Pinocchio; The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Sydney Opera House is presenting two children’s shows for the school holidays: Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio and CDP Theatre Producers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy. And with one end of the western foyer converted to a play area, it’s a lively place for families to be.

Pinocchio

Drama Theatre, April 13

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O'Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O’Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Acclaimed Adelaide company Windmill Theatre, which makes adventurous shows for children, is in Sydney with its 2012 musical production of Pinocchio, presented by the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Theatre Company.

Based on Carlo Collodi’s book about the wooden boy who longs to become real, director Rosemary Myers and writer Julianne O’Brien have created a version that combines a dark fairytale feel with a fun modern edge.

It begins unexpectedly with a blue-haired girl crashing her motorbike into the tree from which Pinocchio will be carved (an underdeveloped take on the blue fairy, who we don’t see again until the second act).

Then we’re into familiar territory with the tale of the naughty, easily led Pinocchio who is lured away from his maker/father the lonely toymaker Geppetto by the evil Stromboli. After a series of frightening adventures, Pinocchio returns home to Geppetto with love in his heart.

With one section set in the reality TV-like Stromboliland, Windmill’s production is more of a cautionary tale about greed and the lure of celebrity, while raising questions about what is real, rather than about simply telling the truth.

It’s cleverly staged around a large, flexible tree trunk on a revolving stage (designed by Jonathon Oxlade) onto which images are projected. The most charming effects, however, are the simpler theatrical ones – the way Geppeto carves Pinocchio, the way Pinocchio’s nose grows.

There are excellent performances across the board. Nathan O’Keefe uses his lanky frame brilliantly as a larky, willful Pinocchio, Alirio Zavarce is touching as the soft-hearted, clown-like Geppetto, Paul Capsis is a deliciously wicked Stromboli, Jude Henshall and Luke Joslin are very funny as roving wannabes Kitty Poo and Foxy, Danielle Catanzariti is suitably ethereal as Blue Girl and Oxlade is delightfully whimsical as the cricket (for which he uses a puppet).

Pinocchio runs around two hours including interval. For all its colourful treatment, it’s a fairly dark show (as is Collodi’s original story) and younger children could be frightened. It’s recommended for ages 7+.

Jethro Woodward’s songs have an energetic rock vibe but I’m not sure they are pitched at children and some of the humour didn’t land with youngsters around me. Others clearly loved it, however, and the show got a rousing response at the end.

Pinocchio runs until May 4. Bookings: sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Playhouse Theatre, April 13

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

For the littlies (aged 3+) the Opera House is presenting CDP Theatre Producers’ stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ best-selling picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Henry loves books – well, eating them anyway. The more he eats, the smarter he gets and so his appetite for the printed word grows and grows. But that many books are hard to digest. When he starts to feel ill and begins muddling up all the information he has consumed, he has to stop. Eventually, a sad Henry picks up one of his half-eaten books and begins to read it and falls in love with books afresh.

Writer Maryam Master fleshes out the story with an opening nightmare and more about Henry’s family and cat, most of which works well though the extended cat poo joke feels overdone and gratuitous – in fact, it made me feel a bit sick. By the time Henry began regurgitating books, I was feeling almost as queasy as him.

Directed by Frank Newman, the production is beautifully staged. Andrea Espinoza’s lovely set and costumes have the look of a picture book while cleverly incorporating books into every aspect of the stage design.

The cast of three – Gabriel Fancourt as Henry with Madeleine Jones and Jo Turner playing several roles – are all very good, creating characters the young audience can relate to.

