Monday, July 30, 2012

AIDA

Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House
17th July 2012.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens
Photo: Branco Gaica

Revisiting this production, with the present cast, one is struck by how well Graeme Murphy’s vision serves Verdi’s masterpiece.  “Aida” has always been about spectacle, particularly Radames’ triumphant return having routed the Ethiopian army.  But in this production Murphy has cleverly focussed  on the triangular relationship at the centre of the opera,  between the Egyptian army captain,  Radames, the princess of Egypt, Amneris, and her handmaiden, Aida, with whom Radames is in love.
Not that this production is short on spectacle.  Interpreting Murphy’s concept, Roger Kirk has designed a series of cardboard cut-out, two dimensional sets which echo the triangular motif of both of the relationship and Egypt’s iconic pyramids. Enhanced by Damien Cooper’ s extraordinary lighting, the ever-changing Egyptian motif projections of  The Brothers Gruchy, Kirk has also included a series of travelators,  what seems like hundreds  of lavish gold, black and white costumes for the huge cast, and even a pool of water to create a constantly moving spectacle which continually dazzles and delights the eye.

But what makes this production so truly memorable is the way it also engages the mind, with Murphy's masterful harnessing of the mesmerising spectacle to focus on the very real human emotions driving the three protagonists in this lavish, sensuous environment.
                                                                                                                   

Latonia Moore (Aida)
Photo: Branco Gaica




Latonia Moore is quite simply superb as the Ethiopian princess, Aida. Though surprisingly diminutive in size she brings such a warm presence and inner resolve to the role that the audience is left in no doubt as to her royal heritage. Moore’s rich soprano voice captivates as it soars over the chorus and orchestra and especially when she reveals a thrilling lustre in the more intimate moments. Hers is a performance to cherish.


Latonia Moore (Aida) 
Rosario La Spina (Radames)
Photo: Branco Gaica
                                                                                             In fine voice early in the performance, though displaying some tiredness in the later scenes, Rosario La Spina is a none-the-less a commanding Radames. The costumes suit his impressive physical presence and even though his acting ability is not his strength, the role of Radames is one where the singer simply has to stand and deliver, and he delivered in spades as a convincing all-conquering hero.



                                                              



Miljanic Nikolic (Amneris)
Photo: Branco Giaca
No problems in the acting department for statuesque Milijanic Nikolic, who not only looks drop-dead gorgeous but certainly knows how to make the most of her stunning costumes. As Amneris, princess of Egypt, Nikolic exudes authority, and uses her lovely voice and admirable stage presence to deliver a captivating portrait of a woman totally in control of her destiny.



Warwick Fyfe (Amanasro)
Latona Moore (Aida)
Photo: Branco Gaica
Unrecognisable in swarthy make-up and afro, Warwick Fyfe gives a fine performance as Aida’s father Amonasro, while Jud Arthur as the King of Egypt, and Andrew Brunsden as a Messenger also impress in smaller roles. 

But of course it wouldn’t be Verdi without the chorus, and in this production the choral scenes are thrilling with the chorus looking and sounding magnificent, as does the excellent orchestra under Arvo Volmer.



video

"Aida" continues at the Sydney Opera House until October 13th 2012. From September 14 Jacqueline Mabardi will play Aida.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

DON GIOVANNI


Annabelle Chaffey (Donna Anna)
Samuel Dundas (Don Giovanni)
Photo: Albert Comper. 
Presented by Oz Opera                 

Canberra Theatre 14.07.12

Reviewed by Bill Stephens
Oz Opera is the touring arm of the national opera company, Opera Australia. It tours widely presenting scale-down productions of popular operas to audiences, many of whom would be unlikely to ever see a production of these operas in a capital city. 

These productions, usually sung by trainee singers, have not always served the operas well; often leaving the audiences they are intended to inspire scratching their heads and wondering why they should bother to see a full-scale production.

Fortunately this production of “Don Giovanni” is not one of those, and if you are of the persuasion that opera is at its most memorable when the sound, visual and dramatic elements all fuse with equal impact, then this production is for you. Because not only is it beautifully sung, (most of the company are already soloists with the national company) it is also a dramatically convincing and visually beautiful production in which the down-sizing cleverly tightens the focus on both characters and storyline.

In adapting this opera for touring Director Michael Gow has stripped away any arias and choruses superfluous to the telling of the story. The opera is sung in English, with just one aria, Don Giovanni’s lovely second act serenade, sung in Italian to give the audience a sense of the original language. This works surprisingly well, given that it is a serenade and its purpose is obvious, no matter in which language.  

Gow’s adaption of the original libretto, together with Anthony Legge’s  intelligent and accessible translation, clarifies the storyline so effectively that the audience is quickly drawn into the drama, which all takes place in the main square of a small ‘ 1950’s Italian village, where the villagers still care about marriage, and  wear flattering, colourful ‘ la dolce vita’ style costumes designed by Roger Kemp, who is also responsible for the attractive town square which, with just a few props and clever lighting, moves from cheerful and inviting, to menacing, even horrific, as the story progresses.

