Sunday, November 23, 2014

‘This American Life’: 20th Century Choral Masterworks by Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber & Elliott Carter; Coro vocal ensemble with Guest Conductor, Calvin Bowman – Wesley Music Centre, Sunday November 23, 2014

Last year in New York, by chance I sat next to Barbara Heyman, author of Samuel Barber: The Composer and his Music at a concert in Carnegie Hall. After introducing ourselves, she was quick to ask after Calvin Bowman, whom she knew had moved to Canberra. It was good to be reminded that Canberra is connected to the greater musical world through musicians of Bowman’s caliber. Sunday’s concert, in 38 degree heat, was testimony to Bowman’s discipline and good humour as a conductor. In a demanding program, the choir navigated works by Aaron Copland, Cecil Effinger, Elliott Carter and of course, Samuel Barber – only occasionally showing signs of how challenging the singing was. The voices were well balanced throughout and dynamic variation on the whole was carefully observed, except perhaps in Copland's Motet, 'In the Beginning', which had sustained strident passages that were perhaps too unrelieved in loudness.

In his introduction to the concert, Bowman observed how little American choral music is performed regularly in Australia. ‘This American Life’ served to remind the audience what a rich and original source of musical material may be found in the American choral tradition.

Works by each composer were interleaved throughout the performance, providing welcome contrasts in the texture and style of vocal writing. Aaron Copland is a stern and powerful vocal writer when composing liturgical music. His Motet: ‘Help Us O Lord’ was a beautifully balanced performance providing a chance for the tenors to soar and Motet No. 4: ‘Have Mercy on Us O Lord’ was a highlight of the concert. The other three motets were interspersed with works by the other composers. Effinger’s meditative writing expressed in the pure oboe line (played expertly by Jessica Donohue) and contrasting choral textures was a lovely surprise, as I have not heard his work before.

For intellectual stimulation, Elliot Carter’s ‘Heart Not so Heavy as Mine’ was the perfect addition to the program. Beginning with a chanted opening, the piece developed through clever harmonization into a multi-dimensional work. Mezzo soprano Maartje Sevenster performed Copland’s Motet, ‘Sing Ye Praises to our Lord’ with impressive accuracy. The tone of her voice in this work had a cool detachment well matched to the words of the Motet.

The collaboration between guest conductor and Coro yielded a fine performance - hopefully a collaboration that will be repeated in the future.

Jennifer Gall

Samuel Barber’s Reincarnations Op. 16 suited the ensemble well; the ripples of descending notes in No 1 showing off the vocal dexterity of the singers. Barber’s ‘Sure on This Shining Night’ was a calm and beautiful finale, with Bowman conducting from the piano.

Friday, November 21, 2014


                             Music by: Max Lambert -  Book and Lyrics by: Nick Enright

      Director: Darren Yap - Musical Director: Max Lambert -Choreographer: Kelly Abbey
                           Set Designer: Michael Hankin - Costume Designer: Roger Kirk 
                                            Lighting Designer: Hugh Hamilton.

Presented by Luckiest Productions -Hayes Theatre Sydney – October 17 to November 16, 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in the work of Nick Enright. For a couple of weeks this month it was possible to see two of his works, “Miracle City” and “Daylight Saving”, running simultaneously in professional productions on stage in Sydney.

Perhaps the most intriguing is the musical “Miracle City”, which is perhaps the most famous Australian musical we’ve never seen. That is until now.  

“Miracle City” was originally given a development season by The Sydney Theatre Company in 1996, directed by Gale Edwards. It received an enthusiastic reception at the time, but apart from a modified version, directed by Enright himself for WAAPA, it has not been seen again until resurrected by Luckiest Productions for this season at The Hayes Theatre.

Set in the 1990’s and inspired by the careers of televangelists, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, all the action in “Miracle City” takes place in a cable television studio, on a Sunday morning, before, during and after the televising of the Truswell family’s weekly television show.

Mike McLeish as Ricky Truswell - Blazey Best as Lora-Lee Truswell
Mike McLeish gives a superb performance as the evangelist, Ricky Truswell, using his winning smile, silver tongue and apple-pie-fresh family to convince viewers to part with their savings to finance “Miracle City”, his religious theme park. How far Truswell will go to achieve his aim becomes shockingly clear as the show progresses.

