Wednesday 27 July 2016

The Book Club, July 26, 2016 ***

By Roger Hall
The Lawler, Southbank Theatre, until Aug 28, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 26, 2016
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Wed July 27, 20016 and later in print. KH

Amanda Muggleton
If you have ever joined a book club, you may recognise the motley collection of personalities in Roger Hall’s The Book Club as they bicker over their chosen scribe of the month and compete to produce the best, tasty snacks.

The vivacious Amanda Muggleton reprises the role of Deborah that she performed in Melbourne in 1999 and, although the play remains a gentle, predictable and conservative “slice-of-life-in-the-suburbs”, the character and Hall’s dialogue have been updated in this new production directed by Nadia Tass.

50-something, empty nester, Deborah, is a book-lover with an inattentive, unfit but sports-obsessed, lawyer husband and two adult daughters, so, to alleviate her boredom, she joins her friend Trish’s book club.

When Deborah hosts the club at her home, she invites local writer, Michael, to speak to the group about his book but ends up in a clandestine affair that brings more spice into her dull life than she anticipated.

Muggleton inhabits all the characters including snobbish Meredith from Toorak, Milly the warm Welshwoman whose husband is autistic, Stephie the Swiss seductress and PR consultant, pregnant, young Caroline, and the two men, Wally Deborah’s husband and Michael the philandering writer.

Alone on stage for 90 minutes, Muggleton engages directly and intimately with the audience as if they were with Deborah in her book-lined living room (designer, Shaun Gurton) as she relates her tale of books club meetings, romantic fantasies, infidelity and galloping guilt.

Hall satirises the suburban types as well as the self-indulgent novelist and Deborah defines each of the book club women by their reading habits (New Idea, Margaret Atwood, Nabokov).

Muggleton entertains with her animated face and flamboyant gesticulations while she chats conversationally with the audience as if they were her confidantes, reacting to their groans of recognition or delight with, “I know!”

There are some big laughs in the show, one being Caroline’s fat-faced baby that resembles Barnaby Joyce and the Greek woman’s hilarious mispronunciations that sound like obscenities.

The play has the potential to be poignant or even a tragic reflection of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, one of the book club’s chosen texts, but Deborah’s fall from grace ends happily, albeit unrealistically.

The Book Club may be a lightweight look at the problems of a middle-class suburban woman, but as Deborah’s mum always said, “No matter what happens in life, there’s always a good book.”

By Kate Herbert

Monday 25 July 2016

Funny Girl, July 23, 2016 ***1/2

Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Isobel Lennart
Produced by The Production Company 
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 31, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ***1/2
Review also published on line at Herald Sun Arts, Mon July 25, 2016 and later in print. KH
Caroline O’Connor & cast
The puckish and multi-talented Caroline O’Connor, part of Australia’s musical theatre royalty, reprises the role of Broadway comedienne, Fanny Brice, in Gale Edwards’ production of Funny Girl.

O’Connor’s bold voice, audacious style and impeccable comic delivery are perfectly suited to Fanny who rose to fame on stage in the flamboyant Ziegfeld Follies in the early 20th century.

Funny Girl (1963), set in New York before and after World War One, is a fictionalised version (book by Isobel Lennart) of Fanny’s bitter-sweet life depicting the early career of this plain but ambitious Jewish girl from the Lower East Side, her phenomenal success with Ziegfeld and her ill-fated marriage to Nick Arnstein (David Hobson).

Dressed in an absurd, hot pink and yellow, feathered chicken costume (Tim Chappel, Owen Phillips) in the hilarious chorus number, Cornet Man, O’Connor embodies the impudent, gawky and intentionally clumsy Fanny as she messes with the chorus line’s choreography (Kelley Abbey) that looks like a comical version of “twerking”.

More laughs follow when O’Connor, as the impudent Fanny, hijacks Ziegfeld’s romantic chorus number, His Love Makes Me Beautiful, that celebrates glamourous, elegant brides floating down staircases in revealing, gossamer veils, only to be interrupted by Fanny as a hugely pregnant bride.

Another ensemble hit is the military chorus, Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat, in which O’Connor gambols around the stage, wearing army khaki shorts and big, black spectacles and looking like a tiny Radar O’Reilly from MASH.

