Friday, September 16, 2011

GET BACK The Lennon & McCartney Songbook

GET BACK The Lennon & McCartney Songbook. Produced and performed by: Melissa Langton, Libby O'Donovan and Mark Jones at The Q, Queanbeyan, September 15-17, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 15

In the spirit of a willing suspension of disbelief, especially in view of this image and the exhortation to “expect highbrow harmony and lowbrow comedy - and the occasional joke about one-legged ex-models”, I allowed myself to enjoy the singing, piano playing and some of the arrangements of Lennon and McCartney songs. There’s no doubt about the technical musicianship skills of all three performers.

But I found myself unsure of what kind of show I was watching and how I should respond. Cabaret can mean anything from the dark and sultry to stand-up comedy, and there were bits of both here, but the linking material – the patter – was too much and often too puerile for the Lennon and McCartney quality, and indeed for the Qeanbeyan audience. Odious comparisons, for example, with the possibly fictional worst audience in Mt Isa were quite unnecessary and set up an atmosphere completely at odds with songs like Help, Let It Be and Imagine which were performed with seriousness of intent, as they should be.

Despite the manner of John Lennon’s passing and perhaps because of Paul McCartney’s subsequent career, marital as well as on stage, it is fair that they should not be treated with undue reverence. I could accept Ob La Di Ob La Da in the style of an old-fashioned American square-dancing hoe down as a humorous take that I can suspect Paul might have had fun with in the studio. I wasn’t so sure, though, about a Southern Baptist religiosity approach to Let It Be. This arrangement seemed to be more about don’t let your ideology go, no matter what. But the right mood was captured for the medley based on the feelings of depression living in an oppressive society expressed in Help (even though this segment was the cause, apparently, of a Mt Isa yobbo crying “bullshit” because it wasn’t rock’n’roll).

Of course the weakest moment, but for us in Canberra-Queanbeyan the funniest, was when the obligatory audience participation call went out for a volunteer to face a quiz on their knowledge of Lennon and McCartney songs. Though the quiz turned out to be a spoof, no-one put their hand up for some embarrassing minutes until finally a certain Moya Simpson held up her partner’s hand and John Shortis took the stage. Despite the performers’ previous praising of the great experience of being in Queanbeyan, their research had not discovered Shortis and Simpson, our very own political cabaret team. The secret was never revealed, while John was renamed ‘Paul’ and gave his answers almost shyly as is his wont, to great cheers from we who were in the know.

In the end, it was good to hear Mark Jones’ version of Imagine. This really was the dreamer speaking, and he was not alone. And the a capella encore of Live and Let Die was a strong and worthy conclusion to the show.

The quality of these items showed up the need for less patter – especially about themselves and their show – and more sophisticated linking of the items with Beatles history and how the medleys were put together, to put the good work, and humour, into the right context.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Hard Day’s Night at the Q

It was a hard day’s night at the Q, Queanbeyan on Thursday September 15.

I was attempting to enjoy myself at the cabaret show “Get Back - The Lennon & McCartney Songbook” in which pianist Mark Jones and vocalists Melissa Langton and Libby O'Donovan and went to work on the songs of these celebrated singer-songwriters.

First there was their awkward patter. Delivering words at breakneck speed reminiscent of “I’ve been everywhere,” Donovan listed all the songs they weren’t going to sing, putting a damper on the occasion from very early in the show. Then there were their five favourite quotations from John Lennon, conveyed in a implausible tone of significance.

During a chat with the audience exchange, they reminisced about an performance in Mount Isa where a local yobbo, presumably a Beatles fan, had shouted out in dissatisfaction, “this is bullshit.” Apart from the uneasy feeling it gave me that Queanbeyan could then be their next target, I couldn’t help thinking he had a point.

But it was the musical treatments that eventually forced me out of the show. Jones’ arrangements sometimes bordered on jazz as he extemporised around tunes like “Blackbird.” Elsewhere he mocked country and western through, of all things, a hoedown version of “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.”

A clever medley of lyrics relating to transport (“Ticket to Ride,” “Baby You Can Drive My Car”) was expertly handled by Donovan and Langton, who are both fine singers, but they never gave the audience a chance to settle into a song. There was, throughout, no inclination to leave a song well alone.

Jones as arranger underscored a medley based on “Eleanor Rigby” with a chorus of “So sad,” taken from another song, destroying all the laconic sterility of the original, where nobody, not even Father McKenzie, felt anything much at all.

I fully confess missing the familiar chords of Lennon and McCartney, and I acknowledge that their songs have been transposed into everything from sitar to Symphony.

In the end there wasn’t anything very much to help me make it through the night.

