Monday, February 21, 2022

Music: Katie Noonan with strings

Katie Noonan
with the Sartory String Quartet
: Pascal Whiting and Susannah Williams (violins), Katherine Porter (viola) and Sophie Curtis (cello)
Art Gallery of Western Australia
February 18, 2022

(pic: Court McAllister)
Katie Noonan has crafted a remarkable career as a singer, musician, songwriter, artistic director and musical patron over more than two decades (although it’s fair to say her musical education began in the womb of her opera singer mother, Maggie).

While she has hardly snuck up on us, her musical interests and accomplishments since she emerged as a lead singer with her band George and their No 1 album Polyserena in 2002 are so wide-ranging as to be an amazement.

Much to the joy of the audience in the grand foyer of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Noonan took us for an exhilarating ramble across many of the years and styles of that career.

It fell, essentially, into two parts; the first, Noonan at the piano and the Sartory string quartet performed lush, romantic ballads from across her repertoire; the sweet, simple Quiet Day, the gentle torrent of Bluebird, like wind over wings; her setting of Michael Leunig’s sotly-spoken Peace is My Drug, and Lover, My Song for You, her wedding present to her husband, the saxophonist Isaac Hurren (she says he took some time to reciprocate).

This is lovely music, made even more impressive by Noonan’s vocal restraint; there’s not an instant of her using her powers merely to impress – she gives the songs exactly what they need, with very little embellishment, allowing us to slip quietly into their beauty and emotion.

That restraint is also apparent in the arrangements by Dr Steve Newcomb from the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University, and is given vivid life by Pascal Whiting and Susannah Williams (violins), Katherine Porter viola) and Sophie Curtis (cello) of Sartory.

After a sad aside concerning the failing health of the great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett (and thanks, Kate, if you could leave the steak knives at the Festival office I’ll pick them up from there), the temperature of the show changed as Noonan left the piano for centre-stage and more complex vocal music featuring the words of two revered Queensland poets, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Cath Walker) and Judith Wright.

Wright’s Late Spring has been set to music by the illustrious and prolific composer Elena Kats-Chernin, while the settings of Oodgeroo’s The Curlew Cried and Balance were from Queensland composers Thomas Green and Robert Davidson respectively.

The songs, often in minor keys, are musically challenging and unsettling, but Noonan’s taste and vocal tact are constant.

They are also –and this is clearly something of great pride for her – orchestrations she has commissioned, which is an admirable gift to Australian music.

The show ends on a high – Noonan’s own setting of Noonuccal’s anthemic A Song of Hope (“New rights will greet us/ new mateship meet us/ and joy complete us/ In our new dreamtime”) and the high romance of her breakout Breathe in Now.

It gave me an inkling of why she mentioned Keith Jarrett. As she pointed out, he’s famous for his cries of pleasure as he’s playing.

It’s an immersion in the music that has a physical expression she shares with him and other singers – Antony Hegarty and the incomparable Joe Cocker among them – who lose themselves in those same transports of delight.

It was a great joy for us to be taken there with her. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Musical: Panawathi Girl

by David Milroy
Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company
for the Perth Festival
Director Eva Grace Mullaley
Musical Director Wayne Freer
Choreographer Janine Oxenham
Set designer Bruce McKinven
Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw
Sound designer Jeremy Turner
Performed by Grace Chow, Peter Docker, Luke Hewitt, Chris Isaacs, Geoff Kelso, Angelica Lockyer, Nadia Martich, Lila McGuire, Gus Noakes, Teresa Rose, Maitland Schnaars, Manuao TeAotonga and  Wimiya Woodley
His Majesty’s Theatre
February 10 – 13, 2022
Luke Hewitt and Geoff Kelso and the Long White Socks  (pic Dana Weeks)

It’s easy to see why much excitement accompanied the world premiere of David Milroy’s Panawathi Girl, and it’s pleasing to report that it’s a catchy, warm-hearted show that understands the simple virtues of the Broadway musical while maintaining a distinctly Australian – and specifically West Australian – flavour.

It’s also a good example of the long process required to take a story idea and a collection of songs and moulding them into an integrated, exciting, finished product.

Panawathi Girl, which began its journey as Rodeo Moon, a hastily-produced season for WAAPA’s Aboriginal Theatre course in 2015, is well down that path. It has a little way to go yet, and this abbreviated Perth Festival season is a giant step in its evolution.

There’s much that is already ready to go; the band – musical director Wayne Freer Bass and tuba), the legendary Lucky Oceans (pedal steel guitar), Adam Gare (violin, mandolin) and Milroy himself (guitar) is exquisite, and Milroy’s songs, appropriately enough largely in classic country and western style, fit it like a glove.
There’s well-developed comedy too, highlighted by veterans Luke Hewitt and Geoff Kelso in a Laurel and Hardy-style double act as Gough Whitlam and John Gorton –the play is set in 1969 as Australia lumbers toward the “Don’s Party" federal election and grapples with the ramifications of the 1967 Aboriginal Citizenship referendum and the stirring of the land rights. Hewitt has Big Gough down pat (Gorton himself doesn’t provide quite the same comic potential, but Kelso could make reading the instructions for downloading the ServicesWA app side-splitting); their big number “Long White Socks” is a hoot.

