Wednesday, 25 January 2006

The True Amazon Adventures of Roger Casement, Jan 25, 2006

 The True Amazon Adventures of Roger Casement
by Andrew Shaw
La Mama, Jan 25 to Feb 12, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Jan 25, 2006

The True Adventures of Roger Casement, by Andrew Shaw, has an interesting central premise but the writing and production are flawed.

Sir Roger Casement (Eliot Summers) was an Irish Protestant, British Consul-General to South America and a renowned humanitarian. He investigated atrocities perpetrated by British in the Amazon then shocked the government by joining the 1916 Irish uprising.

When he was captured, his diaries, detailing his illicit homosexual affairs with Brazilian boys, were discovered. His reputation was irreparably tarnished.

Shaw’s play is based on the supposition that the diaries were forged to discredit the Irish hero. In Shaw’s version, Foreign Office officials force a young homosexual (Mike McEvoy) to write a false and lurid dairy.

Shaw’s script is at its best when spare and sardonic. It is let down with informational and expository dialogue loaded with facts about Casement, rubber plantations and British imperialism.

Speeches about the ethics and politics of homosexuality in 1916 are informative but make clumsy dialogue. Great dexterity is required to integrate fact into theatre. Less is more.

Director, Robert Reid, struggles to find a consistent style and form. His actors wear grotesque white face as well as wearing flesh-coloured half masks that are removed too frequently. The intention of the masks is unclear; do they represent the past, the reflective moments or perhaps unspoken thoughts?

Intermittent tableaux create physical imagery but the changes between them are too long. There is even a child-sized puppet that is from a totally different style.

The acting in the show is very uneven but there are a few performances worth noting. Michael F. Cahill is often commanding and comical as Smith, the Foreign Office bully-boy.

McEvoy captures a fey romanticism in the young bureaucrat, Thomson and Simon Morrison-Baldwin has presence as Pepe.

Summers is best as Thomson’s secret lover but lacks gravitas as Casement and stumbles over the wordy dialogue. Robert Lloyd seems uncomfortable as Delaney and Liz McColl, as Mrs. Potter, aims for the grotesque but ends up overacting.

Two of the better scenes come in the last moments of the play. The trio of bureaucrats checking the false diary is simple and effective and, in the final scene, the fantasies of young Thomson interlink successfully with the tale of Casement and his lover (Tobias Manderson-Galvin).

This idea has merit but the pace and style of the production need some attention.

By Kate Herbert

Seriously. Pet Shop Boys. Reinterpreted, Jan 25, 2006

 Seriously. Pet Shop Boys. Reinterpreted 
Music by Neil Tennant & Chris Lowe
Produced by David Knox, Dean Lotherington and Shaun Miller 
Chapel off Chapel, Prahran,  Jan 25 to Feb 12, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Jan 25, 2006

Seriously is just what the subtitle says: a reinterpretation of songs by The Pet Shop Boys. Director, David Knox, with Musical Director, Dean Lotherington, creates a compelling evening of cabaret, song, some drama and an excellent five-piece musical ensemble.

The show incorporates innumerable hits by The Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The musical duo always had a significant gay following but the romantic and passionate lyrics are always ambiguous, allowing the heterosexual fans to relate.

Lotherington’s inventive arrangements are interpreted by five singers: Maria Mercedes, Tania Doko, David Gould, Paul Ross and Anthony Costanza.

The list of songs is lengthy: Seriously, Flamboyant, Domino Dancing, Jealousy, You Only Say You Love Me When You’re Drunk, Miracles, Love Comes  Quickly and more.

Knox cunningly provides a simple dramatic scenario for each song. This convention allows the singers to communicate an emotional intention through the lyrics rather than simply singing the song. They play all kinds of love stories ranging from new romance to eyes across a crowded room, separations, infidelities and love lost.

The stage design (Jeremy Smith), with huge sheer white drapes and a white chaise, gives a light, open and flexible space for various moods and interpretations.

Words such as Suspicion, Reaction and Infidelity are perhaps too obviously projected onto the curtains. The lyrics, music and singers give us sufficient information.

The opening Prologue allows each singer a short solo song. Then, the quintet sings a passionate, cleverly arranged version of Red Letter Day that is reprised as a rousing finale.

