Monday, October 16, 2017

STRICTLY BALLROOM - The Musical


Directed by Chris Baldock – Musical Direction by Rhys Madigan
Choreographed by Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock – Costumes designed by Anna Senior
Set designed by Ian Coker
Presented by The Canberra Philharmonic Society

Erindale Theatre 12th to 28th October, 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Ylaria Rogers (Fran) and Joel Hutchings (Scott Hastings)
in
"STRICTLY BALLROOM - The Musical

Love was certainly in the air last night when the Canberra Philharmonic Society presented the first non-professional production of Baz Luhmann’s Strictly Ballroom – The Musical. When Luhmann’s dazzling, multi-million dollar production toured Australia in 2014/15 it received mixed reviews, mainly because the story tended to get lost in a surfeit of extravagant production numbers.

Since that tour the show has been extensively reworked for International production, and Philo were quick off the mark to secure the non-professional rights for this version. It was also very canny in securing the services of experienced director, Chris Baldock to helm this  production, which remarkably, holds up very well in comparison to the original.

By eliminating some extraneous songs and replacing them with new specially-written songs by Eddie Perfect, the storyline has been clarified, placing the focus firmly on the blossoming romance between the self-absorbed champion ballroom dancer, Scott Hastings and his shy but talented admirer, Fran. 
Ylaria Rogers  gives a captivating performance as Fran, the young dancer who understands what Scott is trying to achieve, and anxious to help him achieve it. Her transition from hesitant beginner to potential champion is carefully charted and a joy to watch.

Joel Hutchings as Scott Hastings in "STRICTLY BALLROOM - The Musical 

While his ballroom dance technique is clearly not his strength, Joel Hutchings gives a plucky performance as Scott Hastings, along the way executing some truly impressive moves, especially in the cleverly choreographed solo in Act 1. The scenes between Scott and Fran are particularly affecting, especially when Scott begins to teach Fran some of his moves, and later, in perhaps the highlight of the show, when Fran’s father (Tomas Dietz), teaches him the Spanish pasodoble.

With its huge cast, “Strictly Ballroom” contains a plethora of great character roles. Astute casting has resulted in many memorable performances, far too many to mention individually.  However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge  Pat Gallaher and Paul Sweeney, outstanding as the conniving Barry Fife and his bumbling offsider Les Kendle;  Tracy Noble and Ian Croker, funny and touching as Todd’s former dance-champion parents, Shirley and Doug Hastings; and Berin Denham ( JJ Silvers) , Emma Nichols ( Tina Sparkle), Peer Karmel ( Ken Railings) Liam Downing ( Wayne Burns), Kirrily Cornwell (Abuela) and Tomas Dietz (Rico), and two remarkable junior performers, Jake Keen (Luke) and particularly Isabella Fraser (Kylie Hastings) for turning a wardrobe malfunction into a magic moment.
 
Joel Hutchings (Scott Hastings) and Courtney Whitcombe (Liz Holt)
in
"STRICTLY BALLROOM - The Musical"

Despite the usual first-night technical glitches with sound and lighting cues, which will no doubt be rectified for future performances, there is so much about this production to admire - Baldock’s masterly direction and his expertise in marshalling Philo’s considerable resources to successfully conjure up the rarefied world of competition ballroom dancing - Ian Croker’s clever mirrored set design which allowed the many scenery changes to be accomplished seamlessly - Anna Senior’s eye-popping costumes which combined with the imaginative and resourceful choreography of Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock, provided a professional gloss to the succession of spectacular production numbers.

Berin Denham (JJ Silver) and ensemble
in
"STRICTLY BALLROOM - The Mu
sical


Over the years the Canberra Philharmonic Society has provided many outstanding productions of great musicals. This production of “Strictly Ballroom” is certainly up there among their best. Don’t miss it.   


                                      All photos courtesy of Ross Gould


This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 13th October 2017

THE FLOWERS OF WAR: THE HEALERS


Simone Riksman and Andrew Goodwin (photo by Peter Hislop)

Devised and directed by Christopher Latham
The High Court October 10

Reviewed by Len Power

The second of 2017’s ‘The Flowers Of War’ concerts is an opera called ‘The Healers’, devised and directed by Christopher Latham.  It has been created substantially from music by female composers such as the sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger and Cecile Chaminade and also includes music from male serving composers who were wounded or killed, such as E.J. Moeran, Georges Antoine, Andre Devaere, Fernand Halphen, Arthur Bliss, Ivor Gurney and Australia’s Frederick Septimus Kelly.

