Sunday, July 31, 2011


Trevor Ashley and Jaz Flowers.
Photo: Jeff Busby

Directed by David Atkins
Musical Director: Stephen Amos
Choreographer: Jason Coleman

Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

“Dazzling” is the word for this energetic, eye-popping stage production of a story which started out as a John Waters film in 1988. Now a sugar-coated commentary on injustices existing in American society in the 1960’s, “Hairspray” revolves around a chubby teenager, Tracy Turnblad, whose dream is to dance on  television in “The Corny Collins Show”. Tracy wins a role on the show and becomes a celebrity overnight. Her decision to use her celebrity to launch a campaign for racial integration on the show, provides the catalyst for a succession of toe-tapping songs and brilliantly staged dance numbers, cleverly choreographed by Jason Coleman, one of the judges on the Australian edition of the television series “So You Think You Can Dance”.

The Broadway production of “Hairspray” opened in 2002 and won eight Tony Awards. The London production won eleven Olivier Awards. However for the Australian production, director David Atkins has come up with a brilliant re-imagining of the show, utilising extraordinary electronic technology which involves huge LED screens which move around the stage in various combinations. At key points the cast, dressed in Janet Hine's brilliant-coloured costumes and wigs, interact with projected animated landscapes so that they appear to be existing in Eamon D’Arcy’s brightly coloured cartoon world. The affect is innovative and exhilarating.

As Tracy Turnblad, Jaz Flowers is thoroughly delightful, captivating her audience with a star-quality performance. From her opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore”, until she finally gets her man , Link Larsen, (a knock-out performance by Jack Chambers) in “You Can’t Stop The Beat”, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. Tracy's big, bold and initially shy mother,Edna, is played by Trevor Ashley who manages to bring warmth and charm to a role which could easily have finished up as a panto dame. His Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers routine with husband, Wilber (Garry Scale at the performance I attended), deservedly stops the show.

Fine comic performances from Jacqui Rae, hilarious and toe-curlingly bitchy as the television producer, Renee Armstrong as her vacuous daughter, and Scott Irwin as the smarmy television host, add to the fun.   Cle Morgan, in a rousing rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been”, and Tevin Campbell with “Run and Tell That” provided extra vocal highlights.

If your only exposure to “Hairspray” has been the John Trovolta film version, then this stunning new stage version will be a revelation, for the sheer brilliance of its innovative scenic design and the breathtaking exuberance of its musical numbers. Don't miss it.

Jaz Flowers, Trevor Ashley and the cast of "Hairspray"
Photo: Jeff Busby

Friday, July 22, 2011

DEAR WORLD by Jerry Herman

Presented by Magnormos and The Melbourne Recital Centre,
11th July 2011

Reviewed by Bill  Stephens

Magnormos is an independent musical theatre production company based in Melbourne. It specialises in producing musicals by Australian writers, and landmark international works. Since 2002 Magnormos has presented showcase concert performances of more than 50 new Australian musicals, as well as the Australian premieres of Stephen Schwartz "Working", Kander and Ebbs "Flora The Red Menace", Mel Brooks "Archy and Mehitabel" and Stephen Sondheim's "Saturday Night".

In 2010, to celebrate the 80th Birthday of Stephen Sondheim, Magnormos produced a triptych of Sondheim musicals presented over three consecutive Monday nights. So successful was this initiative, that a second triptych was undertaken in 2011, this time to honour the 80th Birthday of Jerry Herman. The shows presented this  year were "Milk and Honey", "Dear World" and "Hello Dolly", each presented for one concert performance over three consecutive Monday nights in July.

As luck would have it I found myself in Melbourne on 11th July, so took advantage of the opportunity to see my first Magnormos production, as well as pay my first visit to the magnificent Melbourne Recital Centre.

"Dear World" is based on the Jean Giraudoux play "The Madwoman of Chaillot". Jerry Herman wrote the music and lyrics. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote the book. The original Broadway production in 1969 provided Angela Lansbury with her seond Tony Award, following her career-making performance in "Mame". However "Dear World" did not repeat the success of "Mame" and closed after only 132 performances.

Even after revisions, as late as 2002, the book with its surreal characters and unconvincing political arguments is still problematic. However the show contains enough humour and lovely Jerry Herman songs to easily justify the attention lavished on it in this charming staging by Magnormos, directed by Scott Hendry, and choreographed by Alana Scanlan.

