Monday, July 21, 2014


Simon O'Neill as Otello
Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre until August 2nd.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

There can be few opera productions with a more breathtaking opening than Harry Kupfer’s masterful staging of Verdi’s “Otello”, currently being presented by Opera Australia in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera. 

Amidst the sounds of a raging storm, Otello and his courtiers burst into a war-damaged foyer, through the French windows high at the back of the stage, and tumble and rush down a huge flight of stairs. The effect looks so stunningly dangerous that you immediately want to reach for the rewind button to see how it is done. However it sets the mood perfectly for the emotional turmoil that follows as Otello succumbs to the jealousy skilfully and relentlessly fanned by his treacherous ensign, Iago.

Desdemona (Lianna Haroutounian and Otelo (Simon O'Neill) argue in front of their guests.
The entire opera is staged on Hans Schavernoch’s single setting of a massive black and red bomb-scarred staircase dominated by a huge statue of Atlas.  For the most part this works well, as the stairs provide endless opportunities for imaginative staging of the huge chorus scenes. The bomb damage allows plenty of dark areas in which the various characters can skulk and spy.  However, it is not so appropriate for the later scenes. Surely Otello would have found a more intimate space in which to harangue and ultimately murder Desdemona.

Armenia soprano, Lianna Haroutounian, making her Australian debut taking over the role of Desdemona at just one week’s notice from Tamar Iveri, proved a pleasant surprise with her dark beauty, warm, milky soprano and captivating stage presence. One might have wished for her to show a little more gumption at Otello’s constant accusations of infidelity, but her resigned acceptance of her fate, as she sang the final “Ave Maria” was very moving.

Desdemona (Lianna Haroutounian) and Otello (Simon O'Neill)
New Zealand heldentenor, Simon O’Neill, soon to be seen in Canberra as one of the stars of "Voices in the Forrest" at the Nationals Aboretum, and making his role debut as Otello, was a thrilling and commanding Otello, carefully shaping his interpretation as the opera unfolded. His interpretation is very physical and the moment when he plummets headfirst down the stairs is quite breathtaking. However he is a very pale Otello, which made Iago’s constant references to “the moor” a bit puzzling.

Another newcomer, tall, dark and swarthy baritone, Claudio Sgura, was an excellent Iago, oozing malevolence, and insuring the audience was never in doubt as to who was the baddy in this opera. Richard Anderson (Montano) and David Corcoran (Roderigo) offer fine supporting performances, although James Egglestone was a rather colourless Cassio.

Cassio (James Egglestone) Desdemona (Lianna Haroutounian) and Emilia (Jacqueline Dark)
Although having little to do in the early sections of the opera, Jacqueline Dark, as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, Emilia, was a sympathetic presence throughout, and in the final moments, following Desdemona’s murder, her spirited performance is completely compelling.  

Once again the huge Opera Australia chorus was impressive, both in the richness and accuracy of their sound, and with their attention to detail with their movement and acting. Particularly as in this production they have a rather daunting setting to negotiate while wearing at various times costume designer, Yan Tax’s splendid evening wear or large coats. AS always, the Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra, this time under Christian Badea, impressed with its spirited playing of Verdi’s magnificent score.

Despite what must have been a difficult rehearsal period, given the number of changes from the originally announced cast which offered Tamar Iveri or Nicole Car as Desdemona, Marco Vratogna as Iago and Michael Honeyman as Roderigo, none of whom are present for this season, Harry Kupfer’s superb production, under Revival Director, Roger Press, remains an impressive staging of this superb Verdi masterpiece.    

Otello and chorus
                                                                       Photos: Branco Giaca


Bangarra Dance theatre
Canberra Theatre – 17-19 July 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Bangarra Dance Theatre is like no other dance company performing in Australia today. It dances to the beat of its own drum, guided by the clear-eyed vision of Artistic Director, Stephen Page. Page is not only one of the country’s most respected and innovative choreographers, but also able to clearly and ingenuously articulate his vision, as demonstrated in the standing-room only first-night pre-show forum.
Jasmin Sheppard as Patyegarang
For his newest work, made to celebrate Bangarra’s 25th  Anniversary, and presented in Canberra directly after its inaugural six-week Sydney season, Page has incorporated all the elements which make Bangarra unique. Highly -skilled dancers with a distinctive movement vocabulary, fluid, idiosyncratic choreography, superb design, original music, and excellent production values are all on show.

