Friday 31 July 2009

Life’s a Circus , MAgnormos, July 31, 2009 ***

Life’s a Circus 
Music and Lyrics by Anthony Costanzo, Book by Peter Fitzpatrick
Produced by Magnormos
Theatreworks, July 31 to Aug 9, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Published in Herald Sun

MELBOURNE LOVES A MUSICAL and we are fortunate to have Magnormos, an organisation that promotes new Australian music theatre. The Magnormos Prompt! Musicals Program is currently staging a new, boutique musical called Life’s a Circus, with music and lyrics by Anthony Costanzo and book by Peter Fitzpatrick.

Costanzo’s music is a close relation of popular, contemporary musicals we know and love and the voices of the three actor-singers in this production (Chelsea Plumley, Cameron MacDonald, Glen Hogstrom) blend perfectly and provide some thrilling harmonies and rousing choruses. Kris Stewart’s direction is slick and polished, keeping the focus firmly on the voices and music. Christina Logan-Bell’s architectural design and evocative lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw enhance the production. 

As resident director of Wicked in Australia and founding director of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Stewart knows about fostering new music theatre. With a bigger production and budget Life’s A Circus would have a live orchestra, but the recorded backing is effective and Costanzo’s composition and musical arrangements are successful.

The story deals with not only an unusual love triangle between three circus performers but also the existential crisis of 30-somethings considering their choices in life, work and love. Tightrope duo, Vivien (Plumley) and David (Hogstrom), embark on another world tour with the slightly shabby Grande Illusion Circus troupe. Alex (MacDonald), the new, young circus clown, attracts both Vivien and David and their secret trysts and mixed messages form the basis of the romantic triangle.

In addition to these main characters, four circus performers (Vaughan Curtis, Annabel Carberry, Stephen Williams, Shannon McGurgan) provide a mostly silent chorus and some exhilarating feats of acrobatic skill and very funny, physical clown routines with choreography by Kate Priddle.

I saw a preview of the production and it is clear that plenty of script development took place during rehearsal and will continue during this season. The performers are warm and engaging, many of Costanzo’s songs are compelling and the show has great potential to grow.

The circus metaphor becomes a little laboured in both the narrative and lyrics, the narrative and dramatic arc need some attention and there is more than one ending. But the show is well sung and has some great tunes and entertaining moments.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 24 July 2009

Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic, July 24, 2009 ***

Queen It’s A Kinda Magic
Her Majesty’s Theatre, 24 to 26 July, 2009 only
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 24, 2009
Published in Herald Sun, Melbourne

IF YOU FALL OVER YOURSELF when you hear Freddie Mercury singing Bohemian Rhapsody or you bellow along with We Are The Champions at sporting events, then this tribute show is for you. Queen It’s A Kinda Magic is a big, loud rock concert with stacks of speakers, rock event lighting and screaming fans.

This is not a theatre production about Mercury and Queen. There is no narrative thread or details about Mercury’s journey from son of an English diplomat through art school to 70s rock phenomenon. Who knows why they staged it in one of Melbourne’s fine, old theatres. It is better suited to an arena concert. Freddie was, after all, one of the first stadium rock stars.

Craig Pesco plays Freddie and he captures Mercury’s peacock strutting, pacing like a caged animal across the stage, wiping sweat from his head and bare chest. He grins and gapes open-mouthed, peels off layers of clothing, thrusts his pelvis, and uses his microphone like a phallic symbol just like Freddie did.

Pesco is decked out in all the costume finery of the very camp Mercury. He wears his signature clingy white pants, the glittering, red and white stripe jacket, black vinyl outfit and the red vinyl pants with Union Jack. Freddie belonged in the Village People.

But it is the music of Queen that the crowd comes to hear. Pesco’s vocal quality cannot compete with Freddie’s soaring upper register and fruity tones, but volume covers many vocal flaws. There is plenty of spectacular guitar work by Travis Hair playing Queen’s guitarist, Brian May, with a replica of May’s hand-made Red Special guitar. Matt Newton is bass player, John Deacon, and Brett Millican plays big, bold drummer, Roger Taylor.

The show saves the biggest hits till the second half so the first half is a little disappointing. However, the crowd leaps to its feet for Freddie, in drag, singing I Want To Break Free and for Killer Queen, We Are The Champions, Under Pressure and the rousing We Will Rock You. But it is the finale of Bohemian Rhapsody that they are awaiting. In 1977 it was voted Best British Single of the previous 25 years and it is still an extraordinary song. Queen will rock you.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 23 July 2009

Bugger the Polar Bears, This Is Serious, Rod Quantock, July 23, 2009 ****

Bugger the Polar Bears, This Is Serious
By Rod Quantock
Trades Hall, Tues to Sat, July 23 to August 15, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 23, 2009
Published in Herald Sun, Melbourne
ROD QUANTOCK'S latest comedy show could be called Quantock’s War on Climate Change Deniers. No one does political comedy like Quantock and this show is comical scare mongering at its most effective – and strangely accurate.