It tells the story through music of the love between a Flemish nurse and a dying Australian soldier, and includes two historical French figures, Maurice Jaspart, a young clarinettist who lost his arm serving at Verdun, and the composer, Joseph Boulnois, who served as an orderly, dying from the Spanish Flu, three weeks shy of the Armistice.

Performed in the foyer of the High Court of Australia in low lighting to create an atmosphere of a field hospital lit mostly by hurricane lamps, the acoustic of the High Court added a haunting, dream-like quality to the show.  Singers, Andrew Goodwin, tenor, and Simone Riksman, soprano, gave fine performances as the wounded soldier and the Belgian Nurse.

The music was beautifully performed by Christopher Latham, violin, David Pereira, cello, and Caroline Almonte, piano, with additional performances in some pieces by Tom Azoury as the amputee Maurice Jaspart and Catherine McCorkill, both on clarinet.

There was some awkwardness in the occasional moments of spoken dialogue by the musicians.  The simple hospital setting with red poppies strewn on the floor, the nurses in white uniforms dotted amongst the audience and the low lighting created a fine sense of time and place.  The linking dialogue was unnecessary.

A sense of opera was achieved most effectively during the set of songs by Lili Boulanger, Ivor Gurney and Frederick Septimus Kelly when the soldier and the nurse declared their feelings for each other through the songs.

This was a very moving evening of music and a fitting tribute to the composers, soldiers and nurses of the World War One period to whom we owe so much.

This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition of 11th October 2017.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast in his ‘On Stage’ performing arts program on ArtsoundFM 92.7 from 3.30pm on Mondays and in ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

versions of us



Written by Emily Sheehan
Directed by Jess Baker and Jamie Winbank
Canberra Youth Theatre
Gorman Arts Centre 12-14 October

Review by Len Power 14 October 2017

As the lights came up on the young cast of twelve lined up before us, something made me think of the Broadway musical, ‘A Chorus Line’.  It was soon clear that ‘versions of us’ isn’t about theatre people and their experiences.  Its focus is on real life as seen through the eyes of today’s youth, just presented in theatrical terms.

One of the reasons it works so well is the quality of the writing.  Developed through a series of workshops with the cast in which individual experiences were related, discussed and expanded upon, the resulting script is a collection of revue-like scenes which have a strong ring of truth about them.  Some of it is raw and some of it is funny.  There are quite shocking moments of pain and disappointment in relationships and friendships as well as naivity and street-wise cynicism.  Writer, Emily Sheehan, has fashioned the content into theatre dialogue that is highly playable and has the ring of truth about it.

The ensemble cast play the multiple scenes with commitment and great energy but more work needs to be done on the clarity of the diction of some of the actors.  The performers’ sense of comic timing produced some good laugh-out-loud moments, especially Jett Aplin in his scene about his interest in salamanders and the girls discussing a step-by-step method to shoplift successfully.  It’s amazing what you can learn at the theatre!

Co-directors Jess Baker and Jaime Winbank have fashioned a fine theatrical production with very little in the way of props and minimal lighting.  Scenes are thoughtfully staged in visually different ways around the stage and the show has a nice flow to it that helps to maintain interest throughout.  The depth of character work in even very small scenes is very effective.

The lighting design by Jayden Beattie and Ethan Hammil is imaginative and effective and their choice of music in the sound design, assisted by Kimmo Vennonen, creates a strong atmosphere.

The really curious thing about this show is how much an older person can relate to the stories these young people tell.  In many ways, it might be a different world out there now, but it seems some aspects of life haven’t changed at all.

Photos from Canberra Youth Theatre website
Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s new ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Merchant of Venice - Bell Shakespeare

Shylock (Mitchell Butel) receives grace

Review by John Lombard

Moneylender Shylock may be seeking a literal pound of flesh "nearest the heart" from merchant Antonio, but you have to wonder how much his own heart is in it.

When Shylock brokers the "pound of flesh" contract it is not clear whether this is a plot to entrap a tormentor, or whether it is intended as a genuine act of detente.

