Thursday, 14 September 2017

Swan Lake / Loch na Heala


Not your standard 'Swan Lake' but a fierce challenging version
Here's my Dance Informa review


http://dancemagazine.com.au/2017/09/no-tutus-involved-in-michael-keegan-dolans-drama-theatre-work-swan-lakeloch-na-heala/






No tutus involved in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s drama theatre work ‘Swan Lake/Loch na hEala’


Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Swan Lake/Loch na hEala'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
MICHAEL KEEGAN-DOLAN'S 'SWAN LAKE/LOCH NA HEALA'. PHOTO BY PRUDENCE UPTON.


Sydney Opera House, Sydney.
1 September 2017.
Strange and unsettling, bleak and raw, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is not your standard traditional classical ballet version of Swan Lake. There is no Tchaikovsky music, no royal palace, no huge corps de ballet of fluttering swans in white tutus.
Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Swan Lake/Loch na hEala'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s ‘Swan Lake/Loch na hEala’. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Written, directed and choreographed by Keegan-Dolan for his company Teaċ Daṁsa (which has emerged in the wake of his former company Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre), Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is instead set in the grim Irish midlands of County Longford.
While it is extremely different than the much-loved 19th century Russian ballet, the work does contain several key plot similarities. The work also incorporates an Irish myth called The Children of Lir, about a woman who marries a king whose wife has died. Jealous of his relationship with his four children, she plans to kill them but has a change of heart and instead transforms them into swans for 900 years. The swans are discovered by a saint, who manages to return them to their human form; they then die and eventually ascend to Heaven.
The set strips the stage back to the theatre’s bare brick walls with looming scaffolding, four step ladders of assorted size, each with a large pair of feathered wings, and there are various props tables and chairs moved in and out as required. Visually, there are some stunning images, such as the swan wings and the use of plastic for the lake.
Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Swan Lake/Loch na hEala'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s ‘Swan Lake/Loch na hEala’. Photo by Prudence Upton.
In this stark version by Keegan-Dolan, Prince Siegfried becomes commoner Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), a depressed young man in daggy track pants and beanie who hasn’t recovered from the loss of his father a year ago. Making things worse and adding to Jimmy’s annoyance, his wheelchair-bound mother Nancy (Australian dancer Elizabeth Cameron Dalman) has sold the family home to move into a new public housing apartment. Cameron Dalman gives a taut, hypnotic performance as the imperious family matriarch, at times regal, at times witch-like. In an attempt to cheer him up, Nancy organises a party for Jimmy’s birthday, having given him his father’s shotgun as a present. The party is horrendous, and Jimmy heads to the lake where he encounters Finola, the equivalent of Odette (Rachel Poirier), and her three sisters who were turned into swans by an abusive priest (the man we first saw on stage upon entering the theatre, in effect the von Rothbart figure).
Keegan-Dolan combines dance, music and words to tell the story with Irish actor Mikel Murfi giving his all in an extremely searing and revealing powerhouse performance, sort of acting as narrator while portraying several characters – a manipulative politician, the priest, a cool DJ in sunglasses and a police sergeant, among others. When we first see him, as the audience enters, he is a holy fool, dressed only in white underpants, tethered to a concrete block by a long rope and making animal noises. He walks like a bird at times, with avian movements of the feet and arms. We eventually learn that he is a man who has lost his humanity, a priest transformed into a strange creature by his abusive behaviour and a curse he has put on others.
The score, stark, haunting and with a Gaelic lilt, blends Irish and Nordic folk tunes and includes a Swedish song and a Finnish lullaby. It is played by a Dublin-based trio called Slow Moving Clouds, consisting of a fiddler (Danny Diamond), a cellist (Mary Barnecutt), and a Finnish musician called Aki, who plays the nyckelharpa, which looks sort of like a zither.
Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Swan Lake/Loch na hEala'. Photo by Prudence Upton.
Michael Keegan-Dolan’s ‘Swan Lake/Loch na hEala’. Photo by Prudence Upton.
The choreography often has allusions to fleet footed folk dance with curved open arms, fabulous creamy épaulement and lots of whirling, light, circular movement, with soft yet powerful low jumps, as well as some rolling floorwork.
Two pas de deux in particular stand out both for Jimmy and Finola. The first has them tentative and almost afraid to touch, until they are at last able to make hesitant contact. The later second one is breathtaking, as Leonhartsberger lifts Poirier lyrically and tenderly, almost in slow motion in a delicate dance of love. Leonhartsberger, earlier as the depressed Jimmy, has a series of extraordinary sculptural balances on a set of concrete bricks. Leonhartsberger persuasively develops a crushed character caught up in unexpected events leading to the tragic end.
The other three sister swans have their male equivalent in the Watchers, who sort of act as a chorus and can be quite menacing.
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is dynamic, yet stark and challenging, a most thought-provoking and unusual production that is riveting yet confronting.
By Lynne Lancaster of Dance Informa.