It’s not often a comedian wants to send you home “rigid with fear” but this is Quantock’s aim. “If climate change doesn’t scare you sh…less, you just don’t get the science.”

His scathing attacks are directed at all sides of politics. His hit list includes Labour pollies, Peter Garrett – rock legend and Environment Minister who Quantock believes sold out – and Penny W(r)ong. Independent Senator Stephen Fielding gets a huge serve for being a simpleton about Climate Change. Even Maggie Thatcher warned us about climate change in 1989. Now, that’s scary!

Quantock’s shows took a technological leap over the last few years. He now uses a data projector and real theatre lights. The show opens with images from the Hubble Telescope. However, he still entertains us with low-tech chalk and blackboard and the History of the Universe is performed by audience volunteers, including the Big Bang depicted by a bloke leaping up and shouting, “Bang!”

It is Quantock’s gift to take terrifying data and turn it into jokes that make you think. There are worrying statistics about the increase in carbon dioxide in the air, sea levels and ice melts. He provides a hilarious perspective on the senselessness of carbon trading and proves that carbon has the Devil’s number, 666. He even considers doing a carbon neutral show because his microphone lead is directly connected to the coal-fired power station.

He attacks, brown coal burning and the Premier’s choice to build freeways for more cars to burn more oil.  His cynical view that people will be less interested in the Climate Change discussions in Copenhagen than what Princess Mary is wearing is likely to be true.

He creates a wonderfully bizarre link between people, water oil and food that predicts us eating each other in future when everything runs out and we are living in 70 degree heat. We even get to choose who we want to eat first.

Go see Rod Quantock and be afraid. Then, as he insists, “Go and do something!” Oh, and log on to, the Global Warming Action site.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Crazy For You, Production Company, July 15, 2009 ***

Crazy For You
Music & Lyrics by George Gershwin & Ira Gershwin, Book by Ken Ludwig
By The Production Company
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, July 15 to 19, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 15, 2009
Published in Herald Sun, Melbourne
GEORGE AND IRA GERSHWIN wrote countless memorable songs for Broadway (Funny Face) Hollywood (Shall We Dance) and the opera stage (Porgy and Bess). Even posthumously, it seems, they can create new music theatre. Crazy For You first hit Broadway in 1992 decades after the brothers died.

How does one write a show after departing this world? Cunningly, Crazy For You was constructed from the 1930 Gershwin show called Girl Crazy and a bunch of other Gershwin songs from other productions and the rather silly story from the original show was replaced with a new book by Ken Ludwig. Enter Crazy For You.

Bobby, played with vigour by Christopher Parker, is a rich, young banker who wants to dance in Bela Zangler’s Broadway show. (Think Ziegfeld Follies.) When he is sent to foreclose on an old theatre in Deadrock Nevada, he falls in love with Polly (Natalie O’Donnell) the owner’s daughter, then attempts to revive the theatre by bringing his pals, the Zangler showgirls, to town.

This production brings together director, Terence O’Connell, choreographer Alana Scanlan and Orchestra Victoria under Peter Casey. The Production Company mounts its shows with limited rehearsal. This means that they do not have all the bells and whistles of a full-scale musical but often the urgency of short development gives the shows energy and excitement.

There are some wonderful moments, particularly the crazy chorus scenes, but also some flaws that may be attributable to restricted rehearsal. Natalie O’Donnell as Polly does not have the vocal power and control to carry the role and her upper register is unpredictable. The beautiful Gershwin song, Someone To Watch Over Me, seems out of her reach. We cannot help comparing her rendition of I’ve Got Rhythm with that of big-voiced Ethel Merman who sang the original version.

Parker’s warm, light voice is suited to They Can’t Take That Away From Me. He is at his strongest when he plays Bobby impersonating the showman, Zangler. As the real Zangler, Adam Murphy is a real highlight with his comic characterisation and his duet with Parker (What Causes That?) is fun.

The big chorus numbers are the feature of this production. The male chorus of cowpokes and the female chorus of showgirls provide plenty of colour in Slap That Bass, Tonight’s The Night and I Got Rhythm. And Chloe Dallimore, Robyn Arthur, Peter Hosking, Melissa Langton and Alan Brough provide strong support roles.