Mitchell Butel plays Shylock with a humour and generosity that suggests that he sincerely intends to be friends with Antonio, and only decides to claim Antonio's life as forfeit after his daughter elopes with a member of Antonio's entourage. 

But even then he needs to build up the courage to seek revenge, wrapping himself in a Tallit and finding the strength to murder in solemn prayer.  This isn't a plotting villain, this is a kind man struggling to find the will to be cruel.

Antonio (Jo Turner) by contrast is a rabid anti-Semite, condemning the Jewish Shylock even while begging for a loan.  We hear Shylock give a litany of the abuses that have been heaped on him by Antonio and his friends, and in Shylock's darkest moment we even see Antonio spit on him.

With all that in mind, it was certainly optimistic of Antonio is become an accessory in the theft of Shylock's daughter and goods while on the hook to the moneylender of a pound of his flesh.  What did he think was going to happen?

Antonio is made to suffer for his foolishness.  When his investments all fail Shylock demands his bond, and Antonio must face both impending death and grisly torture.  In one visceral moment his friends hold him in place while the knives inch towards his bare chest.

But after that his character arc comes unstuck.  Portia tells Shylock that "the quality of mercy is not strained", but Antonio fails to learn that lesson.  His mercy is wrath, for while he saves Shylock from poverty, he forces him to convert to Christianity.  A crucifix is slipped over the struggling Shylock's neck as though Antonio is marking his skin with a hot brand.

This production also makes explicit the hint of a homosexual relationship in the fervent friendship of Antonio and his roguish friend Bassanio (Damien Strouthos).  Antonio is played as in love with Bassanio, even giving him a tender kiss on the lips as a farewell.

Bassanio's courtship of the wealthy and brilliant Portia (Jessica Tovey) is especially effective in this production.  Eugene Gilfedder and Shiv Palekar provide comic highlights as truly odious potential suitors, but there is an authentic truth to the bond between the adventurous and risk-taking Bassanio and the cloistered but spirited Portia.

Merchant of Venice is notable for having elaborate plot devices that seem dropped into the play at random - Portia's courtship involves a fairy-tale guessing game, and after Shylock is foiled the play has a final sequence where the new husbands are tricked out of their rings by their wives disguised as men.

But this final kink resonates perfectly with the homosexual undercurrent in this production.  When boofy Gratiano (Fayssal Bazzi) tries to explain to his new wife Nerissa (Catherine Davies) the spectacular charm of the boy he gave his ring to, both she and Portia seem to have a cosmic frustration that they had to trick their husbands into honour and devotion by slipping on trousers.  Apparently bromance can trump the claims of marriage unless wives bring it to heel.

Ultimately this is a production that successfully humanises Shylock, to the point where it even reverses Shakespeare's intent.  Shylock did try to kill someone, so we can't quite give him a medal, but the production gives a lot of emphasis to his suffering and the unfairness of his treatment - even the law is rigged against him.

In a departure from Shakespeare's original, at the conclusion we see Shylock's wayward daughter Jessica collapse in guilt at what she has done to her father, and by extension shames the Christian cast that have tormented and abused the Jew.  The contract that grants Jessica and her beau Lorenzo Shylock's wealth after his death should be a mark of triumph over the villain, but instead Lorenzo shreds it in shame and atonement.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks has adroitly honoured and redeemed Shakespeare's play of a villainous Jew as a tragedy of a tormented man seeking revenge on his bullies - and with all of the vitality and freshness we expect from Bell Shakespeare.

Finally though, it is only Shylock's kindness that has him give up on the pound of flesh so easily - if he really could not shed a drop of blood and had to secure precisely one pound, all he really had to do was take his time... and carve slowly.

BLADE RUNNER 2049


Review by © Jane Freebury

It took a decade to perfect the original Blade Runner by jettisoning the voiceover and upbeat ending and restoring some scenes that had landed on the cutting room floor - as they did in those days. Even though the film was first released in 1982, it wasn’t until after its re-release as a director’s cut in 1992 that it began to take on the burnished glow of a science fiction classic.

Despite VO and optimism tacked on at the end, the success of the original Blade Runner had earned its director, Ridley Scott, the right to have his way and take full creative control.

