Thursday, January 31, 2013

'Grease' for the 21st century

Last night we went to the Court Theatre, Christchurch. Awfully regal name, redolent of Der Court Theater, Schleswig-Holstein and so forth. But there’s nothing regal about this one. It’s risen from the rubble of the earthquake in the old yards at Addington, and judging by last night it’s a vibrant success.

The show that was playing was that old bit of fun, Grease. I’ve seen Grease a lot, in fact the great Paul Bentley and I auditioned for the original London production, in 1973, singing a falsetto duet. But I haven’t seen it for 30 years, and in that time it has changed somewhat. Like Cabaret, it has been remade in function of its very successful film version. When Cabaret is done these days, the focus is on Liza Minelli Bowles: when Grease is played, it is firmly on J Travolta and O N John, somewhat to the detriment of the other characters. The hit songs from the film have infiltrated the score (to its great advantage) and by and large, Grease 21st century is an even jollier show than Grease 1972.

Grease more or less directs and choreographs itself, and mostly, last night, it was wisely allowed to do so. In fact, the one bit of originality – casting a soap actor with The Perfect Body (Mike Edward) to do a body-builder’s rendition of ‘Beauty School Dropout’ with the deliciously acrobatic Frenchy (Fiona Crossett – last seen being similarly treated as Rumpleteazer) was the best bit of fun all evening. But I do wish Christchurch would get out of the old mass routine in Ralph Reader lines (Lynne and van Laast might not have lived) ... and I spotted some movements that were decidedly not born in the 1950s!

My only grumble was – too loud. Everybody sang relentlessly loudly and projected madly through the exuberant sound system till their words and lines were fuzzed into a blur. Especially the folk putting on funny voices. And the arrangements of some songs were way too hefty. Anyway, why do we need individual mics in a little auditorium like the Court?  I’m told it was better if you sat further back, but I paid for my pensioner’s seat in Row E and I like to hear the words …

But enough of that. Let’s return to the actual performance, and meet the guy who was the undisputed champion of the night. The brain behind what was a very good Grease indeed. I mean, the show’s casting director. A wise senior director in the West End once said to me: get your casting right, and 90 percent of your job is done. I wholly agree. And last night was a fine example of what he was talking about. The show was cast to within an inch of perfection, and the young people gave performances which, especially vocally, left nothing to be desired.

As was right for Grease new version, the ‘stars’ of the evening were the Sandy and the Danny. The John and the Travolta. Well, I’m here to tell you: give me the Christchurch pair any day.
Lauren Marshall (Sandy) was younger and prettier than her film equivalent, acted the part in the only way possible, and sang her music stunningly. ‘Totally Devoted to you’ was the musical showstopper of the night for me (others preferred the bodybuilder, but I’m not like that), the Prom Night duet with an excellent Patty (Kelly Hocking) was a delight, although let's not forget the piece is a parody. Miss Marshall is the Sandy of everyone’s dreams.
Matt McFarlane as Danny rendered her nothing in talent and charm. He is definitely the best Zuko I have ever seen, singing and dancing impeccably, and best of all playing the character with infinitely more wryness and humour than Mr T, and a non-greasy twinkle that makes you understand just why he is the catch of the School. His quieter moments were the highlight of what little ‘drama’ the show has. Always excepting Frenchy’s failure.

The real drama should be, of course, the pregnancy of Rizzo (Jade Steele) and the distress of Kenickie (Michael Murphy). Both players were excellent, but in Grease of today, they are somewhat submerged by the Sandy/Danny axis. I’m sure some dialogue on the subject has gone astray. As it was, Kenickie gets remembered only for a copybook (but surely, too long) version of ‘Greased Lightning’ and Rizzo (who, I'm certain, wouldn’t be allowed to wear that first costume to school) for a spiky ‘Sandra Dee’ and a strangely metamorphised version of ‘Best Thing I Could Do’. What used to be a more-grown-up-than-the-others point number, and a lovely contrast to all the youthful exuberance, has become a cabaret number. Splendidly sung, but I liked it better smaller.

Often, when I go to a show, I hone in on one particular player. It’s the old theatrical agent/casting director in me. Last night was no exception. I went head over heels for Cameron Douglas as Doody. His one number was a stunner … what else can I say? And he stood out in the ensembles … though not in a bad way. He has an interesting look. Very castable.

Adam Standring as a delightfully gawky and parodic Eugene, and Rutene Spooner (Roger) and Lucy Porter (Jan) as the heavyweights provided the comedy. Spooner, when he didn’t speak too fast, gave a very endearing performance.

Martyn Wood, Kathleen Burns, Tainui Kuru (culpably under-used) and Angela Hegarty as a dashing dancing Cha-Cha di Gregorio completed a fine group of (mostly) thoroughly young and believable ‘high school students’.

