Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Billy Elliot, Dec 31, 2008 ****1/2

 Billy Elliot 
Book and lyrics by Lee Hall, music by Elton John
 Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, from Dec 31, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars:  ****1/2

Billy Elliot is a rare, inspirational musical with a powerful narrative that triggers laughter and tears. (Take tissues.) It weaves the gritty and achingly sad story of the Northern England Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 with the joyful tale of Billy, a miner’s son who wants to be a ballet dancer. 

The contrast between ballet and mining is stark but the message is clear: fight for what you want and you might change your future.

Lee Hall’s book, based on his screenplay, captures the dignity, courage and foolishness of the miners’ resistance, the violence of the police and the bloody-mindedness of Maggie Thatcher. Against this tough struggle for survival, Hall sets the playful world of the ballet class and the creative ambition of 12-year old Billy.

Elton John’s music captures the vitality and humour of Northern England. He sets Hall’s potent lyrics to styles including anthems, marches, folk ballads, boogie-woogie, jazz and more. The show begins with the rousing workers’ anthem, The Stars Look Down, a revolutionary song that expresses the pain and commitment of workers.

Hall and John continue the revolution with Solidarity, a confrontation between police and miners. The visionary director, Stephen Daldry, with choreographer, Peter Darling, overlays this pitched battle with the Billy’s hilariously chaotic ballet classes. The show’s style cunningly incorporates slapstick, British workers’ theatre, silent movies and more. One wacky scene even features giant dancing frocks.

But the show is nothing without Billy, played on the New Year’s Eve opening night by Dayton Tavares (OK) although five boys share the role. Dayton had the crowd standing and shouting. His dance technique is exceptional and he can sing and act too! Electricity, Billy’s halting but poetic attempt to describe how it feels to dance, wrenches the heart and there is not a dry eye during Dear Billy with his dead mother (Samantha Morley). When he flies above the stage the crowd is mesmerised.

Richard Piper is both funny and moving as Billy’s dad, the simple miner trying to hold his family together during the strike. Mike Smith is impassioned and engaging as his older son and Lola Nixon is deliciously wicked as Grandma. Genevieve Lemon is tough but lovable as the brassy, ciggy-smoking ballet teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson and John Xintavelonis (OK) is hilarious as her pianist, Mr. Braithwaite.

The chorus of adult dancer-singers is exceptional, the ballet class girls are cute and comical but several scenes are stolen by the cheeky, captivating Thomas Doherty as Billy’s nearly gay friend Michael.

Billy Elliot pushes all the right buttons and is a show that you could happily see again and again.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 19 December 2008

Theatre & Musicals Wrap Up 2008, Dec 19, 2008

Theatre & Musicals Wrap Up 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Published in Herald Sun, Melbourne

You can keep your lavish spectacles. My 2008 exceptional theatrical experiences were intimate and low budget. Tim Crouch’s compelling two-hander, an oak tree, unmasked the evolution of a performance. We witnessed the breathless moment of creation, an artists’ mind in a whirl, when an actor who had never seen the script performed with Crouch. His second play, England, had a similar visceral and emotional intimacy.

Holiday, by Ranters, was an eccentric, voyeuristic piece in which two men, unwitting specimens in an over-sized display cabinet, chatted casually and randomly about memories and hopes. I was moved by the simplicity of Jackie Jackie In the Box, a disturbing installation (Ilbijerri Theatre) displaying aboriginal “living specimens” inside glass display cases. Haneef: An Interrogation, challenged political and ethical views by incorporating verbatim extracts from Haneef’s police interrogation.

Several thrilling solos epitomised the art of the performer. Charlie Ross’s exhilarating One Man Star Wars was a condensed version of the trilogy in one astonishing hour of action, vocal acrobatics and aliens. Anne Browning in The China Incident depicted a galloping corporate workplace disaster of international proportions while Rod Quantock gets my vote for political comedian.

Anything by the inimitable Sisters Grimm wins the insanely funny award. Some Girl/s, Neil LaBute’s whip-smart, acerbic play, was superbly directed by Sean Collins while Joanna Murray-Smith’s Ninety (MTC) also had wit and vivacity in a two-hander. The MTC and Malthouse produced interesting, varied programs – but so they should with all that money to spend.

2008 saw the reinvention of the Australian Musical. Keating was a scathing political satire and a dazzlingly clever musical evocation of Keating’s rise to power. Shane Warne The Musical contained less barbed satire, but Eddie Perfect was magnetic as Warney.  The satirical vignettes and songs in Beware of the Dogma were hilarious.

We cannot ignore the visually spectacular Wicked and its two remarkable leads. Lucy Durack, with her warm bright voice, played the annoyingly perky Galinda and the rich-voiced Amanda Harrison was the awkward and rebellious Elphaba.

There were the inevitable low points this year. Joelene Anderson was out of her depth in Lloyd Webber’s solo musical, Tell Me on A Sunday, and Shaun Micallef was sadly miscast in Boeing Boeing, although his three air hostess lovers were delectable.

