvill was exquisite as Catharine who is administered the “truth drug” to reveal the details of her cousin’s terrible death.

Ivanov

Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack got the balance between comedy and despair just right when he directed his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, set in contemporary Russia. Ewen Leslie was compelling as the self-loathing Ivanov but all the cast gave a very human account of people struggling to get by in a society obsessed with self and money. They sang with great vitality too in a production full of music.

My Zinc Bed

Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s incoming artistic director, helmed an elegant production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, an intriguing play of ideas centring on addiction and driven by Hare’s heightened use of language. Sean Taylor was magnificent as the suave, Mephistophelian Victor, hinting at the emptiness within.

The Tempest

For his final production as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago, John Bell directed a lyrical production of The Tempest, staging the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and deft lightness. Matthew Backer was spellbinding as the spirit Ariel, his singing evoking the magic in the isle.

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

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Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

 Iain Sinclair directed a beautiful, understated production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Sport for Jove that felt utterly truthful. Andrew Henry as the simple-minded Lennie, a gentle giant unaware of his own strength, and Anthony Gooley as his loyal friend George broke your heart. The off-stage shooting of the dog reduced some to tears too.

The Aliens

In Annie Baker’s The Aliens, about a couple of slackers in their 30s who take a younger man under their wing, not much seems to happen but plenty bubbles away beneath the surface. Craig Baldwin’s direction, Hugh O’Connor’s design and the performances by Ben Wood, Jeremy Waters and James Bell made for a deeply affecting piece of theatre.

The Aliens was just one of several memorable productions staged at the Old Fitz. It was great to see the tiny pub theatre in Woolloomooloo flying high again under Red Line Productions. There was a focus on male issues and casts in their 2015 program, which they have acknowledged and plan to address in 2016, as has Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the wake of debate about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre.

Cock

Red Line Productions presented a taut production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively named play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman. Shane Bosher’s production, staged on a gleaming white stage, crackled with tension, with Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway turning in particularly fine performances.

The Dapto Chaser

Mary Rachel Brown’s keenly observed play The Dapto Chaser, presented as part of Griffin Independent, is an unflinching, extremely funny yet poignant look at the world of greyhound racing through the story of one struggling family. Glynn Nicholas’s production felt utterly authentic and the way the family’s dog Boy Named Sue was evoked through mime and panting noises was just brilliant.

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

Thomas Campbell gave a tour de force performance as the disturbed evangelistic Thomas Magill in Enda Walsh’s demanding play Misterman in a superb production directed by Kate Gaul at the Old Fitz.

Kate Cole was remarkable in the Red Stitch Actors Theatre production of Grounded by George Brant, playing a ‘top gun’ fighter pilot who finds herself flying drones after she has a child and struggling to deal with the schism between operating in a war zone one moment then driving home to family life. Extraordinary theatre.

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin turned in a riveting performance as Stella Goldschlag, a blonde Jewish woman living in Berlin during World War II who worked for the Gestapo, in Gail Louw’s unsettling, provocative play Blonde Poison directed by Jennifer Hagan at the Old Fitz.

Amanda Muggleton charmed audiences at the Ensemble with an exuberant, generous, comic performance in Roger Hall’s highly entertaining play The Book Club about a bored housewife looking to spice up her life. Muggleton was in her element as she conjured all the women in the book group as well as other characters.

Ben Gerrard also slipped effortlessly between a number of characters and accents as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived the Nazis, giving a lovely subtle performance in Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife directed by Shaun Rennie at the Old Fitz.

Jeanette Cronin gave a very lively impression of Bette Davis in Queen Bette, which she devised with director/producer Peter Mountford, capturing her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence while taking us through her life at the Old 505 Theatre.

Irish actor Olwen Fouréré gave an astonishingly expressive performance, physically and vocally, in Riverrun, her adaptation of James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult Finnegan’s Wake with its own language, at Sydney Theatre Company.

