Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Les Misérables

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text byAlain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Additional Material by James Fenton. Adaptation by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Packemin Productions. Riverside Theatre, Paramatta. February 14 – 29, 2020

Reviewed : February 14, 2020

Photo : Grant Leslie

This is a brilliant production! The standing ovation it received on opening night was thoroughly deserved. The direction is brilliant. The voices are superb. The action is dramatic. It is everything a production of Les Misérables should be – and what one expects of a Packemin production. The fact that the season is almost sold out is indicative of the esteem in which the company is held by its western Sydney audiences.

Victor Hugo’s story of the luckless Jean Valjean, condemned to hard labour for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family, and his journey from prison to redemption pursued by his nemesis, Javert, has been immortalised in this musical theatre drama. This production does it proud.

Lit by a high spot above the orchestra pit, musical director Peter Hayward leads his musicians in those first unforgettable notes of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stirring introduction. The curtain rises on a hazy stage where ropes hanging from high above are pulled by the hapless prisoners below. Light diffuses through the haze as guards pace menacingly.

Photo : Grant Leslie

Luke Joslin directs the production with impeccable attention to the timing and pace set by the music – yet still manages to ensure the cast finds the complex dimensions of the characters that are evoked by the lyrics.

Daniel Belle brings Jean Valjean to life once again in a stunning performance that finds all the power of the music as well as the growth in strength and character of the man in the seventeen years over which the story occurs. From aggrieved prisoner he emerges as redeemed factory owner, caring adoptive father and forgiving opponent. His flawless performance of ‘Bring Him Home’ pulled every heart string. His duets, whether with Javert or Fantine or Cosette, demonstrate the experience and talent of this very popular Australian tenor.

Robert McDougall brings similar conviction and power to the role of Javert. He finds the unwavering conceit of the man in a compelling performance that leads to his confused reaction to Valjean’s mercy and the agonising notes of his final ‘Soliloquy’.

Fantine is played with pitying poignancy by Matilda Moran, and Georgia Burley brings hope and a little joy to the production in the role of Cosette. The wistful character of Eponine is played by Emma Mylott, whose understated performance finds the touching melancholy of the role.

Brenton Bell is Marius in his first performance with Packemin. He finds the complex emotions of this role – his love for Cosette, his brotherly affection for Eponine, his idealistic politics – in songs that move from gentle caring to rousing rebellion.

That rebellion is epitomised by Noah Rayner in an impressive depiction of Enjolras, the student who leads his followers to The Barricade. Raynor’s expressive face and contained sense of rage and injustice brings believable passion to this role.

The humour of Les Misérables is found in the characters of the ruthless, bawdy Thénardiers, the innkeepers who have ‘cared for’ Cosette. Alex Cape and Prudence Holloway give these characters the energy and oomph that lift the ‘spirit’ of the story whilst still depicting the seedy under-class of nineteenth century France, where poverty and greed thrived. They are particularly captivating as they celebrate surviving yet again in their song and dance routine to ‘Beggars at the Feast’.

Photo : Grant Leslie

These performers are supported by a very talented and committed ensemble who depict the many French characters that Hugo built into his novel. Valjean’s fellow prisoners who “look down” because they know “sweet Jesus doesn’t care”; his factory workers who know that “the end of the day” will bring no change; the low life of Montreuil-sur-Mer who torment Fantine in ‘Lovely Ladies’; and the people of Paris who ‘hear the people sing’. They are a formidable chorus who act just as effectively as they sing.

The whole production is a credit to producer Neil Gooding and the combined flair of Joslin, Haywood, associate director Courtney Cassar, choreographer Madison Lee and associate musical director Rachel Kelly. It is a rousing, yet emotive production that will echo in the memory of its audiences for more than ‘One Day More’.

There are still some seats in the circle and gallery left, but they too are selling fast!

