Thursday 29 July 2010

Mary Poppins *****

 Mary Poppins 
Her Majesty’s Theatre, (Opening night-Thurs July 29, 2010)
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars:***** (Yes, 5)

 (This review was unpublished in the Herald Sun after opening night but these are some thoughts on this exceptional production)

A new star is born in the musical theatre firmament. Verity Hunt-Ballard is Practically Perfect, as she sings, in every way for the role. She is what is known as “the triple threat”: sings, dances and acts. 

Her soprano is bright and crystal-clear, her character is a perfect blend of prim and mischievous, pert and bossy. Her comic timing is impeccable in both physical and verbal gags, she dances up a storm, maintaining Mary’s poise and cheekiness as she performs complicated routines.

Mary Poppins comes to life and even the creatives and producers of this production state categorically that not only is she the best Poppins they’ve seen, but this is the best cast in the six year history of the stage show.

This Poppins is the super-nanny who, with a spoonful of sugar, a snap of her fingers and a “spit, spot, spick and span” makes the kitchen tidy and the toys tuck themselves away.

The magic of the movie is present but it is even more spectacular because we see it immediately before us. Crowley’s set design is transformational, transporting us from the proper and staid domestic home of the Banks into Bert’s pastel painting of a technicolour park as it comes to life with ballet dancing statues. 

Mrs. Corry Conversation Shop is populated with eccentric characters is exceptional costumes who perform with Mary and Bert the supercalifagilistic dance routine and song.

Philip Quast as Mr Banks is commanding and accomplished with a fine resonant voice and a suitable thawing of his icy demeanour. Marina Prior captures our sympathy with Mrs Banks, the former actress who craves more time with her family. 

As the children, Jane and Michael, Hayley Edwards and Kurtis Papadinis were natural, playful and without that glossy artificiality of stage children.

Sally-Anne Upton funny, bold and booming as Mrs Brill and Judi Connelli’s bullying nanny Andrew is a treat. Rickerby awkward and hilarious in the slaptick kitchen scene.

Matt Lee is perky and charming as cockney Bert and stuns us with his dancing on the ceiling while Debra Byrne is poignant and in fine voice in her cameo as the Bird Woman.

This is a stunningly polished and wildly entertaining production that beats all other international productions to date - and that's according to the show's creative team themselves.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 26 July 2010

Songs From The Middle****1/2

Songs From The Middle
By Eddie Perfect and The Brodsky Quartet, Melbourne Cabaret Festival
Where and When: South Melbourne Town Hall, 25-26 July
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2

Eddie Perfect’s passionate voice brings tears to my eyes. It is thrilling. His witty, ironic lyrics make me laugh until I hurt. When you blend his soaring vocal tones, charm and wit with the silky, sexy strings of The Brodsky Quartet, additional musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music and arrangements by Iain Grandage, the result is a cabaret masterpiece.

Songs From The Middle is a collection of songs about Mentone ­ yes, Mentone, that bayside suburb that is neither glossy, well-heeled Brighton nor the tranquil Mornington Peninsula. Eddie grew up there, went to St. school there, fell in love, visited to malls and Bunnings there. He left Mentone in anger but this time, he sings, “I’m leaving in peace.”

The relentlessly prosaic quality of life in Mentone stands in stark contrast to the complexity of Grandage’s arrangements, the sheer beauty of the strings plus percussion, wind instruments and piano. But, mixed with the pure ordinariness of Eddie’s memories and the banality of the stories is a wistfulfulness for the lost past, a social commentary on the suburbs and an honouring of the lives that ordinary people lead.

The show is about personal history so Perfect begins with a witty lament for the loss of the simple life in (I Liked It Better) The Way It Was. He follows it with Frankston Line, the pulsating, percussive song that echoes the rattle and clunk of a train ride, in the voice of a disenfranchised, young vandal who tags (graffiti) his signature on every station along the Frankston train line.

There you will recognise if you know Mentone (I do) such as Bunnings, Nepean Highway, Mentone Beach. There are poignant memories of young love including Plummer Road that is about a storm water drain and a girl that lived on the street. There is a sweet instrumental dedicated to Susan Morgan, a childhood crush who passed away as a young adult. Then Perfect makes us roar laughing with a song about love falling apart like an IKEA shelf in I Wanna Go Home.

In What Are We To Do?, aliens land in Mentone in 1992 and no one knows what to do, including the Mayor. The aliens realise how boring the life is in Mentone and fly away leaving everyone changed.

The finale is a hauntingly simple anthem to Mentone and we get sing along with Perfect and, miraculously, The Brodsky Quartet. It is a musically scintillating show, with charm, skill and heart.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 18 July 2010

Working – A Musical ***

Working - A Musical
 Adapted from Studs Terkel by Stephen Schwartz & Nina Faso, songs by James Taylor, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers & Susan Birkenhead

Chapel of Chapel, Prahran, Melbourne, July 18 to 31, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you thought that your working life was too boring to be art, think again. The dramatis personae is Working include: iron worker, parking attendant, waitress, cleaners, receptionists, truck driver, fireman, factory worker, stonemason, checkout chick, housewife, retiree, and a teacher who is the only middle-class professional.

Group and solo songs are interwoven with monologues about work that are adapted from Studs Terkel’s 1974 oral history interviews with American workers. The workers grab our attention with rousing chorus numbers including Hey, Somebody, Traffic Jam, and the finale, Something to Point To. A six-piece, on-stage band, lad by Daniel Heskett, gives a fairly tight performance, although the sound mix was a little loose.

Most of the songs are celebrations of the workers’ pride in their jobs and their determination to overcome challenges despite some suffering despair. This production, directed by Dione Joseph, is sponsored by Beyond Blue and incorporates projected information about helping colleagues with depression. These notes are informative although they sometimes distract from the characters or distort their message.

