Monday, 25 March 2019

REVIEW: Dance Nation by Clare Barron

The cast of Dance Nation at Red Stitch
Photo: Teresa Noble photography

Ashlee, Zuzu, Luke, Sofia, Maeve, Amina, Connie and Vanessa are a dance group of pre-teens on the cusp of puberty, dreaming of success as a dance competition takes them all across the United States. Dance Teacher Pat runs a tight ship, walking a fine line between being encouraging and squeezing all the enthusiasm out of his troupe. But this isn’t just a show about making your dreams come true, it’s about dealing with the pain of hormones and the physical strain of dancing, even at a young age.

We’re thrust into their world with a tap routine that even professionals would find strenuous – and it claims its first victim, with Vanessa’s leg shattered beyond repair. The visual is so striking and repulsive that it’s viscerally shocking and laugh-out-loud funny. Dance Nation is satire, yes, but at its heart it is a clear drama about growing up and becoming comfortable with your own body – as you learn its power and its weakness.

Director Maude Davey puts the ensemble through its paces, directing a freight train of a show, which hardly ever stops to catch its breath. The music is loud, the dance is frenetic and the young characters are so full of joy and the jumping beans of youth, it’s hilarious until it become awkward; and even as it slides into the pain and struggle of growing up, it becomes funny again.

The entire cast is great – a big group for the small space of Red Stitch, but it seems fitting for the piece; a dance group jammed together in a pressure cooker, their routines a kind of escape from what these kids are going through in life.

There’s some predictable stage mother stuff, but as all The Moms, Shayne Francis shows us wide variety of demanding and compassion with her various kids. Zoe Boesen’s Zuzu is the one who suffers the most, struggling with an eating disorder, even at one stage tearing at her skin with her teeth. Tariro Mavondo’s Amina is the quiet one in the back of the class, who slips onto centre stage and leaps ahead of the rest. Caroline Lee’s Ashlee has a monologue that will blow your socks off. Brett Cousins struts around the stage as Pat, at times seeming like a mentor and in moments stalking the girls like a predator.

Clare Springett’s Lighting and Peter Farnan’s Sound put you on stage with the troupe, dazzled by the lights, overwhelmed by the music. Adrienne Chisholm’s costumes understand these characters so well that there’s a layer of humour and understanding in just seeing them slouch onto stage with a backpack over the shoulder or sucking on a slurpee.

Clare Barron’s play is an hilarious and poignant look at the pain of puberty and the pain of dance; touching and affectionate, smart and completely off-the-wall. So awesome.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

REVIEW: Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical by P.J. Hogan, Music & Lyrics by Kate-Miller Heidke & Keir Nuttall

Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo by Jeff Busby

Muriel Heslop’s life in the Queensland town of Porpoise Spit is one humiliation after another. She didn’t finish high school, she didn’t come out of secretarial school with any marketable skills and the friends she has don’t treat her very well. In the age of social media, nothing she does gets any likes.

To escape from her friends and family, she disappears into her bedroom and listens to ABBA songs and dreams of the perfect white wedding, proof – in her mind – that she has achieved greatness.

Based on the 1994 film by P.J. Hogan, the stage musical version, which premiered in Sydney in 2017, has been reworked a little since its premiere season and has just opened in Melbourne.

I have fond memories of the original film starring Toni Colette and Rachel Griffiths in their break-out roles of Muriel and Rhonda. Underneath the joyous ABBA songs and the upbeat ending, though, Muriel’s Wedding is quite a sad film; Muriel may suffer from some kind of depression and her mother, Betty, has been drained of all life by a family who takes her for granted.

Stage musicals of films are a regular occurrence these days, but having a story and structure in place doesn’t necessarily mean the transition to stage is made easier – especially when the music the audience is primed to hear is classic pop tunes by ABBA. All the other songs in show are going to be compared to songs we already know.

Duo Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall bring nearly twenty years of songwriting expertise to this project and prove themselves up to the task. The ABBA songs are in the prime positions we expect from the film, with a couple of additions – including a poignant rendition of SOS – but the songs written for the show all shine.

“Sunshine State of Mind” is a fun introduction to the heteronormative Porpoise Spit, where men are men and women are working toward getting married and procreating. The transition into the story of Tania & Chook’s wedding, with Muriel catching the bouquet, is smooth – candy-coloured sets sliding in and out, large revolves moving the cast around the stage. “The Bouquet” gets us right into Muriel’s head; Natalie Abbott makes her mark right away – she has an amazing vocal range, and I didn’t think of Toni Colette once.

Next we roll through songs from Bill Heslop (“Progress”) and Muriel’s mean-girl friends “Can’t Hang” – the latter a showstopping number led by Christie Whelan-Browne as Tania Delgado. We’re firmly entrenched in a world of social media and hashtags and selfies, which turns out to be a shorthand for selfishness and shallowness. This is the biggest change from the world of the film, giving it a contemporary edge – and later expanding Muriel’s dreams of proving to the world how great she really is.

