Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Photo by Kurt Sneddon

James Anthony productions and George Youakim in association with Youakim Investments presents DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, Book by Jeffrey Lane. Music and Lyrics by David Yazbeck at the Theatre Royal, King St. Sydney.

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS is the best production of a musical that I have seen in Sydney for a very long time.

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUDRELS is a kind of 'buddy-grifter-screwball' comedy with music. The Book by Jeffery Lane, based on the 1988 film written by Dale Lauder and Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning - starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin - is a preposterous confection of low life skullduggery and scheming that is a laugh-out-loud joy. I found myself surprised and delighted at the silly-stupid audacity of it all. Combined, then, with Music and Lyrics by David Yabeck - he has also written for the musical theatre: THE FULL MONTY (2000) and WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (2010) - the story is catapulted into an entertainment realm of guaranteed outrageous wit and verve. Think of vulgar, daring turn of phrase, and rhyme - material to match the low life world of this gang of 'crooks' on the Riviera - and, remember back, when you laughed at the similar cleverness of a Stephen Sondheim musical/lyric challenge (say, COMPANY (1970), SWEENEY TODD (1979) and many others). This production at the Theatre Royal in Sydney is directed by Roger Hodgman

Add the wit and style of six actors of consummate skill: Tony Sheldon, as the super suave con-man, Lawrence Jameson; Matt Hetherington as the declasse 'apprentice', Freddy Benson; Amy Lehpamer, as the 'wealthy' ingenue target of the 'evil-doers', Christine Colgate, with a crocodile smile - be warned; John Wood, as the confidant and cooperate cop, Andre Thibault; Anne Wood, as Muriel Eubanks, a woman with more money than sexual satisfaction; and Katrina Retallick, the heiress from hell, or, Oklahoma, Jolene Oakes, and then you have the right ingredients for a sure aimed enfilade of mirth packed bullets to keep you happily pinned to your seats with amusement.

Many years ago,Tony Sheldon introduced me to the magic of the music theatre as Oliver at the old Theatre Royal, Castlereagh St. (Andrew Sharp as The Artful Dodger; Toni Lammond as Nancy, my first professional theatre)  and now he revives that magical thrill of the musical theatre long longed for, in recent times, to match that experience, in this Theatre Royal, King St. Mr Sheldon returns to the Australian stage after a long and successful sojourn on the West End, London and Broadway, New York, stages. It seemed to me that Mr Sheldon, as Lawrence, is now playing with supreme powers and confidence - so relaxed and so in command of his material, and us, his audience, not needing to prove himself to us, but, rather gift us with his accumulated theatrical technique. A purring well oiled instrument of rare value on our musical theatre stage, placing precisely and delicately his opportunities, for best effect, sometimes, recalling fondly, wittily other artistes (were there guffs of 'Guilgudean' mimicry, in some snuffled laughs from this Lawrence, or, was it just my imagination working overtime with provoked delight?)

 Mr Hetherington plays, nicely harnessed in the flamboyant and dangerous possible excesses of the low, low comic role of Freddy, with masterful hysteria, balancing expertly with physical confabulations of Chaplinesque/Stooges extremities, to beautifully counterbalance the poise and elegance of his partner-in-crime, Mr Sheldon. A duo of meshing professional restraints that elevates their comedy teaming to a higher art form of considerable taste and charm of effort, which has, of late, been much missed, on our stages.

Ms Lehpamer as Christine Colagate flouncing an innocence and femininity in 'frocks' of flaring good taste and decorum, holds her own against the humorous forces of her two leading men, and triumphs in her White Swan/Black Swan turnabout, with just the right tough/brittle armoury when needed. The costume designer of this production,Teresa Negroponte, has given a visual lift and wit to all the characterisations in this production to some sensational effect. Ms Lehpamer has all the gossamer lightness of good character costume design to assist the actor, further, to easily win the audience's admiration and sympathy.

Ms Negroponte brings that brilliant designer's eye  again to the costume enhancement of the towering creation of Ms Retallick as a tornado of moneyed crassness, Joylene Oakes. Ms Rettalick gives a performance of powerhouse comic cleverness and unforgettable impact, her two musical numbers,"Oklahoma?" and "All About Ruprecht" -a trio with Mr Sheldon and Hetherington - could be encored again and again - almost good enough reasons to see the show again! In lesser company a play stealer of a performance.

Anne Wood and John Wood give contrapuntal effect to all the madness around them with tenderly judged rom-com, for characters of a certain age - not, however light of boldness and in-yer-face contemporary sexual allusions, appetites, of course - the show IS called Dirty Rotten Scoudrels, is it not? I have talked of the comic acting and now compliment the singing from all - even, unexpectedly from Mr Wood of famed TV land (and Mr Wood, [in- house-joke], Keith Bain is smiling at you every night, I'm certain - maybe, even, Ms Barr as you soft shoe around that stage!)

I have not seen such depth of talent in a collection of principals on the Sydney musical stage for a long time, or, or have seen such an ensemble of inspired and inspiring performers in this genre, sparking off each other so creatively. These six artists seem to relish and love the show they are in and are interested in making the WRITING really reveal itself to give us a great comic story propelled with insightful and rich characterisations.

This production of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS contrasts my experience at GREASE***, last week, where I felt I was watching individual celebrities vying for personal attention at the expense of the theatrical realities of the vehicle - i.e. in not presenting real character and believable action within the limitations and possibilities of the writing (which we know can work, we have seen the film),  and thereby,  diminishing the genre, ultimately disrespecting the audience's intelligence, and plundering the art form that can give artists satisfaction, if respected and worked at, (as opposed to what I thought I saw: celebrity self-aggrandisement). And because most of the audience responds - they love their reality talent shows, too - at a certain level, does not make it good work or a justifiable way to choose to create and 'play'.

The DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS company, throughout the chorus role call of singers/dancers/actors here, are similarly disciplined and creditable in all their tasks. The choreography by Dana Jolly is witty and compact - the tongue-in-cheek touches of the palm tree choreography, being, just that, Cheeky! -  cooperating with the verve of the lyric and music, from the orchestra of 18, conducted with sparkling muscular energy by Guy Simpson, and the imaginative decoration of the costumes (Ms Negroponte, take another bow).

 The Set Design by Michael Hankin is elegant and smooth in its many blue velvet curtain scene shifts, and works well within obvious budget restraints (this element of Sydney/Australian productions always pales against the design executions of the Broadway experience - look to the recent elegant design production from Broadway, seen in this very theatre, earlier this year: DRIVING MISS DAISY, to apprehend my observation. Nicholas Rayment works wonders to keep our eye on the strength of the work- the performers.

All of this excellence must be given to the credit of the Director Roger Hodgman and the Producers who seem to have set, for me, certainly, a new bench mark of expectation for the Australian Musical Theatre experience.

Here is a present of laughter for your cherished, and a memory that equals my wonderment of the memory of my first Musical Theatre, Professional Theatre experience, from days of yore: OLIVER!

P.S. When the old THEATRE ROYAL, Castlereagh St. was demolished, it had to be replaced by another theatre space, hence, this THEATRE ROYAL, King St. If this THEATRE ROYAL is to be demolished or 'lost' as recently reported, I hope the Sydney City Council and The NSW Government is just as demanding. as their wise predecessors were. Visiting Melbourne last week and seeing all the "BIG" commercial spaces available, puts Sydney's paucity of that resource (tourist attracting resource!) shockingly, clearly into perspective. Space for space, Mr O'Farrell, and then some - the new Casino building?!!!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Small and Tired


Belvoir presents SMALL AND TIRED by Kit Brookman in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills.

SMALL AND TIRED by Kit Brookman is a new Australian play about family. About family and the secrets of families. About the individuals that make up a family. About the secrets of each of the individuals that make up that family.

The son (Luke Mullins) returns home after a long self-exile to arrange his father's - an ex-army officer's, - funeral. His estranged mother (Sandy Gore) has been reluctant, and his emotionally disturbed sister (Susan Prior) is unable. The internal politics of this family are askew and volatile, emanating from the death/suicide of an older sister, long ago. The living sister has a husband who has found a way to help her (Paul Gleeson), and the son has found a companion to shield and 'love' him (Tom Conroy).

The writing is contemporary, poetic and firm surfaced, supported by deep motivations both domestic, and of our day, supported by the primal history resonances of characters from Greek tragedy, from the House of Atreus - Sophocles and Euripides.  Mr Brookman has named his characters, Orestes, Clytaemnestra, Electra, Pylades and the tradition of those mythical life forces informs and resonates powerfully the tensions of this work in an almost unbearable heat of storytelling.

The acting is great and feeds eagerly off the writing offered. It is the illuminated power of the 'Greek' heritage of the character nomenclatures that glows and simmers beneath the confrontational conversations of this family, as old wounds and deep secrets attempt to expose themselves. Ms Prior - Electra - is magnificent (as usual) and frightening in her harboured and husbanded grief; Ms Gore - Clytaemnestra - is majestic, resigned and tragic in the steeps of the finite and infinite knowledge of a life lived as she nears the end of mortal carings; Luke Mullins - Orestes - is wholly immersed in the volatile and bewildered son, burdened with the masculine heritage of a family history that is shrouded in unspoken mysteries, and which he must confront and no longer flee. This acting trio is amazing in the complexities that they live for us, and in the compact space of the Belvoir Downstairs venue, the blaze of their convictions and interactions, are aimed accurately, plunged deeply, into our emotional psyches and, I, for one, was moved to tremulous compassion for them, and forced to weep for this family, and my own mirrored family with its secrets, embracing, both the personal and the cultural "family' heritage that Mr Brookman's writing draws from. The cultural echoes of Mr Brookman's play are anything but small and tired.

