31 May 2011

Review: Biscuit Readings

The Biscuit Readings
Betty (and Bert) Bircher

If you've been lucky, you may have noticed a crocheted rug, some lace doilies, a tin of biccies and a slightly out-of-place couple at a festival club.

If you had a seat and a chat, you'd have discovered that Betty Bircher is an expert in the rare art of Biscuit Reading, and that husband Bert is her greatest supporter.

Sure, Tarot is neat and a good palm reader will freak the bejesus out of you, but none are as accurate (or delicious) as a Biscuit Reading.

Betty had her first biscuit flash in the 80s when she realised that her daughter was an Iced VoVo and her power has developed in its sharpness over the years.

She's overcome the Americanisation of some of our most beloved biccies and still reads an original recipe biscuit; never a cookie. (Hey Betty, have you ever met a Bush? )

Getting around to all the artsie festivals was putting a bit of strain on their bedtimes and I'm sure that they must love Masterchef as much as I do and want to stay in as Melbourne gets cold. So they got the grandkids over for some advice and discovered that the Facebook and the YouTube made readings that little bit easier.

So, if you haven't had an in-person reading, Betty will record one for you. It may change your life or leave you free to reveal the true soul that you hide away, or at least make you search behind the couch cushions for enough coins to go to the 24-hour supermarket to buy a packet of biscuits.

Before you jump in, be prepared. Biscuit reading isn't for the faint-hearted. Don't be surprised if you're not the biscuit you expect and, as I quickly learnt, you're probably not your favourite biscuit.

I was terrified of being a Jatz or an Orange Cream and expected that I might be a Tim Tam. However, I like the new-fangled Dark Tim Tams, so I wouldn't have been happy as a milk chocolate biscuit. A Mint Slice maybe?

My real favourite childhood biccy was an exotic treat made by my grandmother's next door neighbour, Murial. She'd take the dull and grown up Milk Coffee biscuit, add a layer of butter and finish with 100s and 1000s (or sugar if she'd run out of tiny coloured balls). No one makes a snack like that anymore.

But my tastes have developed since then. Perhaps I'd be a Ginger Nut or one of those spicy biscuits from IKEA?

If I'd stood in the supermaket and analysed for hours, I would never have guessed what I really am. But Betty was spot on. I'm a Venetian.

(And I think I'm still looking for a Dark Tim Tam.)

If you want to know what you are, Betty and Bert are at thebiscuitreadings.com.

PS. Betty, here's a photo of Indonesian Tim Tams. I have to say that I was quite fond of the wafer Tim Tams and regret not tasting the "Choco Coffee" version.

Review: Saltimbanco

Cirque Du Soleil
25 May 2011
to June 11
touring to Hobart, Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney and Woolongong

Back in 1999, Saltimbanco gave Australia our first taste of Cirque du Soleil and we've been addicted ever since. This new arena version of the delicious candy-bright show misses the atmosphere of a big top, but still leaves me wondering if I really am too old to run away and join the circus.

Guy Laliberté formed Cirque du Soleil with a group of 20 street performers in 1984 in Quebec. Without animals, a focus on taking traditional tricks and routines to jaw-dropping levels and incorporating stunning design, simple story and live music, this troupe set a new standard for contemporary circus. Today Cirque du Soleil has 1200 artists among its 5000 employees, has 21 shows running all over the world and has been seen by about 100 million people. And their home provence continues to support some of the world's best circus performers with the National Circus School in Montreal and companies like Cirque Éloize and Les 7 doigts

Saltimbanco still includes the remarkably beautiful live singing, the famous four-Chinese-Pole/20 people routine, the four-person bungee/trapeze,  a sensational three-person Adagio and some audience-participation clowning, but seeing it an arena loses the authenticity, intimacy and atmosphere of the original circus tent. Despite all efforts, the sheer size and empty space of a room designed for outdoor sport creates a disconcerting distance between the performers and their audience, especially for a show with detailed makeup and costuming and one with such individual characters and such heart at its core.

