28 February 2015

Review: The Lion King

The Lion King
19 February 2015
Regent Theatre

Photo by Belinda Strodder

In 1996, Disney Theatrical announced it was making a musical of their popular animated hit The Lion King (1994). Eyes rolled with memories of Disney on Ice productions and the fear of anthropomorphised skating lions, but the show that opened in 1997 challenged how movies are adapted for stage. And 18 years later, its returned to Melbourne and it's still mind-blowing.

The genius decision was making Julie Taymor costume and puppet designer and director. She rejected any thought of replicating the film aesthetic and proved that safe commercial productions can – and should – be art.

The Lion King won the Best Musical Tony award in 1998, has had productions all over the world (first seen in Australia in 2004–6) is is still running on Broadway. This Australian production is stunning and the cast bring a palpable passion to the stage. It's been to Brisbane and Sydney and is currently winning thousands of new fans in Melbourne.

It's the story opens when lion King Mufasa and medicine-woman monkey Rafiki present baby, and future monarch, Simba to the savannah. But Mufasa's brother, Scar, doesn't like being third in line to the throne and plots to gain power. Of course, he succeeds and the banished and terrified Simba has to grow up and remember what it's like to want to be king.

The story's a bit naff, as is the music by Elton John and Tim Rice, but the magic of this production is that the naff is overcome  – and the women characters have a bigger role than they do in the film.

The "Circle of Life" opening is still my favourite opening of any big show. I teared-up when I saw the elephant coming down the aisle in 2005 and wasn't much better this time (and I had a boozy Lion-King slushy for comfort.) This lump-in-you-throat opening declares it a work that musically supports and celebrates its African setting, acknowledges the opening of the film, and overwhelms the theatre as it brings all the savannah animals onto the stage.

There are over 200 astonishingly beautiful puppets and masks in the show. They include masks that sit on top of performer's head, like the lions; rod puppets, like Zazu, flying birds, and the mini-lions that run through the grasses; full body puppets that show the performer as much as the animal, like Pumba and the zebras, cheetas and giraffes; Balinese shadow puppets; and Japanese Banraku puppets, where the operators are dressed in black to be invisible – except in this case when the Timon operator is dressed in green to represent the jungle.

With respect to the ritual of theatre, the always-visible performers ensure characters are never lost behind the static face of a mask and that the humanity of the story isn't lost in the jungle.

Then there's the magnificent leaping antelopes on a bicycle, and performers that bring grasslands and bushes to life.  All working with with Richard Hudson's design that makes the stage feel as endless as a Southern African horizon.

Of course, a ticket to see The Lion King is expensive, which means that so many people who would love to see this show, can't hope for a ticket. I want to take every child that I know to it; I want them to see how amazing theatre and stories and music can be. But it's a dress-in-your-best and not-see-anything-else-all-year show. That's sad. Everyone who argues that show tickets should be more accessible understands the costs of presenting a commercial show – but perhaps producers need to look at ways to subsidise and sponsor more affordable tickets so that people who have never seen a huge show like this can have the chance.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

27 February 2015

Email fuck up

Apologies if you've been trying to email me. The SM account was forwarded to another address and Outlook considers this as being inactive so was returning emails. Grrr.  If I didn't get back to you, all is working again now.

Review: In The Heights

In The Heights
20 February 2015
Chapel off Chapel
to 8 March 2015

Stephen Lopez. In the HEights. Photo by Belinda Strodder.

In The Heights won the Best Musical Tony in 2008. Melbourne independent company StageArt presents the Australian premiere and it's an absolute winner. It nails the tone of a show that's rooted in New York, shows how to cast place-specific pieces, and explodes with amazing talent.

With music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also starred in the Broadway production), its first professional production was in 2005, it was on off-Broadway in 2007 and on Broadway from 2008 to 2011. It won more a few more Tonys, a couple of Drama Desk Awards and a Grammy, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Set in the mostly-Latino area of Washington Heights in New York, it's the story of Usnavi (Stephen Lopez), who still runs the tiny bodega (corner store) his immigrant parents bought and dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic. What keeps him there is no money, his young cousin (Andrew Doyle), his adopted abuela (Francesca Arena) and the hope that local girl Vanessa (Bianca Baykara) might notice that she never has to pay for her coffee. Meanwhile, the Rosario family (Clarence Marshall and Bianca Bruce) are dealing with the loss of their taxi business when their daughter (Anna Francesca Armenia) drops out of Standford and falls for their non-Latino employee (James Elmer), and the local unisex salon is moving to the Bronx and taking staff (Laura Marcucci and Sarah Calsina) are going with it. Too much is changing when Usnavi finds out that someone in the neighbourhood has won $96 000 in the lottery.

