Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: First preview of new Mamet play The Anarchist on Broadway, with Patti LuPone

The Anarchist
First preview, 13 November 2012
Golden Theatre, New York

There is a lot of buzz surrounding The Anarchist. Famed Broadway playwright David Mamet not only directs but he directs Patti LuPone, with whom he has a colourful 30-year past. Despite the hype, there are no fireworks – neither good nor bad – in this production. Mindful that this is only the first preview, there are significant kinks for the team to iron out before opening.

The play deals with heavy yet pertinent philosophical debates. Serving a life sentence in prison, Cathy (LuPone) makes a final plea to unsympathetic warden Ann (Debra Winger) for why she is sufficiently rehabilitated, in what becomes an intellectual battle about the necessity of the state over anarchy. Mamet’s work offers an enlightening engagement with the complex topics that come with such territory, like justice, faith, control and kindness.

Despite the compelling subject matter, the production fails to fully articulate its substance. It takes a long time to warm up, which is in large part due to the wordiness and awkward formality of the script. Both traits are textbook Mamet, but dozens of audience members didn’t settle into the play and left before curtain – which was particularly concerning considering the show only ran for 70 minutes without interval.

There is a stagnant nature to Winger and LuPone's performances. Both are robotic in their delivery (Winger more so than LuPone) to the point that it looks like a line run. The lack of variation in tonality and flow could be a sign of more time needed to settle into their characters, but is also likely a reflection of Mamet's deliberate creation of two clinical, almost emotionless characters. 

As it currently stands, the pair generate a strange energy; Winger as the warden is calm and bland to LuPone’s fidgety but somewhat sedated portrayal of prisoner, Cathy. They are chalk and cheese, only without the spark that you would expect from such antipodean characters. Drama stems from the language, not the performance (and certainly not the banal set and lighting design). While this may work stylistically, it makes for an unremarkable physical performance.

The Anarchist didn't thrill but it did stimulate. LuPone and Winger's performances were there but underdone, and it will be interesting to see the show post-previews when both have had time to roost. The play itself is intriguing and makes for an odd but interesting contribution to the current Broadway season.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review - Broadway - Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson

Scandalous for all the wrong reasons
Sunday 11th November, 2012
Neil Simon Theatre, New York

Book and lyrics: Kathie Lee Gifford

Music: David Pomeranz and David Friedman
Director: David Armstrong
Choreography: Lorin Latarro

Carolee Carmello’s spirited performance as Aimee Semple McPherson in Scandalous is the only saving grace in what is otherwise a lackluster new musical.

Scandalous documents the life of early 20th Century evangelist Semple from her childhood to her mysterious kidnapping and ensuing public trial. Despite such promising subject matter, heaven couldn’t help this show, which spends too long preaching religious doctrines rather than examining the juicy details of the evangelist's controversial life. Villain or victim? Sinner or saint? The substance of the moral debate comes too little too late.
The religiosity of the show will distance many atheists and non-Christians. Bible bashing comes with the territory – a story about a preacher has to have preaching in it – but there is no creativity or imagination in the book or score. The show sounds like Oklahoma meets Wicked, with nothing original to offer. One of the big belty numbers “Why Can’t I” is more-or-less a regurgitation of “The Wizard and I.”  
The score’s only strength is that it gives Carmello a chance to show off her impressive vocals. Aimee Semple is a physically and vocally demanding role. Carmello leaves the stage so infrequently that cast members have to bring her a glass of water during transition scenes.
Staging (design by Walt Spanger) is one of the stronger points of the show, especially Semple’s versatile Angelus Temple set that transforms into ballrooms and houses. The show also churns through a great number of costumes (design by Gregory Poplyk); some for scenes that only last a few minutes. Particularly, a lot of effort is put into re-creating the elaborate Biblical sets Semple uses for her weekly sermons. From Adam and Eve to Moses and Samson and Delilah, the scenes are a visual spectacle, yet such colossal changes for so little stage time don’t add enough value to warrant the effort. If anything, they seem a shameless attempt to draw attention away from the boring book and score and add some life to the performance.
Funny moments with the stereotypical comedic black sidekick (played by a fierce Roz Ryan) make for the rare light touches in the story. Edward Watts as Semple’s first and (thanks to a wig change) third husband gives a solid performance. George Hearn as Semple’s father and later rival preacher, however, is a surprising disappointment. Hearn is so comfortable on stage that it felt like we were in his living room watching him perform. He lacked vocal projection and stage presence. Carmello as Semple, on the other hand, is stupendous. Her Semple is so lovable and warm that it’s hard to think ill of her even as she runs away with a married man.
A story about a woman surrounded by strong woman is fresh air in a male-dominated musical industry. Beyond gender politics, though, the strength of the story – and what gives the subject matter potential (even if it is unfulfilled in this production) – is the musical’s discourse about morality and justice. Here is a preacher who cares for people and gives their lives’ meaning but is a hypocrite by her own terms. Does such hypocrisy rule out all good? Justice is perverted and a guilty woman gets off free, but Semple couldn’t continue to help society’s needy from a jail cell. The show demonstrates that, ironically, there are no black and white truths; that what is right is not always clear-cut – despite the fervent doctrines Semple preached. This discussion, along with Carmello’s giving performance, are the only incentives to see Scandalous