 Hilary Cole is delightfully convincing as Truswell’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Loretta, and Cameron Holmes as her young brother, Ricky-Bob is heartbreaking as he registers the realisation of the fate of his sister.

Blazey Best as Lora-Lee Truswell
However it is Truswell’s charismatic wife, Lora-Lee, who is the linchpin of the family business and the family, and in this role Blazey Best is simply mesmerising. Whether exhorting the viewers to support her husband, leading the choir in inspirational songs, comforting her staff, or crumbling under the weight of her husband’s deception, her performance is as charismatic and masterful as the character she plays. Her final scene in which she discards her make-up and pride to plead with her husband is a gut-wrenching tour-de force.
 As the Truswell’s three back-up singers, Marika Aubrey, Esther Hannaford and Josie Lane, not only sing up a storm but also manage to create three distinctly interesting characters. Esther Hannaford, as struggling drug-addict Bonnie-Mae, gets the best opportunities and the best song in the show, the soaring ballad “I’ll Hold On”.

Esther Hannaford as Bonnie-Mae
 Peter Kowitz is flesh-crawlingly creepy as the self-serving sleazy guest televangelist, Millard Sizemore, and Jason Kos brings notable presence to the role of Billy Trengrove, the stage-manager whose job it is to keep the show on track amid the chaos threatening around him.

 Michael Hankin’s set design of a moveable semi-transparent gold curtain, moved around the stage by the cast, is a lesson in economical stage design. It allows us to see the action happening behind the scenes, while creating the correct atmosphere for what is happening in front, and is used to maximum effect by director Darren Yap who moves the show along at a cracking pace for its 90 minute duration, performed without an interval.

 Choreography, costumes and lighting by Kelley Abbey, Roger Kirk and Hugh Hamilton serve the production well by capturing the feel of the early 1990’s. Max Lambert’s music is tuneful, appropriate and accessible while Nick Enright’s book and lyrics remain as powerful and fresh as when they were written.

 The good news is that this production has been recorded for CD release. If you see it, get yourself a copy. Luckiest Productions have done music theatre enthusiasts a great service by  rescuing this important Australian music theatre gem from obscurity with this excellent production.


Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey, Esther Hannaford

This review also appears in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW



Written and Directed by David Atfield

The Street Theatre in association with David Atfield

Street Theatre One.  World Premiere November 14 - 23. 2014

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Ethan Gibson as Antinous

You need to see past the excessive exposure of male genitalia, the steamy, homo-erotic sex scenes or the prolific use of the expletive to fully appreciate the true fascination of David Atfield’s latest play, “Scandalous Boy”. You need also to grasp the grit and wit of Atfield’s contemporary resonance by bringing the 2nd century statue of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s teenage lover, to life in the 21st. century to reclaim his rightful place in history. Atfield is ingeniously Pygmalion to Galatea’s Antinous, and the device worls extraordinarily well, not least because of Ethan Gibson’s charismatic performance as the long-forgotten Antinous. More on that later.
Ethan Gibson as Antinous. Nicholas Edie as Hadrian. Raoul Craemer as Lucius

Some audiences may delight in the more salacious and yet utterly appropriate aspects of the production. The salivating voyeur may revel in the fantasies, but that would be to deny the inherent truths that are reflected in the lives of Atfield’s characters, carefully drawn from the pages of history and garnished with the playwright’s ingenuity and the power of theatre to bring these characters to life again.

There is much more to Atfield’s riveting drama than a discourse on male sexuality and most specifically sexual lust and love between men , although this is at the centre of the relationships between Hadrian (Nicholas Edie), Antinous (Gibson) and Hadrian’s former lover and now loyal advisor,  Lucius (Raoul Craemer). It is further complicated by Antinous’s love for a Roman of his own age, Marcellus (James Hughes), who serves Hadrian’s cruelly discarded Empress. Sabina (Emma Strand). The tangled web of relationships is fascinatingly revealed by Antinous, who breaks through the fourth wall to draw his audience into his version of Antinous’s rise from Hadrian’s “eronomous” or “bum boy” to a God upon his premature death at 19 in the waters of the Nile. It is a familiar device, but Atfield and Gibson avoid the accusation of predictability through a script smattered with humour and wry cynicism and a performance so engaging that we succumb entirely to the captivating interest of Antinous’s story. Gibson grabs our attention from the first breath of the statue’s incarnation to the final account of his mysterious death. Whether naked or modestly clothed  in  a pair of briefs, we are unable to extricate ourselves from the magnetic hold of his performance. Atfield’s play is about beauty and the eye of the beholder. Gibson stands Adonis-like before us and Atfield presents us with a parade of beauty in his play, ethereal and God-like,   the physical ideal, the faded,the neglected and the  rejected.