Australian Dance Theatre Be Yourself ( Redux)


Whoa. So much ENERGY!  Here's my Dance Informa review

http://dancemagazine.com.au/2017/09/australian-dance-theatre-presents-signature-work-be-your-self-redux/

Australian Dance Theatre presents signature work ‘Be Your Self Redux’


ADT's 'Be Your Self Redux'. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.
ADT'S 'BE YOUR SELF REDUX'. PHOTO BY CHRIS HERZFELD CAMLIGHT PRODUCTIONS.


Riverside Theaters Parramatta, Sydney.
2 September 2017.
This was the one and only Sydney performance of Adelaide-based contemporary dance company Australian Dance Theatre’s Be Your Self Redux, one of its signature works. The company is currently in the middle of a national tour. In it, the company presents a scaled-down version of the original production choreographed by Artistic Director Garry Stewart with Assistant Choreographer Elizabeth Old, in a blistering fast-paced, high octane energy performance by the extraordinary cast of nine. The show is billed as being a Buddhist interpretation of the mind and body interaction of the concept of “self” and “I”, exploring what makes us each a unique individual, from a single cell for the first half hour of life to a grown human being capable of extraordinary things. It is explosive, coldly clinical, lyrical, poetic, dramatic and sometimes humorous, too.
ADT's 'Be Your Self Redux'. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.
ADT’s ‘Be Your Self Redux’. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.
Presented on a bare stage – no real set as such, just a black and white “studio box” –  this is seemingly cold, clinical and futuristic but has a deep heart underneath. Movement, lighting and sound meld seamlessly. Damien Cooper’s lighting flickers atmospherically (some people might need to be warned that it is at times almost like strobe lighting), highlighting and accentuating the choreography. There is also the use of snappy blackouts, clean white light and washes of colour.
Brendan Woithe’s witty soundscape throbs, pulsates, ticks and creaks where appropriate, and includes thumping heartbeats, panting breaths and the sizzle of electrical currents. 
The minimalist white costumes hide gender yet also include an apron-like print of each dancer’s body in underpants and legs for clarity.
From the beginning, we are catapulted into the world of the piece, with several minutes of controlled, manipulated stillness as the narrator (Cathy Adamek) clinically describes how the mind and body work together to perform the simple task of flexing, then lifting a foot and leg, as demonstrated by dancer Kimball Wong. Scientific and medical terminology is used throughout in the various monologues to describe the various movements, which both educates and perhaps confuses the audience simultaneously, while also focusing our attention on the human form as exemplified by the body of the dancer.
ADT's 'Be Your Self Redux'. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.
ADT’s ‘Be Your Self Redux’. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.
The fearless, seemingly inexhaustible, apparently boneless dancers are full of fluid, feral energy and give their all. Stewart and Old’s very demanding choreography is sometimes quite dangerous, requiring incredible control and precision, with death-defying leaps and jumps at times. There is a lot of ensemble work, sometimes rippling and sculptural, sometimes with arms like floating, undulating plants, others precise and robotic (are we meant to pick up on allusions to Nijinsky’s L’Apres -Midi D’un Faune?), interspersed with amazing fireworks of full pelt solos and some intricate, difficult lifts and partnering, animal-like moves and moonwalking. There is also strong, powerful floorwork and some simulated sex scenes. At times, the dancers sculpturally shift positions, somewhat like a section of a Muybridge​ film. We also get the sense, as also mentioned in Adamek’s narration, that time is inexorably passing – lifetimes worth of cellular regeneration, circulation and sex. Toward the end, when the work becomes progressively abstract, the dancers become representations of assorted body parts, aligned in challenging ways. So we see the evolution of human beings on stage: from tiny cells and blood underneath the surface to the experience of emotions and movement. 
ADT's 'Be Your Self Redux'. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.
ADT’s ‘Be Your Self Redux’. Photo by Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions.
Having clinically analysed the human body and its functions, Be Your Self decides that our existence is entirely dependent on our memories and our interaction with others in the world. As Adamek summarised toward the end, “We are all alone in the world; yet we are connected to all of it.” The work raises thought-provoking questions about how we function, both invisibly inside and our outside mask, who we are, and what those things mean, leaving us questioning the underpinnings of who we are while searching to understand our somatic, emotional, physical and systematic selves.
By Lynne Lancaster of Dance Informa.