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Noah Smith. Castle Hill Players. The Pavilion Theatre Castle Hill. Jan 31 – Feb 22, 2020

Reviewed : January 27, 2020

Photo : Chris Lundie

Robert Louis Stevenson’s macabre novella about a dual personality, one good, one evil, was first published in early 1886. A year later the first adaptation for the stage opened in Boston. Many adaptations have followed, both on stage and screen. This adaptation by American playwright Noah Smith is a chilling science fiction thriller that demands meticulous direction, precision acting and accurate, split-second sound and lighting operation.

Director Paul Sztelma’s production at the Pavilion achieves all three. The action is fast, exacting. The characters are strangely disturbing. The lighting and sound effects, created by Sean Churchward and Bernard Teuben, are menacing, sinister. Theatrical teamwork such as this relies on trust and dependability, consistency and confidence. The sort of collaboration one expects of professional theatre – and this production is probably as close to that as community theatre gets.

Sztelma sets the play along a tall, dark diagonal wall.  Small, high windows draped in cobwebs allow in eerie, angled light. Large wooden crates, three chairs, a laboratory bench are the only furnishings. The stage is gloomy, bathed in an eerie haze. Two doors become symbolic of Jekyll’s dual personality … and the places it leads him.

Photo : Chris Lundie

On this set, his cast move with rigorously rehearsed precision, their characters clearly delineated, their voices clear, their emotions tightly contained. The atmosphere they create is scarily surreal. Their ethereal faces emerge from shadows with an unnatural glow. Their costumes, designed by Annette van Roden, meld with the darkness of the set. They are immaculately of the period, but are sombre, a little dusty, almost ghostly.

Dimitri Armatus plays Jekyll – and Hyde – transforming on stage from one to the other in a series of contortions and cries that are alarmingly unnerving. As Jekyll he is social, amiable but sometimes a little remote, a little unbalanced. As Hyde he is just the opposite: scarily energetic, deranged, controlled by the evil that drives him. Sustaining two such disparate characters is a challenge that Armatas meets with strong, convincing realism, finding the very different dimensions of each clearly and believably.

Scene changes occur accompanied by ominous sound effects and rapid lighting cues. With a clunk as if from a huge camera shutter, the stage is plunged into momentary darkness. From the mist two gothic chorus characters emerge in shadowy light. Together, as saturnine narrators, they move the grisly tale along – and, in so doing, establish the necessary pace of the action.

Nicole Hardwood and Robert Snars work in perfect tandem in these roles – and many supporting roles, including the pernicious voices that whisper in Jekyll’s head. Whether working from opposite sides of the stage, with light jumping from one to another, or re-setting chairs as they take the audience to the next scene, they are in tune, biting cues fiercely, relating to each other as closely as if they themselves, like their master, are also two parts of a whole.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Jekyll’s trio of friends are played by Hamish Macdonald (Hastie Lanyon), Jonathan Burt (Gabriel Utterson) and Adam Garden (Richard Enfield). Though these characters represent learned respectability, each has flaws that come to light with the effects of Jekyll’s transformations. All three actors sustain the pace that the rising tension of the production demands – and their frailties reveal the ‘good and veil’ that Jekyll (and Stevenson) believed is intrinsically part of the human personality.

Faith Jessel is Cybel, a socially aware prostitute who is the symbol of Enfield’s failing, but is Hyde’s champion. Sassy, in lacy red knickers and black fishnet, Jessel finds the feistiness of the less ‘respectable’ aspects of Victorian society.

Enfield’s fiancée, Helen, is played by Vanessa Purnama, who depicts Helen’s growing confusion with the turmoil in which she has become involved.

Sztelma’s production is indicative of the creative talent that abounds outside the mainstream theatrical scene. Directors, actors, designers, operators who live their ‘other lives’ rehearsing, building sets, developing effects, to bring performances such as this to community theatres across the country.