CABARET

My pick of the cabaret shows I saw this year are:

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

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Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

An outrageously funny, sweet, ballsy and, yes, provocative, piece by a little dynamo-of-a-performer who is, as she puts it, of an “Asian persuasion”. Taking us through her life and career, Lane was hysterically funny but had serious points to make about prejudice and narrow-minded casting.

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

A cleverly written and structured piece (co-written by Scott and director Terence O’Connell) taking us through the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of British composer Lionel Bart. Scott embodied the Cockney Bart brilliantly and gee did his fingers fly across the piano keys.

Tim Freedman’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout Me

Looking suitably shambolic, Freedman took us into the mind and musical world of the enigmatic, self-destructive Harry Nilsson. Co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell, the show felt convincingly conversational in tone, while Freedman deployed his own innate charm in a winning bio-cabaret.

OPERA

 Faust

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Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Faust. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

 Sir David McVicar’s production is impressive in its own right but it was the central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes that made the Opera Australia production so exciting.

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression with her radiant performance as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – confirmed her extraordinary talent. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing had a sweet, luscious beauty and was full of emotion. She is also a strong actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. Towards the end of 2015, Car made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Micaela in Carmen, followed by a return to Tatyana, receiving rave reviews. A rising star indeed.

Other memorable productions in OA’s 2015 season included the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s Don Carlos with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo; and McVicar’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna and Nicole Car as the Countess.

DANCE

Frame of Mind

Only six companies in the world have been allowed to perform William Forsythe’s sublime contemporary dance classic Quintett – and Sydney Dance Company showed why they are one of the chosen few. Paired with a moving new work by Rafael Bonachela called Frame of Mind, this thrilling double bill was contemporary dance at its most exhilarating.

The Sleeping Beauty

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jeff Busby_0

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

 Lavishly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, The Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is breathtakingly beautiful.

Created by artistic director David McAllister, it’s a very traditional production with McAllister retaining key passages of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and devised linking material in a similar classical style.

The storytelling is crystal clear, with elements incorporated from other versions, but the production feels a bit safe at times with room for more dramatic tension between the forces of good and evil. Visually though, it’s a triumph. Tylesova’s sumptuous sets feature baroque and rococo elements, while her costumes use an intoxicating range of colour and feature some of the prettiest tutus imaginable. Lana Jones as Aurora, Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Amber Scott as the Lilac Fairy all shone at the Sydney opening, while Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo lit up the stage as the Bluebird and Princess Florine.

 Conform

 At Sydney Dance Company’s showcase of emerging choreographers New Breed, Kristina Chan’s Conform was an exciting highlight. A punchy piece about masculinity, it has its own distinctive choreographic voice and plenty to say. Chan is already a thrilling dancer. I can’t wait to see her next choreographic venture.

Departures

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Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Ross Philip and Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Australian Dance Artists (Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Norman Hall) collaborated again with eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth on a new production called Departures. Part-performance, part-installation, with live music, it was a fascinating ride into a strange world full of stunning visual imagery and evocative choreography. Magical.

RISING STARS

Amy Lehpamer (see The Sound of Music), Nicole Car (see Faust) and Kristina Chan (see above) are all rising stars with talent to burn. Add to that list Australian Ballet dancer Benedicte Bemet. Few were surprised when Bemet won the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Still only 21 and a coryphée, she is already dancing lead roles for the Australian Ballet like Clara in The Nutcracker. She made her debut recently as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and apparently the audience went wild, giving her a standing ovation after the Rose Adagio and at the final curtain. I predict a big future.

That’s it folks! There are so many other things I enjoyed during 2015 – too many to include here. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of happy theatre-going in 2016.

 

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Rent

Hayes Theatre Co, October 13

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Rent. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The production of Rent currently playing at the Hayes Theatre Co sold out before opening. As announced last night at the Hayes’ Coming Soon launch for the first half of 2016, the show will have a three-week return season from March 29.

The rock musical with music, book and lyrics by Jonathan Larson – who died on the eve of its 1996 off-Broadway opening – quickly gained a cult following. It won a Pulitzer Prize, moved to Broadway and then onto the world, including Sydney where a production played at the Theatre Royal in 1998.