Helen Musa

Monday, September 12, 2011

Vale Wendy Brazil

We recently reported on the death of music critic and member of the Canberra Critics’ Circle, Bill Hoffmann.

Now another long-time member of the Critics Circle, Wendy Brazil, has died on Saturday, September 10, after a long battle with cancer.

Wendy, who ranged in her critical interests over theatre, dance and music, was a classically trained scholar with a PhD from the ANU in classics in the long history in the Canberra community as a teacher of Latin and Greek. Her artistic tastes were always informed by a classical perspective.

As a reviewer, she was well known for her radio broadcasting on ABC Radio’s 2CY when it had a Canberra spotlight for arts criticism, begun by Keith Richards and continued by Edith Thompson. During those years, Wendy was also closely associated with the late theatre director Ralph Wilson and became his right-hand woman, quite often attending rehearsals, making extensive notes, and reporting on the progress of productions as they developed.

In more recent years she has continued her radio criticism through Artsound FM, Canberra’s arts public radio station.

A familiar figure in the Canberra theatre scene, always accompanied by a large diary in which she wrote her notes, Wendy was always an enthusiast for what she saw and a devoted follower of the choral director and opera singer Tobias Cole and of the Bell Shakespeare Company, for whose recent production of Julius Caesar she was permitted to leave hospital temporarily.

As well as following the performing arts, she also participated as a singer in several choral groups, with a particular interest in devotional music. She was a member of the 2011 Board of Fellows at University House, through which she kept up her interest in the intellectual and academic life of Canberra.

During the past two years during periods of remission from her illness, she continued her work as a reviewer and a teacher and a member of the Critics Circle. Her last circle appearance was at a seminar early this year given by London drama critic Mark Shenton.

A memorial service will be held for Wendy Brazil at University House at 2pm on September 24.

Helen Musa
September 12, 2011

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Bangarra Dance Company.
Canberra Theatre 2nd and 3rd September.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
Photos Jeff Busby

Like all great choreographers, Stephen Page has developed a lexicon of distinctive dance moves. His are deeply rooted in indigenous culture, which he mines continually to produce a cornucopia of ideas to tell his stories. His choreographic style is completely recognisable, but despite twenty years choreographing for the Bangarra Dance Company he shows no signs of becoming repetitive or predictable.

With “ID”, which formed the second half of the latest Bangarra program, he continues to fascinate with the fertility of his ideas as he explores contemporary indigenous identity, both urban and traditional.

Against a filmed backdrop in which the face of aboriginal elder, Kathy Marika dominates, Page presents a series of images reflecting aspects of aboriginal life. Not all are easy to watch. Children painting their faces with Vegemite to become blacker, a grotesquely stiffened corpse being carted away, a butcher dismembering a body, drew audible gasps from the audience. Other sections were breathtakingly beautiful, particularly one which appeared to be taking place in burnt-out eucalypt trees.

No less fascinating was Elma Kris’s gentle, abstract work “About”, for which she focussed on the four winds which influence the seasons on the Torres Strait Islands.

Apart from the stunning choreography, “Belong” was particularly notable for the complete conviction and commitment with which the dancers performed works, the evocative soundscapes of David Page, the lovely soft flowing costumes by Emma Howell, and the beautifully lit, sculptural settings of Jacob Nash.

An Edited version of this review appears in "City New" September 8th-14th September

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, adapted by Raimondo Cortese

The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, adapted by Raimondo Cortese. Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera, directed by Michael Kantor, conductor Richard Gill, at Sydney Theatre, September 3-24, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 5

Baz Luhrman, à la Moulin Rouge, meets Bertolt Brecht in Michael Kantor’s vision of The Threepenny Opera. As Phillip Adams commented on Late Night Live as I drove home from Sydney, it’s a ten dollar set for a threepenny opera. Quite a few thousands of dollars, in reality. Is it Entertainment or Polemic, Underbelly or Over the Top?

Whatever – it works. Cortese writes “My aim in adapting the text has been to honour the original, while updating it to a modern Australian context” which means in Sydney the setting is in a kind of Kings Cross, Campbell Street, Palmer Street, Darlinghurst Road, Oxford Street sort of Sydney, in something like the Brigadier Spry era that I remember when policemen were known to accidentally fall on prisoners (as if they still don’t occasionally on Palm Island, Queensland).

