Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber: review, set list and 2011 tour dates

When the Australian production of Love Never Dies opens here in May, it will be 39 years (to the month) since the first Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar premiered. It was the first in a procession of pop musical hits for Andrew Lloyd Webber.

His greatest successes, financially and artistically, have been the ‘packaged’ theatre shows like Cats and Phantom of the Opera, where the production and design have been inseparable from the composition itself. Remember the dire warnings to the rest of Australia that the Sydney production of Cats would never tour? “Too expensive,” the producers intoned. “If you want to see it, you’ll have to come to Sydney.” There have been at least four national tours.

Cats ran for 21 years in London. Phantom is in its 25th year on the West End and 24th year on Broadway. But can you name anything Lloyd Webber has created since Sunset Boulevard, 18 years ago? (If you’re thinking the Requiem, you’d be wrong. It’s older than Phantom.)

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber is an odd beast. It’s a teaser for the up-coming premiere and a recapitulation of Lloyd Webber’s hits since Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat went viral in British schools 40-odd years ago.

It also (rather deliberately) puts a case for reconsidering our lowly opinions of Starlight Express, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard. (This, admittedly, is fairly glib case to make when the shows in question only have two good jingles apiece and you can entwine them in an absolutely brilliant two-minute medley.)


Photographs: Jeff Busby (click on images to enlarge)

So, instead of its anthemic and torch-bright title song, Starlight Express is represented by the Grease-inspired ‘One Rock’n’Roll Too Many’ and the gospel-sounding ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’. Lloyd Webber’s little-toured 1998 musical Whistle Down The Wind is also revealed to have a sacred dimension: ‘The Vaults of Heaven’ is a full-blown (and damn fine) Negro spiritual. (That show is shown the additional courtesy of having its title song performed.)
“The songs are performed for all they’re worth... and, often, quite a bit more than they’re worth.”
Aspects of Love’s one hit (some would say its one melody) ‘Love Changes Everything’ -- oft parodied [by me, certainly] as “I sleep with everyone” -- opens the show. Though performed by Delia Hannah and the estimable Michael Cormick, the song is ejected after about sixty seconds in favour of a Cher-like remix of ‘Jellicle Ball’ from Cats, all bombast and brightness. It serves as an overture for what follows. Throughout the show, inspired successes and disastrous failures jostle for attention as equals. It’s like some utopian schools system! You know: you’re all valuable! The songs are performed for all they’re worth... and, often, quite a bit more than they’re worth.


Andrew Conaghan, the leader of the pack. With Hannah & Cormick.

Hannah does the show’s heavy lifting, dramatically speaking. She is such a strong actor, vocally as well as physically, that everything she touches turns to platinum. God, if only we could clone her... Hannah and director Gale Edwards were pretty much responsible for Aspects of Love not disappearing without trace. (Damn them to hell for that!) In a classic example of taking coleslaw to KFC, the Australian production won the composer’s imprimatur and went on to tour the UK in the mid 1990s.

Hannah’s ‘Memory’ is incredibly affecting. Her ‘With One Look’ from Sunset Boulevard is so good, one would wish to have the show revived just so we might see her perform the song in situ. Even the hoary old ‘Tell Me on a Sunday’ has an apotheosis in her palms. ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’, likewise, is perfectly judged.

Vocally, the entire ensemble is equal to the demands of the material: Shaun Rennie’s Judas is thrilling, Alinta Chidzey’s Magdalene is quite perfect, Cormick’s Phantom has immense authority, Trisha Crowe and Kirsten Hobbs in Lloyd Webber’s own flower duet Pie Jesu... All are impressive. Spectacularly good even.

That said, some of the music theatre tricks, the narcissism and mugging, particularly in the opening songs of the first performance, were a bit hard to stomach. But once the individual artists found parts that were a good fit for them, or songs that were just plain easier to sell, cast and audience relaxed.

The set is a tumble of animated billboards. They look good and work well enough, lip sync problems on the pre-recorded Lloyd Webber interview excepted. But, hell, I could have done without the Jesus screen saver... a fantasy sequence which would not have looked out of place in the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same. (Which, I suppose, makes it the right era for JC Superstar!)


A much shorter and much more disciplined version of this review (with a rather nice pic) was published in yesterday’s Australian.


The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Devised and directed by Stuart Maunder. Musical supervision by Guy Noble. Set and costume design and digital media art direction by Julie Lynch. Lighting design by Gavan Swift. Sound design by Michael Waters.

Presented by Lunchbox, David Atkins Enterprises and the Really Useful Company (Asia Pacific). Regent Theatre, Melbourne, March 20. Season ends March 27.