Get to see this one! Take the new Metro line to Hills Showground – the theatre’s just up the road from the station and trains run late into the night.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

The Lady Killers

By Graham Linehan. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. Jan 18 – Feb 15, 2020

Reviewed : January 18, 2020

Photo : Craig O’Regan

This play is an adaptation of a 1955 film of the same name where Alec Guinness starred as a bogus ‘Professor’ who led a gang of hardened criminals on a bank heist – and met a sad end in the home of Mrs Wilberforce, who had unwittingly rented them a room in her bomb-damaged house near a railway line.

Peter Capaldi was ‘Professor’ Marcus in the first production of the adaptation in London in 2011 – and Marty O’Neill returns to the Genesian Theatre to play that role in this black comedy about deception, a phoney string quintet, a parrot called Major Gordon … and a very long scarf.

O’Neill is joined by veteran actor Pamela Whalan as the elderly but astute Mrs Wilberforce – and Rod Stewart as a London Bobby. Stephen Doric, Doug Wiseman, Paul Rye and Barry Nielsen play O’Neill’s nefarious but very asinine partners-in-crime who, toting instrument cases, pretend to be members of a string quintet.

Setting this play, designer Grant Fraser has transformed the Genesian stage into an old, two storey London house suffering ‘subsidence’. On the second floor there is a hall to the bathroom, and a bedroom with a window overlooking a railway line. The living room downstairs has an exit to the kitchen, a stairway to the upper floor – and a cupboard deep enough to hide the ‘quintet’!

Obviously, the sight of five grown men crammed into that cupboard is a funny moment of the play – as is the concert the ‘quintet’ is compelled to play for Mrs Wilberforce’s friends. The humour continues through the second act – but to describe the cumulation of the antics of the robbers would give too much away. There are some running gags, a money-heavy double bass case … and the increasingly precarious very long scarf.

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Walter Grkovic directs a busy production that has people coming and going, doors opening and closing, the criminals scheming and arguing, and the parrot squawking. The ‘concert’ scene, for example, has the five ‘musicians’, Mrs Wilberforce and her neighbours – played by Pauline Gardner, Eve Lichtnauer, Susan Carveth and Rod Stewart – crowded into the living room.

Marty O’Neill and Pamela Whelan bring an abundance of experience to this production. O’Neill creates a Professor Marcus who is smarmily smooth and controlling. He uses comedic timing, and his scarf, very effectively.

Whalan’s Mrs Wilberforce may appear to be a little dotty, but she is also a shrewd observer who is never actually taken in by Marcus’s blustering. She portrays Mrs Wilberforce as a post-depression, post-war stiff-upper-lip Englishwoman with convincing appeal.

Pace is always vital in a comedy, especially one that verges on farce, and as the cast becomes more relaxed in their roles, the pace of this production should ramp up making the events of the second act as funny as they could be.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Lady Tabouli

By James Elazzi. Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Festival. Riverside Theatres Parramatta. January 9 – 18, 2020.

Reviewed : January 11, 2020

Photo : Robert Catto

In a short, opening scene of James Elazzi’s play, Danny (Anthony Makhlouf) and Josephine (Nisrine Amine), dance as children to a tape of famed Lebanese singer and actress, Sabah. Josephine encourages Danny to “dance like Sabah” and in a “dream sequence” to the side of the stage Sabah, complete with flowing blonde hair and shimmering dress, appears briefly to him demonstrating her sinewy hip movements for him to imitate.

Cut to the present, where Josephine and Danny are at their mother’s home preparing for the christening of Josephine’s eight-month-old son. Danny has the task of sticking flowers on to place cards. Josephine has brought in a bunch of blue helium balloons and the christening robe that has cost a small fortune.

Dana (Deborah Galanos), their mother, arrives with a new statue of the Virgin Mary to replace one which Josephine’s daughter has broken, and the sugar-coated almonds for the christening. Unfortunately, they aren’t all blue, which upsets Josephine. The ensuing argument is interrupted by the arrival of their uncle, Mark (Johnny Nasser), the family peacemaker, with the christening cake, fortunately iced in blue! And, through all this, Aunty Fatima, calling from Lebanon, talks to them all via the hands-free phone on the kitchen bench. It is very funny, almost chaotic.