Particularly impressive is the quality of the singing, with each member of the company singing their roles flawlessly while offering confident, intelligent characterisations to propel the opera along. A splendid orchestral reduction by Andrew Green is beautifully played by the accomplished nine-piece orchestra conducted by Brett Weymark which adds significantly to the pleasures of this production.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
Adrian Tamburini (Leporello)
Samuel Dundas (Don Giovanni)
Photo: Albert Comper
Heading the strong cast, Samuel Dundas is a persuasive, handsome Don Giovanni, charismatic and completely convincing as the desplicable, rapacious seducer.


His man-servant Leporello is played by Adrian Tamburini as more a friend than a servant. Because they are similar in age and physique this resemblance provides opportunities which are explored particularly effectively in the scene in which Don Giovanni forces Leporello to swap clothes with him to deceive Donna Elvira. This scene is laugh-out-loud funny, because their resemblance makes it much easier to believe that Donna Elvira could indeed be tricked by this ruse. It is also signals a subtle change in their relationship which makes the eventual climax to the opera even more powerful.



Samuel Sakker (Don Octavio)
Annabelle Chaffey (Donna Anna)
Photo: Albert Comper.

Among Don Giovanni’s many conquests Annabelle Chaffey is splendid as Donna Anna, radiating a delicious combination of antagonism and attraction, while Jane Ede rages magnificently as the jilted Donna Elvira.


Samuel Dundas (Don Giovanni)
Kiandra Howarth (Zerlina)
Photo: Albert Comper. 

Kiandra Howarth is a bewitching Zerlina, puzzled by the jealousy of her fiancé Don Ottavio, (a nicely understated performance by Samuel Saker) even as she’s drawn like a moth to the flame to Don Giovanni.  






Given his strong physical presence, the double casting of Eddie Muliaumaseali’I as both the Commendatore and Masetto, worked particularly well, so that Don Giovanni’s terror in mistaking Masetto for the Commendatore in the last hideous denouement is absolutely convincing.
Eddie Muliaumaseali'i (Masetto) 
Kiandra Howarth (Zerlina)
PhotoL Albert Comper.


This production ends with Don Giovanni being immolated by the townspeople. This endiing, devised by Michael Gow, is dramatically compelling and even more stunning because of the realisation that such an event could conceivably occur in such a town.

Here is a production of “Don Giovanni”, without any unnecessary bells and whistles but which brilliantly conveys the intent, experience and satisfaction of a major production and therefore a worthy example of what is being achieved by the national company.
This production is touring New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria until 15th September 2012.
 










Dames, the Dame and Shakespeare’s Boys.


You could say the third week of June was a riot of dames. And I meant to simply talk about these but then a car knocked my bike down on Northbourne Avenue necessitating a lovely day amid the theatre of Canberra Hospital emergency and time moved on while a bit of healing went on and I went to the Young People Arts Australia Symposium at Casula among the bellbirds and Michael Hurst brought his version of Shakespeare’s boys into town, not the young ones who are boys playing girls pretending to be boys but the boys with problems, like Hamlet and Macbeth and Lear and Othello.

Dame Edna Everage owes more than something to the panto dame but Paul Capsis in Angela’s Kitchen was echoing the old theatrical tradition of men and boys playing girls and women.

Dame Edna is a lovely grotesque like the old Australian panto dames, Buster Fiddess or Johnny Lockwood. You always know there is a bloke underneath.

More deeply buried in the case of Dame Edna, however; Lockwood and Fiddess always had a hearty whiff of five o’clock shadow about them in a way that Dame Edna does not.  Edna’s more elegant, more genuinely conscious of a feminine propriety, even when she is being most stroppy with an audience member and slapping down the would-be comedians.

Paul Capsis playing his grandmother Angela (and other female relatives) in Angela’s Kitchen in the same week was something different, a genuine and serious playing of gender as role. Which is not to say that Edna isn’t doing this but she’s working in a comic vein where delicate exaggeration is the go. Capsis mirrors his female relatives with an accuracy that makes you wonder what he would be like as Rosalind or Beatrice or even Juliet. He knows in detail how an aunt lights a cigarette and when at the end he comes out of the central cupboard between the ghostly projected images of old Malta in a red dress that is accurately cut in the lines of the late 40s and early 50s it’s the woman that was his grandmother, the woman who came from Malta in 1948 and made a life in Sydney. The recreation of her deep influence on his life is absorbing, strong and moving.

NZ actor Michael Hurst in Frequently Asked Questions was perhaps off in Rosencrantz and Guildensern Are Dead territory where the lads gather desperately trying to work out the secrets of existence. An actor playing Hamlet in a dreadful wig wonders if it is all worth a candle, then Hamlet wonders it, then Macbeth gets in the act, then Lear and Othello add their peculiar immaturities to a script which is particularly fun if you know your Shakespeare.  One bloke playing the lot is a bravura act crowned by a line in stage fighting that reminded me of the old Tivoli’s ‘wrestling Eskimos.’ I don’t know if this act has surfaced yet on any of the Someone Somewhere Must Have Talent shows but it used to consist of what looked like two small wrestling Eskimos until it was revealed at the end of the act as one bloke in a cunning costume.  Hurst does something akin without the cunning costume but with a lot of clever stage fighting and a co-operative lounge chair.