Just as hooty are the rag-tag trio of hippies (Grace Chow, Manuao TeAotonga and Chris Isaacs) who also arrive in Chubb Springs, the home town of their friend Molly Chubb (Lila McGuire), who has taken a break from her uni politics studies in Perth to find the grave of the mother she never knew. Isaacs, curly haired, harmonica-braced and folk-guitared like a gormless version of Bob Dylan, is a barrel of laughs, and TeAotonga’s drag act in the Rodeo Queen talent quest is an outrageous highlight.

As he showed in his 2011 Perth Festival smash Waltzing the Wilarra, while Milroy doesn’t sugar-coat the important and confronting messages he’s conveying, he uses the conventions of the musical to insinuate them into the narrative. While in many ways, the plot and characters of Panawathi Girl mirror those of the Gershwins’ frothy Crazy For You (which, coincidentally, was revived at The Maj last June by WAAPA’s Music Theatre students), the evils of bigotry and segregation in Chubb Springs are endemic, and unapologetic.
That story is played out by Molly’s conflicted white father (Peter Docker), the grifting rodeo king Buckley (Maitland Schnaars) and the young people of the town and rodeo troupe.

Docker and Schnaars are in familiar territory here, and the two fine, experienced actors give their characters depth and authenticity.

Some cast members are not always as comfortable with the particular demands of the musical – to be fair it was an opening night without the benefit of a run of previews – and it led to occasional awkwardness and hesitancy in the performances.

Not so for Gus Noakes as Knuckles, the rodeo cowboy, who’s rollicking baritone vocal on Rodeo Moon and confident hoofing are a delight.

There are plenty of moments to shine, though, for the young, talented McGuire, Teresa Rose as Knuckle’s sweetheart and co-worker Ada, Wimiya Woodley as Molly’s protective brother Billy, Nadia Martich, who combines ensemble work with the dance captain’s duties, and Angelica Lockyer (who role is hidden behind a spoiler alert curtain).

This is a signature production for Yirra Yaakin, confirming their status as both Australia’s leading Indigenous theatre company and one of the pillars of West Australian theatre. The director (and Yirra Yaakin artistic director) Eva Grace Mulalley has taken the company to the most prestigious of our main stages with an elite team of creatives, including the choreographer Janine Oxenham, set designer Bruce McKinven, costume designer Lynn Ferguson, lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw and sound designer Jeremy Turner, and a stage management and dressing crew led by Jenny Poh.

It’s an impressive mark of confidence in the company’s capacity, and on David Milroy’s rare talent to tell stories that need to be told with terrific tunes, humour and purpose.

I only wish this Perth Festival season were longer to give the cast more time to completely find their feet, but I’m sure this won’t be the only time we see Panawathi Girl, so their time will come.

And like all good things, it will be worth the wait.   


Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Theatre/Dance: Salome δ

Squid Vicious
Devised and performed by
Olivia Hendry and Andrew Sutherland
Directed by Joe Lui (with creative producer Briannah Davis)
Designed by Declan Macphail
Sound and light design by Joe Lui

I’ve seen two versions of, or at least in a trajectory around, Oscar Wilde’s Salome. The first (showing my age again) was Lindsay Kemp’s hallucinogenic, slow-motion marvel at the London Roundhouse in 1977 that made it, and him, icons of their age.
The second, far more prolix and topical than Kemp’s, is a Summer Nights production at the Blue Room. (Those of you who’ve been feeling there’s something missing from this year’s Fringe World, that’s what it is.)

The dancer Olivia Hendry and the polyalternatist Andrew Sutherland have wrapped themselves in Joe Lui’s dense son et lumiere, Declan Macphail’s Siamese twin-set of an Aubrey Beardsley gown, and Lui and Briannah Davis’s minutely reactive direction. Then, layer by layer of exquisite, excruciating pain, they dance their seven veils for us.
There’s a consumptive nostalgia for illness embroidered into those veils, transformed into an aesthetic beauty, like Rosetti’s Beata Beatrix.

And they are beautiful; Hendry, pale, with breasts exposed like Beardsley’s Salome, Sutherland reptilian, microphone and stand raised aloft like photographs of a Jim Morrison.

Sutherland is declamatory, much in the way of Allen Ginsberg, and he takes us on a nightmare journey through the underworlds of the diseases of our time, HIV/AIDS, anorexia and, now, COVID; Hendry is silent, orbiting, covering and uncovering in the material that binds them both, unravelling away and spinning back to him.
It’s an intensely personal double-act, the dancer and the poet, drawn from experience, repetitive and insistent.
Finally, quite unexpectedly, when all the veils have been removed, Sutherland becoming a dancer, Hendry an orator, in a pas de deux of joys and sorrows.
It reminds you – this is a show that incubates memory – of Leonard Cohen’s “And when we fell together/ All our flesh was like a veil”.
There are no veils of secrecy in this Salome, though it is complex, both in its messages and its tempo, and might be impenetrable if you hit its atmosphere at the wrong angle.

But, like a dance, or a poem, or a deathbed, it has an honesty that can only arise in places where there’s nothing else left to lose.

(You'll enjoy Nina Levy's insightful review in Seesaw Magazine here)

Salome δ is at the Blue Room until Feb 5.