Three cheers again for the casting director.

In spite of a curious and unnecessary curtain re-recital of the night’s music, in a fashion which has become painfully spread (I felt I was at Buddy), I came out humming ‘Best Thing I could Do’. Then the night’s most enjoyable ensemble, ‘Summer Nights’, then …  and the happily chattering audience hummed their favourites too … the songs of Grease are enormously hummable … and this audience had had a wow of a time.

So, all in all, a big success. In every way. For last night was an extension of the season, and the house – as for the past three months – was SRO. So I guess I was wrong in crticising the choice of show. Grease is clearly what Christchurch wants to see in spades, and not something slightly less well-used and less amateur-played. I guess the money made out of the Christmas musical will support a clutch of minority-interest, loss-making plays during the year, and when the coffers get low out comes another musical with ‘names’ (which I gather some of these young folk already are) in the cast to fill them up again. Well, the National Theatre and many of the world’s opera houses are guilty of the same schema, so why not?  Long live the musical. Even the old, over-used ones, and the filmed ones ... as long as they’re played by as talented folk as Grease was last night.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The month of Agnes

The year 2013 has begun in a weird fashion. Horrifiant heat and crazy rainstorms. Visitors from the other side of the world. Invasion by a jolly team of Fijian house-menders, to make good most of what the earthquakes of 2 ½ years ago did to us … and, of course, the usual unending horsey ups and downs.

2012 was not a vintage year for us horse-wise, especially following the triumphs of 2011, and 2013 began poorly too, with our two best horses on the injured list, and the glamorous baby Mr B also hailing the vet with a seedy toe.

But it began memorably nevertheless  -- or, should I say memorially – for me, with a trip to my old home town of Richmond for the Nelson Harness Racing Club’s annual January meeting, featuring the Fred and Nancy Gallas Memorial Trot. A kind of farewell to Nelson in the name of our parents by my brother and I. I don’t suppose we’ll ever return to the place where the Gänzl-Gallas tribe grew up, now that mother is no longer there.

The race itself was a cracker, ending up in what would have been, in earlier days, a triple dead-heat. However, photo finish machines are more sophisticated nowadays, and the winner, Dragon’s Den, owned by Wendy’s friend Mike Stevens, made it by 10/1000th second. Ignite, driven by Gerolsteiner driver, Jeremy Anderson, which everyone thought had won, finished second, thousandths ahead of Kevin and Marg Townley’s Sheemon. With technology like that, I’m surprised there is EVER a dead-heat!

Back to Gerolstein, to meet Max and Fabian, from Germany, our first Farmworker guests for the year…

and to get our homemade horses to the trials. And there, we got a glimmer of light! Mikie (Fifteen C) and Agnes (de Gerolstein) tripped to Motukarara and ran promisingly, and two days later Agnes went to Rangiora to run her qualifying trial. She glid quickly to the lead, ran them along at better than the required pace, and passed the line a comfortable winner, five seconds under the time needed. So now she and Mikie (who qualified last season) are readying themselves for their debuts as racehorses .. which is something else altogether…

So roll on 2013, and let’s hope the pets can give us some fun before summer ends and I return to Germany. Go! Agnes, Mikie, D’Arcy, Lucie, Fritzl, Livia and team ...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Victorian Holiday

Melbourne. It must have been thirty years since I’d set foot in the city, during some ship-travelling jaunt of yore. I know I’d never before entered the state of Victoria by plane. But this week, as you can see, all of that changed.

Wendy and I have wanted for ages to visit our ‘Australian’ horse, Livia degerolstein, chez Graeme and Dot Lang, at Melton; I was fixed to record some programmes for Melbourne’s Radio 96.5 FM, at Heidelberg, and Wendy’s sister, Jan, volunteered to babysit the horses, the cats and the peacocks for five days, so … we rose at 3am Thursday morning, and at 8.20, courtesy of a superiorly comfortable NZ Air flight, we were at Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne, being welcomed by good friend Ryan Burr (yes, the chef from the Isle of Wight) and a rental car, ready for five full on days of Australia.

After a quick Aussie-sized breakfast-n-shop in St Kilda by the sea, we headed for Melton (via a shocking traffic jam) and the Tabcorp Quality Hotel at Victoria’s HQ Melton racecourse, where we were to spend the next two nights. The first, relaxing and recovering, the second – of course -- racing.
Our accommodation was splendid. A huge, calm lounge and terrace overlooking the home straight, two comfy bedrooms, excellent bathroom and a highly useful kitchen, all in a simple, clean, modern style. But we were to find that the hotel has a serious handicap. Food. The restaurant serves racecourse food. Pub food. Catering-pack cuisine. Cardboard and sauce, Burgers, pasta and parmas. And the bar! The staff did not know what a Bloody Mary was, and the manageress escaped the situation by declaring they were ‘out of tomato juice’. ‘Continental breakfast’ in the morning was of no Continent that I – thankfully -- have ever visited. Things in plastic, things in boxes. vile! at $500 odd a night? The inedible ‘full breakfast’, next morning, featured what I am certain were egg-powder scrambled ‘eggs’! Vile!
But we were not deterred. If it stinks, hold your nose!  We had a kitchen, we had a chef, and a huge shopping centre between us and Graeme’s place ... Ryan and I invaded the seafood department and stocked up with goodies – salmon, prawns, scallops, fish for chowder, et al -- with which to make our own de luxe race-night buffet.

