THEATRE REVIEW: The Chapel Perilous (New Theatre, 2017)

This review was originally published on AussieTheatre.com.au

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Photo: Bob Seary

A need for strong female representation arrives at the forefront of today’s entertainment context; to pursue well-rounded characters, and not reduce them to plot tools (the Bechdel Test is an example of how character tests are frequently applied to films/TV shows). It is a real testament to Dorothy Hewett’s 1972 play, The Chapel Perilous – with its sexually-liberal female protagonist – that it does not feel aged at all, remaining heartedly relevant in New Theatre’s polished production in 2017.

Sally Banner (Julia Christensen) is confronting but bitingly witty from the moment she sets foot on stage. She is a defiant schoolgirl at a religious Christian school, who isn’t afraid to talk back to her superiors. Transitioning between hilarious interactions with her parents, schoolteachers and classmates, to her tragic downfall following her failed relationships, the trajectory of the play works through the peaks and troughs of Sally’s school to adult life, as she navigates between her desires and her struggles against the context of World War II.

Sally begins as self-indulgent, but Carissa Liccairdello’s tender direction never suggests that this borders on the pretentious, and both Hewett’s writing and Christensen’s performance give sincerity to the deepest of her flaws. As moments of Sally’s sharp sarcasm wanes into crumbled vulnerability, Christensen gives full weight to her difficulties – relinquishing a ferocious and passionate portrayal that breathes vivacity into Hewett’s headstrong protagonist.

While its protagonist soars, Hewitt’s play struggles with its intermittence as a musical. Working more seamlessly with the first act as a provider of context, it becomes more noticeably a quasi-hyper reality that feels out of place with the continuity of the play. In one scene, all ensemble members burst into the Hockey Pockey Shake (a play on the Hippie movement?), but lighting (Martin Kinnane) nor technical direction signifies any reason for shift – and it is rendered absurd as a result. A questionable surrealist-reality also appears with the repetition of a court trial where Sally is the accused; she is put on the stand for her outrageous sexual behaviour, her disobedience – but is this a dream? Or is it a dramatization of the guilt she feels at defying pressure of her peers and authorities? The unclear barriers between real-life and this imagination don’t knit well together, befitting as an unwelcome interruption than an effective storytelling device.

The comment on male behaviour becomes more powerful as a tool to explore the harshness of realities against Sally’s freedom; particularly when Sally’s romantic interests (Michael, Thomas, David, Saul) accumulate into one – all played by the versatile Tom Matthews. Shifting convincingly between the initially charming Michael to the naïve Thomas, the quadrupling of characters is piercingly horrifying as their ultimately manipulative treatment of Sally accrues towards them labelling her a “bitch”, demeaning a character we’ve seen grow before our eyes, into a cheap label. These figures become increasingly frustrating as Sally’s character is also sacrificed; her fiery character is less recognisable in the second Act as her choices become more indecisive, and if not more unbelievable. She is desperate to be loved, but the repetition of pursuit, break-up and forgiveness, begins to mark a predictable cycle in the play that this production cannot entirely fix.

As the lights dim and the last scene plays, Sally walks through the glowing light of the chapel for the first time (the set by Martin Kinnane is simple but multifunctional). New Theatre’s production is scaringly pessimistic – questions are left unanswered about her place in the world alone. The position of the woman, especially of those who cannot conform, is equally as ambiguous.

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Photo: Bob Seary

The Chapel Perilous is showing until 27 May 2017 at New Theatre. You can find out more about the show, including how to book tickets, here.

THEATRE REVIEW: Big Fish (Hayes Theatre Co, 2017)

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Photo: Kate Williams Photography

Musicals that pull on your heart-strings are not an easy find, but the Hayes production of Big Fish – a modified 12-chair version of the 2013 Broadway musical – proves that imaginative but humble stagings can ignite the magic of storytelling equally, if not better than the often rife efforts of a full-blown spectacle.

Based on 1988 novel by Daniel Wallace (also adapted on screen in Tim Burton’s 2003 film), Big Fish focuses on a father-son relationship on the verge of breakdown. On Edward Bloom’s deathbed (Phillip Lowe), his now-adult son Will Bloom (Adam Rennie) remembers talltales his father told him as a child, questioning Edward’s identity in a series of flashbacks that attempt to discover the real father he believes he never knew.

Flicking between present day and Edward’s storybook past, the musical roots itself in the real-world present, paralleling Edward’s tumour diagnosis (a foreboding death) against Will’s now-pregnant wife (the excitement of a new life). Both personalities of father and son could not be more different; Edward is an optimist, a believer in stories and Will, a realist, naturally dismissing these tales as implausible. The world of Edward’s dreams is the one John August’s book sides with most (he also wrote the screenplay for Burton’s film), and with playful yet charming numbers, like ‘The Witch’, director Tyran Parke’s spellbinding vision brings the audience into the action of Edward’s charismatic storytelling.