Then Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre, March 30 to April 3; Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, April 6-10; Burswood Theatre, Perth, April 16-24; The Civic, The Edge, Auckland, May 3-8; St James Theatre, Wellington, May 10-15; Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney, May 25-29; and Canberra Theatre Centre, June 1-5; The Lyric Theatre, HKAPA, Hong Kong, June 8-19; Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo, CCP, Manila, from June 24.


For more news, information and ticketing, click here.

The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber: songs performed

ACT I

Overture/medley (Aspects of Love, Cats)

1. ‘Take that look off your face’ from Tell Me On A Sunday (Alinta Chidzey)

2. ‘On this night of 1000 stars’ from Evita (Shaun Rennie)

3. ‘And the money kept rolling in’ from Evita (Blake Bowden)

4. ‘High flying, adored’ from Evita (Michael Cormick)

5. ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ from Evita (Delia Hannah)

6. ‘One rock ’n’ roll too many’ from Starlight Express (Cormick, Rennie, Bowden)

7. ‘Light at the end of the tunnel’ from Starlight Express (Andrew Conaghan & co)

8. ‘Unexpected Song’ from Song & Dance (Kirsten Hobbs)

9. ‘I don’t know how to love him’ from Superstar (Chidzey)

10. ‘Coney Island Waltz from Love Never Dies (Trisha Crowe)

11. ‘Love Never Dies’ from Love Never Dies (Crowe)

12. ‘’Til I hear you sing’ from Love Never Dies (Bowden)

13. Cats medley (Skimbleshanks, Mungojerrie & Rumpleteazer, Macavity, The Rum Tum Tugger & Mister Mistoffolees. (Rennie, Bowden, Hobbs, Chidzey & Cormick)

14. ‘Memory’ from Cats (Delia Hannah)


ACT II

1. ‘Heaven on their minds’ from Superstar (Rennie)

2. ‘I believe my heart’ from The Woman in White (Conaghan & Chidzey)

3. ‘Tell me on a Sunday’ from Tell Me On A Sunday (Hannah)

4. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ from Sunset Boulevard (Cormick)

5. Pie Jesu from Requiem (Crowe & Hobbs)

6. ‘No matter what’ from Whistle Down The Wind (Bowden, Rennie, Conaghan)

7. ‘Whistle down the wind’ from Whistle Down The Wind (Hobbs)

8. ‘The vaults of heaven’ from Whistle Down The Wind (Conaghan, Chidzey & Co.)

9. ‘With one look’ from Sunset Boulevard (Hannah)

10. Phantom of the Opera medley (Cormick & Co.)

11. ‘Superstar’ from Superstar (Rennie & Co.)

12. A bit of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat for the road.



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Friday, March 18, 2011

When a trial is not a trial: Neil Cole’s The Trial of Adolf Eichmann.

In the late 1980s, Colin Golvan had a crack at dramatising the interrogation of Adolf Eichmann, in Haifa, for the Melbourne Theatre Company. Three hundred hours of interrogations -- which took place between Eichmann’s capture in Argentina and his trial in Israel -- were reduced to a couple of hours in the dark. Not your typical MTC fodder, the company mounted the play at the Athenaeum Theatre, upstairs, in the smaller space. Compelling as Nico Lathouris was, as Eichmann, the play was too much the documentary. Too faithful, if anything, to its source material.


Adolf Eichmann on trial

Neil Cole makes a surprisingly good fist of much the same narrative in his recent play The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, which is back for a third season at the Tower Theatre, until April 2.

Cole contrasts Eichmann’s easy willingness to obey his superiors with Alfred Rossner’s defiant subversion of Nazi policy in Upper Silesia. The German-born factory manager adeptly protected the families of the factory’s Jewish employees. It would eventually cost him his own life.

Rather than present the trial as a face-off between the dissembling Eichmann (Kevin Hopkins is all huffy innocence and brazen indignation) and the prosecutor (a pit bull-ish Ross Williams as Israeli Attorney General Gideon Hausner), Cole gives us a human prosecutor as well in the form of Kitia Altman, shiningly played by Belinda Misevski.


Belinda Misevski as Kitia Altman

The real life Altman was one of Rossner’s favourite employees, apparently, and is still very much alive and well... and living in Melbourne. (She was present and spoke, movingly, at Wednesday’s opening night performance.) Her evidence -- her very presence -- is damning of Eichmann and his obedient complicity.

By concentrating on character, Cole and his director Drew Tingwell renew the story and, paradoxically, stop it from being a grind or a kind of penance. In a symbolic and most effective doubling, Adrian Mulraney plays both Rossner and the trial judge. It is the goodness of one German that condemns the evil in another.

The Trial of Adolf Eichmann by Neil Cole. Directed by Drew Tingwell. Lighting design by Matthew Klock. Sound design by Stephen Lovelight. At the Tower Theatre, the Malthouse, until April 2.

