Sunday, June 20, 2010

The week that was #18

I started out thinking that I didn’t have anything to write about this week – but then I remembered I saw four theatre/cabaret shows in that time, and that a tv show I mentioned last week (yet didn’t realise something significant about at the time) also finished up for the season.


I can’t quite recall when I first became aware of Curtains – it’s a very new show, having only opened on Broadway in March 2007 – but I suspect it was when I read that David Hyde Pierce, best known for his portrayal of Niles in Frasier, had won the Tony award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical.

Hyde Pierce, incidentally, is one of my favourite actors; he was brilliant in Frasier, a role that also led to him appearing (vocally at least) in The Simpsons as Sideshow Bob’s brother Cecil in one of my favourite episodes, Brother From Another Series – the joke, of course, is that Sideshow Bob is voiced by Kelsey Grammer, who plays Frasier. He was also in the excellent Down With Love, and also supplied the voice of Abe Sapien in the first Hellboy film – though, sadly, not in the second; it was one of several things I felt were substandard in the sequel.

Anyway, from what I found out about it, it was exactly the kind of show I’d like to be in, mostly because it’s not a sung-through musical - meaning that there’s dialogue as well as songs – and I’m much more likely to get into a show that isn’t all singing than I am one that is.

A couple of years later I’d all but forgotten about but must have read/heard something that sparked my interest because I started thinking about how good it sounded and was literally days away from talking to some people in the Adelaide theatre scene about seeing if the rights1 were available when I heard that local company Therry were to be putting the show on in 2010.

But I didn’t end up auditioning for it, mostly because I didn’t have enough confidence in my singing. Had I had more time on my hands between the announcement and the auditions – by that point I’d been cast in a major role (Jonathan Brewster) in Arsenic & Old Lace – I could have had some singing lessons and gotten both my ability and confidence up. So, I would have to content myself with seeing it from the auditorium.

We got a taste of the show at last year’s ATG Curtain Call awards dinner where the production team performed one of the songs, What Kind of Man – particularly hilarious for that event, since it’s a song about theatre critics.

I got a bit concerned about my chances of getting to see it when I realised it opened the week after Tempest did, meaning I would only have the second week in which to see it – a week in which I already had tickets to see Waiting for Godot on the Friday and Tim Rogers’ Cabaret Festival show (more on both later) on the Saturday. But there were still a few nights available and I decided on the Wednesday night and managed to get some pretty decent seats in J row.

I hadn’t done more to familiarise myself with the show from when I was first reading about it, and that was only to get a rough idea of the plot. The action all takes place in a theatre where, on opening night of a show (Robbin’ Hood of the Old West) in Boston, the leading lady – who is universally disliked by everyone else involved – is poisoned, leading to the cast, crew and production team being locked in while a detective (the aforementioned Lt. Cioffi) investigates.

But the show, as they say, must go on; the producers decide they’re going to continue the show, but with some changes – so the continue rehearsing numbers while the hunt for the murderer goes on – a murderer who is definitely amongst them, as several more people are done away with throughout. So, while there are the expositional songs one expects in a musical, there are also the numbers from the original show. It’s kind of an odd mix, but a very satisfactory one.

The song about the critics aside, there aren’t any truly memorable songs – i.e. ones you walk out of the theatre humming – but for me, who doesn’t care that much for show tunes anyway, that isn’t such a bad thing. What it might lack in earworm numbers, though, it more than makes up for with comedy; I laughed almost the whole way through.

Performances – many by people who I don’t think I’ve seen before – were good; the lead had either decided to do, or been directed to do, his best David Hyde Pierce impersonation, which worked most of the time, but I think it would have been better to try for an original interpretation of the character. It was also good to see a couple of friends who I haven’t seen on stage for a while up there clearly enjoying themselves as well.

So, while I really enjoyed it, I did feel a bit sad that I didn’t get to do it, but I’d like to think that someone will do it again – and maybe I’ll try out for it then.