It isn’t all comedy, however, with the Dane being particularly vulnerable and Macbeth showing a chilling unprincipled savagery in a starkly lit sequence direct to the audience. The writing goes past the jokes and into some fairly black territory. Whether the wigged actor survives all of this is as unanswered a question as ‘To be or not to be’.

Angela’s Kitchen and Frequently Asked Questions have both been part of the splendid Solo at The Street Theatre series of which there is one more to come, Boy Girl Wall starting August 22.

Dame Edna says that’s her farewell tour and Sandy Stone certainly ascended to heaven (or at least the flies) in a glowing white armchair in Eat Pray Laugh but Capsis comes back for one night on August 3 as a musician with Make Me a King as part of the Capital Jazz Project and I bet he’s excellent there as well. 

We could also certainly do with more of Hurst’s quirkily powerful brand of theatre.  It’s always been clear to me from the oddments of NZ film and TV that penetrate here that good things go on over there and Frequently Asked Questions proves it.


 Alanna Maclean

Monday, July 23, 2012

Entertaining play about climate change

 “The Underground Ark,” by Bruce Hoogendoorn, directed by Fiona Fox, at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre, until June 23. Bookings 6275 2700 or www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au
Reviewed by Helen Musa



                            Picture  shows Hannah Wood (Jamie) and Ethan Gibson (John)

In “The Underground Ark,” Canberra dramatist Bruce Hoogendoorn has written a thoughtful and entertaining play about the implications of climate change.

Set in a world destroyed by global warming, the play sees an elite group of human beings sent underground to survive and reproduce their kind according to a set of rules and regulations.

The playwright toys with eugenics, the concept of a master race and the dangers of utopianism, tempered with a healthy dose of satire and dramatic conflict as the idealists, the pragmatists and humanists battle it out. In the end, Hoogendoorn plumps for humanity and hybrid vigour over social engineering.

Just when you thought the plot was wound up so tightly that he’d never be able to extricate the characters, the playwright abruptly introduces a surprise ending that sees the characters gazing into the middle distance as they imagine a more or less optimistic future.

With a brand new play, it is dangerous to confuse text with production, but the characters seem to be  well-delineated and the script stylishly written, though in the earlier part perhaps a bit too speechy.

The actors do service to their roles, with a particularly fine performance by Ethan Gibson as the fanatical young medical student John.

But I was troubled by the lack of emotional ebb and flow in the directing that saw the ending very nearly fall flat. I am fairly sure this is not the script and that closer vocal work with the actors would have yielded the emotional power needed to convey Hoogendoorn’s challenging ideas.

July 23, 2012 (This review was first published in Canberra Citynews on June 16, 2012)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Museum Thinking – some ruminations on performance.

By Frank McKone
18 July 2012

It’s quite a few years now since I have been in the position to review exhibitions in, say, the National Museum of Australia, Old Parliament House – now the Australian Museum of Democracy, or the Australian War Memorial.

My current trip to Europe (I write this in Geneva, not far from the Place of Nations) has reminded me of the exciting days when the NMA hosted the fourth biennial conference of the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL) in October 2005.

Robyn Archer, whose commitment to Canberra continues in our Centenary celebrations next year, gave a suitably theatrical keynote address at a conference which convenor Daina Harvey said would examine ways of reaching new audiences and the possibilities created by interpreting history and culture through performance.

'Performance is a really powerful way of drawing visitors into cultural institutions and engaging them in content,' Ms Harvey said. 'The conference explores the changing nature of cultural institutions and the way in which their themes and collections are interpreted.' 

As I recall, it was Ohio University's Catherine Hughes, speaking on how visitors connect emotionally to performance and how this affects memory and learning, who made the most powerful impact, backing the research done by Harvard’s Professor of Psychology, Howard Gardner, famous for his development of the Seven Intelligences theory of human brain function and learning.  (I believe he was able to extend his range to 8½ intelligences in later research.)

But the truth is I haven’t come across much theatre on this trip, though this is partly because our focus was mainly on walking in mountain country rather than visiting museums.  I feel a bit like Antony Green, the ABC election commentator, who has apologised in his blog for not being up with the latest numbers until he returns in August from his European bike riding trip.  It’s well up in the 30s where he’s riding in Italy, while we have also escaped the heat (at least my wife has) up on high walking the Haute Route in Switzerland.  I’m no longer capable of such escapades.

Yet three museums, I think, show that the theatre of history is dramatic, and should be presented as such to attract and educate the public of today.

The first I visited on a previous trip to France.  The town of Castres boasts perhaps the best collection in the world of the art of Spain, in the Goya Museum.  This indeed is an eye-opener because the mediaeval  paintings from Spain show so much more realistically the personalities of their subjects than those of other parts of Europe.  And that’s before you get to Goya, himself.

