28 February 2018

Review: Hand to God

Hand to God
Alexander Vass and Vass Production 
24 February 2018
The Alex Theatre
to 18 March

Hand To God. Morgana O'Reilly & Gyton Grantley. Photo by Angelo Leggas

Hand to God was nominated for a pile of Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Play (which was won by The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-time; which has just finished at MTC). Set in conservative, religious, small-town Texas, its success depends on a balance between its story of personal trauma and God-fearing repression, and the freedom of its God-damning, adults-only language and puppet-fucking irreverence. Yes, it's another Broadway show where puppets have raunchy sex – and it is regularly (and unfairly) compared to Avenue Q.

It's also regularly called "irreverent", and the focus on the naughtiness of being rude may be why this production hasn't found its emotional strength or empathy.

Recently widowed middle-aged Margery (Alison Whyte) is running a puppet workshop for teenagers in the her church hall. The only kids are her quiet son Jason (Gyton Grantley), bad-boy Timothy (Jake Speer), and pretty nerd Jessica (Morgana O'Reilly). The class is an inevitable failure but bumbling Pastor Gregory (Grant Piro) wants an in-church performance, Timothy has a super crush on Margery, and Jason will never tell Jessica that he likes her – until he's fist-deep in his puppet Tyrone.

Demonic possession, inappropriate sex and blashphemous abandon follow. There are plenty of laughs, but many fall flat. The fast-paced direction (Gary Abrahams) revels in jokes, but it tends to play the joke rather than tell the story. And when it is telling the story, it isn't clear what it's really about.

Deep laughs – even the most inappropriate ones – come from feeling connection to character and caring about what happens to them; laughing at potty-mouthed idiots is easy, and forgettable. With a severely-traumatised child, deep grief, and unexpected heroes, there's plenty to make the audience care, especially as the tone shifts in the second half and it becomes clear what's really at stake.

Meanwhile, there's still plenty to laugh at and the tone is set by the wit and fun of the design, by Jacob Battista (design), Chloe Greaves (costime) and Amelia Lever-Devidson (lighting). When the curtain opens, it initially looks so much like a hideously familiar church hall that it takes a while to notice the gorgeously hilarious detail (read the posters, look at the costumes) and it comes into its own with a stage-within-the-stage-within-the-stage.

The shock and laughs in Hand To God don't come from its blasphemy or sex but from from wondering if we, too, would behave like that if our life took a similar turn. I suspect that this side of the production will develop as it runs and finds its connection to its audience.

22 February 2018

Beautiful opens tonight

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Michael Cassell in association with Paul Blake & Sony/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner
20 February 2018
Her Majesty's Theatre

The Sydney cast of Beautiful. Photo by Ben Symon

Beautiful is the bio jukebox musical about the early career of singer/songwriter Carole King, who wrote so many American pop songs from the 1960s (and '70s, '80s and' 90s) that there could be endless Broadway musicals about her music. The show opened on Broadway in 2014, in London in 2015 and in Sydney in 2017.

I saw a preview, with understudy. Previews get wobbles out of shows and, even though they are as good as any other performance, aren't for reviewing.

But I look forward to reading the reviews from tonight's opening because this one is a joy.

We've seen enough under-written, under-developed bio musicals that don't respect their audience or the artists they are celebrating. Beautiful has found the sweet spot where nostalgia, story and character are balanced.

The music sounds like the 1960s but has been given a twist of now; as has the choreography and the design. The cast are a consistent delight who all bring bits of themselves to the people they are playing, and the story has enough fact and imagination to create characters who are loved, vulnerable and understood.

And if you love Carole King's music, there's no choice but to go; if you're not sure about her, you'll be devoted fan before interval.

PS. Never forget that understudies are usually as amazing as the performer they are covering.

Green Room Award nominations

Green Room Awards
9 April 2018
Comedy Theatre

Patron Julia Zemiro hosting the 34th awards Photo by Belinda Strodder

Melbourne's Green Room Award nominations for work in 2017 were announced this morning. This is the 35th year these peer-assessed awards have been presented. The panels change as new members come and go, but these are awards chosen by people who work in the arts industry.

Read them here.

And so begins the social media discussions about whether they are right.

After five years of being on the Independent Theatre panel, I'm having a break and am excited for new voices to join in the stimulating and exhausting discussions; panels really do talk about your shows – a LOT.  Everyone should be on a judging panel, at least once.

See you at the ceremony.

14 February 2018

Review: Siblings

Mikelangelo and Anushka
13 February 2018
The Butterfly Club
to 18 February

Anushka and Mikelangelo

Once upon a time, nearly 50 years ago, Mikelangelo existed before Anushka was in this world, but it was only for a short time – and his song about his time before having a sister is a magnificent tale of passion, mystery and balancing the contradictory advice of farmyard animals.

Once his sister was born, a new storyteller entered the family of musicians and storytellers, and every now and then, we are lucky to see them perform together.  