The compelling beautiful/horrible vision in the original film of a Los Angeles in 2019: a city riddled with rogue androids (replicants) and detectives (blade runners) hunting them down, a city some citizens had quit for a better future in colonies off-world.

It may have taken some time to catch on, but catch on it did and generations of filmgoers have been keenly anticipating this sequel.

It opens with high impact. Police Officer K (an overly impassive Ryan Gosling) is cruising through the sky on his way to eliminate, or as they say ‘retire’, a rogue replicant living in remote seclusion. With the help of his drone, as obedient as a pet dog, K unearths a secret that could bring the whole house of cards down. It may be that replicants can reproduce.

Rather than mooch off with this intel somewhere, as his famous predecessor Deckard might have done, he faithfully reports his find to his boss, Lieutenant Joshi, a scary, slicked-back Robin Wright. He’s told to destroy the evidence and go find out more. This eventually leads him to Deckard (Harrison Ford) who’s hiding out in a nuclear devastated Las Vegas.

Blade Runner 2049 is a breathtaking, fascinating vision of dystopia, a little further advanced. Plant and animal life have all but disappeared, the rain brings acid with it instead of life’s promise, the golden voice of Frank Sinatra is on a loop. The Asian market-themed streets are busy with hookers and addicts, and the LAPD inhabits one of the biggest high rises in town.

A few brands project their logos into the night sky – Sony, Atari, Coca Cola, Peugeot – and it’s eerie beautiful. At least someone can keep their lights on.

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and the team – including Ridley Scott as producer and one of the original writers, Hampton Fancher -  remains faithful to the brilliant and suggestive production design of the original with a stunningly handsome, and not preposterous, dystopian vision.

The vision a world in the grip of drastic climate change, and human exploitation on a vast scale with hundreds of skinny, scrappy boys at work in a sweatshop as wide as the eye can see. A vast scrap metal dump that hides an underclass left behind by technology and shunned by the corporate creatives shaping a fascist future.

Nearly a century has passed since Fritz Lang made his science fiction classic Metropolis but the influence of his vision with its skyscrapers, highways in the sky, capitalists above and workers below, is still discernible.

From the late 1970s until the early 2000s, the English filmmaker Ridley Scott was probably at the height of his powers with work such as Alien (the original), Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Gladiator. Each of those films told a compelling story and delivered it with powerful atmospherics. I can’t say he has shown his knack for a strong story with fabulous visuals as often since, though he was in fine form making The Martian.

Blade Runner 2049 only makes a marginal advance on the narrative of the original, and it doesn’t really fire. Most of the US $150+ budget went into the compelling visuals, thundering sound and disturbing ambient score (Hans Zimmer collaborated on the music). Not enough went into concept and script development.

The characters are functions of the meagre plot and their interactions lack emotional punch. It’s not enough to say they are all androids anyway.

If the director Villeneuve has the opportunity of a director’s cut what changes might he make? At close to 3 hours running time, it wouldn’t get any longer, but he might swap some scenes like those portentous ones inside Wallace Corp - with the boss played by Jared Leto, the inventor who may be mad but is also blind - for more with Harrison Ford. The exchanges between Ford and Gosling were some of the best by far.

As were the scenes in Las Vegas where K finds Deckard, alone apart from a mangy dog, forced to drink whisky because that’s all there is to drink, and obliged to read books, because that’s all there is to do. In these scenes, with holograms of Sinatra, Presley and Liberace performing in the background, wowing the casino crowd, there is at least something that comes close to mood.

Here it’s nostalgia for a world that is lost. And it’s touching to realise that the quest overall is for something like our lost humanity.

Blade Runner 2049 is a marvel to look at, but its people are one dimensional. It’s a problem common to much of the tentpole cinema aimed at the core audiences today, but here we might have expected something more.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE



Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks
Bell Shakespeare
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre to 21 October

Reviewed by Len Power 13 October 2017


Probably written between 1596 and 1599, ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ tells the story of a merchant, Antonio, who defaults on a loan from a much abused Jewish money-lender, Shylock, who then demands that the default agreement be exacted literally – a pound of the merchant’s flesh.  How legal argument is used to win the day against Shylock is exciting theatre but the extreme penalty he then suffers is now extremely troubling.