Hedda Gabler could gladly have shot herself earlier in PMD’s production and One Cloud, a new play supported by Theatreworks Initiative, was inexpressibly slow and painful to watch. Kit Lazaroo’s Asylum was a confused piece about a Chinese refugee.

And now we anticipate a whole new chocolate box of theatrical goodies in 2009. Yum!

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Is There Life After High School? Dec 17, 2008 ***

 Is There Life After High School?
Book by Jeffrey Kindley, Music & Lyrics by Craig Carnelia, by Stella Entertainment
Chapel off Chapel, until 23, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Dec 17, 2008

In a peculiar collision of events, Is There Life After High School? coincided with my nostalgic revisiting of childhood photos. I was primed for a musical about the high school years.

Jeffrey Kindley and Craig Carnelia wrote a show with specific relevance to American schools recognisable from US teen movies. Strangely, although the characters, songs and stories are really entertaining and the cast strong, the American characters’ recollections are totally alien to my school experience.

The opening chorus of The Kid Inside sets the tone of the musical. The show was written for nine adults ten years after graduation who reinhabit their younger selves, shifting from adult self to the past, vulnerable, teenage self. Directors Paul Watson and Peter Fitzpatrick double cast each role with a teenager playing the character at school age.

This device provides experience for the younger cast and doubles the voices to give a rich, full chorus. There are interesting moments when older selves talk to or observe younger selves. The small stage, however, feels crowded with 18 actors.

The show combines songs and vignettes. It is not a linear narrative following the lives of individuals but a montage of character types and stories. Actors play a variety of characters defined by accents and attitude. We meet the cheer-leader, football star, geek, outsider, radical, lonely guy, chubby boy, the pretty girl and others.

The over-riding feeling is of nostalgia in these bitter-sweet reminiscences. These adults have regrets and suffer a sense of loss for various reasons. The sing about The Things I Learned in High School and Second Thoughts. The Diary of a Homecoming Queen depicts regrets about losing popularity.  Fran and Janie is a beautiful duet between two friends  (Natasha Bassett, Lizzie Matjacic OK) who lost contact after school.

But most of the stories are about failures and vulnerabilities at high school. They regret never confronting the abusive football coach or teacher, never asking out the pretty girl, being cast in the lead of a show, winning a playground fight or being the chubby, victimised kid.

But all remember the craving for acceptance and the abiding sense of competition. And all believe that their adult lives are simply High School All Over Again. They never escape that vulnerable kid inside.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Short and Sweet 2008, Dec 11, 2008 ***1/2

Short and Sweet 2008 
Week Two
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, until Dec 20
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

If you don’t like one play at the Short and Sweet short play festival, wait 10 minutes and you get a completely new one. The program in Week Two of the Festival comprises performances by 10 Independent Theatre Ensembles. (Weeks 1 and 3 are individual playwrights).

Only one of the ensembles credits a playwright. The rest, presumably, were devised by performers with a director. This form of creative development of a theatrical product produces a smorgasbord of styles and content and the high level of collaboration and commitment is evident. All 10 pieces are rich in character, inventive in style and form, tightly directed and skilfully performed. What is noticeable in most is a non-linear structure and reliance on physical rather than text-based performance.

Several themes are apparent in the plays. Death and illness provide content for four. Tea For Two, one of the two strongest works, is a clever acrobatic narrative in which two men deal with a dead woman. Bodybag is a dialogue-based duet about the suicide of a celebrity while Tinsel Town is an amusing Gothic horror satire. Finding Your Place portrays a writer who suffers dementia, trying to hold memories of characters she wrote.

Other pieces deal with relationships. With their inimitable stylised movement with music, Born In A Taxi present my other favourite, the charming and playful 6 Hours Later. Last Drinks experiments with repetition and deconstruction of a scene at a club and Match sees a couple communicating through little creatures made from modelling clay. Morbid Porn is a wild and sexy ride with a woman seducing a tiny puppet.

 Fractured fairy tales provide content for After the Tower – a comical dance-based piece about Rapunzel’s conjoined twin daughters – and Grimm that features seven quirky clowns re-telling the story of Snow White.

This program has a rich variety of work, some fine individual performances but the pieces that excel are 6 Hours Late and Tea For Two.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Shane Warne: The Musical, Dec 10, 2008 ****

Shane Warne: The Musical
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect
Athenaum Theatre, from Dec 10
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Even if you were never hypnotised by Shane Warne’s spin bowling you’ll be dazzled by the charismatic Eddie Perfect. Perfect is a bright light that draws the eye at every turn. In Playboy Bunny jocks or cricket whites, he is a vivid presence in Shane Warne: The Musical, directed by Neil Armfield.

Perfect plays the lead and wrote the lyrics and music. He must be as tired as a spin bowler after a five-day test match.

“Everyone’s a little bit like Shane”, sings Perfect with the outstanding chorus of eight. In this show, Perfect somehow redeems Shane, the naughty boy we loved to hate. Warne is an ordinary bloke with an extraordinary skill. Perfect’s cunningly wrought songs are mostly gently satirical observations about Warney’s personal foibles and outrageous failures. His life is “the soap opera that keeps giving.”