Siblings is a new work presented by The Butterfly Club, the kitchest and grooviest venue in town that supports new cabaret, new ideas, emerging and established artists, and the obvious idea that shows should have a matching cocktail. It doesn't matter what show you see, because it's always worth a visit  to explore the op-shop explosion of glorious tchotchke. (If the framed applique cat tea-towel ever goes missing, it will be me.)

With perfectly-quiffed Mikelangelo in a wide-striped black suit and cowboy shirt, and long-blonde Anushka in the soft greens from a rainbow and the gold found at the end of the bow, it's easy to slip into a world where women can escape glass boxes, the man in moon's cravat is always stylish, and fleeing the amorous determination of water nymphs on geese is expected.

With the very-hip and laid-back support of Dave Evans on accordion and piano, the siblings share and sing surreal stories that are so original and detailed that they are likely to be true. From the contents of a fridge stocked by their Croatian father to ensure that his family never suffer the starvation and need he grew up with to Anushka wondering how her children came to be, it's a work about the love of family, whether they are with us or not.

As Mikelangelo says, family remind us of what we love about ourselves – and those things that we'd maybe like to ignore – so we should never forget that love doesn't have to come from far away.

Siblings is delightfully original and loving, and the intimacy of The Butterfly Club (get in early to be up the front) and the genuine love between the performers and their love for their audience ensures that it takes moments to feel like we're all members of the family (and want a bowl Neopolitan ice cream).

Tickets are selling quickly because Melbourne knows how wonderful they are, so booking is recommended.

08 February 2018

Interview: Imara Savage, Top Girls

Top Girls
Sydney Theatre Company
12 Feb –24 March

STC "Top Girls"

My interview with director Imara Savage in The Music.

01 February 2018

Review: Priscilla

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical 
Michael Cassel Group and Nullabor Productions in association with MGM on Stage
30 January 2018
Regent Theatre

David Harris, Tony Sheldon, Euan Doidge. Priscilla Queen Of The Desert. Photo by Sam Tabone Getty Images

As a commercial film-to-juke-box musical. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical remains a high kick above the rest. Based on the 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the live show was developed in Australia in 2006 and has been beyond the empty outback to 29 countries and 134 cities, including New York and London. The universal language of dance pop, body waxing and sequins travels well.

For its tenth anniversary Tick (David Harris), Bernadette (Tony Sheldon, who has played the role all over the world and is heading to 2000 performances) and Felicia (Euan Doidge) are back on the bus and have pulled up in Melbourne before heading to Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Tick is Mitzi most nights in a Kings Cross drag club until his secret ex-wife invites him to bring a show to the Alice Springs Casino where she works. He's joined by former Les Girls star and transgender woman Bernadette and young performer Adam/Felicia and the trio drive an old bus, called Priscilla, from Sydney to the centre. Shenanigins follow as deep-bush meets inner-city, sass and sparkle reject hate, and chosen families create warm fuzzies.

Stephan Elliot's 1994 film did so much for bringing queer stories to the screen and popular narratives. It confronted assumptions, celebrated inner-city Sydney's queer community (when it was still called a gay community), increased queer visibility, and helped drag drag out of its not-so-comfortable portrayal of women with a super-fabulous leap of bloody-bonza-Aussie-original-fabulousness with Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's costume designs.

It also addressed violence, rejection, shame and hate and has an undertone of fear, bitterness and melancholy that makes it so much more than a flag-waving story about everyone being fabulous.

Twenty-three years later, Australia reminded us that we're still striving for fabulous and that queer communities and families are still considered different by a boringly-large chunk of the country – not just the bush bogans on stage – and our government.

This show welcomes updated technology to add to the outrageous colour, sparkle and Brian Thomson's bus design – and Chappel and Gardiner's costumes are still magnificently witty – but how amazing would it be to see the show updated to reflect Australia here and now? What if it confronted the problematic beneath the sparkle?

I don't understand why shows like this are so often stuck in a time and not updated beyond Kylie songs – there's a lot more Kylie in it now.

Priscilla is fun. The cast are amazing and its broad appeal that tones down sex and makes violence safe with a dance number guarantees success. If commercial theatre is about making money, it's the most successful Australian show around.

This same success seems to make it easy to ignore, or joke away, its problems – especially those that laugh at the very communities it claims to be celebrating.

The lesbian jokes would have felt awkward and dated in the 1970s, and there are trans jokes that are even older and more ignorant. Winking to the audience that "Uluru is sacred" only re-enforces the  unacceptable references to "Ayers Rock" and celebrating the offensive act of climbing it. And for the love-of-not-being-horrible, why keep the Asian, German and Scottish stereotypes – and the Australian ones? This is a show about love and acceptance that encourages laughing at difference.

Tick, Bernadette and Felicia don't make safe choices to find happiness. They risk violence, hate and rejection. It's sad that their show makes safe choices to risk what? Risk offending people who don't like theatre that makes them think for a moment?

The Midsumma festival is also on in Melbourne. There are shows that celebrate queer artists and queer stories and don't smooth away anything that isn't comfortable to acknowledge. If you're going to see Priscilla, make sure you see at least one Midsumma show as well.