Sweet Charity remount

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 16

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: Jeff Busby

In February last year, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene with a thrilling production of Sweet Charity directed by Dean Bryant and starring Verity Hunt-Ballard.

The ingeniously staged, dirtied-up, gritty take on the 1966 musical had audiences and critics raving (you will find my review on this blog) and three days after opening you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money.

The show went on to win three Helpmanns for Bryant, Hunt-Ballard and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and has nine nominations at the 2014 Sydney Theatre Awards to be presented tomorrow (January 19).

The announcement of a remount at the Sydney Opera House’s 400-seat Playhouse Theatre and then a tour to Canberra, Melbourne and Wollongong generated much excitement. But how would the production – created for the intimacy of the 110- seat Hayes Theatre – fare in a bigger venue?

Well, it has sashayed seamlessly into the Playhouse where it received a rapturous response at Friday’s opening night.

Inevitably you lose some of the intimacy but there are compensations. Hallsworth’s fabulous choreography (with nods to Fosse) has more room to sharpen and breathe for starters. And if anything, the performances seem more detailed than ever as most of the original performers revisit their roles.

The grungy staging is essentially the same: an inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors, a few chairs, a costume rack and a red neon sign at the back saying, “Girls, Girls, Girls” (set design by Owen Phillips).

Tim Chappel has revamped some of the costumes adding extra colour and sparkle to various outfits including the witty, surreal costumes for The Frug, which gives the production a little more visual zing in the larger space.

Hunt-Ballard, who gave a sensational performance last time around as Charity Hope Valentine – the dance hall hostess with a heart of gold who keeps looking for love (and at one point an office job) as a passport to a better life – is more stunning than ever.

She radiates such warmth, such sweet, kooky naivety and such sunny optimism that her Charity is irresistibly endearing. Her comic timing is a knockout but always there is the knowledge that Charity uses ditzy humour to deal with her hurt and pain, as a way to bounce back, until that final, terrible let-down.

Hunt-Ballard inhabits the role completely. She sings superbly, dances well and her acting is sublime. But never do we feel that she is busting out a big song-and-dance number. Always the songs emerge organically from the character and the situation whether it’s the exuberant, show-stopping If My Friends Could See Me Now or Where Am I Going? which she delivers in heartbreaking fashion.

She is beyond divine in the role; it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Charity better.

Bryant brings this kind of truth to every aspect of the production. Character and emotion colour every song. Hey Big Spender erupts with the crowd-pleasing blast you expect but the girls look blank, emotionally shutdown, as they display their wares in the meat-market line-up.

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole and Debora Krizak. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Hunt-Ballard, Debora Krizak as Nickie and Kate Cole as Helene (two of the other girls from the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works) sing There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This it feels as exuberant as ever but tinged with palpable sadness: three feisty women, perilously close to being over the hill, knowing they will probably never escape this life.

Cole is new to the production and she is a great addition to the cast, bringing a real weight to the role of Helene.

Martin Crewes reprises the roles of Charlie, Vittorio Vidal and Oscar and again creates wonderfully delineated characters. His suave Vittorio is particularly strong and he sings Too Many Tomorrows with a lovely, classic Italianate tenor sound, then slides effortlessly into a nerdy, Jerry Lewis-tinged Oscar. In fact, his performance sits better in the larger space than in the tiny Hayes where it felt a tad outsized.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: Jeff Busby

Krizak is once again a delight as the hard-boiled Nickie, nailing her fierce one-liners, and also as Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend.

As at the Hayes, the band – led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keys – sits along the back of the stage but it’s great to see them given more space and visibility. Worboys’ fantastic, funky, electronic orchestrations of the songs are again a winning, driving element of the production.

Bryant integrates the musicians into the production with Kuki Tipoki playing guitar as well as Big Daddy along with several ensemble roles, while Worboys plays Fandango owner Herman.

Original producers Luckiest Productions (Lisa Campbell, David Campbell and Richard Carroll) and Neil Gooding Productions are joined for the tour by Tinderbox Productions (Liza McLean). They should have a huge hit on their hands.

This is one of the most exciting musical theatre productions I’ve seen in a long time: a show given fresh life and raw, gritty currency by a superb creative team and cast. It has made the leap to the larger space in style. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Sydney Opera House until February 8; The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, February 11 – 21; Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, February 25 – March 8; Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, March 11 – 15

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The Sound of Musicals in Australia in 2015

At the 2014 Helpmann Awards, a David and Goliath contest in the musical theatre categories generated the biggest buzz of the night, with observers genuinely intrigued to see how the votes had landed.