The evening contained several delightful surprises, not the least being the quality of the production. Even though it had been advertised as a 'concert staged' book-in-hand presentation, none of the cast referred to their scripts during the performance. All appeared on top of their roles, sang confidently, offered well thought-out interpretations, wore appropriate costumes, and execcuted Alana Scanlan's attractive choreography with panache.

Christina Logan-Bell made clever use of projected slides and minimal props to provide a delightfully simple,  evocative Parisienne setting. Sensitive lighting design by Lucy Birkinshaw-Campbell, ensured attractive performance areas for both indoor and outdoor scenes. A small, perfectly balanced on-stage band, conducted by Trevor Jones, provided impressively secure accompaniment for the lovely Jerry Herman songs, and thankfully, the amplification was tasteful and unobtrusive.

But best of all were the performances.

Deidre Rubenstein offered a remarkably brave turn as Countess Aurelia, the role originated by Angela Lansbury. Despite being stricken with a nasty cold which would have sidelined many lesser performers, she managed stylish, authorative interpretations of the show's big numbers "I Don't Want to Know", "Dear World" and "One Person", displayed considerable comedic prowess in "Tea Party Trio" and was heart-breakingly poignant in "And I Was Beautiful". Her phrasing of the dialogue in particular was a joy throughout. Hers was a star-quality performance in every way, and a privilege to witness.

Suffering no restrictions whatever, Jackie Rees and Maureen Andrew were vocally brilliant and joyously funny as Countess Aurelia's two eccentric friends, who join her in her attempt to prevent the money-hungry corporations from ripping up her enchanted corner of Paris. Both made the most of every opportunity that came their way; Maureen Andrew being particularly wicked with her imaginary poodle.

Grant Smith was also outstanding with his delightfully mannered interpretation of The Sewerman. Ross Chisari as the mute, and Jon Jackson, Casey Gould and Nicholas Renfree-Marks as the greedy corporate presidents, all contributed memorable moments.

Sweet-voiced Angela Harding (Nina) made a strong impression with the pretty "I've Never Said I Love You", as did Joe Kosky (Julian) as her love interest. Together they were an attractive couple. Mark Doggett, David Spencer and Lyall Brooks all added strength to the excellent ensemble cast.

Besides providing the opportunity to see a rarely performed musical by a major composer, Magnormos have also succeeded in providing a memorable evening of music theatre, and if the other two productions in this Jerry Herman Triptych were as superbly presented as "Dear World", Melbourne theatre-goers have indeed enjoyed a rare feast.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson

The Gruffalo’s Child by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler, adapted for stage by Tall Stories Theatre Company (UK).  Christine Dunstan Productions at Canberra Theatre July 20-23, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 20

The costumes by Matthew Aberline for the Mouse (Crystal Hegedis), the Gruffalo’s Child (Chandel Brandimarti), the Gruffalo, the Snake, the Owl and the Fox (Stephen Anderson) in this musical version of The Gruffalo’s Child say a great deal to me about the business of adapting The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child for the stage.  What is gained and what is lost?

I began my quest because my resident Gruffalo expert, who will soon turn six, was clearly disappointed that the Mouse’s nut ‘as big as a boulder’ did not appear on stage.  Why not? I thought to myself.

Every quest entails a series of adventures.  First, the energy, professional skills and discipline of the performers was exciting, as a good adventure should be.  Then those costumes – so much more colourful, and just plain interesting than the pictures in the books.  More about this later.  The tulgey wood landscape was an adventure in itself, again with twisted emotional effects that were never in the books’ very ordinary pine forests.  And the sound track was as whimsical and fun as the books, though the children in the audience, of course, would not have recognised the musical references behind the songs.

Probably most of the children wouldn’t have noticed the missing nut-boulder, since they were obviously thoroughly engaged by the show.  When I wondered why my little expert had, I took my quest onto YouTube and found a home-made video of a reading of The Gruffalo’s Child at

Then I realised how the full moon shadow of the Mouse with her nut as big as a boulder on her shoulder made her appear to the Gruffalo’s Child as such a huge monster – even huger than her Gruffalo father – that it was no wonder that the little Gruff forgot her stick and skidded home faster than the Snake, the Owl and the Fox had scarpered from the fearful Gruffalo that they had never even seen.

Though this bit of the book was lost, it was Aberline’s costume for the Fox that highlighted the gains.  Each of the characters on stage were fully developed – within a pantomime tradition – which for me made the stage production greater than the sum of its book bits.  The Fox as the ultimate salesman, and the style of the music and song lyrics, suddenly struck home.  Here was Macheath from The Threepenny Opera, though fortunately short of the full Mack the Knife.  Even the music reminded me of Kurt Weill and the clipped phrasing of Bertolt Brecht.