Loosely based on Puccini’s La boheme, Rent is set in Manhattan in the early 1990s and centres on a group of impoverished young artists and misfits who are struggling to survive as gentrification makes rents unaffordable and AIDS takes its devastating toll.

The musical is an explosion of passion, anger, sorrow, frustration and defiant joy.

Produced here by Highway Run Productions (Toby Francis and Lauren Peters) in association with the Hayes, helmed by first-time director Shaun Rennie and performed by a strong cast of 14, the production certainly pulses with youthful energy but it often feels over-busy, particularly in the first act.

That’s partly to do with the musical itself, which has a rather loose, disparate structure, following a number of different characters through several interconnecting story lines.

Central to the group are Mark (Stephen Madsen), a middle-class, would-be filmmaker, his roommate Roger (Linden Furnell), a songwriter with HIV and writer’s block whose girlfriend committed suicide, and Mimi (Loren Hunter), a drug addicted club dancer, who also has HIV.

There’s also the cross-dressing, joyously queer, gently caring Angel (Christopher Scalzo) and Collins (Nana Matapule), a gay anarchist professor, who fall for each other, Mark’s former girlfriend Maureen (Laura Bunting) and her new partner Joanne (Casey Donovan), and Benny (Matthew Pearce), a former friend of Mark and Roger who is now their tough landlord.

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Nana Matapule, Chris Scalzo, Stephen Madsen and Linden Furnell. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

With an ensemble that also includes Denise Devlin, Josh Gardiner, Jack O’Riley, Kirsty Sturgess, Monique Sallé and Chloe Elisabeth Wilson playing various other characters, there’s a lot going on, with important pieces of information often conveyed very briefly in a line or two of song.

Depending on where you sit in the theatre, there are sound issues, with the cast belting it out of the park to be heard over the band, and lyrics often hard to decipher. Rennie doesn’t manage to control the focus completely in the first act and it all feels as if it is coming at you at a million miles an hour, while the actors struggle to create strong, clearly defined characters as they sing full-bore.

Scalzo as Angel and Matapule as Collins, are the most successful at creating truthful characters we care about and their relationship is very much the heart and soul of the first act.

The second act is much more successful across the board. For a start, the musical itself quietens a little and the storylines are given more room to breathe. Furnell really finds his groove as Roger and his relationship with Mimi gains genuine traction. Hunter gives an intense, almost aggressive Mimi but conveys little of her vulnerability until late in the piece, when the production finally becomes moving.

Even in the second act there are times when the production feels unnecessarily busy, as when Collins carries the dying Angel from one table to another during Mimi and Roger’s song Without You, for seemingly little reason, which just proves distracting.

Then there’s the sign language, which Rennie and choreographer Andy Dexterity use periodically during the production. Many people have loved this element but I couldn’t help feeling it looks like an exercise used in the rehearsal room to explore the characters’ emotions, and probably should have stayed there. For me, it feels imposed rather than organic – though others clearly experienced it differently.

However, there is also much to enjoy. Rennie starts the second act in an unexpected way – a delightful, clever touch – and there’s lots of powerful singing.

Donovan and Bunting raised the roof on opening night with Take Me or Leave Me and Matapule delivers a lovely version of I’ll Cover You but all the performers all have their moment vocally.

Lauren Peters’ sparse, stripped back set – essentially a bare room with exposed bricks, a few props, and a metal mesh gate in front of the small band (led by musical director Andrew Worboys) – creates the right kind of grungy space, while Georgia Hopkins’ costumes work well.

It’s good to see young producers and a young, first-time director being given the chance to produce work like this and you can’t fault the energy and commitment of the cast. With a little more tightening, honing and focusing the production could really hit home so it’s great that the creative team will have the chance to revisit it early next year.

Rent, Hayes Theatre Co until November 1. Sold out. Return season March 29 – April 17. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337