Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Theatresports All Stars

ImproAustralia, Enmore Theatre. Sunday 9th May, 2021.

Reviewed : 9 May, 2021

Photo : supple\ied

What a treat! The beautifully renovated Enmore Theatre with its custom-designed, monogrammed carpet, all clean and ‘unsticky’, the art deco reliefs all newly painted and picked out in gold – and sixteen improvisation  “All Stars”  introduced and compered by none other than Mr Mathematics, Adam Spencer, himself another Theatresports All Star! What more could one wish for!

Well, a great night of improvised theatre for one thing. And that’s what we got!

A wonderful supportive audience for another thing. We got that too!

There’s something about Theatresports audiences. They’re inter-generational for a start – old, young and every age bracket in between. They’re multicultural, multigender, multi-everything. There are families, groups of schoolkids, Drama teachers, theatre buffs, Theatre sports buffs – and people who heard about the show on the ABC! (Your ABC interviews and little ‘radio impro with cow’ last Thursday night really worked guys!)

And to the credit of every one of the actors, the whole performance is family friendly! I’m no prude by any means, but a whole improvised performance with no gratuitous swearing – in fact no swearing at all! – and no smutty innuendoes despite plenty of opportunities in fourteen imaginative and clever scenes? That’s got to be something unusual.

Photo : supplied

In fact, the whole performance was clean, clever, pacey and theatrical. Every improv ‘rule’ was followed! Offers were made, accepted and extended. New characters were introduced. No idea was ‘blocked’. Yes, I know I’m using ‘jargon’, but every Drama student and Drama teacher in the audience will know what I mean!

They will also appreciate the fact that, despite their experience and talent, these Theatresports Stars performed some of the original one, two and three minute Theatresports games devised by Keith Johnson and his students in Calgary, Canada in the 1970s. ‘Death in a Minute’, the ‘Alphabet game’, ‘Emotional Replay’, ‘Double Figures’ are still basic games used to develop the inter-school Theatresports Competition teams that prepare Drama students for the rigours of the drama syllabuses.

All in all, as usual, this was a great night of improvised theatre performed by some of the best known Impro actors in the country – and organised by a team of similarly skilled actors who are the creative, collaborative team that is Impro Australia.

Want to understand and learn more about Theatresports? Want to see more?  There are plenty of opportunities. Just go to improaustralia.com and check out classes and performances – like that on the first Monday of every month at the Cat and Fiddle Hotel in Balmain. And check out the other performances like Celebrity Theatresports coming up later in the year. You’ll be surprised just how popular imrovisation is – and how much fun.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical

Book by Douglas McGrath. Music by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. Blackout Theatre Company. Director: Jordan Anderson. Musical Director: Koren Beale. Pioneer Theatre Castle Hill. 7-16th May, 2021

 

Reviewed : 7 May, 2021

Photo : supplied

It’s a brave company that takes on NSW’s first amateur production of any musical, especially one that is as demanding as Beautiful. Carole King’s story covers over half a century of musical styles, song writers and singers. It’s complex vocally in so many ways – just fancy taking on the role of a singer as talented and internationally loved as Carole King for a start! Or Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann! Or The Drifters! Or The Shirelles!

It’s just as complex technically. It requires a twelve-piece band, including three keyboards, two guitars, a bass, drums, percussion, two reeds, a trumpet, a flugelhorn, a trombone and a bass trombone. There are multiple microphones and microphone changes. In this production there are two hundred points of audio connect and one hundred and eighty lighting cues. An extra one kilometre of cabling was required in order to stage the production in the venue!

Yet, Blackout Theatre Company took on this mammoth project at the end of 2019 and was well and truly into production mode when the pandemic struck. Undaunted, director Jordan Anderson, with musical director Koren Beale and choreographer Lauren MacKinnon, and a committed cast and crew, waited patiently, and are at last able to bring the state’s first amateur production of  Beautiful to the stage, with Elisa Vitagliani in the leading role.

Anderson describes Vitagliani as “incomparable” and she certainly lives up to his description. She brings a wealth of musical training and musical theatre experience to the role, as she takes King from a hopeful teenage composer to an internationally celebrated performer. Whether diffidently offering “It Might as well Rain Until September” to  a New York producer or playing and singing at Carnegie Hall, Vitagliani shines stunningly in this role. She embodies the warmth that is so characteristic of King and her music, as well as personifying King’s vocal strength, range, energy and sincerity.

