Tag: Michael Ralph

REVIEW: Watch This Presents COMPANY

Stunning performances in superb production

By Adam Tonking

Stephen Sondheim can be tricky. His shows seem to be full of pitfalls to trap the unwary theatre company into poor choices, and Company is no exception. With no linear narrative, just a series of vignettes centred on marriage and relationships in New York and his usual densely layered music and finely wrought lyrics, there are a myriad of ways for this show to go off the rails. Fortunately, the cast and creative team behind Watch This’ Company are more than up to the challenge.
Company Photo Credit Jodie Hutchinson

The cast are sublime. The protagonist Robert is a difficult role to play; a mostly passive observer to the five married couples in his friendship circle, he still needs to build a rapport with the audience so they care when he stops for a moment of self-reflection. Nick Simpson-Deeks was perfect, engaged in every scene as the fulcrum around which the action takes place, charming and affable with a stunning voice: there could not have been a better choice for the dramatic lynchpin that carries the whole show.

But there were many beautiful performances from the rest of the cast also. Mark Dickinson as David in an early scene where he reveals a controlling side was absolutely chilling, Johanna Allen as Jenny brought a delightful schadenfreude and glorious voice to “Getting Married Today”, and Sally Bourne brought poignantly to life the difficult song “The Little Things You Do Together” as Joanne (a role which in another performer’s hands could have seemed like a mere mean drunk there simply to throw in the acerbic asides). These were a few of my favourite moments, but the whole cast were spectacular.

In fact, the creative team have likewise done a spectacular job. The choreography by Michael Ralph was inventive and finely detailed; in a show that doesn’t require big dance numbers, his choreography was clever and beautifully executed. Costume design by Zoe Rouse carefully managed a balance between current fashion and the 1970s era in which the show is set, while also cleverly colour-coding the married couples to help the audience manage visually the relationships between the characters.

One glaring problem with this production is the choice of venue. Unfortunately for a portion of the audience, the action was obstructed from view by poles or railings, which is a shame because the direction and staging was flawless. A sparse and economical set by Eugyeene Teh was transformed under the direction of Kat Henry into the multitude of locations required, and Henry’s tight direction kept the momentum going through the quietest of scenes. The creative team also made the brave choice to have the performers work without microphones, with mixed results. There is something so much more engaging and compelling, particularly in an intimate show like Company, to hear the performers under the musical direction of Lucy O’Brien without the filter of amplification, and in many moments in this production it was magnificent. Until the performer turns away from you and you’ve missed what they’re saying. Again, I confess I blame the choice of venue.

That said, I would dearly love to see this exact production again, preferably in a different venue, or at least in a better seat. This is Sondheim, after all, and Watch This have presented a brilliant production of Company. My suggestion is, see it, but make sure you choose your seating carefully. Actually – see it anyway. Because even from my seat next to the band where I couldn’t see half of the stage, I still loved it.

Watch This presents Company by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth is on at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, from September 16 till October 4. Tickets available at www.fortyfivedownstairs.com or by calling 03 9662 9966.

REVIEW: Twisted Broadway 2015

“Broadway in a Brand-New Key”

By Bradley Storer

Oz Showbiz Cares/Equity Fights AIDS brought together a stunning ensemble of Australian music-theatre talents last night for Twisted Broadway, a gender-bending re-interpretation of musical theatre’s greatest hits, to raise money for research and developmental programs for people living with HIV/AIDS. The sense of community and giving was palpable, all the performers and creative team donating their time and energy – even the set for the show was donated by The Production Company‘s current show Nice Work if You Can Get It.

2015 Twisted Broadway Hosts_Photo by Kayzar Bhathawalla

Kate Ceberano, one of the evening’s hosts, began the show as a literal MC – the classic character from Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, spiritedly singing ‘Wilkommen’ and showing some impressive high kicks as she introduced us to the ‘twisted’ male and female ensembles and the Twisted Broadway orchestra, under the direction of James Simpson. She was followed by the glorious tenors of Blake Bowden and Josh Piterman, both bringing lead man charisma to the Jekyll and Hyde duet ‘In His Eyes’, before fellow host Eddie Perfect joined Ceberano onstage to introduce the evening officially.

The first half of the show was dedicated mainly to ensemble numbers, highlights including a cheeky ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ by the female ensemble of West Side Story, a campy male version of ‘Make Him Mine’ by Ed Grey, Alex Given and Drew Weston, a bevy of showgirls accompanying Melissa Langton as she charmingly crooned ‘All I Care About is Love’, a trio of male Lion King ensemblists bringing Motown realness in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ all the way to Nathan Pinnell leading the ensemble of Anything Goes in a joyous ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’. A few choice solo performances were dotted throughout, Akina Edmonds‘ soulful take on the Schwartz classic ‘Lost in the Wilderness’ standing out in particular.