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway

Peter and the Starcatcher

Sunday, 11 November 2012
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York

Peter and the Starcatcher
is to Peter Pan what Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz; it offers a compelling and imaginative precursor to a literary and theatrical classic. Better still, it stands its own against its older and more popular sibling.

When an orphan boy and his mates find themselves on board the S.S. Neverland, they cross paths with the crooked pirate Black Stache and a boisterous 14-year-old Molly on a secret mission
with her father from Queen Victoria. Through a series of cargo mix-ups, pirate plunders, and island wash-ups, Peter transforms into the Pan we know him to be. 

Peter and the Starcatcher
(adapted for the stage by Rick Elice - who recently brought us The Addams Family) is clever, witty and very funny. Scenes flow seamlessly under Roger Rees and Alex Timber’s direction, and the pliability and ingeniousness of the set (design by Donyale Werle) makes for an exciting adventure. Slapstick, witty and camp humour caters to all ages, and jokes hit their mark more often than not. The ensemble cast deliver solid, energetic performances, with Matthew Saldivar's Black Stache a stand-out.

There are few flaws in this show, which runs like a tight ship, but some jokes are too bizarre to land firmly, and the chummy boat songs scattered throughout the show seem out-of-place (and, for a second, had me thinking it was a book-heavy musical).

Peter and the Starcatcher
is a show for the entire family, and a production I foresee having a long life performed everywhere from school halls to regional theatres and mainstage venues.

For tickets, visit: www.peterandthestarcatcher.com

Saturday, October 27, 2012

An open letter to the 2013 Walkley Review Committee in advocacy of Arts journalism

I publicly post my submission to the 2013 Walkley review committee in the hope that others who agree with my sentiments will be inspired to compose their own submission. This is an important issue for supporters of the Arts in Australia. Let's have the value of Arts journalism reflected in our national journalism awards body.

To the 2013 Walkley review board,

I was a journalist at news.com.au for two years and now intern as a publicist for the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Sydney's south-west. I'm also a final year BA (media and communications) student at the University of Sydney.

My niche interest area is Arts journalism. At news.com.au, I covered events like the Helpmann Awards and wrote lengthy features about exciting movements within the industry (such as Australia as an upcoming destination for pre-Broadway and West End shows).

There are other arts journalists, like Elissa Blake, Karl Quinn, and Matthew Westwood, who unfailingly support the Arts through comprehensive and engaging journalism.

Without Arts journalism, the creative industries of Australia have a small voice and few platforms in which to voice their concerns and advertise their products. If certain companies do have a voice, it is because they are investing millions in marketing; a luxury some cannot afford. The trailblazers of our generation need audiences and exposure to have their effect on society; to challenge, enlighten, and entertain in innovative ways.

Arts journalism also fosters a community of art/theatre/dance/music-loving audiences. This community thrives on a sense of belonging and inclusiveness that is the fabric of a vibrant country. Broadway is Broadway because of the people and their supportive networks, not because of the rocks and mortar holding the place together. Arts journalism is a necessary supportive network for these artists and their audiences.

The Arts is necessary for society in the same way that we need clean air and green spaces. The Arts give people a way to express themselves; to communicate their greatest triumphs and most bitter downfalls with others who can relate to and learn from their humanity. There are also proven health, educational, economic and political benefits.

The list goes on, but, hopefully the value of the Arts and Arts journalism is becoming clear.