By Kate Herbert 15 July, 2009

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Happy Days, Malthouse, July 8, 2009 ****

Happy Days  
By Samuel Beckett, Malthouse Theatre
Where and When: Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse,  July 8 to 25, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 8, 2009
Published in Herald Sun, Melbourne

There’s no denying it, Julie Forsyth has exceptional comic delivery and timing, an eccentric style, idiosyncratic, rusty vocal quality and a profound understanding of contemporary theatre. She is close to perfect casting as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by Michael Kantor. Peter Carroll, as her husband, Willy, is also a masterstroke of casting with his resonant voice and angular, scrawny physique.

Happy Days is a deceptive title for a play that deals with the tragedy of existence in inimitable Beckett style. Forsyth, as Winnie, is buried up to her waist and later up to her neck, in a mound of earth. Willy lives in a hole behind her mound. Despite her horrific, claustrophobic circumstances, Winnie remains relentlessly optimistic. “This is a happy day”, Forsyth trills, “so far.” Winnie has a repertoire of positive epithets. Even in the darkest moments she finds light. “That’s what I find so wonderful,” she cries. “Many mercies”.

Winnie wakes daily, embedded in her mound. To survive the day, she stoically completes simple tasks at specified intervals in “the old style”, dragging each object lovingly out of her oversized, black bag. She cleans her teeth, struggles to read her toothbrush, grooms her hair, puts on her hat, plays her music box, puts up her umbrella and sings her song. Timing is everything. If she waits too long, she may miss her opportunity and the dreadful, grating bell will sound the end of her day.

Winnie finds joy in little things such as Willy speaking to her or appearing in his silly formal get-up after a long, long absence. But her sudden bursts of wrenching sadness are more poignant when set against her fierce positivism. Always available for escape, but never used, is her gun. Perhaps Willy wants to use it on her in the final moments.  Time is painful. Like Winnie, we lose our memories and become incapacitated. Like Willy, we lose our speech and crawl toward our graves.

Anna Cordingley’s design fixes Winnie in a monolithic, black mound like a pile of industrial refuse. This is contrasted with the huge, blue drapes surrounding her like curtains around a royal bed. Paul Jackson’s lighting creates a sculptural landscape, accenting moments in Winnie’s days with shifting colour and pattern. High above Winnie’s head is a giant chandelier-like structure that glints with tiny star-like lights.

Winnie, like we are, is just another speck in the universe.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 4 July 2009

Jersey Boys, July 4, 2009, ****1/2

 Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe
Where and When: Princess Theatre, from July 4, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 4, 2009
Stars: ****&1/2

Published in Herald Sun, Melbourne
JERSEY BOYS stormed onto the stage at the Princess Theatre and had the opening night VIP crowd – including the Victorian Premier – cheering, stompin’ and dancin’ by its finale.

It’s a bio-play that follows the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, four Italo-American boys from New Jersey who created a distinctive sound that featured Frankie’s exceptional three and a half octave range, Bob Gaudio’s songs and four part harmonies.

What makes this show such a huge success? It’s the quality songs, the story of four boys from the wrong side of the tracks, Des McAnuff’s production, the script (Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice), the versatile, industrial design (Klara Zieglerova) and, finally, the performers who breathe new life into those four young men. That’s a recipe for first class entertainment.

Biographical shows do not necessarily follow the normal dramatic arc, but Brickman and Elice shape the show by dividing it into four seasons or four parts, just like the harmonies.

Spring is Tommy DeVito’s season. Scott Johnson is deliciously mischievous and full-voiced as the tough, ambitious, working class boy who teeters on the edge of petty crime. Without Tommy’s relentless drive to be a star and get out of Jersey, without his boys singing under a street lamp, Frankie (Bobby Fox), Bobby (Stephen Mahy) and Nick (Glaston Toft), the original Four Seasons, would never have existed.

Summer is Bobby’s time and Mahy embodies Gaudio’s intelligence, musical talent and charm. Bobby’s incomparable tunes including Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man, launched the band’s career. Mahy is a formidable talent with his Brad Pitt looks, bright, clear vocal tones and acting skill.

Nick Massi, Tommy’s childhood pal and fellow petty crim, is the voice of Fall. Toft replicates Nick’s resonant, bass vocal tones and sense of style and we learn of Nick’s extraordinary ear for harmonies and musical arrangements.

The final season is Frankie’s, although Winter is no way to describe Valli’s still active career. The impish, charismatic Bobby Fox, although Irish, bears a striking resemblance to Frankie, and his upper register and falsetto has echoes of the timbre of Frankie’s beautiful, idiosyncratic voice. Fox captures Frankie’s emotional style, passionate commitment to life and loyalty and his compulsion to keep the band together.