Elazzi has used that chaos, and the cultural/religious expectations of the family christening, to explore “what comes to the surface, and what is lost, when we shake up our cultural fabric” (Elazzi). In the early scenes he establishes through pacey, bilingual dialogue, the cultural mores that are so typical of a busy, Lebanese Australian family – important because Danny has deliberately set in motion something that will expose “what can happen to unconditional love when it’s pushed to the limits” (Elazzi again).

Thrown together in the chaotic setting that Elazzi has created, Makhlouf, Amine, Galanos and Nasser easily establish the intimacy of four people who are very close. They are animated, lively, noisy, emotional. They argue, defend, assist, resist. Together they create a family united by culture, heritage … and love. It’s almost as if each identifies even more intimately with their character than one would usually expect!

Dino Dimitriadis directs this production with the compassion and imagination for which he is highly respected across the Sydney theatre scene. His understanding of what Elazzi wants to say in early scenes is evident in the pace with which he controls the action. His empathy with the characters and their emotions is exemplified in more intimate directions – the passing turn of a head, transitory pauses, the evocative power of still moments of complete silence. In the final scene, he uses imaginative vision, and Benjamin Brockman’s lighting skill, to create a more spectral effect.

For the first scenes of Lady Tabouli, Jonathan Hindmarsh has designed the compact kitchen and al fresco area of a suburban home. A venetian blind covers the window above the bench, where the hands-free phone sits among other utensils. It’s a busy kitchen. There are covered serving dishes, a coffee maker, shopping bags, a phone. The three-door fridge is full. A bowl of fruit sits on the table, which is soon covered with the paraphernalia of preparations for the christening.

Photo : Robert Catto

Later in the play, the cast will transform the set to become the prized, beautifully furnished ‘salon’ of the family home. This is a clever piece of set design which serves to consolidate the emotional turmoil in which the family finds itself – and the intrigue of the final scene.

Though the characters in Lady Tabouli are Lebanese Australians, the frenzied, funny, but emotionally complex family drama Elazzi has fashioned is one with which anyone can identify – because the complications that Danny introduces could happen in any family where strict customs or cultural expectations dictate the consequences of the choices individual members are forced to make.

The play is long (90 minutes with no interval), and though there are references which are specific to Lebanese culture, its appeal is broad, and its message deeply relevant.

Reviewed for Stage Whispers Magazine

Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined

Sydney Festival. Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. January 7 – 26, 2020

Reviewed : January 10, 2020

Photo : Yaya Stempler

Betty Blokk-Buster hit Australian audiences with a raunchy belly blow in 1975. Reg Livermore’s saucy, white-faced, bare-bottomed, feather duster-flicking, cabaret-style ‘hausfrau’ charged on to the stage challenging critics to accept that his performance was much more than a “wank”! As Livermore took “Betty” and the other “dinkum battlers, freaks and survivors” he had created from the Balmain’s Bijou theatre to Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne in an unprecedented year-long tour, the country realised it had a new ‘star’ to light up the Australian stage – and confront its audiences.

Forty-five years later Red Line Productions and Josh Quong Tart (who was born in the same year as “Betty”!) bring a reimagined “Betty” to the Sydney Festival. With Livermore’s imprimatur, they transport the “makeshift fairground” of the original production into the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent and take some of Livermore’s ideas and characters into an equally entertaining but still challenging twenty-first century context.

The “makeshift fairground” is still there in the opening number where Tart, in “Betty’s” original incarnation of white frilly cap and apron, encourages the audience, via tawdry-looking signs, to applause (and laugh and breathe heavily)! Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest then changes the scenario from shadowy 1930s style cabaret to a 2020s style sparkling light show. Here Tart introduces some of Livermore’s funny/outrageous characters to a new generation – who will find them just as funny, and just as outrageous.