Christopher Melotti plays King’s lyricist husband Gerry Goffin. Melotti takes Goffin  from cocky teenager and confident collaborator to a troubled depressive who forsakes his wife and family. Melotti plays the role with thoughtful expressiveness.

Fellow musical collaborators Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann are played by Fiona Brennan and Timothy Drummond. These two performers work well together, both highlighting the humour that has been written into the roles. They play off each other well, whether acting or singing, and make their characters very believable.

Photo : supplied

Donnie Kirschner – music publisher and rock music producer – is played with restrained energy by Anthony Chester. Jodie Thornton plays King’s very supportive mother, Genie Klein, with bubbly energy.

In dialogue and song, these six performers tell the Carole King ‘story’, taking her from a hopeful, starry eyed sixteen-year-old composer to wife, mother, friend and celebrated performer. They are supported by a strong cast who sing – and dance – with vibrant enthusiasm, whether playing backing singers or harmonising as the very dapper Drifters or the very sparkly Shirelles.

Backing them (in another room in the venue) is the band conducted by Lindsay Kaul. The sound and video are ‘transported’ to the auditorium by network connections – and considering how little time the company is actually in the venue prior to opening, bringing off-stage sound, on-stage action and lighting cues together in only a few rehearsals is always frenetic. Then there is backstage frenzy of co-ordinating 28 performers, making over 150 costume changes, changing 40 wigs and manipulating 130 props.

Blackout Theatre Company took on a major project with this production. That they have managed it so successfully is a credit to Jordan Anderson, his creative team, a very gifted leading lady, and a strong, enthusiastic cast and crew. Their production is yet another example of the artistic heart that beats so strongly in western Sydney.

Also published in State Whispers magazine.

Good With Maps

By Noelle Janaczewska. Director: Kate Gaul. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. Siren Theatre Company. 30April-1May, 2021

Reviewed : 30 April, 2021

Photo : Lucy Parakhina

Kate Gaul has an amazing ability to see the possibilities of a space – and a script. Give her some exquisite words from an exceptional writer (Noelle Janaczewska), an actor (Jane Phegan) who understands them and connects with their cadences and phrasing, a composer (Nate Edmondson) who is receptive to their rhythms and emotion – and together they can transform the space … and transport you. Together they can make you believe you are travelling on a boat down a wide river, or walking down the streets of a town north of London “where you can’t see the woods for the acres of carparks”, or fathoming the way to the intensive care ward through a maze of hospital corridors.

Together they have shaped this gentle, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes even a little confronting piece of writing into a performance that reaches beyond the stage to places endured, places visited, places evaded … but more importantly, places imagined.

Not only are these creative people “good with maps”, they are good with space and words and music. Janaczewska provides the “words” in a beautifully written performance essay that delves into her memories of poring over her father’s maps. Of finding the page where the Amazon river wove its way from the Andes to the sea and dreaming of the day she would sail along it. Of losing herself in “ripping yarns and travelogues”. And explaining how they all led to the “desire to be elsewhere”.

Photo : Lucy Parakhina

Jane Phelan uses these words to be “Noelle”. She finds the rhythms of the phrasing in movements that are deftly directed, carefully spaced and paced. In her face and with clever changes in tone and pitch, she takes us into Noelle’s life, justifying the need to get away, in her imagination, from “the streets that sprawl along the Lee Valley”. Later, we see the desperation as she describes her father succumbing to Parkinson’s disease: “is it parental disintegration that turns us into adults?” and the impatience with her mother who upbraids her for “being rude to doctors” when she tries to get more professional help.

As all this happens, Edmondson’s soundtrack echoes emotively. Sounds trickle and tinkle; thunder crashes; rain splashes. Notes play softly, stop as an idea is allowed to hang gently … then begin again.

All this occurs on an open stage, where the only decoration is a river of tiny silver boats that curve toward the audience, a single chair; and three piles of books – maps, directories and Virginia Woolf.