Determinedly abstract in its telling of the relationship between an Eora woman and an officer in the first fleet, and performed to a stunning soundscape by David Page which includes snippets of the Darug language, “Patyegarang” is both visually and aurally arresting. Within an evocative textural landscape created by Jacob Nash and lighting designer, Nick Schlieper, and echoed in Jennifer Irwin’s gorgeous sculptural costumes, the work moves fluidly and seamlessly through a series of mesmerizingly beautiful episodes, which include at one point, the smell of burning eucalypts.

Thomas Greenfield as William Dawes

Jasmin Sheppard is luminous as Patyegarang, and Thomas Greenfield, the only non-indigenous member of the cast, impresses as William Dawes. Both Waangenga Blanco (Ngalgear) and Elma Kris (Burulalalalung) are stand-outs for their strong presence in what is essentially an ensemble masterwork.


Sunday, July 20, 2014


Cabaret. Book by Joe Masteroff. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Music by John Kander.Directed by Jim McMullen. Musical Direction by Rhys Madigan. Choreography by Shasha Chen. Canberra Philharmonic Society through special arrangement with TAMS WITMARK MUSIC LIBRARY INC. Erindale Theatre.   July 10 - 26, 2014

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Angel Dolejsi as Emcee

It was with great expectations that I went to see Canberra Philharmonic’s production of Kander and Ebb’s musical, Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s  Berlin Stories. My expectations, not preconceptions, were not based on the Bob Fosse film with Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles, Joel Grey as the Emcee or Michael York as Isherwood’s alter ego, Clifford Bradshaw. Nor were they aroused by the excellent and well-deserved reviews of colleagues, who unanimously have enthusiastically praised Jim McMullen’s vibrant, disturbing and powerfully imaginative production. No, my expectations were engendered by a visit to the Jewish cemetery in the Czech Republic’s second largest city, Brno. On my grandparent’s grave, and like so many other headstones throughout the cemetery, there are also engraved the words “In memory of” and the names of relatives who were victims of the Holocaust and whose bodies would never be honoured with dignified burial.
Mat Chardon O'Dea as Clifford Bradshaw

Kander and Ebb’s musical is set in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Seen through the eyes of newly-arrived American novelist, Cliff (Mat Chardon O’Dea), Cabaret tells the story of aspiring  cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Kelly Roberts), the love and lives of the older generation , Frau Schneider (Ros Engledow) and Herr Schultz (Ian Croker), the decadent world of the seedy Kit Kat Club and the sinister rise of Nazism.  Cabaret is a tragic tale of lost innocence, futile love and a nation on the brink of racial, ethnic and human degradation. It is the mournful saga of a world that no longer exists. It is a tragic account of hope, vanquished by history’s cruel twist of fate.
Angel Dolejsi, Kirsten Haussmann and Beth Deer in "Two Ladies"

And did Philo’s production of Cabaret meet my expectations? Absolutely. If anything, they surpassed them beyond my wildest imagining. Here is a production that will linger in the mind for years to come. Every number from Wilkommen to Life is a Cabaret is a hit. Every character is drawn with such earnest concern for truth. Every element of production from Jim McMullen’s direction to Michelle Adamson’s stage-management, from McMullen and Ian Croker’s set design to Hamish McConchie’s lighting, from Miriam Miley-Reid and Christine Pawlicki’s costuming to Shasha Chen’s choreography, from Rhys Madigan’s Musical Direction to Peter Barton’s audio design has been thought through with meticulous regard for period, style and theme.
Kelly Roberts as Sally Bowles and the girls of the Kit Kat Club

What I did not entirely expect was the high level of performance from every character in this production. As the standard of musical theatre in Canberra continues to astound, audiences have come to expect an impressive level of performance. Philo’s production of “Cabaret” surpasses expectation and raises the bar even higher. Excellent casting has made this production a performance tour de force.