For there, alongside the large commercial shows like The King and I, The Rocky Horror Show and Strictly Ballroom, was Sweet Charity: the inaugural production from the newly formed Hayes Theatre Co, which had turned a 110-seat theatre in the Sydney suburb of Potts Point into a dedicated venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret.

Sweet Charity, which sold out within three days after rapturous reviews, received eight Helpmann nominations and won three for its director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and leading lady Verity Hunt-Ballard.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar in Sweet Charity. Photo: supplied

The production returns this week, opening at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse Theatre on Friday for a three-week season then touring to Canberra, Wollongong and Melbourne.

“I am thrilled that this tiny little show is getting a bigger life,” says Bryant. “It was a magical time for all of us, and we never could have seen that it would have the impact and get the response that it did. I’m very keen for people to see what we did, and especially to see Verity’s brilliant performance.”

Bryant says that the 2015 revival will have “the same spirit as the original but be refitted and possibly redesigned into the larger venues that it will play. It’s not about replicating it, but remembering what the engine of the original production was and finding out how to do that in a new venue.”

Bryant is one of Australia’s busiest young musical theatre directors. He is the worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and has directed The Producers, Anything Goes and, late last year, La Cage Aux Folles for The Production Company in Melbourne.

This year, he helms his biggest production to date: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which he believes has “a perfectly conceived script and a brilliant score”.

Opera Australia is co-producing the show with John Frost, following their successful collaborations on South Pacific and The King and I.

It was Todd McKenney who initiated the production, telling Frost he’d love to reprise the role of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, which he played for The Production Company.

“I thought, ‘good idea, it’s time for a revival’ and I thought Dean had done such a great job of it. I asked if he’d like to do it, though I said, ‘I don’t want it to be a copy of what The Production Company did,’” says Frost.

The production stars Caroline O’Connor as Reno Sweeney alongside McKenney, Alex Rathgeber, Debora Krizak, Wayne Scott Kermond, Claire Lyon, Carmen Duncan and (controversially) Alan Jones in the small role of the ship’s captain.

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O'Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O’Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The basic structure of the set has been imported from a New Zealand production but designer Dale Ferguson is refurbishing it, making significant change and changes to create a new look. Ferguson will also design the costumes.

Hallsworth will do the choreography as he did for The Production Company version but the production will be new.

“We have a mostly new principal cast, it will be a fresh ensemble, there are new designers on board and we’re in different venues,” says Bryant. “As far as I’m concerned we’ll build it as if we’ve never done the show before, but we happen to have the knowledge of the previous production stored in our memory banks.

“There was one delicious part of Andrew’s choreography in the title number that HAS to make its way back into the show, but otherwise we’ll build the ship from scratch.”

Matilda the Musical with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australia’s own Tim Minchin is one of the year’s most keenly anticipated shows.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Described by the New York Times as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain”, Matilda was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company who premiered it at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010. In 2011, it transferred to the West End winning rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards. A Broadway production opened in 2013 to ecstatic reviews and won four Tony Awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, it tells the story of Matilda Wormwood, a precocious, book-loving child with a ghastly family and a brutally evil headmistress, who stands up to injustice and prevails against the odds, with a little help from her telekinetic powers.

The RSC will present the show in Australia with several producers including Australian-based Louise Withers whose other credits include Billy Elliot the Musical.

The cast will be announced in April. “We are auditioning between November and February. When you are dealing with this many children you can’t audition too early as they grow up too fast,” says Withers.

There are a total of 29 children across three casts. “We had 52 children in Billy Elliot so 29 is OK,” she adds sanguinely.

Withers emphasises that the show is not just for children. “It ticks the box for every age group from six to 76. A lot of adults today were Roald Dahl devotees growing up. They are now parents reading the books to their children. It jumps generations in the same way as The Lion King.”

Some believe that Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, where the production opens in August, is too large for the show.

“Obviously it’s a different size to the London theatre. Theatres in London and New York tend to be smaller. But the design will be developed to help bring the eye in, and the show is full of life and energy so I’m sure it will fill the space,” says Withers.