The book, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, works out a bit too easily, but it's overcome by the music and the undying passion for the place and people that created it.

The cast, also including Peter Sette, Gareth Jacobs and an awesome ensemble, and the off-stage band are simply sensational. There are some rough edges and over-earnest moments, but there isn't a weak link on the stage as everyone pours heart, understanding and energy into a work that they obviously love.

James Culter's direction keeps the story on track and the characters real, and Cameron Thomas's musical direction lets the music beat the emotion of every song (from Latin to Hip-Hop to Rap) and develops very good sound in the notoriously-difficult Chapel off Chapel theatre. Meanwhile, Yvette Lee's choreography creates so much energy that it's a wonder the theatre stays grounded.

In The Heights could fill a much bigger stage and venue, so take advantage of the relative intimacy of Chapel off Chapel. It's a show that is unlikely to get a commercial production in Australia, but if anyone's looking, this one is ready to go.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

23 February 2015

Review: Psychopomp & Seething

Psychopomp & Seething
Barking Spider Visual Theatre, MUST
18 February 2015
La Mama Courthouse
to 1 March 2015

Kate Brennan. Seething. Photo by Sarah Walker

Psychopomp & Seething begins by taking the audience on a ride in the La Mama Courthouse. It's not a hold on and scream ride, but you do move and it ends in pure darkness.

And it gets darker.

Seething, the first piece, opens with an older woman (Vanessa O'Neil) with long blond-grey hair in a sound booth with a red-velvet curtained wall. She's reading a poem that's easy to listen to as music rather than words. When a younger dancer (Kate Brennan), with a recently shaven head, comes into the empty space between the booth and audience, her presence feels slightly intrusive until it's clear that she's dancing to the words being spoken.

These are words about bodies and love and how we blame our bodies for being imperfect and not deserving of love. It's somehow comforting and confronting as the two woman are compared to but rely on each other.

The words are by Penelope Bartlau. Using the musical nature of words and poetry, it's writing that's meant to be heard rather than read, and the kind that you to listen to with far more than your ears. She says that the works come from a mix of dreams, her own experiences and the experiences of her friends. This blend of dream and reality makes for a familiar unease because even when we wake up, we hold the too-real emotional experience of our dreams, and that emotion is never too far from a wide-awake truth.

This becomes more evident in Psychopomp.

Aislinn Murray. Psychopomp. Photo by Sarah Walker

This piece was developed by Barking Spider at Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) last year. Directed and designed by Jason Lehane, who is also the MUST Technical Manager, the cast and crew are/were MUST members.

Recently, The Age published an opinion piece that associated student theatre with "young things running around with their underpants on their heads". I doubt that writer sees student theatre made in Melbourne. This is the second work in this year's La Mama program that was developed through MUST. Although often raw, the new theatre by students in this city (Deakin and Melbourne as much as Monash) is exciting and dangerous and is created with an understanding that theatre and storytelling are so much more than well-written words on a stage.

The stage in Psychopomp is a two by two square box. The first signs of life from the four boxes are noises that become the voices of four people, or animals.

Designer, and director, Jason Lehane has created a world that's distant but impossible not to be drawn into. While Seething uses the emptiness of the space, Psychopomp is confined and impossible to escape from. By boxing in the boxes and the audience, there's no where else to look and it's easy to imagine that this four are a few among endless unseen boxes.

Each box contains a teller who's compelled to tell their story. Captured in their own worlds, the intricate design (costume and set) and exquisite lighting hint at the contained secrets. There's a warm nest, a lush garden and two darker more-empty spaces that become vivid as imaginations fill in the un-lit horror.

Unaware of each other or the watching eyes, each tell a story about a death. And while they are beautiful to hear, they are mildly traumatic to feel.

Actors James Cerche, Nicola Grear, Aislinn Murray and Lindsay Templeton are the four storytellers. Each bring a remarkable emotional understanding to their stories. With writing that isn't a simple narrative and direction that ensure the wholeness of the picture, they bring all of themselves to their story while working together like a musical quartet to let their stories overlap with sound and meaning.

Psychopomp & Seething is a work that stays with you long after you've left. Being unsure where you are in a well-known space can be unnerving, and, as it's devised to be listened to as sound as much as words, it's easy to simply experience being there. But the truth of what was told will catch up with you because it's made to be seen and felt as much as heard.

There are limited seats for each performance and no room to expand, so book for this one. And, when the timing is right, also book for The Unspoken Word is Joe around the corner at the La Mama theatre.

This was on Aussietheatre.com.au.