So my quest completed successfully, I could praise both the Tall Stories Theatre Company for the script and the Dunstan team for its interpretation – though in the Australian context I have some doubts about educating our children with the European concerns about fear of the ‘deep dark wood’. Our bush, admittedly, has snakes worth fearing, but no imaginary gruffalos – just wombats, koalas, wallabies, and, unfortunately, plagues of mice and foxes which are feral  But it was nice to see on stage what a good father the Gruffalo was, and how bravely Little Gruff went out to find her truth.

Friday, July 1, 2011

EnTrance created and performed by Yumi Umiumare

EnTrance created and performed by Yumi Umiumare at The Street Theatre, Canberra.  June 30 – July 2, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 30

Under the spotlight: Yumi Umiumare

MiNDFOOD talks to Yumi Umiumare as she prepares for her solo performance "EnTrance" at [this] year’s Oz Asia Festival.
Aug 03, 2009

“This is my first time performing a full-length solo show where I incorporate all the elements of my art.  There are short segments for each style and towards the end I perform a Butoh segment with my face painted white, so it is like I am returning to my roots.”

“I first came to Melbourne in 1991 with the Butoh company Dai Rakuda Kan, which is the oldest Butoh company in Japan. We were invited to perform for the Melbourne International Arts Festival. I met a lot of people in the arts community at the time and started visiting regularly between 1991 and 1993.  I moved permanently in 1993.

I lived in Tyoko before and while it is an exciting and stimulating city it is also very busy.  In Melbourne there is more space, more of your own space.  I found artists have more freedom to develop their own style and ideas.”

“For EnTrance I’m working with media artist Bambang Nurcahyadi, installation artist Naomi Ota and sound designer Ian Kitney, so while I was initially scared about doing a solo performance I realized the other artists were supporting me.”

I’ve chosen these quotes from this interview two years ago because I think they help us to understand Umiumare’s work.  A friend commented after the show, “She’s a work of art.”  I agree, and so felt I needed to know something about her, particularly why she had moved from Tokyo to Australia, as well as knowing something about the Japanese radical dance form, butoh.

First though, she had no need to be scared tonight.  Her focus, discipline and originality held the audience for 75 minutes, confirming the reputation she brings from 20 years’ worth of stage and film work in this country.  I have seen her only twice before, in Ngapartji Ngapartji at Belvoir Street in 2008 and in The Burlesque Hour in 2009 here at The Street.  There could not have been a greater contrast between her gentle role in the story of Pitjantjatjara man, Trevor Jamieson, and her frantic satirical mime of frustrated glass-ceiling shattering modern womanhood in Burlesque.

EnTrance begins seemingly at peace in a garden with her cat, but quickly leads to the horror of living at the mercy of a huge city, which I have taken to be Tokyo.  Experiences there include seeing her mother’s face as she leaves her son, “Yumi’s” brother, in hospital to die.  The character, of course, may not actually be Yumi, but the identification with the mother’s feelings, expressed in butoh style, seems terribly real.  Who would want to keep living, if you can call it that, in such a city?

Butoh developed as a response to the occupation of Japan after World War II and it seems to have become a tradition for its practitioners to leave the city to, in a sense, return to the origins of Japanese culture in the country.  As I thought about this and recalled the final scene of EnTrance, a connection seemed to form – or what Yumi has called a ‘chain’.  She writes, “In EnTrance, each section is interconnected through a ‘chained world’ in which a new world opens up, one to the other.”

As she moves into the ‘pure’ butoh style, naked and whitened with rice flour, the screen behind shows a body of water on which her image floats and in which it is reflected – in the tradition of “the two worlds of Life and Death” described as “two shores; one is ‘the near shore’ (the world of the living), and the other is ‘the far shore (world of after-death)”.  But this water is an Australian billabong, with old gum trees on the banks and Australian birds calling. 

In that final scene there is a feeling of freedom, perhaps as Yumi Umiumare experienced in moving permanently to Australia, and in the ending, represented in the form of the overwhelming light described by those who have had a near-death experience, there is a sense of satisfaction, of completion.  So for me at least, EnTrance is a work of art by an artist at work, successfully achieving what she describes as “the moment of transformation where the spirit and the body are propelled into another world or existence”.  Which is, of course, the nature of true theatre.