In light of this, then, it is saddening that there is no appreciation of the value of Arts journalism in the Walkley Awards. There are categories for business, international, investigative, Indigenous, sports, social equity, and opinion journalism. There are even awards for the best headline. But, no award for Arts journalism. Awards for travel and technology journalism are also absent, but, at least these niches have their own awards (The Lizzies for technology and ASTW for travel).

In 2013, it would be thrilling to see an award category for Arts journalism in the "All media" section. Hopefully this submission has played some part in justifying the need and value for such an award.

The Walkleys are a respected and widely-acknowledged system of praising good journalism. Let's make it a more inclusive national awards body by including an award for Arts journalism.

Kind regards,

Maryann Wright

Those who wish to make a submission to the Walkley Review Committee can do so here: http://www.walkleys.com/award-review-submissions. Submissions close on Friday December 7, 2012.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review: Bare Witness - reversing the gaze of war photojournalism

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (14 September 2012) presents a La Mama Theatre/Fortyfive downstairs's touring production.

Bare Witness
confronts, distresses and challenges perceptions of war journalists. We have all – to various degrees – seen the war in Iraq, the Balkans, and East Timor play out on our screens, radios and newspapers. But how often do we stop to think about the people providing such harrowing images, soundbites and quotes?

A short byline is all we get, and an edited snapshot of what a journalist sees. But, is the photo staged? Did the photographer manipulate the position of that lifeless body for dramatic effect? How did interviewing a mother grieving over her son’s lifeless body affect the journalist? Do they have nightmares?

Bare Witness
presents fictional yet plausible snippets of war journalists’ life. From the infrequent calls home to see how mother is doing to the fear of hiding in enemy territory while a shower of gunfire opens up outside, the play takes the audience on an at times literal and at other times abstract journey through the motions of war.

Some scenes (directed by Nadja Kostich) come across as too abstract to the point that meaning is lost, but, on the whole, contemporary movement combined with prose is an effective mode of storytelling. The Casula Powerhouse is a larger and more conventional theatre than the original staging in Melbourne’s 45 Downstairs, but the creative team make a good effort to preserve the rough and gritty nature of the play in its new venue.

With a strong cast (particularly Daniela Farinacci as Dannie) – albeit with some questionable accents – and a strong concept, Australian playwright Mari Lourey’s work makes for a valuable night at the theatre. Valuable because Bare Witness fulfills one of the most important roles of theatre: to make an audience think by taking them out of their comfort zone and challenging the way they understand and make meaning of the world.

Bare Witness
asks the important question: who bears witness to those journalists who bear witness to the victims of war? Journalists risk everything to tell the horrific stories of the disempowered who are used as political pawns by their governments, but who is telling the journalist’s stories?

As the show's symbolism suggests -
like wolves, journalists hunt in a pack searching for meaty news pieces to send home to their hungry audiences. Yet, if the pack prowl too close to enemy territory where the juiciest cuts are, they become the hunted. It’s our job as an audience to track those movements and bear witness to their successes, failures and sacrifices.

Bare Witness runs at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre from 14-15th September

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why 'I Will Survive' should survive

I Will Survive is getting a hammering from critics. Some reasons are valid but I also get a sense that there's a stifling of any real desire for originality within the talent show-slash-reality genre.

Daniel Burt for one is more than happy to bang on about the “confused” concept and the fall-through with the prize to perform on Broadway. Sure, men in drag doesn’t equate to a triple threat ready for the bright lights of Broadway and, sure, the boys won’t get to play Tick in Priscilla. I’ll also grant that the show’s structure focuses a little too much on un-related whimsy (like playing footy and going to firing ranges) and not enough on showing off the contestant’s talents.