In contrast the bemused witnessing of the passions of this family by Mr Conroy -Pylades - is deeply empathetic and a sure guide for our, the audience's response, as is the tragic, amusingly named, Jim, played movingly by Mr Gleeson, a suburban everyman trapped into the guise of the good shepherd. All five of these actors, under the clear and insightful eye of the writer/director, Kit Brookman, bring onto the stage not just the imaginative energies to enliven the text of the scenes in naturalistic mode, but are combusted with the life force of deep-long history.

Mel Page, Set and Costume Designer, Verity Hampson, Lighting Designer (Just look at the beauty in the above photograph) and the Sound Design of Tom Hogan serve the work without err. This work Downstairs at Belvoir is of a complete whole. I truly urge you not to miss this production or this writing.

One hopes it plays in the bigger house. The audience able to see this work is severely limited (90 odd per night, or, so - so do book). This space, Downstairs Belvoir has produced some of the best work for this company: BANG by Jonathan Gavin (a co-op production of a few years ago), OLD MAN by Matthew Whittet, and the award winning MEDEA (which I did not see), were three works which regular subscribers mentioned to me in the foyer afterwards and confessed they felt were the more satisfying subscription occasions they had had over the past few years! If these plays/productions had joined NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH and the Tom Holloway works upstairs, what a weighty heritage it could have shared with a much bigger audience.

Two recent works: THE WESTLANDS and SMALL AND TIRED, both have excited me enormously.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Romeo and Juliet


Sydney Theatre Company presents The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

Kip Williams, the Director of this production of ROMEO AND JULIET, tells us in his program note:
... When I came to reread ROMEO AND JULIET with a mind to direct it, I was struck less by the differences between the Montagues and Capulets, and more by the similarities: excessive wealth, unchecked ego, dominant patriarchs, packs of arrogant young men. The ancient grudge between the families felt like it could easily be the kind of rivalry defined by the threat one feels when faced with an opponent who is deeply similar to oneself. What became clear to me was not a world split into two distinct halves, but rather a portrait of a singular universe; a world of old money, filled with vacuous narcissism and steeped in unquestioned tradition. ... ... In this telling of ROMEO AND JULIET, I have sought to situate the birth of our protagonists' love in the context of (an idealistic) drive to re-imagine their futures. In doing so, I have focused the action more specifically on the Capulet family, stripping the number of characters from 20-odd to just 10. As such, the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets sits not as the locus of the story but rather as another part of the fabric of this singular world - a world where violence is born of boredom, habit, alcoholism and ego. ...
This could sound alarming to the traditionalists amongst us, but in practice what Mr Williams has done in his textual excisions, re-writes and interpolations (sonnets et al) is to create a work that is still satisfying as an experience of the original text that we might know by William Shakespeare. Mr Williams, really, is just following the example of the Royal Shakespeare Company geniuses: Peter Brook, Peter Hall, John Barton, John Dexter, Trevor Nunn etc. - and many in history before then, "cutting and pasting", adapting with respect and an eye to, perhaps, the social relevancies of the original Shakespeare work, for his contemporaries. "Shakespeare Our Contemporary." The respect for the text is the shining glow to Mr Williams employment of Shakespeare's writing, here. Intelligence and clever sensitivities. The shift of focus is not that radical and what Mr Williams has imagined with his company is fairly convincing and well spoken enough to have one in a kind of, for me, an unexpected thrall. I liked this production a lot.

And it is not just because of the simply centred and carefully thought through performance, skilfully spoken Juliet by Eryn Jean Norvill, one of the more arresting performances of Juliet that I have seen - wonderful, and truly moving in its musical and emotional intelligence. But, also, because of the conception and execution of this individual response to the original play. Of course, in all of the many encounters I have had with this play, and there are many, many, including the other contemporary appropriations, WEST SIDE STORY etc, it is always the Juliet figure that dominates the story. It is written that way. She is the most daring, most active, most mature and most insightful character in the play. Shakespeare, himself, tells us in the last lines of the play:
... For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Juliet and Romeo, not, Romeo and Juliet. I am sure it is not to just capture the doggerel rhyme that it finishes this way!

Mr Williams with David Fleischer, his designer, has created for the first half of the play, a fluid, physically shifting action for the storytelling, using the double revolve of the Drama Theatre stage. There is a large, dominant, empty, dirty white walled 'period' room of what was once, perhaps, a mansion house, that is rarely static when in use, and where the passing parade/action takes place; it is occasionally "colonised' for other settings e.g. the garden of the herbalist/priest Friar Laurence (Mitchell Butel). This large room is contrasted with a shallow edged path, hung over by a looming, black-walled set of obvious theatrical flats that have no other statement to make, pocked with white doors that allow surprise entrances and egress, and a long window that substitutes for the balcony. The lighting by Nicholas Rayment, mostly, creates pragmatic spaces, to focus the action for the audience, or generalised states of spaciousness - not much beauty here - re-enforcing the sense of a society in decay. The design visuals are effective in suggesting the shallow rootlessness of this world, and its sense of a hovering, impending, dark doom.

The 'play' of the male youth in this world, "the pack of arrogant men", is disrespectful and indulgent, indulged - swinging from chandeliers, stacks of empty bottles of alcohol around their living spaces, registering a kind of chimerical dissolution, cigarettes as easily accessible as 'flick' or dagger knives, clothing (costumes) of the impermanent, throwaway kind, nothing truly fitting or of quality - all representing a paucity of good taste and a simple kind of animal indulgence: flimsy camouflage for their sexual obscenities of thought, word and deed.

Mercutio (Eamon Farren) and his buddy, Benvolio (Akosh Armont) are fast, foul-mouthed punks blessed with a kind of verbal 'posh'-like poetry - Mercutio's famous Queen Mab speech is accompanied by Mr Farren's louche physicality, underlining his ever spiralling, focusing language descent into the Shakespearean obscene allusions:

               "This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
                 That presses them and learns them first to bear,
                 Making them women of good carriage."      (Act 1 Sc.4 L. 92-94.)

 - dilettantes of the filthy rich, with 'rich-fouled' imaginations- who when confronted with unreasonable anger in the presence/form of Tybalt (Josh McConville) - scoff, joke and predictably, underestimate there ability to survive it.

Romeo (Dylan Young), the third wheel of this gang of bored louts seems to be on the edge of some metamorphosis from youth to manhood but is essentially crippled by a youthful lust, first for Rosalind, and then, fatally, for Juliet, the daughter of the enemy house. After 'gate-crashing' the Montague party, with his mates, masked like the white rabbits from a David Lynch film, and seeing Juliet, he begins a possible transformation to a better, more mature, poetic, considerate state, she teasing his rough lust into intimations of love, through the games of language. Alas, too late, for Romeo's pyschopathic inclination to violence, bred in his early behaviours with his 'bros', is provoked, with the street brawl murder of his comrade, Mercutio, so that in a blind and passionate temper, it consumes him, and unhinges the world for them all. Romeo's fate is as a double murderer ( a revenge killing of Tybalt and a later killing of an innocent, Paris) and suicide, not the romantic, respectable equal partner to this Juliet. His mirrored use of imagery awoken in the glow of Juliet, in the famous 'balcony' scene is contrasted aurally for us, undermined by his plebeian dialectical usage of his mother tongue - the music of his voice not matching the 'beauty' of his Juliet's imagery or musical sound.

In the first two acts Mr Williams has his design elements giddily whisking us through typical comic fare - the double entendres allowing Shakespeare to be both both romantic and sexual at once - and assisting a gem of comic assiduousness and cunning from the truly remarkable performance of Julie Forsyth as the Nurse. With injured voice, nursed to clarity of intention and wit, with a shining intelligence, hilariously bedecked in costume, that, in the several changes, are servants to Ms Forsyth's unerring creativity as a mischievous bawd becoming the go-between for the ill-starred lovers. The madness of her fringe-dress in the ballroom, a 'key' image of the fateful folly of indulged and simple stupidity, in this world on the brink of tragedy. The first part of this production finishes with an inspired directorial comic journey,using the revolve with great wit, when Juliet in disguise as the Nurse travels to the cell of Friar Laurence to wed. The low comedy of near recognition and meetings is counterpointed with a triumphant classic music score that finishes in a timely, elevated fashion with the fateful wedding kiss- to give conclusion of the first half, a golden comic high. The composed music/Sound Design is by Alan John.

Daringly, there is no setting for the second half of the play, just a huge open black maw, intimating the black tragedy that will ensue: where the physical action of intimidatory brawl and murder, and uncompromising patriarchal bullying can be starkly shown in spacious staging, until, from behind a descended curtain is revealed a 'metaphor' of design imagery of white sheeted double beds that spread across this vast dark hole acting as the grave catafalques for the denouement of the story. The dead body of Tybalt counterbalancing the drugged body of sleeping Juliet, both resting with a pillowed head and crossed arms on chest. The fight scene that opens the second half is wonderfully staged by Fight Director, Nigel Poulton, and the actors 'dance' the 'choreography with vital energy - it is spectacular, having the entire bare stage to enact it in. Here, too, in this space, the power of the patriarch Capulet (Colin Moody), one of the emphatic themes of Mr Williams interpretation of the play, is impressive, with his family of women spaced dramatically, sculpturally around the maw, as he wilfully bullies the wedding of Juliet and Paris, directly.