Two outstanding and well-known songs by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) are highlights in this production: the poignant People and the rousing Don’t Rain On My Parade, both of which Barbra Streisand made famous.

However, much of the repertoire, although perky, entertaining and varied in style, is not as memorable, although the talented, on-stage orchestra plays them with assurance under the musical direction of Anthony Gabriele.

Hobson plays Fanny’s husband Nick, a gambler and promoter of shady business deals, and Hobson’s rich, velvety voice is a delight, although he sometimes looks uncomfortable in the role of this charming, slick but deceptive scoundrel.

Nancye Hayes is suitably bossy and intrepid as Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Brice, a saloon owner, while Susan-Ann Walker is comically interfering as her friend, Mrs. Strakosh.

David Ross Paterson brings dignity to Florenz Ziegfeld while Luke Alleva’s tap-dancing is his greatest strength as Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s long-time admirer and choreographer.

In Edwards’ production, the characters, music and choreography are diverting, engaging and funny but the accolades are for O’Connor and her mischievous and impertinent portrayal of Fanny Brice.

By Kate Herbert 
 Caroline O'Connor & David Hobson

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Menopause the Musical – Women on Fire! July 16, 2016 ***

Written by Jeanie Linders 
Athenaeum Theatre until August 6, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Review also published at Herald Sun Arts, probably by Tues July 19, 2016. KH
 Donna Lee
Menopause the Musical is back and it’s hotter than before because, this time, it’s Women on Fire!  

Jeanie Linders’ hit musical is “Identification Theatre” for women of a certain age who share the menopausal woes of the four characters on stage: hot flushes, night sweats, bladder control problems, memory loss, weight gain and fluctuating libido.

This updated, 90-minute version, directed and choreographed by Tony Bartuccio, has more parodies of popular songs with satirical lyrics about menopause and plenty more dance than the original, 2005 Australian production.

Four women (Caroline Gillmer, Donna Lee, Jackie Love, Megan Shapcott) from different walks of life, meet in a department store at a lingerie sale then slowly discover how much they have in common.

Gillmer is the bold and feisty corporate executive who spends her time in boardrooms while Lee is a timid, unsophisticated housewife down from Dubbo for some shopping.
 Caroline Gillmer
Love plays an ageing, insecure television soap star who fears her acting career is on the rocks if she cannot retain her youthful looks, and Shapcott is an out-of-town, hippy, earth mother who drinks camomile and eats organic food.

Gillmer is magnetic on stage, and she starts the evening’s varied repertoire of popular songs by belting out the soul classic, Chain of Fools, retitled Change of Life, then later in the show, the audience roars at her Tina Turner parody of What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Lee’s quirky, clownish, country bumpkin is a crowd favourite with her broad, physical comedy when she tries on sexy lingerie and when she is introduced to what looks like a glittering, neon vibrator.

The audience groans in recognition at Shapcott’s song about mood swings and the ensemble’s chorus about anti-depressants, “Pills. We love them so, we always will”, sung to the tune of Fifth Dimension’s Wedding Bell Blues (“Bill. I love you so...”)

Love prowls the stage in her sassy, leopard-skin print frock, singing Some Like It Hot (Feel The Heat), playfully teasing a man in the front row with her antics.
 Jackie Love
Linders’ dialogue is often bumpy, especially in the first scenes, but the dynamic changes and the energy lifts once the songs start to come thick and fast and the dance routines become more complex, an example being the vibrant choreography in the medley about body image.

The finale of I’m Every Woman, Disco Inferno (Burn Baby Burn) and We Are Family is the show highlight, and the cast invites the audience to come on stage to dance – and they do, in droves.

The last five minutes is a swaying tribe of women on stage with the cast having the time of their lives.

Menopause the Musical is hardly high art but it is fun for those who identify with the circumstances and irrepressible spirit of the women on stage, recognise the classic tunes and crave a night of abandoned laughter at their own expense.