Janaczewska’s writing is elegant. Kate Gaul’s direction is uncluttered, sophisticated. Edmondson’s soundtrack is understated, expressive. And Jane Phelan brings them together in a very touching and memorable performance.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

 

Claudel

By Wendy Beckett. Director: Wendy Beckett. Choreographer: Meryl Tankard. The Playhouse. Sydney Opera House. April 23 – May 9, 2021.

Reviewed : 29 April, 2021

Photo : Daniel Boud

Australian playwright Wendy Beckett’s tribute to twentieth century French artist Camille Claudel premiered in French, in Paris, at the Théâtre de l’Athénée Louis Jouvet in 2018 in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

Think about it! An Australian playwright dramatizing the work of a famous female French artist, but one who was terribly ill-used by the society of the time. How did the critics react, I wondered? Here are just a few snippets of what they said:

A piece all powerful in its subtlety …  (Publik Art Review)

A superb show dedicated to the life of this great artist, so unfairly treated. (De La Cour au Jardin)

The show is ambitious: exploring the delicate balance between genius and madness. (Coup de Theatre)

This Australian premiere of her play is just as powerful and just as subtle.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Not only does she explore the “delicate balance between genius and madness” that Claudel trod so impulsively, but she reincarnates the intriguing, gutsy woman who wrought a career as a highly original sculptor at a time when women weren’t usually allowed into studios. A woman who became the muse and lover of the famed Auguste Rodin. And who, despite her talent and fame, was despised and defamed by her own mother, who had her committed to an asylum where she died, incarcerated, 30 years later.

Beckett’s reconstruction of Claudel’s story is skilfully written. It covers so much, but does so in spare, pared back dialogue that gives the actors the opportunity to disclose the characters in action, expression and gesture as well as words.

Meryl Tankard’s choreography is just as skilful and equally as subtle. Based on Claudel’s own work, three dancers using almost imperceptively controlled movements, recreate the intricate work of the sculptor to the haunting notes of excerpts from Olivier Messian’s Quartet for End of Time.

Sensitivity is evident in both the direction and the choreography. The cast – actors and dancers alike – have a serious story to tell. They do so with perceptive intelligence, restraint, clarity and control.

Imogen Sage inhabits Camille Claudel like a feisty spectre from a past where an outspoken woman was shunned. Claudel was sensitive, highly strung, fighting for recognition in a chauvinistic society. Sage finds all the different dimensions Beckett’s research has infused into the character. She is defiant, a little brazen, mischievous – but always creative, intense, ambitious.  In her relationship with Rodin she moves from admiration, to affection, to love, to despair. In isolation, she is reduced but still defiant.

Auguste Rodin is reincarnated by Christopher Stollery, who plays the eminent sculptor with haughty arrogance and a tinge of humility. Stollery treads the stage confidently, giving Rodin the self-assurance of success and recognition – and the chutzpah that enables him to see, ruthlessly at first, the value that can be gained from Claudel’s talent and insightfulness.

Tara Morice plays Madame Claudel, a callous, pitiless woman entrenched in the moralistic society of the time. Morice finds the rigidity of this woman, holding her head as tautly as the impossible constraints she inflicts on her family. She is cold, tense, inflexible. There is nothing soft or yielding in the character she portrays so clearly.

Claudel’s friends and fellow students, Jessie and Suzanne, are played by Melissa Kahraman and Henrietta Amevor. Both depict the mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety of working in the only studio in Paris that allowed female artists. Kahraman’s Jessie is bubbly, excitable, supportive, yet always a little nervous. Amevor’s Suzanne is less open, more cautious.

Mitchell Bourke is Paul Claudel, loyal brother, yet dutiful son. Bourke shows the difficulty of being caught between both roles. He is fretful, apprehensive, concerned.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Dorothea Csutkai, Chloe Fournier and Kip Gamblin are the dancers who bring Claudel’s sculptures to the stage. Clay-coloured, they pose, often immobile for long minutes at a time, then moving, almost imperceptively, to another of Claudel’s innovative interpretations of the human predicament. Tankard uses the famous L’Age Mur (that depicts the struggle between Claudel, Rodin and Rose, the mother of his son), to bring the dancers into an even more poignant depiction of her work. In the final moments of the production, as Claudel languishes in isolation, the dancers come together and draw away, just as Claudel was drawn away from society and her work.

