Monday, 13 March 2017

Mark Colvin's Kidney, Belvoir

I've clearly been out of the elite-person loop. I had, until this play came along, no idea who Mark Colvin is. I used to listen to ABC radio's PM program back in the late eighties and early nineties, but ... well, there's an awful lot of media about these days and when I'm driving, I prefer songs.

Never the less, the story of how he got a kidney transplant is an intriguing one - particularly the details of the woman who donated it, and how she got to know Colvin. Sarah Pierse incarnates Mary-Ellen Field, a rare figure on Australian stages as she's a sympathetic conservative character - smart, perhaps mildly irritable but all-in-all, remarkably strong and determined to do what she views as the right thing.

It's a pity the rest of the play that surrounds her falls a little flat. John Howard as Colvin is quite under-powered - the writing for him is a little thin, but Howard's performance seems frequently so sedate that the central meeting of minds that needs to happen just doesn't.

The remaining supporting cast all play multiple roles - Helen Thompson most noticably as Elle McPherson (the rest of her roles are very throw-away), with Peter Carroll scoring in a range of roels from Field's husband to a disconcerted priest.

David Berthold's direction finds it difficult to find a central flow to the play - the short scenes connected by scene-changes as furniture is re-arranged don't tie together very well (although Vexran Producitons' projection design combines very well with Michael Hankin's set to get rich visuals, they never quite link in clearly to what's going on in the scenes and instead are just a nice visual distraction).

This is a play I really wanted to like but instead was left a little cold - the human connection between the characters, for me, just wasn't there, and while this taps on a couple of hot button issues, in the end everything is left just a little under-explored. So it's a disappointment.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Aladdin, Disney Theatrical, Capitol Theatre

Disney's been doing big-budget stage versions of their animated movies for about twenty years - sorta in compensation after they stole the duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken away from Broadway when they wrote the trio of "Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin". For various reasons, I've never seen any of them in a full-scale professional production (no, not even "The Lion King"), but ... well, now I have.

In the case of "Aladdin", there's an obvious challenge to be gotten over immediately - how on earth do you replace Robin Williams (not necessarily the first celebrity voice in an animated feature, but certainly the one whose involvement had the most impact on the film, to the point where the finished product includes a vast amount of his ad-libbing). There are other elements as well (two animal sidekicks along with a carpet with considerable personality), but the quicksilver-morphing Genie is the one that has to be gotten right.

Fortunately, with Michael James Scott, they've got it. He's wildly engaging and dominates the stage every moment he's on - while, no, he can't actually change shape, he talks and moves so fast while being just that damn compelling every second he's on stage that you barely notice. The highlight of the show is his eight-minute-or-so "Friend Like Me" that pulls out every stop from shoving the chorus through multiple costume changes and a tap interlude all the way to literal fireworks.

The rest of the show surrounding it doesn't always keep up to the same level. Our two romantic leads, Ainsley Melman and Hiba Elchikhe, are both a little bland, and while an understudying Alex-Gibson Giorgio and a regular-cast Aljin Abella do some good sniveling conspiring and Aladdin's trio-of-friends (who have snuck back in from early drafts of the movie) are a diverting trio of Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Troy Sussman and Robert Tripolino.

The score has all the original movie songs plus two cut Ashman/Menken numbers ( the ballad-ish "Proud of your Boy" which is okay but gets an unnecessary two reprises, and the rollicking "High Adventure" for Aladdin's buddies, which is far more amusing), and a couple more songs by Menken and Chad Beugelin, who also wrote the script - most of which serve only to pad out time. It's a very glitzy show with fabulous costumes, grand sets and some snappy choreography, but it doesn't quite sustain continuous joy the whole way through - it's more stop-starty than perhaps it should be.

With expectations adjusted downwards there's a fair bit to enjoy in this, but it's not top-tier Disney - though the middle of their pack is still pretty solid.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Addams Family, The Q

For audiences of my generation, the definitive Addams family is always going to be the one from the two 1990s movies directed by Barry Sonnenfeld with Raul Julia, Anjelica Houston, Christopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci. These took the sitcom setup from the 60s and pushed them into delirious perfection - Gomez and Morticia's relationship with hefty S&M overtones, Wednesday's mordant nature, Fester's joire de vivre ...

Due to the vagaries of international copyright law, the musical isn't based on the film  or the sitcom, it's officially based on the original Charles Addams cartoons. Which may be why it feels slightly tonally off. While these are larger than life figures who should, naturally, sing, there's a really basic problem at the centre of the plot, which is that it's both overly familiar and the wrong plot for these characters. The "child introduces their radical parents to their love interest's conservative parents" plot was reasonably old-hat when "La Cage Aux Folles" did it 30 years ago (the gay angle was the only twist), and it's older now, with the show introducing a truth-telling potion into the mix (again, personality-altering concoctions were considered old hat by Arthur Sullivan when W.S. Gilbert proposed it as a plot in the mid 1880s). And of all members of the family to centre this plot on, why Wednesday? Reducing her to a simple girl-pining-for-a-boy is to screw up a basic element of her personality, and it leaves the show at a big disadvantage.