But, what the show does offer is an acknowledgment of the musical theatre audience in Australia, and I think that is long overdue. Triple threat isn’t a word used much on talent shows. Sometimes “talent” doesn’t even come into play; a good sob story is worth its weight in airtime over someone who can hold a note for longer than two seconds. Shows search for the “x factor” and wind up with another Justin Bieber or Katy Perry. Musical theatre is different. It is home to triple threats who don’t want to be on the next cover of NW Magazine but want to slog their guts out singing, dancing and acting live on stage eight shows a week.
Talent shows in Australia are scattered with musical theatre performers. The likes of Jaz Flowers and Matt Heatherington from the first season of The Voice spring to mind. Yet if either had sung a song from a musical using their trained musical theatre technique, they would have been crucified. The musical-theatre-loving audience is almost completely ignored on commercial television. Why? God knows.
So I for one am happy to think that Kyle Sandilands would have his head in a bucket being sick at all the “musical theatre cheesiness”. I Will Survive celebrates diversity. It talks about and brings value to the idea of a triple threat, it showcases some talented Aussie blokes who otherwise never get their spot of commercial television, and it celebrates Australia’s best-known musical export – Priscilla.
Does the exact format of I Will Survive work? No. It is confused and does focus more on the fun of drag rather than the skills needed to be on Broadway. Is it a fun show to watch? Yes. There are loads of laugh-out-loud moments and the contestants are an interesting bunch.
I would love to see a talent show like BBC’s Any Dream Will Do! and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? that casts the next lead in a musical. That format would give a real perspective of the musical theatre industry. But, for now, I will certainly settle for I Will Survive, and applaud Channel Ten for giving this show a chance.
So to all the haters: get off the soapbox. If you want to play the ratings card, take a glimpse at what is rating higher than I Will Survive and have a quick think about how that show is contributing to greater diversity on Australian television. Do you really want to watch another reality show filled with models pretending to be “wife-material” or “geek-trainers” to get a leg up in their next audition?
I Will Survive is catering (albeit strangely) to a neglected theatre-loving audience. Let's support this strange child that is trying to do something different for once.
I Will Survive airs Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 7:30pm on Channel Ten.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fan fiction: the bastard child in the literary corner making leaps for diversity

FAN FICTION is to the literary world what Tasmania is to Australia. It’s a pocket ecosystem plonked just off the more frequented mainland, happy in its distance and difference but altogether separated by rough waters. Rough waters that have become more turbulent with the rampant success of textbook case of fan fiction – Fifty Shades of Grey.

Fan fiction is an endless cycle of storytelling where beloved characters can live forever in the imagination of its readers. Where violently loathed villains can get their just desserts, Bella can choose Jacob and have his devilishly attractive werewolf babies, and Elizabeth Bennet can be a kick-ass zombie fighter.

Taking a text—be it a film, book, comic, play, musical or television show—and playing with its world and characters to create new stories is part of a grand tradition dating back to the likes of Homer and the Iliad. Fast forward a few millenniums and we have Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a parallel narrative of Jane Eyre; Geraldine Brook’s March that tells the story of Little Woman from the point of view of an absent character; Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz; and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an alternative universe to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Popular culture is riddled with fan fiction; only it isn’t called fan fiction. To the mainstream, fan fiction is a dirty word interchangeable with soft porn and wannabe writers. From erotica about vampires, bodice-busting women, and men with washboard abdominals, to Romeo and Juliet soliloquies in broken iambic pentameter straight out of a Year Nine creative writing journal, the fan fiction community houses many of the sex-obsessed, semi-illiterates of this world.

Realistically, though, the bad and downright ugly in fan fiction get a disproportionate amount of attention. That is if fan fiction gets media attention at all—which it often doesn’t. It’s the bastard child in the corner no one in literary circles like to talk about. Unless the case in hand is Fifty Shades of Grey, which was originally Twilight fan fiction, and has now beaten J.K Rolling’s Harry Potter series to be the fastest-selling paperback of all time.

Love them or loathe them, fan fiction communities are on the rise thanks to the Internet. Fanfictiondotnet – one of the largest online fan fiction archives – holds over half a million Harry Potter stories and receives over six million hits per month. Australians make up a significant chunk of that traffic. A study of fanfictiondotnet users last year found Australia has the fourth-highest number of member accounts on the site, after the US, UK and Canada. Chances are your partner, sibling, children, friend or colleague reads fan fiction. They might even write it.

Whether they’ll tell you or not, though, is another matter entirely. It is common for authors to keep their fan fiction habits on the quiet. Dana Jenks, as she is known in the fan fiction community, is a high school music teacher and composer. Her students and colleagues don’t know that she writes fan fiction, and Dana is determined to keep it that way. Dana writes Phantom of the Opera stories to free up creative juices for her opera compositions, and finds fanfictiondotnet is a good testing-ground for her ideas. “I’m interested in learning what makes a story work musically and gaining insight into the minds of music-loving fans,” she says. “Fan fiction is a giant playground where it is fun to experiment without much risk.” It’s a private hobby that feeds into her public and professional life, but never the other way around.