But the usual guidebooks mention that a museum was set up in 1954 in the house where Jean Jaurès was born.  Lonely Planet more or less said – speaking obviously to the young who want to keep moving – don’t bother unless you want to do lots of reading.  But what reading it is, with plenty of pictorial documentary displays, about the life of the founder of French modern socialism, merging the French Socialist Party with the Socialist Party of France in 1905.  If you thought Gough Whitlam was of some importance to the Australian Labor Party, see the story of Jean Jaurès and you’ll weep for this anti-militarist tragically assassinated on 31 July 1914.

While Castres’ tourist industry is so proud of its Roman remains (they’re everywhere, absolutely everywhere in Europe, as we have seen on this trip), and of the luck of having all those exquisite Spanish paintings, it’s Jean Jaurès and his lifetime of work for human rights which is the real legacy in a town where by 1860 “there were 50 wool mills in town, employing 3,000 people. In the end of the 19th century, mechanical engineering industries appeared beside the textile industry, which led to Castres becoming a major arsenal for the French army during the First World War.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castres)

The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand had its parallel in Castres.

No-one tried to perform in the Jean-Jaurès Museum – the house, the words and the pictures played their roles perfectly.

And on this year’s trip, a little museum in Torino (Turin) and a big one in Bolzano have had a similar impact.  The big one first.

How could we walk in the Dolomites above Lake Garda’s Malcesine and the ski-fields of Corvara without calling in to see Ötzi, in Bolzano, midway between? Ötzi, the Ice Man, 5300 years old and preserved in a whole museum to himself.

I doubt that I need to write about his famous story, but the special exhibition, for which we drove 80 kilometres (and you know what that means in Italy) and got lost in Bolzano (saved by an extraordinarily kind car salesman who gave us his map), took more than two hours in the viewing. 

We understood the context: the life of Ötzi’s times; the 20 years’ worth of science that has gone into the forensic interpretation of what was found on the glacier; and the way modern people have reacted to the “mystery” and the scientific information, as if each one of us has a personal connection to the Ice Man’s life and death.

But then comes the real drama.  There immediately before us are all the items of his clothing, his weaponry, his food, his backpack, and his finely ground and polished copper knife, just as we would see them if we had been on a bushwalk with him.  Then we see his body, his actual body, though preserved behind glass in a controlled atmosphere container.  We see his twisted arm and we see the wound where an assailant’s arrowhead tore his flesh and left him to die.

There is a little performance available.  School students dress up in re-creations of his clothing – superficially just for fun, but in the experience is the reality.  This man climbed well above the snow line in these clothes, made by hand of materials such as goat skin and wolf fur, and carried a long bow that required great strength to bend, to fire a notched arrow with glued-on feathers and a stone barb finely designed so that it could not be removed from its target.  Like the one which was still in his body in the ice after 5300 years. 

This is authentic museumship which makes history no longer a thing of the past. Ötzi is made present for us by the skills of modern forensic artistry.  Dutch artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis have used all the information from 3D CT scans to create Ötzi as he must have looked, standing before us, maybe unaware of the enemy hiding a little more than 20 metres away.  We know from the calculations made from the bow and arrows, and the direction of fire, that this scenario is very probable.  And I have to say he looked quite like my brother.

The special exhibition has been extended until 2013, and you can check it out at museum@iceman.it , but the website just can’t match the reality. 


The little museum has a long title: Museo Diffuso della Resistenza, della Deportazione, della Guerra, dei Diritti e della Libertà.

 www.museodiffusotorino.it for short.

Maybe this is to try to make this modern museum of social history claw a bit of audience response away from the Savoy family, the Royals of Piedmont, whose insanely huge buildings put up over 400 years now house massive collections of art. (Just like the Queen, I thought.)

But the difference is not just in size, but in intention and display.  Room after room of paintings are labelled with details of the work’s provenance – like who probably, possibly or actually did make the painting, what kind of brushwork was used, and how this might show the style and the likely date of the work.  Occasionally a portrait may have a named subject, especially if he (and sometimes a she) was “royal”.

In the Museo Diffuso the people, now often in their eighties, have real names and tell their real stories of the rise of fascism, the resistance, the Second World War, and the establishment of human rights principles in post-war Italy.  Fortunately for me, the speakers have their stories reproduced in English beneath the video as they speak.

On large screens as you move around from speaker to speaker you see film of the experiences these people were having: from Mussolini making public speeches to the destruction of people’s homes as they were bombed during the war.

Being entombed in a crypt of an old building where this display is set up was more than enough to bring back my memories of nights squashed in an Anderson shelter with my parents while the buzz-bombers and finally V-bombs crashed into North London.  So I was glad to find that the even deeper tunnel which was an original air raid shelter among the hundreds built under Turin had water seepage and was out of bounds on my visit.

The whole point of the exhibition circuit was to take you through people’s experiences to the point where you sat before modern day speakers quoting from the provisions that offer freedom of association, freedom of speech, protection of minorities, and equality before the law in the Italian Constitution. 