ACO Greig and Beyond

A wonderful concert

http://www.sydneyartsguide.com.au/australian-chamber-orchestra-grieg-beyond-city-recital-hall/


AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA : GRIEG AND BEYOND @ CITY RECITAL HALL 

This was a stirring, passionate concert with the Australian Chamber Orchestra  in fine, elegant form.
Under the baton of guest director and violin soloist Henning Kraggerud, the concert celebrated the music of Norway’s best known composer. It was multi layered and displayed a great range. There was fine ensemble playing and some very exiting mini solos.
Special guest of the Orchestra, Henning Kraggerud, Artistic Director of the Arctic Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra , is renowned for his interpretation of Grieg and his extraordinary creative versatility, with a career that his seen him playing many different roles from being an Artistic Director to composer, performer, arranger and even and improviser. He spends much of his time touring the world as a concert soloist and has written over 200 compositions.
As the Orchestra leader, he danced, crouched and lunged into the music, such was his passion. The Orchestra and Kraggerud developed an attentive rapport playing together with great panache and passion.
Kraggerud briefly spoke about each of the works before they were played and contextualised the works for the audience.
The first piece, Grieg’s In Folk Style from Two Nordic Melodies took the concert off to a striking start. The first melody began with violas then cellos. It was haunting, lyrical, ebbing and flowing. The second melody made me think of whirling snowflakes as the violins twinkled .Sometimes the piece was sharp and spiky,  yet it remained reflective. The work came to a soft, shimmering rather pensive conclusion. Perhaps dawn was approaching?
Next came the world premiere season performances of Ross Edward’s Entwinings, with the composer in the audience (and taking curtain calls after).
The work began briskly and emphatically, with a percussive, sharp spiky feel. The second movement was pulsating and shimmering with dynamic circular rhythms leading to a sizzling conclusion. The third movement began with a lament by the cellos, and included the use of pizzicato on the violas.
Some of the work was reminiscent of pulsating, interstellar music. Eventually there was a return to the circular, whirling melodies of the first movement, then  leading to a pensive ending.
Next piece was the Australian premiere of Grieg’s Violin Concerto (Sonata) No.3 in C minor (arranged as a concerto by Henning Kraggerud and Bernt Simen Lund) which featured a tumultuous, fiery opening. The piece was given a passionate, dramatic rendition.
I found the use of woodwind in this piece to add texture and a different ‘voice’ in various parts. In the first movement where the main theme is urgently stated, the strings were like angrily snapping wings at times whilst the woodwind rumbled underneath .The second movement was lyrical and dynamic with a mini flute solo and the third movement was breathless with its dynamic galloping rhythms Darting, fluttering woodwind were eventually joined by fiery strings.
After interval came the Australian premiere of Kraggerud’s Topelius-Variations (From Topelius’ Time) with its mostly feverish strings and sweeping, pulsating rhythms. There was a slower, somewhat calmer section with Kraggerud then playing of a shining, lyrical, lamenting solo lead to a soft, reflective finale.
The final work was Grieg’s richly textured String Quartet No.1 in G minor arranged by Tognetti for orchestra. This piece was off to a scurrying, rather angry start, the music passionately played as it bubbled and swirled. The second movement was a rather sharp, spiky yet simultaneously lyrical conversation between the three sections of the orchestra with shimmering, fluttering, skittering strings.
Cellos pulsated and the melody was stated and then repeated emphatically, at one point featuring a dance like rhythm.
There was a sort of violin duet for Vanska and Kraggerud and the final section was quite fast and spiky, a boisterous, darting discussion that felt like it would continue after the music stopped.
The concert came to a conclusion with tumultuous enthusiastic applause from a full house.
PROGRAM
GRIEG In Folk Style from Two Nordic Melodies
ROSS EDWARDS Entwinings (World Premiere)*
GRIEG (arr. Henning Kraggerud and Bernt Simen Lund) Violin Concerto (Sonata) No.3 in C minor (Australian Premiere)
HENNING KRAGGERUD Topelius-Variations (From Topelius’ Time) (Australian Premiere)
GRIEG (arr. Richard Tognetti) String Quartet No.1 in G minor
* COMMISSIONED BY ROB AND NANCY PALLIN TO CELEBRATE NANCY’S 70TH BIRTHDAY.
Running time 2 hours 15 minutes (roughly) including interval.
Henning Kraggerud and the Australian Chamber Orchestra are touring nationally with this concert until  September 12.


