Sunday, January 25, 2015

INTO THE WOODS - THE MOVIE



Directed by Rob Marshall
Screenplay by James Lapine
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Review by Len Power 23 January 2015

There had been talk for years that there would be a movie of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, ‘Into The Woods’.  It’s finally here and it’s pretty good, too.

The stage version opened in New York in 1987, winning several Tony Awards despite being up against Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ that year.  It’s a clever musical about a number of fairy tale characters whose stories intertwine.  Halfway through the show, we see them get to live happily ever after as expected but the darker second half shows that they’re not necessarily all that happy after all.  The musical serves up contemporary morals in traditional fairy tale fashion like ‘Children Will Listen’ and ‘No-one Is Alone’.  It’s a musical that children can watch on one level while adults will see and enjoy quite a different show.

Rob Marshall previously directed the successful movie of ‘Chicago’ and the awful flop, ‘Nine’.  He’s done a fine job with this one.  The production design by Dennis Gassner is superb.  The sound on the movie is also notable.  The seats in the theatre where I saw it were shaking when the giant was stomping around onscreen.  There was excellent balance between music and singers, too, which is essential with Sondheim shows where you must be able to hear the lyrics clearly.  I was impressed by the orchestral arrangements, supervised and conducted by Paul Gemignani, a long-time Sondheim collaborator.

Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife in the movie
Most of the cast do fine work in the movie.  Dominating the show is the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, who has a great time with the clever lines and sings some tongue-twisting songs strongly as well.  Also impressive was James Corden as the Baker, who created a very real and moving character.  Anna Kendrick as Cinderella was sweet and touching and Christine Baranski gave a very funny Ugly Stepmother.  Tracey Ullman was very droll as Jack the Giant Killer’s mother and Johnny Depp scored in the smaller role of the lascivious Wolf who has Red Riding Hood in his sights.  Only Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife didn’t work for me.  The original Broadway performer of this role, Joanna Gleason, who won a Tony Award for it, found much more depth and humour in the character.  Next to the Witch, she was the most memorable character onstage.  Her performance and those of the original Broadway cast is preserved on a filmed version of the stage production which is worth hunting down on DVD.
Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife in the original 1987 Broadway production

When movies are made of stage musicals, many people are concerned that they’ll be changed too much from the original.  The only major changes I was aware of in the movie were that the Narrator, an onstage character in the theatre is now only a voice over.  In the second half of the stage play, the Narrator also plays a character called ‘Mysterious Man’ who appears to Jack and sings ‘No More’ with him.  In the movie, the mysterious man is clearly the spirit of Jack’s father but the song is not sung and is heard only in the underscoring of the scene.

I recommend the movie, which has apparently been quite a success since its release.  I think the material still works more magically as a stage play and Canberra will see a local production of it for the first time later this year.  If you like the movie, make sure you catch the stage version.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 25 January 2015 from 5pm.

Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn

Absent Friends by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Mark Kilmurry; designed by Anna Gardiner; lighting by Peter Neufeld.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, December 4 – January 24, 2014-15.
Cast: Michelle Doake (Diana); Darren Gilshenan (Colin); Brian Meegan (John); Jessica Sullivan (Evelyn); Richard Sydenham (Paul); Queenie van de Zandt (Marge).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 24

What an embarrassing play!

Not for us in the audience, of course.  No, all we had to do was cringe appropriately on behalf of Marge every time she put her foot in it.  And Queenie knew exactly how to time her big feet, especially in those lovely huge yellow shoes.

Darren’s Colin’s equanimity in accepting his girlfriend Carol’s drowning took the wind out of Diana, her husband Paul, and his other old friend John, but never surprised John’s wife, Evelyn, since she was never surprised by any man’s or woman’s or child’s behaviour.

Michelle’s Diana went horribly mad, Richard’s Paul became catatonic, while Brian’s John’s fixation against death nearly brought him asunder.  All of these experienced actors were spot on in characterisation and timing, as we would expect, but perhaps it was Evelyn’s role that was the hardest to play.