This production finishes with the shooting of guns and has Juliet in the trauma of drug recovery and shocked grief brandishing one threateningly at her father and family, and finally in her wedding/funeral dress, coming to the centre of the downstage edge, holding it to her own head. The lights fade - Juliet does not pull the trigger. That she will, we may conclude, with fore-knowledge of the well known story. Or, not? Why Mr Williams does not have the act shown, or supply the recorded report of the gun, one hopes is not a choice of political correct sensitivity - in having a young woman commit suicide by blowing her brains out being judged, censored, as not contemporaneously OK, as it may be too violent a statement, role model, to make in 2013, for this audience, which would, did include, many young people, who, studying the play at school, have come to see it staged? For us adults, the contemporary imaging of the tragic mayhem of this play has been wonderfully justified, and recognisable of the streets of our city, Sydney, by this company and production, and this final moment, in the Drama Theatre, is disappointingly weak. Was the bloody self-murder, suicide, of Juliet to outrageous an act to show this audience? It is, it seems to me, a logical progression of this play and, particularly, this production, and we are led to that moment of cataclysmic action. Was it too 'scary', too 'full on', for the contemporary audience to endure, to have it bloodily enacted for them, in front of them? (I hope it wasn't for pragmatic dry cleaning reasons?!) A 14 year-old girl, caught in the romantic web of a poetic first love, attempting to escape from the bullying and stultifying surrounds of her family life, choosing to shoot herself, a contemporary reality to true to perform? The mother of a school-aged daughter, thought so, and was partially relieved. Curious conversation we had afterwards, with her hip young daughter from a private school - after all, she said, The Hunger Games is part of her imaginative scape and that is fiercely confronting. Indeed.

All the performances are concentrated and lively and the verse of Shakespeare, mostly, handled well (Charmian Gradwell. The actors are all wired with mics for sound: the Radio Mic Technician, Remy Woods.) Ms Norvill is giving an outstanding reading of Juliet, truly funny, romantic and moving through all of her journey, from the first tentative entrance and speech, to the centre-stage gun to the head moment - not a moment wasted, not telling. Julie Forsyth creates a memorable Nurse. Eamon Farren, Akos Armont, create a double act of too true a contemporary reality, handling the Shakespearean challenges well, if not with enough vocal range to keep us alert, and clear, all of the time (speed and volume galore, but not enough pitch variation.) Dylan Young grows in confidence as Romeo, as the violent, emotional passions are invited to support the language, whilst there is some hesitancy with the romantics of his early verse. Mitchell Butel challenges us with a sexualised image of the gardening Catholic Friar Laurence, bare-torsoed in flamboyant dressing gown in his herbal garden, diminishing in potency as his meddling unravels, and, almost cowardly, absents himself from responsibility. Here, too, like Mr Young, Mr Butel is best with the verse, when the emotional passions are most nakedly necessary. Anna Lise Phillips creates a striking Lady Capulet balancing her neglectful mothering with a slavish indulgence of her femininity in a fashion plated presence, in contrast to the hulking uncompromising masculinity of her bully-husband, played piercingly, weightily, by Mr Moody. What Shakespeare has not given with text, Josh McConville delivers with embodied frightening mania as Tybalt - his looks could freeze his enemies to stone, inaction. Alexander England is a handsome four square presence, as the dupe Paris, in all the chaotic brawls of this corrupted and decayed Verona. These 10 actors make up for the other 10 or more characters not present in this production (assisted, wittily with anchored balloons in the ball scene.) It appeared to be an impressive ensemble. One must acknowledge the stage crew, as well, as an integral part of the ensemble - this production would flounder, be undone, without, what I witnessed, as flawless and invisible wizardry behind the scenes.

This STC production of ROMEO AND JULIET is a production of Shakesperae's play, that I was really pleased to have seen. The 1594 original well served by this 2013 adaptation. Recommended. There will be much discussion guaranteed, after.

P.S.: $90.00 for ticket.
         $10.00 for program. (Free in New York! inclusive in the ticket price.)
         $5.00 'tax' for attending, imposed by the Opera House Trust.

Total: $105.00.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Grease

Photo by Jeff Busby

John Frost by arrangement with Paul Nicholas, David Ian and Robert Stigwood present GREASE at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney.

This show began. Those famous opening musical sounds.
BOOM!
A song in... then: "Grease Is The Word" and "Summer Nights".
Boom, boom!

I have never seen this musical on the stage before. And, when, in the Lyric Theatre the other night, I heard those two songs I was transported to one of those long lost cinemas in George St, where Angela Punch, Mark Harrison and I jumped out of our seats and danced to the closing credits to the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John film version.We danced out into the street, high on life.
Did we feel the word?
"Yay!" GREASE, was the word.

This stage version, at the Lyric Theatre, which is using the post-movie additions, i.e. the original songs (John Jacobs and Warren Casey) with some additions (Barry Gibb, John Farrar, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon.) bounces along with all the silly mayhem of a celebration of another era - a total fantasy of that era, to be sure, BUT, a good one. The music and lyrics, in this production, along with the zesty, dynamic choreography keeps one high and distracted from a too simplistic book, and performances, that though they sing well, mostly, let us down with superficial attempts to 'flesh' out the characters.

Gretel Scarlett as Sandy scores gloriously with her "HOPELESSLY DEVOTED TO YOU" in the second act; Lucy Maunder scores with her vocal rendition of 'THERE ARE WORSE THINGS THAN THIS" (What a voice!). That their attempt to create 'real' people that we can/should care for beyond the personality of the performer, is a little suspect. And, it only mattered as the night rolled on and we became tired. Rob Mills, as Danny, relies on personality and charismatic chutzpah to deliver his man, and could focus on more than those bare necessities, to creating a character, to be the leading man that Mr Travolta has indelibly placed in our minds. Big broad face-pulling, no matter how attractive that animated face can be, is, really, only skin deep and repetitively boring over the two and a bit hours. How different was this work from his Fiyero in WICKED, when I last saw him? - not much. I liked, a little more, Stephen Mahy as Kenickie; Francine Cain as Frenchy, Eli Cooper as Eugene - they made some attempt to flesh out their cartoon characters - and the chorus of dancers, particularly the energy and finish of the male chorus.

Specifically, it is the singing and dancing that sweeps one along through the evening which, because of the length of the show, just, just begins to pall a little towards the end. And that is because the principals, really, have not created characters well enough for us to sustain our care for what happens to Danny, Sandy or any of the others. Most of them are playing the story as if we already know the conclusion - which we do - but we would, I can assure you, like to have some stakes of doubt to carry us through to the end. The Director, David Gilmore, seems to have found the flash and dash of this show but not the flesh and blood of the characters (however thin it may be in the book and lyrics).

If I were a judge on a show panel and had to estimate Todd McKenney's "Teen Angel", as I understand he does for others on television ("colourful' and controversial, I read in the program) then I would have to say the amount of applause that the audience gave him after his one song, "BEAUTY SCHOOL DROPOUT", before he suggestively waved his hand to encourage more APPLAUSE from us, (several times), is the just amount his performance deserved. No more, for certain, and may be a little less in my observation of what he gave us to respond to. The performance was all packaged glam fakery with little authenticity of any McKenney revelation or truth, or even any , in the moment care for the work - ego centred and delivered by rote - a performance offer that seemed to be a little skew-whiff in accuracy of vocal skills and choreographically, the choreography and the music finishing at different times! Disappointing - the in-joke of the maracas all the more sad to see in rememberance of what was a great performance, in its time. Anthony Callea, in his guest spot as Johnny Casino, with a haircut that just looked WRONG - give him a wig please - performed in a kind of dazed space, and completely out of style to the musical he was purportedly in. He looked and felt as if he were promoting his new album - all personal ego and no, no character from GREASE. Bert Newton, as Vince Fontaine, has that wonderful voice and that indomitable spirit that still gets him through to please, while Val Lehman was just terrific as Miss Lynch, a fairly thankless role, that she keeps, desperately, aloft.

Believe it or not, despite my huge carps, GREASE the musical is so charming with its bubbly score and dance routines, that if you are feeling low - just go. It could lift you into a state of joy.

A Time To Kill


A TIME TO KILL. A New Courtroom Drama. Based on the classic bestseller by John Grishman, adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes at the Golden Theatre, Broadway, New York.

A TIME TO KILL is a new play adapted by Rupert Holmes from the first novel of John Grisham (1989). It has also been made into a film (1999) with Kevin Spacey, Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson. This is a classic Broadway commercial venture and the reason I went to see it.

It is a courtroom drama and has all the sensational twists and turns of that genre, interspersed with the tensions of racism in a Mississippi city. Directed by Ethan McSweeny, with a huge and elegant design by James Noone - the best element of this venture for me - that includes a towering wooden cyclorama and rows and rows of flying scene-locations, and trucks of furnishings, with some video projections (Jeff Sugg), that gives the whole venture a feeling of lavish scale and 'class'.

The performances led by Sebastian Arcelus (John Brigance), Patrick Page (Rufus R. Buckley), Ashley Williams (Ellen Roark), and John Douglas Thompson (Carl Lee Hailey) are all brusquely played with the clear shapes and edge of the usual character types of this material. The sheer professionalism and ease of their work is bracing in its clarity and story book telling, and well supported by the other eleven actors involved in creating the functionaries that populate the court and the rest of the society, so as to give the production a keen sense of familiar recognition of this world.

The play is a well crafted example of the courtroom form. It is a crowd pleaser with all the tension, humour, politics and storytelling rewards that cause the audience to hold their breath, laugh out loud, make satisfied judgements of character expectations and gasp with the ups-and-downs, twists and turns of what happens on the stage. "Oh, no." Yes!" "Ha, gotcha!": examples of the audience responses. It has pleasing grandstanding speeches and relievedly, politically correct solutions with just a soupcon of political cynicism to make us all feel good about ourselves and rewarded to see justice being so well served in the face of so many dreadful societal obstacles.

Horses for Courses, of course. My parents loved Agatha Christie (so do I) and my peers clearly love the novels of John Grisham (I hardly know them) and will enjoy this stage adaption, as their parents did with the Christie repertoire (and still do e.g. THE MOUSETRAP). You know what you are going to get at the Golden Theatre, and you get it with great respect and no expense spared. Aimed at popular response it is an admirable example of utter commercialism in the straight theatre of the Broadway theatre experience. I kind of enjoyed myself, watching the magic of theatre storytelling working around me.

I saw this production in a preview week.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Westlands


Weatherboard Theatre Co and True West Theatre, present THE WESTLANDS by Dale Turner in the Rafferty's Theatre at Riverside, Parramatta.