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Odd sods. I’m sorry, I’ll read that again. Odds and sods.

T-Time

Tim Minchin’s orchestra tour of Australia was pretty much sold out before the first date. There were a few tickets still left for one of the Perth concerts and a couple still available at the Opera House. They’re all long gone, of course. The good news, as reported by Linzy at timminchin.com, is that the final concert of the tour (March 27, 2011) will be broadcast live from the Opera House on ABC2. Tim says:

“It is an incredible honour to be playing with the Sydney Symphony and such a huge thrill to perform in the Opera House. That people will be able to watch the show live from their lounge rooms fills me with dread and excitement, and will fill the switchboards of right-wing radio djs with calls from the outraged. I can’t wait.”


Xana dos & don’ts

Not since the gloriest glory days of the Victoria State Opera, when PR prince Robert Gibbs couriered fish bowls and Beethoven busts draped in French flags to arts editors to drum up interest in VSO productions of Pearl Fishers and Fidelio, has there been such a pretty and inspired little media teaser as this:



Yep. It’s a media kit. Only problem? It didn’t occur to 99% of the luddites in the Yartz that this was more than just a toy. Under the lid is a USB drive. 4GB no less.



But before you get too jealous -- assuming it was bursting with hi-res pics and videos and interviews and mp3s galore -- I have to tell you mine came with a single word document. All of 5 MB. And it is a total bitch to find a USB port with enough clearance to plug it into... Still, great toy Lara!

Yes, I confess. That is a giant box of matches!

What’s that? You wanna know what the show was actually like? I’m relieved -- and a little bit ashamed -- to admit that it ROCKED. Well, it rolled actually... unlike the fixed wheels on the media toy. [Really, there’s no pleasing some people!]

My review of Xanadu for the Australian is on-line, here.

I pushed for a muse/musical pun in the headline... and was politely ignored.


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Sunday, March 06, 2011

Xanadu: the musical by Douglas Carter Beane. Music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar.

Let’s get one thing straight. This ain’t Starlight Express! Remember Andrew Lloyd Webber’s arena spectacular on roller skates, which had such sophisticated and memorable lyrics as “Freight/Is great”? (No? You don’t? Lucky you!)

Xanadu: The Musical is Starlight’s antithesis: a deliberately no-rent show in a draughty tent with a tiny stage that is big (and I mean gigantic) on wise-ass, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek humour. It’s punny without being groan-inducing, brassy without being too strident, and it’s quite charmingly camp. It takes a dated retro musical -- let’s be blunt, despite it’s five chart-toppers the movie is a stinker -- and transforms it into a big, affectionate wink at the audience.

Douglas Carter Beane’s ingenious adaptation owes as much to Clash of the Titans as it does to Robert Greenwald’s 1980 film Xanadu, which undid for Olivia Newton-John what Grease had done for her career a mere two years earlier.

The story of Sonny, the painter who fell in love with his roller-skating muse Kira, has been considerably beefed up. Best additions are the muse’s resentful and treacherous sisters Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and Melpomene (muse of tragedy). Susan-Ann Walker and Cherine Peck take on their respective roles with the gusto and sass of Bette Midler and Tina Turner. They’re quite the double act.

‘Kira’ is chief muse Clio in disguise. She’s slumming it in Venice Beach as an Aussie girl, with leg warmers shielding her Achilles heels! Clio is permitted to inspire the creation of art, but she must not create art herself. Nor is she permitted to fall in love with a mortal. Calliope and Melpomene’s green-eyed mission is to put her out of favour with their father Zeus using any means possible... and that includes the odd arrow from Cupid’s quiver.


Christie Whelan as Kira and Sam Ludeman as Sonny in Xanadu (Photo: Bruce Magilton)

As Clio/Kira, the goddess-like Christie Whelan is as immaculate and untouchable as a young Newton-John. Whelan is less breathy and earnest -- not such a bad thing -- but was not assisted at Thursday’s premiere by the sound design and amplification which made the entire cast sound shrill and gutless. I also wondered if there was sufficient fold, on-stage. It seemed as though John McTernan, for one, in the Gene Kelly role, couldn’t hear himself.

Sam Ludeman is a charming and innocent Sonny, all ambition and impatience, lacking only the self-confidence a muse can inspire. He’s an excellent foil for Whelan.

Without the overblown string and synth schlock of E.L.O., the bare bones of the original Jeff Lynne/John Farrar score (played by just four musicians) is more than a relief, it’s a revelation. Get your skates on, word of mouth should fill this show to the soft-top.

Xanadu: The Musical by Douglas Carter Beane. Music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. At the Grand Xanadu Marquee, Docklands Drive, Melbourne. March 3. Season ends May 8. A ten week season in Sydney follows, from late May, then Brisbane from early August. Tickets $39.90 to $85.90. Bookings: Ticketek, 13 2849.