I'd Rather Goya Robbed Me of my Sleep .....


A terrific play , quite confronting and challenging but brilliant Here's my thoughts for Sydney Arts Guide '


http://www.sydneyartsguide.com.au/id-rather-goya-robbed-sleep-son-bitch-old-505/

I’D RATHER GOYA ROBBED ME OF MY SLEEP THAN SOME OTHER SON OF A BITCH @ THE OLD 505


Above Sister Ursuline on the cello and performer Gerry Sont. Featured image performer Gerry Sont.
This intense, strange, challenging, at times, confronting but wild and wonderful production by Theatre Excentrique is the Australian premier of Garcia’s fast paced play that criticises and analyses society and its greedy norms and expectations. It is chance to see an example of Garcia’s powerful, political and at times violent , controversial and contentious style.
The premise of Garcia’s provocative play, here translated by William Gregory, is that, having withdrawn his life savings, a lone dissolute father who has reached rock bottom (played by Gerry Sont) has devised a master plan to educate his two young sons , so they ‘splash the cash’ in style doing something mad : after discussion with his sons ( who actually want to go to Disneyland Paris) he develops a plan – at night, to break into the Prado Museum to see Goya’s black paintings ( Los Caprichos) while eating chorizo, drinking scotch and sniffing coke.
As well, they fly in a trendy celebrity philosopher from Germany as their guide  to further improve their education. Much is made of the commercialism of Disneyland and there are great discussions about combating depression, economics, the meaning of life, economic versus emotional stability, the sacred versus the banal , our reason for existence and the power of love, all blurring the barriers of dreams and reality.
The title of the play is repeated several times as conversation and there is at times some strong language.
The minimalist set (as designed by Clarisse Ambroselli and Anna Jahjah) is a black floor and wall covering (which Sont draws or writes on at various points in chalk). Also important is the book collection suspended above. Projections of sequences of Goya’s weird dark nightmare paintings ominously screen when Sont is ‘asleep’ – to Sister Ursuline’s music – and we also see fast snippets of Madrid at night (the taxi ride).
Casually dressed in jeans and tshirt, Gerry Sont as the narrator is magnificent in a whirlwind powerhouse performance, lithe, energetic and volatile. All keyed up, he is mesmerising as he takes us on his breathless, unexpected journey. We feel his desperation and isolation.
Sister Ursuline provides haunting accompaniment with cello music and/or voice, sometimes lyrical, sometimes harsh and spiky. Her long black hair is piled high and she wears a vaguely 18th century white dress with black boots and striped socks, in a was reminiscent of Goya’s paintings.
Divided into five parts (or ‘cappricccios ‘), as excitingly directed by Anna Jahjah, the work mines dreams and fantasy (or are they?) involving at least in part an extended taxi ride and the Prado and is extremely passionate about its anti-capitalist ideals.
The play with its exuberant, effervescent spirit is a celebration of individualism going against the rules and regulations of society and asks what it really means to be a human being.
Running time just under an hour no interval.
I’D RATHER GOYA ROBBED ME OF MY SLEEP THAN SOME OTHER SON OF A BITCH by Rodrigo Garcia is playing the Old 505 Theatre until the 2nd September.