We visited the Langs, and I met dear, lovely little Livia for the first time. The poor girl has skinned a large area of her back leg, so she is on the ‘resting’ list, but we were able to make the acquaintance of Steal a Sixpence who was to race that night, and Wendy, much to my one-armed jealousy, had a jog behind ‘Millie’, while we watched, till scared inside by the Victorian blowflies.

Friday night was race night. The sun finally reached our terrace (the hotel is built weatherwise back-to-front!), the wind dropped, the chairs and tables went outside, the chef stoked up the kitchen, the champagne was opened, the seafood delicacies flowed, and we each stacked up a pile of TAB tickets, ready for the evening’s entertainment …

A really first-class time was had by all! We sipped, we nibbled, we cheered, we lost … and then our luck changed. Playing bookie’s runner, I had placed Wendy’s bets, and I got one wrong. So instead of being on the second fave, we realised too late she had a neat-sized bet on a 50-1 shot. And guess what? It came third, paying 7-1 a place, setting Wendy off on a run of long-priced place-getters.

Then it was Sixpence’s race. Ryan had discovered the ‘First Four’ and almost hit one at his first shot: so, having punted on his new friend, he walloped him on top of a few combos. And … Sixpence duly out-gutsied the favourite to win the race impressively, and Ryan had $10 worth of the 1st Four!  (Ryan, you don’t PUT $10 on a 1st Four…!)
We rushed down to the trackside to photograph the winning team, and join the festivities …

A perfect night at the races. Of course, it helps when the family horse wins!
But nevertheless, a must repeat experience. We shall come again to Melton. But we shall imperatively bring our own chef and barman.

Saturday, we headed for Heidelberg, where I spent three hours chatting with presenter Rob Morrison. The first of the 29 hours of ‘me’ which he now has on disc went out on New Year’s Day ..

Then in to town and our ‘home’ for the next two nights, the Grand Hotel, Spencer Street. Once again, we had a spacious suite with dining room, kitchen, and with two bedrooms and bathroom on a mezzanine. Nice accommodation, in pleasant turn-of-the century style. And very soft beds. The only problem is, the Grand is an ex-railway building, and it is just a few metres from the main railway line.
However, if we longed for the peace of Melton, the Grand came up trumps when it came to the more sophisticated things of life. The staff make excellent bloody Marys, the cuisine is quite delicious, and the little room where we ate and drank was really charming.

Night one, we went to the theatre. Wendy’s first time ever. Melbourne’s one-time J C Williamson house, Her Majesty’s Theatre. My first time ever. My favourite seats (front row of the circle!), a jolly evening (which I’ve already reviewed) .. and xtras? Lovely muzak in the foyer – yes, I know the words are normally incompatible, but this was a very superior arrangement of musical melodies – but said foyer woefully short of seating. Old men need a chair!

Sunday we walked. We walked along the Yarra, breakfasted (very well) at Time Out in Federation Square, walked up to the state library, which has sprouted a lawn since last I was here, and descended on Queen Victoria market. After a couple of footsore hours ‘shopping’ there, we headed home, via coffee at Perk Up (delightful!), to put our feet up for a few hours ..

Cocktails and dinner with penfriend Allister Hardiman, a good sleep, a farewell to the big city, and back to St Kilda, for a last shop (even I indulged in 8 t-shirts and a pair of shorts of which more anon!), and a farewell lunch in a private room in Ryan’s Big Mouth restaurant.

Per-fect bloody mary (gold stars, Bree!), a lovely light lunch, fond farewells, then into a taxi for the airport, clutching a delicious gourmet picnic-bag for the foodless, drinkless, comfortless, everything-less Virgin flight back to New Zealand.

We arrived into the arms of my faithful North Canterbury Shuttles in the New Year. The old year had finished some time while we were being taken to pieces by customs (‘horse trainers’ are automatically suspected of wicked potions or muddy shoes) …

A grand Australian adventure full of highlights… and almost no disappointments. And now back to work!  It is the farmworker season: Max and Fabian from Germany arrive this weekend, Sarah and Jana from Alaska follow …

It’s never dull at Gerolstein! At home or away ...