Thursday, October 17, 2019

THE PRODUCERS


Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks
Original direction and choreography recreated by Rachael Beck and Rachel Thornton
Dramatic Productions
Gungahlin College Theatre to 26 October

Reviewed by Len Power 16 October 2019

The modern musical tends to tackle serious and worthy issues of the human condition.  ‘The Producers’ exists just for fun and takes a broad swipe at political correctness while it’s at it.

Adapted by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan from Brooks’ 1967 non-musical film of the same name, ‘The Producers’ focusses on two Broadway producers who plan to make their fortune by deliberately overcapitalizing on a Broadway musical, ‘Springtime For Hitler’, that is so bad it can’t do anything but flop.  Of course, the show turns out to be an unexpected hit, putting them in deep doodoo.

The original production opened on Broadway in 2001 and ran for over 2500 performances.  It won 12 Tony Awards including Best Musical – a record that has never been broken.

Daryl Somers of TV fame shows another side of his talent with an excellent, highly-energetic performance as the sleazy producer, Max Bialystock and he sings the demanding role very well.  Newcomer to Canberra, Jason Bensen, is terrific as the nerdy and troubled accountant who blossoms as the other producer.

Demi Smith is a sexy and very funny Ulla and Zack Drury pulls out all the stops in his hysterical performance as the insane playwright and Nazi sympathiser, Franz Liebkind.  Paul Sweeney gives his best performance so far in Canberra as the very camp director, Roger De Bris and Jake Fraser is delightfully slinky and temperamental as Roger’s ‘special’ friend, Carmen Ghia.

There is great work from everyone else in the hard-working cast.  They all get their moment to shine.  I’m not sure I’ve quite recovered yet from seeing Pat Gallagher and David Cannell playing little old ladies!

Musical direction by Ewan was excellent with the orchestra playing the score very well.  Sound balance between cast and orchestra was just right.

Rachel Thornton’s choreography works extremely well and you can tell the cast are having a lot of fun dancing it.  Suzan Cooper has excelled even herself with the multitude of dazzling costumes.

Director, Rachael Beck, wisely recreates the main elements of the original production and, with her enthusiastic team of performers, gives us a fast-moving, colourful evening of great entertainment.  You won’t see many shows as funny as this one.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

WEST SIDE STORY



Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Joey McKneely
Opera Australia
Canberra Theatre to 27 October

Reviewed by Len Power 12 October 2019

When it opened on Broadway in 1957, ‘West Side Story’ was clearly a departure from previous musicals.  Its dark themes of gang wars and social problems in New York City in the 1950s, its advance of the story in extended dance sequences and its highly sophisticated music made it a landmark musical that, in this production, is still a powerful experience over 60 years later.

This demanding show requires performers who can sing to an operatic level, dance classically as well in a modern jazz style and act the colourful characters with great depth.

The role of Tony, a young man dreaming of a future beyond the ugly life in the streets, is played by Todd Jacobsson.  A difficult role to play convincingly because of the often poetic-sounding dialogue written for the character, Jacobsson plays it with such conviction that he is totally believable.  His singing of the vocally demanding songs ‘Something’s Coming’ and ‘Maria’ is superb.

Sophie Salvesani and Todd Jacobsson

Sophie Salvesani is a strikingly beautiful and very real Maria – a young woman recently arrived from Puerto Rico.  Her singing of the comic ‘I Feel Pretty’, the sombre ‘One Hand, One Heart’ and the joyous ‘Tonight’ was excellent.  Her dramatic performance, most notably in the final scene of the show, was especially fine.

Chloe Zuel as the street-wise Puerto Rican, Anita, gave a richly comic performance in the early part of the show.  A superb dancer, she was equally effective in the later dramatic scenes, especially when singing the intense duet with Maria, ‘A Boy Like That’.