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Review: Tim Minchin vs the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

I can’t actually remember, now, what finally killed the Doug Anthony All-Stars. I’ve got a feeling it was a mix of television (which sucks comedy into its maw at a prodigious rate) and DAAS’s mostly teen-female audience (ditto, an’ I don’t mean Beth!). There was a point in their fledgling career when their well-crafted show, a careful mix of comedy and damn-fine singing, became a liability. I reckon I was at the concert (at the old Universal One in Fitzroy) when they realised... there was a bunch of girls at the front of the crowd that knew every word. Verbatim. From that day, DAAS turned from entertainers to audience abusers... and self-abusers.

It’s a mystery that passeth understanding that someone like Chris Rock, who can hone a show til it’s word perfect and tour the world with it, can get away with completely un-improvised stand-up while others -- like Wil Anderson who I saw do an identical show in successive years -- we revolt against.

Tim Minchin, bless, looks like getting away with a largely fixed show. It’s partly because it’s song-based, even if many of his songs rely on unfamiliarity for their effect. As I wrote in my review of his concert with the MSO in Monday’s Australian, included below, Minchin’s “arena” tour is pretty damn shrewd, a great mix of new and old material. A good spread for new fans, and enough repackaging to keep his old friends happy.

What I wonder about -- worry about -- is Minchin’s Rock ’n’ Roll Nerd persona. It’s almost too perfect. I can’t see any scope in it for evolution. Now, chances are that the persona is Tim himself, and his life -- so far -- has been great fodder for his work. Especially the new stuff about being a father. But in the longer term, who knows!

Anyway, for now, the man is a brilliant mind, a great songwriter and a damn fine entertainer.

The following review appeared in The Australian on Monday February 28.


“Nothing ruins comedy like arenas ” says Tim Minchin, strapping on a Dean V-shape electric guitar, a few minutes into the first date on his month-long national speed-date. He’s standing in front of a capacity crowd -- the first of three -- at St Kilda’s Palais Theatre, a venue which still lays claim to the title of greatest seating capacity theatre in the country.

Arenas may or may not kill comedy -- Chris Rock’s firm of accountants could gun down that claim without glancing up from their Wall Street Journals -- but whatever it is that Tim Minchin does lends itself to scale. To excess. Minchin’s a rapper balladeer, part John Cooper Clarke and part Loudon Wainwright III. In his anthemic hit ‘Canvas Bags’ he sounds for all the world like Great Britain’s answer to Eminem: The Streets.

Kink, taboo and self-revelation are his ‘thing’. I was tempted to write anguished self-revelation, but that is exactly wrong. It is the lack of anguish in his revelations, the lack of guilt in (what should be) his guilty secrets, that make him so adorable and refreshing. So liberating. So cathartic.

‘Lullaby’ is a classic example of what he does. Forgive the spoilers, or skip to the end of the paragraph if you’re one of the few who haven’t see Minchin and the MSO perform this song on TV in the lead up to the tour. The punchline [ahem!] is that the parent singing the waltz-like lullaby loves his baby most when it’s not making a noise, when it’s barely breathing... in short, when the child most looks like it’s dead!

Given his skyrocketing international success, Minchin’s decision to perform with various orchestras around the country is a shrewd one. By presenting a broad spectrum of old, recent and brand new material, he brings his latest converts up to speed. Meanwhile, the faithful are treated to a big band version of ‘Cheese’ and refurbishments of Minchin classics: ‘Dark Side’ and ‘Not Perfect’ come with brooding and feisty orchestrations.

Don’t be conned by the use of ‘vs’ in the advertising. There’s no battle at all between Minchin and his orchestra (the Melbourne Symphony under the magic wand of Benjamin Northey for the first concerts). They work magnificently together for two and a half hours. The sound is impeccably clean -- importantly, every sung word is decipherable -- and the mix between Minchin’s bantam-sized band and the orchestra is careful.

The one downside of the arena scale of the show is that Minchin has to heckle himself, but even here it’s a privilege to be privy to the Rock ’n’ Roll nerd’s innermost voices.

Tim Minchin vs the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Palais Theatre, St Kilda, Friday February 25.

Also Tim Minchin vs the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, Pioneer Women's Memorial, Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Perth, March 4 & 5; Tim Minchin vs the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Festival Theatre, Adelaide, March 10-12; Tim Minchin vs the Queensland Pops Orchestra, Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, March 18; Tim Minchin vs the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Wrest Point Entertainment Centre, Hobart, March 21; and Tim Minchin vs the Sydney Symphony, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, March 24-27. Tickets: $79-$139. Most dates sold out.

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