12 July 2007
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse
Devised by Michael Kantor, Paul Jackson, Mayann Lynch and Anna Tregloan, Sleeping Beauty is proving that new direction, new blood and collaboration at Malthouse can create the kind of original and enlightening theatre we want and expect from this company.
Sleeping Beauty is told as a song cycle, using contemporary and popular music (primarily from the youth of Malthouse supporters). Part musical theatre, part concert, part fairy tale; it asks what Sleeping Beauty would dream about and takes us on her journey from childhood to sexual innocence, to adulthood and the ultimate maturity of disappointment.
A song cycle needs singers. The casting and combination of voices and genres was curious. Renee Geyer is jazz, Grant Smith is opera, Ian Stenlake is pure musical theatre and Alison Bell is an actor who can pull off a song. The juxtaposition of the voices was so odd that it worked brilliantly, to an extent.
Renee is the diva and star. Her delicious and sumptuous jazz (come R&B), makes you want to drink absinthe and chain smoke in tiny dark room until dawn, as her husky tones makes you fall in and out of love with your companion all night. She opened the night with “She” and captured every heart in the house. What she later did with Eminem was near perfect.
Grant has deservedly been on many an opera stage and never ceased to shine. Ian continued to prove himself one of our finest musical theatre performers. His Bowie renditions were nearly as hot as Bowie himself (sorry Ian, no one is hotter than Bowie).
The moment I walked away with was Renee, Grant, Ian’s performance of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You”. It took this love song into a dark, intense and confronting realm that explored how mother, father, brother, older woman, older man and lover can desire, want, love or hate the beauty of young woman.
While the vocal combination worked, what didn’t work as well was that each of the four were performing in their genre, not as an ensemble. Ian and Grant’s performances could have filled a 2000 seat venue. This created unevenness on the stage that might need some tighter direction. Ian at times simply overwhelmed Alison, who was performing to the room she was in.
Alison Bell is a very good actor, but she was the odd voice out. Vocally she wasn’t nearly as powerful as her the other three, which hindered the performance, as it became a comparison. The role needed a singer who was comfortable telling a story though song, rather than acting out the song. (Perhaps someone along the lines of an Australian Idol contestant - a singer who may have actually lived out the bizarre fairy tale dream and nightmare in a public medium.)
Direction, design and concept all worked perfectly to create this highly original work, even if a few self indulgent decisions were made. Often the story would have moved much better if songs had been shorter, giving us just the appropriate lyric grab or emotional rift, rather than the whole number. This would have deprived us of some wonderful performances, but would have served the story much better.
Sleeping Beauty is a work that will grow and change as it runs. It speaks to its audience and is totally enjoyable. As it becomes tighter, it will begin to work better as a whole, rather than a collection of wonderful moments and performances.
This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.