This was in stark contrast to the woman who spoke of not being able to gain employment as a teacher in 1933 unless she joined the Fascist Party.  She did so despite her abhorrence of the Party, explaining to her mother that she had no choice.  Her two brothers had already been drafted against their wills and her mother was now in tears at the equivalent loss of her daughter.

Later in the teacher’s career, her Principal had to write a report on her progress, and asked her to suggest what he might write.  She told him that she had always taught the children to search for information and to think for themselves, at which he pointed out that he couldn’t write anything like that.  It appeared that he sent in an acceptable report, however, and she did not lose her job.  Watching her speak I knew that she had had the patience, however dreadful the experience, to wait throughout the 1930s and then through the awful wartime, which luckily she survived, until the time came that she could treat herself and her students as a teacher should.

This is the kind of lesson this museum has to offer.  There were many more, ending in four mirrors.  As you sit before each one, you “activate the replay of individual accounts, passages from literature and newspaper commentaries on the selected articles of the Constitution.”  Called “Living the Constitution”, I wonder whether our new National Curriculum in Civics will ever do our young people such a service as this.

And, later, I found that this “little” museum is named Diffuso because the Comune of Torino – the equivalent of the ACT Government – has made the message “widespread”: “Twenty sites in the town have been highlighted with graphically coordinated signs so that the traces from the past can be recognised and deciphered in their local context.” 

I didn’t have time to stay in Turin and search them all out, but across Australia it may be time to make museums perform like these sites which “are marked with a matrix code as well as information panels.  These are two-dimensional codes which can be read using a cell-phone, transmitting information, pictures, documents about the place as well as giving access to a geoblog.  The geoblog is a communication space within the website of the Museum where impressions, comments, personal experiences and information can be exchanged in real time.”

The National Portrait Gallery is already using iPods.  What will it be like when you rock up to a town like Roeburne in WA, and your mobile tunes into the images of people in neck chains (which are on display in the old Police Station) while you are looking at the iron bars on the shopfronts.  Would you perform on the geoblog, I wonder?

Maybe we need one big Museo Diffusio, and the political will to make it happen.

Monday, July 16, 2012

MOONSHADOW


Writers:                   Yusuf, Rachel Wagstaff and Anders Albien
Music:                     Cat Stevens/Yusuf
Director:                 Anders Albien.
Musical Director:  Stephen Amos

Reviewer:               Bill Stephens
Gemma-Ashley Kaplan (Lisa) Gareth Keegan (Stormy) and "Moonshadows" company


If you’re a fan of the songs of Cat Stevens, the prospect of hearing his music may well be sufficient for you to enjoy this show, which contains no fewer than 40 of his songs. You may however be a little surprised at how they’ve been shoe-horned into an unintelligible allegorical story set on a mythical dark planet of Alaylia, in a distant corner of the universe, where the sun never shines, birds never sing, and no one ever sees the light of day. Not a particularly promising setting for a musical.

Gareth Keegan plays the brash, Pippin-like character, Stormy, who, accompanied by a tall, rather odd minder, called Moonshadow (Jolyon James) sets out to find a better life. Predictably, and despite the warnings of Moonshadow, he falls into a series of traps along the way.  As played by Keegan, Stormy is so cocky and boneheaded that it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for him, and his happy ending seems somewhat ill-deserved.
Gemma-Ashley Kaplan 
Gemma-Ashley Kaplan is delightfully wistful as Stormy’s girlfriend Lisa, who has been promised by her father to the outlandishly vain Pat Mathew. Blake Bowden pulls out all stops as Pat Mathew, but to little effect, and oddly, despite the fact that she tells Stormy that she loves him, Lisa appears to   welcome the overtures of Pat Mathew - at least while he’s wooing her.



 Marney McQueen and Gareth Keegan

Marney McQueen as the cougar Princess Zeena has the best costume and the best time chewing up the scenery in her efforts to seduce Stormy.  

The songs are well sung and the show is quite lovely to look at, with excellent lighting and special effects. The large cast work hard to bring some meaning to the proceedings but the futuristic storyline, with its trite dialogue, underwritten characters and serious lack of dramaturgy , leaves many of  them resorting to “bread & butter” acting and inappropriate reactions. The mood of the show tended to move between serious narrative and absurd situations, making it difficult for the audience to know how to respond or become involved, and as a result the conclusion was more bemusing than inspiring as no doubt it was intended to be.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that having arrived at the central premise, the creatives of “Moonshadow” have cut and pasted ideas from any number of other musicals including “Hair”, “Wicked”, “Sweet Charity” and the previously mentioned “Pippin” to accommodate the songs.  

In his program note Yusuf mentions that he thought there was room in the global landscape of musicals for something a little bit different.   “Moonshadow” is certainly a little bit different, but needs a lot more work yet to make it cohesive and different enough to become the truly memorable musical experience it could be.