By Kate Herbert

Melbourne Cast: 
Jackie Love
Caroline Gillmer
Donna Lee
Megan Shapcott

Tony Bartuccio - director/choreographer

Friday 15 July 2016

Othello, July 14, 2016 ***1/2

By William Shakespeare, by Bell Shakespeare 
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until July 23, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert  on July 14, 2016
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published online, Herald Sun Arts, Fri July 15, 2016 & in print on Mon July 18, 2016. KH
Yalin Ozucelik, Ray Chong Nee_ credit_Daniel Boud
 A memorable villain is clever, wicked and alluring and Shakespeare’s Iago is all of those things, and more.

Othello, played by Ray Chong Nee in Peter Evans’ sleek, modern production, is the Moor of Venice, an African general who, although a foreigner, is highly valued for his military prowess by the Venetian Duke (Huw McKinnon) and governing senate.

When the restrained and upright Othello secretly marries Desdemona (Elizabeth Nabben), he faces the wrath of her father Brabantio (James Lugton), a senator, and also unwittingly attracts the malicious but disguised vengeance of his military ensign, Iago (Yalin Ozucelik), who is furious at being passed over as Othello’s second-in-command.

Although Othello is the titular role, Iago’s villainy and manipulation of other characters is pivotal in steering the increasingly jealous Othello to the ultimate horror of murdering Desdemona. (No need for a spoiler alert for such a famous scene.)

Chong Nee is at his best in the first half of Evan’s production, when his Othello is self-possessed, confident and oblivious to all but his military command and his untainted love for Desdemona.

Othello’s downfall is his unfounded trust in Iago whose betrayal Othello cannot discern and who he repeatedly describes as “honest Iago”.

From our contemporary view, Othello is the victim of obvious and hateful racism when, in his absence, Iago and others call him “an old, black ram” with a “sooty bosom”, a “lascivious Moor” who “is making the beast with two backs” with the pure, milky white Desdemona.

Chong Nee’s performance is less effective in the later scenes when Othello succumbs to “the green-eyed monster” of his misguided jealousy and his escalating, demented rage appears, at times, too melodramatic and not totally credible.

Ozucelik is achingly charismatic as Iago, embodying this smiling, dissembling villain who manipulates not only Othello, but also gullible, lovelorn Roderigo (Edmund Lembke-Hogan), protective Brabantio, trusting Cassio (Michael Wahr) and even Iago’s own wife, Emilia (Joanna Downing).

Ozucelik’s Iago is cunning, agile and lithe, capering gleefully from one damaging deception to another, revelling in his own power and revealing, through snide and witty asides or colourfully venomous speeches that celebrate Shakespeare’s poetic power, his vicious plot to destroy Othello.
 Yalin Ozucelik, credit_Daniel Boud
Nabben’s Desdemona is more worldly and modern than is common for the modest maidenly character, but she brings a steely determination to this young woman who bravely confronts her changed husband until she comes to fear his inexplicable wrath.

Lugton brings dignity to Brabantio, Wahr is aptly naive as Cassio, and Lembke-Hogan channels Roderigo’s boyish obsession with Desdemona.

Evans’ sets his inventive production on an empty stage surrounded by monumental, industrial, concrete-like pillars (Michael Hankin), and atmospheric lighting (Paul Jackson) tinges the entire space with dim, mossy green light that reflects Othello’s green-eyed jealousy.

The only additional set is a rectangular table on wheels that provides an elevated platform in some scenes or a war room table in others, and its swift mobility gives a sense of urgency and unpredictability.

While there is unevenness in the acting, this production captures some of the emotional intensity of Othello and Evans delivers an imaginative version of Shakespeare’s play.

By Kate Herbert

Desdemona -Elizabeth Nabben
Duke/ Montano -Huw McKinnon
Roderigo - Edmund Lembke-Hogan
Brabantio /Lodovico -James Lugton
Cassio - Michael Wahr
Emilia-Joanna Downing
Bianca - Alice Keohavong

Director - Peter Evans
Set & costumes - Michael Hankin
Lighting - Paul Jackson
Fight choreography - Nigel Poulton
 Cast of Othello

The Servant of Two Masters, July 13, 2016 ***

by Carlo Goldoni, translated and adapted by Rosa Campagnaro
produced by Make a Scene, presented by La Mama 
La Mama Courthouse, until July 31, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts or or around July 14, 2016. KH
  Christian Bagin as Truffaldino, Lelda Kapsis as Beatrice

 When you laugh at a comedian’s jokes or a clown’s prat falls, offer some thanks to the improvising, masked players of the mediaeval Commedia dell’Arte, AKA The Italian Comedy, who roved Europe performing their shows outdoors on street carts.