1If you don’t have the rights – which you have to pay for – you can’t do the show. Well, that’s not strictly true; you can do the show, but if the company who owns the rights finds out about it, you’ll get to experience just how unpleasant entertainment lawyers can be.

Waiting For Godot

To say that I was surprised when the email from BASS telling me Sir Ian McKellen would be appearing on stage in Adelaide would be an understatement; I believe I actually swore out loud - much to the amusement of my co-workers. But it was such a shock; I had never expected to see someone of his stature on a stage in Adelaide. Yes, in years past our city has seen the likes of Ian Richardson, Derek Jacobi and Stephen Berkoff2, but none of those great talents had also appeared in such high profiles roles as Magneto in the X-Men film series, Gandalf in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Sir Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code3.

I was, however, somewhat less impressed that what he was to be appearing in was an international touring production of the London Haymarket production of Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett's oddball piece of absurdist theatre that has only the barest of narratives and in which the two main characters are two elderly bums engaging in surreal conversations while - brace yourself for this revelation - waiting for Godot. To be perfectly honest the list of eminent productions I'd have preferred to see him in is quite a long one. But, as the Rolling Stones noted, you can't always get what you want. Logistics probably played a part; there are only five characters in the play - Vladimir & Estragon (the tramps), Pozzo, Lucky and The Boy - which means they didn't have as many people to pay as they would for (say) a Shakespeare.

Somewhat sadly, it was not the original cast of the Haymarket production who'd be coming - I say sadly because that would have meant seeing Simon Callow (who most people would know from his role as Gareth - the one who died - in Four Weddings and a Funeral; I've adored him ever since he was in a wacky UK television show called Chance in A Million4) and Patrick Stewart as well. Yes, Magneto and Professor Xavier (or, if you prefer, Gandalf the Grey and Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise) opposite each other on stage only meters away. I'm not even that big of a sci-fi, fantasy or comic-book nerd and it would still make me fear some kind of head-explosion from teh awesome.

But it wasn't all bad news; replacing Patrick Stewart would be the Tony Award-winning Welsh actor Roger Rees, another wonderful actor who I was familiar with from his appearances in Cheers, The West Wing, the 2003 film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (he played Peter Quince) and as the Sheriff of Rottingham in Robin Hood: Men In Tights. I hadn’t heard of Simon Callow’s replacement, Matthew Kelly, before, but a quick Google search turned up that he’s an experienced performer as well, having won an Olivier award for his portrayal of Lenny in Of Mice and Men in 2004.

Anyway, I booked tickets straight away. I did consider holding out to see if I'd get lucky enough to draw the reviewing gig, but I decided I a) didn't want to risk it; and b) didn't consider myself anywhere near qualified enough to criticise either Beckett's work or Ian McKellen's performance.

There was quite a build-up; the production was touring other Australian cities and Sir Ian was being interviewed all over the place and showing up in the papers, the internet and on television. So by the time Friday night rolled around, I was getting quite excited. A few friends had seen the earlier performances and made comments on Facebook, and all seemed very positive. After going out for drinks for my friend's birthday I wandered (with another friend) around to Her Majesty's Theatre and waded through the mass of people to our seats and prepared myself for the experience.

To my surprise I enjoyed it. A lot. I had expected to respect and admire the performance, and the other aspects of the production like staging and lighting and so forth – this kind of objectivity that comes in very handy when one is reviewing shows – but I did not expect to like it, the prestige of the performers notwithstanding.

Without going into too much detail (as much because I can’t really say I’m in a position to describe what the play is actually about) they took what is often an incoherent, seemingly random collection of conversations and brought it to life with humour and – even more importantly since laughs aren’t always that hard to come by – a real sense of humanity that makes you care about the characters5. And that’s not an easy thing to do with material like that even when it’s explicitly given to you (i.e. in the dialogue), let alone when it’s not.

Afterwards some of the people I was with decided to try their luck getting photos and autographs from the cast, so we hung about the stage door – well, they hung about the stage door; I and some others lurked in front of the pub across the road – until they came out. However, I decided to get a bit closer when I spotted the director of my last play (Tempest6) joining the waiting throng.