The message that it’s better to read books than chow down on them is a quirky way to inspire children. The production would benefit from a little more dramatic magic at the end when Henry finally discovers the joy of reading to underline how exciting books can be. As it is, he just smiles, so it’s the images of eating and vomiting books that we remember.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy runs until April 27. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

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The Illusionists 2.0

Sydney Opera House, January 9 at 2pm

Left to right: Raymond Crowe, James More, Adam Trent, Luis de Matos, Aaron Crow, Dr Scott Lewis, Yu Ho-Jin. Photo: Daniel Boud

Left to right: Raymond Crowe, James More, Adam Trent, Luis de Matos, Aaron Crow, Dr Scott Lewis, Yu Ho-Jin. Photo: Daniel Boud

Vale Dr Scott Lewis

Having seen the Thursday matinee of The Illusionists 2.0 (the final performance before the official opening night) I had planned to post my review yesterday morning (after another busy Sydney Festival day on Friday).

Then came word via Twitter that yesterday’s matinee had been cancelled “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Later, the Sydney Opera House sent out an email confirming the dreadful news that Dr Scott Lewis, The Hypnotist in The Illusionists 2.0 had died after falling from the balcony at the Sydney apartments where the cast of magicians are staying.

Having seen him interacting so comfortably and affably with the audience during his entertaining hypnosis act just two days earlier, the news felt doubly shocking.

Yesterday’s sold out matinee was cancelled, but last night’s show went ahead (dedicated to Dr Lewis) as will the rest of the season. The show must go on, as they say, brutal though that sometimes seems.

Apparently the other six members of the cast paid an emotional tribute to Dr Lewis, with Yu Ho-Jin performing a card trick using playing cards featuring a photograph of him.

Dr Lewis, an internationally renowned hypnotist who had a long-running show in Las Vegas, was one of seven performers featured in The Illusionists 2.0. Billed as “the next generation of magic”, the show follows the sell-out success of The Illusionists at the Opera House last January.

The other performers are Australia’s own Raymond Crowe as The Unusualist, Britain’s James More, who burst onto the scene via Britain’s Got Talent last year, as The Deceptionist, Portugal’s Luis de Matos as The Master Magician, Belgium’s Aaron Crow as The Warrior, American technology illusionist Adam Trent as The Futurist, and Korean card manipulator Yu Ho-Jin as The Manipulator.

Arriving at the theatre, everyone is given a sealed black envelope with strict instructions not to open it until asked – just one of many audience participation moments. But fear not, everyone is treated gently and no audience members are harmed or humiliated in the making of this show.

Several on-stage screens with colourful, pulsing video patterns, dramatic music and rock concert lighting along with the odd blast of smoke create a Vegas-like atmosphere. There’s also a large, central screen on which close-up 3D footage is shown for some of the acts.

The Illusionists 2.0 is a fun, family-friendly show with magic across a range of different styles from The Deceptionist’s apparent impalement to The Unusualist’s sweet hand shadow puppetry performed to the song “What a Wonderful World”.

The Warrior, a genuine showman whose cheekbones are as sharp as the sword he wields, lops off the top of a pineapple, standing on the head of a nervous looking volunteer, while his head is covered. The Futurist seems to be in two places at once, while The Master Magician orchestrates the opening of the black envelopes.

My particular favourite was the exquisite card tricks of The Manipulator. Even with the 3D camera focused tightly on his beautiful, slender hands it was a complete mystery as to how the cards appeared, disappeared and changed colour. Performing with an expression akin to rhapsody on his face as his hands fluttered and swooped, Yu Ho-Jin, who is still in his early 20s, weaves a very special magic.

During the show, you had a fair idea of how some of the tricks were done, while others left you wondering, ‘how on earth…?” The audience clearly loved the lot.

The Illusionists 2.0 runs at the Sydney Opera House until January 16.  Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

Random Musical & Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians – review

Sydney Opera House, July 4

Scott Brennan, Gillian Cosgriff and Rik Brown in Random Musical

Scott Brennan, Gillian Cosgriff and Rik Brown in Random Musical

As part of its July school holidays program the Sydney Opera House is presenting three shows – two of which I caught up with in the one day: Random Musical for ages 5+ and Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians for ages 6+.

It’s always so much more fun going to children’s theatre with a child, but with no littlie to take, a friend/colleague and I rocked our inner infant for the day.