Cirque Du Soleil performers are some of the best around and are always a joy to see.  The high-tech nature of the show can make the super-human athleticism, bendiness and fearlessness of these incredible performers seem effortless, but this leaves us free to enjoy the astonishing feats instead of focusing on the how. And even if those sitting on the floor have a more interactive experience of the show, those further back can really appreciate the height of the Russian Swing routine and let their eyes bulge when the single trapeze really flies.

Circus doesn't get much slicker than Cirque Du Soleil.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Review: Love Never Dies

Love Never Dies
The Really Useful Company Asia Pacific
28 May 2011
Regent Theatre

On opening night, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber took a bow and shared the overflowing audience love with the Australian cast of Love Never Dies.  He told us he was never happy with the London version and said that this could be the best production he's seen of one of his shows.

After the West End version's mixed reviews (read bollocking) and the "postponement" of the Broadway version, all musical theatre eyes turned to Melbourne to see if the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera is really that scary. Regardless of any opinion,  Sir Andrew says it's what he imagined and Graeme Murphy (choreography) should have shown the knight how to do a convincing happy dance.

And so Sir A should be thrilled. Simon Phillips strong direction leads a perfect cast, from the faultless and gorgeous ensemble to Ben Lewis as the Phantom, who I'd love to see play the original. Maria Mercedes (my favourite Frank'N'Furter) brings a creepy darkness to Madame Giry; Sharon Millerchip (who was Meg Giry in the original Australian production of Phantom) lets Meg struggle with bitterness and hope; Simon Gleeson shows the sadness and regret in Raoul; and Anna O'Byrne (who was so wonderful as Polly in Malthouse's Threepenny Opera) makes us believe Christine's regrets.

However, the star of the show is designer Gabriela Tylesova. Her design creates a nostalgic Coney Island with a part-irresistible, part-nightmarish beauty. This spectacular world of pearled colours, sepias and greys is like a hand-coloured seaside postcard, but it's an uncomfortable world where the glorious freaks outnumber the happy visitors. No detail has been spared on the exquisite costumes of hand-sewn lace,  beads and brocade, while the joy and humour of her seaside and dancing-girl costumes fills the stage. And the only thing more gorgeous than the painted tights are the shoes. The sight lines up front mean that a bit too much backstage "mystery" is revealed (which this can and must be fixed), but seeing the shoes and the boots (oh my god, those boots) is worth it. I couldn't decide which pair I loved the most.

Ok, so this production is glorious, so why are there so many euthanasia jokes about Love Never Dies?

Perhaps because a story with no heart doesn't need a Do Not Resusitate order.

It's ten years since the Phantom escaped his lynching in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House and lovers Christine and Raoul were free to get it on in peace. Christine's become famous, they have a ten year old son (who likes music) and they're in debt (not sure why). Meanwhile Madame and Meg Giry followed the Phantom to Coney Island where Meg is still trying to get his attention (and this time she's getting her gear off ). Oh, and Christine really did find the courage to show him he "is not alone" and has been pining for her deformed father-angel.

For those unfamiliar with the Phantom story, I'm not sure what narrative question brings new audiences into this piece, and those who know it will spend time re-assessing their memories of the characters and the story. Dramatically, most of act one is given away in the opening number (where Lewis is amazing), the exposition outweighs the story progression and the highlights of the rest are Meg's stand alone numbers with the ensemble and any time the whole cast is on the stage and the story is having a breather.

I think The Phantom of the Opera is a perfect piece of theatre; musically, emotionally and dramatically. I'm an unashamed fan of Sir Andrew. Cats will always be awesome, I don't know why Aspects of Love was never huge and I have a cassette of Starlight Express and enjoyed every lycra-clad, roller-skating moment of the Melbourne production. There, I've said it.