In a production as uniformly excellent as this is, and blessed with an ensemble as tight and talented as are the girls of the Kit Kat Club, the patrons and the principal performers, it is worth noting the high standards reached by some of the principal actors. The success of this musical in large part rests on the casting of the Emcee and Sally Bowles. In this respect Philo has triumphed. Angel Dolejsi’s Emcee is your likeable buffoon, chameleon in his shift from camp to vamp, seductive and slyly sexual, and yet with the inner sadness of the clown within the Kit Kat costume. In the final image of the Auschwitz inmate, wearing the Yellow Star of the Jew, high above the stage the audience is shocked by a stroke of ingenious theatrical interpretation into understanding Cabaret’s tragic message. This is where McMullen’s imaginative vision and Dolejsii’s performance fuse the crumbling era with the impending tragedy.
Kelly Roberts as Sally Bowles

Fragile, vulnerable, the ex patriate in search of love and admiration, Kelly Roberts is the perfect Sally Bowles. Here is inspired casting. From the soulful longing of Maybe This Time to the defiant resolve of the title song, Cabaret, Roberts is magnetic with a voice that can tug the heartstrings or excite the passion. Effective use of the follow spots brings the audience directly into her experience and we share her confusion, her longing and ultimately her resolve to defy the inevitable fate.

As the writer Clifford Bradshaw, caught up in the fearful events of the approaching cataclysm, Mat Chardon O’Dea brings the ideal tone of innocent naivety to his performance. He plays the foil to perfection as a world he cannot fully understand whirls about and engulfs him.
Ian Croker as Herr Schultz. Ros Engledow as Fraulein Schneider

The sentimental favourites are without doubt Ros Engledow and Ian Croker as Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. These two experienced troupers command the stage: Engledow with her stiffly German sense of propriety and harshly powerful voice and Croker with the charming gentility of the European Jew, who also remains oblivious to the consequences of the frightful rise of Nazism. There is also excellent support from Dave Smith as questionable courier, Ernst Ludwig and Kitty McGarry as the sailor’s comfort, Fraulein Kost.

My only quibble is with Tomorrow Belongs To Me. McMullen has chosen to deliver this as a song of idealistic hope, rather than the threatening anthem of fascism. As the Nazi banners unfurl, I would have preferred this song to swell from its earlier rendition into a reprise of fanatical fervour, but that is a personal interpretation and in a production as uniformly intelligent and superbly staged as this, it is a small quibble. I did miss the smoke-filled, sweat-aromatic atmosphere of the divinely decadent Kit Kat Klub. Fake fags are a poor substitute, but the rules are the rules and we are left to use our imaginations.
"Mein Herr" at the Kit Kat Club
Sally and the Kit Kat Dancers

Canberra Philharmonic’s production of Cabaret will stand as one of the great standouts on Canberra’s Musical Theatre scene. Above the stage, the outstanding orchestra offers the reprise tunes as the enthralled audience leaves the theatre, aware that they have seen a Cabaret of the highest calibre. Director and conductor, Jim McMullen, sits at the side with a plume in his headband.  This Cabaret is a real feather in the cap for Canberra Philharmonic and the team. Don’t miss it!

"If You Could See Her" Emcee and Gorilla
All photography by Shae Waite


Artistic Directors: Nick Byrne and P J Williams
The Street Theatre
Wednesday 16 July to Sunday 20 July, 2014

Review Challenge Heat One by Len Power 16 July 2014

When was the last time you laughed so much that it hurt?  That was my experience on Wednesday evening when I went along to the first challenge heat of Improvention 2014’s, Canberra Impro Challenge.

Improvention is a festival dedicated to the art of Improvisation and Impro ACT is Canberra’s Improvised Theatre company which was formed in 2005 by current Artistic Directors: Nick Byrne and PJ Williams.  Impro ACT teaches and performs all types of improvised theatre, such as that seen on TV’s ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’.  The Canberra Impro Challenge is in its tenth year in 2014.

