30 July 2007

The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera
Really Useful Group

28 July 2007
Princess Theatre


The Phantom of the Opera has returned to the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. It is as lavish and spectacular as it was in the 1990s and Anthony Warlow’s return as the Phantom is phabulous, but the production is already feeling like a franchised McPhantom.
 
The Phantom of the Opera has been phenomenally successful since it opened in London in 1986. The official web site estimates that more than 80 million people have seen it in hundreds of cities in more than 20 countries. It has created some of the most magical moments in contemporary musical theatre and some of the most copied and ultimately clichéd moments. We are still seeing the same production (direction, choreography, design) that has thrilled for over 20 years. Which is where the problem may lie. It wasn’t lazy performances or a bad cast, but this production felt tired and almost lacklustre.

The design is still stunning, the costumes amazing and the overture chandelier moment is one of the greatest musical theatre openings (perhaps only surpassed by The Lion King). Yet this Phantom is already beginning to feel like its own cliché. The dry ice, great make up and magic disappearances are so expected now that they have very little impact.

The book and score are full of mystery, deaths, disappearances and constant threat, but there was very little tension on the stage. We were never really scared for Christine and her fate. The climax of the show is the unmasking of the Phantom (I think this well enough known that it’s not a spoiler), but was so expected that it was almost an anti-climax.

The 1986 production and direction aren’t translating to 2007. This Phantom needs new energy to re-connect with its audience and re-create the atmosphere and tension that have made it such a success.

What does make this production shine is the phantastic Warlow. His Phantom is complex and haunting and human. He was struggling vocally with a lurgy on opening night, but few would have noticed if the director hadn’t announced it before opening. The show is totally his, vocally and emotionally.

This shouldn’t be the case. Every one on that stage should (and could) be as good as Warlow. I may not have been so disappointed if it wasn’t for the most recent Miss Saigon, where every member of the cast has the same energy, commitment and range as the principals. Just because it’s a franchised production, doesn’t mean it can’t be amazing and engaging.

Ana Marina’s sings Christine beautifully and brings an interesting vocal interpretation to one of the hardest music theatre roles to sing. However, Christine has two men thoroughly obsessed with her, two women secretly protecting her and an entire opera company fearing for their lives because she is in their midst. This Christine is sweet and innocent and lovely, but not yet achieving the performance than makes us believe that men would kill for her. Her stage connection with Raoul (John Bowles) and to the Phantom is also lacking. This is a show about huge emotions. We have to believe those kisses.

I have loved Phantom since I bought the double album with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. Even through my computer speakers this recording has more tension and life than the current Australian production.

Our latest Phantom is an expensive ticket. If this is a concern, listen to the original recording and rent the DVD of the film (which is actually pretty good).

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

20 July 2007

The Eisteddfod

The Eisteddfod
Malthouse Theatre
20 July 2007
The Tower, CUB MAlthouse


The Eisteddfod is another one of those amazing works that emerged from Melbourne’s independent theatre world and was given a new audience through the Malthouse’s Tower Theatre program. (I’m almost getting bored of saying how good The Tower Theatre program is.)

Stuck Pigs Squealing describe themselves as a collective of artists “dedicated to the creation of dynamic, imaginative and disturbing theatre events.” The Eisteddfod fits the criteria like a dominatrix’s leather glove and continues to prove what original and incredible theatre can be produced when the creative team are not tied to the researched wants of a demographically sorted audience.

Brother and sister Abalone and Gerture are introduced to us by the voice of Lally Katz. She is the traditional voice of god/narrator, the mother/protector and the playwright. It’s nice to really hear a playwright’s voice.
Abalone and Gerture have always liked to play make believe and since their parents tragic death in a pruning accident, agoraphobia has kept them living in the same room. Luckily Abalone has his acting Eisteddfod to rehearse for and Gerture can escape to her classroom, when Abalone isn’t pretending to be her totally unpleasant boyfriend Ian.

Lally Katz’s writing is astounding. She knows how this strange custom, where people go into dark rooms and watch other people pretend to be other people, works. She takes the absurd, makes it stranger, but makes it real. The Eisteddfod runs from parody (the meeting of the Macbeths improvisation) to uncomfortable reality (Ian asking Gerture “do you fuck me” after he has been sexually and physically humiliated). I had no idea where each scene was going to take us and was continually surprised and , strangely, satisfied.

Chris Kohn’s direction lets the audience grow into and with the nature of the work, without every letting us become complacent or too comfortable.

The design team of Adam Gardnir (set and costume), Jethro Woodward (sound) and Richard Vabre (lighting) were equally astounding. It is refreshing to see all the design elements work so intricatly and perfectly with the script and direction.