Overall, the first act is very strong. It covers a lot of real estate from the film, without feeling too jam-packed. Director Simon Phillips has a lot of experience bringing new musicals to the stage and his guiding hand is strong and well-judged.

After borrowing her mother’s credit card, Muriel goes on a cruise where she meets her new best friend, Rhonda – played by Stefanie Jones, who brings a real charm and sparkle to the character’s foul-mouthed bluntness. Muriel and Rhonda’s musical moment in the film is singing ABBA’s “Waterloo”, which is in the show, but highlight for this pair on stage is their duet “Amazing” – played against a starry night; a beautiful piece about misfits knowing they don’t have to fit in.

When Muriel follows Rhonda to Sydney, the emerald city gets its own song, “Sydney” – a city filled with misfits. Soon Muriel meets Brice Nobes, a parking inspector, the lowest form of life in the city, according to the song. Brice falls for Muriel, of course, but she’s not sure – and is quickly distracted by other “Strangely Perfect Strangers” passing by the iconic harbour bridge.

The end of act one “Any Ordinary Night” is a strong finish, changing Rhonda and Muriel’s lives dramatically.

Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo: Jeff Busby

Act two is a bit messier, even if somewhat streamlined from its first season. It still has a lot more story to pack in – Muriel meeting the “groom of her dreams” in the body of Alexander Shkuratov, a Russian swimmer who needs to marry to be able to stay in Australia. Stephen Madsen is, uh, built for the role, but also brings some delicious comic timing thoughout the show.

Awkward Brice gets a song of his own “Never Stick Your Neck Out” about how all hopes will be smashed, so no point in dreaming big. It’s a good parallel to Muriel’s story – and allows Jarrod Griffiths to shine, even though the song feels a bit redundant overall.

The ABBA songs are used in surprising ways, often more inventive than in Mamma Mia, the ABBA jukebox musical. The four members of ABBA – Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha, Anna-Frid – appear as part of Muriel’s fantasies when she listens to their songs. These characters swing from terrible jokes about Sweden to a kind of dread as they tempt Muriel to disappear into her fantasies.

Muriel’s mother, Betty, is a spectre over the whole show – floating silently along as the family use her for their own needs and never care what she really wants. Her husband, Bill, is having an affair – and even Muriel who could easily become her mother, doesn’t recognise the signs. Betty is played by Pippa Grandison on stage; Grandison was one of the mean-girls in the original film. Her solo moment on stage during “SOS” is the saddest part of the show and an outstanding achievement on all fronts.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design – set, costume & digital projections - are remarkable, bringing a coherent look and feel to the whole show – from the fluorescent colours of Porpoise Spit to the darker shades of Sydney and its nightclubs and alleyways. Even the Harbour Bridge looms over Muriel and doesn’t feel as inviting as it really is.

Andrew Halsworth’s choreography is impressive; his work bringing a real energy to the story and the show – we learn a lot about Muriel’s world from how the large background cast is used. It’s great to see an Australian musical with such a large ensemble that is used so well.

The relationship between Muriel and Rhonda is the emotional centre of the show, throughout its melodramatic ups-and-downs and, like their characters, Natalie Abbott and Stefanie Jones are fucking amazing. Christie Whelan Browne is an excellent villain in Tania Delgado and Pippa Grandison is heartbreaking as Betty.

My, my, Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical is an incredible achievement. It’s currently playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne and will open in Sydney in July.


Christie Whelan Browne leads the mean girls in "Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked"
in Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo: Jeff Busby

Monday, 11 March 2019

REVIEW: 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman

Andrea Katz (at piano), Toby Truslove, Ellen Burstyn & Lisa McCune
in 33 Variations. Photo: Lachlan Woods

In 1819, Anton Diabelli, a music publisher, sent a waltz of his creation to all the important composers of the time, including Ludwig van Beethoven. He wanted to publish the collection of variations and Beethoven at first refused to be involved – and then he ended up writing thirty-three variations on Diabelli’s waltz.

In the present, musicologist Katharine Brandt is obsessed with trying to understand why Beethoven chose to write such a feat of musical composition. But as she gets ready to travel to Bonn in Germany to continue her research, she is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – and her daughter Clara wonders if her mother should even be going.

As Katharine’s body begins to deteriorate, we see her suffering paralleled with Beethoven’s frustration with the Diabelli Variations – and his struggles with losing his hearing. The deeper Katharine studies the great man’s work, the harder it becomes for her to understand his motivations.

Producer Cameron Lukey has assembled an all-star cast for this production in Melbourne, led by Oscar/Emmy/Tony-winner Ellen Burstyn in the role of Katharine Brandt. It’s unusual for such a high-profile overseas actor to be cast in a local production, rather than visiting with an international touring show; the opening-night audience showed their appreciation with entrance applause – something I’ve only ever seen happen at Broadway shows.