Anne-Louise Sarks has directed a visually pleasing production in a modern autumn setting designed by Michael Hankin, who also designed the costumes.  The lighting design of Paul Jackson and sound by Max Lyandvert add considerable atmosphere to the production.
Mitchell Butel as Shylock and the Company of 'The Merchant Of Venice'

Commencing the play with most of the company reciting a Christian prayer with Shylock and his daughter obviously absent but observing was an inspired idea, setting the scene for what was to come.

Performances by the cast are excellent.  Jessica Tovey gives a performance of considerable depth as Portia, believable as a modern young woman with the usual hopes and dreams who is also a formidable legal battler in court.  The emotional edge she brings to her ‘Quality of Mercy’ speech is a highlight of the show.
Jessica Tovey as Portia

Mitchell Butel plays Shylock with a quiet intensity devoid of cliché.  The pain he has suffered from discrimination is clearly shown but his determination to exact his revenge in the courtroom is all the more shocking when we see the emotions he has kept in check for so long.  It’s a great performance.

Mitchell Butel as Shylock, Felicity McKay as Jessica
Jo Turner gives a strongly courageous performance as the racist Antonio, never pulling back from the negative aspects of his character.
Jo Turner as Antonio

Jacob Warner commands the stage in his role as the clerk, Launcelot.  He gives us an amusing all-knowing character and his comic timing is excellent.  There is also fine work by Damien Strouthos, Shiv Pelkar, Anthony Taufa and Eugene Gilfedder.
Jacob Warner as Launcelot

Catherine Davies is a delightful and refreshing Nerissa and Felicity McKay gives a very human and ultimately tragic performance as Shylock’s daughter, Jessica.
Catherine Davies as Nerissa

Although Shakespeare’s play is classified as one of his comedies, it’s the dramatic aspects of the plot that are most remembered.  In Bell Shakespeare’s new production, the comedy is certainly there and played delightfully but the play’s darker aspects now have an even stronger resonance in today’s world.

Photos by Prudence Upton

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s new ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

Friday, October 13, 2017

STRICTLY BALLROOM



Book by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce
Adapted by Terry Johnson
Directed by Chris Baldock
Music Direction by Rhys Madigan
Canberra Philharmonic Society
Erindale Theatre to 28 October

Reviewed by Len Power 12 October 2017

When a stage musical works, there is no other theatrical experience that can match it.  You can experience that phenomenon simply by seeing Philo’s latest production of ‘Strictly Ballroom’ at the Erindale Theatre.

Originally conceived as a short play by Baz Luhrmann, then a student at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), ‘Strictly Ballroom’ became a highly successful musical film.  A professional stage version of the film, also directed by Luhrmann, opened in Sydney in 2014.  Canberra Philharmonic Society is the first non-professional Australian company to present the musical.

The director, Chris Baldock, wisely keeps the heightened reality of the film and ensures that this fairy tale of a ballroom dancer who rebels by wanting to do his own steps in a competition meets audience expectations.  Then he takes it to another level with a complex production that’s breath-taking in its theatrical surprises, making this one of the most memorable productions Canberra has seen in a long time.

The show has a huge cast, all of whom give fine performances, vocally and dramatically.  In the leading role of the dancer, Scott Hastings, Joel Hutchings gives a heroic performance, displaying strong singing, dancing and acting skills.  He is matched every step of the way with a delightfully feisty performance by Ylaria Rogers as Fran, the initially uninspiring dancer who shows she is a perfect match for him on the dance floor and beyond.

Amongst the sixteen major roles there are standout performances by Tracy Noble, Ian Croker, Kirrily Cornwell, Pat Gallagher, Paul Sweeney and Berin Denham.  Tomás Dietz stopped the show with his paso doble dance and the very young couple, Isabella Fraser and Jake Keen, danced and sang charmingly and brought the house down with their expert handling of a costume problem during their dance.

Musical direction by Rhys Madigan is excellent and the orchestra played the different musical styles very well.  Ian Croker’s set looks good and flows nicely from scene to scene.  Lighting design by Phil Goodwin is imaginative and well-executed.

Anna Senior provides spectacular and colourful ballroom costumes and Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock deserve the highest praise for their choreography which everyone in the company performs with confidence and polish.

This show was so good that it almost seems like it was just a dream I had.  Good musical theatre can do that to you.  Don’t miss this one!

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s new ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.