Sydney will also host the Australian premiere of Here Lies Love, which will be presented as a centerpiece of the Vivid Sydney festival. An immersive disco musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, the show had its first outing at the 2006 Adelaide Festival where it was presented in a concert version. The fully-fledged show premiered in New York in 2013 and recently had a sell-out London season produced by the National Theatre.

The inventive staging has the actors performing on platforms and moving catwalks, creating a club-like environment in which the audience is forced to keep moving, while video projections mix historical footage with live simulcasts.

The Australian production will be staged in The Millennium, a purpose-built, pop-up venue in Barangaroo.

From London’s West End comes Thriller Live, which celebrates the music and career of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. The national tour began in Perth in December. The show opens in Brisbane this week then tours to Melbourne and Sydney with short seasons in each. (There is an interview with the show’s creator Adrian Grant on this blog).

In September, The Lion King became the top-selling musical, indeed entertainment, of all time taking $6.2 billion worldwide since it opened on Broadway in 1997. After doing roaring business in Sydney this year, the production opens in Melbourne in February.

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical also moves to Melbourne where it plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre from this Saturday after premiering to mixed reviews in Sydney.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

“As with any brand new production we’re taking the opportunity of trimming and tightening the show,” says Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures and producer of the musical. “Since opening we have shortened the running time, restaged Time After Time, added a new opening number and given greater clarity to the story telling and staging.”

Meanwhile, the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables, with brand new staging, starts the year in Perth and then moves to Sydney in March, after a successful Melbourne season in 2014.

Other musicals, which continue touring into 2015 include Grease (which runs at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre until January 30), Wicked and The Rocky Horror Show, all produced in Australia by Frost.

Wicked closes in Sydney on January 30. Suzie Mathers takes over the role of Glinda from Lucy Durack (who is expecting her first baby) for the Brisbane season from February 12 and then Perth in May. Simon Gallaher takes on the role of the Wizard.

Craig McLachlan reprises the role of Frank N Furter in the Sydney season of The Rocky Horror Show, which begins its run on April 11, with Bert Newton stepping into the role of the Narrator. Other cast changes will be announced soon. The show then returns to Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in June.

Sadly, Once, which Frost produced with Melbourne Theatre Company, will not tour despite wonderful reviews. It plays in Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until February 8.

Though not strictly a musical in the way it uses (or fails to use) songs, Frost is also producing a 10th anniversary tour of Dirty Dancing, which began life in Australia in 2004 before spending five years in the West End. Starring Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phelan, it received mixed reviews when it opened in Sydney recently. The Sydney season winds up on February 22 then moves to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

There have been persistent rumours that Frost will also produce The Sound of Music in 2015 though nothing is yet confirmed. Stay tuned.

Though Frost candidly admits that he isn’t terribly keen on producing new musicals, he does have one in the pipeline: Dream Lover about Bobby Darin, which was to have opened late in the year but will now probably open in 2016.

“I don’t really enjoy doing new musicals, they’re too hard for me,” says Frost, whose productions of An Officer and A Gentleman and Doctor Zhivago struggled at the box office.

“Whilst I will do them and we are going to do (Dream Lover), I get more kicks out of doing these big, brassy entertainments like (Anything Goes). Musicals are so expensive and to raise the money for them (is hard). That is just the way this country is. If you haven’t got a Tony Award or an Olivier Award attached to a show (investors) look at you as if you’re a freak.”

Written by Michael-John Howson and Frank Howson, Dream Lover has had two workshops and a substantial amount of script development. Simon Phillips will direct the production once he and the right-sized theatre become available. “I didn’t really want to put it into a 2000-seat theatre,” says Frost.

Phillips will also direct a new musical for Queensland Theatre Company called Ladies in Black. Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Woman in Black, it has a book by Carolyn Burns and music and lyrics by Tim Finn.

Set in Sydney, during the 1950s and 60s, Ladies in Black centres on Lisa, a bright-eyed, bookish school leaver whose life is transformed when she joins the sales staff in the city’s most prestigious department store. The production stars Christen O’Leary.

Other subsidised companies to feature musicals in their seasons include Melbourne Theatre Company, which is staging a “boutique musical” called What Rhymes With Cars And Girls, by Aidan Fennessy, a contemporary love story with songs from Tim Rogers’ first solo album, and Victorian Opera, which is presenting Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role, following productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.

Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company will also stage its first musical for many years and its first American musical: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal about a suburban mother with bipolar disorder. Opening in November, it will star Rachael Beck and Brendan Hanson.