Chloe Zuel, Keanu Gonzalez and the Sharks

As the gang leaders, Noah Mullins as Riff, the leader of the American gang, the Jets, and Keanu Gonzalez as Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, gave dramatically strong performances, dancing and singing with great precision.  The large cast of gang members danced, sang and acted their roles convincingly.
There was excellent work in the smaller adult roles by Ritchie Singer as Doc, Paul Dawber as Lieutenant Schrank, Berynn Schwerdt as Officer Krupke and Paul Hanlon as Glad Hand.

Opera Australia’s lavish production honours the original production with its 1950s period mostly intact and the re-creation of the original Jerome Robbins choreography by Joey McKneely.  The towering set, consisting of moveable tenement buildings and their fire escapes, has been designed superbly by Paul Gallis.  The intricate lighting design by Peter Halbsgut added much to the atmosphere of the show
Conducted by Donald Chan, the demanding Leonard Bernstein score was played very well by the orchestra.  Sound levels between singers and orchestra were fine.
Director, Joey McKneely has staged a ‘West Side Story’ that works in all aspects.  The opportunity to see a production of the show at this level of excellence is not to be missed.

Photos by Jeff Busby

This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition of 13 October 2019.


Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.

New compositions premiered alongside established repertoire

“Afternoon Delights”,
Andrew Rumsey & Friends
Wesley Music Centre
October 13, 2019 

by Tony Magee

PIANIST Andrew Rumsey and colleagues, devised and presented a varied and highly entertaining afternoon of music.

Visiting Croatian pianist Ivan Horvatic opened the concert with “Black Earth” by Fazil Say and the “Etude No. 1” by Boris Papandopulo. 

In both these he displayed flawless technique, heartfelt passion for the music and a command of the piano in both dynamics and shadings with a confidence that left the audience breathless with delight.

Franz Liszt’s famous and hugely popular “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” followed. 

Horvatic opted for a “safe” rendition - again flawless in technique, but lacking some of the magic, bravura, fire and dizzy, almost random thoughts, that might occur to someone who is prepared to take a few risks and dismiss the minor wrong notes or flaws that could occur as a result. Ginsberg, Paderewski, Hofmann, Cortot and Tozer were the supreme masters of this style of interpretation.

What stood out in Horvatic’s performance however, was his very economical use of the sustain pedal. Every note, chord, phrase and cadence point was crystal clear and precise. This in itself set up his interpretation as something unique and to be admired.

Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” followed with Andrew Rumsey and Horvatic in piano duet. A satisfactory rendition, but one which was more an exercise in sight reading rather than a fully rehearsed performance. 

Matt Withers on guitar with Andrew Rumsey, piano. Photo: Tony Magee

Guitarist Matt Withers premiered two pieces by Canberra composer Sally Greenaway, who introduced the pieces herself. “En Las Sombras” and “Poem III” were both performed with skill by Withers, but his playing was marred by amplification from a small speaker system on stage which had a booming bass frequency at around 800 Hertz.

Greenaway’s compositions were delightful and moving. She is a very talented composer.

The other high-points in the concert came from the Rumsey brothers themselves. 

Andrew played an expressive and emotional rendition of Rachmaninov’s “Elegy in E Flat minor” as well as the premiere of Canberra composer Michael Dooley’s “Rockatta”, which is an intense piano solo piece exploring jazz rhythms, rock and classical phrasing, all mixed in together in a clever and stylistically unique way. 

Rumsey delivered the goods with aplomb and confidence.

His brother Danny played three pieces on his new and specially made instrument, which is a fascinating combination of harp and zither. 

The high point of his bracket was a passionate and sensitive reading of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D”, so very beautifully in tune, with rich chords and an almost “colla voce” style of melody.

Danny also holds 11 world records for Down syndrome swimming and has competed in Taiwan, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Australia.

The concert closed with a piano duet arrangement of selections from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite”. I felt this bracket was played as if just “going through the motions”. It was enjoyable enough, but lacked passion.

