10
Mar
17

Boys of Sondheim

 

Boys of Sondheim

Brisbane Powerhouse & Understudy Productions

Brisbane Powerhouse Turbine Studio

February 2 – 4 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

I was a little bemused by the collateral for this one, a highlight of this year’s MELT Festival. Surely Stephen Sondheim is only recently recognised as “one of the most significant gay artists of the 20th Century”? I grew up with his music and have always recognised him as an artist. I don’t have people within my circles for whom this distinction is anything other than a source of pride and solidarity. MELT has a sense of wonderful community about it, which is typical at Brisbane Powerhouse, regardless of the programming; it’s my favourite venue as much for its vibe as its unlimited possibilities for performance and socialising, but during this festival there’s always something a little more electric (and eclectic) than usual. The energy is super charged and the collective pride shared by the artists and patrons during this time each year makes for an even more appreciative audience, and closer connections. The ‘standard’ of the stuff on show seems to be largely inconsequential. What it comes down to is this: we just want to hear our stories.

Sondheim’s music is some of the most intricate and difficult EVER. It’s not just about hitting the notes (nothing ever is), and given the chance to perform it, most artists will leap in the general direction and enthusiastically “perform” the piece. Some will even sell their song and earn heartfelt applause, and even fewer will leave someone in their audience in tears, or breathless and aching for…something that’s perhaps just out of reach.

Sometimes I do a heap of research and read about previous productions, and their creators and directors and artists, I peek at what the critics have noted, I ask friends what they think, I catch up with the artists or message them to get a sense of where they’re coming from and what they want us to get out of the work. But this is a brand new work, a world premiere, and there’s no precedent except for every other celebration of Sondheim’s music ever. This is certainly a celebration, a tribute to one of the defining voices of musical theatre and mostly, an interesting and entertaining night out, but it’s not all I’d hoped it would be. After a brief development period, the show lacks the polish it needs to win us over completely. It has some heart and some guts, and it’s a great vehicle for its talented performers, but I’d like to see it again in 6 or 9 months time when it might know better what it wants to be.

A narrative penned by Anthony Nocera offers us mostly amusing fleeting glimpses of some of the joys and pitfalls of gay dating and loving and living. Not unlike Dean Bryant’s GAYBIES, the structure relies heavily on these brief monologues, delivered in turn by the actors, to break up the musical numbers, an assortment of somebody’s favourite songs, loosely stitched together in an it’s-interesting-to-be-gay overarching way. Unfortunately, towards the end, the narrative breaks up one of Sondheim’s greatest accomplishments and Being Alive is brought to a painful death by continual interruptions. This makes it almost impossible for Tim Carroll to build the song and bring it to its bitter sweet soaring end, and makes me wonder, why?

With only a few shows in this short season, the opening number needed to be ready for opening night, and the insecurity or reticence or something of three quarters of the cast members makes the first 8-10 minutes ever so slightly uncomfortable. This is so weird, because they’re all fantastic performers, but the music is challenging and the lesser known songs don’t help to win us over. I love Kurt Phelan’s choreography, utilising the catwalk and the narrow space in front of a gay-mancave-bar, the conceit being that these guys have gathered in someone’s home for a lovely champagne catch up.

Kurt Phelan, Sean Andrews, Stephen Hirst, Alexander Woodward and Tim Carroll certainly go to some lengths to expose the “soulful, masculine underbelly” of Sondheim’s work as well as much of the comedy (Hirst’s (Not) Getting Married Today is sidesplittingly funny), but we know there’s more to this lovely little show and I can’t wait to see it reborn and restaged sometime.

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