All of this is portrayed on a set clothed in swathes of clay-coloured fabric that swaddle the stage, and lighting that suggests the stulted ideals of times past. Similar clay-ish shades are used in the long artists’ smocks, so that Claudel’s vivid red velvet dress in a later scene, and her mother’s black gown and white collar are emphatic contrasts. Unusual props – a stretchable bust, the frame of a coffin – extend the artistic essence of the story. The design team – Halcyon Pratt, Sylvie Skinazi, Matt Cox and Bob Scott – has created an atmosphere that reaches beyond the stage.

Camille Claudel lives on in this sensitive yet harrowing retelling of her ideals, her work and her cruel mistreatment. It is an acknowledgement of a woman wronged – brought to the stage by a talented artists who empathise, over the distance of time, with a woman who was so sadly wronged but who lives on in the works she created.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

In Duty Bound

By Ron Elisha. The Theatre on Chester, Epping, NSW. Directed by Carla Moore. April 23-May 22, 2021.

Reviewed : April 25, 2021

Photo : supplied

Polish refugees Fania and Simkeh escaped the evils of World War II to settle in Melbourne. They hold steadfastly to their Jewish faith – and the rituals, customs and traditions that have endured despite generations of persecution. Though safe in Australia, they will never forget Hitler’s devastating march through Europe and the massacre of so many they held dear.

Ron Elisha takes his audience into inner city Melbourne in 1968. It is Friday evening, the beginning of the Sabbath and guests are expected. As well as their sons Jack and Lenny and Lenny’s wife Suzy, they’ve invited Fania’s sister Giza and her husband Mordechai. And Suzy is bringing her friend Hannah – ostensibly to meet Jack.

As Fanai fusses about setting the table and loudly hurrying Simkeh and Jack along, she sets the pace and tone of the production – and gives the audience time to take in the set, where the attention to detail is just one indication of director Carla Moore’s personal empathy with this production.

Photo : supplied

“This play resonates with me deeply,” she says. “I knew these dining rooms full of memories, these immigrants, these damaged survivors of the Holocaust, who clung to their beliefs so desperately in order to make sense of their lives.”

It is Moore’s own family photographs that hang on the walls and become such a focus of the production. Her menorah stands on the dresser. A mezuzah is affixed beside the front door. Sabbath candles are set.

Attention to detail extends to the accents, especially the hard ‘g’ at the end of present participles; the pronunciation of Hebrew and Yiddish words; the beautifully intoned notes of the Sabbath grace by Clive Hobson, who plays Mordechai; and the meals around which so much of the action occurs.

All of this sets not just the scene, but the tenor of the production. Despite the joy of the occasion, history hangs heavily on this family, bound by the pain and suffering of the past, and the memories that haunt them.

That history hangs particularly heavily on Jack. When he uses the Sabbath gathering to tell his parents that he is in love with a non-Jewish girl, the reactions of his parents, and his aunt are fiercely hostile.

Thus Elisha introduces the turmoil of a family divided by religion and tradition. Unbelievable? Even a little ‘over the top’ today? In multi-cultural, multi-religious Australia? Perhaps. Perhaps not!

Moore’s cast makes this controversial situation very plausible. Julie Moore, as Fania, is very much the traditional Jewish mother – fussy, talkative, worrying over appearances, constantly offering food, but strident, hysterical, melodramatic at Jack’s daring to marry a non-Jewish girl.

Photo : supplied

Martin Bell’s Simkeh is her antithesis. Solid, steeped in his belief in family, he moderates and soothes – until Jack’s announcement, when the past and his fears lead him to admissions and threats and that will eventually ruin the son he loves so much.

Michael Arvithis plays the difficult role of Jack. Caught between two worlds, he vacillates between them, trying to stay ‘cool’, but caught up in an atmosphere that is oppressive but, eventually, overpoweringly valid.

It is around these three characters that the story is built, but they are ably supported by Tracey Okeby Lucan, Clive Hobson, Samara Louise and Alex Howard as the extended family; Mia Bulie as Hannah; and Hannah Laytham as Christine, the “Shiksa” who Jack dares to introduce to his family.