We started with Random Musical, which was utterly charming: a lo-fi delight that had us both laughing our way through the hour-long show.

Once seated, the children are asked to write their name and a word beginning with the same letter on a piece of paper which is then collected by the performers.

The cast of four “randomaniacs” – Scott Brennan, Rik Brown, Gillian Cosgriff and Rebecca De Unamuno, with John Thorn on piano – then create a musical on the spot inspired by some of those words.

The first song That’s Pretty Random, which provides a framework in order to mention as many of the suggestions as possible (a lovely way to involve many of the children), was presumably written in advance. But from there on it’s all free-wheeling.

Our musical was called The Zany Ostrich (thanks, Zach and Olivia), about a rare, pink-feathered bird who really wants to be a penguin. Meanwhile, an evil explorer – “the strangely named Georgia” – wants to capture the ostrich and turn her into a feather boa.

The quick-witted cast did a superb job, not only conjuring plot and lyrics on the spot but singing spontaneously in various musical styles initiated by Thorn from English Musical Hall to rap.

Brown, in particular, as the explorer, came up with some incredibly funny lyrics that included an exploding snake (which later became an integral part of the plot) and had them rhyming effortlessly into the bargain. He also fired off some brilliant one-liners.

But all were excellent. Brennan did a lovely job as MC to get things going, De Unamuno was the sweetest penguin imaginable and Cosgriff made a great ostrich.

The children embraced any opportunity for audience involvement. Getting them to supply a few more sound effects might be a good idea to keep the youngest really engaged. But props to all involved. A great little show.

A scene from Horrible Histories.

A scene from Horrible Histories.

Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians is a wildly different experience. It belongs to a phenomenon (which has passed me by as my children are too old) spear-headed by Terry Deary’s hugely popular books, which have spawned live shows and a BBC TV series.

This production is performed by the British-based Birmingham Stage Company. To the uninitiated it’s a weird mix of historical fact, broad British humour in a pantomime vein, with slapstick, lots of terribly corny jokes, hammy acting and lashings of gore (think rubber intestines and other body parts being flung freely). But the buzzy audience couldn’t have been more excited.

The plot involves an archaeologist and his dorky assistant who try to steal a statue of Ramesses II from a museum. Together with a schoolgirl on a guided tour, they conjure up the spirit of Ramesses himself who explains all about Egyptian history including the pyramids, mummies, Tutankhamun and the afterlife.

Running two hours it feels far too long for the material, though the second act features some pretty speccy 3D effects.

However, the audience seemed to be having an absolute ball. What’s more, demand is so great that the Sydney season quickly sold out so an extra show has been added on Saturday July 13.

Random Musical runs until July 14. Horrible Histories also closes in Sydney on July 14 then plays at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, July 19 – 21.

Kristin Chenoweth & Idina Menzel reviews

Kristin Chenoweth in Concert

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 17

Idina Menzel with the Sydney Symphony

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, June 27

The opportunity to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel perform at the Sydney Opera House just 10 days apart was heaven on a stick for Sydney musical theatre lovers – particularly fans of Wicked, some of whom doubtless saw the pair co-star in the Broadway production; Chenoweth as the bubbly good witch Glinda and Menzel as the green-skinned Elphaba.

They both seemed genuinely thrilled to be performing at the world famous venue – and the adoring audience returned their enthusiasm tenfold, giving each a sustained standing ovation, while Chenoweth was also met with one.

Both divas are blessed with an amazing set of pipes and gave “epic” concerts, as my plus-one put it, that required a huge, powerhouse sing. But never having seen either of them live before, it was fascinating to compare their different styles.

Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth

The petite Chenoweth – all 4’11” of her  – is vivaciousness personified, exuding megawatts of gleaming Broadway pizzazz.

The evening began with a montage of images from across her starry career on a huge screen hanging over the stage. Changing outfits twice, her mike stand was blinged-up in the second act to match her sparkling high heels, radiant smile and sassy, shiny stage presence.