Burstyn is joined by Lisa McCune, playing Katharine’s daughter, Clara. They are a strong match on stage, sparring throughout even as Katharine’s health deteriorates and the pair can’t agree on her end-of-life plan. Toby Truslove plays Katharine’s nurse who later becomes Clara’s boyfriend, and he’s predictably goofy, throwing in some welcome physical comedy in amongst the heavy drama.

William McInnes is commanding in the role of Beethoven, veering between arrogant and tortured genius and finding his way to composer who is suffering – a transformation that is surprisingly affecting. He gets to argue with Francis Greenslade as Diabelli and Andre de Vanny as Schindler, his assistant. As the play progresses, Beethoven becomes less of an enigma and more of a man that Katharine can understand and relate to.

Moises Kaufman’s script is strong, really digging into Katharine and Clara’s relationship – one that is difficult to watch at times, as Katharine confesses that she’s scared that Clara will only ever be mediocre. And the role of Katharine is such a gift for a female actor who is now in her eighties.

Dann Barber’s set is striking on first entering the theatre; two levels, lots of classic arches and metallic railing that looks like a musical stave. Slowly, over the course of the play, it reveals further depths and the use of digital screens and cameras was effective, especially during the sequence when Katharine is undergoing scans at the hospital.

Pianist Andrea Katz is on stage the whole time, playing the different variations exquisitely, though she’s also used effectively during dramatic moments when Beethoven loses his temper or Katharine is lost in the music.

There were a few dialogue stumbles on opening night and the doors on the set sometimes didn’t quite close as they were supposed to. But director Gary Abrahams’ vision for the play is as clear and precise as the notes in Beethoven’s sketch books; a grand, perfect fa├žade can belie an inability to communicate – which is the greatest tragedy of all. For an artist and for a parent and child.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

REVIEW: Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice

The cast of Jersey Boys
Photo: Jeff Busby

Jersey Boys is a documentary-style musical about the lives of the original four members of the 1960s Rock & Roll band, The Four Seasons, and its lead vocalist Frankie Valli. It charts the band member’s early days in New Jersey through its rocky early years, where they borrowed money from mobsters to record their first singles, through to national and international fame. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2005, beating The Drowsy Chaperone, The Color Purple and The Wedding Singer.

I’ve seen most of the Tony Award winners for Best Musical from the last twenty years and this one might well be the laziest in terms of script and production, but the songs of The Four Seasons are so iconic, seeing some of the band’s original magic recreated on stage was a lot of fun.

The show opens with a cover version of their 1976 hit “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” by a French rap artist, Yannick. It’s a fun way to acknowledge that the band’s songs are remembered and reinterpreted – but it’s the only such example in the whole show. And it isn’t a song from the period of time this show is focused on, which is mostly set in the early 1960s. I guess the song title makes it more relevant to the time, if not the version of The Four Seasons the show depicts.

The show is divided into four parts, predictably titled for the four seasons, narrated by a different original member of the band. There’s so much narration in this show, it’s hard to really get to know these men as people – and the notion that different perspectives might create drama or alternate recollections isn’t really explored.

Cameron McDonald’s performance as Tommy Devito is the stand-out, with his convincing Jersey accent bringing to life the shadier side of the band’s history. He’s the first narrator of the evening and he sets a strong tone that’s unmatched later in the show.

The key relationship is the friendship and loyalty between Franki Valli (Ryan Gonzalez) and Bob Gaudio (Thomas McGuane). The two men formed the legal entity The Four Seasons Partnership in 1960 which continues to this day. Gonzalez and McGuane do a great job of transforming from young kids out of their depth into strong friends who continue on together long after the band loses Devito and Nick Massi (Glaston Toff) and evolves into Franki Valli and the Four Seasons.

Gonzalez is also able to find Valli's falsetto, bringing an authenticity to his role as the lead singer.

The set is uninspiring – metallic staircases, chain link fences and a big digital screen that contains Lichtenstein-esque illustrations of moments that are happening on stage with the live performers. None of the theatrical wizardry really adds anything to the show, outside of the kind of lighting queues you would expect to complement a band performing its most famous songs.

The second half of the show is stronger overall, because its hit ratio is larger and it feels more and more like a concert. The narration doesn’t go away, but it fades into the background until the finale where each of the lead characters takes a moment to update us on their lives since the 1960s.

The female characters are poorly drawn and badly used. Effectively the show has Frank Valli’s wife, a series of “conquests” for the men, a girl group that is referred to as “infinite possibilities” for the four boys – and later we meet Valli’s daughter, whose purpose in the narrative is to die and give Valli something to be sad about. For a “documentary”, this musical doesn’t care much for interesting portraits of people at all, but especially not women.

Jersey Boys might be of interest if you remember the period or you really want to see the songs of The Four Seasons performed live – I cannot fault the musical performances. Or if you want to add it to a list of shows that have won Tony Awards for Best Musical that you have seen.