Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Frozen

Disney Theatrical productions under the Direction of Thomas Schumacher present, FROZEN, The Broadway Musical, Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopezz and Robert Lopez; Book by Jennifer Lee, at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Australia. 10 December, 2020 - Sunday 23rd May, 2021.

FROZEN, the Touring version of the Broadway Musical opened in Sydney at the Capitol Theatre just after the opening of PIPPIN at the Lyric Theatre. These two big musicals showing the way to the re-opening of the BIG theatres in the time of the Covid 19 Pandemic. Heroic and Hopeful.

The audience I sat with were an excited collection of fans of the Musical primed for the show, armed with their knowledge of the two FROZEN films, I supposed, for, whenever a song came or an interaction between characters, there was a sensation of emotional identification that had a sense of the rapture. Adoration and Devotion. I came to this latest development of the Franchise as a 'virgin' to the event. I knew nothing about FROZEN except, vaguely, the controversy of the possible 'gay' edge to one or two of the relationships in the show. Who knows? I just kept feeling the echoes of the sisterly rivalry between the 'girls' in the musical WICKED - and were they in taboo territory, too? 

The content of the story was inspired by THE SNOW QUEEN by Hans Christian Andersen. The story is of two rival but loving sisters: Anna (Courtney Monsma) and Elsa (Jemma Rix) - one 'naughty' and full of tricks, the other subdued and 'majestic', bearing a sense of duty towards their three men Hans (Thomas McGuane), Kristoff (Sean Sinclair) and determined suitor, Weselton (Aljin Abela). There are also two puppet creatures contributing some theatrical 'magic' and the low comedy in the show: Olaf - the Snowman (Matt Lee) and Sven, the reindeer (either, Jonathan MacMillan or Lochie McIntyre).

The opening song heralds the formula of the show : a song boosted with energetic choreography (Rob Ashford) danced with gusto by "boofy" boys in 'hearty' cold climate costume (cuddle up and keep warm, a possible subliminal message) and smiley, robust young women in flaring skirts and ribbons around the maypole (cuddle up and see what can happen?), signalling the production to a be a little bit of a throw-back in time in that the visual offers and  technology are kind of the old fashioned type (add the filmic 50's sensibilities and imagine, subversively), except for the lighting effects in the frozen ice imagery throughout the adventure  - Lighting by Natasha Katz, Video by Finn Ross, Special effects Design by Jeremy Chernick. Set and Costume Design is by Christopher Oram.

This is a Disney tour re-staging of the original Broadway show and it is mostly a 'cookie-cutter' version of that without much creative input from the performers in this production - which is a fair and a regular carp from the artists here in Australia. There have been some sensational creative production from the Australian teams when they have had some freedom to do their own original version using the talents they have in hand, instead of been tied almost as stringed puppets to replicate the Broadway Show. 

It is interesting that the Australian Director of this show Thomas Schumacher has cast young Aljin Abela in the role of the 'nerdy' suitor Weselton and permitted him to conceive his own characterisation from scratch. It comes from their trust that they explored in the creation of Iago in ALADDIN, as Director and Actor, it seems - for Mr Abela's performance was a manifestation remarkably different one from the original. It is a demonstration of  Mr Schumacher's quote in the Sydney program notes: "a Broadway opening isn't the end of anything. It's a beginning." More power to that sentiment for the future transfers from Broadway to the Australian stage.

I did enjoy the spunk of Courtney Monsma as Anna and also signal my continued support of Blake Appleqvist as a potential star in his work as Oaken in the opening 'sauna' song of Act Two - his effortless physical and vocal brio was utterly charming.

FROZEN, The Hit Broadway Musical, is a fun, exuberant night in the theatre. One for the adults and especially the children - or, for those children who are now fanatical, nostalgic fans.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

You're Not Special

Photo by Kate Williams

The Rogues Projects present, YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL, by Sam O'Sullivan, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), with the bAKEHOUSE THEATRE. 5th March - 20th March.

YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL, is a new Australian work by Sam O'Sullivan, Directed by Samantha Young. This play follows up from Mr O'Sullivan's play THE BLOCK UNIVERSE. Both these plays have proved to be very interesting experiences and are exciting as Mr O'Sullivan's playwriting skills have grown promisingly from exposure to exposure.

YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL, introduces us to a couple Dan (Akira Ashraf) and Ellie (Kate Skinner), who have set up an apartment. Ellie has found a client who has her working digitally on-line, which gathers a demand with increasing pressure as the play moves through time. Dan, in the meantime, is spending his time on-line and becomes obsessed with a woman he has met called April-May (Ariadne Sgouros) - he stalks the April-May persona on-line, until he discovers her creator's real identity and goes so far as to coerce an actual live meet up with her. 

The play takes us into a weird world where Dan has neglected his 'face-to face' partnership with Ellie, who genuinely needs his advice and care, whilst falling possessed by a digital identity that is an invention - a fiction - he goes so far as to propose marriage to the business woman behind the 'game' figure April-May at the expense to his relationship with Ellie.  On meeting the inventor of April-May, Dan is confronted by the business woman, the owner of the April-May franchise, and is informed of all the 'contractual' legal issues surrounding the internet and the dangerous ludicrousness of his barrier intrusions - he is devastated.

Both Dan and Ellie are left bereft, her job lost, his fantasy exploded.  YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL is an urgently cautionary tale for the present times. The play, however - despite the different ending - reminded me of the story, of the character of Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer who falls in love with his Artificial Intelligence avatar, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), in the Spike Jonze 2014 film: HER

The major problem with this production of this interesting play lies with Samantha Young's casting choices. Kate Skinner, one of the three 'pillars' of the work, gives an impassioned and empathetic life for Ellie as her world collapses about her under the pressure of the client she is working for. Ms Skinner serves Mr O'Sullivan's play well - emotionally and with intelligence to Ellie's arc of action and its consequences. 

The problem for this production is in Ms Young's casting of the two other 'pillars' in this three handed work. Ariadne Sgouros gives an explosive and convincing life to her responsibilities in the last scene of the play, unfortunately, she seems to have regarded her earlier opportunities as April-May cursorily - the second pillar of the work is therefor faulty - she is not a consistently visible presence or constructor of the narrative of Mr O'Sullivan's dramaturgy. It is an odd experience for the audience, for one has virtually switched off her offers only to be jolted to an attendance to the power of the character's closure through the actor's sudden commitment - it is too late. The acting demonstrates the skill of the actor in that last episode but she has undermined the play and its structure by the casualness of action in the earlier part of the play. Ms Sgouros' storytelling responsibilities to the writer are neglectful.

Akira Ashraf, a recent graduate from Acting School, at the performance I attended, had no physical life beyond a dexterity in the lower arm, wrist and hands - his body had no flexibility and no communicative instrumentality - he was, as my companion observed:  "as stiff as a board " - his tall narrow back, which was positioned often in our seating eye line told nothing of his contribution as a storyteller. As well, he delivered his text on one high vocal note that was varied only by volume - loud or soft. This third pillar of YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL was nearly non-existent. And if two of the three 'pillars' of the work are not succeeding in telling the story, the play is damaged. The strength of the writing was obscured and the experience diminished.

The production was supported by Anna Gardiner with her Set and Costume Design. Lighting Designed by Martin Kinnane and the Sound Design by Kaitlyn Crocker.

YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL is an interesting play by Sam O'Sullivan damaged in this production experience by the lack of skills of two of the performers, under the direction of Samantha Young. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Wild Things


Flight Path present, WILD THINGS, by Suzanne Hawley, at the Flight Path Theatre, Addison Rd Marrickville, 3rd March - 20th March.

WILD THINGS, is a new Australian play by veteran writer Suzanne Hawley.  It is a story of four female friends in their sixties. They are war babies that aren't boring old farts wearing twin-sets or pearls. Think Mick Jagger, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Janis intruding into a time of innocence of no sex education and where the rest of the world was filtered through the lens of Empire Day and the singing of the rousing "There'll always be an England". Where the life choices for the working class girls at school were deemed either Domestic or Commercial - for the University track was only for the boys - and the women's was to train to cook and clean for your man and have his babies.

Ms Hawley's Wild Things, Jackie (Di Smith), and her friends Frances (Katrina Foster), Elizabeth (Helen O'Connor) and Susan (Di Adams) we meet firstly as schoolgirls on an outdoor drawing class and revel in idealistic dreams for their future; with the blink of a costume change we are then whisked away to a weekend holiday at the near end of their arc of living where they remember their actual individual and collective paths. That cohesion of friendship and loyalty that embraces won and lost dreams is now challenged with the dilemma of the shift of one of them to the oncoming of the demands of dementia and the wish to a termination of life.

