Posts Tagged ‘stephen sondheim


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.


Into the Woods


Into the Woods

Queensland Conservatorium

Griffith University

August 22 – 30 2014

Conservatorium Theatre


Reviewed by Jackson Kellaway




On Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing the talent that the Queensland Conservatorium is pumping out. Their graduating students presented Soundheim and Lapine’s Into The Woods and it was a magical masterpiece.


The students had the opportunity to have Kate Wilson direct this production. Her extensive career as a director and academic was obviously very beneficial for the graduates. This shared knowledge is something the students will forever remember and be able to apply in their very bright futures.


The performance level of these students is nothing less than what you would expect from Queensland’s premier musical theatre training institution. The talent shone through the smoke effect on stage as the company took us into an imaginative world based on our favourite fairy-tales. The cast had fantastic concentration and focus throughout the performance and the comic timing was perfect. Rehearsing since May this year, the production team pulled together a clean-cut musical for anyone who is a fan of the Grimm stories.


The Dead Puppet Society oversaw the design elements of this production; an amazing learning opportunity for these students. It was visible from the mixture of old and new school techniques used in the production that the students had embraced the puppetry elements that were taught.


Anyone who knows the musical will agree that the music and lyrics are quite intense and wordy. In some songs the words are being sung so fast you can barely keep up and in others the timing must be so precise between the singers. With this in mind it is no wonder the production team included Soundheim expert Stuart Pedler who shared his knowledge on the talented lyricist.




After a bit of confusion as to whether our happily ever after had been cut short or not, we realised it was just interval. Unfortunately a few people weren’t aware of this and didn’t make it back for Act 2. With the vacant seats throughout the audience the lights dimmed and the show went on.




I almost turned as red as Jack’s hair when I suddenly heard the familiar Nokia ringtone emitting nearby. After what felt like hours the audience member finally turned it off. Then another audience member decided that the orchestra could be improved by her opening what sounded like every bag of chips from a 20-pack variety box. I was secretly wishing the witch would fly off the stage and turn them into an ugly stepsister or even Milky-white, Jack’s beloved cow.


All in all my first Queensland Conservatorium experience was incredible! The connection between the cast members and the powerful vocal work presented could not be described as anything but phenomenal. They have definitely gained a fan.


Putting the spotlight firmly on the graduating class of 2014, this is pure talent – exposed!

Through blood, sweat, tears and a considerable amount of laughter, this talented group of young performers have worked incredibly hard over the past three years to develop their skills as musical theatre performers. OUR TURN! showcases these students through a delicious taste of the world’s most entertaining and often moving repertoire in vignettes of song, dance and scene in a talent-packed one hour show. Let Queensland Conservatorium’s stars of tomorrow entertain you today!

at QPAC begins the showcase tour. Other cities include Sydney and Melbourne.


This is a wonderful opportunity to share in the enthusiasm and excitement that has surrounded the Musical Theatre program at the Queensland Conservatorium. Catch a glimpse of Australia’s next Musical Theatre stars!





An Afternoon With Stephen Sondheim or Diary Excerpt of a Fanatic

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A very talented and very fanatical friend of ours took off to see Stephen Sondheim in Melbourne, while Mr Sondheim was here to see the hit production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and answer a few questions in a forum of a different kind…


Contributed by Darren Heskes 


What started as “An Evening with Stephen Sondheim” for me became “two postponed evenings with Sondheim” (he had fallen in England whilst walking and talking, fracturing his  right wrist), 2 non refundable airline tickets, a hotel room that had been paid for (which resulted in me going to Melbourne just to use up the accommodation and second airline ticket), and a “hang the expense, I’ll take the family down South and pay extra to see Forum weekend. Like I had money to burn!


It wasn’t the latest Smash hit  musical or  Lady Gaga concert that  the obsessive ones sell their parents to see, so why do all this to see an 82-year old man being asked questions that I already knew the answers to?




Of all the people in this world Sondheim is the only one I would ever  make this kind of effort to see.



I could have bought a ticket to New York and camped outside his place for the same cost.