So, I went up to speak to her – after first stopping to say hello to her husband – about the same time the cast were making their way out to pose and sign and have their hands shaken and so forth. I didn’t venture any closer – I’ve come to the conclusion I don’t find such brief encounters satisfying; I always end up trying to engage them in conversation and they just don’t have the time – but from what I could tell they were all exceedingly friendly and happy to indulge the fans.

All in all an amazing experience. I also hope that it means other similarly prestigious productions will make their way here.

2While they're not necessarily famous for their film roles; they are, however, immensely well-regarded stage actors.
3I've since forgiven him for this. The producers, not so much. It's not as if Dan Brown needed the exposure for his wretched book - or any more money.
4Playing opposite him in this was future BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning and two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, who - incidentally - I had the pleasure of meeting some years back. Yes, I'm name dropping – but can you blame me?
5I believe the appropriate technical term for this is pathos. No, that wasn’t one of the Three Musketeers. Or any of the additional ones, either.
6The blog post on that experience will appear sometime in the near future. Honest.

Adelaide Cabaret Festival

Cabfest is on again. I’m not planning to very many shows this year – the combination of there not being as many things that interest me; the fact that I now have a better idea of what actually does, within cabaret, interest me7; and not wanting to spend the money because I’ve already blown a bundle on getting myself to Queensland in July.

But I bought a ticket for one show, am reviewing a few shows, a have a friend who is also reviewing shows and who’s taking me as the plus-one, so I’ll have those to write about.

7Basically, not very much of it. I think it’s something I’ll have to analyse at some point.

Lanie Lane presents Betty Baby & the Blues of a Bygone Era

I went to this a plus-one with a reviewer friend. It was in the ArtSpace, which I’d never seen anything in before; it’s a space upstairs at the Festival Centre that has a stage and fits something (I guess) around a hundred people.

The music was good and as advertised8 – Lainie and her guitar, Betty Baby, backed by an excellent three-piece band played classic blues – but she didn’t seem to adopt the kind of smooth-talking storyteller persona that I’d come to expect from a cabaret show. A great voice and plenty of presence when singing, but the in-between ‘patter’ made her seem a bit awkward. Still, she’s quite young so it’s probably only something that will improve over time.

8This is a very important factor. One of the reasons I’m not seeing as much this year is because some of what I saw last year was not very much like it was described in the publicity. I don’t like that.

Tim Rogers - Saligia

This is the only Cabfest show I’ve actually bought a ticket for this year, mostly because the You Am I frontman is a great character, one of the most interesting people in Australian music – and I want to see what he’d do for a cabaret show.

Featuring Tim playing assorted guitars (and a mandolin) and backed by a seven piece band, it’s based around the seven deadly sins – the title, Saligia, is a mnemonic acronym for the sins in Latin: superbia, avaritia, luxuria, invidia, gula, ira, acedia – and he’d co-written a song to go with each. He also did a lot of talking, and some interacting with the crowd.

It was a bit up and down; some songs were better than others, and his recollections of sinful events were funny – but as an overall experience it was kind of unsatisfying. I don’t, however, assume that was entirely due to the show; I actually think it’s more to do with my not being much of a fan of cabaret. The rest of the audience seemed to really enjoy it.

Fringe (the show, not the festival)

The season finale of Fringe was on recently, and it occurred to me that I’d talked about it and Lost in last week’s entry, but had neglected to point out that both are the brainchildren of JJ Abrams.

And that made me wonder if this might have something to do with why it, which I don’t believe has done anything spectacular in the US television ratings, has been renewed for its third season while, as I mentioned in that week’s post, so many others have disappeared from our screens.

Not that I’m complaining - I really like the show and I’m glad that it’s getting an opportunity to prove itself.