Scandalous Boy tears at the facade that conceals the frailty of human nature: its impulse, its insecurity, its desperation to retain youth and beauty and in the case of Sabina cast aside on her weeding night, the powerful lust for revenge. It is the complexity of Atfield’s history and his characters that cloaks his mirror up to Nature with a deftly drawn portrait of the inherent condition of the human species, no matter what gender, what culture , what belief stystem or what time in history they have inhabited.
Ethan Gibson as Antinous. Emma Strand as Sabina

Scandalous Boy could not have succeeded without the cast to fulfil Atfield’s challenging demand, both as a playwright and as a director, whose passion and skill drive the drama of his play with a crystal clear vision. Most notably, Atfield triumphs with his casting of Gibson as Antinous and Edie as the rather rumpled Emperor, supremely powerful in his besuited office, and yet inflicted with emotional impotence when confronted by the vagaries of love. At times imperious and brutally-all powerful, Edie can reduce his Hadrian to a petulant child or a besotted victim of his natural desires. The clever, canny Bythinian object of his desires is also the supreme commander of the mighty emperor’s reason and desire. Gibson is a young actor, set to conquer many more stages to come. His Antinous bears the instinct for survival, feeding on the frailty of others to impose his supremacy. Gibson is the epitomy of Greek beauty, immortalized in the bold form of Roman marble. His command of character holds power of his audience, not because he is true to a youth who lived almost two thousand years ago, but because he could breathe such life into the ideas and the universal truths of human nature. You are certain to see and hear much more of Ethan Gibson in the years to come. In Scandalous Boy, his star shines bright. Its incandescence will continue to light up his future career.
Etah Gibson and James Hughes as Marcellus

Gibson and Edie under Atfield’s meticulously detailed and sensitive direction are excellently supported by Craemer’s forlorn and tormented Lucius, Strand’s bitter and veangeful Sabina and Hughes’s simple and yet instinctively opportunistic Marcellus. This cast is a director’s gift and Atfield and his team have made the most of the opportunities they have to bring this forgotten historical tale to life. It is elegantly staged on the Street’s mainstage, dominated by Imogen Keen’s luxurious circular bed, adorned with Keen’s superb taste for textile and unobtrusively and effectively lit by Gillian Schwab. Liberty Kerr’s sound design transports us from any preconception and lends the play a dynamism that permeates the production.

Unless you are shackled by prejudice, smothered with preconceived ideas or offended by Nature’s beauty, Scandalous Boy is a play that will intrigue and astound and provoke thought, discussion and important introspection. It is a new play and there is some room still for dramaturgical investigation, especially within the scenes between Antinous and Lucius and Antinous and Sabina, but any improvements here would simply be part of the ongoing development of a drama that is set to make its mark on many more stages, as long as it can be done as well as this world premiere at The Street has done.

As I write, there are sadly only three performances  left at The Street. It would be a scandal to miss it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Scandalous Boy

Canberra Times review

Alanna Maclean

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Scandalous Boy - The Street Theatre

Review by John Lombard

Produced by David Atfield and The Street Theatre

On a trip through a museum of classical art, a statue of a strikingly beautiful Greek youth comes to life and directly addresses us.  Hopping down from its plinth, it draws attention to its identity: this is Antinous, gay lover of Roman Emperor Hadrian.  Now that he has our attention he wants to tell us his story.  But first he chides us for noticing his penis - shaming us for being ashamed of nudity.  Writer/director David Atfield introduces us to the world that existed before Christian shame in "Scandalous Boy", giving a voice to a figure that has been ignored and denigrated for centuries because he is an inconvenient reminder of Hadrian's sexuality.  However as the play develops Antinous' story reveals a superficial and manipulative narcissist, and we begin to wonder whether physical beauty is as important as he insists.