A career spanning over 55 years as the ultimate theatre songwriter: lyricist  for West Side Story and Gypsy leading to his eventual destiny providing music and lyrics to his  revolutionary and sometimes daring masterpieces Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George (my number one musical of all time), Into the Woods, Assassins and Passion. He  has worked with  some of the biggest Broadway and West End  giants and I could spew forth wads of info your way but come on! You have a computer…Look him up. If you’re unfamiliar then it’s time to get acquainted as there will never be another Sondheim, just as there’ll never be another Shakespeare or da Vinci.


“In Person”. That concept seems ridiculous, something  that interests fanatics and stalkers. I was no different. I was even annoying the concierge at the hotel he was staying at. But I wasn’t alone and although he made it quite clear during the anticipated afternoon  that he could not write at present (the wrist damage is severe as he is right handed), the faithful stood waiting at the stage door with programmes, scores and paraphernalia to have him sign. I was no better. I took note of the non-signing but made sure I left a musical proposal for him to peruse with the stage door manager (like I’m the only one who’s ever done that). I know full well the cold truth of reality but that doesn’t mean I’m not checking my email every day, just in case.


Anyway… After a brief delay waiting for the greatest songwriter of the latter 20th century, there he was… in person! Shorter than I imagined. Christopher Lawrence asked thoughtful and well researched questions that Mr. Sondheim was both surprised and pleased with. Excellent for the less dogmatic admirers, but for the ravenous devourers we wanted to have him all to ourselves. Musical excerpts were performed by various artists, and not having been a Packed to the Rafters follower all I can say is “OMG… that Hugh Sheridan can sing!” What a voice. The most perfect rendition of the title tune from the less successful opus Anyone Can Whistle. Even Stephen (well, I’d hoped we’d be on first name terms by now) was moved. To the point in fact that he scolded someone taking photographs during  the song.


Silvie Palidino’s Not a Day Goes By from Merrily We Roll Along was not only incredible to listen to it brought the Maestro to tears. Less convincing unfortunately, was Martin Crewes who did the Sunday in the Park excerpts. It just didn’t do it for me. Now if Hugh had sung it I would have been on my knees sobbing like an infant. Everything these days is cross-promotional and so this was in preparation for the 2013 Melbourne season of Sunday in the Park. Now if it was a Quast or Jackman in the lead (as they both had done so in the past), or even a Sheridan, I’d be booking passage immediately. Crewes, although capable, is no heavyweight. 


Geoffrey Rush joined Christopher and Stephen on the stage for 15 minutes of further cross promotion (Forum) and as entertaining, funny and talented as he was, I came for the awkward New Yorker. It did give an insight however into the methods and abilities of Mr Rush and why he is where he is today.

His attention to detail is second to none and for a self confessed non-singer he puts many  supposed singers to shame. 


Now back to Stephen…While we were lead chronologically through his career, with 2 interrupted hours there was no time to be stuck on 1959’s  Gypsy ( I mean, he was allowed to write lyrics only at this point at Ethel Merman’s request) and while Mr Lawrence attempted to steer proceedings further on, many in the audience had to let out a sigh to delay things another 5 minutes! COME ON PEOPLE! The highpoint of all musical theatre was his career from 1970-1994 and we still had another 11 years to go. TIME’S TICKING! Unions wouldn’t allow for a finish any later than 4.30 pm so MOVE IT! 


At interval I went off to do the usual: buy a drink, go to the toilet. Little did I know that those that remained milling in the auditorium were given a survey and then they selected 3 people to ask Mr Sondheim a question each…WHAT?! If I’d have known that I would have worn an adult nappy that day just in case. OH what wasted questions! It was like being given 3 wishes and wasting every one of them. The first question was by an older gentleman with the need for people to think he was witty, the second by a  young bassoonist who went and sat back in her seat mid answer (2 wishes down) and the third by a bumbling student not even aware of the full extent of Sondheim’s career. Folks…he went from strength to strength well after West Side Story and 55 years on he would like to forget some of his early career cringe-worthy lyrics. 