By the time Carlo Goldoni wrote The Servant of Two Masters in 1746, these comedies were performed inside on theatre stages but Goldoni still used the stock, comic, masked characters of miserly masters, cheeky servants and stories of star-crossed lovers that were so familiar to European audiences.

In spirited and funny adaptation directed by Rosa Campagnaro, Christian Bagin is the highlight as Truffaldino, the servant whose decision to serve two masters simultaneously provides plenty of opportunity for mayhem.

The charming Bagin, sporting the traditional, leather half-mask of Harlequin, brings to life the ravenous and lusty Truffaldino, tickling us with his impeccable comic timing, precise physical comedy, inventive improvisation and gleeful engagement with the audience.

Campagnaro’s production pivots on Bagin’s Truffaldino, but he is supported by a vivacious and capable cast including Irene del Pilar Gomez as Pantalona, a female version of the grasping, old miser who marries her daughter, Clarice (Freya Pragt) off for a good dowry.

Pragt’s Clarice merges vapid, 18th century ingenue with rebellious, young feminist while Roby Favretto is suitably idiotic and cowardly as her beloved, Silvio.

Lelda Kapsis as the cross-dressing Beatrice, with Darcy Kent as the pompous twit, Florindo, elicit plenty of laughs as the second pair of lovers, while Sharon Davis teases the lads in the audience as the bold and lascivious servant, Smeraldina, although her voice becomes shrill at time.

The show uses plenty of physical comic business (known as “lazzi” in the Commedia), including Truffaldino’s very funny suitcase-unpacking routine with two hilariously miserable, inarticulate servants, and the dinner service where Truffaldino and shifty innkeeper, Brighella (Favretto), juggle pizzas.

Eloise Kent’s high-gelati coloured costumes are almost lickable and her set design, that replicates a curtained, 18th century stage, allows plenty of farcical entrances and exits.

This production provides a fine example of the Commedia style, masks, characters and narrative for the VCE Drama students attending the play and it is diverting evening for anyone who loves some old-fashioned, physical humour.  

By Kate Herbert

  Christian Bagin as Truffaldino, Lelda Kapsis as Beatrice

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Desire Under The Elms, July 8, 2016 **1/2


By Eugene O'Neill, by Sol III Company

Chapel off Chapel until July 24, 2016

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 8, 2016

 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts in print, possibly on Tues July 12, 2016. KH

  Timothy Smith, Garikai Jani, Sam Lavery
Greed, lust and betrayal sound like the plot of an ancient Greek tragedy but early 20th century American playwright, Eugene O'Neill, plunders these theatrical elements in his gritty play, Desire Under The Elms.

Andrei Schiller-Chan’s production captures only part of the emotional depth and dramatic tension in the text although O’Neill’s earthy, poetic writing demands to be heard.

When patriarch, Ephraim Cabot (Darren Mort), returns to his New England farm with his new, young, third wife, Abbie (Diana Brumen), his two older sons decide to leave for the California goldfields while their younger half-brother, Eben (Sam Lavery), stays and demands that he inherit the farm that belonged to his dead mother.

The ambitious and greedy Abbie seduces Eben into an adulterous relationship that turns to love, but the birth of a child sends this tortured family trio into chaos and, ultimately, tragedy.

The production maintains the eerie, grim quality of O’Neill’s story that is heightened by the rough-hewn and skeletal farmhouse design (Hahna Read OK) and evocative lighting (Travis Macfarlane OK).

However, the acting is patchy, the characterisations lack complexity and nuance, while the dramatic trajectory of this production does not effectively explore the peaks and troughs of O’Neill’s narrative.

O’Neill wrote the characters’ dialogue in colloquial American speech or, more specifically, in the dialect of New England farmers, but this production introduces Irish accents that are inconsistent and distracting.