The evening presented two heats of ten performers each competing for the chance to go through to the final challenge of the heats winners being held on Sunday evening.  Performers, individually or in varying sized groups generally up to about 4, are called to the acting area and then given themes or situations they must act out completely unscripted.  The quality of performance of each item is then scored by the intensity of applause by audience members.  In addition, as the heat progresses, two judges eliminate performers on the basis of skills displayed.  This method of judgement ultimately produces an individual heat winner.

The inventiveness, spontaneity and courage of these performers is remarkable.  The theme ‘historical replay’ required performers to perform a domestic scene first normally and then repeat it as if they were in Ancient Rome, then in the Elizabethan Era and finally in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  A lecture theme on ‘How Continents Were Made’ produced an eccentric professor stating that, ‘Barcelona was, of course, the old Yiddish word for the centre of the earth’.  A particularly terrifying challenge required performers to create and perform a play forwards and then backwards using the line ‘Hooray, a horse!’  My particular favourite required performers to produce a play with no laughs at all on the theme, ‘Feather bed factory’.  The first line offered in a very serious tone by one of the performers was ‘Here they are, the new geese…’  Of course, it got the biggest laugh of the night!

Being involved in improvisation theatre offers training in many skills and not just for actors.  You learn to think on your feet, develop strong communication and team skills and be more creative and fearless - all skills which are transferable to everyday life and work.  Impro ACT offers improvisation training courses which are well worth considering.

Even under the pressure of competition, you could see that the performers were having great fun on Wednesday night.  The audience quickly joined in with the relaxed and crazy spirit of the evening.  There were serious skills on display here by the talented performers and it was also hilariously funny.
Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 20 July 2014 from 5pm.

Friday, July 18, 2014


In DRESS CIRCLE this week, Julian Hobba, talks about his new play “Bartleby” which stars Max Cullen and premieres in the Street Theatre next Saturday. Garry Ginavan takes us behind the scenes of “Wombat Stew” which will be at the Canberra Theatre next week.
Richard Block
Richard Block previews a new Canberra- written musical “Rokitelly Man” which Ickle Pickle will present in the Belconnen Theatre from next Friday, and pianist, Colin Forbes, discusses his forthcoming piano recital in which he plays four of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas, and Bill Stephens will report on the first two operas in Opera Australia's winter season "Rigoletto" and "Otello" .

In the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, Jeanne Little performs excerpts from her acclaimed show “Marlene – A Tribute to Dietrich” in the first of two programs recorded by Artsound at The School of Arts CafĂ© in Queanbeyan.
As well, Len Power will review “Improvention 2014” currently running in The Street Theatre, Isobel Griffin will present “Arts Diary”, Blue the Shearer wants to know who put the “p” in receipt.

90 minutes of interviews, reviews, music and news about the performing arts in Canberra and beyond, DRESS CIRCLE is produced and presented by Bill Stephens and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 every Sunday evening from 5.00pm until 6.30pm. It is repeated on Tuesday nights from 11.30pm and streamed live on the internet at  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Emma Mathews (Gilda) Giorgio Caoduro (Rigoletto) 
Director: Roger Hodgman - Conductor: Renato Palumbo - Set Design: Richard Roberts  Costume Design: Tracy Grant Lord -  Lighting Design: Matt Scott
Opera Australia - Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House

June 26 – August 24, 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Opera Australia’s 2014 winter season at the Sydney Opera House has begun with a brand new production of the much loved Verdi Opera “Rigoletto”.

In keeping with the composer’s original vision, director, Roger Hodgman has gone back to taws with this production, restoring the setting to 16th Century Mantua, and directing the action so that the focus rarely moves from the hunch-back court jester Rigoletto, and his frustrated efforts to protect his beautiful daughter, Gilda, from the clutches of his debauched employer, The Duke of Mantua.