After a fantastic ensemble opening of ‘On Broadway’ choreographed by Michael Ralph, the second act brought spectacular solos from a variety of performers. Rob Mills hilariously sent himself up in a re-vamped version of the audition sequence ‘Climbing Uphill’ from The Last Five Years, Tom Sharah stole the show with his ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’, and Queenie van de Zandt brought the audience to their feet in a roof-raising ‘What Kind of a Fool Am I?’. Perfect debuted a charming song from his unseen musical version of the classic Australian film Muriel’s Wedding with help from Casey Bennetto, and the male ensemble delivered a testosterone-charged ‘Be Italian’ led by Mike Snell before Josie Lane closed the evening with a thunderous ‘Goodbye’.

Producers Michael Benge and Kate MacDonald informed the audience at the end of the show that over $50,000 had been raised for Oz Show Business Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, making a perfect end to this marvellous night of music theatre all done in the name of a good cause.

Venue: State Theatre, Arts Centre, 100 St Kilda, Melbourne.
Date: 17th August, 2015
Time: 8pm


Image by Kayzar Bhathawalla

REVIEW: The Production Company’s WEST SIDE STORY

Simply impeccable

By Narelle Wood

There were two things: the fact that The Production Company was responsible; and the recreation of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography by Michael Ralph. It did not disappoint, in fact with this production of West Side Story, The Production Company has set a new bar for itself and for theatre in Melbourne.

West Side Story

The storyline is a mostly faithful reinvention of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet, set on the streets of New York’s Upper West Side. Two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks are engaged in a turf war, more to do with cultural prejudices and nothing better to do, than an actual place to hang. Of course when Tony (Gareth Keegan), a boy from the Jets, and Maria (Anna O’Byrne), a girl from the Sharks, meet, dance and fall in love, the cultural tensions go from casual street rumblings, to choosing weapons at a war council. And, as per the original, tragedy ensues, but not before some of the most spectacular renditions of some of Broadway’s most iconic songs.

Byrne’s voice is incredible and had the potential to overpower the rest of the cast. However, under the direction of Gale Edwards, it perfectly complimented all the other voices, especially Keegan’s and Deone Zanotto (Anita). Byrne and Keegan seemed to fit so naturally together that I found myself genuinely hoping things would somehow work out; something that I’ve not experienced before in any production of West Side Story or Romeo and Juliet. The whole cast was brilliant, but Zanotto was spectacular in absolutely everything she did.

Sets and costumes were exactly as I expected from The Production Company: simple, effective and impressive. In fact, what made this production so remarkable was how flawlessly everything came together. It was a highlight for me to hear the music to West Side Story played live, at speed and with every nuance. But the star of the show was the choreography. It was truly a privilege to watch how Ralph and the cast were able to recreate the original choreography and make it their own. I would have happily sat and watched them dance every number over and over again.

I don’t think I will ever risk seeing this musical again. The Production Company’s West Side Story is perfection.

Venue: The Arts Centre
Season: Until 19th July
Tickets: Tickets between $21 – $126
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/musicals/west-side-story

REVIEW: Vic Theatre Company Presents LOVING REPEATING

Sleek, beautiful and musically sumptuous

By Bradley Storer

The emerging group Vic Theatre Company takes their maiden voyage with the rapturous Loving Repeating, a musical based on the life and times of formidable poet and intellectual Gertrude Stein with music by Broadway legend Stephen Flaherty and text derived from the letters and poems of Stein herself.

Loving Repeating (James Terry Photography)

The performance is structured as part lecture, part flashback – we are guided by the elderly Stein (Deidre Rubenstein) reflecting back on the events which shaped her the course of her life and career as an artist, on selections of her poetry and intellectual writings. The titular opening song is a glorious lyrical outpouring based on Stein’s observations of her fellow students at college, the ensemble beautifully led by Caitlin Berry as the youthful Stein with gorgeous choreography from Michael Ralph, setting a high bar for the rest of the show.