Carla Moore’s production is tight. The characters and their feelings are very real – as are the dilemmas that divide them … and the history that they will never forget.

Plays like this are important. They keep that history alive.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Lights In The Park

By Alexander Lee-Rekers. Directed by Lucy Clements. Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and Q Theatre. Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith. 2-24 April, 2021

Reviewed : April 21, 2021

Photo : Tracey Schramm

An ensemble production takes on a whole new meaning when it involves thirteen teenagers from different suburbs and different schools rehearsing after school and in school holidays. It requires a ‘duty of care’ and understanding far beyond that of ordinary directorial responsibilities. And it demands a discerning choice of material, meticulous organisation and thoughtful preparation.

Obviously, director Lucy Clements is ‘on top’ of all this! She and her crew – Sacha Slip, Sorie Bangura and Kate Wooden – with the backing of the ATYP production team, have approached this production with the sort of professionalism that nurtures their young cast as well as giving them a genuine insight into the discipline and integrity that defines the arts.

Alexander Lee-Rekers’ very carefully crafted play, which was supposed to open at this time last year, has waited patiently in the wings for the pandemic restrictions to be lifted, and this production is a fine tribute to ATYP’s ongoing commitment to providing practical theatrical experiences for aspiring young performers and playwrights.

Photo : Tracey Schramm

In Lights in the Park, Lee-Rekers has created a play that extols the honest perceptiveness of young people – and their ability to deal intelligently and intellectually with problems. He calls the play a “celebration of young people, showing them supporting one another and building communities”. In doing so he also shows their ability to face “a frightening and uncertain future with courage”.

The characters he has created are carefully drawn, their strengths and frailties portrayed in dialogue that is artfully appropriate and prudently economic. They are characters that Lucy Clements has introduced skilfully to her young cast. It is obvious that they have worked sensitively through the play together, deliberating over relationships and developing an understanding of the events that have shaped them.

Each performer brings that understanding to their characterisation, finding with Clements’ caring direction, the different dimensions that Lee-Rekers has infused into their lines. Together they introduce the audience to a group of characters who have faced a series of problems – and who go about finding solutions that show tolerance and compassion … and maturity.

There’s the aspiring singer who throws ridicule to the wind and records a song that gets unexpected air play, and her ally who supports her through the resulting scorn. There’s the almost hidden pathos of a young man who mourns the death of his first love, and the friend who listens and consoles. There’s the older sister who has made some unfortunate mistakes, and her young brother who is trying to hold the family together. There are the enthusiastic “entrepreneurs”, eternally optimistic about ways they can make a profit. There’s an aggressor who seeks revenge for wrongs inflicted by the school bully – and the friends who attempt to dissuade. There’s the bully himself who uses bravado and cash to cover his lack of self-esteem. Moving quietly among them is the gentle observer, who watches, and cares …

Together, at a party in a park during a power outage, these characters are deftly portrayed by thirteen very talented and committed young actors. Their empathy with the characters is strong, their skill in revealing the relationships testament to Lucy Clements’ wise guidance and judicious direction. There are some lovely moments of humour, some carefully directed moments of anger – and a gently directed moment of despair. There are, too, some cleverly effective directorial decisions. All are enhanced by an imaginative design team including Liv Hutley, Benjamin Turner and Chrysoulla Markouli.

ATYP’s commitment to young people and their developing love of theatre reaches right across the wide expanse of this big city, bringing opportunities to be part of theatre – and to see theatre. That commitment is reflected in this very professional production – and the obvious passion and zeal of its young cast.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Little Mermaid

Victorian State Ballet. The Concourse, Chatswood. April 10-12, 2021

Reviewed : 11 April, 2021

Photo : Enpointe Productions

The ballet of The Little Mermaid was adapted by Martin Sierra from the original story by Hans Christian Anderson. Sierra chose music from a range of composers including Johann Sebastian Strauss, Franz Lehar, Dimitri Shostakovich, Gioachino Rossini, Brian Crain, Aram Khachaturian and Camille Saint-Saëns to re-tell this tale as a full-length classical ballet.