The play deliberately avoids the speeches and togas approach to Roman life, showing us these characters acting (and dressing) the way they would if they were alive today.  Hadrian and Antinous don't meet at a Roman bath or similar picturesque period location, they hook up at a gay nightclub.  Hadrian is imagined as a bear - bearded, slightly overweight, sporting a leather jacket.  For the most part the story is allowed to run as if it was happening today, although occasionally Antinous has to stop the action and inform us of an important cultural difference - for example, that while these days top and bottom roles can be fluid, in the Roman period they depended on social dominance.  When Antinous tries to lure Hadrian into being on the bottom, he is both awakening him to a new form of pleasure and trying to cement his dominance over the Emperor.

However the play constantly veers away from its richest territory, the possibility that even if their relationship began as prostitution Antinous might grow to genuinely love Hadrian.  As Antinous starts to age (he reaches 19 - virtually decrepit) he becomes desperate to maintain his place, sure that the only thing he has to offer is physical beauty.  When Hadrian confronts this narcissism with genuine acceptance and love, we feel sure that Antinous' heart will be swayed and he will learn that there is more to life than just having a hot bod.  But it's not to be: Antinous informs us in direct address to the audience that he does not love Hadrian at all and is just using that love to gain power for himself.  From that point on, we have zero sympathy for this Adonis: he is only out for himself and utterly ruthless in his ambition of being named Hadrian's successor.  If he had demonstrated some humanity, we might feel sympathy for him.  Instead we are glad that this monster's ambitions are so helpless.  His death feels more like a final act of vengeful petulance than tragedy - if he can't have what he wants (which is everything), he will cripple the only person who truly loves him and glory in how magnificent their pain is.

Ethan Gibson's athletic performance as Antinous is shameless in both body and behaviour, keeping us fascinated even as our sympathy erodes.  He is cocky and confident, master of every situation - but with a fatal arrogance that we sense will unravel his ambitions.  Nicholas Eadie is gentle, sentimental and even a bit of a sook as the besotted Hadrian, torn between genuine love and the demands of power.  Raoul Craemer is watchful and hungry as Hadrian's discarded ex-lover, while James Hughes is believable as Antinous' secret love.  Emma Strand stands out as Hadrian's Empress, playing the same person at two periods of their life: the hopeful innocent who married an Emperor, and the sardonic Empress who has learned to make the most of a loveless marriage.  The cast have a lot of fun with the modern treatment of classical material and give the show a playful spirit that keeps it engaging.

I was strongly reminded of Evita: an ambitious but poor youth uses their sex-appeal to conquer the leader of a country and becomes the power behind the throne.  But while Evita was a capable political leader in her own right, Antinous bets everything on the domination of a single heart.  Antinous' ultimate fate feels just: after a few centuries of Godhood (deification by the grieving Hadrian) he falls into near-total obscurity.  The youth who thought physical beauty was everything exists only as an unrecognised marble statue, one of many anonymous Greek boys in museums across the world.  Meanwhile for his justice and humanity the slightly overweight Hadrian is remembered as one of the greatest Roman Emperors.  Maybe looks aren't that important after all?

"Scandalous Boy" is worth seeing for its frank depiction of sexual relationships and energetic storytelling, but audiences will have to make up their own mind about the value of physical beauty.  The show is pitched as an antidote to our modern ideas of shame and sin but only raises more questions.  I left the theatre a little glad to have a few wrinkles - better to accept yourself and your imperfections than, like Antinous (following the famous example of Narcissus), drown in your own reflection.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Directed by: Garrick Smith.
Musical Direction by: Rose Shorney.
Choreographed by: Jacquelyn Richards.
Costume design by: Suzan Cooper.
Set design by: Steve and Susie Walsh.
Presented by: Supa Productions. ANU Arts Centre until November 22nd.

 Reviewed by: Bill Stephens

“We are what we are” proclaim Les Cagelles, six dancers of indeterminate sex, who, strut, mince, high-kick and tap energetically in grotesque make-up and a succession of tacky costumes at  “La Cage Aux Folles, a drag  nightclub in St. Tropez, run by Georges (Jarrad West). The star of “La Cage Aux Folles” is drag queen, Zaza, the alter ego of George’s effeminate partner, Albin (Ben O’Reilly).

Georges and Albin have lived happily above the nightclub for years, but their happiness is threatened when George’s son, Jean Michel (Alexander Clubb) suddenly announces that he is going to marry the daughter of the famously anti-gay politician, Edouard Dindon (Len Power).

