Tuesday, 17 September 2019

A Day In The Life - Cabaret Review

What: A Day In The Life
When: 27 - 29 September 2019
Where: Wonderland Spiegeltent, The Paddock - Federation Square
Written by: Bridget a’Beckett and Julia Davis
Performed by: Bridget a’Beckett , Julia Davis, and Sharni Page
Choreography by: Jessica Enes
Costumes by: Kim Simon
Sharni Page, Bridget A'Beckett, and Julia Davis
Melbourne Fringe Festival is not just about grown ups. There is a lot of stuff out there for the little ones and Wonderland Speigeltent (behind ArtPlay at Federation Square) is bringing a whole program of fun including the Musical Sprouts show A Day In The Life.

Yella (A'Beckett), Blueno (Davis), and Reddy (Page) sing their way through some of life's greatest challenges such as brushing your teeth, cleaning your bedroom, and going to the toilet. With the help of the other kids in the audience, Yella learns these life skills and along they way they teach the children some basic music knowledge.

Musical Sprouts are committed to creating theatre for children with really high music performance values. They are amazing singers and musicians with classical training and throughout their songs they create glorious harmonies which literally brought beatific smiles to the faces of the very young ones in the audience at the preview. Not just visiting the world of canto bello, the trio take the audience through a brief tour of jazz, rock and pop and a little bit of looping for some percussive fun.

Some parts of the show are more successful than others. The toilet training sequence doesn't really work because Yella leaves the stage to do it. Having said that the 'Toothbrush Tappy' song really does get the feet tapping and the kids can get up on stage to help Yella learn how to brush her teeth and the feminist anthem 'I Can Do That' is rousing.

The costumes are colourful and I loved the flower set piece at the back. A'Beckett is cute and energetic as Yella and Davis is suitably mature and a bit grumpy as Blueno. My one suggestion would be that Page needs to find a bit more character definition within this trio.

A Day In The Life is fun and beautiful and has that rare quality of being for the really, really little kids - the toddlers rather than the preschoolers. They really do appreciate the music and the performers are gentle and caring with their rambunctious audience. Because it is behind Art Play, the kids can go and play after (or before) the show too!

3 Stars

Monday, 16 September 2019

Let MEOWT! - Theatre Review

What: Let MEOWT!
When: 12 - 17 September 2019
Where: Rattlesnake Saloon
Created and performed by: Catherine Holder and Laura Moran
Catherine Holder and Laura Moran
There is a crazy Fringe venue on downtown Lygon Street called the Rattlesnake Saloon which is straight out of a Spaghetti Western, and in the dance hall room at the the back is a secret stash of Melbourne Fringe performances taking place. The one I saw last night was the cute and funny Let MEOWT!

I have been a fan of Holder's work for a while. Experiences she has created, such as Sonder and Blood Is Thicker Than Hummus, are clever, interactive and enriching. Let MEOWT! sees Holder creating a more traditional fourth wall type of show with Moran - although it is fair to say this is still not what anyone would call 'standard'.

Holder and Moran play two cats - Cinnamon and Pepper respectively. Born from the same litter and growing up with the same human slave (who they call Mother) Cinnamon is the runt and the very self important Pepper spends every moment of her life making sure she knows it.

Cinnamon is fun-loving, curious, and perhaps not the brightest bulb in the Christmas tree. Pepper, on the other hand, is sleek and neurotic and ever so condescending.

One day they find themselves locked in the bathroom. Not through any malice on the part of Mother. It's just that Cinnamon was napping in the laundry basket and Pepper was on the window sill enjoying the view when the door was closed. The next 45 minutes of the show involves watching the two of them tearing the bathroom and each other apart as they desperately try to escape their own Satrian hell in order to find food (it's been a whole 5 minutes since they last ate) and a litter tray.

Let MEOWT! is Fringe heaven for the cat lovers of Melbourne. Holder and Moran have evidently spent a lot of time watching cats and have so many of their mannerisms and peculiarities down pat.