20 February 2015

Review: The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman
Victorian Opera
14 February 2015
Palais Theatre
to 19 February

Victorian Opera. The Flying Dutchman. Photo by Jeff Busby

Opera at the magnificent sea-side Palais Theatre with the audience wearing 3D glasses! Victorian Opera are sure giving us a new look at Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

Close to his home in Norway, captain Daland (Warick Fyfe) takes shelter in a fjord where a huge and red ship pulls alongside. With the promise of riches, he doesn't notice its ghosty appearance and offers his daughter (Senta, Lori Phillips) to the Dutchman Captain (Oskar Hillebrandt, who has sung the role over 400 times in 45 productions around the world). This actually turns out better than expected because on shore Senta dreams of the legend of The Flying Dutchman ghost ship and its dreamy captain, but she already has a suitor, Eric (Bradley Daley).

Dutchman is one of Wagner's early works and is difficult to stage because the first act is set on a moving ship mid-ocean and the final act brings ghosts. The problems have been conquered with a team of animators and designers from 3D Image Design & Creation Deakin Motion. With three screens on the stage, we're brought onto and into the ships and it feels almost like being in a live computer game.

This is combined with a simple and somewhat traditional design of heavy wood (Matt Scott and Christina Smith) that makes it feel like we're at the Palais not long after it opened in 1927. The combination of the two styles works wonderfully to create a solid and unmovable world that's lost to a world of dreams. Unfortunately the costumes feel out of place. Unnecessarily attached to the late nineteenth century, the women look especially frumpy and not part of the stage world that feels so at home in the huge and crumbling Art Deco theatre.

Although the design is what's bringing attention to this show, there's no holding back from Victorian Opera in the creation of Wagner's opera.

The absolute highlight of the work is the Australian Youth Orchestra, who almost overfill the pit that's not much lower than the stage. Conductor Richard Mills leads them in creating a sound that fills the huge space. The sounds's not as rich as a professional orchestra who know Wagner inside out, but they bring a freshness to the music that's rarely heard. (I should also say that I was close enough to hear Mills singing along, so I don't know if the sound travelled to the back of the C Reserve balcony.)

On stage, Fyfe (who was a favourite in Wagner's Das Rheingold in 2013) continues to master Wagner as a singer and an actor, and Phillips holds onto Senta's indecision and dilemma until the last scene. Director Roger Hodgman lets the story come first on the stage by ensuring that the projections only take over when they need to and by letting everyone in the chorus be as important in the telling as those up front.

Wagner's music is demanding to listen to and his stories about how humans and the supernatural/divine interact are equally as demanding. This combination of traditional opera story-telling, young orchestra and whizz-band new technology grasps it all. This is the kind of production that makes old-school opera exciting and fresh.

There are only three performances and the only one left is this Thursday, 19 February.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

19 February 2015

Review: Blak Cabaret

Blak Cabaret
Malthouse Theatre & Summersalt Festival
11 February 2015
Malthouse forecourt
to 22 February

It's worth seeing Blak Cabaret to hang outside in the Malthouse forecourt, and it's impossible not to love Kahmahi Djordon King in a frock.

Conceived by Jason Yamiru, Blak Cabaret is part loud, brash and sequins, and part heart, land and song. The combination of songs that hurt to hear and satire (written by Nikkiah Lui) that can hurt to watch is what makes cabaret a form than can change views of the world.

Black queen, Queen Constantina Bush (frocked up magnificently by Chloe Greaves) arrives in white Australia and declares it terra nullius. With assistant Nikki Ashby, making hip hop hipper, and keeping her out of line, Queen Constantina dismisses disgusting white culture, fake apologises and insists that the audience prove that they are white. We're drinking fizz at the opening night of an Indigenous cabaret in Melbourne's inner city: oh yeah, we're white.

It's funny and lots of fun, but it's satire that grabs the obvious and doesn't have that biting reflection of something like the "take a selfie with a black kid" in 2015's Hipbone Sticking Out. It's satirising those silly white people who don't get it, rather than us who drink at Indigenous cabaret shows and claim to understand.

The heart comes in with Deline Briscoe, Emma Donavan, Kutcha Edwards and Bart Willoughby playing and singing. Willoughby formed No Fixed Address (Australia's first Indigenous rock band) in 1978 and has been playing and performing all over the world, and teaching and mentoring, ever since. He's one of those performers who you've probably seen (he been in things like Wim Wender's film Until the End of the World) but don't know his name. I've been looking at his website; I had no idea he'd done so much. Look him up. He's pretty amazing.