Bernadette Robinson in The Show Goes On

Superb. Ms Robinson is dynamite. Here's my Sydney Arts Guide thoughts :


http://www.sydneyartsguide.com.au/bernadette-robinson-in-the-show-goes-on-the-playhouse/

BERNADETTE ROBINSON IN ‘THE SHOW GOES ON’ @ THE PLAYHOUSE

The ever amazing Bernadette Robinson (Songs For Nobodies,Pennsylvania Avenue) dazzles and delights in this sensational new show the world premiere season of THE SHOW GOES ON
We are left gasping at Robinson’s incredible range and talent as directed with great polish by Richard Carroll. The show is a tribute to several divas of roughly the last 75 years – including Barbra StreisandJudy GarlandMaria Callas, Shirley BasseyPatsy ClineJulie Andrews and Edith Piaf.
Under Carroll’s direction the show is terrifically devised and structured as a showcase for Robinson’s phenomenal talent and voice and her uncanny ability to mimic some of the greatest voices of our era. Her seamless, smooth technique is incredible.
Robinson is on stage the entire time, supported by a splendid band led by Martine Wengrow.
The set by Lauren Peters is modern minimalist – a chair, a tall standing mike, a stool, and footlights. The stage is divided into three sections by Trent Suigeest’s dramatic lighting. The different  divas inhabit different areas of the stage.
Robinson is in a slinky long sleeved black dress with a soft roll neckline and a silver bracelet with black stockings and stilettos (shoes off for Piaf).
Most of the divas have monologues (Garland is featured more than most and in some ways acts as an anchor for the evening) and we learn about their lives and their relationships. The hard work it takes to get to the top (and stay there) is stressed as is their general feeling of a lack of self confidence (but that varies) – we see how they are all remarkable women who devoted themselves to their art and their audiences; who loved, lost and triumphed in public (and sometimes in private).
The sacrifices the assorted divas variously made are accentuated and their passion for music/art and why they took up singing mentioned. We also observe how some of them were almost broken by the fame they achieved. Their doubts and fears, at times great humour are interwoven in the dialogue with some of their greatest hits.
What is amazing is Robinson’s incredible range from the dark, yet crystalline clarity of Callas, the refined brightness of Julie Andrews, the impassioned, dramatic, intense earthiness of Piaf, the brashness of Streisand, Bassey’s sultriness … for each of them the timing, posture, gestures and phrasing are extremely different and vividly created. As Callas her Visi D’Arte is emotionally shattering, with hushed, stunned silence at the conclusion before she receives screams of Bravo from the audience ; as Piaf she is breathtaking in Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. On a further note, the difference between the various diva’s ordinary speaking and singing voices is well delineated.
There are a couple of amazing ‘duets’ between Garland and Streisand (Get HappyHappy Days Are Here Again) and Andrews and Garland (A Foggy Day), Robinson effortlessly jumping between the two.
Robinson also appears as a theatrical like angel, so to speak, (herself?) providing a linking bridge between the various characters, observing and commenting on the diva’s lives and at the end bringing the show to a close with a powerhouse solo The Show Goes On.
Viva la Diva.
Running time 90 minutes straight through.
Bernadette Robinson in THE SHOW GOES ON is playing at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until 10th September.