THE WESTLANDS by Dale Turner opens with a community response to a bushfire alert in the Westlands. It was a sobering beginning to this performance in Parramatta, considering it was last Thursday, the 17th of October, and New South Wales, and the greater spread around the City of Sydney was dealing with one of the worst fire alarms in its history. We could see the smoke plume from the Mountain fires, trailing across the sky outside, through the windows. We could smell the burn, and sense the intensity of the heat in that tumultuous colour of the sky. Weatherboard Theatre Company, the co-producer of this work (with True West from Riverside), has grown in the Blue Mountain area, and members of this company were trusting that their homes, family and neighbours were safe as they told us this story. The experience of the play was intensified with this 'acted' reality so palpably true outside.

Mr Turner has written a play in verse. It seems to be, happily, inspired by the form of that great verse play UNDER MILK WOOD by Dylan Thomas. It is a happy connection, as it works, most of the time, so well, in the hands of Mr Turner, and, so, is an agreeable and pliably appropriate and fluid take. We begin at the beginning , with an indigenous, Trent (Rhimi Dean) reading the ground, the dust, for meaning. (He takes the role of Second Voice, from the Thomas play model). The Stranger (Shane Porteous) appears: "We came and saw with our own eyes", representing the white appropriation of this country, and, like the First Voice in the Thomas play, guides us, with comment, witty and otherwise, through introducing characters and interludes into their enacted histories of the possession of this Westland.

We meet and become involved with a compendium of characters in various story telling places in their histories, representing the recent multi cultural and aspirational class differences of the Westlands. Lucy Miller, James Lugton, Tiriel Mora, Craig Menaud, Patrick Trumper and Olga Assagby create portraits of these people in deft strokes of observation and empathy. The depth of some of the acting is moving indeed, shifting from satirical comment to emotional realism with ease, and as required. Ms Miller and Mr Lugton, create wonderfully recognisable and fragile domestic 'survivors'; Craig Menaud in several roles, plays true and clearly, especially as Azadar, in pursuit of a 'dream'; while Mr Mora is particularly astute and canny in his many choices in an array of men, political or just plainly, simply, a bloke - a carpenter. On the whole the skills, from some, are, sometimes a little variable in the playing, but the passion and belief in the work is all equal, and allows one to maintain one's interest, belief and gathering immersement - enthusiasm.

Director, Michael Pigott, once again (e.g. the recent, THE TWELFTH DAWN) finds a sure path to discovering the ways and means to keep this many scene play afloat and coherent, having a steady hand on the pulse of the writing, both for character and their development, and the rhythmical tempos of the music of the scenes. There is some real staging inventiveness, that within the tiny budget for this show, is admirably, magically successful - a boat journey, for instance, echoes of Ariane Mnouchkine!

I was, frankly, very moved by this production of this work. I believe it was more than sentimental nostalgia, for me. (I am, after self examination, sure , of that.) True, the production is sometimes rough, and it is, very occasionally, not as secure in some areas as in others, but it was always winning. I felt an identity with this world, a keen sense of watching a new Australian play that had resonance and insights about who I am, where I am, and an echo of recognised values, virtues and vices of myself and my fellow audience, that I have, perhaps, unconsciously, craved for in recent years when going to the Australian theatre, and not found. John Doyle's THE PIG IRON PEOPLE, presented by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008, attempted to touch those places of unique recognition, in the Australian psyche, human heart and solar plexus, but could not resist obvious dramatic caricature and too broad a comic brush (go for a laugh and sentimentality when a toughness of approach, a resistance to that oft reached for easy good-humoured 'bloke -iness' might have been more powerful - a usual Aussie fault). PIG IRON PEOPLE didn't seem to trust the intelligent sentiments of the material's origins and inspiration. Mr Turner is very sure of his talismans and how to touch them for effect.

THE WESTLANDS is very different in literary form, but it had the thrill, for me, of what I remember having, when watching for the first time an iconic Australian work like THE LEGEND OF KING O'MALLEY (Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis), or, some early David Williamson, or seeing AWAY (Michael Gow) or A HARD GOD (Peter Kenna) for the first time. The thrill of hearing and seeing an authentic Australian identity, that I recognised as a part of me, on the stage. THE WESTLANDS revived for me the power of experiencing that healthy power of reflected kinship and identity in the the theatre. I had a few tears of excitement on my face at the end!

I hope the STC, Belvoir or Griffin send a visitor to estimate the promise of this new work. I recommend THE WESTLANDS by Dale Turner to you all.

I saw the following night a new work by Jane Bodie, HINTERLAND, at NIDA, commissioned by NIDA, directed by Julian Meyrick. HINTERLAND, is a play dealing with an  important 'world' story, crafted in a daring and, for Ms Bodie, a newly expansive manner. It is of some note, and I wondered how is it that Ms Bodie is not been launched, more consistently, on our main stages? Let us hope that one of the 'gatekeepers' of our Sydney repertoire feels urged to produce a version of HINTERLAND. I could not help but agree with Mr Meyrick in his sentiments in the program notes to HINTERLAND, and, I am paraphrasing, that we are in a dolefully worrying time to be able to estimate the few Australian playwrights and writing that are vying to be produced on our stages. I feel as if I am living through a kind of "Dark Age" of the original Australian playwright voice. Both, THE WESTLANDS and HINTERLAND give a kind of faith and hope to a possible dawning renaissance. (I am struck, amusedly, that these two plays are in the West land (Parramatta - Blue Mountains) and of the hinter land  (of the profession - NIDA.)

N.B. THE WESTLANDS was part of a joint art initiative that also included an opening of a painting exhibition by David Robert Hill (also, from the Blue Mountains - The Art work of Mr Hill is represented in the blog illustration above) opened by the State Shadow Minister of the Arts, Nathan Rees, for this community. Robert Love, Director of the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, announced that the New South Wales government had, on this very day, informed he and his organisation, that the funding for the TRUE WEST program, under whose auspices THE WESTLANDS was able to be presented, was cut - no longer available. As a result, it seems that the TRUE WEST initiative, this vigorous and important opportunity for the artists of the West Lands to be seen, will now, perforce, become defunct. Mr Love said that of the 300 odd million dollars assigned for the Arts in New South Wales, less than 1% is received (yes, less than 1%), in the West - the demographic heart of Sydney. It seems to me, that there is much positive public rhetoric from government sources concerning the Arts and the West, but when examined, very little active support is forthcoming. All loud, blustering promises and no palpable action. The way of the world, I guess. All loud show but no follow through except a sheen of a Marketing ploy by a supposedly sympathetic government and/or political party. A tragedy in the making, for the future of our nation, I reckon.

Recently, I smiled at the observation of Keith Gallasch in the monthly Arts Review magazine, REAL TIME (September issue) when he concluded a look at several classic productions, that had had the Australian 'veneer' given to them (THE MAIDS [STC] and PERSONA (Belvoir), being two of them), expressing, that that work (those plays and productions) would do, while we waited for the New Australian plays to arrive. Waiting for the new Australian works to arrive - mmmm?.

 Note well what has followed: at the moment at the STC and Belvoir are two more classic texts, reduced, re-written by two 'auteurs' of the local theatre scene, two of Shakespeare's plays ROMEO AND JULIET and HAMLET; at least, we have THE FLOATING WORLD at Griffin, even if it is a1974 Australian voice present in the city. Do these 'auteurs'/directors find any inspiration in the development of new Australian authorial voices, and feel the impulse, the need to produce it, other than their own manipulations of other historical, classic writers' work? Just how hard do the 'gatekeepers' reach for the new Australian voice? How much risk do the companies really make? I guess Andrew Upton, an Australian playwright (RIFLEMAN, his last original text) is content in adapting, "auteering" two classics, CHILDREN OF THE SUN - Maxim Gorky (a commission he wrote for the National Theatre of Great Britain this year; and Rostand's, CYRANO DE BERGERAC - this is the third production of that play in my living memory of the STC!! - than writing a new work of his own? How about a work, with a role for Cate Blanchett, that might tempt her back to her old stamping ground? Ms Blanchett has not played an Australian character on our stages for some time - a decade, or more, is it? Meanwhile at Belvoir, I wonder, is it enough to have the personal, biographical ruminations, mutterings of a young writer and her adventures with a psychic in the search for love, given pride of place on their and the Malthouse stage (STORIES I WANT TO TELL YOU IN PERSON)? If you have no other interest except in your self and your friends, maybe? And no other play presents itself of any challenging worth., as I have ben told by some in positions of 'power', I suppose. In the mean time it is ok for the other and new Australian writers' voices to be smothered in development stages, before even a birth, not seen by the audiences - a kind of 'abortion' of the Australian playwriting culture? Isn't it?

The expectation of the new Australian play was a thrill to see and hear, in the '70's and '80's at the old NIDA/Jane St. Seasons; then at Nimrod and later, Belvoir; at the Sydney Theatre Company. And not only were the successes thrilling but the disasters as well - what a fall was there, and how exciting the debate was, over, for instance, the aspiration and crash of the Paris Theatre season, Louis Nowra's VISIONS (1979) and Dorothy Hewett's PANDORA'S CROSS (1979), under the direction of the 'hot shots' of the time, Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn, or, the debates around the new play works of Patrick White, or, god help us, Jim McNeil - Australia's very own Genet type figure - our own 'poet' in a prison.

"Dr-eee-eam.
Dream, dream, dream.
Dr-eee-eam.
Dream, dream, dream." (to a tune by the Everly Brothers, I think)

Go see THE WESTLANDS out at Parramatta.

Stories I Want To Tell You In Person


STORIES I WANT TO TELL YOU IN PERSON by Lally Katz in Joe's Pub at the Public Theatre, New York.

Crazy isn't it? Life?