A Broadway season has already been announced for “Moonshadow”, so you still have time to  have a look at this show for yourself during its world premiere Melbourne season before it ends on Sunday August 5th. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

THE PRODUCERS


A Mel Brooks Musical 
Presented by The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne,
Season 8th - 15th July 2012

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Brent Hill (Leo Bloom) Christie Whelan-Browne (Ulla) Wayne Scott Kermond (Max Bialystock)
Photo: Jeff Busby.

 
“It's shocking, outrageous and I enjoyed every moment of it”, quotes Max Bialystock from the reviews for “Springtime for Hitler”, the musical within a musical which caused his downfall in the Mel Brooks’ musical “The Producers”, and that exactly sums up my reaction to The Production Company's classy new production of this show.


In its fourteen years existence,The Production Company has made something of an artform of presenting “concert versions” of Broadway musicals. “Concert version” in the case of The Production Company means that the orchestra will be onstage with the actors, rather than in the orchestra pit, and that the sets are likely to be scaled back to accommodate this, but in every other aspect these are full-scale productions.


Top professionals are cast in the lead roles, the rehearsal periods are limited to no more than two to three weeks, and the seasons, as with “The Producers”, are usually just eight performances.


Having seen “The Producers” on Broadway, in Melbourne and Sydney, and even a good amateur production in Canberra,I was just a little dubious about seeing this “concert” version. However, having just recovered from laughing my way through opening night, I’m delighted to declare this, by far, the most entertaining production of this show that I’ve yet seen.


With a terrific cast and the addition of some easily-moved props and furniture, a very serviceable setting designed by Adam Gardnir, which has the onstage orchestra surrounded by staircases either side leading to a high walkway behind,a centre-aisle between the players, and vertical columns decorated with Broadway lights, directors Andrew Hallsworth and Dean Bryant have worked wonders to devise a fast-moving production packed with clever visual gags, witty choreography and colourful costumes, all of which serve the show brilliantly.

 Wayne Scott Kermond (Max Bialystock) Brent Hill (Leo Bloom) Christie Whelan-Browne
Photo: Jeff Busby

 
The excellent cast is headed by Wayne Scott Kermond who gives the performance of a lifetime as Max Bialystock, the Broadway producer who gets it wrong when he produces a Broadway hit.


Kermond plays Max as an old time vaudeville-style shyster. His performance is big, bold and laced with old-time physical shtick rarely seen these days, but superbly executed and perfect for Max Bialystock. His comic timing and line delivery are faultless and from the very first number, “The King of Broadway”, he has the audience completely in the palm of his hand waiting on his every move. It’s a masterful performance, completely hilarious and ultimately moving in the final minutes of the show following Leo Bloom’s declaration of admiration.


By no means overshadowed by Kermond, Brent Hill, as Leo Bloom, offers a completely different style of performance, equally hilarious and skilfully dovetailing the partnership, as he progresses from nervous mummy's boy to the confident playboy- husband of the drop-dead gorgeous Ulla, played with sparkling style and panache by Christie Whelan-Browne.


Never one to let subtlety get in the way of a good laugh, Trevor Ashley gives a wonderfully outrageous and over-the-top performance as the crazy German playwright, Franz Liebkind. He also contributes an additional hilarious cameo as an over-weight showgirl earlier in the show.

Mitchell Butel also provides his fair share of mayhem, especially when his character, the (very) camp director, Roger De Bris, dressed as Hitler in his own show “Springtime for Hitler”, sits on the front of the stage to perform a Judy Garland impression. It’s one more memorable moments in a production laden with them.

 Mitchell Butel ((Roger De Bris) Christie Whelen-Browne (Ulla)
Photo Jeff Busby
Virgina Gray, notably as Hold-me Touch-me and in a series of other funny cameos, Dean Vince also playing cameo roles, and Rohan Browne, playing the impossibly camp Carmen Ghia, all add to the merriment.


Also on this occasion (to quote from another musical) “Even the orchestra is beautiful” because, adding even more icing to the cake, Musical Director, Vanessa Scammell, looked svelte and glamorous in her figure-hugging long black gown as she conducted the excellent twenty-three piece on-stage orchestra.


The production numbers are stylish, tightly choreographed and very well danced by a vivacious team of excellent dancers and the ensemble singing throughout is superb. The costumes are glamorous, attractive and witty, particularly those for the Ziegfeld Follies-style showgirls who also manage the smooth, cleverly organised set-changes.

I have no idea if a return season is being contemplated, or even possible, but this clever, entertaining production deserves to be seen by a wider audience.


The next Production Company musical will be “Chess” directed by Gale Edwards with a topline cast which includes Silvie Paladino, Martin Crewes, Simon Gleeson, Michael Falzon and Bert LaBonte. It will run from August 18th to 26th.  You might be wise to make a booking.






CATS

Greg Sollis (Skimbleshanks) Brittney Gould (Exotica) Kelda McManus (Sillabub)
Photo: Craig Burgess

Presented by Free Rain Theatre

ANU Arts Centre until 22nd July.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Cate Clelland’s decision to set this production backstage in a run-down theatre, instead of the usual garbage dump, is just one of many inspired touches which  help breathe fresh  life into this most curious of musicals. 