Theatre stagehand, Caitlin Kenny, on the other hand, will happily tell anyone willing to listen about her love of River Song/Doctor fan fiction in the Doctor Who fandom and Sirius/Lupin pairings in the Harry Potter stories. Caitlin has battled in heated arguments on fan forums about why River – not Rose – is the Doctor’s true love. For Caitlin, reading and writing Doctor/River fan fiction is a legitimising, cathartic process for her own life choices. She says what makes a text appealing is the individual meaning and relevance people find in stories to their own lives. “[River] is beautiful, but she’s a size 12 and sexy, and the Doctor finds her attractive. I like that because it feels like my life is legitimised with my beautiful, English boyfriend,” she says. Just as writers of canonical texts insert their own values, romantic interests and personalities into their characters and plot scenarios, so too do fan fiction writers when re-crafting such stories.

It comes as no surprise, then, that fan fiction offers some of the most diverse insights into how readers make sense of themselves and the characters they interact with. Far from intellectual junk food, fan fiction academic at the University of Sydney Joseph Brennan argues that fan fiction is a useful anthropological object of study that reveals a lot about society and the way it makes meaning.

Joseph’s research focuses on slash fiction. That is, the “queering” of stories to reflect homosexual elements. In the slash community, Joseph says engagement becomes an exercise in asserting power and reclaiming a text to reflect the sexual diversity found in society. “When reading texts I look for gaps, and in those gaps I find problematic representations,” he says. The homophobic characterisation of Dean in Supernatural is a case point for Joseph. “Dean regularly cracks gay jokes on the show, but, by reclaiming Dean, [through slash fan fiction] readers can fix a lot of the negative stereotypes he projects,” he says. By allowing characters the happiness that is denied in the canon, writers and readers can share in a semblance of their happiness. “It’s quite personal,” he says.

Academically enlightening, personally fulfilling, and creatively gratifying, fan fiction fills a gap in many people’s lives. What makes Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead different from Jo Blo’s re-telling of Wuthering Heights through the eyes of Heathcliff can be whittled down to the quality of ideas and writing proficiency. This admittedly can be a deal breaker, but the action of the mind, of thinking beyond what readers are hand-fed, is the same. It’s human curiosity. In a word, it’s storytelling. The value lies in what you make of it. As fanfictiondotnet’s motto says, “unleash your imagination” and make of it what you will.

(NOTE that this is a re-working [and re-sizing] of an earlier fan fiction feature published on this blog).

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Review: Ragtime 2012 Regent's Park Open Air Theatre

Monday 28th May 2012
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London

is a special musical. Executed well, it's music (Stephen Flaherty) and message (book by Terrence McNally) about racial harmony stay with you long after the curtain. There was no curtain in Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (rather, a blackout in the park) but Ragtime still hit the spot, boosted by its courageous attempt at a post-modern setting. Having a canopy of stars twinkle above your head during the show didn't hurt, either.

Originally set in America at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the Open Air production takes place in a disturbingly present-day, decrepit pocket of New York City amidst what seems to be the rubble remains of a bombed building. When the audience take their seats, performers are lurking around its dusty remains. If it were not for their aggrieved and vacant expressions, the performers are indistinguishable from the audience by their modern dress. A large banner with US President Barack Obama’s face draws focus and suggests we are sitting in a post-post-Twin Towers era perhaps years into the future when “Yes We Can” Obama failed to “Change” America for the better.

From that moment onwards, the production plays with the notion of time and space as the cast transform from our contemporaries to our ancestors of decades past in period costume. The juxtaposition suggests the old adage that times have changed but things are very much the same. We may no longer live in a black/white segregated world but racial barriers and racial-driven hatred is still present in society. Discourse surrounding Muslims in the Western media spring to mind.

The irony is strongest during "Wheels of a Dream" where segregated black couple Coalhouse and Sarah dream up the unlimited possibilities for their infant son in this new America, the "land of possibilities". Coalhouse Junior could go to school, learn to read, become a musician, or even the President of the United States - who so happens to be their poster backdrop. The writing, literally, is on the wall. The American Dream is hypothetically within their reach but the reality of America's broken promises continually stifles their hopes as the couple are continually discriminated against, even in simple tasks like buying a car.