Overall though, a skilful and varied program which truly reflected the title, “Afternoon Delights”.


Also published in City News Digital Edition, October 14, 2019 and on Tony's blog, Art Music Theatre.



WINTERREISE


Susannah Lawergren, soprano
Bradley Gilchrist, piano
The Song Company
Wesley Music Centre 6 October

Reviewed by Len Power



Having only heard Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ song cycle sung with the male voice, this performance by soprano, Susannah Lawergren, was approached with great interest and a little trepidation.

Composed originally for the tenor voice by Franz Schubert in 1827 to a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, it is the second of Schubert's two great song cycles on Müller's poems, the earlier being ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ from 1823.

Susannah Lawergren performs both as a specialist ensemble member and soloist bridging art song, opera, oratorio, early music and contemporary music.

Piano accompanist, Bradley Gilchrist, studied in Perth, Sydney and Madrid.  He has given solo and chamber music recitals across Australia and overseas.


The ‘Winterrreise’ song cycle details a man’s grief over a lost love, taking us on an emotional journey from anger and despair through the torment of false hopes and the path to resignation.  The words of the poem refer clearly to a man’s loss of the love of a woman.  The challenge for a female singer is to find a valid interpretation that an audience can accept and relate to.  Susannah Lawergren chose to sing of the loss of a child.

It is the emotional content of the work that makes it so powerful and, while the words in the poems are occasionally at odds with this interpretation, it resonated so strongly that it worked extremely well.  Singing the cycle entirely from memory – a major feat in itself – Susannah Lawergren added considerable depth to her performance with the well-thought out use of a scarf, a leafless tree branch and spare movement to create a believable character for this journey.


Her singing of the cycle was superb throughout.  Her beautifully clear soprano, accurate pronunciation of the German text and the emotional range and pace of her performance resulted in an extraordinarily moving and memorable experience of this great work.

The playing of the accompanying pianist is equally important to the success of any performance of this work.  Schubert’s challenging music ranges across the emotions of the traveller and surrounds them with the sounds of nature and location.  Bradley Gilchrist gave a brilliant performance of this cycle from start to finish.

These consummate performers gave the audience a musical experience that was exceptional.  The thunderous applause from the audience at the end of the concert was well-deserved.

Photos by Peter Hislop

This review was first published in the Canberra City News digital edition of 7 October 2019

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.

Monday, October 14, 2019

THE PRODUCERS - Dramatic Productions



Jason Benson (Leo Bloom) - Daryl Somers (Max Bialystock) 

Directed by Rachael Beck – Musical Direction by Ewan
Choreographed by Rachel Thornton – Costumes designed by Susan Cooper
Presented by Dramatic Productions

Gungahlin Theatre October 11th to 26th  2019
.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Over the past few years Dramatic Productions have been attracting audiences to the Gungahlin Theatre with inventive productions of rarely seen musicals, among them, “Into the Woods”, “Catch Me If You Can” and “Heathers”. This spirited production of the Mel Brooks musical “The Producers” is perhaps its best yet.

A wicked satire of one of America’s most beloved institutions, “The Producers” follows the travails of failed Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, ,who together with his protégé Leo Bloom, decide to produce the worst show on Broadway, in a misguided  attempt to make a fortune. The scheme fails when the show unaccountably becomes a hit. Brook’s script is sly, vulgar, subversive and deliciously funny, packed with hilarious characters and tuneful songs.

Demi Smith (Ulla) - Daryl Somers (Max Bialystock) - Jason Benson (Leo Bloom) 

  
Directing her first musical, Rachael Beck draws on her own extensive performing career in musical theatre to create an astutely cast, effervescent and thoroughly entertaining production which, despite the limited staging facilities of the Gungahlin Theatre, still manages to achieve a professional gloss.