Based on T.S.Eliot poems about a meeting of a tribe of cats to choose which cat will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new life, “Cats” is something of an acquired taste.  But this fine ensemble production, with its well-staged set pieces,  imaginative costumes and makeup, clever choreography and talented cast, captures Andrew Lloyd Webber’s surreal world so successfully, that it’s not difficult to understand why  so many people find this musical a magical experience.  .

The slight storyline is told through a series of songs and dances and Free Rain Theatre have assembled a superb cast of talented performers for whom choreographer Laura Pearce has devised spectacular and entertaining routines which echo the original Gillian Lynne choreography, showcase the strengths of her excellent dancers, and flatters her singers.

Vocally Impressive throughout, particularly during the chorus items for which Lisa Keen’s superb band produces exactly the right sound, with  excellent sound design which insures that the lyrics are clearly heard throughout, and a series of magical moments, add to the pleasures of a production which is a credit to all concerned and a compelling demonstration of the strength of talent presently on show in Canberra.
                                      (This review appears in "CITY NEWS"  12th July Edition)

 Members of the CATS cast
Photo: Craig Burgess



Thursday, July 12, 2012

Rosemary Dobson Bolton - A Reminiscence


ROSEMARY DOBSON BOLTON – A Reminiscence


 
Rosemary Dobson Bolton was my godmother.  In some respects this is a rather old-fashioned relationship, carrying as it does some religious connotations.  But I think I always thought of her more as a fairy godmother – one who bestows gifts, both material and emotional – rather than playing an overtly religious role in my life.

I don’t remember discussing with either my mother or Rosemary how it was that she became to be my godmother.  I know they lived in a boarding house in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney during the war and that both their sisters were also there for some part of that time.  My parents were married some years before Rosemary and Alec and so their children are several years younger than me and my brother.  For a brief time, we all lived on Sydney’s north shore, and shared some enjoyable family gatherings.  I remember Ruth Dobson, Rosemary’s older sister, visiting on a few occasions during this period, too.

I feel very fortunate that in our later years I got to know Rosemary so well.  This doesn’t always happen in these relationships.  As a child, I lived in different parts of Australia to her and her family, and then they moved to England to live.  I visited and spent some time living out of a suitcase in her daughter’s bedroom for around three months.  I think this was a difficult time for her daughter, but for me it was a gift.  I was living in a home in London, and could come and go as I pleased.

Eventually we all ended up living in Canberra.  It was then that Rosemary, and her husband Alec, and I became firm friends.

I was studying full time, trying to provide for myself in whatever ways I could.  Two things I could do reasonably well were typing – I had my own IBM electric golf ball typewriter – and cooking. 

On an irregular basis, Rosemary would ask me to cook for the family and invited me to eat with them.  I remember once that we were both shocked when the cost of the ingredients for one meal was quite high – and my enthusiasm had to be curtailed.

What I remember most about this time was that I typed the poems for Moscow Trefoil by David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson.  Natalie Staples, David and Rosemary were all interested in the poetry of Osip Mandelstam, and this interest quickly extended to poems by Anna Akhmatova.  Following Natalie’s literal translations, both David and Rosemary took these and made their own versions of the poems in English.  I typed the iterative versions, and eventually a manuscript was prepared.  Moscow Trefoil was published in 1975 by the ANU Press.


Rosemary was a modest, restrained person.  Her poetry has been described as being austere, but I don’t find that quite the right description.  She was gracious and elegant, careful and dignified, and for me, this describes her poetry.  Rosemary was wise, and often gave me good advice.  She was fun, too, and helped me see the importance of simplicity – in all things.  She was always encouraging and positive.

Rosemary provided an excellent role model for me in my relationships with my godchildren – and she was always interested in how they were going.  This was a role we had in common.

I will remember her for so many things and think how fortunate for me it was that in the 1940s, my mother and she happened to live in the same boarding house. 


Meredith Hinchliffe
©  July 11, 2012

Monday, July 9, 2012

DIE TOTE STADT

By Eric Korngold

Presented by Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House until 18th July 2012

Reviewed by Bill Stephen


Add Cheryl Barker in "Die tote Stadt"

Photo: Lisa Tomaseti.

Though best known as a composer for films, Erich Korngold also wrote several operas. However "Die tote Stadt" is the only one still being produced by opera companies. Because of the huge resources required to stage this opera, and the demands it makes on its singers, productions of "Die tote Stadt" are rare.

Opera Australia's production is therefore something of an event, made even more so by the fact that the direction of this production has been entrusted to one of Australia's most acclaimed film directors, Bruce Beresford.

"Die tate Stadt" requires an 88 piece orchestra to do justice to Korngold's soaring vocal writing and lush orchestrations. The lead male role of Paul requires a heldentenor and there are only three such tenors in the world currently singing this role. German tenor Stefan Vinke is one of those and was available for this production. At the second performance, Vinke appeared to be experiencing some vocal difficulties in the first act, but quickly overcame the problem and in the second and third acts impressed with his strong and superbly projected vocal range which rose thrillingly above the huge orchestra.