Perhaps the one thing I missed was a more fluid articulation of their spines. Cat's almost seem like they don't have a back bone and Holder and Moran were definitely 2 legged creatures standing tall and straight. I also couldn't figure out why they spent the whole time looking at the ceiling rather than the audience. I would have connected much more strongly with the performance if they had just looked at me...

In terms of Fringe programming, I think Holder and Moran have misunderstood their audience. Although it has some wonderfully dark aspects, Let MEOWT! is really more of a kids show and would have been a sell out in an earlier time slot and a child friendly venue. As a show for adults it lacks depth and body.

Having said that, cat lovers love cats - all cats - any cats - so take a day off watching feline memes on social media and head down to the Rattlesnake Saloon tonight for your last chance to see what these furry creatures get up to when Mother's back is turned. You will even get some handy hints about applying mascara!

2.5 Stars

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Standing Strong: Mudburra Man - Music Review

What: Standing Strong: Mudburra Man Album Launch
When: 15 September 2019
Where: fortyfivedownstairs
Featuring: Ray Dimakarri Dixon

Moira Finucane, Mama Alto, Ray Dimakarri Dixon and Pierra Dennerstein - photo by Jodie Hutchinson
Last night, riding on the waves of Finucane and Smith's extraordinary show The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction, Ray Dimakarri Dixon launched his new album Standing Strong: Mudburra Man. The album is a collection of 8 wonderfully arranged and produced songs speaking to the struggles the Mudburra people are dealing with in the Northern Territory. It is a love song, a dirge, a call to arms. Most of all it is a collection of sublime beauty.

Standing Strong is the result of a year long collaboration with Finucane and Smith. Whilst working on another project, Moira Finucane met Eleanor Dixon who them went on to introduce her to her father Ray. Father and daughter have been performing together for years as the group Rayella but when Finucane heard him sing 'Goodby Song' in his language her world changed and she pledged to help him produce Standing Strong - not quite realising just how much work was involved...

At the same time Finucane and Smith were developing The Rapture Chapter II and they realised Ray Dixon's passion in fighting fracking in the Northern Territory and working to save his language which is only spoken by 50 people now were all a part of the picture they were trying to show. Dixon's seminal song 'Nkgurra Marla' (meaning protector of home) became a centerpiece of the cabaret as well as being the perfect springboard to getting Dixon's music and message out into the world.

At it's simplest, Dixon's deep and sonorous voice, accompanied by an acoustic guitar are enough to cause your heart to resonate with the rhythms of Australia. When you add in the incredible talents of the 20 amazing artists who have collaborated to create this album, the music ascends to the sound of a people and planet crying out to be heard.

Collaborators of this album include: 
Ed Bates - pedal steel (Mudburra Man)
Joe Camilleri - saxophone, pedal steel arrangement (Mudburra Man)
Clare St Clare - backing vocals
Aidan Fergusson - electric guitar
Ben Keene - bass, percussion, string arrangements
Mama Alto - backing vocals
John McAll - piano, organ, melodica  & percussion
Darrin Verhagen - cello, flute, keyboard, arrangements

At the launch we had the pleasure of hearing several songs from the album including 'Yulu Wumara' and the stoic title song 'Barlawa Kurdij Karrdi'. 'Yulu Wumara' (Fracking Song) speaks to the truth that 85% of the Northern Territory is currently holds a fracking license or is under application for one. Extinction is in progress and through music Dixon is doing something about it.

The launch ended with Dixon performing the song which changed Finucane's world. Swaying to the mournful tune of 'Goodby Song' I felt my world change too.

The album is sung in a combination of Mudburra and English. For me there is always something magical hearing people sing in their own language. There is a fullness and gentleness and nuance which cannot be replicated. Dixon's Mudburra words speak to your heart even if you don't understand everything he says.