But Perfect’s incisive insight triggers sympathy and empathy with the young cricketer who made such public mistakes. It’s revisionist Warney history; he whom we loved to loath is adored again.

The show opens with Perfect, as Warne, chatting charmingly and disarmingly. The evening begins slowly with too much chatter and too many similar songs about Warne’s undramatic early days and the staging feels a little cramped. But by interval it has an energy injection and the second half goes like a rocket with impeccable support from the chorus and the impressive on-stage band.

Perfect writes hilarious lyrics with crafty rhymes in songs such as the upbeat, rousing Hollywood about heroes standing their ground. It compares Warne with Ned Kelly and the Anzacs. That Ball relives with reverence Warne’s magical “ball of the century”; his memorable first ball in England that dismissed the England Captain.

Perfect/Warne shirt-fronts the world with brazen bullishness in They’re Paying Attention Now and, with the chorus of men, reminds us of Australia’s notorious on-field sledging, in We Never Cross The Line.

What an SMS I’m In is a witty view of Warne’s humiliating sexy phone messages. My Name Is John is a funny Bollywood style number about the Indian bookie scandal and The Away Game is a Barry White-style sexy number with slinky dancers.

But the tone changes with two poignant, sensitive songs about Warne’s marriage. Rosemarie Harris is sensational as Simone singing, Is The Sun The Moon?, a moving song about this simple girl who can’t understand her boofhead husband. I’m Coming Home is a passionate, sad love duet between Harris and Perfect.

It all ended on a high and the crowd rose as one chanting, “Warney! Warney!” When the man himself appeared. I joined them – and I’m not even a cricket fan.

By Kate Herbert

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Santaland Diaries, Dec 5, 2008 ***1/2

The Santaland Diaries
By David Sedaris
Auspicious Arts Incubator, until Dec 24
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

David Sedaris is an American essayist whose sardonic, social observational humour is enormously successful and achingly funny. 

The Santaland Diaries, about Sedaris’s humiliating season working as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s New York, rocketed him to success when first broadcast on public radio in 1992. The stage adaptation by Joe Mantello is a Christmas institution in the UK and USA.

Picture this: a grown man in a green Christmas elf suit including pantaloons, curly-toed slippers and a huge hat with a bell. Russell Fletcher plays Crumpet (The thinking woman’s Crumpet?) the Elf and he has the audience howling with laughter for an hour.

The show begins with Sedaris’s wry self-deprecating humour as he describes being a hopeful writer newly arrived in the Big Apple hoping to meet his favourite soap opera stars. When, shame-faced and poverty-stricken, he answers the “Be a Christmas Elf” job ad, he undergoes an absurd interview process rigorous enough for a Managing Director.

Anyone who has ever taken a child to visit Santa knows the horrors of queuing for hours, dealing with hysterical children and overwrought parents. Sedaris captures the nightmare that is Christmas for both elves and families and Fletcher inventively recreates the entire fake-snow-filled retail world.

Fletcher, directed by John Paul Fischbach, (OK) peoples the stage with characters. As the shopping days count down to Christmas, we experience Elf training school at Macy’s where the dysfunctional meet the aspirational. There is Snowball, the sweet-faced boy elf that shamelessly flirts with the Santas and elves. There is the dad who lugs tons of video equipment to get the perfect pictorial record of the Santa visit. There are racist, white trash parents, black parents who think the “Santa of colour” is not black enough and the angry and out of control parents.

Fletcher portrays the parade of Santas who do shifts inside Santa’s Shack in Santaland. There is sleazy Santa who hits on young mums; speedy, efficient Santa who rushes kids on and off his knee; irrelevant, bored and funny Santas. But it is the final Santa that brings true Christmas cheer to his visitors and captures Crumpet’s heart – and ours.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Careless , Dec 3, 2008 **

By Russell Rigby, by La Mama
Where and When: Carlton Courthouse, until Dec 20
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Careless dips into the world of a barrister whose legal and personal life is falling apart. Paul (Adam May) is married to Linda (Carolyn Bock). She is having an affair with Paul’s barrister friend, Richard (Paul Dawber) whose star is rising fast when he appointed a County Court judge. Everything gets more complicated by a gambling industry crim (Silas James) and an ex-stripper (Deborah Tabone).

The narrative is rather convoluted and some crucial action occurs in off-stage moments as time passes in Paul’s messy world. Russell Rigby, himself a barrister, writes some funny dialogue about lawyers and crims as well as some situational comedy. The script structure is not cohesive and the dialogue needs a rigorous edit to take out the repetition and needless diversions. Rigby’s characters are not yet three-dimensional. They seem to play one note throughout and none, not even the cuckolded Paul, has our sympathy.

Carolyn Bock finds some truth and passion in Linda and Adam May plays the sappy Paul credibly. The rest of the acting is uneven. The pace of John Higginson’s production is slow and it is not helped by the numerous, long blackouts during scene changes. A totally black set design perhaps has a metaphorical intention but a stronger design might give the play more flexibility.

Rigby has a play struggling to emerge here but Careless needs dramaturgical work to turn it into a butterfly.

By Kate Herbert