Attracting television personality, Daryl Somers, to the role of the unscrupulous Broadway producer, Max Bialystock, was a master stroke. In addition to his fame as a television personality, Somers is an experienced stage performer, and revels in this opportunity to create a thoroughly repulsive, but undeniably lovable character. He has an unexpectedly fine singing voice, and his well-honed comedic shtick is a joy throughout.

Inspired casting among local performers has produced some memorable characterisations. Among them, matching Somers every step of the way,  Jason Bensen, lights up the stage with a very  funny, excellently sung and danced turn as Bialystock’s gormless,  but game, apprentice producer, Leo Bloom.

Paul Sweeney is a riot as Roger De Bris, the worst producer on Broadway, and Jake Fraser steals every scene he’s in as De Bris’s prissy “common-law assistant. Demi Smith as the Swedish bombshell, Ulla, provides plenty of sex-appeal with her solo “When You’ve Got it, Flaunt It”.  
Zack Drury and his scene-stealing pigeons, as the mad German playwright, Franz Lie kind, and David Cannell as Bloom’s boss-from-hell, Mr. Marks, both provide comedy highlights.

Although the uncluttered set design, with the help of some inventive scene changes, worked well,  additional glitz is needed to make the otherwise well-staged  “Springtime For Hitler” number convincing as a Broadway show-stopper.

Demi Smith (Ulla) centre - Jason Bensen (Leo Bloom) and Old Ladies ensemble

The energetic ensemble, colourfully costumed by Susan Cooper, tackle Rachel Thornton’s inventive choreography, which at one stage includes a revolving swastika, with enthusiasm and flair, and Musical Director and conductor, Ewan,  with his  very fine orchestra successfully captures the Broadway sound.  All of which makes this a memorable, “must see” production.


                                            Photos by Janelle McMenamin

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 12th October 2019

West Side Story





West Side Story based on a conception by Jerome Robbins.  BB Group (Mannheim, Germany) production presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment.

Canberra Theatre Centre October 12 – 27, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 13


Photos by Jeff Busby


Jets men (not in order):
Joshua Taylor, Nicholas Collins, Christian Ambesi,
Nathan Pavey, Jake O'Brien, Blake Tuke,
Sebastian Golenko
Sharks men  (not in order):
Anthony Garcia, Temujin Tera, Matthew Jenon,
Jason Yang-Westland, Brady Kitchingham

Sophie Salvesani and Todd Jacobsson
as
Maria and Tony
 This production of West Side Story is a great example of museum theatre.  I mean this as a compliment because to update such an iconic show from the 1950s might not make much sense when teenagers today spend their time instagramming and sexting instead of rumbling and grooving on the street in gangs.

Nowadays we worry that the young are cut off from learning how to manage physical social contact.  Though I was not in New York in 1955 when Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and the then 25-year-old Stephen Sondheim wrote the choreography, story, music and song lyrics about the West Side, I knew well of the ‘bovver boys’ and ‘Teddy boys’ in my native London, and of the ‘bodgies’ and ‘widgies’ here in Australia fighting on the beach at Manly.

What impressed me about the young people performing on stage last night was how well they, in their dancing and their acting, were so clearly teenagers taking all those silly terrible risks.  At least sexting, I hope, is less likely to lead to murder.

Though in this performance I felt I was kept at a little distance emotionally through the first Act, even up to the murders just before interval – perhaps partly because the music and songs are so well-known, and the skills in recreating Robbins’ original choreography took my attention – the final shorter Act 2 made its emotional mark.

It was not a matter of sentimental sorrow for Tony’s death and Maria’s loss.  Sophie Salvesani brought out the great sense of waste. Not only of three young men’s lives, but for herself having to live on – and for the whole community knowing that reconciliation is so fragile.

I realised then what Jerome Robbins had done in updating William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Juliet, in taking her own life, leaves the Montague and Capulet families to grieve and reconcile as a memorial – a neat and positive conclusion.  But Maria, who frighteningly fails to kill herself when the pistol that killed Tony misfires, then cannot try again.  She, unlike Juliet, must live with the consequences of her own and others’ actions, whether her conflicting communities genuinely reconcile or not.