Gardnir’s design is designed for every odd need and practicality of the work. It’s intricate and delicate; filled with teddies and sewing boxes and secrets. The unexpected detail and whimsy are intriuiging and beautiful. I just loved the tiny giraffe, jaguar and tree on the record player.

Finally a work does rest on the shoulders of the people pretending to be other people. Luke Mullins and Katherine Tonkin never let Abolone and Gerture be as absurd or unreal as their situation. We believed, understood and cared for these characters. They never let us laugh AT them. The strength of their performances and the humanity they brought to the brother and sister is what makes The Eisteddfod resonate and connect with the audience.

This is theatre that questions the nature of theatre and forces its audience to engage their brains. Even if you don’t fully understand every moment, just go with the experience and see how you feel afterwards.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

15 July 2007

Air Balloon Across Antarctica

Air Balloon Across Antarctica
Three to a Room

15 July 2007
Trades Hall, Old Council Chambers


Melbourne was only given a short fundraising season of Three To A Room’s Air Balloon Across Antarctica before it heads off to the Edinburgh Fringe. Let’s hope fair winds blow it safely back, so more people can see this astonishingly beautiful, highly original, funny and gut-wrenching production.

Caitlin is travelling in an air balloon across Antarctica. Her companion is Ham, an obese hamster, who longs to be a lemming (because lemmings are James Dean, while hamsters are Tom Hanks) and she is visited by great explorers of the past.

There’s so much about Darrah Martin’s script that shouldn’t work. His metaphors flow like water off a melting ice cap, he throws in adjectives like an over-sized and desperate for attention thesaurus and he tells instead of shows.

It is, nonetheless, one of the most beautifully written scripts I’ve encountered. Martin’s dialogue is dense, but he makes his words dance, without ever making them feel unnatural or forced. The incidental comments and dialogue may not always move the story forward, but they give the script a different level of life and make it shine. The band who were “all headbands and no irony” and Caitlin who “sprinkles discourse into a conversation like a condiment” make you want to listen to every word in case you miss a gem. Or perhaps it was all just a very elaborate ploy to find a use for the phrase “nudist balloonist”.

Language aside, Air Balloon tells a perfectly structured and surprising story. What could have been a totally acceptable and enjoyable love story is told in an original way from an unexpected point of view. What starts as a witty and enjoyable jaunt abut the “pinch-me-I’m-fainting ache and ecstasy of falling in love”, turns into a dangerous journey into “the sour dour knife twists and turns of sliding out of love” and the event that started the slide.

Part of me wants to see a professional company grab this script, polish up the rough edges and show it to a huge audience, but I don’t want to see it lose the simplicity and beauty of this production.

Yvonne Virsik’s direction deftly balances the humour with the sadness. By making the complex seem simple, she lets us see the intricacy of the complexity. With a script that can be excessive and plot that could be melodramatic, she paces the action perfectly, without letting the audience become too comfortable. The setting and characters are as absurd as rhinoceros in the street, but they are always emotionally real and we never doubt that Amelia Earhart or Ham the hamster don’t belong in this world.
The cast are, on the whole, not very experienced, but bring a level of understanding and maturity that far outweighs many a professional actor I’ve seen on our major stages recently.

Claire Glenn skilfully and gradually reveals the complexity of Caitlin’s truth and her search for something beginning with safe. Caitlin is filled with joy and anger and determination and frustration and sadness. She wants to appear open, but only so that no one can see the places in her that hurt. Glenn is thoroughly engaging as Caitlin, but never lets us become so captivated that we don’t see her flaws.

Paul David-Goddard as James was the surprise performance of the evening. James is the supporter of Caitlin, whose love and obsession let her be the explorer. James is controlled, safe and strong, as is David-Goddard’s performance. He isn’t the one expected to bring the audience to tears (myself included). His final moments gently nail the emotional impact of this work.

And then there’s Ham the hamster. He is part narrator and holder of the truth about the drip, drip burning bush. Ham is a ham and could have very easily been played for laughs, but Sophie Lampel brought a poignancy and believability to him. She deserves pat on the tummy and an extra big bowl of Special K for her performance.

Sayraphim Lothian’s continues to show how to make design support a script. Her balloon basket is woven from old brown clothes; the many, many layers that give us our appearance and status in the world.

Three To A Room received no funding for this project. Raffles, quiz/film nights and chocolates sales got Air Balloon off the ground. Producers a Claire Glenn, Charlotte Strantzen and Ellen Gales prove that determination and the desire to create exceptionally good theatre can create exceptionally good theatre.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

12 July 2007

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty
Malthouse Theatre
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.