It is a real life situation that all of us are participating in, either in the first circle of pain, or in the many other circles of gradual diminishing intensity, where the distance of family origin gives space to experience it from a distance of emotional disruption. The good news is that this play embraces this 'conversation' with wit and, especially, grace. It is not an emotional endurance it is a charming, disarming circumstance. 

Grace is the key word of my response. I see so much 'damaged' work on the Sydney Theatre stages - work that is damaged because the writing is not good enough; or of promising plays 'damaged' by bad acting; or 'damaged' by awful casting; by aspirational (incompetent) direction; or, by all of the aforesaid - believe me it is possible to have all of these problems effecting the one work.

This play, WILD THINGS has been nurtured over many years, coddled and cuddled by Di Smith and the late Penny Cook, and others. It appears to be ready to be seen. The subject content is of such a pregnant nerve in our present social discourse and like the 2018 play MUM, ME, AND I.E.D. by Jame Balian and Roger Vickery, dealing with the effect of P.T.S.D. on our men and women in the Armed Services, also nurtured in this theatre space, deserve to be seen on one of our main stages (Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir).

So, on entering the Flight Path space and have this play so gently and carefully devised and written by Suzanne Hawley, inhabited by confident, grace filled actors of true experience, which they utilise - own - with modest strength, that one can, as an audience member, actually relax, breathe and are able to comfortably 'read' the offers given by the sophisticated actors who have created individual characters in an ensemble that seems to love and respect the play - the story - and the mode of storytelling that they have evolved with their director, Kim Hardwick, in the simple and spacious Design of Tom Bannerman, in Costume that assist character in an almost invisible way by Robert Bayliss. The Lighting Design has all the usual sensitivities that Martin Kinnane blesses every of his productions with - a creative figure under utilised by the major companies. While Patrick Howard creates a Soundscape that calls back the music that makes these women's bodies respond to movement that their body memories have held over decades of living to be summoned for usage in the authentic demands of the story telling of the time and space of these wild things.

These women are aided by 'Legendary' Lewis Fitzgerald (playing smoothly and generously a number of thankless functions and one or two sketches of men in the life of these women) and a new comer, Philip D'Ambrosio. This cast except for Mr D'Ambrosio are actors of much experience. This company is made up of old-school artists.

Do go to see WILD THINGS. 

It is a beautiful play by Suzanne Hawley that deals with important contemporary issues with wisdom and true care delivered by a wonderful cast. There is much laughter. 

Finishes on Saturday. Go.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Outdated

The Ensemble Theatre present OUTDATED, written and Directed by Mark Kilmurry, at the Ensemble Theatre at Milson's Point. March 19th - 17th April.

OUTDATED is a new Australian work written and directed by the Artistic Director of the Theatre, Mark Kilmurry. It is a simple set of sketches that begin with a middle aged couple meeting to date over the internet. 

We follow a 90-minute trajectory of the ups and downs of the relationship. It involves only two characters: Olivia, played competently and breezily by Rachel Gordon and Matt played by Yalin Ozucelik. Mr Ozucelik has a charming grasp of a pencil thin individual and is especially physically dexterous - his acrobatics are well worth enjoying.

Set and Costume Design is by Simon Greer. Lighting by Kelsey Lee. Sound Designer by David Grigg.

There is a sureness of laughter in OUTDATED but the play's structure and  content is hardly cutting edge and does feel - I will say it : outdated. Severely outdated. It feels like a pitch for a comfortable waste of time television series, circa 1960-something - it is "ho hum diddly dumb" in 2021 in the atmosphere of a year long pandemic and the sex and corruption scandals surrounding our present governments. 

OUTDATED feels like a hermitic bowl bringing us into another time to distract us. The concept and the writing needs more bite and reality.

Young Frankenstein

Hayes Theatre Company presents, The Mel Brooks Musical, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Mehan; Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks, in the Hayes Theatre, Darlinghurst. 18th February - 20th March.

Alexander Berlage, the Director of The Mel Brooks Musical, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, has created a sterling record at the Hayes Theatre for revitalising, perhaps, even the resurrecting of Musicals that initially failed at the box office and critical response on Broadway. The musicals CRY-BABY (1990) and AMERICAN PSYCHO (2013) were given breaths of life by Mr Belage in Sydney. 