If someone had played me the music of Love Never Dies, I would have guessed it was a parody of Lloyd Webber. Musically, it's forgettable and dreary and builds to a climax song that relies on the voice of O'Byrne and the outrageously glorious design (even if we all know that the coloured peacocks are boys).

The music is sadly matched by the lyrics that lack any hint of subtext and ("A man as hideous as this is capable of anything") and fail to show anything that isn't bleeding obvious.

But all could be forgiven with a great story. Ben Elton wrote the book. Ben Elton: the alternative-comic hero of the 80s and 90s; the wittiest bloke on the planet; the man who spits out more best sellers than most people read; a dude who understands story. Yes, I am also a fan of Ben Elton and have wiped the recent Channel 9 experience from my memory. I don't know how he wrote this story. There's no tension, no mystery, no compelling dilemmas (dilemma is equal and compelling choices, not a coin toss between which is the least dull), no humour (!) and has a lazy and unfulfilling ending worthy of a day time soap.  However, the cast bring everything they have to make it as emotionally real as possible and I saw a couple of tears shed.

This production is an incredible opportunity to fix Love Never Dies and remind all the disbelievers of just how much Sir Andrew changed and influenced musical theatre.  I tired to "look with my heart and not with my eyes", but the only thing my heart skipped a beat over were the shoes.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com

30 May 2011

Review: The Hatpin

The Hatpin

20 May 2011

Like all the best musicals, The Hatpin is heartbreaking and miserable and reminds us why this form of storytelling is so compelling and important. Forget the likes of Priscilla; this is what Australian musical theatre is really about.

Based on the 1893 Sydney case of baby Horace Murray, The Hatpin is the story of the baby's teenage mother and the women who helped her. Filled with dilemma and unthinkable choices, Peter Rutherford (music) and James Millar (book and lyrics) have taken a piece of Australian legal history and created a universally resonating story about maternal love.

First produced in Sydney in 2008, The Hatpin went to the 2008 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Since 2004, this festival has become the largest program of its kind and lives by its motto "Changing the world, 30 musicals at a time". Next to Normal (currently at the MTC) was still called Feeling Electric at the 2005 festival and [title of show] (Magnormos 2010) was created to enter the NYMF. Since New York, The Hatpin had been acclaimed whenever its been seen, especially the Riverside Lyric Ensemble's production, and Magnormos gives Melbourne our first look.

Thank the theatre gods for Magnormos. Formed in 2002, this small company does everything they can to support and produce new Australian works and to bring us productions of the boutique or forgotten musicals that rarely, if ever, get an Australian production. (And thank the same gods for Theatreworks's continuing support of Magnormos.)

Gemma-Ashley Kaplan (Amber) and Samantha Morley (Harriet) lead the strong cast. Gemma-Ashley (yet another glorious WAAPA graduate) created the role of Clara in the original and New York productions and let's hope we see her as Harriet and finally Agatha over the next 30 or so years. Emma Jones is our young Clara and her Act II climax song proves that we'll also be seeing much more her on our stages.

Shaun Kingma's solid direction creates mood and melancholy, but sometimes let melodrama get in the way of the drama, and played the end from the start. I didn't know the story, but knew from the beginning what the outcome was. I'd love to see it break our hearts even more by offering more hope.

The Hatpin will continue to develop with each production and it shouldn't be too long until a main-stage company grabs it (MTC, I'm looking at you). It's not quite perfect yet, but no show can be until it's had more wonderful productions like this. (My concern is the title; no matter how well it suits, it answers too many narrative questions. And Horace doesn't have the same ring...)

But don't wait for a commercial production, see the The Hatpin while it's still so intimate that you feel like you're freezing on the cobbled streets with Amber and her baby, and if we keep supporting Magnormos, their OzMade program could become the southern version of the NYMF and we'll see more beautiful and powerful musicals like this created in Australia.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

09 May 2011

Review: Next to Normal

Next to Normal
Melbourne Thearte Company
3 May 2011
Playhouse, the Arts Centre
to 28 May

It's been a while since a show left me in tears. With only one tissue, I wasn't prepared for the MTC's production of the Broadway hit Next to Normal.