Here I am in New York and I discover that Lally Katz is going to give a one night performance of her one person monologue (comic stand-up routine(?)) at Joe's Pub, which is a cabaret space in the Public Theatre building way down town, at 9.30pm, on Sunday night. She follows, into the space, the monologist, Mike Daisey (he, of the notorious, THE AGONY AND ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS monologue - Sydney Opera House Concert Hall), who, at 7.30pm, on the same night, presented the latest in his monologue series - ALL THE FACES OF THE MOON.

I missed STORIES I WANT TO TELL YOU IN PERSON (directed by Anne-Louise Sarks), at Belvoir, and, so, I, and a young director-friend (Benita de Wit) who is studying at Columbia University, and a whole lot of other ex-pat Australians working in the city - an IT worker and his Aussie actress-wife shared our table - holidayers like myself, and others, including the company of PETER PAN that had just landed in town, to get ready for their Friday (11th Oct) opening, bought tickets and two cocktails (you must buy!) in a plushly decorated venue (about the size of Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir) to catch it, here, in New York.

This monologue, which was developed on commission by the Belvoir Theatre in Sydney and Malthouse in Melbourne, after her failure to produce/write a play on the recent financial crisis/catastrophe (!), has the irrepressible Lally Katz riffing on her life story, revealing her past and more recent biography: American born but growing up in Canberra - I mused, the Canberra 'landing' influence, may go a long way, perhaps, in explaining what is often a kind of unhinged realism - surrealism - in most of her writing for the stage; of her recent play works RETURN TO EARTH (MTC) and NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH (Belvoir), and the relative monetary security that they had given her; her personal relationship adventures with a "full Jew" in Melbourne; and her interactions with several psychics, especially one called "Cookie", who lives in New York, and may have cursed her; and of two of her 'heroes': Apocalypse Bear (who made an appearance, on stage) and Hope Dolphin (who, only symbolically, did).

It is a rambling piece of seeming recall that is held together by the delightful persona of Ms Katz. She is an ebullient "kook" and has a way that makes everything she says full of a certain kind of whimsy - a self deprecating charm - that helps one to forgive much else about what may be lacking in the craftsmanship of the performance. Ms Katz, in interview, admits she is no actress and will never do it again. - well, we shall see, I guess. For, I reckon, if she developed her stand-up stage technique further, it could rise to the strangely beguiling innocent levels of the great Gracie Allen (George Burns' famous foil and wife) or, evolve into a kind of maniacal sweetness that the two Brewster aunts, Abby and Martha, in John Kesserling's 1941 play, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, have, (they benignly, for years, have poisoned the old men of their neighbourhood watch with their special potion, 'elderberry wine! -  it is also, a great comic movie - 1944 - with Cary Grant.)

In the cabaret setting at Joe's Pub, this was a pleasant way to finish a Sunday night in New York that began for some of us walking the Brooklyn Bridge at 8.30am! I did wonder, if, in a theatre environment, as it was presented in Australia, whether it would seem too lightweight? Perhaps, too thin, to really justify the occupation of the valuable opportunity of those spaces and time? I, bemusedly, wonder, what Ms Katz would have said about the international monetary crisis - this biographical conversation suggests understanding money and managing it, is not a strong suit of hers.

It didn't matter whether she wrote about that or not, anyway, it seems, for Ms Katz, obviously, has some real friends in the theatre scene in Australia. Ralph Myers at Belvoir and Marion Potts at the Malthouse, at least thought this work had merit enough over other writings (they were both in the audience in New York), to promote this comic monologue on their stages. Or, had "Cookie" been induced to cast a spell on them, so that Lally (Ms Katz) could pay for further sessions with her psychic, to enlighten her, further, about the "full Jew" and her future with him?

STORIES I WANT TO TELL YOU MYSELF, told by anyone else, other than Lally Katz, may not work at all, but, with Ms Katz, is charming, especially, in this cabaret milieu - "TWO cocktails or else", admonished the waitress - and don't forget, in the US of A, it is free pour, as well - wheee! That vodka had a kick! Otherwise, STORIES I WANT TO TELL YOU MYSELF, could be read as a frivolous indulgence of a serious commission, don't you think?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Once

Photo by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times

New York Theatre Workshop present ONCE, Book Enda Walsh. Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, Broadway, New York.

ONCE, the musical, is an adaptation of a low budget, small Independent film from Ireland, directed by John Carney in 2007. Both, the film and the musical play, tell the story of a young Irish busker with a broken heart, called "Guy" who meets a young married Czech refugee called "Girl" (yes, really) and find that they can make music together. The twist is that this romantic musical does not have the usual happy ending - very Irish, indeed.

This production is by the team that created the more recent Broadway production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE. Directed by John Tiffany; Choreography/movement by Steven Hoggett; Design by Bob Crowley; Lighting by Natasha Katz. The Book has been written by a favoured contemporary writer, Enda Walsh ( PENELOPE). They are the reason, I elected to see this show, over the myriad of musical theatre choices that one has on Broadway. The impression of the collective talent exciting in anticipation.

The original film took only 90 minutes to tell this story and this adaptation takes some 2 hours (plus interval!) - so, in my experience the work feels stretched beyond its bearability, and despite the anti-romantic ending (from the film source) is maudlin and sentimental in extremis. "Guy" is a whiny, depressed folk-pop singer who begins, thrashing with palpable pain his guitar, with a soulful dirge called "Leave" and at the end of the arc of this story, 5 days later (it did feel that long in the theatre, too), is still dirging away with a reprise of the 2007 Academy Award winning song, "Falling Softly", accompanied by the soulful and perkily depressed "Girl" - she, too, having made no positive movement in her personal life in the arc of the play. Both begin underdogs and losers, both finish underdogs and losers - very Irish, indeed.

This production is antithetical to the BIG monster musical (e.g. SPIDER-MAN) that has dominated the Broadway scene in the recent decade or so, and may account for its winning of 8 Tony Awards - a clear, cheap change that demonstrates a kind of economic rationalism that obviously goes a long way to winning the votes of the current Broadway/Tony awarding peers. SPIDER-MAN costing $75 million! with no real possibility of recovering it.

ONCE has one setting, an Irish Pub, and it sits there, decoratively, curved around the upper edges of the stage - no whiz bang twirling or flying - once built and nailed down, it stays put for the duration of the season. Cost? A heaven sent economy! Scene location shifts are accomplished by the actors, simply, with small indicated changes of props/furniture and lighting.

When we enter the theatre, the company, are on stage, and you can join them, and purchase from that Irish Pub bar, a pint. In the interval it re-opens to the public for more service and musical camaraderie - maybe being drunk was the right way to enjoy this show - very, very Irish, indeed. ONCE follows the recent trend of some musical theatre to have all the artists be, not only the actor/singers/dancers/stage-hands, but, also their own musical accompanists, their own orchestra. In this company, then, all 12 artists play various instruments. These performers do it all - these 12 actors cover all the job descriptions necessary to make the show work -what an economic haven of inspiration - very Irish, indeed.

There is no real choreography, to this show, either, just an individual movement vocabulary for the actors that, occasionally appears to grow into a 'dance'. Mr Hoggett who was responsible for one of the elements of the success of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, the movement, does a similar thing here. Unfortunately, the remarkable gifts of the Menagerie cast is not available on the stage of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, and so what appears as a visual joy at the Booth Theatre, is, in the bodies and gestures of these less 'great' artists, to be self-conscious and irritatingly "fey" - very Irish, indeed.

The writing, from Mr Walsh begins well, and I was excited for about 10 minutes, but the basic film  story line and character observation is so limiting in its 'blueprint' for the musical adaptation, that Mr Walsh appears uncharacteristically befuddled with his words, and, perforce, collapses into the pre-prescribed vocabulary of rather dull immature people in a silly and wearying plot line. I imagine his monetary return is compensatory - very Irish, indeed.

Ms Joanna Christie ("Girl") has some real temperament and a character that has some spark of get-up-and-go and brings some brightness to the stage, even humour. Arthur Darvill ("Guy") is saddled with a very tiresome, emotionally, indulgent, entitled child as a character, and has to deliver a musical score that has a very limited appeal: whiny folk-pop; and, except for others who may contemplate suicide when they scuff there boots or chip a nail, it is boring and repetitive beyond belief (Music and Lyrics by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova). Mr Darvill seems to be buried in the opportunities of this musical, and is, ultimately, less than appealing.

Blah, blah, blarney, blah, blah.

I did not enjoy myself in the least. And because I sat amongst many who did, many, I became more and more 'enraged' and depressed at the cute banality of it all. A young Irish girl sat beside me. She came late - very Irish indeed. "Genevieve" (not "Girl") has been away from Ireland for six months, or so, she told us, and so wept her way through all the show - very, very Irish in its nostalgic sentimentality, indeed. I managed to hide my chagrin and didn't spoil her night - for she stood gushing and heaving with sobs at the curtain call, along with others. I felt like such a party pooper - but I refused to join her on the stage, to dance and sing, carouse with the cast, and instead forced myself to give an encouraging smile and got out of there as quickly as possible. Not easy in a Broadway theatre, the seats so tightly arranged.

I should have gone to see NEWSIES, the Disney dance show, for a little bit of old fashioned pizazz, instead of this economically rationalised package of maudlin sentimentality, wrapped in 'groovy' but extremely dated - everywhere but Broadway, it seems - methods of staging. It certainly enhanced my respect for the genius of the THE GLASS MENAGERIE company of actors, to see similar aesthetic techniques used by the same creative artists (Director, Designers and Movement/choreographer), relatively, fail to integrate, all their 'genius' into a satisfactory whole for ONCE.

You will see this show, I guarantee, on professional and amateur stages, for the rest of time, because it is so economical to stage and, hey!, is cute and has audience participation - you, too, can be on stage, and, sing and dance - Irish ballads and jigs. You can drink up there, and get your autographs for your program without having to wait forever at the stage door afterwards, as well.

 But, for me, once, was enough. Quite enough. Pure torture - very Irish, indeed.

