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Nicola Benedetti performs Marsalis
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Opera House Concert Hall
September 6 (also, September 7 – 9)

With statuesque poise, Nicola Benedetti, violinist extraordinaire, began the Violin Concerto in D written for her by jazz great Wynton Marsalis with a still, distant note that, even in the brilliant clarity of Opera House Concert Hall’s acoustic, was barely audible.

Forty-five minutes later, she ended it, again almost inaudibly, walking offstage with bemused insouciance, playing a jaunty theme to herself, as though walking home late after a good night. In between was quite a ride.

Benedetti joined SSO percussionist Rebecca Lagos at the drum kit for an interaction of hesitant intimacy.Credit: Craig Abercrombie

Over the work’s four movements, Rhapsody, Rondo Burlesque, Blues, and Hootenanny, Marsalis has created a seemingly unending series of imaginative musical moments, each bursting upon the one before with precocious over-confidence. They brought a smile, a furrowed brow or a quizzically raised eyebrow, but all engaged the listener’s attention.

Throughout, Benedetti strode the stage with what Marsalis nicely described as the “magic of virtuosity”, warming the sound for the first movement, deftly defining the rhythmic groove, battling the big brass tune with feisty defiance and dispatching roulades of notes with frenetic precision.

For Blues, she joined SSO percussionist Rebecca Lagos at the drum kit for an interaction of hesitant intimacy, while the last movement relaxed into raucous abandon, egged on by syncopated clapping from the brass, who stood as a street band at one point, instruments flailing complete with sousaphone. Frustrated at not being able to join the hoedown, the audience leapt at the end to give her and Marsalis a standing ovation.

Defining the beat was, in one sense, the concert’s theme. Conductor Karen Kamensek, making a welcome debut with the SSO, defined it with alarming brightness in Short Ride in a Fast Machine by American “minimalist” John Adams (the rhythmic complexity being far from minimal).

In a complete performance of Stravinsky’s The Firebird in the second half, the composer’s epoch-making innovations in rhythm were displayed most overtly in the climactic Infernal Dance of the Subjects of Kashchei. But this was also a performance to savour the delicacy and piquancy of the various blends created by the SSO woodwind, the dense fine-grained glow of the muted string sound and the finely-etched, subtly pulsating textures that bubbled away in the background.

Guest principal horn player Samuel Jacobs personified the hero Prince Ivan with quietly noble tone, ushering in the final tableau with reserved humility before a blazing close. Throughout it all, Kamensek maintained tightly concentrated focus on the original details of this remarkable essay in colouristics and faux-exoticism.

York Theatre, September 5

Until October 21
Reviewed by JOHN SHAND


In other countries they’d be lobbing Molotov cocktails, flipping cars and looting shops. But in Australia a beloved comedian gate-crashed history, lowering the collective blood-pressure on the day we entered unchartered constitutional waters. Even as deposed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was assuring us nothing would save the Governor General, there was Norman Gunston mugging and trying to get one of his goofy interviews on the steps of Parliament House.

Although Bob Hawke sternly told Gary McDonald’s alter ego the situation was too serious for Gunston-style zaniness, perhaps it was serendipitous. Certainly, the creators of The Dismissal – subtitled An Extremely Serious Musical Comedy – thought so because Gunston is their linchpin in casting a satirical eye over events leading up to Governor General John Kerr’s unilaterally replacing Whitlam with Malcolm Fraser on November 11, 1975.

Mathew Whittet’s turn as Norman Gunston is improbably accurate.Credit: David Hooley

In fact, they could have used Gunston more because Matthew Whittet’s impersonation is improbably accurate, from the grimacing smile to the worried eyes and frantic legs. Mainly used as a narrator, he’s consistently amusing – something achieved more often by the minor characters than the major ones throughout the show.

Peter Carroll’s Sir Garfield Barwick, Chief Justice of the High Court, is even funnier, mincing his Machiavellian way through the story in a wig and talons, and singing with impressive vigour. Then there’s Monique Salle in a hilarious cameo as Queen Elizabeth, doing a song-and dance number complete with scantily clad corgis.