Choreographer Michelle Cassar de Sierra uses the varied score to capture the suggestion of life under the sea in flowing choreography for Ariel and her mermaid friends in the first act – then subtly changes the choreography as she moves on to the land in the second act. Cassar de Sierra is widely respected for her “unique ability to balance the tension between innovation and tradition” and the ‘kitchen’ scene in Act 2, is testament to that. The Cook and his kitchen staff bring humour and fun to the ballet in fast paced movement and leaps to excerpts from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

The different settings of the story provide wonderful scope for colour and delicacy in design. Costume designers Jan Tredrea & Gaylene Matthewson use shimmering fabrics and iridescent beading to suggest life under the sea – and more formal white and gold for the lavish costumes in the palace scenes.

The magic of technology and photography allows designers to set – and change – scenes evocatively and quickly. With the use of videography and images projected on a huge, stage-wide screen, Martin Sierra, Jutta Pryor create the sea at peace and in storm – and the luxury one expects when Ariel wakes in a sumptuous palace in the second act.

Before these images over fifty elegant and talented dancers from the Victorian Ballet bring Martin and Michelle Sierra’s inspiration to life.

Photo : Enpointe Productions

Among the principals, Janae Kerr and Alana Puddy alternate as Ariel and Charlie Morton is Prince Eric. Tynan Wood is King Triton. Ursula Sera Schuller and Mia Wallace double as Ursula and Elise May Watson-Lord is Eric’s fiancée. All dancers impress of course with their control, their extensions, their beautifully finished movements and extended bourrees and the succession of pas de deux in the second act were exquisitely executed.

When the Victorian State Ballet brings a production to Sydney, they very generously offer the chance for aspiring young dancers to be part of the production. It is a wonderful opportunity for those who are successful to extend their skills – and learn much about the organisation and control required by dancers behind the scenes of a major production.

In this production of The Little Mermaid a fortunate and delighted group of forty-two young dancers from NSW and the ACT joined the production in the scene of Ariel’s birthday party. Proud parents and other family members were among the keen audiences – many of whom were children – that filled The Concourse for each performance.

Bringing such a large Corps de Ballet inter-state is a major task. Transporting dancers, costumes, props, stage managers, back-stage to take care of costumes, make and hair styling requires an inordinate amount of organisation and control behind the scenes. Add to that the training and rehearsing of a young group of dancers at the same times as the company adjust to new accommodation and a new venue. It’s a mammoth undertaking and one the Victorian Ballet appears to do seamlessly – to the delight of its Sydney audiences.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Always a Bridesmaid

By Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten. Castle Hill Players. Director: Meredith Jacobs. Pavilion Theatre, Castle Hill. 9th April – 1st May, 2021
Reviewed : April 5, 2021
Photo : Chris Lundie

Being a bridesmaid is pretty special! It doesn’t happen often. Once – or maybe twice at the most – but these gals get to do it even more often! Sometimes for the same bride! At the same reception house! Four bridesmaids, four brides, and a flamboyant meddlesome “mistress of the house”!

It’s a recipe for fun, and that’s just what director Meredith Jacobs has cooked up! With lots of colour and pace, she has developed this happy little play into a slick, entertaining piece of theatre.

The concept may sound simple, but the ‘fun’ takes place over seven years – and over seven years things change – especially fashion, style and décor. With weddings and wedding venues involved, the audience might expect something special.

Jacobs and her designers don’t disappoint! The set, designed by the very elusive Trevor Chaise, could well be a genuine suite in a ‘grand old’ Virginian plantation mansion. It is impressively realistic and thoughtfully decorated. Watch for the meticulous attention to detail – and the explicit changes over time.

Similar care – and quite a lot of time I imagine – has been taken with the costumes. Four weddings, three of them for ‘mature’ brides and bridesmaids, over seven years, in four scenes, means at least twenty costume changes, some of which have to be exactly the same! According to the program, it took a team of five talented ‘researchers’ to find the many suitably tasteful – and sometimes appropriately outrageous – costumes the play required.

Fast costume changes are never easy, especially when they demand a degree of ‘ceremonial’ fastidiousness, but this very disciplined cast handle each complicated change with professional aplomb, bringing their bridal party characters back on stage just a tad older but impeccably coiffured. Well, except for one, but that is perfectly in character!