As the deadpan observer, it would have been easy for Jessica to make her Evelyn merely unpleasant and vindictive, but she made her thoroughly understandable to those other observers – us in the audience.  As we laughed at the ludicrous antics of the others, Evelyn kept our feet on the ground – and made the humour that much blacker.  Without her as a foil, the play could degenerate into farce, instead of worthwhile comedy.  A good call by director Mark, as well as skill from Jessica.

The other key production element which kept the play out of the potential farce zone was the use of terrible pauses of embarrassment – long enough not only for the audience to realise what the embarrassment was about; in the extra time of silence and stillness there was a second laugh as the characters’ confusion of feelings deepened.

Another good call by the director, and performed with consummate discipline by all concerned.

But my favourite moment has to be the withering looks Queenie conjured for Marge to send as daggers at Paul, so disgusted was she at his cruelty towards Diana in her distress, added to by her knowledge, direct from the horse’s (Evelyn’s) mouth, of Paul’s execrable behaviour in the back seat of his car.

Absent Friends is shown to be a bitter comedy from England’s Alan Ayckbourn, which still rings true even after a little translation to Australia in our 1970s.  It was another good call to keep to the original period, even if only because language has changed too much to set these marriages in this century.

I saw the second last performance in the run, and now feel disappointed that I cannot recommend to you to make sure you don’t miss it.  I nearly did, and I’m glad I did not.

BUT late news is good news: actually the play is transferring next week to Glen Street Theatre in Belrose from Wednesday 28 to Saturday 31 January, so go if you can.
Darren Gilshenan (Colin); Brian Meegan (John); Richard Sydenham (Paul)

Jessica Sullivan (Evelyn)

 Queenie van de Zandt (Marge)
Background: Richard Sydenham (Paul); Michelle Doake (Diana); Jessica Sullivan (Evelyn)

Queenie van de Zandt (Marge); Darren Gilshenan (Colin); Michelle Doake (Diana)
All photos by Katy Green Loughrey


Saturday, January 24, 2015

DRESS CIRCLE - 25 JANUARY 2015 - 5.00 TO 6.30PM


                                                                                                                                                                                     
Neal Foster 
In DRESS CIRCLE this week, Birmingham Stage Company founder, Neal Foster, who’ll be at the Canberra Theatre in the cast of “Barmy Britain”, tells how the famous Horrible Histories series came about. 
Jill Hicks 
 
 





Jill Hicks, a finalist for the 2015 Australian of the Year, shares details of her experience as a survivor of the London terrorist bombing.


We pay tribute to Canberra theatrical legend, Hec McMillan, who passed away during the week.  

Hec McMillan 
In the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, Hazel Phillips concludes her story of “Marilyn and Me”.


Hazel Phillips
 
 
 
 
 

As well, Len Power will review the movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”, Blue the Shearer wonders why “Parliament is not sitting”, and Isobel Griffin will present “Arts Diary”.
Ninety 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 Artsound.fm

Sydney Festival 2015 - Nothing to Lose

Cover Photo: Toby Burrows
Nothing to Lose Force Majeure directed by Kate Champion.  Artistic Associate and Music Curator: Kelli Jean Drinkwater; Set and Lighting design: Geoff Cobham; Costume design: Matthew Stegh; Text Dramaturg: Steve Rodgers.  Sydney Festival at Carriageworks, January 21-25, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
January 23

At its heart, dance is celebration.

But to make a dance means to know and show what is to be celebrated.  And why.

The best dance work makes what is being celebrated both personal and universal.  Kate Champion’s work is among the best.

Nothing to Lose is, in one sense, not all Champion’s work.  Her special skill as director is to bring others in: not only those mentioned already, but Ghenoa Gela to choreograph the finale to sound composed by Stereogamous (Paul Mac and Jonny Seymour), and indeed the whole company working together to devise the movement vocabulary.  And an important participant in the process was an “Outside Eye”: Roz Hervey.

Force Majeure’s continuing success, including this show, the previous collaboration with Steve Rodgers, Food, and earlier works also reviewed on this blog, The Age I’m In, and Never Did Me any Harm, has always resulted from Kate Champion’s vision of new forms of dance/drama and her cooperative way of leading her company, often consisting of groups of people with a need and desire to express themselves through a movement vocabulary devised for their particular kind of celebration.

