Theater Reviews: Holding The Man, 110 In The Shade, Thaïs

Holding The Man
Australian Theatre Company at the Matrix Theatre | Through June 29
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Aussies have descended upon Hollywood in a big way. At the Matrix Theatre, producers Nick Hardcastle, Nate Jones and Mike Abramson have launched the ambitious new Australian Theatre Company with the Los Angeles premiere of playwright Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man, a simultaneously funny and heartbreaking 2006 stage adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s award-winning 1995 autobiographical novel of the same name. The beloved book has been an international hit, and the play has garnered success in Australian and British productions. Meanwhile, Murphy’s film adaptation is in the works.

Murphy, who resides in Sydney and is not directly involved in this production, remarked, “A Los Angeles-based Australian Theatre Company is a great idea. Some of the best Australian actors reside there or are lured there regularly. I’m honored that my play gets to kick it off.” The company’s co-producers recently said they aim to tell Australian stories and share elements of Australian culture while working with local Australian artists to develop new works.

This production, directed by veteran acting coach Larry Moss, features an exemplary ensemble cast of seasoned Australian actors (featuring producer Jones, Adam J. Yeend, Cameron Daddo, Luke O’Sullivan, Adrienne Smith and Roxanne Wilson). Jones plays the audacious and funny Conigrave from boyhood to his 30s. Yeend plays his longtime lover, John Caleo. The other actors tackle multiple roles, including choice gender-bending turns.

Conigrave’s book and Murphy’s play adaptation chart a crush that began in high school days between drama student Timothy and football jock John, which blossomed into a passionate long-time relationship. The couple separated for a time when Tim left to train as an actor. Eventually, both men were diagnosed with AIDS, and their bond deepened as they cared for one another. John died in 1992, followed by Timothy in 1994.

Murphy said, “Tim fought the ravages of AIDS-related illnesses to complete the book on his deathbed. His friends and colleagues knew it was keeping him alive. Indeed, he died about 10 weeks after completing it. He fought with superhuman strength to have this love story told, to connect with his lover beyond the grave and to etch their name in stone: we were here.”

Murphy believes that adapting this book to the stage “was obvious.” He noted, “Theater runs through the veins of the story. Tim was an actor, and this love story is framed by theater itself. We offer a stage show that embraces the theatrical experience. It’s a swirl of emotions and ever-shifting encounters. Six characters play [about 60 roles]. There are wigs and costumes flying about. That’s kind of the point. It seems fitting that this kicks off an Australian Theatre Company.”

He concluded, “Tim uses the AIDS experience for its condensed experience of life. Time is running out—relish life. I mean, this play might make you cry, I don’t know. But we will have failed if it doesn’t make you laugh—if it isn’t a life-affirming and heartwarming experience.”

During a Sunday matinee on opening weekend of Holding the Man at the Matrix, a capacity crowd afforded a warm and enthusiastic reaction to the stirring seriocomic play, providing an auspicious launch for a group that promises to bring wide-ranging themes and distinguished works to the L.A. stage. —Les Spindle

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion | Through June 7
* * * * *

After decades as a superstar tenor of the opera world, L.A. Opera’s General Director Placido Domingo has extended his already legendary career by taking on baritone roles in his 70s. The seemingly fearless singer has chosen to take on the massive and forbidding role of Athanaël, the deeply committed monk determined to save the soul of Alexandria’s greatest courtesan in Jules Massenet’s rarely performed 1894 opera Thaïs. His triumph in the role is the greatest of the evening’s many pleasures.

Director Nicola Raab’s provocative production lifts the piece from 4th century Alexandria to an appropriately decadent Belle Époque setting. Domingo, in fine baritone voice, is paired with the gorgeous and gifted Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze in the daunting title role, and together they create sparks. Raab’s staging of the famous “Meditation” violin solo is one of several coups de theatre.

Some of Johan Engels’ lavish, conceptual sets are distracting, but his costumes are exquisite, most notably Thaïs’ golden bird-like outfit in the first act. Patrick Fournillier conducts the luscious score with grace and power, building the battle between sin and salvation to an exquisitely painful climax. —Christopher Cappiello

110 In The Shade
Actors Co-Op | Through June 15
* * * *

Picture The Music Man crossed with The Fantasticks. The seldom-revived 1963 musical 110 in the Shade, based by librettist N. Richard Nash on his novel The Rainmaker, features a delightful score by the celebrated Fantasticks team (composer Harvey Schmidt and lyricist Tom Jones). Set in an unspecified drought-plagued town in the American West in 1936, the wistful romantic story revolves around sweet-spirited but plain-looking Lizzie (Treva Tegtmeier) and Bill Starbuck (Skylar Adams), the fast-talking charmer who drifts into town, promising to magically generate a rain storm for a fee. Will this mysterious stranger simultaneously strike sparks with the repressed Lizzie?

Director Richard Israel helms an entertaining and superbly performed rendition of this captivating fable, bolstered by Julie Hall’s rousing choreography and Bryan Blaskie’s buoyant musical direction. Tegtmeier and Adams offer stellar lead turns, while standouts in the fine ensemble include Tim Hodgin as Lizzie’s supportive father, David Crane as her devoted brother Jimmy and Rachel Hershee as Jimmy’s flirtatious beau. —L.S.

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