Too much about design, you may think. Not so. Plays such as this depend greatly on ‘place and time’ for the action to work. This set clearly fixes the place for the audience. James Winters uses lighting to define the ambience. Joshua McNulty’s bright original music recorded by the Film Harmonia Orchestra distinguishes the mood. With all that done, the cast take the stage in scenes filled with humour, anxious, twitchy pre-wedding stress – and skilfully directed action and pace.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Kari Ames Bissette (Chantal Vavasour) is the first bride we meet – in front of the curtain! In a wedding dress that sparkles just as brightly as the champagne she sips, Kari is beginning her bridal speech, which she continues in between-scene snippets throughout the evening – a sneaky ploy devised by the playwrights to offset the costume changes. Vavasour carries off the cumulative effect of the champagne cleverly as the play progresses– and makes a special appearance in the final scene.

The first of the more mature brides is Monette Gentry. This is her third wedding, and her school friends have come to support her once again. Meredith Jacobs herself has stepped into this role due to a “last minute change in the bridal party”. It is good to see Jacobs on the stage again, and she brings to the role the same energy and passion she expects of her cast. Her Monette is stylish, confident, a little bit haughty, even a little tough, but still ‘one of the girls’ – who are all clearly established in this first, funny scene.

There is Libby Ruth Ames, played by Gina Willison, new to the stage and doing a sterling job as the very organised and motherly Libby Ruth. She irons, tidies, commiserates and placates. It is clear she has always been the conciliator whom the others turn to for a sympathetic ear.

Penny Johnson is Deedra Wingate, the most steadfast of the foursome. She has to be, she is a judge after all. Johnson’s Deedra is upright, respectable, aware of her position – and just a little bit distant in her relationship with the others. Until the third scene, when things get completely out of her control.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Then there is Charley Collins! A bit awkward, a bit self-conscious … and still single! This character is a gift for an actor who has good timing and strong comedic skills – and Leigh Scanlon has both. She makes Charley lovably gauche, endearingly self-effacing and very funny.

All four ‘bridesmaids’, and eventually Kari too, are effectively corralled by Annette Snars as Sedalia Ellicott, event organiser extraordinaire. Snars plays Sedalia with exuberant verve, sweeping around the stage like a veritable whirlwind, hurrying preparations along, puffing decorative pillows, fussing, agitating and advising.

Jacobs, with assistant director Julian Floriano and her creative design team, has produced a strong ensemble production that will be a safe and entertaining injection for audiences anxious to forget for a while the perplexities of the real world.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

 

La Traviata

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Opera Australia. Director: Constantine Costi. Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion. March 26th to April 25th 2021.

Reviewed : March 26, 2021

Photo : Prudence Upton

After a week of torrential rain, Sydney sparkles for the opening night of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata … on the harbour! With the Opera House and the city skyline shining through a clear, balmy night, it seems impossible to believe that only three days ago the city cowered under torrential rain – and flood waters surged throughout the state.

Even as the eager audience crowds into the stunning outdoor venue that is Handa Opera on the Harbour, thousands of families are mourning the loss of their homes, their businesses, their crops, their livestock – and desperately trying to clear away the mud and debris left behind. And this after a year of anxiety and pandemic enforced restrictions – and that began just as this current production was about to open.

Through the blessings of distance, sound governance and a sensible society, the restrictions of the last twelve months have been lifted … and here we are on a fine autumn night in 2021 at the opening night of the production that was put on hold a year ago.

That makes it rather special for the director Constantine Costi and his cast and crew – special and historic – because La Traviata was the very first opera to grace the iconic harbour stage in 2012. In the words of Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini:

“La Traviata holds a very special place in our hearts. Brian Thompson’s brilliant chandelier and Francesca Zambello’s original production set the benchmark for future Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour productions and have become iconic symbols of this extraordinary event.”

That “brilliant chandelier” is just as impressive today as it must have been in 2012. Made up of 10,000 crystals, it is 9 metres high, 9 metres wide and weighs 3.5 tonnes. Manoeuvred by crane, it hangs above a stage twice as wide as any indoor Australian stage, a stage that, though it appears to ‘float’ on the harbour, can support up to 150 tonnes. Housed beneath it is a studio where 40 musicians send the contrasting themes of ‘love and death’ in Verdi’s score echoing across the harbour.