The ensemble and band are outstanding as are principals Daniel Scott as producer-lyricist, Bob Crewe, and Enrico Mammarella as Gyp DeCarlo. But it is the thrilling combination of four male voices that rivets us with tunes including Oh What A Night, Let’s Hang On, Bye Bye Baby and Working My Way Back to You. And the finale of Who Loves You is heart stopping.

By Kate Herbert

Cold Comfort, July 3, 2009 ****

 By Owen McCafferty, by BoomShanka Productions
Chapel off Chapel
First season: July 3 to 12, 2009, Chapel off Chapel
Return season Nov 28 to Dec 6, 2009 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 3, 2009

 Owen McCafferty’s play, Cold Comfort, has a profound, emotional impact despite its evident simplicity. 

The sole character, Kevin Toner (David Rock), is irrevocably flawed but his foolishness, errors, regrets and sense of loss are all symptoms of his humanity. He may be an emotional cripple and a drunken ruin but, through the bottom of his empty whisky bottle, we can see ourselves.

David Rock is compelling as Kevin and his twin brother, Brendan Rock, directs him without embellishment, keeping the focus on the inner and outer turmoil of Kevin. His performance is poignant without being sentimental. He is totally credible as the Northern Irish brickie returning to Belfast after a 15-year absence to be the sole mourner at his father’s funeral. McCafferty captures not only this sozzled, middle-aged man but all his aching nostalgia and childlike wistfulness that have lain dormant for decades.

Like sticky-beak neighbours peering through a window, we watch Kevin, wearing his father’s old suit, prowling around his Da’s living room, avoiding looking into the chipboard coffin where the old man lies. Kevin he relentlessly empties a Jamieson’s whisky bottle to lubricate his storytelling.

And what vivid stories he tells. McCafferty’s award-winning script is littered with Belfast idiom, expletives and drunken ramblings and Rock brings this vulnerable, shattered man to life. A character telling stories can feel contrived, but McCafferty provides a simple theatrical device. Rock, as Kevin, peoples the room with his absent family members.

He chats to his dead Da lying in his coffin – and we can hear the conversation as he demands explanations. A scruffy chair becomes his Ma and he grills her about why she abandoned him. Another chair is his wife and their sniping becomes audible. He invokes the “knowledge fairy” to give him what he craves – information. The entire event is geared to Kevin getting answers to questions that have plagued him his entire life.

Rock’s performance is painfully realistic. His eyes seem to glaze over and he stumbles over words and furniture as Kevin gets progressively drunker. Finally he tumbles to the floor and curls up like a sleepy child. Kevin’s wake is over but his tragedy is not. His questions will never truly be answered.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 1 July 2009

The Weather and Your Health, July 1, 2009, ***

The Weather and Your Health 
By Bethany Simons
La Mama until July 1 to 12, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 1, 2009

Perhaps you have a granny over 70, or know a woman who grew up in a country town or have a neighbour who talks about her childhood during the war. If so, you may recognise the simple, optimistic woman in Bethany Simons play, The Weather and Your Health.

Simons plays this relentlessly cheerful woman who prattles constantly about her life in Gilgandra – or ‘Gil’ as the locals call it – a small town in country New South Wales. When this woman was young, Dubbo was the big smoke and the main street felt so long, one might never visit a shop at the far end.

David Wicks directs the play with a light, playful hand, maintaining the innocence of this woman and never presenting her through jaded, 21st century eyes. She comes from another world – the past – where roles were clear, people were polite and paths were plainly set out for you.

Simons tiptoes, bare-footed, as if placing too much weight or making noise with her feet would be rude, or even a false assertion of her own importance. She is dressed in a colourful, 1950s frock, wearing a permanent wave, tomato red lipstick and a fixed smile.

This woman is no fool, she is merely committed to a positive world-view and does not know how to express such an alien idea as self-pity. Simons is charming and strangely doll-like as the woman who, we suspect, may be based on a family member from her own country childhood.

 She captures her childlikeness, strength and naivete. We see her joyfully revelling in simple pleasures: pining for a glorious red ball dress in a shop window, wearing the dress to a ball, dancing with a different boy for each tune or playing the piano every other week.

Although all the dialogue is hers, Simons is not alone on stage. Perched on a chair, reading the racing pages or listening to the races on his transistor, is her husband, played by Andrew Dodds. She refers to him like a shadow in her life, a presence in her home and in her past. He is symptomatic of the absent husbands or fathers of that generation.

When she meets him at the ball 50 or more years ago, his only responses are grunts. He speaks only once, in the final line of the play, to assure her, “You always were the prettiest girl in Gil.”

By Kate Herbert