Anna Nicole



Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) present BAM 2013 New Wave Festival the New York City Opera production of ANNA NICOLE, composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage with a libretto by Richard Thomas, in the Howard Gilman Opera House.

The above video clip is from the original production at the Royal Opera House (ROH), Covent Garden. The photograph, below, is from the BAM production.

In Feburary, 2011, while commenting on the stage musical, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, I mentioned that the Royal Opera House in London had commissioned an opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith. I ruminated that DOCTOR ZHIVAGO seemed to be a more likely subject for operatic treatment, and that Anna Nicole Smith more suitable for a Musical Theatre treatment. The reviews for the London production of ANNA NICOLE had been very good, so It was a wonderful 'fluke' for me to have the opportunity to attend a re-staging of the original production (with an American company of artists singing) in the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as part of their 2013 Next Wave Festival.
This opera is based on a true story. Some characters have been invented, some events imagined or changed.
The opera, ANNA NICOLE, is told in two acts of sixteen scenes. It covers the life of an Anna Nicole who was born and grew up in very 'straightened', circumstances in a town called Mexia, pronounced "mu-HAY-ah". Her family is dirt poor and not 'gifted', suspect, even, in the bringing up of children - abuse seems to seep through the seams of the family figures. Anna, born beautiful, but with little education opportunities, finds herself pregnant and married and divorced at the tender age of 16. A single mum, with her employment opportunities being low-wage jobs and grunt work, Walmart, for instance, the possible height of her destiny, leaves town, and heads for Houston. Finding work as a lap dancer in a "Gentlemen's Club", Anna finds a problem in competing with the other employees, for despite her natural beauty, she earns little attention from the customers, and, so invests in breast implants - bigger 'titties' will earn more attention and more money, she is advised. It, also, can have the side-effect of chronic back pain, which only drugs can relieve.

Like Camille, in the Pam Gems version of the classic Dumas story, Anna finds her best resource for success is her body and her beauty. Disfigurement and prostitution is not too high a price to pay to survive for self and kin. To get that Ranch.The dream of all the girls is to meet The Rich One. Enter an oilman, J. Howard Marshall II and both, Anna and Marshall II, fall under a spell, he for her, she for financial security. Each served the other well, it seems, and they marry in the White Dove Chapel, he, some 63 years her senior. Unlimited money gives Anna, her Ranch, security for her son, Daniel, other ambitions of her own, chronic back pain and drugs, and advice from a lawyer, Stern.

After the interval, we find Anna Nicole caught in the excitement of the Red Carpet in Jimmy Choo shoes, and becoming the Patron Saint of Parties. Virgie, Anna's mother, and careful about her grand-son Daniel, warns her daughter of the dangers of her precarious life. Marshall II dies, there is no will, and his family refuse to give Anna 'a dime'. The predictions come true. Re-enter the Lawyer Stern, and a ten year battle begins in the courts for 'justice'. Skip forward, and the years are not good to Anna and her best assets, her beauty and her body, and as a victim of the media-celebrity press becomes a public relations disaster for her lawyer - enter Larry KIng and his live interview show. Later, Anna, overweight and addicted, gives birth to a daughter. For three days Anna may be happy, then, her now teenaged son, Daniel, dies in her presence, and she never really recovers from grief, and loses the will to live.

 In the action of the opera, Anna zips herself into a body bag and with one last parting kiss to us her mesmerised public - "Just let me blow you ... one last kiss"-  quits the scene, whilst the press metaphorically, scratches in the refuse of the 'world' for a new story.

The curtain slowly descends.

A fairly obvious plot and hugely simplified broad-brush drawing of characters, the libretto is almost too baldly cliched to hold one's interest, one would think. But truth is, so they say,"Stranger than fiction." The music by Mark-Anthony Turnage is inspired, and when harnessed to the lyrics of the libretto by Richard Thomas (he was responsible for the libretto for JERRY SPRINGER: the OPERA, as well), which are vernacular vulgar, and become wonderfully entwined in literary and musical irony, further enhanced by witty and sophisticated staging by the director, Richard Jones, in a deliberately over-the-top design in dominant pinks by Miriam Buether, and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, it lifts into a great contemporary, cautionary tale of our times.


Using the tragedy of the life of Anna Nicole Smith with respectful artistic licence, this team of artists, give us a journey of the everyman (everywoman) trying to pursue the great promise of The American Dream against stacked odds. It also engages us in a powerful critique of one of the scourge's of our society, the insatiable celebrity press, that we as a democracy have empowered to reduce, if possible, in our very own homes, living rooms, others, to seamy ridicule and salacious humiliation, for our gratification. The lyrics in vernacular sex argot, accompanied by displays of pornographic suggestions and enactments in truly 'hideous' but sophisticatedly witty design elements, contrast, purposely, and so persuasively, in this high operatic form and sound, that it triumphantly stuns one in its effect.

At first we are encouraged to laugh at the sheer 'dumbness' of Anna and her 'hick' family. We gasp at the simple solutions in the sex drenched world that the 'beauty' of this tale finds herself choosing to do to survive. The shock of the big 'tits' are risible and the 'beast' in us is amused and wonder struck. We are placed in astonished disbelief and, then, awe, at the age-inappropriate relationship of Anna and her billionaire, Marshall II. Later, we are made to glean that perhaps, in its way, it served positively the needs of each of the two protagonists. We are placed in ambiguous positions of, maybe, approving. But, just as the image of the young son growing into a teenager, woven into the fabric of the opera, prepares us for retributions of catastrophic operatic proportions, in the near future, the added classic ordinariness of two families at war over money drag us teetering and then falling to disastrous and inevitable conclusions, that in this operatic form have grown to great tragedy, tragic dimensions. One is left moved and distressed.

This is clever art. Accusatorial and convincing. Modern and of the minute. This was an opera, and all that that can mean - think of the work of Verdi and especially Puccini, the melodramatic scale of their stories, and not afternoon TV 'soap opera'. As I queried in my Diary entry on the Metropolitan Opera production of Shostakovitch's THE NOSE, who can say the opera, as a form is museum or antiquated, when it is invented and used in such striking contemporary ways.

(Digression: I could not help but think of the place I sat in: an American theatre surrounded by Americans who embraced this story and had this withering critique of their country's life style, culture, delivered to them by, essentially a foreign collection of artists, and still applaud and laud. This, I thought, represents democracy - an aspect of democracy - where opposing viewpoints can be respected and presented. I cannot remember when the last time I was confronted with any theatrical literature in Australia, in any of the many medium expressions available, that gave an audience what ANNA NICOLE delivered. There has to be, knocking on the doors of our cultural gate keepers, work of a similar nature around in Australia, surely? I found it staggering that Van Badham, who is a passionate commentator/observer of the social and political world, and has written powerfully for the theatre in volatile terms, had a 'rom-com' on the stage, at the Griffin: THE BULL, THE MOON AND THE CORONET OF STARS. Was that the only play, subject matter that could get Ms Badham's work on to a contemporary stage in Sydney? If, it is not literary censorship (there are no such plays, or, they are so badly written, is the familiar answers , I usually receive when talking about this issue), that is not finding these authors for our stages, it must be a kind of economic censorship that protects us 'down under', from possible cauterising observations of our daily lives. The economic pressures to attract an audience prevents real and honest discussion of vital social issues, besides sex relationships? Is that the case? Is it that our theatre's cannot afford confrontation, that might alienate an audience, and reduce box-office returns significantly, such that confrontational discussion is avoided, and we are left to wallow in our relaxed and comfortable, prone, comatosed lives, in the theatre, in the cinema, and on our television?

 I ask, merely, for information.

 I was flabbergasted last week when a respected newspaper commentator, Gerard Henderson, of the Sydney Institute, in his weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that the only way to contain the ("biased") observations of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is to defund it. I have read or heard no repercussions to that  statement. (I was so startled, that I re-read the paragraph several times.) I guess, one can only tremble, and watch these suggestions of economic censorship, come to be, again. I always felt that the Howard Government had the 'right' way to control public opinion, by keeping a tight purse-string on the funding of all the Arts, especially the ABC, during his time. Or, am I simply a cynical naive dolt in this area of observation and have got a skewed impression? I  also thought to myself, recently, after reading the critical opinion of the Melbourne Theatre Company's production of David Williamson's RUPERT, (I have not seen or read a script, yet!),  just how smart it was for the Melbourne Theatre Company to present a play with a positive spin on Rupert (is that right?) considering the times we are entering. Or, is that just a naive construct, as well?)

The lead singers, Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole; Robert Brubaker as J. Howard Marshall II; Susan Bickley as Virgie, Anna's mother; Rod Gilfry, as Stern, the Lawyer, were convincing. In support, the New York City Opera chorus, ballet and orchestra, led by Steven Sloane, were attentive, and gave a keen sense of the mood tone of the work. The ensemble company gave their all to contribute to the craftsmanship of the composer and librettist. That this was to be the last performance of this company, ever, may have given the company even more concentration and commitment to ANNA NICOLE, the opera.

This performance by the New York City Opera, on Saturday, 28th September, was literally the last of, and for, this company. After 70 years, founded in 1943, this so-called "people's opera" as the alternative company to the Metropolitan Opera Company, was dissolved, and has filed for bankruptcy. Just as the soprano Sally Joy Miller sang as the dying Anna Nicole Smith: "Made some bad choices, then made worse choices, then ran out of choices." it seems the same can be said, sadly, of the City Opera. To be present, unhappily, in the midst of an historic moment in the cultural times of NewYork, was a sobering experience.

Just what does this tell us of the state of the New York music scene when this great city can only support one opera house, when most of the important, and some less important cities of Europe, boast of at least two, some more? I won't hazard a suggestion. (Living in a glass house like Australia, what can I say?) The financial scandal been revealed at present, concerning the financial management of this company, may  reflect the onerous developments of the American economy as a whole, in the present frightening "fiscal cliff" that is enveloping Washington  - the possible demise of a world power that will, if true, shake and re-order the world, dramatically. Let us hope that the collapse of the New York City Opera is not a symptom of a much bigger problem.