Ross and Costanza do a charming duet of separated lovers in Send Me An Email To Say I Love You. Costanza and Mercedes warmly sing a parting friends story in You’ve Got A Home Here and Mercedes gives a moving rendition of So Sorry, I Said. Costanza’s bright voice is perfect for Miracles.

Gold’s consummate vocal skill and velvety bass baritone lends weight and style to the entire show and his I Can’t Say Goodnight, is a highlight. Doko’s sultry version of Rent is perfectly suited to her smoky voice.

What Have I Done to Deserve This, sung by all five, is a complex arrangement that gives a new edge to this hit song.

The show is a rich tribute to the 80s duo.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 19 January 2006

Keating! The Musical, Jan 19, 2006

Keating!  by Casey Bennetto  
Drowsy Drivers & Li’l Gem Productions
Trades Hall New Ballroom,  Jan 19 to 28, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

(See also in this blog, review of later production Feb 13, 2008)
Has nobody noticed that we finally have the totally original, cunningly written and scored new Australian rock opera just begging to be taken to the main stage? Where are all the big producers?

Keating! is an inspired musical and political satire. Writer, Casey Bennetto, is not only a big-voiced rock singer, but he constructs an intelligent narrative based on the rise to Prime Ministership of Paul Keating and memorable tunes with devilishly clever lyrics.

Of course, there could be some resistance to a production that so clearly depicts Keating a social and cultural hero and John Howard as a manipulative megalomaniac.

The accomplished and versatile five-piece band plays fifteen songs ranging from ballads through reggae, blues, rap, rock and country. There is even a dark tango in which a villainous Howard (Bennetto) sings I Want Power.

A commanding Bennetto opens the show as Bob Hawke, the people’s PM, singing, “ I like beer and boots, not wine and suits.”

Mike McLeish enters singing cool jazz. I Do It In Style captures the essence of Keating’s charm, culture and Zegna suits. He even includes a Fred Astaire tap routine.

In Remember Kirribilli, a ballad of love’s betrayal, McLeish laments Hawke’s broken promise relinquish the leadership. But Keating takes Hawke’s Caesarian laurel wreath in It’s Time, a driving rock duet with Bennetto, then segues into a laid-back reggae Republican anthem, I Am the Leader of the Land.

McLeish and Bennetto rap as Keating and hapless Liberal leader, John Hewson. Bennetto incorporates scads of scathing Keatingisms, lifted directly from Hansard. I Wanna Do You Slowly is a sleazy song promising to beat Hewson in the election.

Alexander Downer appears in Frankenfurter drag in the hilarious I’m Too Freaky and Gareth Evans sings a gypsy prophet of doom then a love duet with Cheryl Curnow.

Choose Me is a funky blues duet between Keating and Howard who promises the electorate with lies and bribes that he “will make the pain go away”. Keating awaits the election result singing I’m Dreaming of the Light on the Hill.

Bennetto’s ingenious lyrics capture the fearful tenor of the country both now and then: “Give us back our bloody country, Nothing alien or scary, La di da or fairy, Just put it back the way it was before.”

Keating! is slick, exhilarating political satire. Imagine this show with a full chorus and band, choreography, a set and more actor-singers.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 18 January 2006

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, MTC, Jan 18, 2006

 The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin, Conceived by Rebecca Feldman
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Jan 18 until February 25, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Jan 18, 2006

As witnessed in the documentary, Spellbound, Americans take their spelling bees deadly seriously. Australian children would never face words such as “omphaloskepsis” or “cleistogamy”. Try finding those in your spell checker.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an uproariously silly and demented musical set at an annual county spelling competition. Six rather peculiar teenagers compete for a position at the national spelling bee.  

You might think there is nothing dramatic about a spelling competition but the stakes are high, emotions run out of control and the rules are ruthless. You would think their young lives depended on winning.

Of course, this very intensity is what makes it so hilarious to we non-believers. Every contestant is eccentric, ambitious, smart and a candidate for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

William Finn’s songs are diverse in style and lyrics are clever. The title song has the feel of a Broadway musical and Life is Pandemonium is a punchy chorus number. Bert Labonte’s funky voice makes The Prayer of the Comfort Counsellor a raunchy highlight.