The cast were strong overall. Mother (Rosalie Craig) and Tateh (John Marquez) shone in their leading roles particularly with their moving rendition of "Our Children", a highlight of the show. Australian-born and newly London-based Tamsin Carroll is a standout as famous anarchist Emma Goldman, and Harry Hepple as Younger Brother has a divine voice. Katie Brayben’s scandalous Evelyn Nesbit is also a delight. Rolan Bell (Coalhouse Walker) and Claudia Kariuki (Sarah), however, pushed too hard. There were excited murmurs in the audience at the beginning of the heart-breaking “Your Daddy’s Son,” but Kariuki lacked the storytelling and vocal chops to convey Sarah's all-consuming grief. Bell came out all guns blazing but lacked dynamics in his choices. Amidst the letdown, Craig’s “Back to Before” was the show-stopper that the audience was waiting for.

Open Air's Ragtime offers a visual, emotional and sensory treat. If you have good weather, the setting is enchanting. Better still, the post-modern contextual setting is provocative and, like the best of theatre, challenges the audience to leave the theatre with an open mind and a kind heart.

Tickets at http://openairtheatre.com/production/ragtime-the-musical

Monday, March 26, 2012

Review: Sweeney Todd 2012 West End revival

Home again: Sooty London streets humming to the tune of Sondheim

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Thursday 21st March 2012
Adelphi Theatre, London

Sweeney Todd
has created a lot of buzz in London this season. The Sondheim favourite isn’t a stranger to West End audiences; it gets revised every four or so years. What has tongues wagging is the cast – lady of laughs Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovitt and aging romantic heartthrob Michael Ball as a middle-aged Anthony…eh, Sweeney Todd?

Staunton seamlessly moves between film and theatre, and Mrs Lovitt is no stretch for her talent. Her comedic timing is impeccable and she skillfully pushes the audience from hysterics in “By the Sea” to authentic fear when Lovitt's evil and twisted side is revealed. Ball is a less logical fit for the title role. After decades known to audiences for his trademark romantic hero roles, he makes an admirable transition to twisted barber. Heavy-set with an oily comb-over, he's almost unrecognisable if not for his unmistakable vibrato. Ball crafts a sufficiently creepy and sympathetic Sweeney and has great chemistry with Staunton, keeping tension taught in their strained but civil relationship.

James McConville gave a formidable performance as the agile and waif-like Tobias, winning the audience with his sweet rendition of “Not While I’m Around”. Luke Brady as Anthony lacked the effortless tenor vocal chops. The chorus were light on sopranos; a fuller top range would have given the “Ballad” reprises more depth to balance the baritones and basses, but some sympathy is deserved considering the ridiculously high soprano vocal score.

Sondheim’s music and lyrics are a witty and sensory delight; from the haunting operatic “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” to the shocking irony of Sweeney's contemplation of the “history of the world” through the frame of Lovitt’s pie shop (“those below serving those up above” and man literally devouring man), to the final grating plot twist that sees Todd so obsessed with revenge that he doesn’t notice his own wife.

The set is minimalist but clever. The invisible partitioning of the stage to represent each character's abode creates consistency and allows the audience to preempt disaster. However, the lever/trapdoor that rises from beneath the stage quickly loses its symbolism due to lazy scene transitions.

The 2012 West End revival of Sweeney Todd makes for a highly enjoyable night of theatre, not at the least because it is a rare opportunity to watch Sondheim's work on the main stage.

Tickets at http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk/Sweeney-Todd-tickets/artist/804360

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review: Ghost - the musical without a skeleton

Ghost: The Musical
Wednesday 7th March 2012
Piccadilly Theatre, London

My expectations for Ghost, the musical after watching a tear-jerking performance of “With You” at a charity concert were high. The song’s subtle meaning and fragile delivery took me to that vulnerable place where I began contemplating the mortality of my loved-ones. Sadly, one good song and some impressive illusions are about as good as it gets.

The greatest disappointment and most easily fixed problem is the casting of the leads. Soul mates Sam and Molly are demanding characters with constant emotionally charged scenes but Mark Evans and Siobhan Dillon didn’t have the acting chops. Rather than evoking sadness and anger, what eventuated was whiny at times, overly dramatic at others, and more frequently disconnected from emotion altogether.

It didn’t help that the actors had a poor libretto (book by Bruce Joel Rubin, music by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard) to work with. The first few scenes before Sam’s death were meant to set up his loving relationship with Molly, but the overriding picture was that of a cocky artist with the personality of a goldfish. Their interaction was limited to arguing about a Princess Leia poster, Sam’s inability to say the “L word” and copious amounts of make-out sessions. As a result, there was almost no sense of loss at his death and the rest of the show fought an up-hill battle to make the audience feel emotionally invested in the story.