Gianluca Terranova  (Duke of Mantua) and guests

Matt Scot’ atmospheric lighting enhances Richard Roberts impressive double-turntable set, which together with Tracy Grant Lord’s lavish costumes, realised in every shade of red velvet, heavily decorated with gold, purple and black, contrasts the splendour and decadence of the Duke of Mantua’s court and it’s bare-breasted courtesans, with the shadowy squalor of the assassin, Sparafucile’s abode, providing a satisfyingly rich visual spectacle.

But for this most dramatic and gloriously tuneful of operas to weave its spell it needs a cast of great singers. This production currently has a dream cast. It is hard to imagine this opera being better sung or acted, or indeed, better played than it currently is by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the expert direction of Renato Palumbo.   
David Corcoran (Borsa) Luke Gabbedy (Marullo), Giorgio Caoduro (Rigoletto), Samuel Dundas (Count Ceprano)
Giorgio Caoduro, first seen in the shadows, his disability exposed as he dresses impatiently at the start of the day, is arresting as the professional fool, Rigoletto. Caoduro immediately captures the pathos and frustration of Rigoletto’s situation, while delivering his arias with conviction and commitment.

Emma Matthews, at the top of her form, is simply spellbinding as Rigoletto’s beautiful daughter, Gilda. Her compliant yet questioning acceptance of her father’s wishes, her rapturous response to her handsome young suitor’s advances leading inevitably to her final, fatal decision, are all beautifully realised, and her superbly staged, crystalline performance of the famous “Caro nome” is the stuff of operatic legend.

Handsome Gianluca Terranova has the looks, dash and swagger to be totally convincing as the predatory Duke of Mantua, and his glorious Italianate tenor voice makes mincemeat of “Questa o quella” and “La donna ‘e mobile”.
Sian Pendry (Maddalena) Gianluca Terranova (Duke of Mantua)
David Parkin with his rich, dark baritone and commanding presence is a stand-out as the assassin, Sparafucile, while as his beautiful red-headed sister, Maddalena, Sian Pendry, is both vocally and physically striking, oozing menace and sex appeal in equal measure, and when she joins Mathews, Caoduro and Terranova for the glorious Act 111 quartet, the blend of voices is sublime.

Samuel Dundas as Count Ceprano, Gennadi Dubinsky as Count Monterone, as well as  David Corcoran and Luke Gabbedy as the courtiers, Borsa and Marullo, all contributed vocal strength and eye-catching performances in their roles,  and were strongly supported by the excellent, mainly male chorus, which included Canberra’s Damien Hall.

                                                          Photos: Branco Giaca








Monday, July 14, 2014

Passionate about the theatre: Colin Anderson

THE untimely death of the popular director Colin Anderson last week has led to a round of reminiscences in Canberra's theatre community.

Anderson, who originally came to direct at Canberra Repertory while lecturing in drama at Charles, Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, was to stage 11 productions with REP, starting with the first production of "Gulls" in 1987.

He would  also direct “Pack Of Lies” in 1988; “Gulls” again in 1989; “Nude With Violin” in 1990; Old Time Music Hall in 1991; “Blithe Spirit” in 1994; “Dancing at Lughnasa”  in 1995; “Breaking The Code” in 1996; “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” in 1997; “Design for Living” in 2002; and “Don's Party” in 2006. Former REP manager, Evol McLeod, recalls him at his very best, remembering him as “one of my favourites…so witty, hugely encouraging and so quick to extend praise to cast and crew alike. All at Rep loved him for that.”

Geoff Pryor's 1990 impression of Colin Anderson at the "great debate"
I came to know him during his production of Noel Coward’s “Nude with Violin” in 1990, when McLeod organised a “great debate” against the Canberra  School of Art  in which Anderson and I held up the affirmative  on the topic “Art, like human nature, has got out of hand.” Canberra Times arts editor Robert Macklin described him as “the delicately diminutive director” and cartoonist Geoff Pryor was on hand to draw his impressions of the occasion.

Diminutive maybe, but not in argument. Macklin captured Anderson’s righteous anger thus: “Anderson jumped like a jockey onto the wild stallion of debate. ‘I am not opposed to change,’ he said. ‘Goodness gracious me. But it's the theorists, the academicians, the psychologists and all the others that I cannot abide’…Rising like lambent flame, his [Anderson’s] stature grew with the grandeur of his rage. ‘Above all else. I reject the cant, the jargon, the snobbism and commercialism of creative talent," he said.