You can purchase a copy of the CD through music@moirafinucane More information HERE

4.5 Stars

The Rapture Chapter II: Art VS Extinction - Cabaret Review

What: The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction
When: 4 - 29 September 2019
Where: fortyfivedownstairs
Written by: Moira Finucane
Directed by: Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith
Performed by: Pierra Dennerstein, Ray Dimarrkari Dixon, Moira Finucane, Rachel Lewindon, and Mama Alto
Lighting by: Jenny Hector
Moira Finucane - photo by Jodie Hutchinson
 In 2017 Finucane and Smith told us that The Rapture was here. They beckoned us to look around and act immediately. It is 2019 and we have done nothing at all. The Doomsday Clock is still at 2 minutes to midnight and Moira Finucane is back. In The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction she is telling us there is no more time to waste and she is not wasting any time doing it.

We are back in the ice chapel of 2017 and Finucane enters as the fully annointed Snow Queen regalia after her tour of the Antarctica. What she found there, however, has released an urgency which eschews such frippery and throughout the show she strips away the layers of society, of manners, and of performance because now it is time to speak from the soul. From human to human. Our lives depend upon it.

I said we are running out of time, but Finucane's most important message is that there is still time. There is time for things to get better. There is time for things to get worse. I found myself wishing she could/would do this show in Parliament House in Canberra so that our leaders would finally hear and listen.

There are few niceties in Chapter II. It is dark and it is searing. You know the world is in trouble when Finucane, goddess of love, stands bare chested roaring a warning against waking terrible monsters. Under the biggest glacier in the world there lies deep secrets and lots and lots of bones. In the same way you do not want to wake a vicious dog, a crying baby or an angry man do you really think it is wise to melt this glacier and add 17 meters to the height of our oceans? How many bones will be under water then?

One of the genius elements of Finucane's work is her ability to connect dots and see pictures holistically. Do you really think the rate of death of women in non-warring countries is a coincidence? Do you think the fact that 85% of the Northern Territory is licensed for fracking or under application for such a license is a coincidence? Do you think it is a coincidence the Koala is on the edge of extinction? Do you think it is a coincidence there are only 50 people alive who still speak the language of the Mudburra people?

Finucane has called in the big guns for this exhortation. Having raised her voice as loudly as she can and quoted as many facts and figures as the brain can humanly hold it is time for the land to speak for itself. Yes, the angelic choir of Mama Alto and Dennerstein are still with her, joking and cajoling about the importance of Krill amongst other things but now we need to hear an even older and wiser voice.

To do this, Finucane has brought us Dixon. Dixon teaches us the words nkgurra marla - meaning protector of country, guardian of home - and then sings us this song in language. Nothing reaches into the soul more strongly than hearing First Nations songs sung in language. We don't need to know the words. We can feel the power and authenticity resonating through the sounds.

We need to hear his voice. We need to hear their voice. We need a Makarrata.

In play writing we are told we can't be too expositional because modern audiences don't like being told what to do, what to think. This is just another way to silence voices of concern and dissent. Finucane is a strong woman and in a post truth age she is honoring the movement of truth telling. Ironically, she does wrap up her honest and urgent words in glorious works of art. Costumes, set, music, all of the staging choices are divinity made corporeal.

The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction is terrifying. The horror lies in the truth that the outcomes lie in our very own hands. It is just as  Finucane's choir sings to us - 'The bigger the stone, the deeper the ripple'.

The situation is urgent and time is speeding up. If you do not act now, if you do not vote for 'the better' politician (so what if none of them are actually good?) now, if you do not plant a tree now, if you do not help someone drowning on the karaoke stage now, if you do not explode your love now what can our future possibly be except more bones at the bottom of an ocean floor?

I know there is a lot of theatre to see in Melbourne this month, but you must make time for The Rapture Chapter II: Art vs Extinction. You must make time for survival.