The structure of the show is a little unbalanced with more monologues than songs. The acting ability of some of the cast is limited (most come from amateur musicals) but the songs carry the show.

There are a few stand-out performances. Christian Cavallo has a versatile voice and compelling presence, playing three hilarious, detailed characters. He belts out a cool blues in Lovin’ Al as the parking attendant, is poignant as Roberto, singing Un Mejor Dia Vendra (A Better Day Will Come), and is funny and scary as the psychopathic copy-boy.

Rachel Collins is a sassy performer with a big voice singing I’m Just Movin’ as checkout chick, Babe, and is moving as Grace, the down-trodden, suitcase maker. Todd Morgan is engaging as both the cheeky mailman and a bratty, ambitious school-leaver, while David Barclay has a rock band vocal quality and matching looks.

Some of the characters break your heart but most challenge us to see their work as valuable and joyful. This is a show with heart that supports an important charity.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 15 July 2010

The King and I ***1/2

The King and I
By Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, by The Production Company
State Theatre, Arts Centre, until July 15 to 25, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

The Arts Centre whistles a happy tune during Rodgers and Hammerstein’s much-loved musical, The King and I. The enthusiastic crowd hums along with the impressive repertoire of evergreen tunes including: I Whistle a Happy Tune, Hello Young Lovers, Getting to Know You, We Kiss in a Shadow, Something Wonderful and the joyful Shall We Dance? Remember the movie with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr?

It is an exotic romance about the King of Siam (Juan Jackson) who introduces Western culture to his country by employing the plain-speaking, elegant, English widow, Anna Leonowens (Chelsea Gibb), to tutor his dozens of children and wives in his Royal Palace. It is timeless and timely, dealing with culture clash, resistance to modernisation and colonialism.

The muscular, youthful Jackson looks striking as the arrogant, child-like King struggling to defend outmoded traditions. Jackson’s voice is warm and resonant and his character is most effective when he sings. Gibb is suitably bossy and proper as Anna, enunciating with rounded, English vowels. However, Anna’s brisk speaking style transfers into a slightly brittle vocal tone in Gibb’s singing.

The show starts slowly but takes off by interval.  Director, Terence O’Connell, and musical director, Peter Casey, stage this engaging musical with a versatile, on-stage band, Alana Scanlan’s Asian-influenced choreography, an exotic set (Kathryn Sproul) and vivid costumes (Kim Bishop).

One highlight is Silvie Paladino’s perfectly controlled, poignant rendition of Something Wonderful as Lady Thiang, the King’s loyal, number-one wife. Another is The Little House of Uncle Tom, a play within the play, narrated by little Tuptim (Emily Xiao Wang). O’Connell combines deceptively simple, theatrical devices, Asian imagery and clever choreography to tell a story of love, slavery, escape and death that echoes the story of the King’s oppression of Tuptim.

Adrian Li Donni and Xiao Wang are in fine voice as the star-crossed lovers, George Henare is commanding as the traditionalist Kralahome, and there are crowds of cute children to make us smile and coo.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 2 July 2010

Dead Man’s Cell Phone ***

Dead Man’s Cell Phone
By Sarah Ruhl, Melbourne Theatre Company
 Sumner Theatre, MTC, July 2 to August 7, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Do irritating ring tones and mindless mobile phone chatter drive you to thoughts of bodily harm? In Sarah Ruhl’s black comedy, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Jean (Lisa McCune) politely answers the persistently ringing phone of a stranger, Gordon, (John Adam) who is seated at the next table in a cafĂ©.

After answering the first call, she discovers that the man is dead in his chair then calls for help – on his phone; a reasonable reaction, but her ensuing actions are totally bonkers. She chats to Gordon’s body while waiting for help. Still rational? She continues to answer keeps Gordon’s calls from his mother (Sue Jones), wife (Sarah Sutherland) and colleagues, telling them he will call back or breaking news of his death. Still sounding plausible?

Jean then develops elaborate lies about being Gordon’s colleague, accepts invitations to visit the grieving family, meets with the mysterious lover (Emma Jackson) and invents comforting stories about Gordon’s last words about each of them. And she’s still answering his calls, insisting that Gordon left his phone to her as his last wish. Now, does she sound bonkers?

The idea is eccentric and funny, and some of Ruhl’s dialogue is hilarious. The cast, directed by Peter Evans,  has impeccable comic timing, capturing the eccentricity of the heightened, comical characters and plunging headlong into the mad world of the play. Gordon’s family dynamic makes Jean’s fantasies seem tame.

McCune is a charming, quietly funny Jean, making her a mousey, obliging, angel of mercy struggling to manage her web of white lies. Jones has fun portraying Mrs. Gottlieb, Gordon’s controlling mother, as a comically repellent, eccentric, selfish bully. As her ignored second son, Dwight, Daniel Frederiksen plays the family wimp with relish.

Sutherland tosses her blonde mane and totters drunkenly on high heels as Hermia, Gordon’s privileged but abandoned wife, while Jackson is exotic and sexy as Gordon’s Hispanic lover. Adam finally appears as the charismatic, egotistical Gordon in the final scenes, revealing Gordon’s murky, immoral, money-spinning role in organ trafficking.

Despite the marvellous performances, Ruhl’s script, by the end, feels contrived and lacks a clear dramatic structure and narrative arc, not because of its leaps of fantasy (inaccurately described as “magic realism”), but because even absurd narratives require an inner logic. The style is inconsistent, lurching from a commentary on contemporary life and phone etiquette to absurd comedy or existentialist drama. Versatile actors make this production entertaining.

By Kate Herbert