It's not all bad news. While the script by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman is, to my mind, both wrong and conventional at a plot level, at an individual joke-level the material has a reasonable amount of wit. The songs by Andrew Lippa never really surpass the original theme tune (here introduced-oh-so-briefly at the beginning of the show then brought back for the curtain calls, and never with the iconic lyrics), but again there are a couple of good jokes in there, and particularly the material for Uncle Fester has a disarming sweetness.

The cast do sterling work with the material they have. Gordon Nicholson has bravado and charisma to spare as Gomez, Lainie Hart brings languid stylish sexiness and a killer singing voice that's been under wraps for way too long as Morticia. Tim Stiles is endearingly weird as Fester, Rachael Thornton is stuck playing the Wednesday that's in the script, but suggests she could bring off a much better-written character by getting massive laughs from the sight of her in a bright yellow dress. Callum Doherty's Pugsley is disconcerting in several ways - he's the only character whose intensity has been turned WAY up from the original material, and from the youngest member of the cast, that feels wildly off. Barbara Denham's Grandma is, again, misconceived at a plot level (instead of being a whimsical potions mistress she's somehow a drug pusher?) but Denham almost pulls it off with a blithe manner. As the visitors, Liam Dowling as the son has no written personality and doesn't add much to that, Joseph McGrail-Bateup has the unenviable job of being the fun-crushing character of the evening (although he does produce one truly epic spit-take), and Deanna Gibbs has a goofy charm as Alice. Nathan Rutups is a great looming presence with various grunts and growls as Lurch.

Costumes by Christine Pawlicki and Barbara Denham are a gorgeous bunch of outfits that do a lot to bring the show whatever life it can have, and Emily Geyer's makeup design, particularly on the chorus-of-ancestors, is top notch. Matthew Webster's orchestra is a bit muddled during the overture but settles down to providing decent support.

So this is wildly inessential material, but with some performances that make this quite watchable anyway.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Wait Until Dark, Canberra Rep

Stage thrillers are an endangered genre - there are a large number of scripts out there, but it's rare to find a really good one (and most of them tend towards the spoof end of the genre, which all too frequently ends up with a comedy thriller that is neither funny nor thrilling). It's one of those genres that can be paradoxically difficult - the very simplicity of the characters and the situations means that performers don't necessarily have a lot of support to avoid slipping into stock characterisations and cliched actions that only happen because "it's in the script".

Fortunately, "Wait Until Dark" avoids a lot of those cliches - the story of three con-men eager to retrieve a doll full of heroin from an apartment under the nose of an unsuspecting blind lady is a slow build but the last ten minutes, in particular, are as tense as theatre can get. There's just enough dimensions for the characters to be more than cardboard cutouts, and plenty of twists and turns as the differences between the three con-men become apparent. Jenna Roberts makes Suzy simultaneously vulnerable and tough - she's never just a damsel-in-distress, she's a woman in a difficult situation who takes on the cards she's dealt with grim determination and just the right amount of humor. Riley Bell as the con-man who most effectively wheedles his way into Suzy's life has just the right mix of scumbag and sincerity - we almost want to believe him just as we know that 90% of what he's telling Suzy is a manipulative lie for his own ends. Annabel Foulds is wonderfully comically indignant as the slightly brattish girl upstairs who Suzy battles with but finally enlists as support. Euan Bowen combines a mix of tenderness and teasingness that makes Sam and Suzy's relationship so very real, lived-in and comfortable. Zach Raffan's Harry Roat is effective in his more overtly menacing moments but I do wish we'd seen the shark-in-waiting a little bit more during the scenes where he's not directly menacing anyone. Nelson Blattman is a little young to be posing as a police sargeant (maybe a constable...) but he's got a nicely suggestible quality that suggests exactly why this guy has drifted into a life of crime.

Michael Sparks' set is a perfect dingy 50's downstairs apartment, with authentically ancient kitchen furnishings. Cynthia Jolley-Roger's lighting design shows why she is the queen of suggestive moody lighting - just enough to make the skin creep. Similarly Matthew Webster's sound design hightens the tensions like a good old-fashioned thiller soundscape should.

An effective night out to draw you in, make you tense and make you gasp. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Tom Ballard: Boundless Plains to Share, Belvoir

This is, to a certain extent, left wing comfort food. It's a political standup show about immigration, to an audience that, presumably, largely sympathises with it. And it's no offence against Ballard (who's a fine comedian, easily at the level of, say, Samantha Bee or John Oliver) that I'm slightly weary of the echo chamber of things we all know to be true but which never seem to actually turn into positive change.