Read the rest of my review at AussieTheatre.com.au

 

THEATRE REVIEW: Cabaret (Hayes Theatre Co, 2017)

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“Life is a cabaret, old chum!” It’s one of the most recognisable lines in the history of musical theatre. Even the title, Cabaret, rings a bell to those unfamiliar with musicals. Opening on Broadway in 1966, the musical became a cultural sensation, captured forever in the 1972 film adaptation starring Liza Minnelli. It was further invigorated by Sam Mendes’ Donmar production in 1993, which cemented it as a classic that could retain its charm across decades. With a story about a society on the brink of upheaval it feels eerily pertinent in our contemporary political milieu; it’s like this new production at the Hayes production has arrived just in time.

However, under the direction of Nicholas Cristo, the Hayes production is less innovative than it is tame; it prioritises colourful extravaganza over biting political commentary, and runs out of steam well before the finale.

Read the rest of my review at AussieTheatre.com.au

THEATRE REVIEW: The Taming of the Shrew (Montague Basement, 2016)

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Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is easily subject to criticism about its misogyny and therefore its relevance in contemporary society. Montague Basement’s production, however, is a fresh interpretation that revitalises its outdated predecessor, forefronting victims of domestic violence and transporting Shakespeare’s comedic play to a dramatic platform.

Staged initially on a blank stage with black curtains draped on the wings, director Caitlin West has set the play in the present day.  Her direction intelligently embraces the new setting, enhancing the wit inherent in the text, while also dramatising and acknowledging its problems. Men are symbolically dressed in white to warn of the farcical image of purity, and women are immediately connected yet paradoxically distanced from them, as Bianca (Jane Watt) attempts to lure Lucentio (Tel Benjamin) from the second level of the stage. It is a foreshadowing of what is to come; that while relationships will be forged, the women in the play will have a markedly different experience to their male counterparts.

Read the rest of my review at AussieTheatre.com.au

THEATRE REVIEW: Heathers the Musical (Sydney Opera House, 2016)

Heathers: The Musical features a great score and talented cast but the flashy direction falters, making it too often vapid.

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“Freak, slut, loser, short bus,” sing the majority of teens in the opening number of Heathers: The Musical, a sharp dark comedy about the effects of teen bullying, suicide, and violence — set to a rock-pop score.

Based on Michael Lehmann’s 1988 film, Heathers: The Musical follows teenager Veronica Sawyer who joins the most popular and feared girl-clique at school: the “Heathers”. Dissatisfied with their selfishness and bullying, Veronica — influenced by the new (and slightly psychotic) boy at school, J.D. — becomes involved in a chain of homicides, which has her questioning the moral line between right and wrong.

While faithful to its source material, Heathers: The Musical lightens up the darkness of the film  – soaking it with bright coloured costumes, enhanced hair and make-up, and a fun upbeat score which contributes to the show’s contagious, sassy energy. Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy — the team behind Legally Blonde: The Musical — craft a catchy, brassy rock score with bubbly melodies and clever lyrics.

From its snappy number delivered by all three Heathers in “Candy Store”, to Veronica’s belted anthem in “Dead Girl Walking”, O’Keefe and Murphy’s music is an important driver of Veronica’s identity crisis: she oscillates between seeking vengeance and morality.

Read the rest of my review over at Seventh-Row.Com

THEATRE REVIEW: Defying Gravity – The Songs of Stephen Schwartz (2016)

When the announcement of the Defying Gravity Concert was publicised, it was hardly a surprise that my entire Twitter and Facebook feeds leapt up in complete excitement. It’s an event that personally, I’ve wished for years. Both Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster have been two Broadway figures I have long admired and admittedly fangirled over – I’ve followed Aaron’s career from his good old Next to Normal days (which remains my favourite musical to date), to the short-lived joys of Catch Me If You Can. In addition, joined with Broadway veteran, Betty Buckley, fantastic Australian actors, David Harris and Helen Dallimore, as well as Joanna Ampil, the concert didn’t disappoint at all – surpassing any sort of high expectations I had entering into the Theatre Royal.

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Stephen Schwartz with his cast of Defying Gravity. Photo by Robert Catto.

The tribute to Stephen Schwartz alternated between anecdotes, video snippets of Schwartz introducing his composing process, to the extraordinary performances themselves. The opening number from Pippin ‘Magic To Do’ cemented the exemplary talent of each individual performer – culminating into wonderful harmonies and an energetic atmosphere that resonated throughout the rest of the concert’s running time. The set list covered the career span of Schwartz’s composing ventures, from his beginnings in Godspell to his latest music in Enchanted, demonstrating his versatile and legend status within the musical theatre community.