The band, under the musical direction of Ian McDonald, plays impeccably.

Rachel Sheinkin’s dialogue is witty and in the style of a sit-com. Her best lines are delivered with relish by Tyler Coppin, as the temperamental word pronouncer and Vice-Principal, Douglas Panch.

Marina Prior proves she can play comedy as the prissy ex-champion speller, Rona Lisa Peretti.

The solo songs by each child demonstrate their insecurities, despair and ambition. It is this inner life that provides an emotional layer to the show.
We watch some of them overcome appalling parental pressure. Christen O’Leary is charming as Logaine Schwarzandgrubeniere, the lisping, left wing daughter of two gay dads. Natalie Mendoza as the multi-lingual smarty-pants, Marcy Park, delights us when she purposely misspells a word in order to escape the pressure of her perfectionism.

 David Campbell is in fine voice as Chip Tolentino,an ex-champ distracted, while spelling, by his hormones. Tim Wright is a joy to watch as weird little Leaf Coneybear.

Magda Szubanski had a field day playing the arrogant and overweight William Barfee with his nasal problems and no friends.
Don't panic, but they do invite four audience members on stage as spellers. They even got some of the toughest words right.

The show has the tension of a sporting event. Who will survive to spell another day. The Spelling Bee utterly enjoyable and completely goofy romp.

By Kate Herbert 

Thursday, 12 January 2006

Dusty – The Original Pop Diva, Jan 12, 2006

 Dusty – The Original Pop Diva
by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell & Melvin Morrow 
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, from Jan 12, 2006 for limited season

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Dusty Springfield was not only a wildly popular 1960s pop singer, but she became a gay icon by the 1980s. Her blonde wigs, gowns, black eyes and histrionic gestures made her a perfect target for drag queen impersonators.

However, it was her rich, smoky, soul voice and emotional phrasing that made her a pop legend. This musical, directed by Stuart Maunder, is built around her tumultuous life and her impassioned songs.

Dusty was born plain, plump, myopic, red headed, ambitious Mary O’Brien, in a conservative Irish Catholic family. The nuns dubbed her Dusty, a name she re-used when she grew into the 60s blonde bombshell.

Her singing career flagged after she moved to America in 1971 and developed a love affair with alcohol. She died of breast cancer in 1999, after receiving an OBE and being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Tamsin Carroll is inspired casting for Dusty. She has impeccable timing and delivery a rich, warm, soulful voice that captures the passion and intensity of Dusty’s own sound.

Carroll inhabits Dusty, finding emotional layers and character definition in spite of the very thin dialogue.

Her tender ballad, The Look of Love, transports us a breath away from tears.

Carroll performs Son of a Preacher Man with compelling resonances of the original version. When she finally sang You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, the crowd cheered.

The supporting cast are all accomplished. Alexis Fishman is perky and provocative as the young Dusty. Mitchell Butel is hilarious as Dusty’s ubiquitous hairdresser, and Kaye Tuckerman, Trisha Noble and Glenn Butcher give strong performances. Deni Hines has a fine voice but struggles with the acting role.

The band, under Stephen “Spud” Murphy, is super, the design (Roger Kirk) cleverly incorporates scrapbook images with a huge long-playing record and the choreography (Ross Coleman) echoes the 60s.

The show suffers from the poorly constructed narrative and the often cheap and shallow dialogue.

A life does not have a natural dramatic arc. The three writers incorporate too much of Dusty’s early life and do not provide a clear plot through line. The links between scenes and songs are awkward and artificial.

Some dialogue is overly sentimental while other lines are cheap. The writers rely too heavily on camp jokes and cheap gay references and too little on character development.

Dusty’s internal struggle with her childhood self about her singing and her secret lesbian lifestyle is not sufficiently developed and there are unexplained leaps between periods of her life. We know too little about the real Dusty at the end.

However, none of this destroys the musical delight of this production.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 5 January 2006

A Couple of Blaguards, Jan 5, 2006

A Couple of Blaguards 
by Frank Mc Court & Malachy McCourt
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne,  Jan 5 to 22, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The McCourt Brothers, Frank and Malachy, are as famous for their Irish childhood and larrikin humour as they are for their respective contributions to literature and entertainment.