If such highlights more than justify the show’s existence, too much of the rest of it can feel as interminable as a history lesson on a sunny day, when you’d rather be riding your bike. At three hours, it’s too long. Virtually no out-and-out comedy can sustain itself over that length, and so its successes come in waves of brilliance followed by troughs of second-rate undergraduate jokes and songs.

‘Peter Carroll’s Sir Garfield Barwick minces his Machiavellian way through the story in a wig and talons’

Jay James-Moody conceived of it, directed it and co-wrote the book with Blake Erickson, while Laura Murphy crafted the music and lyrics, some of which are exceptional. Collectively, they poke fun at all involved, while also trying to land the odd ideological punch. Their problem is that their three key characters, Whitlam (Justin Smith), Fraser (Andrew Cutcliffe) and John Kerr (Octavia Barron Martin), are not as entertaining as Gunston, Barwick and the Queen – and to that list you can add others, including Joe Kosky’s libido-charged Jim Cairns.

Occasionally, the creators shoot for a more poignant moment, as when Margaret Whitlam (Brittanie Shipway) tells an anecdote from her competitive swimming days to make Gough get back on his political bike. The most successful of these sequences comes at the end, when the ghosts of Gough and Malcolm pass judgment on the show and look back on the events. The writers could have left it there because the finale – a reprise of an Act One song – is as overwrought as it is extraneous. Imagine being brave enough to leave a musical without a big finale? They should have bitten that bullet.

Amy Campbell makes most of the choreography a boon to the comedic intent, although she’s forgivably flummoxed by some songs that don’t work, including Maintain Your Rage. Mark Chamberlain leads a slick band featuring major-league drummer Warren Trout, with Murphy’s material ranging relatively seamlessly from rock to Vaudeville.

While the show is definitely worth seeing, the recommendation would be stronger were 30 minutes of weaker material expunged.

Why, in 2023, is ‘The Elephant Man’ still being used as a punchline?

The Marvellous Elephant Man The Musical

September 4
Until October 1
Spiegeltent Festival Garden, Moore Park


Will we never let Joseph Merrick rest? His story – born in Britain in the 1860s, Merrick was nicknamed “the Elephant Man” due to his physical disabilities – has remained one of public fascination. His short life was split between workhouses, “freak” shows, and the Royal London Hospital, and his skeleton remains on private display.

In contemporary times, we’ve begun to grapple with our collective legacy of silencing or exploiting disabled voices in art. In 2016, actor Bradley Cooper faced controversy for “cripping up” (when an able-bodied actor plays a disabled character) to play Merrick. A year later, Melbourne’s Malthouse tried a fresh approach to the story with disabled actor Daniel Monks as Merrick – a breath of progress.

The Marvellous Elephant Man features bright, direct tunes.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

Now, though, there’s The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical, which takes sensitivity and boots it out the door in favour of an irreverent, prurient and indiscriminately offensive comedy that is far more interested in punchlines than dignity.

Granted, Merrick (Ben Clark) is positioned as something of a romantic hero; he falls for a nurse named Hope (Annelise Hall). Neither is given much of an inner life (Merrick tells us he isn’t an animal but rarely has the chance to tell us more about himself; Hope just wants to marry someone she loves).

Treves (Kanen Breen), Merrick’s doctor, is so panto-villainous the audience began to boo him on opening night. (You would, too, after the groan-worthy refrain “you might not think it’s relevant/but he was sired by an elephant”).

Though the show, co-directed by Chris H. F. Mitchell and Guy Masterson, does attempt empathy for Merrick, it frequently undermines itself by being unable to resist a lowest common denominator joke about elephants – referencing tusks, fear of mice, or eating plants.

It also fetishises Merrick’s genitals, an old ableist trope, and turns the women into oversexualised objects. Empathy, it seems, can only go so far.

While the broadly performed and bawdy musical (with bright, direct tunes and hacky lyrics by Sarah and Jayan Nandagopan and Marc Lucchesi) earned raucous bouts of laughter on opening night from a good portion of the audience, the once-packed Spiegeltent was noticeably emptier after interval, with walkouts continuing through the second act.

Many members of the show’s creative team have lived experience with disability, and in a fact sheet explain they are processing their experiences of ableism, sexism, and racism through jokes. The problem is that The Marvellous Elephant Man leaves audiences on the other side of the joke. Every time they use Merrick as a punchline, it hurts.

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