It is sad, then, to read in her Director’s Note I would … like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported my work with Force Majeure since its inception, in particular Carriageworks and Sydney Festival.  I am sincerely honoured that our resident home and the Festival that presented our first show have co-commissioned my last as Artistic Director with the company.
The Cast
Photo: Heidrun Lohr


Whatever the future holds, Nothing to Lose is literally writ large in today’s dance scene.  However I must try to avoid writing anything fatuous, since the show’s words in a way undermine my role as critic.  Almost – it seems every possible – derogatory (politically incorrect) word or phrase that people use to describe fat people is presented in a tumbling cascade of squirm-making sound, followed by all the politically correct questions and advice that people ask of and give to fat people, leaving me only able to say that the show simply says accept us for what we are and celebrate our lives with us.

Words are not needed then.  The conventional responses to such large bodies presenting themselves to us on stage are broken down first by an unusual form of audience participation.  The figures, on low pedestals, become exhibits of art works, statues that volunteers from the audience are guided to touch, exploring the bodies, in a personal and finally comforting way as they each rest their head on the expansive soft stomach of their chosen statue, “as if on a pillow”.  The experience (even of just watching as I did) reminded me of the Ron Mueck statue of the pregnant woman and the other naked figures in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition In the Flesh (until March 9, 2015), except that we were not allowed to touch those.



As statues in an exhibition, with guide Julian Crotti
Photo: Heidrun Lohr
Photo: Heidrun Lohr
The members of the Cast – Claire “Scarlett” Burrows, Julian Crotti, Michael Cutrupi, LaLa Gabor, Ally Garrett, Latai Taumoepeau and Anastasia Zaravinos – performed a series of episodes expressing in abstract forms emotions and experiences as people rather than as “fat” people.  Their physical skills and quality of dance movement, and the range of styles they worked in, simply showed us that expressive dance for such large people is just as normal as it is for any other people.  The way they moved was personal to them, but we could all relate to their feelings and applaud their success as dancers.

As a finale, an Ensemble – Alexandra Afflick, Kelli Jean Drinkwater, Alice Hatton, Michael Jaja, Victor Johnson, John Leha, Maeve Marsden, Malafou Ralph Togia-Molesi, Cara Neely, Shondelle Pratt and Angela Sullen – joined the Cast in a whole of company celebratory group dance in unison which elicited whoops, cheers and whistles as well as lengthy applause from a highly appreciative audience, which certainly included this critic.
Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Photo: Toby Burrows

Photo: Toby Burrows
Finale
Photo: Heidrun Lohr
  







Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Arts broadcaster with a heart: Sylvie Stern