Next to Normal is about Diana's trauma-induced depression, anxiety and delusion. It opens with her singing about death and being jealous of people in obituaries. Her family have suffered for years and are reaching the point where love isn't enough to cope, and she's meeting with a new doctor.

It took Tom Kitt (Music) and Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) nearly a decade to create this exquisite work. There was extensive research and they workshopped, performed and rewrote it many times. When  the 2008 off-broadway production still wasn't completely grabbing their audiences, they re-wrote again, this time killing songs that had created the show.

It takes time and support and feedback, and more time and support to create work this good. If we had that kind of support in Australia and we didn't give up on shows after one run, we'd be producing work this good. The 2009 Broadway production of Next to Normal won Tony Awards (including Best Score) and the 2010 Pultitzer Prize for Drama.

A musical won the Pulitzer Prize! There was controversy, but anyone who has seen any production knows why it won.

Shakespeare brought us into the minds of his characters with the soliloquy. Great musical theatre writers (like Sondheim, and Boubill and Schönberg) use song. Kitt and Yorkey never let us passively (and comfortably) watch, but make us see and feel what it's like to be in the breaking hearts and souls of their characters, who are just like us. It's almost impossible to distance ourselves from this story.

Next to Normal is a remarkable piece, but with such sensitive material, which is so close to too many of us, and such a dark sense of humour ("Valium is my favourite colour"), it could be a disaster in the wrong hands. Fortunately it was given to Dean Bryant (director) and Matthew Frank (musical director). These two met studying Musical Theatre at WAPPA and have gone on to create works incuding ProdigalOnce We Lived Here and Virgins: A Musical Threesome. I didn't see any of them, but will not miss anything these two have a hand in creating again. They get musicals. They get this style of storytelling that soars when it uses emotion and the subconscious reactions that music evokes.

And their cast are perfect.  Melbourne-favourites Matt Hetherington and Bert LaBonte never disappoint.  As the teen characters,  Gareth Keegan, Christy Sullivan and Benjamin Hoetjes are three recent WAPPA graduates who testify that there really is no other place to study Musical Theatre in Australia. But the surprise is Kate Kendall as Diana. Better known for TV and non-musical stage work, she brings an emotional truth and understanding to her performance that you can almost forget that she's singing.

Next to Normal isn't a show to miss, especially if you're one of those people who doesn't "like" musicals. This one will show you how good they can and should be. It's a heartbreaking story about hurts that "never heal" and, for all it's hope and love, leaves you understanding why some people can't get out of bed each morning.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Photo by Jeff Busby

01 May 2011

Review: Ardal O'Hanlon

MICF 2011
Ardal O'Hanlon
Adrian Bohm presents
21 April 2011
to 24 April

Ardal O'Hanlon is a lovely chap. So lovely that even saying fuck can't make him any less loveable.

Best known as a cat in an episode of Dr Who and as Father Dougal in the bloody wonderful Father Ted (let's forget My Hero), Ardal is so damn nice that it's impossible not to love him. I hope he wasn't trying to be hard and edgy...

Years on the standup circuit have let Ardal shape his opening like it was written for Melbourne and Australia: the place with stuff no one else has, like the platypus and jobs. He weaves in stories about how grim it is in the northern hemisphere with the economic crisis, throws in the compulsory Irish-Catholic Pope jokes and plays with heard-it-before material, like tight sheets on hotel beds, his wife looking less than sexy in a floral maternity dress and the horror of charity Christmas gift.

Sure it's safe and standard stand up stuff, but he tells it with such freshness and charm that even the baby poo story is laugh-out-loud delightful.

I love Ardal on the telly and love him a little bit more in the flesh. He's not breaking any new ground, but shows less-experienced comedians how to charm a huge room by telling some damn fine jokes.  And he confirms my theory that willy is the funniest word in the English language.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com