The main focus of Loving Repeating is the relationship between Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas, a relationship which lasted until Stein’s death. The five actors who between them play the two roles at different ages are wonderful. Berry as the young Gertrude displays a fiery disposition and fierce sensuality, with Jennifer Peers showing the softening of this youthful ferocity into a mature, enveloping warmth. Gillian Cosgriff brings an angelic glow and understated passion to the young Alice B. Toklas, expanding into a confident and forthright sexuality in the performance of Nicole Melloy as her middle-aged self. Rubenstein as the elderly Stein wields poetic language with authority and surgical precision, challenging the audience intellectually at the same time she draws us in with a twinkle in her eye and a sense of self-deprecating humor.

Loving Repeating feels less like a traditional musical theatre show than a staged song cycle or a sung-through chamber opera. Langley brings some creative staging to the show aided immensely by the brilliant choreography of Ralph, encompassing lyrical abstract movement, tango and vaudevillian flair. The ensemble as a whole are ideal in the seamless whole they created in their numbers, and as they almost never leave the stage their stamina in this 90-minute show be commended.

The problem is that Stein’s writings do not necessarily add up to a cohesive narrative – it is at points easy to become lost in Stein’s circular and repetitive language which, although making an impact on the page, can be impenetrable for an audience member with no knowledge of Stein’s history. The show is set up as series of vignettes but it is hard to find an underlying meaning or connection in the text as they transition from one section to the next.

Overall though, this is an impressive debut performance from Vic Theatre Company, with a sense of quality and artistry to match even professional shows on far bigger stages – there are moments of such shocking and surprising beauty to be found in Loving Repeating that they alone are worth the price of admission.

Dates: 21 January – 8 February

Venue: Chapel off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel St.

Times: Tuesday to Saturday, 8.00pm; Saturday 3pm & 8pm; Sunday 8pm (1 Feb) and 3pm (8 Feb)

Tickets:  $49.00 full, $43.00 concession (+ transaction fee), SPECIAL PRICE for Tuesday 3 February – all tickets $40 (+ transaction fee)

Booking: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au, Phone: 03 8290 7000, Email: chapel@stonnington.vic.gov.au

Image by James Terry


Sondheim, samurai, and scintillating theatre

By Bradley Storer

Out of nowhere a figure dashed onstage, the lights suddenly cutting out accompanied by a sudden strike of the drum. The lights slowly return to reveal a painted emblem emblazoned on the floor of the stage, the ensō – the Buddhist circle which expresses the moment of creativity uninhibited by the conscious mind. Into this symbolic void enters the ensemble of Pacific Overtures, clad entirely in white, taking their places around the ensō and beginning their first song: a choral ode to the cyclical serenity of feudal Japan, undisturbed by the outside world.

PACIFIC OVERTURES Photo Credit Jodie Hutchinson

Pacific Overtures, one of Stephen Sondheim’s more modest and lesser-known masterpieces, is an imaginative exploration of the moment in history when Japan was first forced into contact with Western civilization. Sondheim’s score, a minimalistic collection derived from the structures and principles of Asian music, is a distant cousin to the operatic scope of his work before and after, but is nevertheless a theatrical tour de force.

The cast are so strong both dramatically and vocally that it is extremely difficult to pick an outstanding performance. As a whole they perfectly capture the stylized but intensely emotionally and characterful style of kabuki theatre, and in their individual solos they all unveil beautiful and powerful voices – in the ensemble numbers they blend together in wondrous harmony. The closest would be Adrian Li Donni as Kayama, the samurai whose meteoric rise to power and subsequent corruption strings the plot together both narratively and emotionally. Donni’s open and expressive face (along with a golden singing voice) flawlessly captures the innocence and good nature of this warrior catapulted into diplomatic office.

Director Alister Smith, along with choreographer Michael Ralph, have done an exemplary job of building the striking dramatic images that make up this epic tale. A terror-stricken mob of villagers gathering as they spot the oncoming American armada, a hilarious pageant of prostitutes preparing to welcome American sailors, a traditional Kabuki dance exploding into a demented vaudevillian cake-walk danced by a demonic Uncle Sam. In a quieter moment, the song ‘Poems’ spins together the heart-meltingly lyrical tenors of Donni and Nick Simpson-Deeks into a sequence of heart-ravishing loveliness.

This production of Pacific Overtures is a seamless meeting of dramatic intensity, musical beauty and compelling story performed by a highly skilled company of actors and handled by an endlessly inventive creative team!

Venue: Theatreworks, 14 Acland St, St Kilda

Date: 19 Feb 2014 – 09 Mar 2014

Time: Tue to Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm

Preview: Wed 19 Feb 7.30pm & Thu 20 Feb 2pm

Price: $39 / $35 8+ / $29 conc

Bookings: Online at www.theatreworks.org.au or phone 03 9534 338803 9534 338803 9534 338803 9534 3388