Sunday, 27 June 2010

Fame the Musical ***

Fame the Musical
Conceived by David De Silva, Book by Jose Fernandez, Lyrics by Jacques Levy, Music by Steve Margoshes
 Regent Theatre, Melbourne, from April 2, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Fame the Musical relies heavily on the success of the 80s movie and its title song, Fame, to attract an audience. Although it is a musical, its feature is the impassioned and high-energy dancing. The vibrant cast of young dancers seem to be pumped on hormones and caffeine. The scent of adolescent testosterone is in the air.

The songs are forgettable, with cheesy lyrics and uninspiring tunes – apart from Fame itself, which appears early in the show in an abbreviated version, then in its full form as a rousing curtain call finale. Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore wrote a spectacularly successful and memorable tune in Fame.

The problem is that Pitchford and Gore wrote none of the other songs. What happened to the original soundtrack songs: Hot Lunch, Out Here On My Own, Red Light, Never Alone? A fight over the rights?

Some tunes are saved by a couple of compelling voices. Let’s Play a Love Scene becomes a charming duet between Chris Durling, as earnest acting student, Nick, and Catherine Shepherd as his daggy, lovelorn admirer, Serena.

A flash of Fame magic appears when Jaz Flowers, as Mabel the over-eating, lusciously fleshy dance student, belts out Mabel’s Prayer with her powerful voice and vocal acrobatics. The crowd cheered, proving Flowers is a talent to watch. Rowena Vilar is a spunky performer playing Carmen, the parallel to the role of Coco made famous by Irene Cara while Darlene Love, playing Mrs. Sherman, has a thrilling voice.

The casting for this production appears to be linked with that well-known TV dance competition. Finalist, Timomatic, is a muscular and charismatic Tyrone, the illiterate hip-hop dancer, and 2009 winner, Talia Fowler, as Iris, bringing some lyrical, classical ballet moves.

Kelley Abbey’s choreography is certainly a feature. The entire company dancing the Argentine Tango is a vivid, sensual treat and you could power the city with the energy of the sassy dance routine in Hard Work.
The Fame finale is a highlight, with memorable dancing on the roof of a New York cab – pity it doesn’t appear until the final 3 minutes of the show.

Fame the Musical is let down by clumsy narrative and plotting, some lame dialogue and the loss of the award-winning, original soundtrack. But it is certainly a montage of great dance routines with a few musical high points, thanks to the band and a few good singers.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Starting Here, Starting Now ****

Starting Here, Starting Now
Music by David Shire, Lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., by Manila Street Productions
Black Box, Arts Centre, June 24 to July 4, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Starting Here, Starting Now is a delicious musical revue written by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr. in 1976. In this updated production, West End director, Andrew MacBean, casts four, versatile, Australian performers (Anita Louise Combe, Martin Crewes, Simon Gleeson, Christie Whelan).

All four boast impressive credentials on both London and Australia musical theatre stages.

The staging is deceptively simple, with four old theatre chairs, a couple of stools, a red velvet drape as a backdrop and, lurking at stage left, a grand piano played by musical director, Simon Holt.

The 26 songs – both group and solo numbers – are threaded together into an intelligent, comical and often poignant commentary about modern relationships. MacBean’s direction is seamless and clever and the four voices blend immaculately in harmonies. Each of Maltby and Shire’s songs has its own unfolding narrative, a dynamic range, and an emotional urgency that create a dramatic arc within each song.

Combe’s voice is expressive and impressive, shifting with ease from pure, classical tones to raunchier styles and transforming from sweetness to sadness or quirkiness. Whelan is a striking presence with a bright, musical theatre vocal quality and a capacity for sassy, cheeky characters. Gleeson has charm, warm vocal tones and a grin that lights up the stage. Crewe has a strong voice and presence, sells a song beautifully and dances with pizzazz.

The songs deal with lovers who range from desperate (I’m A Little Bit Off), to romantic (Just Across the River), lonely (Watching the Parade Go By), angry (I Don’t Remember Christmas) and cheerful (Pleased With Myself). This show is a rocket with catchy tunes, smart lyrics, exciting performances and slick direction.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Calendar Girls ***

Calendar Girls 
By Tim Firth
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, from June 23, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Wherever six women of a certain age are gathered they shall produce a nude calendar. Well, I made that rule up, but it describes quite effectively the story of Calendar Girls, Tim Firth’s stage play based on his film (starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters) that was, in turn, based on a true story.

 In 1999, 11 women from the Yorkshire village of Cracoe, members of the Women’s Institute, bared all on the pages of the annual W.I. calendar to make money for Leukaemia research. The catalyst for this charitable and risqué plan was the death from lymphoma of the husband of one of their community. Their calendar made 2 million quid – so get naked for charity, ladies!

The Australian production features a casting couch of women over 50 – some further over 50 than others. Amanda Muggleton is bold and brassy as Chris, the village show-off who always craved being the centre of attention. Anna Lee plays the grieving widow, Annie, Lorraine Bayly is the perky, retired schoolteacher, Jessie, and Rachel Berger plays single mum and church organist, Cora. Rhonda Burchmore is the fit and sassy Celia, the trophy wife of a local golfer and Jean Kittson is the mousey, goody-two-shoes, Ruth.

Kittson’s hilarious characterisation of Ruth is the comic highlight. She creates a classic, low status clown with her gangling, awkward gait and madcap slapstick, combining it with poignant vulnerability.