It was great to hear this contemporary work. The Metropolitan Opera will present a new work, TWO BOYS, music by Nico Muhly, libretto by Craig Lucas, directed by Bartlett Sher (SOUTH PACIFIC), conducted by David Robertson (the recently appointed Chief Conductor and Music Advisor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, beginning in 2014). as a joint project with the English National Opera, later in the season: October 21st. Maybe with the new Sydney connection we may come to hear this work in due time. Certainly, the ANNA NICOLE would be a work of interest, too, would it not? I, for one, would like to see it again.

Hay Fever

Photograph by Bob-Seary

New Theatre presents HAY FEVER by Noel Coward at the New Theatre, Newtown.

Noel Coward's HAY FEVER is given a perky and, mostly, stylish production at the New Theatre. Some regard Mr Coward's plays as, relatively, frivolous pieces of fluff, and, certainly, Mr Coward himself, declared his distaste for "plays with a message". Mr Coward's prolific output needs not much introduction, and beside his play texts, has left an extensive musical repertoire, and some curious film projects that still hold some deal of interest (IN WHICH WE SERVE). Of his plays from the pre-World War Two era, many have become 'institutionalised' as classics of comedy. HAY FEVER (1925), PRIVATE LIVES(1930), DESIGN FOR LIVING (1931), TONIGHT AT 8.30 - a cycle of ten one-act plays (1936), PRESENT LAUGHTER (1939) - and we should include, BLITHE SPIRIT (1942), despite my dating parameter of this list.

HAY FEVER is pure comedy. It has no plot, really. The Bliss family, living in the country, invite, separately, a guest, each, to spend the weekend. The guests find themselves virtually ignored by their hosts and  become caught up, within, what appears to be a highly emotional family feud. Exasperated, and thrown into each others arms, the guests, evacuate, together, from the sphere of that very 'theatrical' family - they having had anything but a bliss filled time. The family are highly relieved with this resolution to the weekend. The comedy writing is engineered immaculately and it is, virtually, the juxtaposition of character and their predictable traits that make the play an uproarious time. A play about nothing (SEINFELD, hello), sprinkled with sprightly repartee and a few jokes of wit.

The play is almost a perfect example of comedy writing, as Oscar Wilde's THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (1895), is. HAY FEVER is as difficult to bring to life onstage, as that great play, famously, is, too. It is in "Master Chef ' cooking terms, perhaps, as delicate as making a soufflé. If the Bliss family of characters and their guests have too brittle an edge, they can become tiresomely unpleasant, and be, simply, just plainly mean spirited, and, too silly to enjoy.

This company at the New Theatre under the expert, and splendidly textually detailed direction of Rosane McNamara (some classic staging on view, which some of our recent graduate directors could take notes from), acquit themselves admirably. There is an obvious, knowing sense of character - which must have real models of observation to be convincing - and the exaggerated genre of the play's heritage, brought to bear. Most of the company seem to have the experience to blend their contemporary actor's technique to the 'period' life of the play, on all fronts of the difficult task, Mr Coward has given them.

Alice Livingstone gives a perfectly marvellous lead performance as the Bliss family matriarch, Judith, (no Judith Bliss, no play, ever, I reckon) with all the comic 'theatrical' aplomb that is necessary - and add, the touch of her splendid musical vocals, and one could hardly want more (Ms Livingstone is having a sterling year, what, with this performance and the direction of TOP GIRLS for this company earlier in the year).

It is wonderful to welcome James Bean back to Sydney from Perth, is this splendid work, as husband/novelist, David Bliss, in what is usually, in my other experiences of the play, a fairly lack-lustre role. His scene with Ms Haubrich (Myra Arundel), masterfully judged - delicately funny.

David Halgren (Simon Bliss), has the intelligence and physical and vocal élan of the role which Coward wrote for himself, and is wonderfully, attractively, charming. Giles Gartrell-Mills (Sandy Tyrell); Tess Haubrich (Myra Arundel); Alyssan Russell (Jacquie Coryton) and Adrian Adam (Richard Grantham) are delicious in the 'horrible' circumstances their characters find themselves in. On the other hand, Jorja Brain (Sorell Bliss) seems, truly, out of her depth - shouting her role in a vacuous imitation of style, with very little embrace or nuance of character - and Sharron Olivier (such an illustrious surname) does not have the ensemble sense of timing for Clara, a character that functions, importantly, as part of the tempo action of the stage musical choreography - it is all in the timing,

The Set Design by David Marshall-Martin, unfortunately, has, perhaps, some well researched verisimilitude in its conception, but is entirely 'over-weighted' in its affect - it is stylistically 'ugly'. It lacks any of the frisson of a contemporary eye and seems content to load the stage with every lovingly researched detail with no true feel for what could, should, can, work in presenting this wonderful soufflé-style play for a sophisticated contemporary audience. Visually, it feels like a very lumpen Christmas pudding, not what the recipe for success in this genre of play requires in 2013.

In 1964, the fledgling National Theatre of Great Britain, then at the Old Vic theatre, under the direction of Laurence Olivier, decided to revive HAY FEVER as part of their season. It was directed by Mr Coward himself and starred Edith Evans, Maggie Smith, Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave and Robert Stephens, amongst others. Mr Coward, whose work had been 'out-of-fashion' and neglected, disparaged even, for decades, then, made an announcement about this plan and said :" I am thrilled and flattered and frankly flabbergasted that the National Theatre should have the curious perceptiveness to choose a very early play of mine and to give it a cast that could play the Albanian telephone book."

I was surprisingly entertained and delighted with the New Theatre's production of HAY FEVER. Ms McNamara, the Director of this production, and the President of the New Theatre Management, acknowledges that this work is indeed a surprising choice for this historically famous Socialist theatre, and draws a justification, that Mr Coward may be more than just a talent to amuse, and, today, may be a guide, a critical eye to the humans, the people of those past times - that delirious, unsettling time between the two great wars of the century, where political, economic busts and booms created generations of behaviour that were selfish, careless and completely self interested. The world of today, the political and social hypocrisies of the present, wars and revolutions, booms and busts - watch that stock market wavering - can easily be recognised in the frivolousness of this play. HAY FEVER once had the title of Oranges and Lemons - perhaps sweet and bitter - and watching this production of the play, one can simultaneously experience it with a tang of sweetness, because of its very silliness, and, yet, be given pause by the confronting mirrored image of our present human behaviours ,and taste a foreboding, underlying bitterness in its contemporaneousness.

A very curious perceptiveness on the part of the New Theatre, then. Coward and Chekhov writing comedies in a few acts! (a stretch?)

Let's hope the company can keep up the necessary discipline and joie de vivre, for when I saw it, I felt that I could recommend this night in the theatre, confidently. I did so with JERUSALEM a little while ago, and suffered some little rebuke from some who had gone to see it on my enthusiastic urging, and were disappointed enough to leave at the end of the second act.

The Nose


The Metropolitan Opera presents Dimitri Shostakovitch, THE NOSE at the Lincoln Centre.

How could one not take notice of these names, all on the same "bill' and not want to see what they have all concocted: The Metropolitan Opera, Dimitri Shostakovitch, William Kentridge, Valery Gergiev, Nikolay Gogol and Yevgeny Zamyatin? Plus, for us Australians: Alexander Lewis (Who? - the young Australian tenor. Son of Michael Lewis, I think).

THE NOSE is a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, and the Opera National de Lyon. It was first presented at the Metropolitan Opera, in 2010, in this wonderful staging by William Kentridge, who is both Director and Designer. THE NOSE was premiered at the Maly Opera Theatre, St Petersburg (then Leningrad), in 1930. Shostakovitch only wrote one other Opera: LADY MACBETH OF THE MTENSK DISTRICT (1935). I am a considerable fan of the music of Shostakovitch and could not pass up the chance to see and hear THE NOSE. Its likelihood of ever been seen in Australia (at least, in my lifetime), seems entirely remote. I had, as well, seen at the Tate Modern, London, earlier in the year, an exhibition of some of THE NOSE designs of Mr Kentridge - the black and white video 'shadow' drawings, that were accompanied with music - in the new galleries there: The Tanks and had my appetite whetted, and was made to be full of longing to see THE NOSE. Lo and behold, my longings brought to a feasting. I had to go.

I had also attended at the New York Museum of Art, in the Spring of 2010, a considerable exhibition of Mr Kentridge's work, which included many stage-box realisations of other designs he had made for Opera e.g. THE MAGIC FLUTE - amazing! Some Sydney-ites may have seen some of Mr Kentridge's work at our own MCA, a few years ago. It was where and when I became aware and acquainted with his work and 'genius'.

Shostakovitch's THE NOSE is based on a short story by Nikolay Gogol (1836), adapted to the libretto by Yevgeny Zamyatin (he, of the dystopian novel, WE (1921), said to have been the inspiration to George Orwell for the novel,1984), Greorgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis - although, the composer himself is said to have had a large input. Both the short story and the adaptation concerns a "Major" Kovalyov, a low ranking government official, who, upon waking up one morning, discovers that his nose has left his face - there is just a flat space! He goes in pursuit of his nose, and actually meets it, dressed as a higher ranking official then himself, and scooting around the city of St Petersburg in a very elaborate carriage. "Major" Kovalyov, thus interacts with a huge cross section of the Petersburg society in this frustrating situation - the work is a satire, both, social and political. The short story is, by the way, extremely funny and wonderful reading.The original defies easy categorising and is regarded by some as 'an absurdist masterpiece'. After much "whoo-there!" adventures, the nose is found to be back in place on the "Major's" face, without explanation.