Though Jets and Sharks carry out Tony’s body, the future is not secure.  As the Synopsis in the Program says, they “carry Tony’s dead body off the stage together as if in procession – a gesture of hope for reconciliation.”  But is it no more than a gesture?  This is a messy and not necessarily positive conclusion.  Robbins was more realist than Shakespeare, I think.

The quality of the production was excellent in all departments.  Because the production credits list includes designers and directors as ‘associates’ and ‘originals’ it’s difficult to be sure of who to give credit to most.

The balance between the orchestra, in the pit, and the singers worked very well.  It was good to hear a live performance of instruments and singers.  Musical supervisor/conductor Donald Chan’s expertise has seen him conduct more than 3000 performances of this production of West Side Story around the world.  His work, with associate musical director Anthony Barnhill, was ably supported by original sound designer, Rick Clarke, with Jonny Keating and Anthony Craythorn making it all happen.

The set design was quite remarkable, with projected backdrops of New York behind three storey high scaffolding ‘tenements’ which were moved on, off and around amazingly smoothly.  [ If you would like to compare with the original 1957 set, see https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/west-side-story-2639Paul Gallis from The Netherlands was the designer, but I would like to congratulate the mechanists (headed by Tony Bergin) who made the scene changes a delight.

I am not surprised to see costumes which brought the characters so wonderfully to life, especially for the dance sequences, having been designed by Renate Schmitzer.  The white costumed sequence was particularly stunning, making such a contrast to the standard street dress of ordinary life. The Australian touring production, with wardrobe, hair, wigs and make-up headed up by Jennifer Hall, Stephanie Meilak and David Jennings, is dedicated to her memory, after her very recent death after a short illness in her home in Ulm on 15 March, 2019, noted by Detlef Brandenburg:

“Renate Schmitzer's costumes were never just "something to wear". They were always an interpretation of the character, her character and sometimes her quirks. Thus, they made a substantial contribution to the characteristics of the characters - and met the director's work halfway, as it were.”
[translated from https://www.die-deutsche-buehne.de/zum-tod-der-kostuembildnerin-renate-schmitzer ]

Lighting designed by equally prominent internationally, Peter Halbsgut, took us from the high brilliance of Jerome Robbins’ most energetic street dance to the awful darkness of the rape of Anita – both solidly practical and clear in its emotional effects.

So finally to come to overall direction and performance, the story is just as complex.  Director Joey McKneely, a one-time student of Jerome Robbins and the one to reproduce the master’s choreography, with associate choreographer Jaquelyn Scafidi-Allsopp and resident director/choreographer Brendan Yeates, have given the Australian cast the precision, the timing and the humour to create the character of all the young performers as the crowd of teenagers racing ahead of themselves from childishness to the edge of adulthood.

Every young performer, all singing and dancing, had their clearly defined personalities as in the original production in 1957; as did the adults Paul Dawber (Lt Shrank), Beryn Schwert (Officer Krupke) and Ritchie Singer (as the saddened pharmicist, Doc).  The leads – Maria (Sophie Salvesani), Anita (Chloe Zuel), Tony (Todd Jacobsson) and Riff (Noah Mullins) were not allowed to stand too much out from the crowd – making the point as I see it about the theme of community.

On this point, I think, there is a difference between Robbins’ original conception of the drama compared with the famous movie, awarded ten Oscars in 1961, where stars were the focus.

I prefer the stage production for sincerity and integrity.




Jets women (not in order):
Molly Bugeja, Natasha O'Hehir, Angelica di Clemente
Taylah Small, Sarah Dimas
Sharks women (not in order):
Olivia Carniato, Nikki Croker, Amba Fewster, Ariana Mazzeo
with Jade Coutts


West Side Story cast and set design