Photo : Yaya Stempler

Like Livermore, Tart is a vibrant, multi-talented performer. He needs to be in order to sing, dance and act his way through a one-man show with a host of costumes and characters – none more challenging than recreating a “Betty” that will attract a contemporary audience … and gratify Livermore’s original and still thriving fan base. Happily, Tart does so with abundant panache!

Some of Livermore’s iconic characters are still there, albeit with a contemporary slant – Beryl, for instance, has Siri to keep her company at the sink! The songs Tart chooses evoke similar social comment to those with which Livermore interspersed his original production, none more confronting than Tart’s rendition of Billy Joel’s Captain Jack or the sad Age of Anxiety. Whether singing or bemoaning life in a nursing home, dancing or explaining ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, Tart’s ‘reimagined’ show is still a block buster.

A live band led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keyboard with Andy Davies, Tina Harris, Glenn Morehouse and backing singers and dancers Kaylah Attard, Melissa Pringle & Elanoa Rokobaro set the musical scene. The Spiegeltent provides a glittering festive venue.

But it is Josh Quong Tart himself, like Reg Livermore before him, who is the star.

Also published in  Stage Whispers Magazine

La Bohème

By Puccini. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. January 2 – 30, 2020.

Reviewed : January 2, 2020

Photo : Prudence Upton

Puccini set La Bohème in the sybaritic Latin Quarter of Paris in 1830. Opera Australia’s 2018 production on Sydney Harbour saw it set in Paris in 1968 where civil unrest plagued the city. In this production, Gale Edwards sets it in 1930s Berlin in the final decadent days of the Weimar Republic where, “free of censorship, liberalism was extensive”.

Wherever it is set, La Bohème is a classic love story where the passion of first love is darkened by jealousy, mistrust and poverty.

In Edwards’ production, artist Marcello paints The Crossing of the Red Sea on the high walls of a freezing rented warehouse and writer Rudolfo consigns his latest play to the boiler to provide a little warmth. When their friends Colline and Schaunard suggest going to the Café Momus, Rudolfo remains alone until a knock at the door brings Mimi looking for a match to light her candle. They fall in love and join the others, where Marcello re-ignites his love for the lovely Musetta.

Were it not for Act II and the busy, bustling Café Momus, the opera would be just a sad love story told in beautiful music by incredible voices. At Café Momus the opera becomes more colourful – and in this production, more provocative, with fishnet, feathers and a little nudity.

In glittering silver, Musetta cuckolds her latest admirer and joins Marcello and his friends. Hawkers extol their wares while entertainers strut on stilts and the toy seller, Parpignol,beguiles a chorus of children whose light, young voices bring an extra brightness to the production.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The cabaret-style of the second act gives set designer Brian Thomson the opportunity to use the towering height of the Joan Sutherland stage to create a multi-tiered series of theatre boxes illuminated by glittering lights and a revolving stage on which a band of yellow braided frauleins march the opera into interval. Costumes, by Julie Lynch, are enticingly seductive. ‘Tis not often the opera chorus gets to be so dazzingly revealing!

Karah Son and Kang Wang play the sad lovers, their voices soaring so strongly in moments of passion, so sadly in moments of regret. The joy of their first duet “O lovely girl” in Act I is matched by the apprehension surrounding their final duet, “Have they gone?”

Samuel Dundas and Julie Lea Goodwin reprise their stunning performances as Marcello and Musetta, with Richard Anderson as Colline and Michael Lampard as Schaunard. Graham McFarlane is an easily tempted Benoît and Nara Lee an energetic Parpignol.

No young lover should end as wretchedly as does Puccini’s poor Mimi: humbled by rejection, racked by consumption, dying in a cold studio with poverty-stricken friends who pawn a pair of earrings to buy medicine that arrives too late to save her. And yet over 124 years she has been made immortal by exalted sopranos in opera theatres around the world – just as Karah Sang does in this production.