It’s a shame most people in this country are not as well versed on Sondheim as they should be. The more recent Burton film Sweeney Todd, which may have brought a younger generation a taste of Sondheim, is style over substance. Don’t ever see the film versions of A Little Night Music or Forum… They’re rubbish.  However you will never regret getting your hands on the filmed stage versions of Sunday in the Park with George and Company, the original cast recording of Sweeney Todd and the Sondheim biography by Meryle Secrest. Life-changing.  


So all in all was I satisfied… Not really.

But I would not have missed it for the world.




Stephen Sondheim


Sondheim says…

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum



Stephen Sondheim is in town!


No, not in Brisvegas but in Melbourne for Frosty’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, directed by Simon Phillips and starring Geoffrey Rush.


Of course you knew that.


But did you listen to the conversation he had on Radio National (Books and Arts Daily) with Michael Cathcart?


If you missed it, take the time to listen now and catch up on reviews from Crikey and The Age.


Is Forum your favourite Sondheim show?





sweeney todd

Josh Rowe (Sweeney Todd)

Sweeney Todd

Ignatians Musical Society

Schonell Theatre

22nd March – 13th April

Ignatians sure know how to put on a show. And boy oh boy have they picked a doozy this time! Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, inspired by Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the classic story (Bond was the first to show Todd as a man who had been wronged by the law and not motivated entirely by greed), is certainly not the easiest of musical productions. In fact, it could be considered one of the most challenging, with its complex orchestrations, multi-layered ensemble work and dark, difficult story to sell to contemporary audiences with ever-decreasing attention spans, accustomed to being sitcom-spoon-fed.

Director and Musical Director, John Peek, has accomplished something special with this Sweeney Todd. A strong, bold ensemble, filled to overflowing with top-notch part-singers and character actors, a brave creative team, an orchestra fit for a recording studio (led by Conductor, Edgar Chan) and a cast of leading players who include a couple of Brisbane’s best.

Opera singer, Josh Rowe, despite his Russell Crow demeanor (or maybe because of it. Russell Crowe was to have originally starred in the film and was to have been directed by Sam Mendes. Personally, I’m okay with Johnny Depp and Tim Burton having scored the gig), was a little underwhelming on Saturday night (the third performance of the run). Rowe may have the title role but this is Miranda Selwood’s show. Their relationship becomes more interesting and Rowe’s reactions and expressions become more animated in Act 2, by which time I felt he’d really settled into his boots (I don’t mean vocally – the outstanding vocals were there from the outset, exemplified in the sinister song, My Friends, sung to his razor (singular, yes), glinting in the light – I mean that he must have gone out and got his Sweeney shoes on at interval, only fully exploring the range of the character later. I should make mention of Pretty Women; sung with Judge Turpin (Chris Kellett), it used the right mix from both men, of devious and delighted and By The Sea, performed with Selwood (she is an absolute scream in this number; hers is a fearless performance) is made that much more hilarious by Rowe’s facial expressions and in this well-loved song, although he remains seated, we see his ability as an actor start to come through, in addition to the stand-and-deliver-singer we’ve seen thus far). It’s Selwood who is simply superb, as the bustling, busybody, bonny cook of The Worst Pies in London, Mrs Lovett. She is feisty, cheeky, fast, furious and vocally, absolutely glorious. She clearly relishes the role and why not? It’s a plum one and it seems she was born to play it. I’m sure Selwood must have taken a leaf out of Helena Bonham Carter’s book and practiced her baking whilst practicing her singing, in order to perfect the syncopation in her songs, which are surely the most difficult of the show.

James Gauci is also perfectly cast, as the young, romantic lead. He’s a good-looking lad who can hold a note and tell a tale…oh, who am I kidding? He’s just gorgeous and he sings to sweep the ladies off their feet! Please somebody get him in front of Frosty already! His Johanna, Jordana Peek, is suitably lovely – a picture of innocence – though I found her a little pitchy and breathy in the song that should seal the deal for this character, Green Finch and Linnet Bird. She made up for it in the duet with Gauci, Kiss Me, and also, in the Reprise of Kiss Me (the Quartet), demonstrating the confidence we expected to see from the start and a much more polished performance, finally winning me over. Toby (Ben Hickey) is a tough-nut sweetheart and does a truly beautiful job of the often over-sung Not While I’m Around. We expect this to be a poignant moment (it’s the beauty before the full extent of the horror) between Toby and Mrs Lovett and we’re not disappointed. Pirelli (Andrew Scheiwe), whose accents are spot on and Lucy Barker (Sarah Jensen), who manages to make us laugh as well as make our hearts break in the very same instant, get the other honorable mentions, giving us wonderful, multi-faceted characters.