Backed by her long-time friend and musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell and an 11-piece band, Chenoweth’s clarion-clear voice is a remarkable instrument: equally powerful right across her entire register and across genres from country and gospel to Broadway and disco.

The audience went berserk when she sang Popular from Wicked, which she had fun with by singing sections in German and Japanese, while her renditions of Bring Him Home from Les Misérables and Kander and Ebb’s My Colouring Book were spine-tingling.

During her Australian concerts, Chenoweth has been inviting an audience member to sing For Good with her; in Sydney, that honour went to Australia’s own Glinda Lucy Durack, with Chenoweth taking Elphaba’s part.

It was clear Durack was totally taken by surprised and hadn’t rehearsed the number. “I’ve lived my whole life as a B grade version of you,” she said. But though obviously overwhelmed, she kept it together in one of the most touching moments of the concert.

Besides musical theatre numbers, Chenoweth did a tribute to Dolly Parton, an 1845 anthem Hard Times Come Again No More by Stephen Foster and a gospel number, quipping: “If you believe in Jesus, this is for you; if not it’s only four minutes….. Shalom!”

She talked about her faith as a Christian – albeit a controversial one given her support for same-sex marriage – and her charity work. At one point she showed us a sweet, personal video she sent to her father on Father’s Day and gave us a glimpse into her shoe closet, which rivals Imelda Marcos’s.

At times, the tone became a little sentimental and schmaltzy in that all-American way. Her three back-up singers, who occasionally dueted with her, seemed somewhat inexperienced and an Avenue Q skit sat oddly.

But no matter. Chenoweth’s enthusiasm is infectious and endearing, she’s very funny, and her voice is glorious. The audience couldn’t have loved her more if they tried and left exhilarated.

Idina Menzel. Photo by Robin Wong.

Idina Menzel. Photo by Robin Wong.

Menzel was more low-key, laid-back and earthy but no less winning. Barefoot and wearing a long, lacy, slightly boho black dress tied at the waist, she stalked the stage as she chatted to the audience. A Jewish girl from Queens, New York who began her career singing at weddings and bar mitzvahs, she displayed a dry sense of humour and an occasional potty-mouth.

She is clearly blissed out to be a mother to her young son with husband Taye Diggs, who she met when they performed together in Rent (in which she created the role of Maureen). Motherhood, she said, has allowed her to tap into greater depths of emotion.

Performing with the Sydney Symphony, conducted by Vanessa Scammell, and several American musicians she had brought with her, Menzel appeared to the strains of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which quickly morphed into The Wizard and I – to a roar of approval from the audience.

As at Chenoweth’s concert, the musical theatre numbers got the biggest response from the audience, among them Don’t Rain on My Parade and a beautiful rendition of Somewhere – her “favourite song ever”.

She gave moving tributes to Marvin Hamlisch, who became a close friend of hers, singing At the Ballet and What I Did for Love from A Chorus Line, and also Jonathan Larson who died just before the first preview of Rent.

Four lucky audience members got to sing Take Me Or Leave Me with her – including a little girl, aged around five, whose mother put her up for it. Menzel dealt kindly with the child and invited them to go backstage afterwards.

Other numbers included a moving rendition of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, an effective mash-up of Cole Porter’s Love for Sale and Sting’s Roxanne and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face – the first number she did on Glee – commiserating tongue-in-cheek with the musicians of the orchestra for having to perform such fare.

Though performing with a symphony orchestra, the evening felt surprisingly intimate.

She had the audience holding their collective breath when she ended the concert with an acappella version of For Good, then wrapped things up with the obligatory Defying Gravity.

It may not be the best she’s ever sung it (she had been coughing a little, drinking lots of water and sucked a lozenge at one point) but it was still amazing.

Once again, the audience left on a high. While Chenoweth delivers pizzazz in spades, Menzel perhaps taps into the heart a little more. But both were stunning. Heaven.