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the musical appeared in 2007, based on Mr Brooks' film also titled YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN from 1974. The musical received mixed reviews on opening on Broadway. Based on my experience of this present production at the Hayes the material that the actors have to wrestle with is not as secure as that of the other two. Certainly, it felt as if Mr Berlage had over-pitched this production with an excessive emphasis on the vulgar comedy, stretching it into a high camp milieu that fell flatly most of the night - the scaffolding of the original material could not support the creative weight of the company's choices. There was little real laughter, There were no guffaws. There was eye-filling and ear-blasting  bewilderment. One was bemused by the war on the eyes and ear and overwhelmed with consistent errors of taste, of judgement.

After the amazing response to Mr Brooks' musical version of his film THE PRODUCERS (2001) he could have been tempted to have another go with his film YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and giving it a similar treatment. The comedy of the 1974 film in 2021 today is a hit and miss affair, I recently watched  a screening of the film on television. Writing this work for an audience in 2007 at the age of 81 the inspiration for its comedy palette seemed to have its origins not in his beloved Vaudeville tradition of sketch comedy but in a lower tradition based around the Minsky Brothers theatres of the bold near naked burlesque and comedy parodies where the 'blue' joke was the go, (Note the William Friedkin 1968 film: THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY'S) let alone the innuendo of his other primary influence from the Borscht Belt that was part of his youth.

The structure of the show comes not so much from the literary tradition of the Mary Shelley novel, FRANKENSTEIN; OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (1818) but the films of James Whale : FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1936). James Whale was a gay man and there is a belief that there is a gay sub-text to both these films, particularly the latter. Mr Brooks took 'gay' themed liberties in both his film and musical adaptation, which Mr Berlage, who has a tremendous gay-kitsch lean, evident  in his own past Directorial work, has taken extreme judgements of taste in presenting this work that really cannot bear them, which is unlike his other two musical productions, working from stronger Book and Lyrics. This production strains under its aspirational ambitions.

The Director's note in the program connecting the company's creative process to the anxiety of Covid 19 and the fear of the Frankenstein monster, seems to be a fairly ridiculous line of connection. None of this is evident on stage - neither is 'the dark social satire that examines the horrific and grotesque elements of life.' - 'horrific': Never; 'grotesque': perhaps in the elements of design, but not in the moral fibre of Mr Brooks' and Mr Meehan's writing, they had other ambitions, i think.

In a deep green Escher-step like Set design by Isabel Hudson, that cramps the staging space excessively, lit in garish lighting choices from Trent Suidgeest with the actors in Costumes from Mason Browne that can be excessive vulgarisations of character (contrasted by the naturalistic dressing of our hero 'Frankensteen'), the orchestra led by Andrew Worboys in control of the actors lands a continuous barrage of noise at the audience with hardly a rest or musical (tuneful) interlude. For the audience it can be a stressful endurance.

In the centre of this concoction is a reason to see this show, which is to witness a physical performance from Matthew Backer, as Doctor Frankenstein, that is simply brilliant in its complexity and accuracy. The body work is phenomenal - I wondered at how tired he must be after performing this gift for us? This is coupled with a singing voice of some beauty and skill accompanied by a very centred acting performance of near naturalism that holds this production from completely spinning out of control. Mr Backer is sensational.

In lesser responsibilities Shannon Dooley (Elizabeth) and Lucia Mastrantone (Frau Blucher) are also detailed with a cool and vivid accuracy that demands much effort to deliver and are much to admire. 

Surprisingly, Ben Gerrard in a sex transposition as Inga, is almost invisible in impact in this production, whilst Amy Hack and Olivia Charalambous are indefatigable supports in keeping this show chugging along in relatively thankless roles. 

The November, 2019 production by Siren Theatre Company, under the Direction of Kate Gaul, of H.M.S. PINAFORE, had a sure hand of a delicious and delicate campery that had wit, daring and taste that The Musical YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN does not have - cannot have because of the original Book (Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan) and Lyric in its original material and is definitely not possible in the stretch that Mr Belage's production coats the source with. There is much aspirational ambition in the technical feats of the production - the technical teams deserve applause - but the parts do not make a whole worth enduring.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, its success is going to be, of course, a matter of taste. Mr Berlage has certainly taken Oscar Wilde's advice to his bosom : "That nothing succeeds like excess".

