Dance, Musicals, News & Commentary, Opera, Stage, Theatre

Sydney on stage: the 12 best of 2015

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It’s been a big, diverse year of performing arts in Sydney, with the best shows coming from companies from all different areas of the arts world. So here’s our top 12 of 2015, picking out the best in theatre, opera, musicals and dance.

Matilda

Matilda is, without a doubt, the best major musical Sydney has seen in years. Tim Minchin’s fresh, funny and heart-warming score is at the centre of a show which is equal parts brains and heart, and true to the heart Roald Dahl’s book. The Australian cast is particularly strong, with James Millar as a ferocious Trunchbull, Elise McCann as a radiant Miss Honey and four brilliant young girls carrying the show on their shoulders in the title role — Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas.
Honourable mention: Opera Australia’s decision to stage Cole Porter’s Jazz Age musical Anything Goes drew plenty of criticism, but this bawdy, high energy production directed by Dean Bryant and starring Caroline O’Connor was a winner.

Velvet

I almost didn’t go to Velvet. I was feeling circus/cabaret fatigued at the time but this show, a loving tribute to the disco era, turned out to be a breath of fresh air and one of the most thrilling productions I’ve ever seen. At the centre of the show is a young man’s (played by Brendan Maclean) journey from repression to self-expression with the help of disco diva Marcia Hines. It’s smart, camp as all hell, irresistible, and is returning to Adelaide Fringe next year before a season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre.

Frame of Mind

Sydney Dance Company has had a very strong year, but its standout moment came with Frame of Mind — a double bill featuring William Forsythe’s prodigious 1993 work Quintett and a new work by Raphael Bonachela. Quintett was created by Forsythe as a love letter to his dying wife, and it was literally breathtaking as performed by the SDC dancers. Bonachela’s work was also amongst his best, having clearly been pushed to create something that could stand proudly alongside Quintett. Frame of Mind was the undoubted dance highlight of the year and picked up all four Helpmann Awards for dance.

Dogfight

In its second year of operation, the intimate Potts Point Hayes Theatre has cemented its place as Sydney’s home of musical theatre. For my money, I’d say Neil Gooding’s production of Dogfight was the standout indie musical of the year. With an eclectic and evocative score by New York wunderkinds Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and a brilliant cast led by Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole, Dogfight was a tough exploration of misogyny, prejudice and an unlikely love story.
Honourable mentions: The Hayes presented several other excellent musicals this year, including Violet and Heathers, and cabarets like Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur, and Elise McCann’s Everybody Loves Lucy.

Misterman

The revival of the tiny Old Fitz Theatre under Red Line Productions has been one of the major success stories of Sydney theatre in 2015. The company has breathed fresh life back into the space with its programming — including its late night shows, which ensure there’s more spaces available for Sydney indie theatre artists to get work up. Amongst many highlights, my standout is Kate Gaul’s production of Enda Walsh’s Misterman, starring Thomas Campbell in a spectacular and scary solo performance.
Honourable mentions: Other strong productions at the Old Fitz in 2015 include Cock, I Am My Own Wife, and The Aliens, with Kate Box delivering one of the best indie performances of the year in the late night show Dolores.

Ivanov

Incoming Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov is exactly what you want an adaptation of a Chekhov to be — full-blooded, terse, and by turns riotously funny and hopelessly pessimistic. It also featured a fantastic ensemble cast of some of Sydney’s best actors, led by Ewen Leslie.

Love and Information

Caryl Churchill’s 2012 collection of short (some very short) scenes made its way to Sydney this year, courtesy of a superb production directed by Kip Williams. Williams breathed plenty of life into this prodigious, sprawling and sometimes disorientating piece of theatre and, according to those who have seen international productions, found vastly different resonances to what other directors have found in the work.
Honourable mention: Williams has had a very strong year with his production of Suddenly Last Summer also playing to strong reviews. Williams integrated live video into Tennessee Williams’ work ingeniously in that production.

The Wizard of Oz

Director Adena Jacobs’ meditation on the myth of The Wizard of Oz is probably the most divisive piece of theatre in Sydney this year. The abstract, hour-long work, all about the terrifying journey into womanhood (and much more besides) left many in the audience scratching their heads trying to figure out what it was all about. But for those who connected with the work, it was one of the richest theatrical experiences of the year. I paid it a second visit a few weeks into its run, and I still don’t feel that I discovered all it had to offer.
Honourable mention: Belvoir had a particularly queer year with two other standouts, Sisters Grimm’s take on the ethics of art and arts funding La Traviata, and Nick Coyle’s strange and wonderful intergalactic campfest Blue Wizard.

The Bleeding Tree

Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree is the best new Australian play I’ve seen this year and was given a gorgeous production by Griffin Theatre’s Artistic Director Lee Lewis. The poetic, dark and funny play follows a mother and her two daughters after they murder their abusive father and attempt to cover it up. Paula Arundell delivered one of the performances of the year as the ferocious mother, haunted by all that had gone before.
Honourable mention: My two other favourite new works of the year were Melissa Bubnic’s funny and tough-as-nails look at women stockbrokers Boys Will Be Boys, and Nakkiah Lui’s Kill the Messengerinspired by two stories of systematic racism, resulting in deaths.

Fly Away Peter

While Opera Australia is performing nothing but beloved older operas, Sydney Chamber Opera continues to perform new work regularly in Sydney. Their world premiere of Elliott Gyger and Pierce Wilcox’s Fly Away Peter was one of the theatrical highlights of the year; a moving adaptation of David Malouf’s book of the same name, inventively staged by Imara Savage.

Tosca

Opera Australia produced some strong new productions this year, but it was their revival of John Bell’s Tosca which impressed most. Bell has found an extraordinary tension in this visually sumptuous production, and the revival featured a stunning performance in the title role from South African soprano Amanda Echalaz. She won my first standing ovation at the opera in several years.
Honourable mentions: Opera Australia also had strong new productions of The Marriage of Figaro and Faust by David McVicar, and the triumphant return of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Don Carlos.

Endgame

Outgoing Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director Andrew Upton directed one of his finest productions in his final year, bringing Samuel Beckett’s Endgame to startling life with Hugo Weaving. Weaving’s performance was truly extraordinary in its scope and technical prowess and this take on Endgame became hysterically funny in moments as Beckett’s characters all stare into a void of nothingness at the end of the world.
 

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