2013 in review: Sydney musical theatre

Most musical theatre fans in Sydney are well into the groove of 2014. The newly-formed Hayes Theatre Co is devoted to musical theatre and cabaret programming, as well as developing new Australian musical works, and new large-scale productions getting ready to debut, like the long-awaited Strictly Ballroom. But before it all begins, let’s take one last look at 2013.

For the past couple of years, I have written a ‘best of the year’s musicals’ list for this site. My hesitation to do it for 2013 is because the musicals that worked this year were few, and I love the genre and our musical theatre industry, and it’s a sad thing to look back on.

Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Matt Hetherington and Tony Sheldon in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Image by Kurt Sneddon

However, these less good shows don’t stand apart from the good ones – they all fit into the bigger story of Sydney and its art scene. Audiences, and especially people who review theatre and see more than a hundred shows each year, move from one show to the next, experience to experience, and those feelings, reactions, and impressions start to build into something bigger. Put two disappointing shows in a row and the disappoint is amplified. Put two brilliant ones together, one after the other, and the giddiness and hope can be overblown or overstated in the sheer relief of finding something you love again. It can be hard to be objective. Last year the few musicals that worked well worked so well that the passion they engendered in audiences, critics, and the theatre community are strong and emotional, and have really created a sense of change in the air with their fresh, smart approaches. They have made 2014 all the more exciting, but crucially, they were 2013’s saving graces.

In 2013, I created a top five list of musicals, with one extra. This year, there’s only a top three, but those top three were often brilliant, always exceptional, and deeply appreciated. These are the shows that revitalised and re-energised myself, and, I think, Sydney musical theatre. First, a couple of honourable mentions:

Jessica Rookeward as Tracy Turnblad. Photo by Grant Leslie.
Jessica Rookeward as Tracy Turnblad. Photo by Grant Leslie.

Packemin Productions are doing excellent things with their amateur/professional split model, and seem to really understand their Riverside community and audience. Their shows are like a party with a musical at the centre, and the smiles on the audience faces are infectious. Their Hairspray was a delight, and its Wizard of Oz sufficiently both hammy for the adults and magical for the younger ones. With a few professional performers (Cle Morgan from the 2010/11 Hairspray tour reprised her role at Riverside; icon John English took on Edna Turnblad) working alongside amateur and community performers, Packemin produce a result of renewed joy for the work of musical theatre – but also, maybe more importantly, the play within the work. It’s exciting to see the work this company is doing in the Riverside space: their first production for this year will be Annie, so stop by and see it.

Tyran Park. Image by Blueprint Studios
Tyran Park. Image by Blueprint Studios

Tyran Parke directed Rent at AIM this year for just a handful of productions. This site doesn’t review amateur productions and I didn’t review this show. I almost didn’t go at all. But I went, and I’m sincerely grateful that I did. The show, while scrappy, was surprisingly incendiary. Parke built in an authentic sense of urgency, of willful aimless artistry, and of youthful emotion. If the performances were raw, well, these were students – some of them had never performed before – but Rent can also afford to be raw, should never be too polished. Parke speaks musical theatre’s language and we see this mostly when he performs, but it’s also there when he directs, and the next time he directs something in Sydney, make it a must-see.

The best musicals of 2013

3. Carrie: The Musical – Squabbalogic, dir. Jay James-Moody (Review here)

2013 for me was the year of the independent musical, with boutique musical darlings Squabbalogic pushing every boundary of the standard Broadway-replica showing in Australia while proving that intimate, emotional, or just plain daring production were just as, and often more, an enjoyable and satisfying theatregoing experience. In 2014, with the introduction of the Hayes Theatre Co bringing us a dedicated space for musical theatre and cabaret, kicking off  with Sweet Charity (boasting a great cast and creative team), and hosting a new Squabbalogic season (the first show is The Drowsy Chaperone), I think more people might catch on to independent musical theatre, and we have a lot to forward to.

Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole. Photo by Michael Francis, Francis Photography.
Margi de Ferranti and Hilary Cole. Photo by Michael Francis, Francis Photography.

Squabbalogic has, ever since it came onto the scene, pushed at our boundaries and expectations by making clever, off-the-wall choices with wonderfully quirky yet emotional shows like A New Brain and [title of show]. Nothing, though, has gone out on a limb as far as the choice to nominate Carrie to end Squabbalogic’s first three-show season. There was, with the choice of this notorious and difficult musical, a palpable sense of risk, and after the Greases of the world, a risk was a refreshing and admirable thing.

Re-written and remarkably improved since its 1988 debut, Carrie was a moody, tense, impossibly gripping show, and that last one is really thanks to James-Moody’s keen direction. He framed those awkward, potentially problematic dialogue scenes with an internal awkwardness, a self-conscious adolescent irony from every performer. Carrie herself is a sympathetic character, so much so that her rage at the end of the show feels earned or at least understandable, but so too is her mother (Margi de Ferranti), and Sue Snell (Adele Parkinson), and even the awful other kids (played with a wonderful knowingness by one of the best musical ensembles since last year’s South Pacific and Legally Blonde – sharing this honor for 2013 with my number one show on this list).