If you haven’t watched it, it’s a US sci-fi/crime series, set mostly in Boston, with a section of the FBI devoted to investigating bizarre occurrences - yes, I know what you’re thinking, but, despite the obvious similarities, it isn’t just a new version of The X-Files; it’s really only ‘weird stuff’ and ‘FBI’ that links the two.

Two of the three main characters are played by Australians: Anna Torv, who plays FBI agent Olivia Dunham and John Noble9, who plays Dr Walter Bishop – and who appears to have a contractual obligation to chew the scenery like it’s been deep-fried and dipped in bacon grease.

It’s well-written, hilarious in parts – Walter’s eccentricity and penchant for psychoactive substances lead to him saying all kinds of strange things – and, although the science is a but on the far-fetched side, it doesn’t detract that much from the overall product. It’s also managed to help me overcome my distaste for Joshua Jackson10 – who plays the show’s other main character, Peter Bishop – which is no mean feat, ‘cause that guy used to really annoy me.

So, I’ll be hanging out for its return later in the year.

9Best known for his excellent portrayal of the creepy Denethor in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
10My reasons for this are threefold: appearing in the execrable Dawson’s Creek, bearing an alliterative name and – worst of all - attracting a vast number of admirers despite, in my opinion, having a head like a potato.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The week that was #17

Not a lot to say this week; I haven't been doing all that much other than gallivanting around a stage (well, a stage, a beach and a jetty) as Alonso in a production of The Tempest - something I'm intending to write a post about some time in the near future. But there are a couple of things I want to talk about for now.

Mystic River (the book)

I’d seen the film version of Mystic River when it was in the cinemas, liked it a lot, and considered the Academy Awards it won – Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Supporting Actor for Tim Robbins1 – to have been well-deserved. Clint Eastwood didn’t pick up a Best Director for it; he was, however, up against Peter Jackson for a little film called The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, so he probably wasn’t all that surprised.

The book was written by Dennis Lehane, who’s now had a few film adaptations made from his books in the last few years: Gone, Baby, Gone, directed by Ben Affleck and starring his brother Casey and which was good but not great; and Shutter Island directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo di Caprio2. I’d read the book of Shutter Island (which I wasn’t that impressed by; I haven’t seen the film) and another, Prayers for Rain, which is from the same series of books as Gone, Baby, Gone. I didn’t like that one all that much either.

But because I’d liked Mystic River the film so much I thought I’d give Lehane another chance to impress me. And I’m glad I did because it’s a brilliant, captivating book – easily one of the best crime/mystery novels I’ve read, and probably one of the best books of any genre I’ve read. I’d probably have liked it even more had I not known how it ends – the inevitable result of having seen the film – but it’s so well written that I was still sucked into it anyway.

I read a lot of crime fiction, probably as much – if not more – than my other favourite, contemporary literature3, at least in terms of raw numbers of books read; I’d like to think this gives me a reasonable familiarity with the genre – and its inevitable sub-genres – legal (i.e. from the lawyer’s perspective, like John Lescroart or John Grisham4), psychological (psychologists, like Johnathan Kellerman), detective (PIs and/or police) and so forth.

Mystic River is less of a ‘good guys chasing the bad guys’ story and more a ‘everybody is trying to work out what the hell happened and some of them happen to be police trying to solve a murder’ story. But that’s really only the beginning, since there’s a large number of characters, all complex and well-realised, who effectively narrate each part of the story.

It’s also a social commentary on life, particularly in the area where the action takes place – the tough, working-class, South Boston area5. But you can find all of these elements in any number of books, but – for me at least – none of them has managed to work in the same way as Mystic River did.

What makes it all come together is the complexity of the back-stories, the depth of the characterisation – it rivals, or possibly even surpasses that of one of my other favourite character-heavy crime writers, Jame Lee Burke – and Lehane’s skill at writing great, both descriptive and evocative, prose and dialogue. His ability with the last makes sense because it’s ‘his’ language; he grew up in South Boston, so he has an ear for the speech patterns specific to the dialect of that region. But the rest of it, well, that’s I can only assume is a combination of talent and attention to detail.