Monday, March 1, 2021

Playing Beatie Bow

Photo by Daniel Boud


Sydney Theatre Company presents, PLAYING BEATIE BOW, by Ruth Park, in a stage adaptation by Kate Mulvany, at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 28th February - 1 May.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a Young adult novel published by Ruth Park in 1980. Ruth Park died in 2010 at the age of 93. The book has had a staunch readership in its brief history and is a favourite for a few generations of young Australian readers. Both Kate Mulvany, the adapter of the novel for the theatre and the Director Kip Williams are two of those long affected readers, they declare in the program notes. I have never read the book even though I have had a long connection to most of Ruth Park's work and so am discovering this work here on the STC stage. Both the aforementioned artists were responsible for the stage adaption of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948) and POOR MAN'S ORANGE (1949) at the Sydney Theatre Company a couple of years ago - the old gang reunite: "When you are on a good thing stick to it."

Ms Mulvany has opened, expanded the novel to some contemporary familiarities (an Indigenous story: Johnny Whites for example is introduced that is NOT in the novel) and has set the prologue of Abigail's rebellion against her warring parents to 2021, not 1980, which is really of not much harm and adds the opportunity of many a wry joke reference to our COVID and Woke culture before our heroine is tripped into The Rocks World of 1873 where most of this story unfurls. 

A mere 9 actors take on the many roles required to tell the story and they are all relatively outstanding, every actor has their moment to shine: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan (Beatie Bow), Rory O'Keefe, Guy Simon, Catherine Van Davies (Abigail) and Ryan Yeates.

The story is told on a huge black stage with a few pieces of theatre furniture that are mostly symbolic of location employing some old fashioned theatrical gestures such as a window frame, ropes suspended with white sheets, a huge canvas covering the whole dynamics of the stage, to suggest laundry or the sails of ships - nothing too imaginatively arresting for theatre goers in 2021 which mean they have a minimum of surprise or magic - it is all a trifle theatrically pedestrian.  Kip Williams has eschewed his usual use of video and film to help tell his tale: examples being in his complicated ambition/aspiration urging (overweighted, I declare) in the recent THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY (though he must be saving on  the budget for the technical gear, let alone the cost of the electricity of each performance for the STC) or either of his versions of two of the great plays CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI (unnecessary, really).  

PLAYING BEATIE BOW follows the imaging of his work in the other Ruth Park theatre adaptations THE HARP IN THE SOUTH  and POOR MAN'S ORANGE - simple open black box with minimal elements of Design, the usual choice of David Fleischer, accompanied by the reliable input of Renee Mulder (Costume), Nick Schlieper (Lighting) and Clemence Williams (Composer - the Director's sister, I believe) and David Bergman (Sound Designer). The Sound design may be a little too ambitious and or loud to be an unnoticed influencer to the story shaping and telling - in the theatre it was distracting and over dominant.

All of the performances, however, are creditable, but I will note my favourite offers from old-comer Heather Mithchell and a newbie Ryan Yeates, as particularly pleasing.

The biggest obstacles to the popularity of this play may be its wordy length: On opening night running at 3 hours or more and stuffed with so many words, with so much exposition about fairy magic weaving through history and the spaewife myths from the Orkney isles with an aural overload of sometimes impenetrable dialect work from the actors that obfuscates some of what is going on.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW seems to me the ideal program for the Christmas holidays when the young audience is available to catch it in the theatre following on from the highly successful example/policy of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The month of March/April just as school has begun seems an odd Marketing choice - except for the Easter break holiday.

This production has had the honour of opening the renovation of the Wharf theatres and the STC precinct - and impressive in its corporate chic it is. Comfortable new seating facing a wide and deep black hole with no permanent wings or fly tower. One has no ability to ascertain the acoustics of the space as all these actors are microphoned or pre-recorded. 

Since the STC is the most important purveyor of Storytelling in our city it is curious that the play or adaptation the Company chooses for this occasion is a white colonial-centred story set in 1873 in the Rocks - the place of so much history in the interaction between the British and the Indigenous tribe(s) - it featured momentarily in THE SECRET RIVER. One wonders whether the honouring of our First Nation's History of Storytelling in this new theatre space should have been in finding a way to present the story of this island's history and peoples with their unique creation myths, or even more politically dangerously, an adaptation of the Bruce Pascoe DARK EMU book would have been a better and more appropriate choice? One ponders. 60,000 years of Storytelling - now that could have signified a real celebration of this new sacred space, don't you think?

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a pleasant entertainment that needs editing down from its 3 hour length - it is a kind of tough ask for young adults without the whiz bang of contemporary theatre production tricks. Adults, not as engaged in the story as kids, might find it all a bit passé.