This review first published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Cirque Stratosphere

The Works Entertainment. Concert Hall, Sydney House from December 24 to 29, 2019 then January 14 to 19, 2020 and Hamer Hall, Melbourne from January 3 – 11, 2020.

Reviewed : December 26, 2019

Photo : Jordan Munns

Circus is no longer just Circus! Technology has contemporised it, taken it out of travelling caravans and raised audiences’ expectations beyond the thrill of the daring performances to want more than the old “greatest show on earth”! They still want the thrills, but they want lights, sound – and even story – as well the action!

So, when the ‘big top’ is the Concert Hall of the Opera House, and there is an imaginative production team led by people like Simon Painter, Tim Lawson and Neil Dorward, the sky’s the limit – or the whole Stratosphere for that matter!

Taking the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing as their theme, they have built this year’s international acrobatic feats around the 1969 Apollo launch. They have incorporated the original recordings from NASA along with a barrage of LED lights and atmospheric digital sound to generate even greater tension than that created by the acts themselves. A DJ sits high on an octagon lighting loom that rises above the stage. Sixteen huge multicoloured spots provide a barrage of pin-point spots highlighting performances.

Stage crew in white space suits prologue each act. Dancers in white and silver assist others. Performers rise from a mist of swirling clouds to twist and contort on a hoop suspended from above; or rebound on bungee straps swinging from pulleys high in the curved ceiling under the opera house sails. Others emerge from the marching space crew to fly off an elasticised, trampoline rope held on the shoulders of fellow performers.

The “clowns’ – Steve Capps, better known as Tape Face and Salvadore Salangsang (Sal) – choose ‘assistants’ from the audience to distract attention as cosmic stage-hands remove and replace equipment. Even clowning has changed to accommodate larger venues and compete with screen magicians and sit-com pranksters. Tape face relies on things such as big balloons and nerf-type guns. Sal uses what he finds at the venue – including the chords of the huge pipe organ, two timpani drums and the willing voices of the audience. An accomplished break dancer, he moves with rubbery precision, encouraging ‘volunteers’ from the audience to follow his sinewy moves.

Photo : Jordan Munns

In the glossy souvenir program, every act is re-titled with an astronautical theme. Anna Lewandowska on the LED ‘sphere’ cyr wheel is The Orbiter. Duo roller skaters Evgenii Isaev and Natalia Korzhukova are billed as Duo Velocity. Dmitry Makrushin and Oleg Bespalov, who demonstrate incredible strength and balance are The Galactus Gods. Hoop divers Nicolas-Yang Wang and Shengpeng Nie are Submergence; trapeze artist Oleg Spigin is The Cosmonaut and Wheel of Death dare-devils Roy Miller and Luis Romero are The Flyers Valencia.

Every act is prefaced by the continuing NASA broadcast, and in the lead up to Neil Armstrong’s first “small step for man”,  Felice Aguilar, the spinning Celestial Cyclone is wheeled in on a white lounge watching the landing on a small screen TV – as so many around the world did. As the tension quickens, she takes the stage on a spinning platform twisting and twirling in a rotating tribute to that “one giant leap for mankind”.

The lights are very bright; the sound is very loud; the effect is powerfully electric and all-consuming! It might not be everyone’s nostalgic ideal of what circus ‘used to be’, but it is circus as it is now – and will be. New equipment will lead performers to create even more daring and stunning feats. And their producers and directors will use whatever emerging new technologies are available to enhance the program and attract contemporary audiences – as those behind Cirque Stratosphere have done.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Handel’s Messiah

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. November 13 – 15, 2019

Reviewed : December 13, 2019

Photo : Keith Saunders

Handel’s Messiah, composed in 1741, is an oratorio based on scriptural texts compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible. It highlights three of the major events in the life of Christ. His birth (the Christmas section), the Passion (the events leading to the crucifixion) and the Resurrection (the Easter section).