How they deal with this predicament is the meat of Jerry Herman’s delightfully hilarious and tuneful musical currently enjoying its first Canberra showing in this exuberant production directed with panache by Garrick Smith for Supa Productions.

 The linchpin of the show is Ben O’Reilly’s brilliant performance as Albin/Zaza. O’Reilly skilfully balances the silliness and pathos of Albin, with the confident glamour of Zaza in a carefully modulated performance of considerable depth.  Jarrad West matches him with a strong and charming Georges. Both sing well and their scenes together are beautifully managed. Alexander Clubb is impressive as their head-strong son, Jean Michel, and Fraser Findlay makes the most of his scene-stealing role as the butler/maid, Jacob.

 Rose Shorney’s large, full-throated orchestra brilliantly captures the authentic Broadway sound to do full justice to Herman’s wonderful score.  Steve and Susie Walsh’s setting with its spectacular use of led lighting, Suzan Cooper’s often dazzling costumes, Jacquelyn Richards spot-on choreography, and Phil Goodwin and Peter Barton’s superb lighting and sound design all add pizazz and razzle dazzle to this hugely enjoyable production.  
The La Cagelles

This review first published in CITY NEWS digital edition on November 8. It will be published in the print edition on November 12.

Friday, November 7, 2014


Presented by: Carl Rafferty and the cast of “Opera by Candlelight”

 Albert Hall – Canberra

 31st October 2014.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens


Canberra entrepreneur, Carl Rafferty, has built up a loyal following for his “Opera by Candlelight” programs which he presents regularly in the Albert Hall. Aimed squarely at Andre Rieu aficionados, these excellently staged concerts are usually presented in a banquet setting. Guests are encouraged to dress glamorously and bring along their own supper to enjoy at tables set with white tablecloths and shimmering candelabra.
Carl Rafferty
The programs generally consist of selections from popular operas, sung by immaculately dressed rising young opera singers, accompanied by an excellent small orchestra lead with considerable chutzpah by Carl Rafferty himself from a grand piano.

 “Gypsy Fire” varied from this format in as much as only one of the three performances was presented in banquet style. The other two were given with theatre style setting, accompanied by a generous champagne supper, which was included in the ticket price.

 It also varied in that it was mainly a showcase for stunning Romanian violinist, Rusanda Panfili, who was giving her first performances in Australia, and for Rafferty’s soprano daughter, Kate, who is presently studying in Vienna. The chorus and orchestra were still present, but for this concert, the sixteen-voice chorus were mainly confined to providing glamorous mobile scenery, and a couple of rousing, if under-rehearsed, opera choruses.

Rusanda Panfili 
 Rusanda Panfili set the “Gypsy Fire” theme early, opening the program with a thrilling performance of Iguudesman’s “Flamenco Fantasy” complete with foot-stamping, flirtatious glances and showy bowing flourishes. Every bit as glamorous as her photographs, with a virtuosic violin technique and confident stage presence she had the audience in the palm of her hand for the rest of the evening. A generous performer she offered a succession of the exciting solos including a dazzling “Hora Staccato”, a lovely version of Shostakovich’s “Romance” from “The Gadfly”, and a virtuosic performance of the inevitable Monti “Czardas”. She happily dueted with Kate Rafferty, joined violinist, Liam Kenneally, for an excellent account of the Shostakovich “Spanish Dance”, and occasionally added her considerable strength to the orchestra for some arrangements.  

Kate Rafferty
Kate Rafferty’s study in Vienna has certainly been well-spent. She impressed with a generous program of coloratura showpieces among them terrific arrangements of seldom heard vocal bon-bons including Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz Serenade” and Lincke’s “Glow Worm Gavotte”  which gave her the opportunity to show off some spectacularly stratospheric cadenza’s.  She also performed Verdi’s “Caro Nome”, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” and lovely arrangement of Lehar’s “Vilia” for which she was joined by the chorus and orchestra. Her sister Anna was also contributed two Noel Coward songs “Matelot” and “Nina”.

 Rafferty has already announced three more presentations for 2015. “Opera by Candlelight” in February 2015, “Tenorissimo” in May 2015 and “Mozartmania” in October 2015. If you’ve not already experienced one of these events, they’re worth watching out for.