On Centre Stage.
Murder, Musicals and Comedy Mayhem.
By Douglas Kennedy.
Douglas Kennedy’s On Centre Stage is back with a few notes for the January season, which luckily, largely, literate into the overall heading Murder, Musicals and Comedy Mayhem.
Being, as usual, a little ahead of the times OCS’s 2014 year started in December 2013, but with the good news that the second Agatha Christie adaptation to hit Brisbane will continue until January 19 at the Playhouse Theatre.
The Miss Marple Mystery, A Murder is Announced, first played London’s West End stage in 1977, but the original book – with the same title – was published in 1950.
That’s two years before The Mousetrap – Christie’s 1952 play and the West End’s longest running production – which set the scene for this year’s offering with a popular Australian and New Zealand Christmas season last year.
For the record The Mousetrap, which incidentally doesn’t have Miss Marple, played in seven cities to more than 150,000 fans.
So it’s no wonder the format’s back.
And I’m sure if A Murder is Announced has anything like that success we’ll be getting more Christmas and New Year offerings in the same vein.
That might sound a bit cynical, as really Christie’s audience is of a particularly breed, although she has sold more than two billion books worldwide and rates behind Shakespeare and The Bible in sales.
For those of you who have difficulty in telling the difference between men and women, that also makes her the world’s top selling female author.
So let’s face it Christie is fairly successful as an author, but how does she stack up as a playwright?
Well, first things first, she didn’t actually pen A Murder is Announced – that honour went to one Leslie Darbon (a Christie stage play adaptation specialist) – although the production is faithful to her style.
Without delving too deep, Murder is choc-a-bloc with Christie characteristics including her remarkable ability to create intriguing twists, and Australia’s own Judi Farr is a passable Miss Marple.
However, she has some stiff competition from Robert Grubb’s Inspector Craddock, who has some fine wisecracks, but basically it is love it or hate entertainment.
OCS won’t give too much away, but simply points out it’s about a murder and an announcement and it’s set in a country house and everyone, with the exception of Miss Marple, Inspector Craddock and a uniformed policeman, is a suspect.
There’s a line in the program to the effect that Murder is set in Christie time, but the tag equally applies to its sense of place.
A place some know and love while others know and sneer at contemptuously for its anachronistic artificiality and ability to conjuror up a world that may have existed, but probably didn’t.
Such is popular main steam commercial theatre.
For the record OCS is a Christie fan and, while acknowledging Murder is no Hamlet, dismisses the argument that it’s a bit of a soggy omelette.
Lastly – before we move onto musicals – someone asked me the other day if Christie wrote anything other than whodunits and the answer is yes.
She wrote two autobiographies and eight novels – mostly historical romances – under the name Mary Westmacott, but it is murder that’s the enduring legacy from the woman known as The Queen of Crime.
If Murder is good Christmas and New Year fare at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, then look out for some musical revivals during the year.
We’ve already talked about Harvest Rain’s three blockbusters – Guys and Dolls, Cats and Spamalot – below, but now OCS notes there’s more Rodgers and Hammerstein coming.
Following the success of last year’s production of South Pacific – teaming TV darling and four-time Gold Logie winner Lisa McCune and New Zealand tenor Teddy Tahu Rhodes- producer John Frost is returning to one of his favourite Australian venues with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.
The show, which is being directed by Opera Australia artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, will open in April rather than the January outing QPAC gave South Pacific last year.
Naturally McCune plays English governess Anna Leonowens, while Rhodes takes on the King of Siam role made famous by Yul Brynner in the original stage and film versions.
Among the other interesting casting announcements is Chinese-born Australian opera singer Shu-Cheen Yu as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife. The actress returns to the role 23 years after playing the young Burmese slave girl Tuptim in 1991.
No one is making any secret of the fact that The King and I, with McCune and Rhodes, are returning hot on the heels of the success of South Pacific as Terracini points out in the original press release.
“Teddy and Lisa coming together worked wonderfully well in South Pacific and it seemed to us that we should capitalise on that success and continue with it,” says Terracini.
“They were both terrific in South Pacific and the audience really responded to them as I’m sure they will in The King and I.”
The King and I was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s fifth musical together and was based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, which took its inspiration from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a British governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) in the early 1860s.
The score includes the songs Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, Shall We Dance? and Hello, Young Lovers.
A hit on Broadway in 1951, where it starred Gertrude Lawrence (who died during the season) and Yul Brynner, the show ran for three years before touring.
The first London production opened in 1953, enjoying similar success. In 1956 it became a film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, who won an Academy Award for his performance.
Frost’s Australian production premiered at the Adelaide Festival Theatre in 1991.
Directed by West End director Christopher Renshaw and starring Hayley Mills as Anna, it played to sell out houses around the country.
In 1996, the production went on to win four Tony Awards on Broadway: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical (Donna Murphy), Best Scenic Design (Brian Thomson) and Best Costume Design (Roger Kirk).
The Broadway season was followed by a US tour.
In 2000, the production opened at the London Palladium with Elaine Paige as Anna where it played for nearly two years before embarking on a UK tour.
Christopher Crenshaw will return to Australia next year to revive the production, with its Thai-inspired set design by Brian Thomson, costumes by Roger Kirk and lighting by Nigel Levings.
Susan Kikuchi will recreate the original Jerome Robbins choreography as well as the choreography of her mother Yuriko who appeared in the 1951 Broadway production and the 1956 film.
Despite all – and OCS loves the Rodgers and Hammerstein – we would love to see someone bring back the Hammerstein and Jerome Kern masterpiece Showboat.
OCS happens to subscribe to the theory that Show Boat was one – if not the – most important musical of the of 20th Century Broadway theatre.
Producer Florenz Ziegfeld – who knew he was taking an enormous risk – noted its importance in a letter to Kern.
“The show’s epic qualities give it weight and importance and the mature and serious nature of its sympathetic characters make it a classic,” he wrote.
The work, which opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 27 and played 572 performances, marked the birth of the great American musical book and paved the way for many more serious works, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows in the 1940s and ‘50s.
Last, but hopefully not least, OCS thought it would be worth acknowledging the start of the Queensland Theatre Company season, which kicks off at the end of January with comedian Jonathan Biggins’ Australia Day.
QTC artistic director Wesley Enoch, who will direct Australia Day, says the comedy is one of seven main stage productions, including a world premiere, being presented in 2014.
“There is a very real focus on Australian work in 2014 with 75 per cent of the season Australian plays, and for good reason – Australian stories and storytellers are amongst the very best in the world,” Enoch said at the launch last month.
“We will see a tripling of works being commissioned, we have two productions in association with local groups and four co-productions – this is exciting for us and for our audiences.”
The Season 2014 story opens January 19 at the Playhouse Theatre with the bang-up-to-the-moment barbecue-stopper of a comedy that questions the national identity in Australia Day, says the company’s promotional material.
The play comes from Biggins, one of the brains behind Sydney Theatre Company’s satirical institution The Wharf Revue, and is said to be an examination of Aussie culture.
The production is being directed by Andrea Moor (Venus in Furs) and features actor Paul Bishop as the mayor of a community squabbling over Australia Day celebrations.
Bishop, who has been on the Brisbane stage for decades, is better known to the national audience for his role in TV’s Blue Heelers and the people of the Brisbane Bayside community of Redlands as one of their councillors.
There have been many attempts to satirise ordinary Aussie life over the decades – with mixed results – but Biggins name gives this offering some gravitas.
OCS looks forward to catching the production at the end of the month.