In the authorial voice, the story concludes:
No, I don't understand it, not one bit! But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It's just ... no, no, I don't know understand it at all! Firstly, it's no use to the country whatsoever; secondly - but even then it's no use either ... I simply don't know WHAT to make of it ... However, when all is said and done, and one can concede this point or the other or perhaps you can find ... well then you won't find much that isn't on the absurd side SOMEWHERE, will you?
And yet, if you stop to think for a moment, there's a grain of truth in it. Whatever you might say, these things do happen in this world - rarely, I admit, but they do happen.
Nikolay Gogol [1] 
Stranger things do happen, don't they? Strange, perhaps, stranger things, do happen in this world, isn't that so? (Don't read your newspaper, if you don't want to know. Where is the young lady from Pussy Riot, for instance?) Shostakovitch writing this opera at the age of 22, in the first warning signs of the flexing powers of the Red Czar, Stalin, and his tightening grip on all things in the USSR, may have begun to sense the 'strange' things that were already about him and what was to emanate, further, personally, to him. William Kentridge sets his production of THE NOSE in the Stalinist period that the opera was written, and the echo from the Gogol satire seems comfortable in this decision, as it may, even for today, if set in Vladimir' Putin's Russia.

The immense proscenium arch of the theatre is entirely covered in a tremendous 'beige-coloured" front curtain, decorated with cartoon, slogans in contrasting depths of black, white and red: witty, pithy and political. Quite some time can be spent on, satisfyingly, reading that work, even before the opera commences. When the opera does begin animated projected figures, slogans mingle with still 'cartoons' across the front curtain enhancing, and being enhanced by the music and libretto. As required, alcoves of location, hinge forward from different, extraordinary positions all over the frontispiece of the design, different heights and precarious angles. Indeed, the scale of this design, dwarfs the human figures on the stage, appropriately. Principal action, also, still, evolves on the floor of the theatre and we change location sites beautifully, wittily without hesitations - the flow is smooth and startling.

The music by this young Shostakovitch is deliberately provoking, much like the original story. Gogol and Shostakovitch seem to be of a pair. It indicates the music experiments and developments of this period (Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, perhaps) and points, dramatically, to the future of 'cutting edge'   music, of today. It is atonal and non-lyrical and has hardly anything for one to take away, humming, afterwards. It may be why the Kazan Cathedral scene is memorable, for the music there is reminiscent of the traditional choral sounds that we are used to (the female voice, sung hauntingly, here, by Ying Fang) and, in contrast, a relief to the general challenge of the score. Much the same, the folk-like song, in Kovalyov's Bedroom, sung by Ivan, a servant (Segei Skorokhodov) to the accompaniment of the balalaika, sticks to one's sense memories. (There is, too, an Interlude in the first act that is simply orchestral, and is remarkable, as it is scored for unpitched percussion). More learnedly, I should quote from the program notes, from Leonid Gakkel (translated by Eyvor Fogart): " ...Dissonance is dominant, classical tonality almost nonexistent, the writing entirely graphic, without the "cement" of chords. The composer employs a principle of montage, without noticeable links or transitions ... " The three acts of the opera are played without a break and this continuous movement propels the drama.

There are over 70 sung roles, some only a line long - the opera is no slouch in making demands of any company willing to present it -and the curtain call demonstrated the strength and density of talent that makes up this incredible contemporary opera company: the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Kovalyov was sung by baritone Paulo Szot (he has sung the title role of Eugene Onegin for Opera Australia) re-creating this performance from his 2010 performances, at the MET. In the role that 'glues' the journey of the story together, he stands stalwartly clear of the 'battles' with the orchestrations he must face, and the busy action of the libretto, and impresses both as a singer an actor. Andrey Popov, a high tenor, also repeating his work from the original showing of this production, is, similarly, attention noteworthy, particularly in the seventh scene where his singing of the Shostakovitch score, demands a sound that has the primal animal sound of "a communal moan". Alexander Lewis impersonating the Nose, generally just a visual character, has many scenes scampering elusively through the action, encased in a very amusing 'nose' costume, has one song, which he gave well.

The experience of the performance, which was the opening one for this season (a Saturday matinee!), was challenging, but engrossing and one I was so glad to have the opportunity to build into my theatre diary-life. The overall impression was the magnificent 'vision' of William Kentdridge, and the provoking talent of the young Shostakovitch. Mr Kentridge was present at this performance, and he and his team took a well appreciated and deserved call. The musical side was directed by Valery Gergiev and was amazing for its detail and sense of comic irony.

P.S. Mr Gergiev is a guest of the Metropolitan Opera, and is also conducting Tchaikovsky's EUGENE ONEGIN, which opened the season with Anna Netrebko. I went up to the Metropolitan Opera on that opening night (23rd September), and the huge courtyard was filled with a seated audience who were to witness the performance as a direct live broadcast. I, accidentally, at first unawares of the significance, became mixed with, a small protest group, from the "Gay" community, demonstrating against the Putin government's discriminations, particularly, against homosexuals, but including other controversial Human Rights issues in Russia. The accident was, personally, a good one, for me, and which I willingly, witnessed. History unfolding in front of me. Both Mr Gergiev and Ms Netrebko are highly public and vocal supporters of the Putin regime - and by association, then, the wretched policies of discrimination. Some of the protesters had bought standing room tickets and before the performance gave further protest in the auditorium - they peaceably left the theatre, under escort, after they had made their point. Peter Gelb, the General Manager, of the company, gave a small speech concerning the matters, both from his personal viewpoint, and, then, for the Metropolitan Opera.

Who believes that opera is not part of the controversial eddies of modern life?

Not, I.

References 

  1. Penguin Classics. Nikolay Gogol. The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories - translated by Ronald Wilkes, 2005.)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Ravel, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky

The New York Philharmonic at the Avery Fisher Hall at the Lincoln Centre, New York, present RAVEL, BERNSTEIN and TCHAIKOVSKY.

I attended an 11 am Friday morning concert. It was the second performance of the first program of the season, conducted by Alan Gilbert, the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.

The program began with a short work by Maurice Ravel: Alborada del gracioso (Dawn Song of the Jester). Written originally as a piano solo in 1904-05 as part of a five movement piano suite called MIROIRS. The Alborada del gracioso was the fourth movement and Sergei Diaghilev utilised it as part of a ballet on Spanish themes for the Ballets Russes - it was a composite score that also included pieces by Louis Aubert, Gabriel Faure, and Emmanuel Charbrier. Diaghilev went on to commission Ravel to create an orchestral version. It is a lively Spanish flavoured work of some humour and brevity - only 7 minutes long. It has none of the mystery of the famous BOLERO (1928). This was my first live concert in The Avery Fisher Hall and I found the sound good. The Hall is due for a major renovation (maybe, 2017) to not only update the interior and the facilities, but attempt to re-configure the acoustic sound which has always had mixed reviews.

The second part of the first half of the concert was a happy coincidence for me, because of the pleasure of hearing the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, which he had assembled in 1961. It had premiered at Carnegie Hall on the 13th February, 1961, in a pension fund gala concert titled "A Valentine for Leonard Bernstein" by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Lukas Foss. The musical WEST SIDE STORY had premiered in 1957. The "DANCES" are made up of nine sections that Bernstein re-ordered into an uninterrupted sequence (two of the most popular song's from the musical: "Somewhere" and "Maria" appear in the middle Ch-Cha sequence.) The orchestra members give the shout out of "Mambo" in the middle presto dance. It was great to be present in the Avery Fisher Hall listening to the popular Bernstein score of WEST SIDE STORY in this guise, remembering all the passionate performances I have watched of Mr Bernstein, as a kid, on television, from this Hall. His presence was definitely beside and all around me. The black and white TV images of the active conducting of "Lenny" were coming to me in a kind of spectral 3D visitation, closing my eyes, visualising, and listening.

After the interval the 2013-2014 Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, Yefim Bronfman, was the piano soloist for Pyotr IIyich Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor, Op 23. The work was composed in 1874, revised in 1876 and again in 1889, which brought the piece into the form in which it is nearly always heard today - as it was this day. It was dedicated to the German conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow and was unveiled for the first time as part of his up coming American tour. Through this quirk of history "This ultra-familiar emblem of "the Russian style" received its premiere in Boston, played by a German pianist on an American Chickering piano..." !

Of course, this is a very famous work and one that is very familiar to me. From the rousing, 'romantic' tune of the first movement that has had the ability to indelibly impress itself into my memory, right through the whole concerto, one hears Tchaikovsky's passion with such clarity, accumulating layers from other times/performances, that it seemed to be over too soon - a familiar source of joy, that one wishes to indulge and not give away to silence, too soon, reluctantly moved into memory and the past. Only applause for the gift is left to be given.

The program notes talking of Yefim Bronfman quote author Philip Roth who was once completely knocked out by the musicianship of Mr Bronfman:
When he's finished, I thought, they'll have to throw [the instrument] out. He crushes it. He doesn't let that piano conceal a thing. Whatever's in there is going to come out, and come out with its hands in the air.
 I echo that observation. The passionate vehemence of Mr Bronfman's playing and the extraordinary concentration is a spell binding dynamic to watch and one unconsciously holds one's breath during the playing - relaxing and recovering when he does, girding one's energy for the next aural "assault'. One is emotionally wrung through with this playing. The sound resultant is palpably electric and muscular and cannot be ignored - one's solar plexus are sore from that unconscious defensive hold that one has made as those fingers come down onto the key board. The relationship with the orchestra, led by Mr Gilbert, is sparked each from the other in simpatico and Tchaikovsky lives vibrant and triumphant in the joint craft and art.

It was just before one o'clock on a sunny early afternoon when I tumbled out into the Lincoln Centre heading for the subway downtown floating on a cloud of great satisfaction. What a way to begin a day. Begun with the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, Yefin Bronfman, Ravel, Bernstein and Tchaikovsky. And all for a Rush Ticket that cost me only $16. How lucky life can sometimes be.