THE Canberra arts community has been shocked to learn of the death today (January 21, 2015) of broadcaster, writer, photographer and arts activist Sylvie Stern, after a period of hospitalisation.
Stern, though never, ever  a 'stern' critic, was one of the leading commentators on the performing  and visual arts in Canberra, so colleagues at 2XXFM and PhotoAccess are planning a celebration of her life in the near future, of which we will publish details when available.
In 2013 Stern was one of the subjects in portrait artist Barbara van der Linden’s Centenary project, “Faces of Canberra.” The portrait is published here with the permission of van der Linden.
I was fortunate enough to interview Stern for the catalogue essay I wrote, and these were my words in 2013, approved by Stern:
There are few Canberra faces likely to be seen as widely around Canberra as Sylvie Stern’s.
A radio presenter for Community radio Station 2XXFM, she has also been a publicist, a singer and promoter of exotic installations in Civic, and the mover and shaker behind cultural institutions like Heaven nightclub, the Kahlo Club, ‘Artbeat’ in the Festival of Contemporary arts, Pulse youth dance events, international women’s day ‘Splash outs’ and Blackartz Day Out, a festival showcasing indigenous musicians and artists staged during reconciliation week 2004.
Born of mixed Spanish-Austrian heritage and the daughter of the distinguished Cambridge linguist Professor George Stern, she studied music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and enjoyed a remarkable career as a singer in London and New York, where she lived for 10 years, recording with Donna Summer and working with The Four Tops, Dr John and Bo Diddley.
After suffering a stroke, she moved back from overseas and to Canberra in 1993, where she quickly involved herself in the arts, especially those which bore on social justice and equity. As well, she changed the nightclub scene by bringing in sculptural installations and underground video projections into music events and environments.
On air, Stern is a critic, but an extraordinarily generous one who never, ever belittles artists or resorts to sarcasm. ‘I always try to bring out the artist’s own perspective of the work,’ she says.
‘Whether it’s visual arts, theatre, film or mixed media, I like to find out why they wanted to create it in the first place. What stirred them?’
Stern was part of the ACT Festivals Advisory Funding Committee, and was a member of the ACT Cultural Council for three terms, where she took part in forums on live-music issues facing the local sector.
A fervent advocate for the often-neglected hybrid arts, she has supported professional, emerging and grass roots artists and musicians. She was part of the team that, in 2007, was granted $70,000 for the re-fit of the 2XX FM studios with up-dated equipment.
Known by all as a humane and kind figure, in recent years she has juggled her community and on-air commitments with acting as a full-time sole carer of her late mother.
‘There is a symbiotic relationship between broadcasting and culture,’ she says, speaking for the whole industry. “We try to harbour and create a continuing, creative partnership with writers, performers, musicians and producers across Canberra and the surrounding region, and therefore contribute a shared enterprise with our audience.” To Stern, radio was a labour of love.

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Kim Churchill with Boo Seeka and Pepa Knight

The Abbey
Federation Square, Nicholls
Friday 16 January 2015
Reviewed by Samara Purnell


For $15, the capacity crowd at The Abbey on Friday night definitely got bang for their buck.

Boo Seeka, a duo formed almost minutes before the metaphorical curtain went up, kicked off the night. The Canberra gig was just their second. Gumby, with his top-knot, vintage shirt and skinny jeans began with a couple of acoustic numbers, before Sam stepped up to the MPC (Music Production Centre), adding samples of keyboards, drums and various sound effects. At times these seemed a little clunky, but overall the sound was really catchy. Gumby’s smooth voice is somewhat reminiscent of Pete Murray, only sexier. Add a sprinkling of Chet Faker and a touch of TKST and that’s about where these guys are etching out their niche. It’s mellowed out psych meets dream tronica.

They did a cover of “Wicked Game”, performed fairly faithfully to Chris Isaak’s original, although it was difficult to clearly understand the lyrics at times. They also have a Cody Chestnutt cover in their budding repertoire.

Gumby switched to a steel resonator guitar to see out the set, which included the chilled tune “Kingdom Leader” and “Deception Bay”. The latter was the most memorable song of the set - soothing, melodious and with lyrics perfectly matched to the vibe. Gumby’s beautiful voice really did conjure up the feeling of floating off across a tide somewhere, whether in bliss or despair. The boys finished up their set with sexier, heavier beats that roused the crowd.

Boo Seeka was an exciting find. Plus they were selling cassettes with digital tracks! 

Boo Seeka equals a lazy afternoon on the beach or a groovy Sunday sess and no doubt will be making regular appearances at beach and folk festivals.

Pepa Knight, having recently returned from India, was the second support act. He usually has four other musicians with him, but tonight he performed solo. This meant he constantly flicked through an impressive range of instruments including the sitar, oud and wooden flute.

“Fortress” and “Clams” from Pepa’s recently released solo album, “Hypnotized Vol 1” were highlights in his hectic and emotive set. At times it felt a bit experimental, something that would forge ahead rain, hail or shine. Some of the Hindustani inspired vocals seemed challenging but the songs performed using the Vocoder (or equivalent) were great and really suited Pepa’s voice. Toward the end of the set he was sounding like Coldplay.

Pepa created an impressive soundscape. It felt as though a teepee full of ganja and harem pants were prerequisites to completely embrace the indie folk vibes. Pepa's short, timid interactions with the audience were punctuated with sips of tea and a song performed in tree pose. Halfway through the set he informed us that on the way up from Melbourne they had all been fined $933 for not wearing seat belts. And by the way the merch table is over by the door.