Mort’s Ephraim has the lumbering, hard-edged cruelty of O‘Neill’s patriarch, but Ephraim’s monologue about scraping a living from the harsh land loses some of its depth and clarity.

Lavery imbues Eben with some simmering resentment and unfulfilled desire but he expresses Eben’s rage and frustration by shouting, and the resulting harshness of his vocal tone ruins the emotional impact of Eben’s angst.

The role of Abbie demands a blend of bold sensuality, secretive desperation and cunning but Brumen’s characterisation lacks the requisite subtlety, complexity and credibility, although her performance improves in the final act when Abbie is no longer deceptive and her emotions are raw and direct.

Timothy Smith and Garikai Jani play the departing brothers, Simeon as Peter, as simple, rough-handed peasants and the director’s mixed-race casting adds an interesting spin to the characters.

This production of Desire in the Elms has not successfully plumbed the depths of O’Neill’s complex and intense script although it is difficult to disguise the genius of his writing.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 11 July 2016

Titanic The Musical, July 9, 2016 ***1/2

Music & lyrics by Maury Yeston, story & book by Peter Stone
Presented by StageArt
Chapel off Chapel, until July 24, 2016 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published online in Herald Sun Arts, Mon July 11, 2016 & in print, probably on Tues July 12. KH
 Cast pic Belinda Strodder

Titanic The Musical tells the story of the sinking of that mammoth, ‘floating city’ by focussing on the dreams and aspirations, budding romances and rocky marriages of the 2,224 passengers who perished or survived in that disaster on April 15, 1912.

James Cutler’s chamber revival production, with its cast of 20, band of six and frugal set design, is a capable, scaled-down version of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone’s original, 1997 Tony Award-winning Broadway production.

Stone’s narrative and characters draw on historical and personal documents to create a parade of rich, middle-class or working class characters and most of the cast play multiple roles as 1st, 2nd and 3rd Class passengers and crew.

Yeston’s music and lyrics is rich with soaring choral music and thrilling anthems such as Godspeed Titanic, poignant ballads and romantic duets, and the ensemble combines recent, musical theatre graduates with experienced performers.

The low, wooden decking of the set transforms, without scene changes or props, into the 1st Class salon, the corridors of 2nd Class and the confined spaces of 3rd Class, while the smoky image of the Titanic projects onto a rear screen.

The lack of elevated levels reduces the impact of the story’s socio-political focus on class distinctions, however, Cutler keeps the action moving on his single level set with pairs, groups and individuals from each class weaving across the stage in carefully choreographed scenes.

When off stage, the actors watch the on-stage action as if witnessing the impending doom, and they carry their simple, wooden chairs as they move on and off stage, a device that is sometimes distracting.

The skilful band, under musical director, Kent Ross, plays Yeston’s rousing music with gusto and the assured, on-stage string quartet is a constant reminder of the valiant band on the Titanic.

The quality of singing and acting is uneven in the production, but there are several standout performances.

Don Winsor, a warm-voiced baritone, is accomplished as Andrews, the proud but anxious designer of the ship, while Paul Batey’s rich voice brings gravitas to the Captain.

Greta Sherriff, as Lady Caroline, is a talented soprano singing I Give You My Hand with her beau, Charles (Matthew Hyde), and Casey Withoos delights as the comical Mrs. Alice Beane, singing the patter song, The First Class Roster, that reveals Alice’s desperate desire to join the wealthy and privileged.

Rosabelle Elliott is delightfully sassy as Kate McGowan, the pregnant, Irish emigrée who sings about her ambitions in the cheerful Lady’s Maid with other youthful, 3rd Class passengers (Molly Fisher, Matilda Moran, Sam Bennett).

David Irvine’s voice has an attractive timbre as Barrett, the feisty stoker, while Joel Granger as Bride, the telegrapher, has a boyish hopefulness and bright upper register, despite a sudden crackle in his voice.

Titanic The Musical entertains while cunningly including social commentary and historical fact in this moving story of the tragedy of the sinking of the unsinkable ‘ship of dreams’.

By Kate Herbert
L-R Sam Bennett, Amanda Stevenson, David Irvine, Barry Mitchell, James Brown (rear). Pic Belinda Strodder