Anyway. That was the political bit of the review done. For the rest - Ballard presents very well a topic that could be dry or glib. He's not afraid to let the serious bits be serious, but also quite willing to allow humanity and life into the show. There's some clever dynamics with how the show is constructed that keeps it lively and keeps it from being utterly One Man Rants At The Audience About Injustice For An Hour (which I can't talk about much further because, well, that's spoilers). It refuses to be too glib about things either, The jokes are funny, the content is wise, the presenter is charming and clever ... it's just one of those things where it makes me wish the world was better and fear that it isn't.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Prize fighter, Belvoir

Belvoir launches the season with a relentlessly physical production, transferred from Brisbane’s LaBoite theatre. This is the story of Isa, a Congolese refugee currently living in Brisbane, escaped from the war and starting again as a boxer. The story’s told largely through two boxing matches as Isa gets the chance to challenge for a title fight, and how in the ring he recalls the previous experiences that have led him to this point.

Direction is almost split evenly between director Todd McDonald and fight choreographer Nigel Poulton, so heavily is the boxing featured. There are sharp, dramatic transitions as the performers swap between ringside participants and figures in Isa’s past – from opponent in the ring to warlord, from supportive friend to an instruction in murder. The performers and lighting design turn on a dime between now-and-then. Lighting and simple staging effects ensure this flows fast and furious and keeps the audience gripped pretty tightly.

This is a tight play, barely over an hour, but there’s not a moment that’s undercooked here - I suppose one could slightly argue that there isn't necessarily a lot of character depth in Future D. Fidel's script, but that's not what this is aiming for - this is pure, full contact theatre that’s going straight for the heart and mind.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

The "Well I Liked It" awards, 2016.

Another year, another chance to reflect on what's been happening. Obviously, offstage, this year has been a bit of a garbage fire, between beloved cultural icons dying, Trump, some rather awful local politics, and general awfulness. But on stage the standard has generally been pretty strong, and occasionally exceptional. So it's the exceptions I'm naming here. As always, I did not see everything, and this is driven by my personal taste exclusively, so all the basic one-guys-prejudices apply.

Having said that, here are a couple of people, companies and shows that stuck out for me.

Jordan Best had possibly her most kickarse year ever in theatre. I didn't see everything she did because she did so damn much, but I did see the thoroughly engaging "Beauty and the Beast", the truly outstanding ensemble of "Playhouse Creatures", the intense and gripping "Macbeth" and her intensely rageful performance in "The Normal Heart". Whatever she did, she did it with dedication, drive, commitment and strength. I am grateful to be living in a town where Jordan is regularly presenting productions that challenge, provoke, engage and enlighten.

Will Huang has the kind of talent that should annoy people. He's got all the good looks of a leading man, plus the acting talent of a character actor. Plus he's got a powerhouse voice. He started the year blowing up my "long hair Will is Nice Will" theory by being the longhaired diva jerk Stacee Jaxx in "Rock of Ages", went on to be the disturbing son Gabe in "Next to Normal" (with slightly trimmer hair) before breaking hearts as the charming but ultimately doomed Felix in "The Normal Heart" (with the long hair). You know what, I don't think it's his hair that indicates how he's going to behave, I think it may actually be the script and his talent. Anyway, he was a compelling presence to watch this year.

Everyman seems to get an award every time I do one of these, but it's because they remain my favourite company who do stuff that nobody else does. Not only did they deliver a great dramatic experience in "The Normal Heart" full of rage and fury and engaging compassion, they also provided a variety showcase where so many have burned before with "Musical Theatre Confessions", a format that gives top-edge performers a chance to show off a couple of extra strings to their bow. All hail the Everypeople.

Phoenix Players had a one-two punch of two modern musicals that delved deep and dramatic but also rocked the audiences socks off with solid performances and bands with "Next to Normal" and "Spring Awakening". I spent a lot of this year avoiding local musicals again (for the usual reasons, either I'd seen the show before or the production otherwise did not appeal) but these two got me out of the theatre and held me spellbound. I know the audiences unfortunately did not throng to these fascinating works, but I hope somehow this was financially sustainable enough for Phoenix to continue to think different to the rest of the pack.

The visiting production that excited me the most was "Things I know to be True". Andrew Bovell has an ability to cut through with style and grace, and the combination of his words and Frantic Assembley's exceptionally physical production made for a night that was heartfelt and poignant and oh so beautiful.

Interstate I was most impressed by "Matilda" - yes, it opened last year but I saw it this year so it counts, dammit. This is big-scale musicals done right - if there's a couple of minor imperfections (in particular, Tim Minchin may need to simplify lyrics for choral singing so they don't get lost in follow up works, or at least have them not be sung by kids), it's an all round entrancing night out.

So that's my lot for the year. Thank you to those who read everything, or just the reviews of the show's they're in.