But it’s a bit weird, because I don’t remember noticing anything special about the two other Lehane works. But I’ll certainly be reading any more that I come across.

1Both also won the Golden Globes in the same categories.
2Who isn’t Martin Scorsese's brother, if you were wondering.
3Which may or may not be too broad to be of any real use, but to be any more specific I’d have to start getting into its sub-genres, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to try and do that.
4I haven’t read a Grisham for years, though. They got a bit irritating in their self-righteousness. That nearly every single one got made into a film didn’t help.
5This was also the setting for films such as Good Will Hunting, The Departed and The Boondock Saints; it appears to be what filmmakers consider the Irish-American equivalent of New Jersey in terms of organised crime. I’ve no idea whether it’s like that in real life - but I’m fairly sure I don’t care enough to find out.


In what these days seems to be a rare occurrence, a long-running television show actually concluded – rather than just being cancelled.

I’d watched Lost from the start and – as far as I can remember – I saw all of the one hundred and twenty-one episodes. I can’t honestly say that I ever felt I truly understood what was going on, but I kept watching anyway - and I certainly indulged in what TV Tropes refers to as wild mass guessing about what the island was and why they were there. None of what I hypothesised turned out to be true, but I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that the writers were continually changing their minds in order to keep things moving along.

Some people seem upset that it wasn't 'all explained'; I'd say that expecting it to all be laid out in a satisfying way is a foolish thing, mostly because I doubt that there ever was a straight-out explanation for what the island was - because it wasn't really important.

Despite being vaguely unsatisfied with it at times, I was happy with how it ended – and, more importantly, that it was allowed to end rather than just disappearing from our screens the way so many other interesting shows with potentially long story arcs have; the most recent example being Flash Forward, which was cancelled a few weeks back; Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was another one I followed but which won’t be returning.

There are, of course, exceptions: the shows that shouldn’t have been left to run on as long as they have because the standards had slipped not only so far that the show wasn’t good, but because the badness of it at the end began to undermine perceptions of how strong it was at the start.

The X-Files, of course, is the most well-known example of this scenario. But it’s not alone – other shows I started watching but would have preferred to see end in a blaze of glory rather than limp along to a disappointing end include Smallville and Scrubs – and, as sad as it makes me, I have to admit The Simpsons probably has to fall into that category as well. Veronica Mars really dropped off in quality in the third season, but that may have been more to do with the networks screwing around with the show than what the writers intended. Heroes was one of the best things to hit the small screen in its first series, but by halfway through the fourth I’d just stopped caring.

These are just shows that I’ve watched and (initially) liked – TV Tropes, of course, has a more thorough list in its page titled seasonal rot.

Life was another great show that doesn’t really fall into that category because it didn’t last long enough; however, it did start out well but ended less so – however, it was affected by the writer’s strike and what seemed to be cast departures. Or at least that’s how it seemed with Brooke Langton, who played main character Charlie Crewes’s lawyer and what seemed to be the intended love interest; she just kind of disappeared. Also contributing was actress Sarah Shahi, who played Crewes’s partner Reese, having her character given less screen time – though that was unavoidable given her real-life pregnancy.

It’s got to be tough to work on arc-based shows, simply because they almost always end up having their popularity wane as they go on while by their nature struggling to attract new viewers – something the networks just aren’t willing to tolerate simply to please fans. And I can only imagine the unhappiness experienced by a team of writers and producers who have gone to the effort to grind out something not only good enough to beat out the thousands of other pitched shows but which has a complex, long-term story underlying it – only to see it canned a half-dozen episodes into its first season.

But there are always shows that buck the trend. Fringe, a show I like a lot – it’s quirky and dark; two things that always impresses me – but which I am continually expecting to hear is cancelled. Though they have just announced its renewal for a third season, so there is hope. I started watching V but lost interest after a couple of episodes, but that seems to have been popular enough to justify a second season.

And no doubt there’ll always be more – I just hope that networks are prepared to give them a chance to build the kind of followings they deserve.