In terms of audience love, Sutton Foster received it in abundance, and deservedly so. With three Tony Awards under her belt, her best number of the night was contrastingly the intimate ‘When You Believe’ (Prince of Egypt) – a performance simply accompanied by acoustic guitar and her raw vocals – producing a deep and hauntingly moving rendition. This, juxtaposed against her performance of the title song ‘Defying Gravity’ (Wicked), which exhibited her astonishing belt and vibrato, only reinforced her vocals as one of Broadway’s finest, assembling into a mid-show standing ovation.

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Sutton Foster performs the acoustic ‘When You Believe’. Photo by Robert Catto.

That being said, the audience atmosphere was unlike anything I’ve experienced in the theatre, with extremely loud cheers mid-performance and whilst performers were finishing off their last (and most glorious) note. It was a crazy and buzzing ambience that was most definitely assisted by Tveit’s growing fanbase, notably from his recent roles in the film, Les Misérables and TV event of Grease: Live. But handling it with his usual charm, Tveit impressed with his smooth tenor vocals in ‘Lost in The Wilderness’ (Children of Eden), and a return to his Wicked roots in the mashup duet with Foster in In Whatever Time We Have’/’As Long As You’re Mine’ (Children of Eden/Wicked).

One of the most fun performances of the night included Tveit and David Harris performing ‘All For The Best’ from Godspell, an act that had them burst into hilarious banter over Australian vs American coffees, before “segwaying” into the overlapping lyrics that only emphasised Schwartz’s ability to encapsulate buoyancy and joy within his music. Additionally, David Harris’ showed off his skills in both touching audiences’ hearts, with a gorgeous interpretation of ‘Beautiful City’ (Godspell), but concurrently making them laugh hysterically in his shirtless and comical ‘That’s How You Know’ from Enchanted.

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Aaron Tveit & David Harris perform the entertaining ‘All For The Best’. Photo by Robert Catto.

Special guest Betty Buckley entered with her own spark, detailing her determination to make her personal ‘Meadowlark’ (The Baker’s Wife) – a role originally written for her. She upheld her origination of the role of Catherine in Pippin with an audience interactive version of ‘No Time At All’ (Pippin), exhibiting that she still has the guns to pull out a truly accomplished performance. Moreover, Helen Dallimore amused in her return to Glinda, a role that she originated in the London Production, in the amusing ‘Popular’ (Wicked). However, out of all of her performances, she felt truly comfortable in her talent to embody unique characters, which was shown in Endless Delights’ from The Baker’s Wife.

Yet, while the big(ger)-scale numbers were truly showstoppers themselves, the glimpse into the making of Wicked’s ‘The Wizard and I’ was perhaps one of the less obvious highlights. Sutton Foster sung a snippet of ‘Making Good’, an early version of the song which I had previously obsessed over (see Stephanie J. Block’s stunning rendition), before transitioning into Ampil’s ‘The Wizard and I’. Alongside this, the programming included Aaron Tveit’s ‘Out There’ (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), foreboding Schwartz’s promising  return to the Broadway stage.

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Betty Buckley cemented her Broadway icon status. Photo by Robert Catto

The surprise of the night was easily Joanna Ampil, who slipped under the radar amongst the American Broadway performers, but who made a breathtaking impression. Taking on the classic songs of ‘Colours of the Wind’ (Pocohontas) and ‘The Wizard and I’ (Wicked), she proved herself to be worthy and beyond of her acclaimed West End and Phillipines theatre credits. Ampil’s soaring and crystal clear tone won the audience’s affection early on in the concert, and she continued to dazzle in her smaller duets and solos in the second act.

Though at times feeling slightly under-rehearsed (there were words and lyrics plastered for the actors on the reverse-screen usually for musical conductors), it nevertheless did not effect the professionalism or quality of the performances by the cast. In fact, the exceptional level of talent and the wonderful music made me wish the concert would never end. It ran 2.5 hrs (with interval), but it flew by too fast – much like its very limited run in Australia. Essentially, the Defying Gravity Concert is some kind of rarity to occur in a country so far away from the main stages of New York and London, which made it particularly special. And with an unannounced appearance by Stephen Schwartz himself at the end of the night, it was just a cherry on top of an outstandingly organised event.

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Stephen Schwartz’s surprise appearance – singing ‘Day by Day’. Photo by Robert Catto.


DEFYING GRAVITY: THE SONGS OF STEPHEN SCHWARTZ

Produced by Enda Markey
Musical Direction by Guy Simpson
Direction by Andrew Pole

RATING ★★ out of 5