La Traviata is based on the true story of a vibrant young Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who, despite suffering from tuberculosis, the consumptive plague-like disease that raged in Europe in the 1800s, led a short but colourfully heady life.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Duplessis is recreated by Verdi in his heroine, Violetta, whose arias are sung in this production by the remarkably talented and expressive Stacey Alleaume. Alleaume, a diminutive figure on the wide, stark, open harbour-side stage, and dwarfed by the huge chandelier above her, is nevertheless a force of nature whose energy appears unfailing. Her voice resonates dizzyingly high into the evening sky throughout the party scenes of the first two acts, then reaches plaintively across the water in the final, poignant scenes.

The duets with Rame Lahaj as her lover, Alfredo, are beautiful examples of Verdi’s talent to bring together the instruments of voice and orchestra. Lahaj, billed as one of the most prominent tenors of his generation, gives Alfredo’s love for Violetta the vocal depth and richness that offset her feverish vitality.

Michael Honeyman, who plays Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, has the difficult task of convincing Violetta to give up her affair with his son for the sake of family honour. Not an easy task, even when sung to Verdi’s forceful score and librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s persuasive words.

With the equally talented voices of nine other principals, a forty strong chorus and twenty dancers, Costi’s production is a tribute to the original production – and the spirit that kept the team buoyant through a very difficult year. With Tess Schofield’s colourful costumes based in the post-war glamour of the 1950s and the creative electric imagination of lighting designer John Rayment, this ninth Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is one that will be remembered.

Photo : Prudence Upton

At a time when theatres are still ‘dark’ throughout so much of the world, the captivating notes of La Traviata ring out rebelliously in this historic production. In the words of Opera Australia Patron in Chief and Founder and Chairman of the International Foundation of Arts and Culture (IFAC):

“Though there are many challenges still to come, the long-awaited return of our artistic celebration, here in Sydney, is a beacon of hope for us all”.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Launchpad Double Bill : Let Me Know When You Get Home

By Miranda Aguilar; Directed by Valerie Berry. Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. 18-20 March, 2021.

Reviewed : March 19, 2021.

Photo : Noni Carroll.

How many times have you heard those words? Or said them? How many times have you wished someone would say them to you? What do they mean?

Miranda Aquilar uses them ambiguously to title this work that covers the host of insecurities and trepidations that are part of coming-of-age – especially if you are trying to escape a  “racist, homophobic and transphobic community”. She says she wrote the play for “every queer person who has been told they need to ‘escape’ Western Sydney … I wanted a work that didn’t say, ‘it gets better,’ but instead tells young people, ‘I know it sucks right now, so I’m going to stay here with you.’”

That’s a big ask, particularly as the ‘young people’ to whom she is reaching out are many and their backgrounds are diverse. But that’s okay, because she’s peopled her play with characters – and actors – who artfully represent that wide diversity. And she’s set the play in the lead up to Mardi Gras, where the group dynamics involved in making costumes and deciding who will carry the flag expose the very different backgrounds of the characters, their strengths and frailties, and their need to feel they belong.

The cast – Gloria Demillo, Brooke Lee, Tommy Misa, Rose Maher and Jemma R Wilks – work through a series of scenes that, though they cover the plethora of fears and anxieties Aguilar obviously understands so well, are peppered gently with humour and affection. Much of this is carried by Tommy Misa’s charismatic style and clever ability to mix empathy and pathos with just the right amount of glitz and glam.

Photo : Noni Carroll.

Many themes are inter-related: coming out, getting away, isolation, finding friends, acceptance, rejection, coming home. Demillo and Lee take their characters Val and Thi from school day friendship to late teen acceptance of who they are and who they think they might be. Jemma Wilks is the ‘every-mum’ who worries and fusses but is understanding. Rose Maher manages the turmoil the Mardi Gras preparations.

The set is simple but the constant movement of boxes and the business with superfluous props are distractions that draw out the production unnecessarily. Aguilar makes her point through the dialogue her characters and that’s where the direction should have been centred.

“Everyone deserves to feel safe, loved and accepted. I hope this work feels like home …”

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.