“It won three Tony Awards from 11 nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama so it was an obvious one for us to dip our toe into the water with,” says artistic director Kate Cherry.

Cherry says that she is “really hoping in the future to do one musical a year. I love the form but I tend to be interested in more off-beat musicals. I’m fascinated at how musicals can allow us to talk about really difficult subjects yet enjoy ourselves at the same time.”

Meanwhile, the Hayes Theatre Co is currently staging an acclaimed production of Next to Normal from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts with Natalie O’Donnell in the central role of Diana.

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts' Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts’ Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Other productions coming up at the Hayes include Blood Brothers in February and, in May, Dogfight based on the 1991 film of the same name about three young soldiers on a final bender before they leave for Vietnam.

These and other independent productions around the country by smaller companies such as Squabbalogic in Sydney (which presents Man of La Mancha with Tony Sheldon from February 25 and Triassic Parq in June), Magnormos in Melbourne and Harvest Rain in Brisbane will add immeasurably to the musical theatre ecology.

News that the Hayes has relaunched New Musicals Australia, an initiative dedicated to the development and production of original music theatre, is especially welcome for Australian musical theatre writers.

A version of this story appeared in The Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine

2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, February 13

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Walking into the tiny theatre at Potts Point you are thrust straight into the world of Sweet Charity. A red neon sign reads “Girls, Girls, Girls”, the band is vamping, and the sexily clad ladies at the seedy Fandango Ballroom where Charity works are already on stage, enticing men from the audience to dance with them.

It’s the perfect start to a fabulous production of the 1966 musical (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon), brilliantly re-imagined by director Dean Bryant for the times and the intimate venue.

Produced by Luckiest Productions and Neil Gooding Productions, Sweet Charity is the first production for the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the venue (formerly known as the Darlinghurst Theatre) into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret.

Sweet Charity tells the story of a dance hall hostess with a heart of gold looking for love in all the wrong places. With its episodic structure, it’s not the greatest musical ever written, merely following Charity as she is dumped by a louse called Charlie, encounters suave Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, and becomes engaged to neurotic accountant Oscar. But it’s joyous, funny and touching with some great songs including “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “The Rhythm of Life”.

Bryant has given the show a dirtier, grittier edge that makes it feel more current. It’s a small theatre for a musical but Bryant stages it ingeniously on Owen Phillips’s simple, grungy set (a few costume racks and some chairs), making inspired use of a couple of two-way mirrors. Ross Graham’s moody lighting is also impressive.

A small, sharp band, led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keyboards, sits at the back of the stage and there’s a cast of 12 but the production rarely feels squashed.

Occasionally you sense the dance routines longing to break out as in Bob Fosse’s famous, original choreography. However, Andrew Hallsworth has done a fantastic job of choreographing distinctive, tight little movements and routines, while his twist on the Rich Man’s Frug, with surrealistic costumes by Academy Award-winner Tim Chappel, works a treat.

The terrific new musical arrangements by Worboys (who also plays Fandango owner Herman) and Chappel’s witty, sexy costumes (with wigs by Ben Moir) heighten the edgy vibe perfectly.

In her little, red, lacy dress, Verity Hunt-Ballard is gorgeous as Charity, capturing her kookiness, sweetness, sunny optimism and vulnerability. In a production this gritty, Charity might perhaps have been a little more “shop soiled” but it’s a radiant, endearing performance; sensationally sung, danced and acted, with knockout comic timing.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Martin Crewes plays Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar and delineates them with wonderfully detailed performances, making us care about the dorky Oscar as well as Charity.

Debora Krizak is also a standout, doubling as Nickie, Charity’s hard-bitten friend at the Fandango Ballroom, and Ursula, Vittorio’s glamorous, jealous girlfriend (here with an English accent). My date for the evening didn’t realise they were the same performer. But the entire ensemble is on song.

Having begun with the stage buzzing, the production ends in poignant fashion with Charity alone on an empty stage: a powerful conclusion to a fresh, thrilling production.

Sweet Charity announces the arrival of an exciting new musical theatre initiative in Sydney in emphatic fashion. It has set the benchmark high. Don’t miss it.

Sweet Charity plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A slightly edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16

 

 

Verity Hunt-Ballard interview

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard promoting Sweet Charity. Photo suplied

Last time Verity Hunt-Ballard performed in Sydney she flew over the heads of the audience as Mary Poppins in Cameron Mackintosh’s sumptuous, award-winning production.