4.5 Stars

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Batmania Bus Tour - Theatre Review

What: Batmania Bus Tour
When: 11 - 21 September 2019
Where: St Kilda
Written and performed by: Elliott Gee, Raymond Martini, Indiah Mone, and Vidya Rajan
Costumes by: Honor Wolff

Vidya Rajan
One thing we know about Melbourne because of all the plaques and street signs and monuments is a dude called John Batman was one of the white people who got here first. His legacy is the kind of gift that keeps on giving and The Very Good Looking Initiative invite you to a township named after his lordship just as he always wanted - Batmania! Batmania is having it's very own Expo this year at Theatre Works, and for the truly adventurous there is also a Batmania Bus Tour.

I got to go on the bus tour and I can honestly say I saw a completely different side of the town I used to know as St Kilda. What side did I see? I have no idea, but I laughed so much I choked along the way.

The Batmania Expo and Bus Tour are anti-theatre horror comedies. What does this mean? Who knows? What I can tell you is that the experience takes you on a ride and spits in the face of expectation.

As all good bus tours do, the passengers are treated to a Batmanian tourism video highlighting the achievements of the community, their cultural distinctions, and some important local safety warnings. Zimpy means hungry and if you call something a gull it can be a compliment or an insult for example.

The most important information you will get however, is the local EHS warnings. The rules are simple. 1. Do not touch the sand. 2. If you touch the sand, do not touch your face. Like all normal people we - and the tour guides - forget or ignore the warnings almost as soon as they are spoken. If you are addicted to zombie stories you are going to love the Batmania Bus Tour.

Gee is the mullet wearing bus driver who is forced to work with new tour guides (Rajan and Martini) who have done the locals out of a job. The tour guides have only been in Batmania for 3 weeks yet are quite good at describing local attractions despite not aving had the chance to experience them yet. There is one little detail they forgot... Sight seeing bus tours don't work so well in the dead of night...

It all starts innocently enough with plenty of photo stops of unlit edifices and exhortations to marvel at the abundance of avian architecture to be found in Batmania. Things begin to fall off the rails after an unscheduled toilet stop however, and the tour descends into chaos from that point on.

The tour is a lot of fun and the bus - although not quite what is shown in the video - is comfortable and just like all bus tours, nobody can see anything because you are either on the wrong side of the bus, or the view is obscured (by this little thing called night in this case).

It is the journey of the tour staff which become the point of interest in the Bus Tour. The ideas are strong and funny. Perhaps my main concern is the very site line difficulties for tourists are true for the performance. I couldn't see much more than glimpses of what was happening.

I got the gist of it, and I saw enough to understand and laugh, but I felt disconnected for much of the end of the tour. Having said that, I was comfortable and warm and quite enjoyed hearing the random laughter around the bus as people each saw snippets of different moments in the show. Perhaps this is the anti-theatre aesthetic the company are striving for?

I also think they could tighten up the ideas. There were longish gaps between each step in the process and they could be filled with more suggestive material such as when the air-conditioning was broached.

The Bus Tour starts on Fitzroy street but ends at the Expo in Theatre Works just in time for the big finale. Everything about the project is tongue in cheek and fabulous with just enough political and social barbs to make us feel content.

Go and visit Batmania. It is worth it. You can take in the accessible Expo or go on the Bus Tour. Either way you are going to end this unique experience laughing. In fact - do both!

3.5 Stars

Side A - Theatre Review

What: Side A
When: 15 - 29 September 2019
Where: Toy Library, Trades Hall
Written and performed by: Amanda Santuccione
Amanda Santuccione
I first came across Santuccione two years ago in her debut solo show Twenty Minutes To Nine. Since then she has gone on to hone her performance skills and this year she brings another surprisingly personal and powerful story to the audiences at Trades Hall in Side A.

The power in Santuccione's work is the well spring of authenticity and lived experience with which she gifts the audience in every performance. It also lies in her ability to not shy away from the pain, but to sit in it long enough for us to feel it and then move us forward to the strength and wisdom which comes from getting to the other side.

Side A is perhaps a lighter piece overall, with the first half being almost a stand up comedy routine. This show, though, is built in 2 acts and whilst the first half has tiny hints of what is to come the power of the second act comes as a complete surprise.