James Gauci (Anthony) and Ben Hickey (Toby)

James Gauci (Anthony), Jordana Peek (Johanna) and Chris Kellet (Judge Turpin)

It’s a highly technical show and there are massive demands placed on the set. This design (Shane Rodwell) is intricate in terms of its levels but there is something at odds here and I feel sure it’s the massive, mechanical revolve trying to upstage everybody. So much emphasis has been placed on the working set that we are lucky to have had such strong performances, avoiding anyone paling into insignificance. I love a revolve as much as anybody but it must serve the purpose and I felt that this one – it was clunky and slow – was out of step with the pace of the show. The Chair, however, is another matter altogether; the mechanism is brilliant and the effect is truly chilling and strangely comical, as things tend to be when they are mildly discomforting… I don’t want to give away all of the effects but if you’ve ever seen a squib sliced, you’ll appreciate that somebody in makeup has done their fair share of research into the fine art of throat slitting. You will squirm, just as you should. The tale is, after all, ghastly.

Dark, gothic lighting – not too much and not too little – casting shadows and drawing our eyes towards the most minimal action is just right. Andrew ‘Panda’ Haden has done well to achieve such an evocative and intimate lighting design within the large-scale Schonell Theatre. Gutter colours dominate the structures and the costumes, all trash and no treasure, except for Pirelli’s carnival suit (but he’s not around for long), Johanna’s pretty blue frock and Mrs Lovettt’s sassy petticoat of delicious pink under, which we catch glimpses of, just as we see the brighter shades of each character from time to time – but only for a moment.

The staging of the prologue seems unnecessary, an anti-climatic opening; a solitary figure (a dishevelled man) crossing the apron of the stage to pull a rope, in the action of ringing a bell and at the same time, opening the curtain onto a scene of madness – the streets of London. A bold directorial choice, it was probably not ideal. Far more effective would be the first sounds of Sondheim’s strangely seductive score and the curtain opening upon the ensemble standing, imploring us (really very At the End of the Day and there’s no doubt it works), to “Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd”…

Another unusual moment, wasted; we missed, “At last, my right arm is complete again!” It’s the definitive Demon Barber character line and it was thrown to the wings, dismissed during an exit, rather than used to achieve the climax of the Prologue. Whether by actor or director, I thought this an odd choice.

"At last, my right arm is complete again!" Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's film.

I cannot stress enough how good this company is in terms of their ensemble singing. Like any company, they have their “stars”, though none seem aligned or affiliated with this or another company, we see them everywhere, and Ignatians always work really hard on producing an exceptional ensemble, as we saw (heard) in RENT and as we see (and hear) in Sweeney Todd. I’m always in awe of a good choir master/MD (our local Oriana Choir is off on their European tour soon, led by the extremely capable and super confident Daniel Calder) and if you’ve ever considered joining a terrific no-pressure-no-audition choir, Ignatians provides another Brisbane option. Check the website for details.

As far as Brisbane theatre goes, there is a huge amount on at the moment and this production must be one of the hot ticket items. On Saturday night, I noticed UQ uni life was alive and well (clearly, it was pizza and red wine night) and a horde of younger audience members filled the Schonell theatre foyer at least 20 minutes before the Box Office opened. These are some keen kids! How wonderful that the theatre rather than the cinema is where they choose to spend some of their money! I would not recommend taking children to see this show. I would wonder at its appeal for those to whom Sondheim’s score is largely unknown and at the same time, I would encourage all and sundry to go see Peek’s Sweeney Todd and support Ignatians’ mammoth effort and their solid commitment to the growth of the Brisbane musical theatre scene. Really, you’d be silly to miss this production – there’s too much to like about it!