11 July 2007

Ali McGregor’s Midnight Lullubies

Ali McGregor’s Midnight Lullubies
Malthouse Theatre
11 July 2007
Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse


I first saw Ali McGregor in The Opera Burlesque. She was sensual, seductive, tantalising, funny and downright divine. I saw glimpses of that Ali in Midnight Lullabies, but otherwise I’m having trouble believing it was the same performer.

Ali has the kind of voice that is like having your lover lick your ear (if indeed you like that). A well trained voice can do amazing things to songs we think we know. German Lieder, Cohen, Waits, Gershwin and Newman all get Ali’s divine touch.

The concept behind Midnight Lullabies is the perfect for Ali. She sings us the songs that go through her head at four am. She is accompanied by Ben Hendry on an assortment of percussion and “funny” instruments and tells us about what these songs mean to her.

But it’s not working. This show is screaming out for a director and a writer. Ali needs to either be herself on the stage or develop the horny, nutty, obsessive soprano character that sometimes made an appearance. She slipped into a stage character during the some songs, but there was nothing consistent driving the show forward. The best cabaret acts (including the wonderful Opera Burlesque) are based on narrative and character.

There were many moments in Midnight Lullabies that were heading in the right direction, but never got going. Being awake at four am trawling eBay for a $3.97, seven-note concertina. This alone could form the base of a highly original and delightfully kooky character and story. Let this woman lose.

Or she needs to be herself. I would have loved to hear her real stories. If you did sing "Creep" at a weird party for Elton John, for goodness sake tell us the story – otherwise it’s just pretentious name dropping. You can tell the most glorious stories in song, so please also tell us stories though you.

This show should seduce every single member of the audience. Ali can do this. I was so surprised that she didn’t. Sing into out faces and our hearts. The eyes shut, looking at the ceiling stuff just doesn’t work if you’re not connecting with the audience. And the zither, unless it can be made sexy, it only works as a joke.

Now, this may be my harshest piece of criticism to date, but it has to be said. This is something that disturbed me from the moment it appeared and distracted from every other element of the show. Ali – that dress. It looks like something a virgin aunt would make for a 13-year-old frumpy geek to wear to the school dance, which she’s going to with her cousin. A good looking woman can always pull off a bad frock. You are a spectacularly good looking woman – but no one could look good in that frock. I honestly thought that you were parodying one of those sopranos who can never select a decent stage dress. Then I realised… Please get a costume that reflects the character you want us to see on that stage.


This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

05 July 2007

A Porthole into the Minds of the Vanquished

A Porthole into the Minds of the Vanquished
Malthouse Theatre
5 July 2007
Beckett Theatre, CUB MAlthouse


“If that daily pack of Neurofen is not quite masking your existence”, then get ye to A Porthole into the Minds of the Vanquished. This is the type of cabaret that must be developed, performed, encouraged and seen. It steals from the best, whilst remaining remarkably original and proves that there are always news levels of odd that can be exposed on a stage.

Tamlyn Hendeson and Warick Allsopp are also the type of performers who prove that some really can act, dance, sing, write and be funny. Director Ansuya Nathan has taken what, I suspect, was a rough concept and moulded it into a seamless and tight production.The elements are all verging on perfect, but the synergy isn’t creating a magnificent whole.

The writing is sometimes a bit too smart for its own good and not quite intelligent enough to be brilliant. Lines like, “Dance like thousands of people are craning their necks to see you fail”, rightly create guffaws from the floor, but a lot of the humour felt like an in-joke between the performers, not something they were sharing with the gathered mass. Stronger direction may be needed to convince them to lose the material that they think is hilarious, but is falling flat with the audience.

The quest for surrealism (or is it absurdism?) didn’t shine as brightly as it could have. A sketch like Henry Giffin was only memorable for its great sing-a-longability, not for its content. “Don’t let it be someone you know trapped in a mobile phone.” It’s funny, but it doesn’t fit with the context of the other material and left the audience wondering, rather than laughing. There is intention and meaning in the absurd (and the surreal). Porthole needs a bit more consistency and some anchors to make it a much more rounded and ultimately satisfying work.

I think this will happen as it gets seen more and more. The appeal of Henderson and Allsop alone will continue to move this show from success to success. It actually reminded me of seeing The Doug Anthony Allstars in the 80s (before their commercial success). The content and style are very different, but the originality, the genuine intelligence behind the work and the personalities of the performers shine through the best and the worst of the sketches. I think Porthole will turn into one of those shows that we can boast that we saw before they became famous.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.