Luckily the stormed out night has passed and the weather is looking good for the rest of week. Blak Cabaret is a lovely start to the Malthouse's year and let's hope for a tear of more experiments, diverse voices and risks.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

17 February 2015

Review: The Orchid & the Crow

The Orchid & the Crow
Button Eye Productions
13 February 2015
Tower Theatre, Malthouse Theatre
to 22 February

Daniel Tobias. Photo byAndrew Wuttke
Daniel Tobias is almost unrecognisable as Otto Rot of the endlessly wonderful comedy duo band Die Roten Punkte. There's no keytar and makeup in The Orchid & the Crow but there is rock, and rocks, in Dan's story of getting testicular cancer.

When I watched a too-young friend die from cancer, I couldn't watch or hear cancer stories for some time, but I think I would have loved this one. I certainly loved it last night. Loved it to bits.

Ten years ago Dan was 29 and feeling crook. He was asked the same questions by different doctors and was finally diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, which had spread up to his neck. Yep, stage three (there's no stage five) and it and had spread through the lymph (that's not good). He doesn't have it anymore.

This isn't an earnest story about how to whip the big C. Mixing rock, cabaret and confessional, it's about faith and family, circumcision and being a yes-and-no Jew, and understanding what girls think about balls.

There's no preaching but he does reach out to a god. A god whom Dan found when a nurse handed him a book. A god who overcame the impossible and achieved the more impossible. A god who gave hope to the young man who was facing his very possible death. And if gods aren't for offering hope, what's the point of them?

Lance Armstrong was this god.

Athlete, cancer-beater, charity founder and winner of so many Tour de Frances that some people joked that the only way to do that was to artificially enhance oneself.

Dan's team – who are far more amazing and less injecty than Armstrong's – include Christian Leavesly (director); Casey Bennetto (dramaturg); David Quick (script consultant); and Clare (Astrid Rot) Barthlolomew, John Thorn and Jhereck Bischoff (music).

With such support, Dan's very personal story's been shaped to balance the personal with the distant, and the poignant with the piss-yourself funny, to tell a truth that reaches everyone who's sharing it.

It's gutsy, hilarious and honest. Or go for the song about God telling Abraham about the covenant about chopping bits of penis off.

It's a guaranteed ball.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

13 February 2015

Review: Jumpy

Melbourne Theatre Company
5 February 2015
The Sumner
to 14 March

Jane Turner and Dylan Watson. Photo by Jeff Busby
At least Jumpy is a play about 50-something women who have sex. There's not that much written about the middle-aged years when women discover a new type of social invisibility, and a time when female actors can disappear until they can play crones and clowns.

Written by UK writer April De Angelis, the MTC season opener is as Aussie as Prince Phillip's knighthood. It begins with Hilary (Jane Turner) despairing as her 15-year-old daughter, Tilly (Brenna Harding), stomps up the stairs of their very lovely house. Hilary knows she's still a feminist but is frustrated because 50 seems to offer more loss than gain. She drinks wine and discusses it all with bff Frances (Marina Prior) – who's still husband looking, still wearing bikinis and now heading to burlesque classes – but there's not so much discussion with husband, Mark (David Tredinnick), as her bedtime offering reading Great Expectations to him. Meanwhile Tilly and her friends are doing it like teenagers, with the expected consequence.

With behaviour and observations as complex and photo-shopped as a Women's Weekly (without the bonus of a recipe to try), I waited for the moment when the veneer of expected was torn away to show the real people and the reality of feeling 30 while seeing an old stranger in the mirror.

I don't like seeing dull middle aged woman on a stage because it scares me that THAT's what I look like to the world. I known people who slip easily into the expected, but I don't know anyone who isn't self aware enough to know if they are living a beige-nude-coloured one-piece bathing costume cliche.

There's plenty of jumping about in the plot but most is so obvious that it may as well not happen. Daughter didn't use birth control; daughter shags older boy, mum feeling unsexy; separated couples go away together. The spoilers are built in.

None of which is made any more compelling on the stage. The early awkward accents – why?  – and conscious blocking relaxed, but the relationships – the frustration, passion and despair – in the subtext of the script were lost in the empty space of the stage. Director Pamela Rabe is an actor who makes empty space and subtext scream louder than the words spoken; as a director, she gets the script on the stage and seems to miss the exploration of what those words are really trying to say.

Which leaves us theatre that's as feisty as an old cat asleep in the sun. But regardless of what grumpy critics say, it will also sell well because of it's well-known cast, Marina's burlesque dance and the easy jokes about teenagers and their parents. And it's the box office from these shows that helps the MTC commission new works. Perhaps the price of every MTC independent NEON show is a Jumpy?

This was on AussieTheatre.com.