Lip Service

A terrific play about Helena Rubinstein .Here's my thoughts for Artshub



http://performing.artshub.com.au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/lynne-lancaster/lip-service-254312

LYNNE LANCASTER

A look at the life and times of the great Helena Rubinstein.
Lip Service
Tim Draxl and Amanda Muggleton in Lip Service, photography by Prudence Upton.
John Misto’s dynamic play – which opened first in London earlier this year in a sold out season using the title Madame Rubinstein – has its Australian premiere. Fluidly directed by Nicole Buffoni with seamless panache Lip Service charts the career of Helena Rubinstein from humble beginnings in country Victoria to the intoxicating heights of towering international success.
We learn how she was exiled by her family to Castlemaine and developed her business starting with a face cream she sold to farmer’s wives – one can almost say creating the cosmetics industry – a blend of beauty and science.
We see how her world dominating makeup empire is under constant threat. There is fighting behind the scenes, attacks with the industrial espionage and undermining from her rivals Elizabeth Arden and Revlon. Rubinstein maintains the principles that took her to the top: thrift, ruthlessness and steely resolve combined with unbridled ambition. We see her strength and intelligence and the terrifying mask of the legend she created and underneath the flaws.
Lip Service is set in the last decade of Rubinstein’s long life and for dramatic tension imagines her relationship with Arden and yet apparently in real life the two never met face to face (much like the rivalry between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots). Troublingly, in our contemporary era where we are seeing the return of anti-Semitism, homophobia and racism, in the script there are somewhat offensive one-liners regarding fat, female, gay and Jewish people, reflecting the times (I assume).  Lip Service is a semi-fictional biography of a very hard woman, the dialogue crackles in its perfect pitch sarcasm, cattiness and bitchiness that at times had the audience in stitches.
Right behind Rubinstein emerged Canadian-born New York beautician Florence Nightingale Graham, who assumed the name Elizabeth Arden (with a pink and gold colour scheme for her beauty salons and wares) had also obtained amazing commercial success. Both women were extraordinary in their accomplishments and, not really surprising, far less successful in their private lives.
Industrial espionage features prominently in relations between the beauty empire leaders. Linden Wilkinson is in deliciously fine form as Arden, hard, blonde and brittle.
The third character in Lip Service is Helena’s real-life Irish personal assistant Patrick O’Higgins, charismatically played by suave Tim Draxl with enormous charm. ‘Irish’, as Rubinstein nicknamed him, acts as a sounding board and foil for both women and also at the end great moments of sentiment.  
The elegant wood panelled set designed by Anna Gardiner has sliding sections allowing for fluid scene changes for the various locations (Helena’s office and Elizabeth’s office), subtitles like projections indicating where we are (Rubinstein’s office, a plane, the Tate Gallery in London), with the inclusion of black and white TV commercials for affect. 
Muggleton as Rubinstein is superb – at first elegantly coifed Dragon-Empress-like with her hands weighted down by huge rings. She is gruff, seemingly cold, abrupt yet flamboyant and extremely parsimonious. There is but small mention of her being a philanthropist and her support for the arts. Eventually we see the fragility hidden beneath and her being afraid to love. When we learn of the real tragedy of her life empathy has already been established with the audience and her inability to express or receive love is extremely moving.
To ascend to such dizzying heights of commercial success, sacrifices must be made. Did Rubinstein ever really know true joy? What Rubinstein achieved as a Jewish woman in the twentieth century was incredible and her legacy still inspires today.
4 stars out of 5
Lip Service
BY JOHN MISTO

CAST: TIM DRAXL, AMANDA MUGGLETON & LINDEN WILKINSON
DIRECTOR: NICOLE BUFFONI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: SHAUN RENNIE DESIGNER: ANNA GARDINER LIGHTING DESIGNER: CHRISTOPHER PAGE SOUND DESIGNER: DARYL WALLIS STAGE MANAGER: DANI IRONSIDE WARDROBE COORDINATOR: MARGARET GILL DIALECT COACH: NICK CURNOW
The performance contains partial nudity and strong language.
Lip Service runs at the Ensemble Theatre 17 August–30 September 2017

Melba at the Hayes

A terrific new Aussie musical about an Australian icon. Here's my Artshub critique  :



http://performing.artshub.com.au/news-article/reviews/performing-arts/lynne-lancaster/melba-254283