This show ain’t art; the gags are predictable, the set is pure, village drama society, the dialogue is schmaltzy, the narrative sentimental, accents patchy and the direction (Psyche Stott) clumsy and unimaginative.

But this show touches its target audience; it is identification theatre. The house was packed with older women who tittered at cheeky gags then roared and squealed when the cast got their kit off for the calendar photos, their womanly parts skilfully obscured by iced buns, teapots and mandarins.

The moving, true story behind the play is ever-present. We enjoy the show despite its artistic failings and, in some ways, because of them. It reminds us of daggy country fetes, lamington drives, and the indomitable spirit of women who band together to help neighbours in times of need. And it’s really fun watching these women toss their dressing gowns off to flash a bit of thigh and bosom.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Candy Man ***

Candy Man 
By Wayne Scott Kermond, presented by Kermond Creative
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre,  June 17 to 27, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Candy Man is an homage to Sammy Davis Jr. and, more specifically, to song and dance men. Wayne Scott Kermond has the credentials as both a hoofer and singer and he grew up in a travelling music theatre family, performing in Gypsy at the age of 11. He was also the guy who did a Donald O’Connor by running up the wall in Singin’ in the Rain.

By creating this show with his wife and director, Katie Kermond, he is fulfilling a dream. His passion for both the material and his sense of achievement almost overwhelmed him on this opening night when tears filled his eyes.

Kermond does not attempt to impersonate Sammy Davis Jr. Although both have show biz families, sing, dance, are vertically challenged and funny, Kermond notes wryly that he is not black, one-eyed or Jewish. Kermond’s singing voice is less distinctive but he is compelling when belting out passionate numbers such as Birth of the Blues and Sing Sing Sing.

The production really starts to fly during Rockabye. Kermond peppers it with funny impersonations of Bogart, Rocky Balboa and Brando doing versions of the song.

Kermond is backed by an exceptionally tight, show band, with plenty of brass, under the musical direction of drummer, Jamie Castrisos. Although Kermond sings most songs alone, five versatile dancers join him on stage in snappy choreography that echoes the movies of Gene Kelly, vaudeville toe-tappers and music theatre. He also uses his acrobatic, clown skills in a slapstick routine for Make-em Laugh.

Kermond links songs with slightly cheesy patter describing Sammy Davis’s chequered life and career. The Las Vegas medley recalls Davis’s floor shows with favourites including Old Black Magic, and Lady is a Tramp, complete with showgirls dressed in little but feathers.

The glossy show tunes are balanced by warm, emotional ballads including Hey There and What Kind of Fool Am I. A volunteer dances with Kermond during Singin’ In The Rain and an enormous troupe of children appears on stage for a rousing version of Gonna Build a Mountain, with the entire audience joining in the chorus of Halleluiahs.

Kermond’s confidence and delight in the show accelerate over the evening and we are all hooked by his warmth and charm by the end.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Hymne A’ Piaf (Hymn to Piaf) by Caroline Nin ****1/2

Hymne A’ Piaf (Hymn to Piaf) 
By Caroline Nin
Melbourne Recital Centre, June 2 to 5, 2010
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ****1/2

French chanteuse, Caroline Nin, is captivating. In her cabaret show, Hymn to Piaf, she reinvents, in her own thrilling style, a programme of 13 moving songs that characterised “the little sparrow”, Edith Piaf. It is a loving tribute to Piaf, not an impersonation.

Almost magically at the start, the tall, elegant Nin materialises from dim light, speaking the English lyrics of Les Mots D’Amour, before singing it in French. With her chiselled features and fair hair, skilful storytelling and rich, smoky, vocal tones, she charms and seduces us with song after song. It is a carefully crafted programme with emotional and dynamic range.

In carefully articulated, slightly accented English, she introduces each song with the tale of the song to follow. She prowls the stage or perches on a stool, tantalising us with her sensuality and inviting us to share stories of the murky Parisian underworld known to Piaf in her disreputable past.

She alternates between earthy and ethereal, leaning toward us like a whispering lover, planting her long legs, gesturing with graceful arms, and capturing us with her expressive, slightly sad gaze. A silvery glitter beneath her eye glints like a tear when she lifts her head to the light.

The singing style shifts from the nasal tones of Piaf to complex jazz notes, intimate ballads and impassioned lamentations. Jonathan Schwartz (double bass) and Tom O’Halloran (piano) provide masterly, heartfelt accompaniment.

Mon Vieux Lucien (My Old Lucien) she sings as a cheeky, Parisian pickpocket, who visits his old boss, Lucien. La Foule (The Crowd) is passionate and expressive while Mon Dieu (My Lord), a dark lament, is carefully underplayed. Faut Pas Qu’il Se Figure is a haunting song about a haunted girl waiting for her cheating lover.  Nin sings La Vie En Rose – one of Piaf’s signature tunes – simply and compellingly in a jazz style.

L’Accordeoniste and Milord are homages to “les filles de joie” (the girls of joy), a pretty French way to describe prostitutes. Nin sings with both pain and wild abandonment, “I’m only a girl of the harbour, in the shadow of the street.” She finishes with a deliciously fervent rendition of Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regrets) and an encore of Padam, in which she insists we sing along.

Caroline Nin is luminous, spirited, unpredictable and warm. This is a night to remember.

By Kate Herbert