Side A begins with a wander down memory lane. Feeding into our current retro obsession Santuccione takes us back to the days when mix tapes were real acts of love. A time when making one meant hours listening to the radio for the precise moment the song you wanted was played. A time when all you needed was some sticky tape to overwrite any cassette. A time when DJ's where judged on how rarely they talked over the music. Those were the days...

For Santuccione this was also a time of growth into adulthood and sexuality. She lets us laugh our way through her crazy experiences of a first date, a first kiss, a first walkman, a first sexual assault...

Santuccione was a precocious child as her Sunday School teacher can attest to and in act 2 things get more serious as she explores family and peer expectations for a single, straight female. We take teenage sexuality so for granted now but do girls really all want to get fingered at the age of 13, or lose their virginity by 16? Some do, some don't, but shouldn't it be up to us rather than our community?

In act 2 Santuccione soars as a spoken word beat poet and the power and glory of her pieces 'I See You' and 'Friend' will tear you apart. People say words have power. Santuccione's words most certainly do.

Side A is a surprising show. It is hilarious and soul searing all in the same experience. Spend an evening at Trades Hall and kick the night off with this wonderful work of art.

3.5 Stars

Monday, 9 September 2019

The Subtle Art Of Online Dating - Cabaret Review

What: The Subtle Art of Online Dating
When: 9 - 15 September 2019
Where: Upstairs, The Butterfly Club
Written by: Katie O'Connor
Directed by: Kate Tomkins
Performed by: Nerida Hannah, Katie O'Connor, Maddie Roberts and Bonnie Ryan-Rowe
Bonnie Ryan-Rowe, Katie O'Connor, Nerida Hannah and Maddie Roberts
Because we just can't get enough of it, this year's Fringe Festival brings us another painful yet funny stab at the vagaries and absurdities of romance by app in O'Connors new show. The Subtle Art Of Online Dating is playing upstairs at The Butterfly Club this week.

The topic is not new, but it appears to be endlessly fascinating. Hasn't dating always been a key source of hilarity throughout history? In the tradition of shows such as Ghosted, Tinder Tales and Fuckboys: The Musical, The Subtle Art Of Online Dating pokes fun of and thrusts swords into our current obsession with trying to find love through pure strangers rather than risk getting to know the people around us.

I have to say I don't think The Subtle Art of Online Dating brings much in the form of original material or new perspectives. What it does do, however, is highlight the powerful performance skills of the cast. This team of theatre makers are cohorts from Federation University and all of them demonstrate strong technical skills as actors and also demonstrate Tomkins' skill with use of space - particularly in such a small venue. I rarely enjoy shows which use the auditorium aisle, but this is possibly the first time I have thought it to be done well.

The Subtle Art of Online Dating has an in-yer-face quality which seems to be the rage at the moment in Melbourne, but I wonder if that is actually the great weakness of the work. The four actors come out singing a song (flatly...) about being bitches. It is loud and aggressive and comes from the idea of reclaiming insult words. I personally do not think this is the way to regain respect or dignity - or language - but it is one of those things people do the wrong way for all the right reasons I guess.

A little more softness and vulnerability would make this a much more powerful piece because, despite it's claims to the contrary, The Subtle Art of Online Dating is not a comedy. It is a very sad tale of pain and confusion. In order to amp up the comic, the team have had to resort to obnoxiousness and braggadocia which becomes very confronting. Because of this, I found myself caring very little despite the excellent stage craft on display.

The one exception for me was Hannah's portrayal of the lonely, chocolate addicted young woman who finds happiness in glitter adorned appliances... Hannah also plays the piano which allows the team to segue into song and dance for that real cabaret vibe. I take her warnings about Hinge very seriously too!

The Subtle Art of Online Dating is fun, and a good way to round off a night of show going at The Butterfly Club. It is also informative. I had no idea there were so many dating apps on the market now!