Now, she is taking on another starring role – as Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity – but this time in a gritty, intimate production.

The show has been chosen to launch the new Hayes Theatre Co, which is turning the former Darlinghurst Theatre in Potts Point into a home for small-scale musicals and cabaret. The exciting initiative looks set to shake up musical theatre in Sydney.

With only 115 seats and audiences sitting up close, “there will be nowhere to hide”, says Hunt-Ballard with a laugh.

“The last role I played was in 2000-seat theatres, which is a different discipline in a way, a different way of storytelling. (Sweet Charity) is really a play with music essentially, not like going to your big budget musicals – which are wonderful obviously, I’m a huge fan of them – but this is different and kind of unique. It’s really exciting to me because I haven’t done a small piece for many years.”

After Mary Poppins ended, Hunt-Ballard – whose other credits include Jersey Boys and The Rocky Horror Show – took a break from musicals to recover from the demanding two-year run.

“It was such a huge journey for me and ticked a lot of boxes, I guess,” says the softly spoken performer, who had only played supporting roles until then. “It was incredible but really hard yakka doing eight shows a week for two years. But it was a huge learning curve and I’m very, very grateful.”

For the past year – apart from appearing in a short return season of Eddie Perfect’s Shane Warne The Musical – she has been focused on raising her baby daughter with partner Scott Johnson who she met when they were performing together in Jersey Boys. However, Sweet Charity was too special an opportunity to resist.

“When (director) Dean Bryant and (producer) Lisa Campbell ring you and say ‘would you like to play Sweet Charity?’ even with an 11-month baby you say ‘yes’,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“We’re opening a theatre honouring Nancye Hayes who’s a really dear friend of mine and who has been my mentor really. She directed me at WAAPA years ago and we’ve been friends ever since. She calls herself my daughter’s fairy godmother. So all the stars aligned and I thought, ‘I’ll just have to take this job’. We’ve just moved to Melbourne but my darling Scott said, ‘OK, we’ll go back.’”

With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon, Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1966 in a production directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse with Gwen Verdon as Charity.

Other actors to have played the title role include Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 film and Nancye Hayes in the original 1967 Australian production.

It tells the story of eternal optimist Charity Hope Valentine, who dreams of being rescued from her job as a hostess in the seedy Fandango Dancehall by love and marriage.

Though she retains an element of innocence about her, Charity is polls removed from the “practically perfect” Mary Poppins.

“I feel, approaching this role, even more equipped having been through the last year emotionally and having to go to really dark places of sleep deprivation,” says Hunt-Ballard. “Not that Charity has children but she is certainly a character that has had to deal with life’s challenges. She’s tough. Full of hope but really tough (and) quite damaged in a way. She suffers rejection so many times but she just keeps going. It’s a story about the human spirit in a way.”

The Hayes Theatre Co production is directed by Dean Bryant whose many musical theatre credits include working as associate director on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical around the world, the world premiere of An Officer and a Gentleman and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He has also directed The Producers, Anything Goes and The Pirates of Penzance for The Production Company in Melbourne.

In 2006, three years after Hunt-Ballard graduated from WAAPA, he directed her in a show he co-wrote with composer Matthew Frank called Virgins, which went to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Longtime friends, Hunt-Ballard is excited to be working with him again.

“Dean’s vision is quite gritty, quite dark and very influenced by Nights of Cabiria, the Fellini film that Sweet Charity was based on, which focuses more on the fact that Charity is a prostitute. She’s not just a dance hall hostess. She really has no skills, no support and she has to do this to survive,” says Hunt-Ballard.

“Our assistant director Valentina Gasbarrino is Italian and she was talking about the Fellini film and what it meant to Rome at that time: the oppression of the working class that he was showing. Dean is really excited that we are performing in the Cross because we really want it to feel like you are stepping into what could be any club (in the area).”

Hunt-Ballard says that the production will be “very physical” with “hip” new musical arrangements by Andrew Worboys and “hot” costumes by Academy Award-winning designer Tim Chappel.

Audiences will watch the show as if they are in the Fandango Ballroom with the characters.

“It’s quite stark,” says Hunt-Ballard. “We will be using minimal props and costume changes will happen on stage. It will take audiences on an emotional trip hopefully – sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes funny and sometimes beautiful.”

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until March 9. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 0498 960 586

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on February 2