It is traditionally performed leading up to Christmas – and this year in many parts of England it will be the culmination of a year of performances of Handel’s works in celebration of the 250th anniversary of his death.

For their special Christmas performances, conductor Brett Weymark and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs are always joined by The Christmas Choir, a non-auditioned choir made up of “passionate members of the community”. This year that choir numbered 475 Sydney men and women. The newly formed River City Voices from Parramatta also joined the combined choirs. Together these 651 choristers have spent eight weeks rehearsing with the orchestra and the soloists to bring Handel’s famous oratorio to Sydney audiences.

This year’s performance is special in that it is leads into their 100th birthday and will see them returning to their roots in the Sydney Town Hall, whilst the Concert Hall is undergoing refurbishment. 2020 promises to be a busy year with some special highlights, which Weymark describes as “an opportunity to explore our past, the present and our future as an artistic force in our city”.

Back to Handel, the soloists and the orchestra. Soprano Celeste Lazarenko, countertenor Nicholas Tolputt, tenor Andrew Goodwin and bass-baritone Christopher Richardson brought their very wide operatic and concert experience to Handel’s dramatic musical interpretation of the biblical texts – with the choir rising almost like a gentle gasp to follow with each chorus. As they rose for the Hallelujah Chorus, so too did the entire audience, as is the tradition for that universally known and loved chorus.

The orchestra elegantly executes Handel’s moving musical effects. Twenty violins, eight violas, seven cellos and four double basses lead this orchestra with the composer’s special moments highlighted by oboes, the harpsicord, the bassoons, the timpani, the organ and the gentle sound of the lute in “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.

Brett Weymark’s special skill and vast experience is evident as he brings the performers together as a united, musical whole, their 2019 Messiah a fitting Sydney celebration of the composer who left it to the world 250 years ago.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

David Campbell and the SSO Open the Coliseum

David Campbell & the Sydney Symphone Orchestra; Coliseum Theatre, 12-13 December 2019.

Reviewed : December 12, 2019

Photo : Robert Catto.

Sydney’s Coliseum Theatre opened with a Christmas ‘bang’ on December 12, 2019! David Campbell and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Buc, wowed the 2000 strong audience with a special Christmas at the Coliseum concert that gave the creators of this great new theatre a chance to show just what it can do. Stage, lighting, acoustics, sightlines, seating! All are incredible! Just as Executive Director Craig McMasters promised they would be when I spoke with him just six months ago.

Two years and one month ago this wonderful new building was just a dream. Last night patrons walked down its graceful staircase under a sparkling green chandelier and sipped drinks from a variety of bars before making their way into its spectacular theatre. The mood was eclectically infectious! Excitement … Wonder … Curiosity … Expectation… and no one was disappointed.

There, on the fifteen-metre wide stage swathed in metres of shimmering velvet, under a plethora of LED lights shining from every direction and an enormous Christmas tree glittering with gold lights on stage left, Richard Wilkins introduced the SSO, complete with its beautiful gold harp – and the peoples’ favourite ‘swing king’, David Campbell – as the very first performers to grace this opulent, world class venue.

Grace it they did! Campbell is a very special entertainer. His repertoire is extensive, his range amazing. But more than that, he’s a man of the people. There is no pretension. He loves his audience – and he loved being the first of many great Australians to sing on this special new stage at his “favourite time of the year”.

Tina Arena will follow him on the weekend. Barry Humphries will bring Dame Edna to the west next week. John Butler will follow her. And Keith Urban will be it’s “official” opening act on 21st December – but Campbell and the musicians of the Sydney Symphony blessed the theatre with a very special festive first night.

“Winter Wonderland” was the first of the famous seasonal songs to thrill the audience, followed by favourites including Mel Tormé and Bob Wells’ famous “The Christmas Song” with  its warm image of ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire .. and new compositions such as Australian composer Rick Price’s “Baby It’s Christmas”.

Photo : Robert Catto.