2.5 Stars

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

False Advertising - Cabaret Review

What: False Advertising
When: 21 - 24 August 2019
Where: Downstairs, The Butterfly Club
Created by: Jenna Featherstone
Performed by: Matthew Nutley and Jenna Featherstone
Jenna Featherstone
A fun new cabaret came to The Butterfly Club with the insouciance of Mad Men and the dryness of Utopia. Jenna Featherstone took us inside the spin and grin of the advertising world in False Advertising and boy, did she let it all hang out - to dry!

Although Featherstone has had a substantial advertising career with major clients (and you find out just how big they are/were in the show), she is also a performer with a significant background in musical theatre. It makes perfect sense to combine her talents in campaign design, copy writing, and singing to come up with this cheeky little cabaret.

Like most of us, Featherstone had something of a love affair with the TV series Mad Men, and as she began her first tentative steps into the world of advertising her head was filled with thought bubbles of long lunches, glitz and glamour, and old fashioneds on tap. And then she got a job.

Featherstone knew she would be starting at the bottom but it was a real shock to find herself hanging out with cockroaches and being implicated in a case of serial roachicide. Still, the only way was up and eventually she hit the giddy heights of the gambling industry.

Accompanied by repetiteur Matthew Nutley, Featherstone makes her way through a range of fun songs from popular musicals which lament the problems of a workaday world including the evergreen '9 to 5'. Perhaps one thing I would suggest is that Featherstone focus on developing the mezzo range of her mezzosoprano voice. Her lower tones are lovely if a bit weak, whereas her voice gets sharp on the very upper notes.

The downstairs stage of The Butterfly Club has undergone a facelift with sexy black tabs and bigger loudspeakers. On the night I went the sound was a bit too loud - almost to the point of pain - and unfortunately this highlights weaknesses and those sharp notes hurt.

Putting those technical issues aside though, False Advertising is very funny and Featherstone brings back all of those earworms advertising executives get paid so much to destroy our brains with. Featherstone even apologises for her personal role in destroying perfectly good songs by turning them into ads.

As expected in cabaret there is audience interaction. In False Advertising Featherstone got us to help her sell unsellable products. The important thing to remember? Sex sells...anything!

False Advertising is a clever show and heaps of fun. Perhaps just lowering the key of certain songs would push it into the exceptional range. Featherstone is a beautiful and charismatic performer and I look forward to her next installment.

3 Stars

Thursday, 22 August 2019

How I Met My Dead Husband - Cabaret Review

What: How I Met My Dead Husband
When: 24 August - 7 September 2019
Where: Bluestone Church Arts Space
Written by: Lansy Feng
Directed by: Belinda Campbell
Performed by: Simone Cremona, Lansy Feng, and Lauren Kaye
Set by: Abbey Stanway
Costumes by: Georgina Hanley
Lighting by: Jennifer Piper
Stage Managed by: Henry O'Brien
Lansy Feng - Photo by Jack Dixon-Gunn
A love story spanning lifetimes, How I Met My Dead Husband is as funny as it is heartbreaking. Lansy Feng brings her soul to the stage in this surprising tale of star crossed lovers being presented by Wit Inc at the Bluestone Church Arts Space for the next fortnight before a short return season at The Bowery Theatre.

Australians are taking a moment to search back through their cultural heritage and share their stories and for Feng that means exploring her Taiwanese background. Exploring the Buddhist concept of reincarnation and the role of destiny in determining our lives, Feng tells us the story of Chuen-Jiau.

Four lives ago, Buddha made a boo-boo and forgot to wipe her memories before bringing her back into the world in her new body. For some reason Chuen-Jiau seems to have slipped off the mind wipe slate completely and we meet her in her fourth incarnation with full and complete memories of all that has gone before. Yep, it is as painful as you can imagine including being 'pooped out' at birth, being a grown up in a child's body, and spending all of these lives searching for your lost love. "What the fuck, man?"