Then it was time for the main act – enter Kim Churchill. Blonde, messy haired and barefooted, Kim looks as if he’s just leaped straight off a surfboard or skateboard (he probably has, as these are his other passions), and landed on stage. He really is a one-man band with his sophisticated kick drum beats and full-on harmonica playing.

Smokes can this ex-Canberra boy bash out a tune! He lit up the stage with his “Single Spark”, belting out its discordant hooks. Kim has impressive guitar skills (he has significant classical training), and utilized the whole instrument, also using alternate fingering techniques.

Kim performed songs from his 2014 album “Silence/Win” with absolute exuberance and joy. He has a youthful charm and an easy, warm manner with the audience, regaling us with the stories behind his songs. He told us of his recently deceased grandmother, who, seeing out her days in a palliative care ward, had caught the eye of a gentleman in the same ward. He had decided she was the love of his life and after asking her son’s permission, sat with her each day until she died. With that, Kim sang his bitter-sweet, brand new song, “Rosemary”.

On the whole, though, this is just damn fine, happy music. Music to jam to in a coast house.

By the time Kim got to his Led Zeppelin cover, he was smashing it out of the ballpark. And it was a close call as to who was having more fun – Kim or the audience.

His encore took it up yet another notch, reaching a frenzied display – the rows of people dancing up the front cheered as he smashed out the final chords. And with that it was over.

You might not remember all the lyrics to all the songs after the show. But the rounded performance, talent and joie de vivre will stay with you long after Kim’s catching the next wave out of town.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

NEXT TO NORMAL



Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Darylin Ramondo
Doorstep Arts in association with Hayes Theatre Co.
Hayes Theatre, Sydney
January 8 to February 1, 2015

Review by Len Power 14 January 2015

When you’re only a few minutes into the opening song of ‘Next To Normal’, you can already feel that you’re going to see something extraordinary.  Winner of three Tony Awards on Broadway in 2009 and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010, this production by Geelong’s Doorstep Arts is really something to experience.

The story concerns the battle of a woman suffering from bipolar disorder and the impact it has on her family.  It doesn’t sound very entertaining, I know, but you are immediately drawn into the action by interesting and well-written characters that you care about and there are flashes of unexpected humour along the way as well.  It’s chilling and confronting at times but it’s never depressing.

The contemporary rock score by Tom Kitt is full of memorable group and individual songs.  The lyrics by Brian Yorkey are insightful, at times witty and always very real.  The 6-piece band plays the score with clarity and sensitivity.  It’s conducted by Alistair Smith who also plays piano.  This is a show where you have to hear every word and the sound balance between performers and band was just right.

Natalie O’Donnell gives a stand out performance as Diana, the woman struggling with mental illness.  It’s a huge role that requires a strong singing voice as well as the ability to give depth to the highs and lows that this character experiences.  Anthony Harkin, who plays her husband, Dan, is excellent, showing the pain of coping with the illness of someone you love deeply and unwittingly adding to her problems.

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana

 Alex Rathgeber gives clever and subtle performances in the multiple roles of two of Diana’s treating doctors.  You quickly dread the thought of being in the care of these well-meaning but ineffectual professionals.  Brent Trotter’s extraordinary singing voice is perfect for the role of Diana’s son.  Without giving too much away, it’s this character that is at the core of Diana’s suffering and Brent Trotter plays this difficult role superbly.

 Kiane O’Farrell gives a particularly multi-faceted and heart-rending performance as Diana’s teenage daughter struggling with her mother’s illness while striving to establish her own identity.  Clay Roberts gives a very warm and realistic performance as the boyfriend who sticks by her in spite of exposure to the family’s problems.

Left to Right: Clay Roberts, Kiane O'Farrell and Natalie O'Donnell

To represent the state of mind of the leading character, the performers constantly add, erase and redraw on the set and the floor in chalk.  It’s a startling concept that works very well.  Director, Darylin Ramondo has done a remarkable job with this show. It was a full house when I saw it last Wednesday and it deserves to be seen by a wide audience.  If you’re in Sydney, make a point of seeing this one!

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 18 January 2015 from 5pm.