As a tribute to the inspired ingenuity of those who envisaged the Coliseum, Campbell and the orchestra chose “Pure Imagination”, and the brilliant acoustics of the theatre picked up its message and took it soaring. The flute and harp led the orchestra in a beautiful classical interpretation of “Greensleeves”, and both Campbell and the orchestra paid musical homage to those affected by the bush fires – especially those who are fighting the fires– with a moving performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

The carols “Silent Night”  and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” gave the evening a more traditional feeling – until Campbell gave in to a rousing rendition of the more “recent” Christmas favourite “All I Want for Christmas is You!”

What a wonderful way to christen this newest “jewel” of the West. At the beginning of the month the new Sydney Zoo opened just down the road in Doonside. Now, the Coliseum and its great gladiatorial program of world-famous Australian entertainers, will take us through to Christmas. Come by car along the M2 and the M7 – or by train to Rooty Hill station a short stroll away. There’s plenty of parking, great places to eat – and the New Year will bring more concerts and ballet, contemporary dance, musical theatre, opera and specialist acts.

The Coliseum will make the heart of western Sydney pulse with a brand, new cultural beat.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

The Cranston Cup

Collaborative Comedy: The Cranston Cup, Enmore Theatre, 8 December 2012.

Reviewed : December 8, 2019

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

Colourful creativity! Terrific teamwork! Call it what you will. The Cranston Cup is the competitive culmination of weeks of impressive improvisation. Six teams strutting their stuff in sensational scenarios – simply scintillating!

This year’s Theatresports final was everything the eclectic audience expected – funny, clever, inventive, fast moving.

Compere Harry Milas worked his usual magic on the crowd. Though the cards he used for the first round were a little bigger than those he usually shuffles, Milas set pace for a cracking final. With Rob Johnson timing and tallying and Tom Cardy hitting the keys to add a bit of atmosphere, impro aficionados Kate Coates, Liz Hovey and Wean Campbell took the judges’ seats.

The stage was set forYear 6 Formal, a team of students from Newington College, joined the competition, to pitt their prowess against the ‘age and experience’ of five more practised performers. Every team showed what Theatresports is all about: working together, listening, keeping the scene going … and having fun.

One Day from Retirement kicked off in the first round with a mime on the topic “Magician” (Funny that!), and Year 6 Formal ‘died in a minute’ at a French café. The Bald and the Beautiful used gibberish in a scene set at Sydney Trapeze, while We’re Cousins composed a pithy poem about a bible salesman.

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

In round two, James Hill High built a time warp narrative around a cursed swamp and the Pash Rats built a first and last line challenge around a nerf gun. Things got a bit more frenetic in the third round. Year 6 Formal found some aliens at a dog track, We’re Cousins were cruel to a friend in a graveyard and the Pash Rats lampooned HSC Drama Group Performances on the topic of “cyberbullying”.

The final round saw some classic impro. We’re Cousins wowed the audience and the judges with an ‘epic’ on the strange topic “The Maddening Challenge of Bill” and The Bald and the Beautiful went all operatic with a dishwasher!

Highlights of the night – and there were many – were a very clever three-way Double Figures by James Hill High as theyovercame crippling anxiety at a house party…  and One Day from Retirement reminisced at a parent teacher meeting!

It was these two teams who finally shared the glory in a two-way triumph as the winners of the Cranston Cup for 2019.

Elliot Ulm, Reuben Ward & Tamara Smith and Theo Murray, Luke Tisher and Steph Ryan proudly accepted the two-metre-high trophy surrounded by their talented rivals. It was a great finale for a theatre event that has been inspiring Sydney audiences – and aspiring performers – for over 40 years.

Improvisation builds confidence, listening skills and the ability to work as a team as well as teaching acting skills. Check out the Impro Australia website to find out about courses, workshops, the Theatresports Schools Competition and all up-coming events including Celebrity Theatresports –  http://improaustralia.com.au/shows/

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.