Despite the great sorrow and tragedy underlying the ideas of How I Met My Dead Husband, Feng has a wry sense of humour and a wonderful comic timing which fill the hour full of hilariously unexpected perspectives. Her incredibly mobile face has an anime effect and Feng's diminutive stature and delicate features and aura are belied by a soulful contralto voice which will shock you to the core.

As Feng unravels her four lives and the meeting and losing of her love along the way of each of them, the journey is peppered with a perfect blend of Nina Simone and Edith Piaf amongst others. Rarely do you hear a singer who really taps into the soulfulness these artists delivered, but Feng brings that and more with the slightest touch of Asian tuning which enhances rather than detracts from this cultural intermingling.

Perhaps my favourite moment was when Feng sang in her native Mandarin though. A gentleness emerges in her voice as she sings the ballad 'Longing For The Spring Breeze'.

My favourite story has to be the French experience. I don't know if it's child abuse to name your newborn Croissant but Feng provides a range of handy hints and tips on how to pretend you speak French to natives without knowing any of the language.

The first iteration of How I Met My Dead Husband in 2018 was more of a mystery thriller, but Campbell has worked with Feng to lean into the beauty and instead we have an hour long love story which is so much better than Shakespeare's star-crossed tragedy. The coffin is still the centrepiece but Stanway has amped it all up for this production with a stunning tiled floor, a shrine and a silhouette light box which is some sort of combination of pani slide and animation slides.

The cut-outs for each frame as they build the texture to match the story is an act of delicacy and grace we really only ever see in Asian cultures. Perhaps my one comment would be the husbands photo and this light box need to swap places so that Feng is framed by these images rather than being upstaged by the photo. Piper's lighting concepts and skills are really developing and How I Met My Dead Husband is cleverly and sensitively handled.

Whilst I can't imagine a fate more horrible than the one Chuen-Jiau has been forced to live through, the Gods do take pity on her - sort of - and for those who love the concept of a 'true love' this is the show for you! A stunning combination of surreal beauty and earthy reality, How I Met My Dead Husband is a top rate cabaret and shouldn't be missed.

4 Stars

Friday, 16 August 2019

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory - Musical Review

What: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
When: 9 August - 3 November 2019
Where: Her Majesty's Theatre
Book by: David Greig
Music by: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by: Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by: Jack O'Brien
Orchestration by: Doug Besterman
Featuring: Benjamin Belsey, Lucy Maunder, Tony Sheldon, Elijah Slavinskis, Paul Slade Smith, Edgar Stirling, Lenny Thomas, and Lachlan Young.
Choreography by: Joshua Bergasse
Design by: Mark Thompson
Lighting by: Japhy Weideman
Sound by: Andrew Keister
Projections by: Jeff Sugg
Puppets by: Basil Twist
Lenny Thomas and Tony Sheldon
It is time to indulge your sweet tooth and head on down to Her Majesty's for Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. A night of shockingly funny spectacle and lots of laughs, this production is a hoot.

I don't know how you grow up in the modern Western world and not at least have a passing familiarity with the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book, the films, the golden tickets...even Cadbury now have a real Wonka Bar. It would be beyond belief to think it would not be made into a musical and so it has, and here it is.

This musical began it's life in 2010 and debuted in London in 2013. It had a decent run but also didn't hit the heights of imagination. In 2017 it was reworked with a new director (O'Brien) for Broadway and is still being tweaked as it moves across the world. I reckon they have pretty much got it right now.

I admit I am not a musical theatre addict so it may not be surprising that I will say this show is fabulous when critics of the Sydney season were so harsh but here I go. I am not overly impressed by all the sparkle and the spangle. What I look for in a show is a strong story told using all of the elements of theatre making and all of those elements working together to support each other. This is what you get in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But don't worry - there is also a bevy of fun and funny surprises along the way just as you would expect in Wonkaland.

This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory leans more towards the family fantasy of the 1971 film. Having said that, there is definite darkness there and this is what makes it feel like a secret night of naughty for us grown ups while the kids are enjoying all the colour and movement.