YNNE LANCASTER
A most exciting new production about Dame Nellie Melba.
Melba
Emma Matthews as Melba photograph by Clare Hawley. Via Hayes Theatre.
Melba is a new Australian musical about one (or if not) the first Australian megastar Dame Nellie Melba, you may recognise her as she is featured on the current $100 note.
Based on the book Marvellous Melba by Anne Blainey, the story is set as if we are one of the audiences in Melba’s 1902 Australian tour. We learn that Melba married and was a mother early in life, rather usual in the late 19th century. We follow her struggles to acquire the independence necessary for professional success.
As well as including original music by Johannes Luebbers, the show features some of Melba’s most famous arias at appropriate points in the story – excerpts from La TraviataRigolettoToscaCarmen and Lucia Di Lammermoor – sung over a small hidden backstage orchestra deftly led by Michael Tyack. This is well done in the scene where Charlie finally kidnaps George and disappears with him to the USA, Nellie’s (Matthews) rendition of ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca is extremely moving.
One of the delicious highlights in the first act, fluidly combining music and narrative is the party scene where young Nellie dances with her Duc to the diva Nellie’s exultant ‘Sempre liber’ (from La Traviata). The dialogue is often full of crackling wit and there is an excellent interweaving of both music and text in the old and new elements.  
The set, designed by Mark Thompson, is rather cramped and perhaps restricts the cast on the small stage – it’s a semi-circular white draped backdrop splashed with masses of red roses. It opens on either side to provide glimpses of a dressing room and is also sometimes lit to throw silhouettes. In front of this is a raised and raked circular mini-stage which is used to provide various projections of important information – Covent Garden, La Scala, The Met and The Paris Opera – and acts as setting the scene for the central motif of Melba’s 1902 tour of Australia.
Costumes (Claire-Louise Rasmussen) are realistically of the period with natty waistcoats for the men, dripping pearls for the women and in particular one amazingly confectioned hat think – Ascot My Fair Lady but in colour.
We follow Melba’s life from struggling to obtain an audition in Paris for the leading voice tutor Madame Marchesi, rumoured to be quite a dragon, and eventually being accepted. There is an amazing scene in which Marchesi (Genevieve Lemon) gasps to her husband Salvatore (Blake Erickson) that she has found a STAR, and it is well noted that Lemon also plays various other characters.
This work is somewhat unusual in that it uses two Melbas (Emma Matthews and Annie Aitken) to tell the story. Matthews trained in the Marchesi method, and the two silently interact at times and sometimes duet delightfully together. What is stressed is Melba’s passion for opera, determination to become a success and her love for her son. The harsh attitude towards independent women – this was the late Victorian era remember – is also addressed and criticised.
We see Melba’s passionate affair with the exiled pretender to the French throne, Philippe D'Orleans (charismatically handsome Adam Rennie) and the scandal of her divorce trial. Melba is befriended by the high society arts patron Gladys de Grey (Caitlin Berry who also plays Madame Marchesi’s high and mighty elegant daughter Blanche and a lawyer) who delights in spending her husband Frederick’s (Blake Erickson) money; together the enable Melba to conquer Covent Garden and eventually Europe – then the world.
Under Wayne Harrison’s magnificent direction the rest of the ensemble deliver thrilling performances, many doubling/tripling various roles. Special mention must be made of  Andrew Cutcliffe as Melba’s husband Charles Armstrong. Cutcliffe presents Armstrong generally as an arrogant, obnoxious scheming villain but we do also (perhaps) see a sympathetic side to him. Their son George is delightfully played by Samuel Skuthorp who is also required to be a puppeteer, manipulating various sized puppets as he matures. Melba’s gruff father is wonderfully played by Michael Beckley who also portrays other roles.
A most fascinating analysis of one of Australia’s early megastars and a must see.  
4 stars out of 5 
MELBA
A new musical

Book & Lyrics by Nicholas Christo
Music by Johannes Luebbers
Adapted from the book “Marvelous Melba” by Ann Blainey
Director Wayne Harrison
Musical Director Michael Tyack
Movement Director
& Assistant Director Nigel Turner-Carroll
Production Designer Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer Trudy Dalgleish
Sound Designer Caitlin Porter
Production Manager Di Misirdjieff
Executive Producer Kerry Comerford
Starring Emma Matthews as Melba, Annie Aitken, Michael Beckley, Caitlin Berry, Andrew Cutcliffe, Blake Erickson, Genevieve Lemon, Adam Rennie and Samuel Skuthorp