Frank’s novel, Angela’s Ashes, about their early years in wretched poverty in Limerick, Ireland, won a Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, Malachy featured in American television and radio.

In 1984, the brothers wrote and performed a revue-style show about their life in Ireland and later years in New York City, where they found almost as many Irish as in Limerick.

Both Frank and Malachy are successful prose writers but their stage writing for Blaguards is restricted to short scenes, vignettes, gags, yarn spinning and oral history.

The McCourt’s original director, Howard Platt, directs Max Cullen (Frank) and Max Gillies (Malachy). In addition to Frank and Malachy, they play numerous other Irish and American characters inspired by the McCourt’s past.

The actors perform most of the show seated or standing at a small table and chairs at the front and centre of the stage. Two enormous banner posters of Ireland and New York City flank them.

The show might benefit from greater directorial risks with characterisation, design and staging. The production is unimaginative.

Clearly, though, the focus is on the hilarity of these snapshots of the McCourt’s lives. The early scenes are the most enjoyable and comical.

Cullen is charming as the child Frank, being berated by his pious mother and his aggressive grandmother, his prudish teacher, his fiery Catholic priest and a more liberal Jesuit, all played by Gillies.

For those of us who went through the Irish Catholic childhood and made our First Holy Communion, these scenes are achingly funny and familiar.

Gillies plays the cynical, intellectual Jesuit with a wry humour and his local parish priest is a tyrant using hellfire and brimstone to terrify the little boys into shunning “self-abuse”, the sin of lust and any other activity that might be pleasurable.

Cullen and Gillies wickedly parody two Limerick women: whining, blaming, devout and venomously critical.

There are plenty of stories about death. The saddest is about the boys dealing with the death of their little brother. The comical ones show wizened women carping at funerals and drunks revelling in Guinness and yarns at the wake.

The second half, the boys’ later years in New York, is overladen with confusing stories and too many characters, but the first half in particular is very entertaining.

By Kate Herbert

Monday, 2 January 2006

Dumb Show by Joe Penhall, MTC, Feb 2, 2006

Dumb Show by Joe Penhall 
Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Feb 2 to 18, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 2, 2006

Joe Penhall, in Dumb Show, writes swift and relentless dialogue and has an innate understanding of a good gag.

His searing satire nips at the heels of British tabloid journalism as well as the entertainment industry. Both are seen as acquisitive, savage, cynical and uncompassionate.

Barry (Richard Piper) is a successful comedian on a television sit-com. He is invited to discuss a lucrative corporate speaking gig with two people who purport to be private bankers (Aaron Blabey, Anita Hegh). The negotiations are circuitous and secretive while the fee is evidently enormous.

Barry is oblivious to the fact that the two “bankers” are actually undercover investigative journalists from the gutter press.

Alone in a hotel room with Liz (Hegh), Barry drinks to excess, mutters unsavoury criticisms of his fans and his agent and reveals his drug use and his estrangement from his wife.

Finally he makes the biggest errors of his career: he tries to fondle Liz and offers her cocaine.

It is a clear-cut case of entrapment but, when Liz and Greg reveal themselves as newspaper hacks, Barry is well and truly cornered,

The dialogue is rapid, hilarious and delivered with consummate skill and timing by all three actors.

Piper captures the neediness, self-absorption and exhibitionism of Barry, the English entertainer. Blabey plays the deceitful editor, Greg, with a flesh-crawling unpleasantness. He will get his story by any means, regardless of the consequences.

Hegh cleverly balances Liz’s feigned concern with her insensitivity and insincerity. Liz catches flies with honey. Both Greg and Liz take the high moral ground when they are, in fact, cheap, immoral and arrogant. They manipulate facts, tear people’s lives apart and view it as good journalism.

Director, Peter Evans, keeps the play moving at a cracking pace and Darrin Verhagen’s original jazz gives the piece the feel of a spy thriller.

When, late in the play, Barry strikes back, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.

Unfortunately, the play continues with a final scene that is anti-climactic. We already suspect that Barry might not be a model human being, but he is higher up the food chain than the journos and we want him to beat them at their own game.

Dumb Show, based on real events in the UK, is a sad indictment of gutter journalism – but will anyone do anything to change this in the real world?

By Kate Herbert