Yes, there are the twee moments, such as when Grandpa Joe (Sheldon) makes jokes about his age and references Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills but this is what musicals do and you can hate on it or - as I did - groan a bit and then laugh at the inevitability. This jaded tolerance is the perfect precursor to allow yourself to sink into the glorious blasphemy which sits below all of Willy Wonka's (Slade Smith) charm and affability.

Perhaps the biggest change to the story is in the musical Wonka seems to have selected Charlie long before he (or Charlie really) ever comes up with the idea for the competition. Yes, it telegraphs the outcome but we already know how the story goes and this way we don't have to pretend surprise. It is all about the journey as they say.

Sheldon is great fun as Grandpa Joe - full of energy and life contrary to his supposed aged and crippled state, and Slade Smith is excellent as Willy Wonka. This is not a dance spectacular. This production is all about great lyrics being sung well and I don't know anybody with the dental dexterity of Slade Smith in the songs which go 100 miles a minute! The top of Act 2 is a wonder as he gallops through 'Strike That, Reverse It'. My poor brain couldn't keep up but it had nothing to do with the delivery or the sound system which is as clear as a bell (except for 'Queen of Pop' for some reason).

I loved all of the children, but most of all I loved their dreadful fates as they disregarded all of Wonka's warnings. The true genius of Slade Smith's Wonka is he becomes so very, very human as he gives in to the understanding he won't be listened to and what will happen next is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow morning.

The Gloop family (Octavia Barron Martin and Jake Fehily) are adorable, and the Salt's (Stephen Anderson and Karina Russel) are satisfyingly autocratic. The Beauregarde's (Madison McKoy and Jayme-Lee Hanekon) do the Kardashian's proud!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is full of sleights of hand and fun illusions. Violet Beauregarde's evolution into a giant purple ball and then bursting had me in stitches but the true coup d'etat comes in Veruka Salt's demise. In this production Veruka is a prima ballerina and her encounter with the sorting squirrels is straight out of The Nutcracker Ballet. For those of us who get that reference this is the pinnacle display of why this show is so good.

It is the dramaturgy, people, and it pokes up it's head in moments of brilliance all across the show. For example Mrs Green (Joseph Naim), the rotting vegetable seller, is a hoot and a fun reference to the age of pantomime. The Oompa Loompas are also resolved in a very clever and satisfying way and one of the great decisions for this musical is to leave out many of their songs. They are there when they are needed and they are gone when they add nothing to the story.

Traditionally one of the main morals of this tale has been said to be 'bad things happen to children who don't behave' but in this musical this is not true because at the very end Charlie does not heed his warning and yet he wins the kingdom. I think it is the song 'It Has To Be Believed To Be Seen' which tells us the truth of this show and is the idea which resonates across our post-truth world. So much of the sparkle and spangle being sold to us by our leaders - social, political, theological, geographic, economic... - requires faith in the message or the mouth because there is not a whole lot of evidence to back up their statements of 'fact'.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the whole package. The production values are fantastic but more to the point they do what they do perfectly and it all points to the story not at itself. The performances are all consistently brilliant. The dancing and choreography is clean and precise although this is not really a dancing musical. The singing is perfection.

Part of the brilliance is when it works best is when all of this is left behind! One of the scenes which had me laughing the most was the journey through the wind tunnel. The whole journey is done with mime. Not a single prop or set piece is in place but we know exactly what is happening to everyone at every moment and it is bellyachingly funny.

Okay, I will complain about one thing. I think the glass elevator should rise faster. The end of the show, musically speaking, really slows down into a kind of lullaby tempo. It is beautiful but I was tired and suddenly, at the end, all I wanted to do was go to sleep. This will be great for the parents because their kids will be ready for bed!

On the night I went Lenny Thomas was playing Charlie and he was terrific. I also saw Elijah Slavinskis at the media call and he was equally as brilliant. I suspect no matter which night you attend you will love whoever of the 5 boys playing Charlie you get.

5 Stars