At the same time the costumes, designed brilliantly by Anna Cordingley, are exaggerated circus, the singing is a howling parody of opera which extracts every bit of meaning out of Weill’s amazing music, the characters are colourful cut-outs – puppets manipulated by the strings of society. If you have an image of 1928 German style like this from

you’ll need to think again for this:

An important point for me in seeing this production is to realise how much the daring of Brecht/Weill in their twenties in the nineteen-twenties stimulated theatrical freedom for us in our twenty-tens. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the language, for example in Macheath’s Pardon song, of Eric Bentley’s 1960 official translation:

“The wenches with their bosoms showing / To catch the eye of men with yearnings”

with Hugh MacDiarmid’s official 1973 version:

“Those painted girls who show their breasts off / To lure the men who stand about them”

with the raunchiness and fucks of Cortese’s version. The relaxed and comfortable Sydney middle class audience remained so throughout, and were clearly entertained.

But the directness of the language also meant that there is no more hedging about the polemics. This version makes even more plain than the previous translations that each one of us is guilty for, as MacDiarmid wrote it:

“You gentlemen, don’t you be taken in / What keeps a man alive is hate and sin.”

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to buy Cortese’s text immediately after the show, so you’ll have to go to check out his version to get the details.

As usual in good productions it is difficult to isolate particular performers. Paul Capsis as Jenny, who also plays the Narrator, certainly takes the stage – for some commentators s/he goes too far and becomes the central character of the play. I’m not unhappy about that, since I always felt that Jenny is the one genuinely tragic character. Capsis certainly got the audience response he deserves.

The other actor I would mention, in the Sydney production, is Amanda Muggleton playing Mrs Peachum (played by Judi Connelly previously in Melbourne). This Mrs Peachum is knowing and horrible to the absolute core, as Muggleton captures the quality of voice and accuracy of tone and pitch which Weill’s music requires.

And then there is the surprise. When fear, hatred, sin and corruption beggars belief, what might not be the explosive result? However comfortable you are in middle class Australia, go see and find out the truth.

Friday, September 2, 2011


By Franz Lehar.
Conductor Andrew Greene
Director: Giles Havergal,
Designer: Leslie Travers
Presented by Opera Australia in association with Opera North,
Sydney Opera House until November 4th, 2011

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Photos by Branco Gaica

I didn’t see Yvonne Kenny’s “Merry Widow”, nor Marilyn Richardson’s, but I did see Joan Sutherland’s, June Bronhill’s and Suzanne Steele’s , and I’m happy to agree that Amelia Farrugia’s interpretation of the Countess Hanna Glawari is up there with the best. She sings the role impeccably, acts it with intelligence, and with the exception of her unfortunate final outfit, which appears to have been run up from some old curtaining, looks lovely in her costumes. Easy to see why this widow would enchant the good citizens of Pontevedro.

But if you like your productions of “The Merry Widow” to be “charming, romantic, amusing, tuneful and sentimental” as Stuart Maunder suggests in his perceptive program notes, then you might be a bit disappointed in this plodding new production by Opera Australia.

It’s certainly tuneful. How could it be otherwise given Lehar’s ravishing score, which is given superb treatment by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under Andrew Greene. However this new production is very light on charm and romance, and somewhat lacking in elegance and style, and despite some lavish costumes, has the appearance of having being staged on a very tight budget.

All three acts are played out on a single, rather abstract setting, dominated by six large white lamps in the shape of nude females. The set is decorated with numerous black banners on which are painted white chandeliers. The banners are raised and lowered at various points as the lamps are moved around the stage indicating changes of location. This effect is initially interesting but soon becomes tedious.

Even the gazebo , around which much of the action revolves in act two, consists of three individual screens, flown in and out as required, but which don't hide what is going on inside from our view, making a nonsense of Baron Zeta’s confusion.

Though sumptuously costumed the chorus remain in the same evening dress for all three acts, giving the impression that the action is taking place over the course of the same day. Together with the principals they are called upon to execute inane choreography which would embarrass any self-respecting amateur musical society.

Danilo no longer heads off to Maxims after his spat with Hanna, because, following “Vilia” she announces that she has engaged the can-can dancers from Maxims to perform in her drawing room that night for the amusement of her guests. So Danilo just sticks around.

Perhaps none of this would matter if the production had achieved some consistent sense of style, but it was hard to escape the impression that each of the characters was doing his/her own thing stylistically.

Surprisingly, David Hobson, as the Count Danilo Danilovitch, appeared noticeably uncomfortable, both vocally and physically, vacillating curiously between nonchalance and gaucherie, which works against him creating any real chemistry with Hanna and therefore little to sustain audience interest in their relationship

Sian Pendry as the flirtatious ex-chorus girl, Valencienne, and Henry Choo as her passionate lover Camille de Rosillon were more convincing, while John Bolton Wood as Valencienne’s cuckolded husband, Baron Zeta, again proved his worth in this type of character role.

However despite the best efforts of the cast and orchestra this production never seems to take off, which is a shame for those in the audience who were hoping to be swept away by the charm, romance, amusement and sentimentality of this delightful operetta.