All the elements worked, and they triumphed over a much improved but still shaky script: music direction, lighting,  staging  especially (I still think about that burned out gym and how instantly it evoked a troubling sadness, the stillness of destruction). The conflicted, complicated mother-daughter relationship became the vise-tight core of the show. And of course there was Hilary Cole as Carrie, a fragile figure carrying within herself immense strength. I don’t think many people who saw this show will forget Carrie taking her first moment on stage and singing that title song – that opening line clear and defiant and yet still aching with hurt. It’s the moment we all discovered Hilary Cole, and it’s a moment many more people will have with every single show she does next, because her talent is remarkable.

2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – George Youakim, dir. Roger Hogman (Review here)

Amy Lehpamer in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Amy Lehpamer. Image by Kurt Sneddon

We saw a new producer – George Youakim, an underdog himself – mounted an underdog of a musical at the Theatre Royal. This was a stellar show because it had all the right components: great cast, great design, great direction. As a show all on its own, it was a solid, excellently executed piece of offbeat musical theatre starring one of our own legends, Tony Sheldon, and giving important exposure to some of our favourite, underrated working performers – Amy Lehpamer, Matt Hetherington, even Katrina Retallick.

But shows don’t exist in a vacuum, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and its story comes with context; a rightfully deserved place in the 2013 Sydney theatre – and Sydney musical theatre – narrative. A professional production, it followed hot on the heels of another big flashy musical (Grease) that was ultimately disappointing, and a couple of other musical outings that still loomed large like a bitter taste in one’s mouth (The Addams Family), and these shows seemed to do a disservice to our hardworking, passionate musical theatre industry. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was our breath of fresh air, the genre’s redemption, the reminder that musical theatre works and works well when its team doesn’t fight against its stylistic reality; there was a strangely touching quality to its integrity and timeliness. It was everything we needed at the right time and I was thoroughly charmed.

Despite being critically well-received, ticket sales were not fantastic – but last year was a year of transition, and the first step is always the hardest. The Sydney theatre community deeply appreciates those who make those first steps and help lay the groundwork for change, even if the change is just a call to respect the form again. Sydney is also willing to reward the change-makers, and last night at the Sydney Theatre Awards, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels swept the awards in the musial categories, and rightly so, giving recognition to our dogged board-treaders Hetherington and Retallick, and to the show itself.

The message to George Youakim and all passionate producers, to all the musical theatre-makers in Sydney waiting for a chance to get their shows up – shows that aren’t distinctly heartless – should be clear. Please, keep doing what you’re doing. We see you. We support you. We welcome you, we hope you stay. 2014, and beyond, should rightfully be yours.

1. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson – Squabbalogic, dir. Craig Stewart (Review here)

Work like Squabbalogic’s, and I can’t say this enough, is the future of Sydney theatre: accessible, affordable, and different. It is vital that we don’t let our musical theatre flounder in pitch-perfect replicas of the latest tired Broadway show with guaranteed returns or the old crowd-pleasers; it is incredibly important that we continue to investigate the way that the work has grown and changed in this post-Sondheim world, not the shows that retread the same old path laid down in the golden era, over and over.

The Cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photo by Michael Francis.
The Cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photo by Michael Francis.

The perfect example of this new and different work is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, my favourite musical of 2013. Such a new musical (it close on Broadway in 2011),  it’s almost an anti-hero itself, much like its protagonist. It smashes structure and form with a self-referential tongue in cheek and a narrator the title character kills off to “make [his] own story.” Anarchic and rebellious, Stewart and Squabbalogic instinctively understood how to tell this story. Taking it downstairs at the Factory Theatre and sprawling its actors around the stage and the aisle immediately changes the rules of the relationship between performers and audience, and that’s exciting. It was exciting to be in that theatre and not know what to expect, even as a fan of the music of the show.

The strength of this show was in the ensemble. I went twice to see it and the Sunday matinee audience late in the run wasn’t as theatre literate as the opening night audience, but the show still managed to transcend the less participatory crowd – it was a tight,funny show that understood its comedic beats and also each other’s strengths. Like Hilary Cole in Carrie, Peter Meredith as Andrew Jackson was an electrifying sight (it’s surely his turn for bigger things now). But every performer in the show (Bridget Keating, Monique Salle, and Phil McIntosh in particular) elevated the quality of each moment, switching between character as quickly as the show jumped, TIVO-like, between time and place.

Peter Meredith. Photo by Michael Francis.
Peter Meredith. Photo by Michael Francis.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was something we’ve never seen before. It’s a new show, a challenging show – it asks you pay attention, to put your expectations of musical theatre aside, and honestly, it’s about time someone asked Sydney audiences to do that. It was refreshing to have a confident, intelligent show put before us to digest and respond to. Despite its irrevernece and deliberate attitude, this show respected its audience, and I respect a show that respects me.

I also didn’t laugh harder in any other musical this year – and considering we had Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, that’s quite a feat.

So thank you to these three brave, smart shows. I can’t wait to see which gems we uncover in 2014, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for these lights in the proverbial darkness.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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