And he did. That was Anderson all over – sharply acerbic and passionate about the arts.

Colin Anderson
Anderson directed 6 shows for Canberra Philharmonic between 1994 and 2001 in the big Canberra Theatre: “Les Miserables” in 1994 and the revival in 1996, which broke box office records when it was sold out before it opened its run; “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1997, “Carousel” in 1998, “Sweet Charity” in 2000 and the semi-staged "Jekyll and Hyde," 2001.

When I described his direction of the latter as 'manful.' He took it in his stride, laughing backstage, "well, girls, Helen Musa thinks I'm being manful."

Over the years, Anderson kept up not only his Canberra directing commitments, but directed David Williamson's "Emerald City" for Washburn University Theatre in in Topeka, Kansas during 1990, “Gulls” in Malta in 1998, where has hosted by High Commissioner Colin Willis (a Rep member) to work in the historic Teatru Manoel, and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” in Christchurch in 1999.

Long-time friend and historian Richard Stone, reports that he and his partner, the late John Thomson, arranged overseas trips to incorporate two of those overseas productions.

 Anderson’s achievements did not go unnoticed. In 1981 the Bryn Newton Award was conferred on him by his former alma mater, the University of Newcastle and in 1992 he was honoured with an honorary doctorate   from Charles Sturt.

At a large, joyous wake for Anderson in the old Customs House at Newcastle on Tuesday, July 15, friends, family, former fellow students from university and former pupils gathered to remember a man taken from everybody too soon.

Family members have told of Anderson's birth into a working-class, musically-inclined family in Newcastle. Early in his school life at Newcastle Boys High he became a DJ in a local radio station, a relief for him from school bullying.

A scholarship took him to the University of Newcastle during its fledging days on the Tighe’s Hill campus, where he quickly established a role as a theatre director. It was a time when students fought for autonomy from the University of NSW and Anderson was at the forefront of the protests, often done through revues full of his own outrageous lyrics set to hymns and well-known songs. Some of these revues also involved the legendary classics lecturer at the University, Godfrey Tanner, and the parents of Wharf Revue comedian Jonathan Biggins.

Later, during a stint in Sydney Anderson’s flat in Strathfield became the location for some outrageous parties at which he cajoled his friends into performing “water ballets,” where he was centre stage. In Sydney, too, he was in involved in university revues.

Anderson’s first proper job was an English teacher at James Ruse Agricultural High School on the outskirts of Sydney, destined to become Sydney highest-performing academic school. An improbable figure at an all-boys’ establishment, (now it has long been co-educational) as his former pupil Geoff Lawrence writes, "what he lacked in height, he made up for in volume." He rapidly introduced an annual Gilbert and Sullivan musical and became a legend among his pupils and a good friend.

A move to London in the late 60s refined his taste in theatre, as his Scottish cousin told those at the wake.

In 1972 Anderson was appointed as a lecturer in drama at the Riverina College of Advanced Education in a Wagga Wagga, later to become Charles Sturt University. He stayed 20 years and was credited with bringing “town and gown together,” as well as with instigating “great adventures.” 

After retiring to Centennial Park, Sydney, the theatre jobs started to run out so, until a bad fall and hospitalisation intervened, Anderson was left to enjoy his theatregoing, his friendships and the occasional enraged letter to the Sydney Theatre Company, one earning a sharp rebuke from director Robin Nevin, on which he dined out for months.

Anderson and I were regular theatre and dining companions. Even after the severe seizure he suffered several years ago, we went regularly to the opera and musical theatre in Sydney enjoying “Tosca”, “South Pacific” and “Love Never Dies” before he became too ill for outings. He was always mobbed by ex-students when we were on the town in Sydney.

There were many sides to Colin Anderson. A brilliant teacher, a wit, a director and a humanitarian, he was, those at the wake agreed, taken from  us too soon.

Helen Musa, July 2014