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.