The score is mostly repetitive, with melodies that go nowhere. The climax of most songs are signaled by the loudness of the orchestra rather than complex tonal progressions and rhythms. Particularly disappointing was “I Had a Life,” which had potential to be an electric shock to the audience as they discover the true reasons behind Sam’s death and instead consists of angry repetition of the phrase “I Had a Life” to an anti-climatically stagnant melody.

Oda Mae Brown (Sharon D Clarke) had the best material to work with, and she delivered it well. She carried all the lightness of the show on her shoulders and her comic timing was very good.

Illusions (Paul Kieve) are the highlight of the show. The revenge scene in the second act gives off a very Matilda-esque vibe and the use of highly advanced tricks to make objects move on their own accord is exciting to watch. The subway scene where commuters and their belongings are thrown around the carriage by the Subway ghost was unique and impressive.

The illusions are aided by a fantastic set and lighting design, and good direction by Matthew Warchus. The ensemble had little to do, but the transition scenes where they walked and danced in front of tall, vibrant projections was an effective way to unobtrusively move large set pieces.

If Ghost is a box office success it is not because the show is good but because it is commercially viable. People having loved the film will want to relive the story onstage. And they’ll get to. But Ghost is a show without a skeleton. On the outside it looks the same as the classic film, but on the inside it lacks the necessary structure to support its own weight. With a more complex plot, a libretto that showed love, grief and hope through melodies and actions rather than cliché words, stronger lead actors, and a more diverse and layered score, the show may have potential to be popular for its own merit rather than simply because it is adapted from a famous movie.

is yet another example of why commercial musicals are doing nothing for the creative energy of theatre on the West End. The West End is crying out for an original story and an inspired score. Matilda is enough to placate for now (and it is truly fantastic), but when a revival of Sweeney Todd (a 30-year-old musical) is one of the few exciting recent developments hitting the main theatre circuit, there is cause for concern.

Tickets at http://www.ghostthemusical.com/

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Review: Matilda, the musical (West End)

Matilda, the musical 
Music and lyrics Tim Minchin, book by Dennis Kelly 
Wednesday 11th January 2012, 2:30pm 
Cambridge Theatre, London

Musicals don’t get much better than Matilda. The show has adults and children clapping, crying, gasping and jumping of fright in unison from start to finish.

Tim Minchin (music and lyrics) is a wordsmith, and his work resembles the sharp wit and tinkering tunes of Stephen Sondheim, together with a unique Minchin sense of fun and childlike humour.

Minchin cleverly navigates the original Roald Dahl novel while creating minimal resemblance to the film. The most jarring differences make for the most fun. Frightening schoolmistress Miss Trunchbull played by a camp, fierce but altogether male Bertie Carvel is a quirky change that breeds one hilarious moment after another.

Tricks and special effects are original and impressive, as is the complex but uncluttered set design. From swings that fly above the audience to towers of books that spell words, and chalk that hovers mid-air, no penny or strike of artistry has been spared. The overall effect generates a child-like wonder combined with a fantasy dream-world of bold colours and magical things.

The show is impeccably cast, particularly the girls who play Matilda. Matilda is a demanding role regardless of age, and Cleo Demetriou - a little dynamite of confidence and ability - blitzed through the show without flaw. I was in tears by curtain call to see such a talented little girl dwarfed by the adult cast standing centrestage taking her well-earned bows.

The messages and themes of Matilda are inter generational. As a child, I saw the story through the eyes of Matilda – a girl who is nurtured by a teacher who understands, protects, and challenges her. Revisiting the story ten years later, I didn’t anticipate how much I would identify with Miss Honey and connect with her loss and sense of completion through Matilda. The show reminds us that, like Miss Honey, we bring our childhood with us through life – both the good and the bad parts.

Matilda is a complete package, perhaps not filled with Phantom-esque show-stopping songs, but with a robust, cohesive creative vision. The music, book, set, costume, cast, direction and sound design compliment and enhance each other almost to perfection. I expect Matilda to sweep the upcoming awards season and successfully tour around the world. Plus, a very warm welcome from the musical theatre community to Tim Minchin. I only hope he stays and continues to write good musicals – there is definitely room for them.