The lead female role is a dual one, and the singer cast in this role has to portray Paul's dead wife, Marie, and Mariette, a dancer with an uncanny resemblance to Marie. So, in addition to being up to the demanding vocal requirements of the two characters, must also have dancing skills. Cheryl Barker was the perfect choice, especially in her portrayal of Mariette, beautiful, coquettish and worldly-wise, she was totally convincing. She also danced gracefully and even during the dramatic events of the third act her voice retained its customary warmth and lustre.

Add Cheryl Barker and Stefan Vinke

Photo Lisa Tomaseti

"Die tote Stadt" revolves around the obsessive love of Paul for his dead wife, Marie. Paul has turned his house into a shrine for Marie, the centrepiece being a glass case containing a plait of her her. When he meets a dancer, Mariette, who resembles his dead wife, he attempts to transfer his love on to her.

Though attracted to Paul, Mariette rejects his attempts to turn her into a copy of Marie, resulting in a nightmarishly surreal series of events in which Paul kills his best friend, Frank ( a fine performance by Michael Honeyman)  after Frank confesses to also having an affair with Mariette, then finally, in a fit of rage, strangles Mariette with the plait of his dead wife's hair. Events which however prove to be a terrible nightmare.


Bruce Beresford, along with designer, John Stoddart, lighting designer, Nigel Levings and sound designer, Tony David Gray, has come up with a remarkable concept for the staging of this opera which involves moving the huge orchestra right out of the theatre for the performance and re-locating it in the nearby drama theatre. The sound from the orchestra is then broadcast into the theatre as the singers perform onstage, unamphlified.

Amazingly, this works extremely well. The lush sound of the orchestra was beautifully produced and an excellent balance was achieved between the singers and the orchestra so that the singers voices  were were not overwhelmed . The result was very much listening to a favourite stereo CD.

The strength of Bruce Beresford's direction is most evident in how he deals with the surrealism of the events and his use of filmed images projected on to scrims works particularly well in the second and third acts. Although it must be said that while the vision of the shower of red roses in the second act was quite beautiful, watching those same roses reverse and shower skywards later in the act provided a head scratching moment.


 Stoddart's designs are at their most beautiful in Act two, when the strolling troupe arrive at Mariette's house. Enhanced by Levings exotic lighting design and Timothy Gordon's graceful choreography the mood of sensuous decadence provides the perfect setting for one of the vocal highlights of the evening ...Jose Carbo's stunning performance of "Pierrot's Lied".

Jose Carbo and Cheryl Barker

Photo: Lisa Tomaseti 
While overall, it was all very surreal and beautiful, there were time when the effect was reminiscent of watching a filmed opera, rather than experiencing it live. So as a portent of things to come, this is slightly worrying because perhaps future audiences may choose to listen to their favourite opera CD, or watch a DVD of their favourite opera rather than attend a live performance. But for the present, one can only be grateful that Opera Australia has provided the opportunity to enjoy such a handsome staging of this beautiful and rarely seen opera.








   

Monday, July 2, 2012

JOANNA WEINBERG performs THE PIANO DIARIES


Tuggeranong Arts Centre,

June 29 and 30

Reviewed by Bill Stephens
Joanna Weinberg

Joanna Weinberg’s first visit to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre was as the author/director of a musical called “Every Single Saturday” which has since gone on to have a full professional production. This time with her one-woman cabaret show “The Piano Diaries” for which she wrote all the songs, Weinberg has revealed herself as a consummate cabaret performer and a fascinating singer/songwriter.

Though born in London, Joanna Weinberg spent her childhood in South Africa. She has had an interesting life, much of which is only hinted at in this compelling cabaret.  

From the moment she took her place at the piano, elegant in a figure-hugging long dress, long gloves and a red flower tucked in her hair, Weinberg intrigued and enthralled her audience, both as a superb singer and gifted raconteur, gently, and sometimes disconcertingly, revealing significant moments from her life story, most often through the playful, thoughtful, funny and moving lyrics of her tuneful and catchy songs.  

The piano was the connecting thread, and she sang of hiding under her grandmother’s African rosewood piano, as a two-year-old, while her grandparents played piano duets (Benjamin and Penelope). As an eleven-year-old, while sitting at the same piano, she witnessed a man being murdered. No one took her statement, so she wrote a haunting song about it, (Witness).  

She describes her first boyfriend when she was a thirteen-year-old (Freckled Angels) and tells of running away to America where she worked in cabaret (The Piano at the Cabaret) and played Desdemona in a production of “Othello”.

Her journey eventually brings her to Australia (The Winds of Fear) and she is frank about the difficulties she faced initially in finding work as an entertainer. But it was the song with which she closed her show which most strongly resonated with her Canberra audience, still reeling from the effects of the recent School of Music controversy. Weinberg prefaced her song by asking the audience to imagine a world without musicians, artists, singers and actors. Then painting such a picture with her song “The Artists are leaving”, quietly stood-up and left the stage. The effect was stunning.